At a time, when the unraveling of former Ottoman lands continues, a desire to draw on the grandeur of the Ottoman past seems increasingly detached from reality. Over the course of more than a century, the breakup of old land-based empires, including the Ottoman Empire, gave rise, not only to efforts at self-determination, but also to extreme violence and ethnic cleansing. More recent upheavals, since the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring gave rise to a new wave of violence in several post-Ottoman successor states.
At a time, when the unraveling of former Ottoman lands continues, a desire to draw on the grandeur of the Ottoman past seems increasingly detached from reality. There is no greater harm in Ottoman nostalgia than in similar feelings for any other expired empire, and interest in the Ottoman past could bring benefits in the form of more historical research or reflections on cultural influences, but the Ottoman world has collapsed and more than a century later residents of many former Ottoman lands struggle to find an inclusive, open, and secure path forward.
Over the course of more than a century imperial lands of Western Asia and Central and Eastern Europe have broken up. The breakup and demise of old land-based empires sometimes gave rise to efforts at self-determination and liberation, but also frequently led to the creation of autocracies or to extreme violence and ethnic cleansing.
Modern Turkey is itself in large part the result of such processes. The collapse and fragmentation of the former Ottoman Empire gave rise to several successor states, including the Republic of Turkey. From a nationalist perspective in Turkey and in several other post-Ottoman states, this could be seen as a triumph for self-determination. At the same time, Ottoman breakup brought other consequences:
multiple rounds of war, ethnic cleansing and forced migration. The empire’s final demise after the First World War culminated in ethnic and nationalist warfare along both western and eastern borders and in large-scale forced migration through population exchange.
Despite ethnic cleansing, forced migration, and genocide that created greater homogeneity, the former imperial lands remain diverse. Turkey is obviously less diverse than in Ottoman days with only small fraction of its former Greek and Armenian populations, but the country retains a large Kurdish population. Meanwhile, former Ottoman land to the south remained extremely diverse.
Persecution of minorities was not the inevitable outcome of Ottoman collapse, but the principle of applying a uniform ethnically based form of nationalism to these regions tended in periods of state strength to support repression as in case of Turkish policy towards Kurds. Periods of state creation or contest in Israel and collapse meanwhile gave rise to new rounds of ethnic conflict with religion and ethnicity sometimes overlapping as in Cyprus where Christians and Muslims clashed as Greeks and Turks.
Similar problems emerged in former Russian imperial lands that had once bordered the Ottoman Empire in the Transcaucausus. Pogroms broke out even in the late Soviet era, and bitter ethnic and nationalist warfare along with ethic cleansing and forced migration remade the demographic map in the 1990s.
With the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011, a series of Ottoman successor states experienced upheaval, revolution and in some cases broke apart. In particular, invasion of Iraq and revolution and civil war in Syria gave rise to a new phase of intense violence. There were obviously differences from previous cycles of ethnic violence in post-Ottoman lands with the decisive role of the US invasion of Iraq and the rise of ISIL, but these very real distinctions can also obscure continuities with previous rounds of violence in old Ottoman lands. Thus, sectarian violence in Iraq often took the form of ethnic cleansing. The spike in violent campaigns carried out by Shi’ite and sometimes by Sunni militia to cleanse civilians in 2006 and 2007 was certainly not inevitable, and neither was ethnic cleansing carried out against Iraqi Christians, but past periods of war had revealed the potential for violent efforts to create homogeneity in old Ottoman lands. More recently, the multi-sided power struggle in northern Iraq and in Syria cannot be reduced to any single cause with the presence in Syria alone of the Assad regime, its foreign allies, a myriad of rebel forces, Kurds, and ISIL. From a broader historical perspective, the world again sees campaigns of cleansing and even genocide carried out against civilians in an Ottoman successor states.
There are no easy lessons to draw from the carnage that has ruined so many lives, but it is possible to at least note some general guidelines. First, nostalgia for cultural elements of the Ottoman past in no way provides a practical guide for the future. Secondly, it may be instructive and even enlightening to point to periods of greater ethnic and religious harmony in the past in former Ottoman lands, but such examples have not prevented ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Repression in post-Ottoman successor states may seem appealing when confronting current carnage, but that repression came with its own high costs. Some would like to put Syria back together again in its prior form on the grounds that life in a dictatorship was safer—do they really think it will be possible?
Professor Benjamin Lieberman, Fitchburg State University, Massachusetts, US
Please cite this publication as follows:
Lieberman, B. (September, 2016), “Post-Ottoman States”, Vol. V, Issue 8, pp.6 – 10, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=12838)