Shattered Dreams of Revolution
From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire
Bedross Der Matossian



ON AUGUST 30, 1908, more than one hundred years ago, a major ceremony took place in the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator (Surb Grigor Lusavorich‘) in Cairo, celebrating the Young Turk Revolution of July 24, 1908. The celebration, which was organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Society, was attended by important Muslim and Christian figures from a range of ethnic backgrounds. The event, led by the Armenian bishop Mguerdich Aghavnuni, was attended by important dignitaries such as Rashid Rida, the famous Islamic jurist and scholar, and Dr. Faris Nimr, editor of the pro-British Al-Muqaam (named after the mountain overlooking the city). During the event, Bishop Aghavnuni invited Nimr to the altar,1 and Nimr commenced his speech:

My Ottoman brothers:

Ladies and gentlemen, I am addressing you as my Ottoman brothers, devoid of epithets and titles and stripped of veneration and glorification, as I do not find a sweeter expression on the Ottoman ear than this simple phrase, and there is no expression more desirable to the Ottoman and dearer to his heart than this simple phrase after we tasted the sweetness of Ottoman freedom and made the commitment to brotherhood and equality under the patronage of our empire.2

Nimr continued his speech by emphasizing that Muslims and Christians living in the empire were equals. After listening to other similar speeches, the Muslim crowd became enthusiastic. Several audience members lifted Rashid Rida onto their shoulders and carried him to the altar to embrace the Armenian bishop.3 This symbolic move was made for the practical implementation of one of the Revolution’s major ideals: brotherhood.

There is no doubt that the Revolution of 1908 was affected by the regional and global waves of revolutions and constitutional movements that emerged in France (1789), Japan (1868), Russia (1905), and Iran (1905–1911).4 All of these revolutions had in common that they believed the predicaments of their states and societies should be solved through the kind of political reform that had transformed the West into a successful entity: constitutionalism and parliamentary rule vehicles to curb the power of the monarchy. The revolutionaries of this period saw these political mechanisms as the only sure way to guarantee the demise of older, absolutist political systems.

The French Revolution of 1789, with its aura of success, as well as its slogans, symbolism, and language, became the master template for the revolutions of this period, an ahistoric model that traveled from one context to another.5 In some cases, the revolutions failed to achieve their goals because of internal and external factors that hindered the endurance of their ideals.6 In other cases, constitutionalism was used as a means to strengthen, centralize, and preserve the integrity of the national territory.

Much has been written on the causes and initial implementation of Middle Eastern revolutions during the early twentieth century. There is, however, a paucity of material that appropriately addresses their complexity and their impact on the Weltanschauung of the different ethno-religious groups in the postrevolutionary era. Existing scholarship on the impact of the Young Turk Revolution is divided into two groups. One views the Revolution as a factor that led to a decline of interethnic relations that culminated in the rise of ethnic nationalism, while the other romanticizes the period as the beginning of a positive project that was interrupted by World War I and the collapse of the empire.7 Both approaches fail to adequately problematize the Revolution and demonstrate its complexities. In fact, the revolutionaries’ uncritical adaptation, acceptance, and implementation of constitutionalism became counterproductive in an era in which it proved impossible to forge a unified nation and preserve the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, romanticizing the period and arguing that the different ethno-religious groups within the empire tried to see themselves as part of an Ottoman nation under the label “civic nationalism” is rather misleading.8 The reality is that constitutionalism failed to create a new understanding of Ottoman citizenship, grant equal rights to all citizens, bring them under one roof in a legislative assembly, and finally resuscitate Ottomanism from the ashes of the Hamidian regime.

Achieving these goals became impossible due to the ambiguities and contradictions of the Revolution’s goals and the reluctance of both the leaders of the Revolution and the majority of the empire’s ethnic groups to come to a compromise regarding the new political framework of the empire. That the revolutionary ideals were obscure was particularly evident in the prerevolutionary period, when, as Nader Sohrabi states, constitutionalism that satisfied everyone was multivocal, and “multivocality spelled ambiguity.” This multivocality was “a catalyst for consensus and coalition building among groups with contradictory and conflicting interests.”9 But the expectations raised by the Revolution for the formation of a new, constitutional nation under the label “Ottomanism” soon proved to be illusory. The major reason was that the Young Turks were not wholeheartedly committed to constitutionalism. For them, constitutionalism was only a means to an end: to maintain the integrity of a centralized Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Young Turks were determined to preserve the empire even if that meant violating the spirit of constitutionalism itself, as they demonstrated in their coup d’état of January 23, 1913, during the Balkan Wars. The Young Turks pursued all available means of consolidating their power within the empire, including interference in administrative affairs, the ouster of state and military personnel, vast purges of political opponents in the provinces, and most important, rigid enforcement of their own vision of reforms. That vision completely contradicted the Weltanschauung of the nondominant groups in the new era in which they wanted to preserve their ethno-religious/ethnic identities and privileges in tandem with the new, ambiguous project of Ottomanism.

