The Ottoman Tales IV: Islamic States, Then and Now

This continues a series inspired (somewhat) by Noel Barber’s The Sultans.  The previous instalment is here.

It should be obvious from this post that the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state.  In fact, in its day it was the Islamic state in the Middle East and anywhere else.  Yet it’s different in many ways from ISIS.  How is this so?  And why?

The first thing to remember is that the Ottoman Empire was Turkish, not Arabic.  Given the fact that the Qur’an is considered non-translatable (something I agree with) and that Arabic culture permeates the Islamic world, it’s easy to conflate the two.  But in fact many of the important Islamic countries today–Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even Arabic-speaking (sort of) countries like Algeria are not Arabic.  So things can be different.

The Ottomans, as was the case in previous caliphates, imposed a dhimmi system on their non-Islamic subjects (primarily but not exclusively Christian, as the bloodbath in Iraq and Syria reminds us).  And the Ottomans could be brutal, although brutality in war was the common currency of the Middle East then and still is now.  But once things settled down and they established their control the Ottomans did not wipe out their non-Muslim populations, but sequestered them in their millet system, where they were ruled by their own authorities who in turn answered to those of the Sultan.  They lived in divided cities and of course the countryside.  And they experienced many restrictions; they had, for example, to dismount from a horse when a Muslim passed.

And the rulers could be reasonable.  Grand Vizier Ahmed Kiuprili granted permission to rebuild some churches.  When one of his people pointed out that an old law required that they be rebuilt using original stones, he brushed him off with the following:

They were fools who invented that formula and greater fools still are they who follow it.  These people desire to repair their temple; if it is so dilapidated that to repair it is impossible, let them build a new one.  All that we need care about is, that they do it at their own expense, and not with the money of Muslims; and provided they pay their tribute regularly, the rest does not concern us.

(Egypt has a similar law, probably an Ottoman inheritance; they could use this Grand Vizier, who also laid down the principle of free trade based on the silence of the Qur’an.)

And the Sultan Mahmud II stated that “I distinguish among my subjects Muslims in the mosque, Christians in the church, Jews in the synagogue, but there is no difference among them in any other way.”

So how did we get from this state to, say the tragedy of the Armenians?  The answer comes from Europe.

The Ottomans divided up their population into their respective groups which lived to varying degrees under their own laws and customs.  In a society where the locus of power is at the centre and autocratically held, various groups are useful to the power holder because they can be used as counterweights to other possible power challengers in the society.  In this way the religious and ethnic lack of “purity” can be used by the ruler as a way of perpetuating his or her control.

The Enlightenment established the principle that all people should be equal under the law and that the law should apply uniformly to everyone.  This concept was central to both the American and French Revolutions, but it spread to other parts of Europe, both before, during and after Napoleon’s time.  An example from the Christian side of the Balkan border is instructive.

In 1781 the Austrian Emperor Joseph II issued an edict of toleration for the Jews, but at the same time began the process of bringing the Jews into a legal, social and educational system where the special authority of their own religious leadership was no longer recognised.  The idea was that the Jews would be more useful to the Empire, albeit in a way different from before.   The Ottoman Empire went through this same process, albeit with lags both in time and in the depth of penetration of progress.

Parallel with that was the spread of European nationalism, the idea that people groups should have their own national expression.  With the spread of more universal education, this resulted in a gradual “Turkification” process in the Ottoman Empire, which didn’t sit well with many of the ethnic and religious groups which lived there.  The beginning of the modern exodus of Christians from the Middle East can be traced to this process, coupled with the desire for economic opportunity.

In relatively homogeneous countries like the UK, France, Spain, Germany and Italy, this process was considerably smoother than in multi-ethnic and religious amalgams such as Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  The first major rush for the exits in the latter was the Greek revolt, which resulted in the re-establishment of that nation.  (I wonder if Europeans are now sorry they helped that…) From then to World War I there was a procession of nations outgoing: Bosnia (which got scarfed up by the Austrians, fatally for many,) Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, and finally Albania.

The European Union, formed as it was after the two bloodbaths of the World Wars, is a tacit admission that European nationalism is poison.  The break-up of another attempt at multi-ethnic union, Yugoslavia, made the point at its worst, and Europe’s nations still struggle with separatist movements, especially the Catalans and the Scots.  Although Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were rickety edifices that ultimately collapsed, finding a better way has proven a difficult process.

Part of the downside of European nationalism are attempts to “clean up” ethnic diversity.  The best known of these is the Holocaust that the Nazis perpetrated, although the mass migrations resulting from border shifting weren’t pretty either.  But before most all of this was the tragic massacre of the Armenians, and to this we will turn in our next post.

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