The unintended consequences of constitutionalism – ethnic conflict dynamics in the late Ottoman Empire

Nader Sohrabi

- completed -

Sohrabi’s work focused on the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 to explore the consequences of introducing constitutionalism and redefining citizenship in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic context. The first sub-project looked at the relation of the Turkish/Ottoman center with the Albanian and Arab territories. Implementing a centralist constitution aimed to transform the empire to a nation state, calling for a double transition that inadvertently pushed the empire to the brink of collapse. The first transition was to the ethnic model of national citizenship that intended to replace the empire’s territorial subject-hood under Ottomanism. As a step toward greater equality, it sought to dismantle the empire’s identity hierarchy along religious lines, but it also managed to introduce a novel hierarchy based on ethnicity that signaled the emergence of an ethnic (Turkish) core and intensified ethnic nationalism on all fronts (Turkish, Albanian, and Arab). The second transition was toward uniform administrative practices befitting a constitutional nation-state with “equal” and “fair” relations with the subjects replacing the empire’s variegated, ad-hoc, and contextually specific administrative practices. Resistance against both transitions produced a destabilizing effect that opened the way to wars and collapse of the empire. The second sub-project concerned the 1909 Armenian massacres in Adana, which preceded the ethnic cleansing of WWI.  Constitutionalism’s promise of equality among religions aimed to end Muslim superiority. Yet, a broad swath of the public that perceived the Armenians to have unfairly surpassed the Muslims economically, were now unhappy to be placed on par with them politically. Simultaneously, constitutionalism ushered in an unprecedented period of freedom for political parties, the press, and cultural-ethnic activity among the minorities, and this tremendous expansion of the Ottoman public sphere brought much visibility to the previously subdued populations. The combination proved fatal, as suggested by the dynamics of ethnic cleansing during the 1909 massacre and, later, during WWI..

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