This book tells the story of the shattered dreams of Arabs, Armenians, and Jews, three diversified ethnic groups representing vast geographic areas, as well as a wide range of interest groups, religions, classes, political parties, and factions. I would like to clarify an important point: my choice to use the concept of “ethnic group” rather than “national group.” Ethnic group denotes a population “sharing common cultural characteristics and/or seeing itself as being of common descent or sharing a common historical experience.”10 In addition, by using the terms “Armenians,” “Arabs,” and “Jews” in the framework of ethnic groups, I do not intend to essentialize them and represent them as consistent or static in both time and space. The ideas of nations and nationalism were confined to only the intelligentsia and political activists who became the harbingers of cultural and political nationalism that emerged in the empire in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, the majority of the Ottoman Empire’s constituent groups did not see themselves as part of a nation but rather as part of an ethno-religious community. Their identities meshed in an array of overlapping identities, highlighted by religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity, on the one hand, and regional and local loyalties, on the other. For example, the identity of an Iraqi Jew whose first language was Arabic, but who grew up in Baghdad, was not the same as that of a Salonican Jew living in Salonica whose first language was Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Similarly, the identity of an Armenian living in Sivas who spoke the local Ottoman Turkish dialect was not the same as that of an Armenian from Istanbul who spoke fluent Armenian and identified with the Armenian bourgeois class. Despite this diversity in terms of language, culture, religion, locality, region, and class, the various groups falling within the bloc of an ethnic group still had an important common bond in their ethnic boundaries.

Ethnic boundaries, a concept I borrow from the social anthropologist Fredrik Barth, “are best understood as cognitive or mental boundaries situated in the minds of people and are the result of collective efforts of construction and maintenance.”11 Barth provides two vital explanations of the nature of ethnic boundaries in general that apply equally well to the particulars of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. First, he argues that despite the flow of people from one group to another, ethnic boundaries persist. For Barth, ethnic distinctions are not based on a lack of mobility, contact, and information among these groups but instead “entail social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories.” Second, he asserts that “stable, persisting, and often vitally important social relations are maintained across such boundaries and are frequently based precisely on the dichotomized ethnic statuses.” In other words, he emphasizes the fact that ethnic distinctions are not based on the absence of social interaction; rather, they are the very foundations on which embracing social systems are built.12 Thus, the ethnic boundaries between “Armenians,” “Arabs,” and “Jews,” as well as other ethnic groups that constituted the larger Ottoman conglomerate, persisted not as a result of the absence of interaction but, conversely, as a result of the extensive interaction among them. This interaction was a key factor that distinguished one group from another. Thus, in this spatial and temporal scene, in which identities of groups were vague and overlapping, ethnic boundaries persisted, albeit in a fluid form.

In addition to this more theoretical reason for employing the term “ethnicity” to refer to these groups, I also use such qualifiers as “Kurds,” “Turks,” “Armenians,” “Jews,” “Arabs,” or “Albanians” in order to adhere to the spirit of the newspapers published around and after the time of the Revolution, all of which referred to ethnic groups by using these qualifiers. Whether they intended to represent these groups as national, ethnic, or religious categories or as a combination of the categories is hard to tell, mainly because such usage depended on the historical and political context of each newspaper and each article. I have also based my own toponomic conventions on contemporary newspaper practice. For example, most of the ethnic presses used the term “Turkey” and “Ottoman Empire” interchangeably, as we will see throughout the text.

The book examines the ways in which the Revolution and constitutionalism raised these groups’ expectations amid the postrevolutionary turmoil and how they internalized the Revolution, negotiating their space and identity within the rapidly changing political landscape of the period. Finally, it relates how the euphoric feelings of the postrevolutionary festivities gave way to a dramatic rise in ethnic tensions and pessimism among the nondominant groups. As a result, their faith in the Revolution and constitutionalism as vehicles for the realization of their dreams began to fade. Understanding the impact of revolutions from the perspective of nondominant groups and synthesizing that understanding with the known perspectives of the ruling elite are vital to comprehending their real complexities. However, this project does not provide decisive conclusions about the impact of the Revolution on all of the Ottoman Empire’s nondominant groups. Linguistic restraints and the scope of this study make including all these groups—including Greeks, Albanians, Kurds, Bulgarians, Assyrians, and Macedonians—in order to provide a single solution to the major historiographical issues of the period overly ambitious. This project is not, however, a microhistorical study. It does not concentrate on a single region and attempt to extrapolate major conclusions; rather, it takes a macrohistorical approach that includes different regions of the empire, ranging from central to peripheral areas. The aim of this book is to elucidate the complexities of revolutions through a comparative, inter- and intracommunal, cross-cultural analysis and initiate further dialogue among scholars in studies in a variety of disciplines. In doing so, it will also add to the substantial scholarship on this subject undertaken during the past few years.13

The Revolution of 1908 is a study in contradictions; to be understood, it must be considered from two apparently incompatible perspectives. On the one hand, it should be understood as a positive manifestation of modernity, since the authors of the movement originally intended to reinstate constitutional and parliamentary rule in order to address the empire’s predicaments. On the other hand, the Revolution should be viewed as a negative event that shook the empire’s traditional, fundamental structures and substructures, disrupting its finely tuned internal balance and opening a Pandora’s box of ethnic, religious, and political conflicts. Understanding the frictions, tensions, and negotiations between modernity and tradition is essential to an accurate view of the postrevolutionary period. This perspective also has wider implications, since such stresses were not exclusive to the Ottoman case but had both regional and global ramifications. The other multiethnic empires of the period, the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, were also contending with such enormous challenges and vertiginous complexities.14

The Young Turks’ reluctance to sincerely accommodate the political aspirations of ethnic groups put an end to the ideals of the Revolution, which despite their ambiguity were adhered to by the different ethnic groups. The principles of the Revolution remained unrealized due to the lack of a sincere negotiation process between the ruling elite and the nondominant groups concerning the empire’s political systems, the emergence of ethnic politics in tandem with the consolidation of national identities, and international pressure on the Ottoman state, all of which became serious challenges to the amalgamation of modernity and tradition and hampered healthy political development.

