I’ve already discussed the Ottoman Empire in a couple blogs this month. Permit me to address the rise of nationalist movements that occurred in the Middle East as the Empire was on its last legs. Of the many “isms” that dotted the political landscape of Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the ideology of nationalism became a kind of secular religion. Subjugated peoples clamored for political autonomy and instigated irredentist movements. The most momentous geopolitical event in 19th-century Europe is the national unification of Germany in 1871, a monumental achievement built upon regional wars, cunning, and exceptional diplomacy. For decades Germans had called for a political unity to match the cultural unity they had already shared. They had the same language, history, and customs—albeit with wide regional diversity. As part of a larger entity called the Holy Roman Empire, the German lands encompassed a complex patchwork of kingdoms, duchies, archbishoprics, territorial principalities, and imperial cities. Once it attained national consolidation under the auspices of its strongest state, Prussia, the new German Empire became a military giant and industrial powerhouse.
The rise of Germany, Italy, and other nation states was not lost on Middle Eastern scholars and university students visiting Europe and lamenting the state of affairs in their homeland. Nationalism offered Westernizing Muslims an ideology by which they could challenge the imperial policies that had divided their people and unite their countrymen under more liberating allegiances. Nationalists in the Middle East would make modest gains before World War I, but their efforts in countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Iran would come to fruition later on. In an ironic twist of history European powers would be hoisted by their own petard, for Arabs, Persians, Turks and Jews—as well as the subjugated peoples in South and Southeast Asia—made their case for independence from the British and French Empires on the basis of European ideas.