The withering of ‘Ottoman identity’
Iraq’s old national identity “certification” cards included a section that said “Origin: Ottoman”. After the 1970s, generations of Iraqis grew up wondering: “What has the term ‘Ottoman’ got to do with me?”
For Iraqis, and indeed everybody in the Middle East, the Ottoman identity has been completely replaced following the fall of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of Arab nation states. The Ottoman identity became Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese or Jordanian. The Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France carved new maps for the Middle East post- World War I.
This replacement of identity has been profound. The nation states that emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman empire were strong and determined. They formed armed forces that brought the people of these new countries together, even before the establishment of ministries and the offering of municipal services to citizens. The new national identity was seamlessly incorporated into the foundations of the state.
The new national identity also secured and strengthened itself by interacting with all other aspects of Arab life and culture in the post-colonial period. Media, as represented by newspapers, radio and, later, television, created an emerging sense of patriotism.
However, this was accompanied by an unreasonable fear towards the West and the threat it represented to this new national and cultural identity. This fear of the “other” is still present today and is something that rises and falls according to political and technological shifts in the region.
Western political concerns dominated the world in the 1950s and 1960s and still Arab national identity survived. Western culture has been increasingly dominant since the 1970s and still Arab national identity has endured. This survival extended to the rejection of the socialist/communist model.
Arab national identity faced its biggest test after 1979 following the Iranian revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini coming to power in Tehran created a new round in the cycle of regional identity replacement. The Ottoman “identity” was initially replaced with national identity although the Iranian revolution brought a new mechanism into play, namely the idea of “exporting” identity. This was a mechanism that was completed in 2002 and was just waiting for its chance, which arrived in 2003 and the US invasion of Iraq.
The Arab world today is experiencing a state of identity replacement. This is something that is not just affecting the Muslims, who are being divided along sectarian grounds into Sunni and Shia camps. The region’s Christians have rediscovered their Christian “identity” while the Kurds and the Berbers have both sought to draw themselves away from their Arab environs. Lebanon’s Druzes, who had come down from the mountain to intermingle with their Muslim and Christian neighbours, are returning to Jabal-al-Druze. Everything is changing.
Under Arab national identity, minorities had been a beautiful mosaic of diversity and coexistence. Now, these ethnic and sectarian identities are being prioritised over the national identity to becoming the new identifying characteristic in a new Middle East. It seems that one is no longer Ottoman or Iraqi; he is Sunni or Shia, Christian or Kurd. The only holdouts are the people of the Gulf who have dealt with their identity in a calm and rational manner, despite the presence of a looming Iran.
The replacement of the Ottoman identity with national identity took place relatively peacefully, perhaps because this was a natural development and was consistent with Ottoman system of rule, which did not seek to impose cultural or religious changes from above. However, the move towards sectarian identity has been bloody from the first days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. This conflict over identity is one that is still raging today, embroiling one country after another across the region.
Rather than increasing openness towards the culture and ideas of others, we are experiencing a period of severe destabilisation in terms of the concept of identity. All aspects of modern life, from satellite TV to the internet to social media, are being used to exacerbate this crisis and ensure division rather than unity.
National identity today stands at a crossroads following the rise of sectarian/ethnic identity, although this has not been completely overthrown. Today, most people in the Arab world do not have any single identity and could, in fact, possess contradictory identities that could be exploited by others. The very idea of belonging to a fixed identity has become questionable.