The book ends with a discussion of the Counterrevolution of 1909, which became an important juncture in the history of the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1918). For the Armenians, who suffered a huge massacre in the province of Adana in southeastern Anatolia during that period, the Counterrevolution became a turning point that shook their trust in the Young Turks and the ideals of the Revolution by demonstrating the incompetency and insincerity of the new regime. For some of the Arab notables, this juncture resulted in an inability to reclaim their previous status, leading some to cooperate with the new regime while others began looking for alternative ways to express their grievances—through, for example, proto-nationalism that later crystallized into Arabism. For the Jews, the Young Turks’ reaction to the Counterrevolution highlighted the fragility of empire and served to warn Zionists that the Young Turks would not tolerate the national aspirations of any group. Finally, for the Young Turks themselves, this period demonstrated the vulnerabilities of a constitutional regime and convinced them that granting too much freedom to ethnic groups under the rubric of constitutionalism would undermine their attempts to secure the empire’s stability and its territorial integrity. The major result of these shifts among the Young Turks was a serious violation of the spirit of constitutionalism and an increased hostility in the attitude of the dominant toward the nondominant groups. Hence, an examination of this period is critical, since it provides a context for further developments in the region. The most important of these is how different ethnic groups, political parties, religious entities, factions, and both dominant and nondominant groups negotiate and redefine their positions by adapting themselves to and navigating through the new, unstable political framework achieved by the Revolution.

Although the 1908 Revolution opened new opportunities for minority ethnic groups, it also created serious challenges both for them and for the authors of the Revolution. The postrevolutionary period became a litmus test for the endurance of the main principle of the Revolution: the creation of an Ottoman citizenry based in equality, fraternity, and liberty whose allegiance would be to the empire. The realization of this goal was extremely difficult, since the empire’s various ethnic groups each had their own perceptions of what it meant to be an Ottoman citizen. While the Young Turks’ version of Ottomanism entailed the assimilation of ethnic difference, Ottoman Turkish as the main language, a centralized administrative system, and the abandonment of ethno-religious privileges, the ethnic groups perceived Ottomanism as a framework for promoting their identities, languages, and ethno-religious privileges, as well as an empire based on administrative decentralization. What followed was a tense battle between the Young Turks’ main political party, the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihad ve Terraki, or CUP), and the various ethnic groups concerning the future of the empire and their role in it. Through this battle of ideas, the ethnic groups did negotiate their places in the empire, but they did so through ethnic politics, contradicting the unified political system that the Revolution strove to achieve. While the supreme ideal of the Revolution was the creation of a political system in which individuals would participate as citizens of the empire rather than as members of disparate ethnic blocs, in reality, many people continued to prioritize their ethnic identities over their Ottoman citizenship.

A brief overview of the major transformations that Armenians, Jews, and Arabs experienced during the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire is necessary to a full understanding of the impact the Young Turk Revolution had on these three nondominant groups and how the Revolution changed the dynamics of power among them.

Reforms in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire and the Rise of the Young Turks

During the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire, along with the semiautonomous Ottoman provinces of Egypt and Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Iran, initiated a series of reforms to strengthen their political power and preserve the integrity of their territories. This defensive developmentalism, which was most successful in Egypt and somewhat successful in the Ottoman Empire, aimed at strengthening the state internally through centralization, radical military reform, and the introduction of rationalized legal norms along Western lines.15 The strategies were also intended to improve global standing at a time when the power of these political entities was dwindling both locally and internationally. This resulted in a vast array of radical reforms in the fields of politics, economy, society, and religion.

In the case of the Ottoman Empire, the reform era can be divided into three periods: the reigns of Sultan Selim III and Mahmud II (1789–1839), the era of the Tanzimat (reordering) reforms (1839–1876), and the Hamidian period (1876–1909). Although these reforms affected different aspects of society in the empire and in Iran, they nonetheless managed to partially attain their primary goal. However, the Tanzimat era had a profound impact on non-Muslim groups in the empire, especially through the two royal decrees of Hatt-ı Şerif of Gülhane in 1839 and Hatt-ı Hümayun in 1856. The former pledged to extend reforms to all Ottoman subjects, regardless of creed or religious affiliation, while the latter promised equality among the empire’s subjects, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The Gülhane edict also gave rise to the concept of being an Ottoman subject, something more explicitly defined in the Nationality Law of 1869.16

Both decrees were intended to secure the loyalty of the empire’s Christian subjects at a time when nationalist agitations were rising in its European section. Consequently, they tried to mold the notion of Ottomanism by breaking down the religious and cultural autonomy of the millets (religious communities). Despite failing to attain this goal, these reforms made substantial changes in the dynamics of power among the non-Muslims. This was especially true in the case of the 1856 edict, which was intended to reform the communal administration of non-Muslim elements.17

These nineteenth-century reforms also led to a constitutional movement in the Ottoman Empire that arose between 1865 and 1878, primarily represented by a group of intellectuals calling themselves the Young Ottomans.18 Despite being the by-product of the Tanzimat, this group was extremely critical of those reforms, viewing them as a superficial imitation of Western tendencies implemented by autocratic Ottoman statesmen without taking into consideration the Islamic values of Ottoman society. In addition to advocating for a genuine new identity of Ottomanism, they demanded the adoption of such liberal concepts as citizenship and some individual rights. The Ottoman society they envisioned would be a synthesis of Western modes of governance and Islamic Ottoman traditions. Despite encountering numerous obstacles, they were able to implement constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire, although for only a very short time.19

