Origins of the Arab Revolt in World War I

Ottoman Imperialism in the Hijaz

The Ottoman Turks failed to see the influence their secular brand of imperialism had on their Arab subjects, until it was too late.

The Hijaz: The Birthplace of the Revolt

The place associated with the true beginning of the Arab Revolt, a region in the Western Arabian Peninsula known as the Hijaz, was in all reality a peculiar starting point for any Arab nationalist movement. In the Hijaz, the home to the cities of Medina and Mecca, the most revered holy sites for Muslims—religion, rather than nationalist zeal was the dominant force in the region.

There was little agriculture and few natural resources available in the Hijaz. Religious tourism was, in effect, the main source of revenue for this area in the Ottoman Empire. As pointed out in the book The Origins of Arab Nationalism edited by Rashid Khalidi, “income for both the nomadic tribal majority and the settled minority of the population was largely derived from pilgrims who came to visit Mecca and the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina.”

The Uneasy Partnership

The governmental structure in the Hijaz also reflected this symbiotic relationship between religion and the economy. There was a shared influence between the Ottoman vali, the empire’s agent, and the amir, or prince of Mecca, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

Nationalism and patriotism held little sway in the lives of Arabs in this region of the empire, and the divergent motives of Arabs and the ruling Ottoman Turks were marked by their differences in relation to this. “The amirs did nothing to foster Arab nationalism, while the Ottomans, in desultory fashion, attempted to spread Ottoman patriotism through education and literature”, according to The Origins of Arab Nationalism.

The Young Turks

In the period between 1908 and 1914, the years of Young Turk rule, proto-nationalist and nationalist activities noticeably increased in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. This was due to the deteriorating relations between Turks and Arabs in the aftermath of the Young Turk revolution of July 1908. The Young Turks, who ended the despotic reign of Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II, and introduced a new constitution to the empire, were expected to bring some measure of partnership between the Turks and the various peoples of the empire. These hopes were dashed almost as soon as they rose in the hearts of the Arabs and others in the empire.

The CUP—the Committee of Union and Progress, which led the constitutional movement—were deeply inspired by the French Jacobin example and tried to emulate their policies, though not with similar successes, according to Albert Hourani in the book, The Modern Middle East. The Ottoman Empire was, in essence, a militarized society, and the Young Turks, like other imperialists, believed that what was taken by conquest should be governed by those who won it.

Discrimination Against Arabs

This “Turkification” that the empire wished to instill upon its various subjects could be seen in many aspects of life, and were seen as direct insults to the Arabs. In The Arab Movements in World War I, Eliezer Tauber states: “Many Arabs were removed from positions of authority, Arab officers felt discriminated against in the Ottoman army, and the Turkish language became the only language permitted in courts and government offices in the Arab provinces.”

Although the Ottomans were Muslim, the state adhered to a more secular, Western mold where the operation of government and society were concerned; working their way around the Islamic shari’a (religious law) rather than embracing it as their Arab subjects were apt to.

These conditions, along with the empire’s defeats in Libya in 1911, and in the Balkan Wars had convinced many Arabs that the Ottoman Turks no longer had the strength to rule the non-Turkish regions of their domain.

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