||Christians, Jews and Muslims in the OttomanEmpire: Lessons for Contemporary Coexistence
Near Eastern and Jewish Studies DepartmentBrandeis UniversitySeptember, 2000
Recent events in Bosnia, Kossovo, Cyprus and elsewhere have suggested to students ofinterethnic relations that the application of the principle of self-determination may have reachedits practical limits. It is obvious that it is impossible to satisfy the desire for self rule of everysingle identity group without causing massive dislocation and violence. Consequently, the onlyrational alternative is to look for means of interethnic coexistence.1The phrase "the burden ofhistory" is sometimes used to explain the role that the past has played in complicating today'spolitical realities and contributing to interethnic strife. While this is indeed so, history can alsoprovide some useful guidelines for managing interethnic coexistence.2As a student of Ottomanhistory, I will focus on the Ottoman experience in managing interethnic relations. Let me stressat the outset that I do not suggest that the Ottoman example in its totality is applicable to currentcircumstances, although it contains certain lessons that merit our attention.The primary mechanism which the Ottomans used to manage the internal affairs of theirmultireligious and polyethnic empire, from the fifteenth century to the twentieth, was the milletsystem. Under this system, minorities enjoyed a wide latitude of religious and cultural freedom,as well as considerable administrative, fiscal, and legal autonomy under their own ecclesiasticaland lay leaders. The term millet originally meant both a religion and a religious community. Inthe nineteenth century, while still retaining its original meaning, it also came to denote suchmodern concepts as nation and nationality. The Ottoman millet system had its origins in earlierMiddle Eastern states, both Muslim (Umayyad, Abbassid) and non-Muslim (Persian, Byzantine),and it was not, therefore, an original Ottoman innovation. The Ottoman contribution was mainlyto regulate and institutionalize it, pay greater attention to its proper operation, and bring it downfrom medieval times to the twentieth century.3The millet system was, in effect, an extension of Ottoman general administrative practices. Inan age that lacked modern technologies of administration, communication and control, theOttomans, like other contemporary states, had little choice but to deal with the masses of theirpopulation corporatively, allowing each group wide latitude in the conduct of its internal affairs.At the same time, the Ottomans attempted to control their population as much as possiblethrough the centralization of government. This led them to develop and support stronghierarchical administrative structures for the different communities. It was, in effect, a systemintended to centralize government in an age that lacked modern technologies of governance.Other than in certain areas of great importance to the state, such as security and taxation, theOttomans generally adopted a policy of laissez-faire in the internal affairs of the minoritycommunities and they strongly supported, but also held accountable, the community'sleadership.In practical terms, the millet system permitted the minority communities to establish andmaintain their houses of worship, often with the help of tax-exempt religious endowments. Theminorities also operated their own educational institutions. The curriculum and language of
instruction in these schools were determined by the community. Each community could also setup its own welfare institutions which depended on its own financial resources. To support theirinstitutions, the communities were permitted to collect their own internal taxes. State taxes werecollectively assessed by the local Ottoman authorities to the local community as a whole, basedon the number and wealth of its members. But the actual collection of taxes was done bycommunity-appointed tax collectors. The amount of taxes that the community was assessed wasgenerally set through negotiations between the community leadership and the local authorities. Ifthe community felt aggrieved it could, and often did, appeal to the state courts or the centralauthorities.Each community also had considerable judicial autonomy. It was allowed to maintain courtswhich could adjudicate among its own members on a wide range of family and civil matters,such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and financial transactions. Although members of theminority groups used their own community courts, they frequently preferred to bring their casesbefore the Muslim courts, which were also recognized as state courts. There probably was avariety of reasons why the minorities resorted to the Muslim courts instead of their owncommunity courts. The most likely reason, however, was that the Muslim courts, as state courts,enjoyed a superior legal status and greater executive authority.Muslims and minorities tended to live in their own quarters in urban as well as in rural areas,congregating around their houses of worship and community institutions. In general, however,the boundaries between the different communities were fluid and there were quarters where thepopulation was mixed. Over time, there also was considerable mobility from one quarter toanother as a result of population trends. There also were public spaces where the entirepopulation freely mixed. The most important of these places was the bazaar where shop owners,bankers, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, and shoppers of all groups freely came together to buy andsell and conduct a range of other transactions. Government buildings, and especially thecourthouse, were also important as public spaces where considerable intercommunity activitytook place. As a result of these conditions, the different groups lived largely segregated, althoughwithin every community there