This First Constitutional Period (1876–1878) was disrupted when Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) prorogued the Parliament, suspended the constitution, and established a despotic rule that lasted three decades.20 The Young Ottomans’ legacy was, nevertheless, carried on by another influential group—one that would play a dominant political role at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This group, calling itself the Young Turk movement, emerged in the Ottoman Empire and its expatriate communities at the end of the nineteenth century. Their main political party, the CUP, became the dominant force within the movement. The Young Turks were influenced by the political currents raging in Europe at this time. Most important of these were positivism and scientific materialism, which became a molding force in their intellectual development.21 After three decades of relentless efforts and political activism, this group staged the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, reinstating the Ottoman constitution and opening the Parliament. Thus, they launched what came to be known as the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1918), which ended with the Ottoman defeat at the end of World War I.22 The goal of the CUP’s constitutionalism was to transform the Ottoman Empire into a new system in which meritocracy was going to play a dominant role in reforming the political system. This system would serve as a platform for the CUP in strengthening its grip over the empire.

Armenians in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire

Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire experienced four major transformations during the nineteenth century: emergence of cultural nationalism as a result of the Armenian Renaissance (Zart‘ōnk‘); change in the power dynamics within the Armenian community after the introduction of the Armenian National Constitution (1863) and the formation of the Armenian National Assembly; rise of the Armenian merchant class; and deterioration of the political situation of Armenians in the eastern provinces in Anatolia that led to the emergence of Armenian revolutionary movements.23

In the Ottoman administrative system, Armenians, as well as Greeks and Jews, were organized in millets, which were semiautonomous bodies.24 Under the millet system, these groups enjoyed a wide array of religious and cultural freedom, in addition to substantial legal, fiscal, and administrative autonomy. For example, the Armenian patriarch enjoyed complete jurisdiction over his millet’s spiritual administration, charitable organizations, and religious institutions. He was supported in these efforts by influential Armenian magnates in Istanbul called Amiras who exerted immense influence over the Patriarchate and the community through their strong ties to the Ottoman ruling elite.25 Amiras played the role of mediators between the Ottoman ruling institutions and the Armenian millet in a way that recalls the work of Arab notables (ayan) in Syria and Palestine during the second half of the nineteenth century.26 As a result of both political shifts within the Armenian community in Istanbul and Tanzimat reforms, the Amiras’ importance declined in the latter part of the nineteenth century.27 They were supplanted by the rising Armenian bourgeoisie, represented by the middle class, Armenian guilds (esnafs), and Armenian merchants.28

In the first half of the nineteenth century, these new groups, in cooperation with the similarly rising Armenian intelligentsia, constituted the core of the Armenian constitutional movement, whose aim was to curb traditional authority and run the affairs of the community through a constitution and a national assembly.29 Two important factors helped them realize their goal: the Tanzimat reforms and the personal connections that members of the constitutional movement, employed in the Ottoman bureaucracy, had with liberal Ottoman statesmen.30

After a long struggle between the conservative and liberal elements and with the intervention of the Ottoman government, an Armenian National Constitution was unanimously approved by the Armenian National Assembly on May 24, 1860, and ratified by the Ottoman government, after a long delay, on March 17, 1863.31 The National Assembly became a kind of mini-Parliament, the empire’s first nontraditional institution in which conventional politics were exercised, including elections, voting, hearings, debates, the exchange of ideas, and decision-making processes. It is, however, important to mention that the constitution was implemented unevenly in the eastern provinces.32 What truly facilitated the development of Armenian political thinking in the empire was the creation of an internal public sphere in which the Armenian press played a dominant role.33 The press became the medium through which Armenian interest groups expounded their views regarding political and administrative reforms. In the years between 1855 and 1876, some one hundred newspapers in Armenian and Armeno-Turkish were published in Istanbul, and thirteen were published in Izmir. Other such papers appeared in Erzurum, Bitlis, Izmit, and Sivas.34

By the promulgation of the Armenian National Constitution, an educational council was formed to spread, through the schools that proliferated in the provinces, the Armenian language among Armenians who did not speak the language. These educational enterprises would not have been realized without the direct support of the rising middle class, represented by the merchants, and the backing of liberal elements in the Armenian community. Some of these institutions played a dominant role in the spread of cultural nationalism among Armenians residing in coastal and major cities in the empire during the second half of the nineteenth century. External groups, most important of which was the Catholic Armenian Mekhitarist Congregation located in Venice, followed by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, played a part in the introduction of modern education.35 Through their eminent colleges in Aintab (1874), Merzifon (1886), Tarsus (1888), Harput (1852), Kayseri (1871), Izmir (1878), and Istanbul (1863), the Protestant missionaries expounded the political ideals of the West to their students.

As the earlier formation of the Armenian National Assembly indicates, the First Constitutional Period was not the Armenians’ first encounter with parliamentary politics. During this period, however, Armenian deputies were elected to both of the empire’s representative houses: the House of Deputies (Meclis-i Mebusan) and the Senate (Meclis-i Ayan).36 This situation ended when Sultan Abdülhamid II took drastic measures to prorogue the Parliament and suspend the constitution amid the deteriorating situation in the Balkans; the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878; and the twin Treaties of San Stefano and Berlin, both of which were regarded as disasters for the Ottomans.37 He subsequently established an absolute monarchical rule that lasted the next thirty years. As part of this process, the sultan cracked down on liberal intellectuals, many of whom escaped to Europe and Egypt, where they formed exilic public spheres.38 In these radicalized groups, exiled members of the empire’s minority ethnic groups interacted with one another and attempted to mobilize their host governments against the sultan through the media, public gatherings, and congresses.

