By William R. Polk
Arabic did not have a word for “nation.” Had you asked a Nineteenth Century Egyptian what was his “nation,” he would have given you the name of his village. The Bedouin would not even have understood the question.
In Persian, Turkish and Berber as in other African and Asian languages, no word fit the new need. The word that the Arabs first pressed into this service was Watan, but Watan, like the French word pays, meant village. It took not only a linguistic but also a mental leap to change village to nation.
Farsi (Persian) and Turkish use a word for nation that is derived from the medieval practice of assigning minority peoples of a common faith, often called a “confession,” a separate status. In Farsi, it is Mellat and in Turkish it is millet. Both are derived from the Arabic word Millah which in classical Arabic meant rite or [non-Muslim] religion. The majority community members referred to themselves not as a Millah but as Muslims.
Thus, ironically, the word for a separate, non-Muslim minority community was adopted as the word for the whole population. In Central Asia, the Uighurs and other Turkic peoples used either a religious (Muslim) or a linguistic (Turki) designation. Malays use the Malay word, Bangsa, while the Indonesians used a borrowing from Dutch, Nasion.
In the North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, it was the Ottoman Empire that started the transformation. The Ottoman Empire had few trained men, little industry, a weak army and almost no financial resources, but it was able to govern a vast, heterogeneous empire – a feat beyond the capacities of its richer successors.
Its strategy was to tolerate other loyalties. Religious or ethnic communities (millets) governed themselves, apportioned and collected the taxes that were due the Empire and judged themselves according to their own customs. Each was, in effect, a miniature nation-state.
The aims of the imperial government were limited to collecting sufficient taxes in an economical way and to protecting its frontiers. It even tolerated successful rebellion. Its administration was loose: its provinces had none of the restrictions of nation-states, as European Powers recast them into Syria, Iraq or Palestine at the end of the First World War. The “Syrian,” “Iraqi” or “Palestinian” moved as easily between Baghdad, Damascus, Mecca, Jerusalem, Istanbul or Cairo as the American would from Dallas to Los Angeles.
Watan-defined or separate state nationalism (Wataniyah) was dedicated to breaking up this polyglot, multinational, religiously tolerant empire. It did this first in the Ottoman Balkans in the Nineteenth Century: Greeks broke loose from 1821; Serbians, 1868; Montenegrins, 1878; Romanians, 1878; and Bulgarians, 1879.
It was the challenge of the these movements and of the Armenians, who fought a guerrilla war and engaged in urban terrorism to try to create their own nation-state, that stimulated the Ottoman Turks to develop what came to be called Turkism (Turkjuluk).
Turks, who had not thought of themselves as a national group (millet) like the various minorities in their empire, could not distinguish themselves from Arabs or Kurds by identifying themselves as Muslims. They shared that designation. Their only unique feature was language.
Language as Bond
As Turkism’s ideologue, Mehmet Zia Gök Alp wrote, language is a bond “superior to race, populism, geography, politics and desire. … While still in the cradle, with the lullabies he hears, [the child] is under the influence of the mother tongue. … All our religious, ethical, artistic feelings, which give existence to our soul, are taken by means of this language. … Our way living is totally an echo of this.”
[Zia Gök Alp (1876-1924) was a leading Turkish intellectual who is best known for his book (written in the old Ottoman Turkish) Turkuluk Asasleri (The bases of Turkism) which was published in 1920. Himself influenced by European sociologists, particularly by Émile Durkheim, he provided the rationale and stimulus for Kemal Ataturk’s brand of secular, language-based, single state nationalism in place of pan-Islamism, pan-Turanism and Ottoman identity.]
Not only among the Turks, but also among the Arabs language is fundamental to national identity. Even illiterate Bedouin relish classical poetry as not even the most erudite Western audience could be said to relish Shakespeare’s sonnets. Politically more important, shared language overcame separate religion. Arabiyah seemed to Christian Arabic-speakers the road toward participation in the dominant community.
Among those Arabs excited by the reform movement in the Ottoman Empire were young Christian Arabs in Lebanon and Syria, many of whom were associated with the American Protestant schools. At first, their writings were mainly anti-Turk. The first was a book in French by a Syrian Christian called Le Réveil de la Nation Arabe, but he had few readers. Most Arabs were still anxious to join the Turkish opposition to European invasion.
Thus, linguistic and by extension cultural preservation came to be equated with preservation of the nation. It is difficult for English speakers to evaluate the importance of this statement because secure in the imperialism or even colonialism of English – which has conquered and settled whole vocabularies of German, French, Latin and even Arabic – most of us scorn what appear to be just pedantic linguistics. However, not only the embattled natives but also their foreign rulers grasped well the political importance of linguistics.
Look first at the French: A key element in the mission civilisatrice, the politically correct French term for imperialism, was the suppression of Arabic and its replacement with French. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria, street signs were posted in French; laws were promulgated in French; transactions in government offices and law courts also were in French. And bright young students were encouraged to study in France so that they would think in French. If one wanted to get ahead, the path was signed in French.
