The Ottoman-Arab perception of “Ottoman Nationhood” has been little studied until today. Although literatures concerning Ottoman-Arabs in the late Ottoman period have sufficiently mentioned their “Arab” identity, they have referred less, if at all, to their involvement in the “Ottoman” nationhood. In the context of “Arab history,” historians have paid attention to Ottoman-Arabs' intellectual endeavor in the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1918) only as “origins” of the later Arab nationalism. Abdülhamit Zehravi (in Arabic, ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd al-Zahrāwī), an Ottoman-Arab thinker and statesman, is no exception in this regard. His idea on the Ottoman state and Ottoman nation has been largely ignored. Zehravi is usually considered as “one of the most prominent pre-war [Arab] nationalists,” although it is widely known that he did not deny the existence of the Ottoman state. The author of this article tries to describe Zehravi’s understanding of the Ottoman Nationhood.
As an Ottoman citizen who well understood the difference between the two concepts of “Ottoman” and “Turk,” Zehravi admitted that the primary task for every Ottoman citizen was to pursue “ittihad-ı anasır,” or “unity of ethnicities.” This statement was not surprising given the atmosphere of the time, since unity of ethnicities was the semi-official usage for describing the Ottoman Nationhood ideal. The remarkable aspect of his argument is the distinction he made between the “gerenal unity of Ottomans” and the “political unity of Ottomans”; according to him, the latter is to be made up from communities, not individuals, agreeing upon the common political program.
Zehravi’s ideas on the origins of communities merit further comment. A community comes into existence only if and when there is a common spirit and mutual assistance. Neighborhood communities are most likely to be formed, since mutual assistance, in his opinion, is the essential factor for people
to form communities and neighborhood ties represent the most basic kind of mutual assistance. In contrast, he believes that ethnic or religious communities are always difficult to be formed, and even if they are formed, these communities can rarely become politically and socially united entities.
If communities are formed in this manner, then how are nations formed
and what is the relationship between communities and nations. Zehravi explained in the following way: not every community could become a nation, while
in many cases different communities do constitute one nation. The crutial factor in the formation of a nation is the need for “political” unity, and this could hardly be provided by ethnic or religious communities. This argument clarifies why it was necessary to achieve and strengthen the “unity of Ottomans.” Arab unity or Muslim unity was impracticable because Arabs were divided among themselves and the Ottoman Empire did not have the power to make all the Muslims in the world one and united. As a pragmatist conscious of the need
for power in the theater of politics, especially in the age of imperialism,
Zehravi claimed that the unity of Ottomans was the only way to retain independence and to resist Western invasion.
The last question to be considered is the manner in which the “political unity of Ottomans” should be realized. This point was partially made when
he preferred the community-based “political unity of Ottomans” over the
individual-based “general unity of Ottomans”. The political unity of Ottomans
required what Zehravi wanted—equality among communities. For him, equality
among individuals was not enough; he believe that communal egalitarianism should be pursued along with individual egalitarianism in order to realize the unity of Ottomans in the real sense of the word. As a consequense, in his opinion, any attempt to pursue the general unity of Ottomans at the expense of the political unity of Ottomans should be criticized and renounced.
Of course this proposition was far from the perfect solution. Since the members of the majority community often find “unequal” treatment under communal egalitarianism, it makes little sense to judge whether the commual egalitarianism advocated by Zehravi or the individual egalitarianism pursued by Unionists (according to Zehravi) was more right and a suitable choice for the realization of the unity of Ottomans. What is important here is the very fact that Zehravi faced the problem of egalitarianism, since the ambivalent issue of “equality” was the same problem Ottoman intelletuals had to tackle since the Tanzimat period.
In conclusion, Zehravi’s perception of the Ottoman Nationhood could be summarized as follows: he approved the framework of the Ottoman Empire because it provided the only possibility to confront Western invasion by means of power. Although many scholars today consider “Ottomanism,” or the Ottoman Nationhood ideal, as a senseless, completely artificial concept doomed to failure, Zehravi appreciated the existence of the Empire from his very realistic point of view. It was taken for granted that the Ottoman Nation
consisted of many elements or ethnicities. There was no “Ottomanism-Arabism”
dichotomy in Zehravi’s mind. The conflict began only when the type of egalitarianism, individual or communal, to be adopted was questioned. Zehravi’s ideas appear to be largely conditioned by the political and ideological logics that prevailed at the time in the Empire, since as long as he accepted the framework of the Empire, his argument was always linked to the problematique of egalitarianism, problems that every Ottoman statesman was expected to find solutions to. Therefore, it makes little sense to categorize the Ottoman elite into “Ottomanist” or “Arabist” camps, as has been done until now in both Arab and Turkish historiography. Instead, Ottoman-Arab and Ottoman-Turk perception of Ottoman Nationhood should be placed in a common historical context in which the “Ottoman” political thought can be examined.