The 1878 Treaty of Berlin, which aimed at finding a new solution to the “Eastern Question,” greatly modified the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano but did not nullify its major provisions. It also gave rise to the “Armenian Question” in the international arena.39 Both demographic changes in Anatolia that resulted from the immigration of Muslims from the Balkans and the Caucasus and tensions in the Balkans had an important impact on the deteriorating situation in the eastern provinces. In a span of twenty years, from 1862 to 1882, immigration of the Muslim population from the Balkans and Russia increased the Ottoman Muslim population of Anatolia by at least 40 percent.40 A good number of these immigrants moved to the eastern provinces, to areas where Armenians lived, the majority of whom were peasants, thus creating a population imbalance and friction between the locals and the immigrants. The overall result was an intensification of agrarian tensions.41 It is noteworthy that the situation in some parts of the Anatolian provinces had already been deteriorating. Not only these agrarian tensions but also frequent attacks by Kurdish tribes on Armenian peasants, heavy taxation, friction with the influx of Muslims from the Caucasus, administrative corruption, and failure of Armenian efforts to solve these problems diplomatically led to the emergence of Armenian revolutionary groups.42

It seems that a major ideological shift took place within the Armenian political activists of Anatolia between 1878 and 1880, since the revolutionary movement emerged in the provinces only after that time. In 1885, Mguerdich Portukalian founded the Armenakan Party in Van (eastern Anatolia), which became the first party to be openly engaged in revolutionary activities.43 The Armenakan Party was followed by the Social Democratic Hunchakian Party (Sōts‘ialistakan Dēmokratakan Hunch‘akean Kusakts‘ut‘iwn, or SDHP), founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in August 1887 after their journal, Hunch‘ak (Bell), was established. The Hunchakian Party, also known as the Hunchaks, became the first socialist party in the Ottoman Empire.44 Its platform focused primarily on the injustices taking place in the Armenian provinces and asserted that achieving freedom for the masses required establishing a new order based on humanitarian and socialist principles.45 The Hunchaks saw revolution achieved through propaganda, agitation, terror, and organization, and peasant and worker action as the means to that end. However, an internal crisis within the party resulted in the emergence of a new faction that came to be known as the Reformed Hunchaks. The two primary reasons for this splintering were socialism and party tactics. This faction believed that the European powers abandoned the Armenian Question because of the socialist doctrines of the party. Hence, they demanded the elimination of socialism from the party’s doctrine and called for changes in tactics and administration. In 1898, this faction named itself the Reformed Hunchakian Party (Verakazmyal Hunch‘akean Kusakts‘ut‘iwn).46

In 1890, the Armenian revolutionary groups felt the need to unite under one banner, which eventually led to the establishment of the Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries (Hay Heghap‘okhakanneri Dashnakts‘ut‘iwn, or FAR) in Russian Tbilisi, the first merger of various Armenian groups, primarily in Russia, into a single party. By 1892, the organization had already been recast and consolidated as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Hay Heghap‘okhakan Dashnakts‘ut‘iwn), otherwise known as the ARF, Dashnak, or Dashnakts‘ut‘iwn, with Droshak (Flag) as its official organ.47 In the fall of 1892, the ARF held its First Congress in Tbilisi, where it ratified a platform that outlined a decentralized organizational structure with the goal of political and economic freedom in Turkish Armenia (T‘rk‘ayastan).48 This would be accomplished through propaganda, arming of the population, and violent acts against corrupt government officers.49 By the end of the nineteenth century, clandestine ARF branches were active in Trabzon, Erzurum, Erzincan, Van, Muş, Bitlis, and Hınıs.

While the ARF program aspired to freedom and autonomy within the framework of the empire, the Hunchak program aspired to the complete separation and independence of Turkish Armenia. Consequently, these groups used different tactics to achieve their goals. For example, in order to quickly bring European attention to the Armenian Question, the Hunchaks staged mass demonstrations. Their most notable activities were the Kum Kapu demonstration of July 27, 1890;50 the placards (yafta) incident in Anatolia in 1893;51 and the Sassun Rebellion of August 1894 against the nomadic Kurdish tribes and government tax collectors.

What finally focused European attention on the Armenians’ plight was not, however, any of these actions but rather Sultan Abdülhamid II’s reaction to domestic unrest. The sultan’s reprisals for the Armenian uprising used the newly established Hamidiye Regiments and led to the massacres of Sassun (1894).52 News of the horrors of the massacres aroused Great Britain, France, and Russia, who sent a joint Inquiry Commission to the area to investigate. On May 11, 1895, these powers sent a memorandum to the sultan urging him to make reforms in the six Turkish Armenian provinces.53 The sultan’s refusal to implement such reforms led to the Demonstration of Bab-ı Ali (Sublime Porte) in Istanbul on September 18, 1895, as well as the accompanying massacre in Istanbul, which continued until October 3. This second sequence of events led the European powers to pressure the sultan to sign the Armenian Reform Program as the massacres drew to a close. This did not, however, bring peace to the Armenians of the eastern provinces. Between 1895 and 1896, the Hamidian regime prosecuted a series of massacres in Trabzon, Erzincan, Erzurum, Gümüşhane, Baiburt, Urfa, and Bitlis. Approximately two hundred thousand Armenians were killed, while hundreds of town quarters and villages were looted, and thousands of acres of Armenian land and properties were seized by the Kurdish beys and the Hamidiye chieftains.54 Madteos II Izmirlian, patriarch of Istanbul, who strongly criticized the regime for the bloodshed, was deposed and banished to Jerusalem by Sultan Abdülhamid II on August 26, 1896. He was replaced by Patriarch Maghakia Ormanian, who reigned until the Young Turk Revolution of 1908.

