- The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone by Janet Klein
The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone is a look into the immense crucible of peoples and politics of Eastern Anatolia during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Klein’s work centers on the Kurdish Hamidiye Light Cavalry formed by Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) in 1890. This book is ostensibly based on her PhD dissertation, titled “Power in the Periphery: The Hamidiye Light Cavalry and the Struggle over Ottoman Kurdistan, 1890–1914” (Princeton University, 2002).
It follows in the footsteps of recent works on the Kurds in Turkey and the issue of the border regions of the Ottoman state, including Eugene L. Rogan, Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan, 1850–1921 (Cambridge: Cambridge Middle East Studies, 2002), David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd rev. ed. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003), Hakan Özoğlu, Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties, and Shifting Boundaries (New York: SUNY Press, 2004), and Denise Natali, The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005).
The focus of this work is, in Klein’s own words, “under what conditions does a state empower a group that it would ultimately prefer to suppress, and when does this actually serve to undermine the state’s very intentions to establish authority?” The work does a fine job of illustrating that the Ottoman state was not the “monolithic actor” that many have supposed it to be in the past, and that the Kurdish tribes did indeed utilize agency in harnessing the power of the state for their own purposes. Perhaps one of the most important observations made by the author is that the Ottoman state and society influenced each other, and the lines of this influence are often blurry.
Klein states that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, [End Page 1001] the Ottoman state perceived many threats—internal and external—in its eastern regions. The waning Ottoman Empire was certainly wary of Russian advances from the north and east. The memories of the Crimean War 1853–1856 and the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877–1878 were not distantly removed. The Armenians (and others) were a perceived internal threat to the empire. The Ottomans feared Russian support of their co-religionists would help to further disintegrate the already volatile borders of the east, where tribal police held sway over the state’s desires and Kurdish Muslim tribes wielded great authority of their own and were sometimes a greater threat than Russia and a reminder of the state’s failed attempts at centralization (p. 2).
In the introduction, Klein discusses her methodology and the previous approaches used by scholars to analyze the Hamidiye and its influence. They are worth mentioning briefly, as Klein’s awareness of these issues and her ability to see the merit of each perspective certainly adds richness to the comprehensiveness of her work. The first lens can be termed the Armenian nationalist perspective that views the cavalry as a willing participant in genocide. The second approach is the Turkish nationalist approach, which utilizes the Hamidiye as a scapegoat for blame in the Armenian genocide. The third could be termed the Kurdish nationalist lens, and also concerns the genocide issue but labels the state as the guilty party for forcing the Kurdish tribes to participate in the anti-Armenian atrocities. Finally, there appears a more recent and potentially “Ottomanist” approach that depicts Sultan Abdülhamid II and the state as, in Klein’s words, “farsighted” in utilizing everything in its power to control its borders and govern its territory (pp. 7–8).
Chapter 1 focuses on the various reasons Sultan Abdülhamid II created and implemented the Hamidiye Light Cavalry in 1890. It also deals with the intricacies of tribal-state relations between the central authority and the...