The Russian Language
The same policy was practiced by the Russians in Central Asia. Russian was the language that led to good jobs in commerce and was necessary for postings in government. That was the pattern already set under the Tsars, but, to the Soviet government, it was only the first step.
The Communists rightly saw that language was a weapon as well as a tool. In 1926, they implemented a policy to widen the gaps among the various Turkic peoples. By dropping the use of the old script (Osmanlu) and putting Azeri Turkish into the Latin alphabet, as they did in 1926, and then into Cyrillic as they did in 1936, they cut the upcoming generation off from its cultural and historical roots. Young people could no longer read what the Nineteenth Century reformers had written.
The second step was to divide the common written language by dialects, forming a new written language of each, so that an Uzbek could no longer read what a Tajik or an Anatolian Turk was writing.
When this policy did not work fast enough or completely enough to satisfy Josef Stalin, he followed the plan first set out by the Germans during their occupation of the Crimea to expel the natives. He arranged the shipment of 191,044 Crimeans, mainly women and children, deeper into Central Asia. Shipped by unheated and un-provisioned cattle cars, many died en route to forced labour camps.
The government then razed the departing population’s cultural relics including mosques and graveyards, renamed thousands of towns and villages, burned Turkic language books and manuscripts and erased mention of the people in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.
Chinese policy under Chiang Kai-shek toward the Turks in Turkistan (Xinjiang) went even further. Following revolts in 1933 by the Kazak people and in 1944 by the Turkish people of Ili who proclaimed the short-lived “East Turkish Republic,” Chiang denied that there were such people as the Turks, saying that they were just part of the “greater Chinese race.” As Chinese, the Turks should give up Turkish and learn Chinese. [Linda Benson, The Moslem Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang (Armonk, New York: Sharpe, 1990), 27.]
Malay nationalists were gripped by something like Chiang’s ethnic policy. For the British, Malaya was a vast rubber plantation and to work it the British imported cheap, indeed almost slave, labour from India and China.
To keep the peace with the politically more active members of these groups, they hit on the idea of amalgamating them into the feeble Malay nationalist movement. That provoked a reaction. Fearing the loss of their nation (Malay: melayu from the Turkish millet) the tiny nationalist party, led by Ibrahim Yaacob sought to ally itself with Indonesia.
Neither the British nor the Dutch would tolerate such a program and he was forced out of public life. For the moment Malay nationalism went down without even a whimper, but the idea of some sort of Southeast Asian entity would resurface and is alive today.
Malaya would not have gained much strength from an association with Indonesia. Indeed, until about 1920, there was no conception of an “Indonesia;” it was only then that the dissident native elite began to try to overcome their divisions into Java, Bali, Sumatra and the other islands. Before that time, what passed as nationalism was a polite, Dutch tolerated, move to better educate the population.
What was remarkable about it was that one of its early advocates and publicists was a Muslim woman, Raden Kartini, who lived from 1879 to 1904 and who was also a pioneer of women’s liberation. The Dutch were in favor of the educational programs she encouraged because, like colonists elsewhere, they were trying to build an inexpensive native bureaucracy.
But nationalism had no part in this effort and the Dutch vigorously opposed it. They not only fought uprisings but successfully kept the various small societies apart from one another.
It was only in 1927 that Achumed Sukarno founded the secular Indonesian National Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia). The Dutch promptly put him in prison. He was released by the Japanese a decade later when they invaded the islands. Then, when the Japanese surrendered, the Dutch returned and, with British support, tried to re-establish their rule. For five years, they fought vicious battles against Indonesian guerrillas before giving up and recognizing Indonesian independence in 1950. [See M.C. Ricklefs. A Modern History of Indonesia, (Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1981) and Adrian Vickers,. A History of Modern Indonesia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
The Indian Struggle
In India, the struggle against British imperialism lasted much longer than the Indonesian struggle against the Dutch. In India, there was an empire to the reckoned with.
Like the Ottoman Empire the Mughal Empire was decrepit, but Britain treated them differently. Whereas the British saw the Ottoman Empire as useful in blocking a Russian break out into the Mediterranean, the Mughal empire had few any redeeming features in British eyes. Piece by piece they dismantled it using its own subjects as their helpers. Finally, the helpers turned against them in the 1857 Sepoy “Rebellion,” Sepoy being Anglicized Persian for Sipahi (soldiers).
The rebellion was a viciously fought war in which the British took few prisoners and wiped out whole villages. When the British with their Indian allies put it down, they both destroyed the Mughal Empire and set aside the Muslims as disloyal natives. It effectively ended not only the Mughal Empire but also the remaining British toleration of the Muslim community – Muslims were banned from the British armed forces – and the sharp turn to relative support of the Indian Hindus with great implications for the future.
Having lost the status they had previously enjoyed, Indian Muslims, then about 40 million in number, transferred their loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph as the actual spiritual and potential political leader of the Muslim world.