Although it shared some aims with the Hunchaks, ARF avoided using mass demonstrations, concentrating instead on targeted operations and assassinations. In this, they were influenced by Russian secret societies such as the Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Freedom) and Zemlya i Volya (Land and Freedom). ARF’s major operations during this period were the seizure of Bank Ottoman on August 26, 1896, which was intended to focus European attention on the plight of Armenians in the provinces, and the attempt on the sultan’s life July 21, 1905, after the Friday prayer ceremony (Selamlık).55 The mission to assassinate the sultan failed because he had been delayed by conversing with Şeyh-ül İslam.56 The incident was, nevertheless, hailed by Şura-yı Ümmet (The council of the nation),57 the Young Turk organ in exile.58

Armenians were distinguished from other minority groups in the empire by their close relationship with the Young Turk movement in exile—an association based on the two groups’ shared interest in the reinstatement of the constitution and overthrow of the Hamidian regime.59 In 1902, ARF, represented by Avedis Aharonian and the Reformed Hunchaks, participated in the Paris Congress of the Ottoman Liberals.60 Representatives of the two groups could not come to an agreement because the Young Turks were opposed not only to revolutionary tactics but also to recognition that Armenian rights were guaranteed by international treaties, something that all the Armenian delegates insisted upon.61 As a result, the Armenian delegates declared that they would not support the decisions of the congress and would give a concomitant declaration to the congress instead. In that statement, the Armenians primarily argued in favor of a federal system, whereas the Young Turks inclined toward centralization and the prevention of foreign intervention. After this declaration, the Armenian delegates considered their duty done and left, deeming their presence at the congress not beneficial.62

After this first congress, the Young Turk press in exile became extremely critical of Armenian activities in Europe—particularly Armenian congresses aimed at courting European public opinion and Armenian revolutionary activities within the empire.63 Much of this criticism stemmed from the Young Turks’ total opposition to the use of violence and foreign intervention as means for social change.

Between 1905 and 1907, however, the relationship between the Young Turks and ARF improved due to the efforts of Prince Sabahaddin Bey, a nephew of the sultan and an ideologue of the Liberals.64 ARF’s decision to cooperate with the Young Turks occurred during its Fourth Congress in 1907.65 This led ARF to participate in the Second Congress of Ottoman Opposition Parties in Paris in 1907. The congress adopted armed resistance as a means of realizing the Revolution.66 Despite a generally positive attitude regarding Armeno-Turkish cooperation, both groups harbored skepticism derived from their ideological discrepancies. While Armenians believed in revolution as a means to change, the Young Turks advocated a more diplomatic approach. Furthermore, as we have stated, the majority of the Young Turks opposed decentralization, autonomy, foreign intervention, and implementation of internationally guaranteed treaties, arguing that these eventually would lead to the disintegration of the empire. Thus, between 1905 and 1908 a cautious rapprochement began between the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Young Turks on both a political and practical level. Practical cooperation was manifested in the eastern provinces of Van and Erzurum.67

Jews in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire

Jewish communities in the empire, like Armenian communities, experienced structural transformation with the introduction of a constitution and the emergence of new interest groups represented by the Francos (Jews of Italian origin), the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), and the Zionists, who were mostly in Palestine. These shifts, which led to the emergence of Jewish progressive movements within the empire, also were heavily influenced by the Tanzimat reforms, which constituted a dramatic change in the Jewish millet, just as they did within the Armenian and Greek ones.68

Unlike the Armenians and Greeks, the empire’s Jews had lost political power during the nineteenth century, mainly due to political and economic changes taking place at that time.69 Like the other millets, the Jewish community was run according to its own law (halakhah), enjoying considerable internal autonomy. Despite having autonomous ethno-religious status, however, the Jews did not have a major religious leader, as did the Armenians or Greeks, to oversee their affairs. This situation led the Jewish community to appoint Abraham Levi as chief rabbi (hahambaşı) in 1835.70 His position was recognized by the Ottoman government, making him both the temporal and spiritual leader of the Jewish community. The Tanzimat reforms, particularly the edict of 1856, encouraged non-Muslim communities to establish assemblies constituted of religious and nonreligious elements that would conduct their affairs.71 These reforms culminated in the Jewish Constitution of 1865.72

Reforms in the administrative, educational, and legal areas opened new horizons for the empire’s non-Muslim populations. While the empire’s Jews were experiencing the impact of the Tanzimat reforms, the Jews of Europe were experiencing important transformations under the influence of European Enlightenment. From 1750 to 1850, western European Jewry engaged in a Jewish enlightenment called Haskalah.73 Members of this movement perceived the eastern Jews as culturally inferior to the European Jews and believed that the only way to elevate eastern Jewry from its dire condition was to civilize it, elevating it to the level of the emancipated European Jewry. Thus, the “Jewish Eastern Question” was born.74

The interest of European Jewry in the Ottoman Jews began, in fact, as a result of a series of incidents in the empire, the most important of which was the Damascus Affair of 1840, triggered by the disappearance of Father Tomaso, an Italian monk, in the Jewish Quarter of Damascus on the eve of Passover.75 The city’s governor immediately ordered the arrest of several Jews accused of murdering Father Tomaso to obtain human blood for ritual practices. Eventually, with the intervention of European Jewry, the prisoners were released and proclamations were obtained declaring their innocence. The Damascus Affair gave great impetus to the development of the press as a medium through which the Jewish communities of Europe discussed the situation of their coreligionists in the East.76

In accordance with the intellectual stance of the Haskalah, it became imperative for European Jewry to solve the Jewish Eastern Question, using education as the means. This objective would not, however, have been realized without the direct involvement and support of the Francos, a group of Jews of Italian origin who constituted significant elements of the Jewish leadership in Istanbul, Salonica, and Izmir.77 Though education became an important channel for the dissemination of progressive ideals, it also became a source of conflict between traditional and progressive elements.

