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23.5.15

New Texts Out Now: Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Bedross Der Matossian (BDM): I have always been interested in the history of the late Ottoman period, in particular the era of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) and the Second Constitutional Period (1908-1918). Most of the scholarship about the period in the past has been written from the perspective of the dominant ruling elite/political center. It is only in the past decade that we see new studies that provide a broader picture of the period by incorporating non-dominant groups. It is with this intention in mind that I decided to concentrate on examining one of the most important turning points in the beginning of the modern Middle East from the perspective of the non-dominant groups.
Much has been written on the causes and initial implementation of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. There is, however, a dearth of material that appropriately addresses its complexity and its impact on the worldview of the different non-dominant groups in the post-revolutionary period. Existing scholarship on the impact of the Young Turk Revolution on the Ottoman society is divided into two groups. One views the Revolution as a factor that led to the debilitation of interethnic relations leading to the rise of ethnic nationalism among the non-dominant groups, while the other romanticizes the period as the beginning of “civic nationalism” under the rubric of Ottomanism which was interrupted by World War I. I argue in the book that both approaches fail to adequately problematize the Revolution and demonstrate its complexities.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
BDM: The book highlights the ambiguities and contradictions of the Young Turk 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. In order to demonstrate this, the book concentrates on three ethnic groups: Arabs, Armenians, and Jews. These three diversified groups represented vast geographic areas, as well as a wide range of interest groups, religions, classes, political parties, and factions. By utilizing primary sources in Arabic, Armenian, French, German, Hebrew, Ladino, and Ottoman Turkish, the book analyzes the revolution from the perspective of non-dominant groups. This approach is vital in order to comprehend the complexities of the post-revolutionary period. The book examines the ways in which the Revolution and constitutionalism raised these groups' expectations amid the post-revolutionary turmoil and how they internalized the Revolution, negotiating their space and identity within the rapidly changing political landscape of the period.
The book argues that 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 non-dominant 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. In addition, the book argues that the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ruling Young Turk party, did not wholeheartedly believe in constitutionalism. For them, constitutionalism was only a means to an end: to maintain the integrity of a centralized Ottoman Empire. In fact, they were determined to preserve the empire even if that meant violating the spirit of constitutionalism itself, as they later demonstrated in their coup d’état of 23 January 1913. After the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the CUP hijacked first the legal system and then the executive branch to protect its vital interests. It forced the declining Empire into World War I, which culminated in its defeat, the Armenian Genocide, the collapse of the Empire, and the advent of colonialism into the Middle East.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
BDM: The book departs from my previous research that concentrated on the socio-economic and political history of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In the past I have written numerous articles that dealt with different aspects of understanding Armenian history in the late Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East: from Armenian commercial networks in the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century to the destruction of the Armenian economic infrastructure during the Armenian Genocide and from the history of Armenians in the provinces of Trabzon and Kayseri to the history of Armenians under the British Mandate of Palestine. In addition, I also published a few articles dealing with inter-communal relations in the late Ottoman period. In Shattered Dreams of Revolution, I aimed at examining a major transformation in the history of the modern Middle East through a comparative, multilingual, and cross-cultural analysis. I think that the best way to understand the history of ethnic groups in the Empire is to compare and contrast them to each other in order to appreciate their commonalities and differences and to obtain a more cohesive understanding of the period. So the book at the same time sheds light on Ottoman Armenian, Arab, Jewish, and Turkish history from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
BDM: I hope that the book will attract students and scholars from a variety of disciplines. Most obviously, it targets those who are interested in understanding the intricacies of the late Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East. The book elucidates the complexities of revolutions through a comparative, inter- and intra-communal, cross-cultural analysis and initiates further dialogue among scholars in studies in a variety of disciplines. It adds to the substantial scholarship on this subject undertaken during the past few years. The book will be of great interest to scholars in the field of Ottoman and Turkish Studies, Arab Studies, Armenian Studies, and Sephardic and Jewish Studies. It also would be of interest to the disciplines of history, political science, sociology, and anthropology.
The impact I would like the book to have is to emphasize the necessity of understanding the history of the region through recognizing the role and historical agency of non-dominant groups, which have been marginalized in the past decades. Through a cross-cultural analysis utilizing a variety of languages and sources, I attempt to write the history of the late Ottoman period not from the perspective of the Ottoman political center (that is, the Ottoman Archives), but from the perspective of both the geographic and political periphery. By encompassing the different provinces of the Empire, we can better understand how the revolution impacted these areas and altered the dynamics of power within these regions.

J: What other projects are you working on now?
BDM: Currently, I am working on a project entitled Revolution and Violence: The Adana Massacres of 1909. Considered one of the major acts of violence during the turn of the century, these massacres still remain a source of historiographical contention. The research will culminate in a book that examines the massacres through a comparative perspective on communal violence and in the context of revolution, violence, the public sphere, and the political and socio-economic transformations taking place in the region in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I am also co-editing a book with Suleiman Mourad and Naomi Koltun-Fromm entitled Routledge Handbook on Jerusalem, to be published in 2017.

J: Do you think that this project is relevant to the understanding of the Arab Uprisings?
BDM: Of course, understanding the past revolutions of the MENA region is crucial to a thorough understanding of the current turmoil. The hopes that swept the region in the wake of the Young Turk Revolution in the beginning of the twentieth century were resurrected a century later in the wake of the Arab Spring. The vibrant discourse about justice, legality, constitutionalism, freedom, equality, and fraternity that is currently shaping post-revolutionary societies in the Arab world can be traced back to the 1908 Revolution.
Despite having the same lexicon, however, there are some major differences in the discourses of these two historical periods. Whereas revolutionary movements against authoritarian regimes are now taking place within postcolonial nation-states, the Revolution of 1908 took place in an imperial framework. Similar festivities and euphoric feelings celebrating the hope of revolution and the downfall of absolutist regimes took place in MENA. However, as euphoric feelings faded, once again the real litmus test of the new, supposedly “democratic” political orders began. In most of these regions the revolution failed to live up to its expectations. The post-revolutionary period in MENA is characterized by bloody civil wars, unstable governments, and the regrowth of authoritarian regimes. All of these reinforce the historical record that revolutions are complex and unpredictable phenomena that carry in them unexpected scenarios—from civil wars and genocides, to the regrowth of dictatorial regimes, and only in unique cases, peaceful transition to democratic political systems.

"Jadaliyya" (www.jadaliyya.com), May 20, 2015

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