So when, in the First World War, Britain attacked the Ottoman Iraqi provinces, the Sultan responded with just what Britain most feared, call for a holy war, jihad. To the surprise of the British, however, the Indian Muslim response was muted. Meanwhile, the relationship of Muslims to Britain and to Hindu society was undergoing both cosmetic and profound changes.
Perhaps the most profound change in Muslim-Hindu- British relationships was that lower caste and untouchable Indians who were condemned to perpetual slavery in Hinduism continued converting by the millions to Islam. While far less numerous than the Hindus, Muslims had become a major political force which both the Hindu nationalist movement and the British sought to use for their own ends.
Also politically important were the links established by the Muslim elite directly with England over the heads of the British rulers in India. Two leading figures demonstrate this trend. The first was the Aga Khan who was the immensely rich leader of the Ismaili community.
When the middle-class Englishmen who made up the membership of the British clubs in India did not welcome him, he shrewdly found a way into the top crust of English society. He saw that the royal family and the aristocracy were addicted to horseracing so he used his money, connections and skills to become an outstanding breeder and racer of horses. He was everywhere sought after in England and could take his political arguments direct to decision makers.
The second Indian Muslim was a product of the best of English education. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) read law at the Inns of Court in London. The British found him a formidable adversary precisely because he was so powerfully “English.” He treated the British civil servants, the members of the Indian Political Service, as though in a debate at the Oxford Union and parlayed his forensic skills, his Muslim identity and his popularity into a major role even in the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress.
At the same time, Jinnah created an independent power base as the leader of the All-India Muslim League. Originally, he sought to work with the Hindus against the British and toward a united India, but, by 1940, he had come to believe that Muslims and Hindus would never be able to work and live together in a single state. Thus, he espoused the idea of a separate Muslim state. He would become the “father” (Babu-i Qawm) of Pakistan.
Jinnah’s legal skills were comparable to those of the Kashmiri Hindu, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who studied at Cambridge University and read law at the Inner Temple in London. He was at least as “at home” in English as in Hindi and was very close to the English aristocracy, even having an affair with Lady Mountbatten, the wife of the last British High Commissioner.
An Egyptian Uprising
Meanwhile, among the Arabs, a major nationalist revolt broke out in Egypt in April 1919. Egypt then had a small wealthy, educated elite that had become accustomed over a generation to working with the British authorities. During that period, the British had reluctantly and slowly allowed the children of the elite to attend Cairo’s sprawling university.
There, they turned away from the ideas that were permeating Turkish and Arab societies. Many of their leading figures like Taha Husain, the blind religious scholar and novelist, had begun to argue that Egypt was not an Arab land or indeed even a part of the Middle East but rather a member of the Mediterranean cultural zone.
It was in this context – a growing sense of capacity and a growing sense of being part of what I have called “the North,” that Egyptians heard the Allied, and above all, President Woodrow Wilson’s, proclamations of a new era of peace and independence. Riding this wave of hope, a sober and theretofore British approved member of the elite, Saad Zaghlul, led a delegation (Wafd) to respectfully request permission to attend the Paris Peace Conference and present its case for independence.
The British were not amused. They turned him down and warned him that he was breaking martial law. Given that he was a former minister in their puppet regime, the British were astonished when Zaghlul began to organize resistance among the university students.
The British, who had a low opinion of Egyptian will and courage, cracked down, arresting and exiling Zaghlul. The students responded with terrorism. Push led to shove. After three years of sporadic violence, the British wisely offered a compromise: they would agree to limited independence. So, limited independence under a docile monarchy and a contented aristocracy was what Egypt lived under until the end of the Second World War.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, on June 30, 1920, a minor incident set off a revolt of the tribes that then made up a large part of the population of what had been the Ottoman provinces (pashaliks) of Baghdad and Basra. It was a spontaneous outburst of anger and does not seem to have been motivated by any sense of nationalism although religious sentiment played a significant role.
The tribesmen, with no overall leadership and no announced goals, derailed trains, killed 1,654 soldiers (at a cost to themselves of about 10,000 people). As T.E. Lawrence was quick to point out, the cost to Britain was six times as much as the British had spent stimulating the wartime “Revolt in the Desert.”
The cost was too high and the benefit too low so the young Winston Churchill did something that did not seem ever to occur to an American president: he organized a meeting to plan a new policy. That new policy resulted in the creation of quasi-independent states in Iraq, Trans-Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. The new order was sufficient to give Britain a satisfactory degree of control at minimal cost for a generation. [Aaron S. Klieman, Foundations of British Policy in the Arab World: The Cairo Conference of 1921 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970)]
What the new order – which was partially copied by the French in Syria and Lebanon – allowed was a brand of national identity appropriate to separate nation-states. That was the local or state based nationalism known as Wataniyah, which was always unsatisfactory to the younger Arabs. But they were at yet unsure even who they were: Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, or more vaguely, Arabs.
William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.
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