The progressive current within the Jewish community got a boost in 1860 with the election of Rabbi Ya‘kov Avigdor to the post of chief rabbi.78 Assisted by the Jewish Franco notable Abraham Camondo, Avigdor formed a temporal council (meclis-i cismani), of which Camondo was elected president. The council arranged for the collection of taxes, as well as creation of commissions to examine the accounts of each synagogue and fight corruption in the religious courts.79 It was, however, under the leadership of Chief Rabbi Yakir Geron that the Rabbinical Constitution (Hahamname Nizamnamesi) was drafted. Approved by the state in 1865, the constitution confined the power of the chief rabbi, giving full executive power to the lay council.80 Thus, the Jewish constitution aimed at reducing the power of the rabbinate in much the same way that the authority of the Armenian and the Greek patriarchs had been abridged.

In the case of the Jews, however, these reforms were not as successful in accomplishing that goal as they had been for the Armenians and Greeks. The crisis following the 1856 Edict of Reform caused severe paralysis of communal affairs, resulting in tensions among different factions within the community. Furthermore, the conservative elements gained more power with Moshe Halevi’s appointment as locum tenens in 1872.81 Halevi did not hold elections until he was forced to do so by the pressures of the Young Turk Revolution, a fact that proved his conservative attitudes.82 Thus, any source of fundamental change had to come from outside. The AIU, established in Paris in 1860 with a branch founded in the coastal port city of Volos in the Ottoman Empire in 1865, would play this role.83 The AIU’s activities of propagating liberal and political ideologies caused much anxiety for Moshe Halevi and his adherents. From its inception, the organization focused on the needs of Jews living under Islamic rule. Its success in establishing schools and higher educational institutions in the Ottoman Empire was partly due to the cooperation of both the Francos and European Jewry.84

During the First Constitutional Period, Jewish participation in Parliament was minimal, with only four representatives.85 Their participation in the Young Turk movement was also minimal. Albert Fua, the most important Jewish representative in the Young Turk movement, did, however, make a significant contribution to the revolutionary cause. He was a columnist for the French supplement of Meşveret (Consultation), CUP’s central organ in Paris. He also participated in the first Young Turk Congress of 1902. Fua, who represented the minority bloc, spoke against foreign intervention in a move intended to demonstrate that even a non-Turk opposed such interference.86

Another important factor affecting the empire’s Jews at the end of the nineteenth century was Zionism.87 Political Zionism, based on nationalism that focused on Palestine as the rightful Jewish homeland, led to a wave of immigration from Russia and Romania to Palestine. In the 1890s, some Zionist organizations began to emerge, calling for a solution to the Jewish Question.88 When Theodor Herzl began working to create a coherent, international Zionist movement, he did not neglect the Ottoman Empire.89 Although Herzl was unsuccessful in his attempt to strike a deal with the Ottoman government to support a Zionist project in Palestine,90 the Zionists continued their activities in Palestine under the auspices of the Jewish Colonial Trust.91

Herzl’s efforts did, however, lead to the First Zionist Congress, which took place in Basel in 1897. The congress approved a program that outlined the movement’s goal: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.”92 Jewish purchases of lands from absentee landlords led to the dispossession and eviction of hundreds of Palestinian peasant families, as well as the expansion of the Jewish Yishuv (colony) in Palestine. Eventually, the Palestinian peasantry reacted, particularly in two sets of conflicts following land purchases: one in Petah Tiqva in 1886 and another in Tibereas from 1901 to 1904.93 Muslim notables of Jerusalem sent petitions demanding the prohibition of land purchase by Jews and restrictions on their immigration into Palestine.94 Thus, despite the regulations of the Ottoman government, Jewish immigration to Palestine continued. On the eve of the Young Turk Revolution, the number of Jews in Palestine rose to seventy thousand, which was three times more than in 1882. Jewish land acquisition had grown to about 400,000 dunams (about 98,842 acres) of land and twenty-six colonies.95

Arabs in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire

The nineteenth-century Ottoman reforms did not have an immediate impact on the areas inhabited by Arabs but began to be felt in the second half of the century.96 When their effects did become apparent in the Arab communities, these reforms had less impact than they had on the Armenians or Jews, primarily because of the political status of Muslim Arabs and the advantage that Armenians and Jews had in relation to the reforms. For instance, because of the millet framework, Armenians and Jews were already living in ethno-religious, semiautonomous entities in the empire. Because they constituted a majority in the Arab provinces, Arab Muslims had not been recognized as a separate, autonomous group. In the second half of the century, however, some segments of the population in the Arab provinces began to develop a sense of identity based on either religion or ethnicity, emphasizing autonomy as the ultimate tool for improving the condition of their communities. This process began with a cultural renaissance (al-Nahah) that originated among the Arab Christians and culminated in Arab political movements in the provinces of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, which gained momentum in the postrevolutionary period.

