Power, Society and Arab Political Activism by the End of the Ottoman Era: Power Tools in the Levant

15 October, 2017

Published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in August 2017, the latest historical work from Wajih Kawtharani gives Arabic readers an unrivalled insight into a vital, transformative period for the Arab Middle East. Power, Society and Arab Political Activism by the End of the Ottoman Era: Power Tools in the Levant (352 pp.) takes its readers on a tour of the period of time when the apparatus of power tying the Sublime Porte to the Arab periphery was being formed. It is also an invaluable link to the contemporary Arab region. Kawtharani's book is divided into an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue.

Kawtharani uses the book to explain the specificities of the Ottoman Empire and the societies which made it up. This also leads the author to illustrate the Islamic historical roots of the Sultanic form of government, which typified the Ottoman state. Kawtharani uses his work to illustrate the conceptual distinctions between an older Ottoman system of Iltizam, land tenancy, and feudalism and the later forms of Ottoman administration. He also shows how the Millet system for the management of diverse ethnic and religious groups intersected with the system of "Capitulations" granted as privileges to merchants from European countries. Kawtharani saw these general, broad and political developments within the Ottoman Empire as having a deep impact on Arab society, and modern Arab political activity. In other words, this fed in directly to the policies of the European powers during the First World War, thereby inspiring Kawtharani's research into how the periods of reform within the Ottoman Empire impacted political activity and the drive for political alternatives in the Arab Ottoman realms. Thus, the author investigates the impact of these Ottoman changes on the political discourse of the time.

Kawtharani's first chapter is devoted to the twin themes of "Sharia" and Asabiya justifications (in the Khalduni sense) for the establishment of Ottoman state power in Arab lands. In the earliest period following the Ottoman conquests of the Arab realms, the dynasty justified its legitimacy to rule through arguments rooted in Islamic principles of governance. Kawtharani goes on to explain how this later evolved into a self-perpetuating system that relied on the asabiya bonds tying groups of locally based armed soldiers loyal to the Sultan in Istanbul. The ability to leverage these different loyalties allowed the Ottomans to rule over a patchwork of family, tribal and confessional groups.

The second section of the book contrasts the new administrative reforms brought in by the Ottomans in the later modern period with the previous system based on diverse and competing Millet groups. According to Kawtharani, the administrative reforms gave rise to new tensions in the local communities, especially between a generally urban authority and a mainly rural and agrarian population. In the third chapter, Kawtharani explores the "Great Game" which pitted the colonial powers against each other in a scramble for control following the First World War, particularly of the territories formerly under Ottoman control. This led to a new balance of power in the Mediterranean. In the fourth chapter, Kawtharani goes on to detail political reforms in the early part of the twentieth century, paying particular attention to the role of the Christian businessmen and intellectuals, as well as Christian émigré communities in the United States and France in clamoring for independence in the Vilayet of Beirut. Kawtharani then goes on to show how this "regional" secessionism evolved into a local nationalism. Towards the end of the chapter, Kawtharani illustrates how the breakdown of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire left havoc in its wake in the Arab Mediterranean.

In the epilogue, Kawtharani reflects on the fate of the Ottoman Empire and how its downfall at the hands of Western powers was due to its own internal divisions. In particular, Kawtharani explains that the administrative reforms during the "Young Turks" era served to heighten ethnic and confessional identities, which justified Western interventions in Greater Syria. For their part, explained the author, local notables managed to leverage legal changes in the late Ottoman era not only to enhance their rights in relation to the central authorities in Istanbul, but also to offer their services to French colonial ambitions. In summary, local notables at the head of ethnic and confessional groups were able to work hand-in-hand with European powers to form authoritarian enclaves. In doing so, they sought to establish their legitimacy through appeals to the ideal of the nation-state. 

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