were important segments that interacted with other groups.Christian and Jewish physicians, bankers, merchants, and craftsmen were often employed in theservice of the households of the powerful and wealthy, including the sultan's palace. Relativesegregation, as well as education in their own schools allowed each group to preserve its ownlanguage, customs and culture, observe its festivals and holy days, and in general live inaccordance with the rhythm of its own calendar and traditions. On the other hand, contact ofsignificant segments of each community with other groups also led to considerable acculturationand borrowing, which affected language and every other aspect of culture and daily life.Intercommunity relations gave rise to multilingualism, especially among the minorities'professional and commercial classes, which contributed to the general Ottoman culturalsynthesis.Still, life in the Ottoman Empire was not utopian. There was basic inequality betweenMuslims and non-Muslims. Christians and Jews paid higher taxes than their Muslim neighbors.Non-Muslims were barred from most government positions, and they suffered a variety of legaland social disabilities. They were able to compensate for these by their professional andeconomic skills and their strong sense of intracommunity solidarity. All groups, however,
harbored sentiments of rivalry, distrust, prejudice and even hostility toward the other groups, butthese normally remained subdued. From time to time, intercommunity tensions erupted inviolence, although this was rare and limited in scope. For the most part, however, the differentgroups lived in peace, and even mutual respect.4In general, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the Ottoman Empire was at its zenithand its administration was well-organized and efficient, life was good for all and intercommunalrelations were at their best. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the OttomanEmpire became economically marginalized by the ascent of Europe and as it began its slowdecline and disintegration, life had become more difficult and intergroup relations haddeteriorated. Still, throughout this entire period there were never any incidents of wide-scaleinterethnic violence.The economic decline of the Ottoman Empire, the growing corruption and disintegration ofits administration, the breakdown of public order, and the worsening relations between ethnicgroups prepared the ground for the rise, in the nineteenth century, of separatist nationalistmovements in the Balkans. The early signs of this new threat sent shockwaves throughout allechelons of the Ottoman government and the political public. As a result, sweeping reforms wereintroduced to modernize the administration, the economy, the military, education, public health,and every other aspect of public life. Specifically, the government made attempts to assure theminorities that their future within the Ottoman polity was preferable to what it might be in thesmall national successor states. Thus began an official Ottoman attempt to reshape and redefinethe very nature of the Ottoman polity. This resulted in the articulation of an official theory ofOttomanism, or Ottoman patriotism. Whereas the traditional concept of the state as essentiallyMuslim was not discarded, two new elements, pluralism and equality before the law, weregrafted onto it. The purpose of Ottomanism was to blur, and even eradicate, the traditionalperception of Ottoman society as divided between a ruling people, Muslims, and non-Muslimsubject peoples. In 1830 Sultan Mahmud II declared: "I distinguish among my subjects, Muslimsin the mosque, Christians in the church and Jews in the synagogue, but there is no differenceamong them in any other way. My affection and sense of justice for all of them is strong and theyare all indeed my children."5The policy of Ottomanism was further articulated in 1839 in the Imperial Decree of Gulhane.It included a commitment for equal justice for all Ottoman subjects, regardless of religion. Thestated purpose of the decree was to promote every subject's devotion for the state (devlet),religious community (millet), and country (vatan). Thus the religious community was recognizedas an instrument to promote the loyalty of all Ottoman subjects to their state and country. A newterm, milel-i erba'a, entered the Ottoman political lexicon. Literally meaning "the fourcommunities," it came to denote the officially recognized four religious communities thatconstituted the Ottoman polity--Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Jews. The purpose ofthe term was to demonstrate that the Ottoman Empire, while a Muslim state, was at the sametime also a plural society in which the minorities' special status was officially recognized.Indeed, as of 1839, it became Ottoman practice to insist that in all state ceremonies, in thecapital as well as in the provincial centers, the ecclesiastical heads of all the religiouscommunities take part as representatives of their flocks. As of the 1840s, the state introduced