The promulgation of the 1856 Edict of Reform caused decisive changes in relations between Muslims and Christians in the Arab provinces. Reactions in Syria and Palestine were generally negative, primarily because of the wider privileges that local Christians enjoyed under the reforms, whereas Syrian Christians welcomed it. Thus, the new reforms aggravated intercommunal relations not only between Muslims and Christians but also between Christians and Jews.97 Gradually, this led to advances in both the intellectual activity and the socioeconomic status of Arab Christians.98 The tensions resulting from the Christians’ improved status led to the emergence of ethnic conflicts that resulted in the riots of Nablus and culminated in the Damascus massacres of 1860.99

The Damascus massacres, in turn, led to an intervention by the European powers that gave special status to Lebanon. On June 9, 1861, the Sublime Porte signed the Règlement Organique for Lebanon, which had been formulated in Istanbul and according to which Mount Lebanon would be organized into a special Ottoman governorate (mutasarrifiyyah). This governorate was to be administrated by a Christian district governor appointed by the Porte. A term of three years was fixed for the first governor, Davud Paşa.100 At the end of the nineteenth century, the emerging Christian merchant class played a dominant role in shaping political orientation toward the Hamidian regime and the Young Turks. In contrast, the Muslim merchants, though they were involved in a similar trade relationship with the West, were more inclined to favor the administration of the Ottoman Empire and saw the Arab-Turkish relationship as a union against the threat of foreign intervention.

Like their Armenian counterparts, the Arab Christians were influenced by Protestant and Catholic missionary activities in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Eventually, this resulted in the emergence of a literary renaissance in the Arab provinces that was implemented through education and the press. This period witnessed the rise of such important figures as Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1883) and Nasif al-Yaziji (1800–1871), who exemplified the Arab cultural awakening (al-Nahah).101 Despite being influenced by Western ideas, intellectuals in this movement defended Eastern civilization.102 Another, simultaneous trend emerged in the Arab provinces with an emphasis on Islamic culture. This trend, embodied in Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897)—and later in his disciples, Muhammad ‘Abdu (1849–1905) and Rashid Rida (1865–1935)—championed the accommodation of European achievements in science and technology within the framework of Islam.

During the First Constitutional Period, the Parliament became an important forum for Arab deputies to discuss issues pertaining to their communities. Of 232 deputies during the two terms of the period, 32 were Arabs, representing the Arab provinces of Aleppo, Syria, Baghdad, Basra, and Tripolitania. When Abdülhamid II prorogued the Parliament and suspended the constitution, most of these intellectuals and political activists moved to Egypt, which then became a hub for exiled Arab thinkers, especially Syrians, who contributed immensely to the development of journalism and the proliferation of political ideas in their adopted country.103 Led by Rashid Rida and Muhammad Rafiq al-‘Azm, these intellectuals established the Ottoman Consultative Society (Jam‘iyat al-Shūrah al-‘Uthmāniyyah) and published the journal Al-Manār (The lighthouse). The society, composed of Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds, intended to unite the Ottoman nationalities in order to transform the Ottoman government into a constitutional regime and prevent the empire’s collapse.104

Motivated by fear that an Arab opposition movement might consolidate, and in order to gain the loyalty of the Arabs, especially after losing hope in the Balkans, Abdülhamid attracted the Arab notables to his rule.105 The sultan’s new regime was characterized by an emphasis on Islam and his role as the caliph. In addition, he chose the most conservative Arab Muslims as his advisers.106 Accordingly, during this portion of his reign, Arab provinces like Syria and Hidjaz gained importance in the palace.107 This political shift drew the criticism of the Young Turks’ press and created tensions among palace factions.108

Abdülhamid also began to build his relationships with Arab notables in the provinces, who had long played the traditional role of mediators between the central government and the local population. This led to an increase of power and influence for influential local families. For example, in Damascus, the non-scholarly, landowning bureaucrats played a dominant role in local politics during the Hamidian period. Because these families achieved their political power by cooperating with Istanbul, they closely associated the state ideology of Ottomanism with the advancement of their interests.109 This meant that any change in the status of the Hamidian regime ultimately would have negative consequences for Arab notables in the provinces, especially in Syria, and explains why notables there were not enthusiastic about the Revolution of 1908. Despite this investment in the fate of the sultan’s regime, Arabs did participate in the two major congresses of the opposition groups. Unlike the Armenians, however, they were not an influential partner with the Young Turks: before 1908, the relationship between provincial Arab leaders and the revolutionaries was minimal.

The waves of transformation in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire had substantial, but varying degrees of impact on the different elements of the empire. The transformations as part and parcel of the defensive modernization/westernization/reforms initiated by the Ottoman state influenced these various groups in ways ranging from changes in the dynamics of power within the communities, their relations toward the state, center-periphery relations, and interethnic relations, to the metamorphosis of overlapping vague identities. As demonstrated in this chapter, external factors also played an important role in these transformations. However, in other cases these transformations proved to be counterproductive in achieving their goals—for example, the Ottoman state’s attempt to mold a unified Ottoman identity under the vague label “Ottomanism” in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is also important to note that the impact of these transformations was to a certain extent limited only to the elites in the central and coastal cities of the empire and did not encompass the majority of the population living in the periphery. For example, the majority of the Armenians in the provinces were peasantry preoccupied with farming and harvesting. European ideas of liberalism, constitutionalism, or nationalism were alien to them. They were more interested in the application of the concept of justice as part of finding a solution to the agrarian question that had lingered for decades.

Within this complex context of political and socioeconomic upheavals the Revolution became a decisive and fateful moment in the history of the empire. As the following chapters demonstrate, the Revolution became a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gave hope to the revolutionaries and the disgruntled elements within the empire, promising a new beginning and a better future; on the other hand, it moved the empire into the abyss of disillusionment and disenchantment.