Turkey is strategically positioned to profit from the rail projects. Photo: iStock
Turkey is strategically positioned to profit from the rail projects. Photo: iStock

The Hungarian kingdom had been under Ottoman administration for almost one and a half centuries before it ceased to be so. Thereafter, the Habsburg empire ruled over the Hungarian kingdom for another one and a half centuries without presumably arousing the Hungarian volksgeist until 1848. In that year, a spirit of revolution swept across Europe, and Hungary rose against the imperial authority.

To argue that Hungarians were a “nation of slaves” because they never fully undermined the territorial rule of Ottoman sultans and Austrian monarchs for almost three centuries, and then fallaciously posit that modern Hungarians are placid against the current authoritarian right-wing government as a result of being treated as inferiors, would justifiably incur ridicule.

If this reasoning sounds clearly faulty, then the argument that Arabs – who were hardly a collectivity, either cultural or political, under Ottoman rule – suffer an inferiority complex because of 400 years of “Turkish occupation” needs be exposed for its woeful and willful historical ignorance.

The history of Ottoman rule in Arab lands that were linguistically, religiously, and culturally as diverse as they are today presents a much more complex picture than what this opinion piece suggests. From the 16th through the late 19th centuries, Arabic-speaking communities of different power statuses constantly negotiated their place in the Ottoman world, and for the most part had a fair degree of autonomy without much interference from Constantinople/Istanbul. Regions such as Yemen and Algeria were known for their rebellious relationship with Istanbul, which in turn allowed them a considerable degree of self-rule within the larger Ottoman ecumene.

It is understandable, then, why facile arguments about Arabs’ inferiority complexes are rarely accepted by the serious historians of empire; they simply fall short of providing any historical sense. Insomuch as equating the Hungarian nobility, ecclesiastical establishment, and peasantry altogether with an unchanging Hungarian nation whose history can be psychologized and made political inferences from is farcical logic, then the same strategy to make sweeping statements about Arabs’ sensibilities and collective psychology must be judged likewise.

To be sure, there are certain pan-national experiences that have shaped the modern identity of many Arabs in countries previously colonized by European powers. The ensuing state of economic and political disempowerment coupled with decades of military dictatorship has been a natural fertile ground for engendering a sense of disparity and inferiority among many.

Claiming, however, that this is a collective psychological state shared by all Arabs except Moroccans and Omanis because of their common history of Ottoman “occupation” is a stock Orientalist argument that seeks to establish falsely a linear causality between an unchanged past and the present.

Woeful views like these are unhelpful because they obscure the nature of imperial authority in the early modern period. Early modern composite empires including those of the Habsburgs and Ottomans were ipso facto structurally flexible in order to accommodate the linguistic, religious, and cultural groups who constituted their base of taxpayers.

And since the past does not always lend itself to our political beliefs and ideological convictions, it is very understandable why a story of a self-repeating, essentialized past seizes the imagination of the public and experts alike. Arab nationalists, for sure, would be the first to concur with this view of the past because it squarely tallies with their narratives of nationhood.

These polemic practices, however, are not always innocuous or inconsequential. This is especially so in a region such as the Middle East where the normative parameters of questions of national identity and racial belonging set the historical basis for cultural and political engagement.

It is outrageously anachronistic, for instance, to speak of “Arabs” as a self-conscious pan-national collectivity from the 15th through the mid-19th centuries. Those identity labels did not start to gain a self-referential meaning in the sense that they do today until very recently, historically speaking. So asking why Arabs never revolted against Ottoman rule is for all intents and purposes begging the question.

And to imply therefore that the panacea to the Arabs’ invariable psychological state of feeling inferior is the reforms championed by the likes of the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is as questionable as American political-science professor Bruce Gilley’s argument that the developing world’s salvation lies in its recolonization.

Abdelrahman Mahmoud

Abdelrahman Mahmoud is a postgraduate researcher of early modern history. He holds an MA in comparative history from the Central European University.