The Resiliency of Empire: Political Identities in Late Ottoman Syria

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Book Chapter

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Configuring Identity in the Modern Arab East


The purpose of this essay is to explore questions related to political identity in late Ottoman Syria on the basis of contemporary scholarship. I consider four elements of political identity: imperial (Ottoman), religious (Islam), provincial (Syrian), and ethnic (Arab). These are not mutually exclusive elements. Identification with empire, province or ethnicity could accompany a strong religious communal sentiment, or it could be detached from religion, as with the secular outlook of the Committee of Union and Progress. In the late Ottoman period, the ideology of Ottomanism was sufficiently flexible to incorporate religious, secular, imperial, provincial and ethnic loyalties. My concern is to sketch the outlines of the relative weight of these loyalties in Syria. Research suggests that historians have tended to overestimate the significance of proto-Arab nationalism (or Arabism) and to overlook the strength of Syrian particularism. As for Islam, historians have long paid attention to its place in late Ottoman political discourse. Both modernist and conservative ‘ulama reinterpreted religion to suit new political contexts. Their writings underscore the adaptability of Islamic symbols and texts to changing historical circumstances, a quality that helps explain why, in the 20th century, religious community has continued to jostle with the national model for the allegiance of citizens in Muslim countries. Some suggestive observations on modern religious political consciousness arise from Benedict Anderson’s reflections on the shift from dynastic and religious to national imagined communities. In fact, some of the same factors that he adduces to explain the rise and spread of the nation-state may well account for the durability of yearnings for an Islamic religious community.


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