legal reforms modeled on European codes of law, intended to implement the principle of equalitybefore the law. Service in government offices and in the military was opened to the minoritiesand they joined in increasing numbers. By the mid-nineteenth century, they were represented inmunicipal, provincial, and state councils. They participated in the parliaments of 1876-1877 andthose of 1908-1914. They served as government ministers and directors of departments. Theywere particularly prominent in the ministries of finance and foreign affairs.In spite of the great progress made to modernize the Ottoman state, improve the quality of lifefor all its people, and establish greater equality among its various ethnic groups, the forces ofseparatist nationalism were constantly gaining strength throughout the nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries. Aside from nationalist ambitions, no one had an idea how to unscramble, ina peaceful and humane way, the heterogeneous population of the Ottoman Empire. In someareas, such as Macedonia and Bosnia, not one ethnic group had a majority. In all other areas inthe Balkans and Anatolia, even where one ethnic group had a majority, other groups constitutedsizable minorities. In Thrace, for example, in the early twentieth century, Muslims constitutedabout 53 percent of the population. But Greeks accounted for 28 percent, Bulgarians 12 percent,and Jews and others made up the rest. The situation in the urban centers was even morecomplicated. In Istanbul, for example, Muslims comprised 56 percent of the population, Greeks22 percent, Armenians 15 percent, and Jews 4 percent. In Edirne (Adrianople), Muslimscomprised slightly more than 50 percent, Greeks 20 percent, Jews 18 percent with Bulgariansand Armenians making up the rest. In Salonica, Jews constituted more than half the populationwith Muslims, Greeks, and Bulgarians comprising the rest.Still, at various times, several European governments--especially Russia, but also France,Britain, the Habsburg Empire, and Italy--for their own imperial interests, encouraged andsupported separatist movements with disregard for the consequences. European public opinion,which enthusiastically embraced the colonial expansion of their own nations in Asia and Africaand the subjugation of the indigenous population, cheered on the Balkan nations as theystruggled to liberate themselves from the Ottoman "yoke." It was through European interventionthat the Balkan nations gained their independence and the processes of what was to becomeknown as "ethnic cleansing" have begun.The ethnic wars in the Balkans and Anatolia, from 1821 to 1922, resulted in the death ofmillions and the expulsion and dislocation of millions more. Numerically, those who suffered themost were the Muslim communities of the Balkans which were identified with the hatedOttoman regime. They were subjected to massacre and expulsion. One recent study hascalculated that within the short span of the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars, 1,450,000 Muslim civiliansperished and another 410,000 became refugees. Altogether, it is estimated that the interethnicwars in the Balkans and Anatolia, from 1821 to 1922, resulted in the death of more than fivemillion Muslims and the expulsion and dislocation of a similar number.6The Armenians alsosuffered horribly. In Anatolia, during the First World War, an estimated one to 1.5 millionArmenians perished and countless others became refugees. Jews and Gypsies were also singledout for persecution, and Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Albanians also suffered considerablelosses. These interethnic wars were to foreshadow recent events in Bosnia and Kossovo, andwhile the term "ethnic cleansing" may be of recent vintage, its practice has a long history.
Although the conditions that prevailed in Ottoman times are no longer applicable to currentsituations, the Ottoman record of five centuries of interethnic peaceful coexistence is impressiveand merits consideration. Obviously, a key factor that kept interethnic strife in check was thecoercive power of the state. The Ottoman government, as much as any other, had a stronginterest in maintaining public order and preventing internal violence. But that was only part of it.Ottoman success in achieving such a long record of peaceful coexistence was largely due to theirpragmatic, non-ideological style of rule and the exceptionally broad autonomy that they grantedthe various ethnic and religious groups within their domains. The Ottoman governmentintervened in the internal affairs of its minority communities to a very limited degree. The vastmajority of Ottoman subjects were shielded from direct contact with the state by their owncommunity leadership and its autonomous administration. As a result, popular grievances wereusually directed at the community leadership, while the state was called upon to mediate internaldisputes. This broad autonomy also allowed each group to live according to its own customs andtraditions and preserve its own language and culture. There was considerable cross-communityacculturation, but it was not forced. While the various groups came into contact with each other,their main focus of daily life remained within their respective communities.Notes1For further discussion, see David A. Hamburg, "Preventing Contemporary IntergroupViolence," in Eugene Weiner (ed.), The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence (New York:Continuum, 1998), pp. 27-32; Robert Toscano, "The Face of the Other: Ethics and IntergroupConflict," in ibid., pp. 63-70.2Michael Walzer, "Education, Democratic Citizenship and Multiculturalism," in ibid., pp. 153-55.3On the millet system and its transformation, see Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis,"Introduction," in idem (eds.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Holmes& Meier, 1982), vol. 1, pp. 1-34; Avigdor Levy, "Introduction," in idem (ed.), The Jews of theOttoman Empire (Princeton, New Jersey: Darwin, 1994), pp. 1-150.4See Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 72-81 (Chapter 5). Although a work of fiction this is an excellent introduction to the study of theBalkans and Ottoman society. Ivo Andric, a Yugoslav-Serb historian who won the Nobel prizefor literature in 1961, describes in this book, which is based on historical fact, the social historyof Bosnia, his native land. The chapter is attached to this paper as an appendix.5Enver Ziya Karal, "Non-Muslim Representatives in the First Constitutional Assembly, 1876-1877," in Braude and Lewis (eds.), op. cit., vol. 1, p. 388.6Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922(Princeton, New Jersey: Darwin, 1995). See, in particular, Table 30, p. 339.
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