Ethinc divisions and the collapse of a society:
Ethnic Minorities in the Ottoman Empire:
Can ethnic divisions collapse society?
This essay will examine the process of ethnic and class segmentation and stratification within the late Ottoman Empire (1828-1922) with particular attention given to the formation of identity and the case of the Armenians. I will argue that ethnic divisions were the determining factor that would lead the Ottoman Empire, during the nineteenth century, into further polarization and social division, ultimately leading to the end of Ottoman society.
Ethnicity is defined commonly as a distinct group with a sense of common historical culture, shared activities, and lifestyles as well as a perceived common origin (perhaps a geographic location or region) and can be characterized both from within the specific group itself as well as from without. The development of nation states throughout the latter half of the preceding millennium and the contemporary issues surrounding the organization of ethnic groups to mobilize against existing states suggests that ethnic factors are necessary in any analysis of social transformations.
Donald Quataert argues that nationalism in the late eighteenth century Europe was tied to an ethnic revival of sorts that led to an ideological movement for identity and autonomy, that instead of class replacing ethnicity and political divisions these divisions were merely transferred into economic divisions. The unequal distribution of power across the European continent resulted in a cultural division of labor; with dominate cultural groups controlling the state and its resources to the exclusion of subordinate groups.
Religion within the Ottoman Empire was tied in a significant way to identity; religion determined legally defined groups as religious communities. Christians, Jews, and other monotheists such as Zoarasters were identified, like Muslims, as “Peoples of the Book”. This designation signified that these peoples had received divine blessing and guidance through the reading of scriptures and the prophets, thus they were extended protection as religious communities within the Islamic state of the Ottoman Empire.
Religion in the Ottoman Empire also tied into cultural, historical, and linguistic aspects to create defined minority groups within the Islamic state, producing separate communities of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jews, Yazidis, and so on. The transformation of these Ottoman religious communities into ethnic groups occurred in the nineteenth century with a number of factors playing key roles, the two most prominent being increasing Ottoman contact with Western Europe and the insulation of these communities in relation to the Ottoman authority. The Ottoman definition of religious communities, based upon passages in the Koran and agreements that Muhammad had previously made with non-Islamic groups, translated into social practices as these communities sustained themselves within Ottoman society.
The non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire were defined by a designation called dhimmi, meaning they were people that lived under the protection of an Islamic state or authority. According to Islamic law only Muslims enjoy full rights and duties of “citizenship” while the dhimmi’s rights are limited to protection from violence and depredation. The dhimmi are to be endured so long as they accept the superiority and authority of Muslims. Dhimmi were forbidden from conducting their religious practice in ways that would disturb Muslim religious practices, this included bans on the building of churches and the ringing of bells. Islamic law also forbade non-Muslims from riding a horse, owning a sword, and obligated them to step aside when Muslims passed them on the road. 
Dress codes were also enforced by edict from the Sultan; at certain points in Ottoman history non-Muslims were restricted to colors and fabrics. Valuable fabrics such as silk, colored caftans, fine muslin, furs, and turbans were restricted to Muslims. Other decrees stated that specific colors were to be worn such as the Armenians being restricted to red shoes and headgear, Jews were to be garbed in turquoise, and Greeks were to wear black. Additionally non-Muslims were prohibited from building their homes within Muslim sections of cities or near Muslim holy places and their houses could not be taller then Muslim homes as well as restricted to being painted different colors. 
Through this process the members of these religious communities acquired a sense of their differences in relation to the other communities and to the Muslim authorities, thus they would come to perceive themselves and to be perceived as a group with distinct cultural, historical, and linguistic elements, thus adopting the properties of an ethnic group. The Ottoman state gave the minority group’s administrative autonomy in religious and judicial matters, with the sultan interjecting to approve religious leaders elected or selected by the specific community. This created internal governmental organizations within minority groups composed of a religious leader and a council of clerics or priests who would oversee the discipline and order of the community. This body controlled education, churches, and cemeteries as well as divorce, marriage, dowries, and arbitration. The administrative autonomy of the religious communities reinforced their status as separate social groups.
Another important factor that contributed to social segmentation was the issue of Capitulations. Capitulations were enacted after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453; these were a series of treaties and agreements that created formal economic trade relations between the Ottoman, Byzantine, and Arabic states. This was comparable to favored trading status in which merchants identified with favor would trade with the Ottomans at reduced rates, thus encouraging foreign goods to be brought to their markets. These special privileges were originally only available to foreign merchants but as the authority and power of the Ottoman Empire began to decline foreign powers such as Europe and Russia exerted pressure on the sultan to extend the capitulations to his own (usually Christian) subjects. Capitulations stated that anyone under these treaties could not be tried in Ottoman courts, they were taxed at a different (often lower) rate, their homes could not be searched, and perhaps most importantly, they were given a great number of significant advantages in the field of commerce. 
Additionally the intervention of foreign corporations provided a further source of ethnic and social divisions among Muslim and non-Muslim. The construction of the Hijaz Railroad, intended to run from Damascus and Mecca, highlighted many of the labor issues. The foreign corporations (all of them from Western Europe) that had been hired by the Sultan always appointed foreigners (Germans in this case) to the highest positions, then hired local Ottoman Christians as middle management, and reserved the lowest paid positions for Muslims. In a similar fashion newly created labor unions (following the Young Turk Revolution in1908) tended to have a predominant Christian leadership with a mixed Muslim and Christian membership. Foreign capital thus interacted with the Ottoman society to produce a situation where Ottoman Christians and Non-Muslims where given privilege by foreign investors over the majority Muslim population. 
While minorities interacted with Muslims at markets, shops, and inns, most other centers of social life, such as mosques, bathhouses, and coffeehouses, were closed to them thus preventing non-Muslims from developing ties outside of their communities and limited them to relationships with only other minority groups or Westerners whom shared their same religion in the empire. It was this policy of social exclusion that started to erode the social order of the empire in the nineteenth century and when the Ottoman Muslims attempted to incorporate minorities into the empire through Western political ideas they failed because of these exclusion policies. 
Some of the policies of the Ottoman Empire towards their religious minorities could have been considered as progressive compared to the social order of medieval Europe but against the newly realized principles of the French Revolution it was recognized as oppressive and totalitarian. Ottoman rulers of the time realized the ideological shift that was taking place and began a series of reforms to more closely bind non-Muslims to the Ottoman state. When Greece gained its independence in 1829 it became clear that to preserve the Ottoman Empire it could no longer alienate the non-Muslim elements of the empire by maintaining an Islamic state under Islamic laws.
The Ottoman decrees of 1839 and 1856 sought to make all Ottoman subjects, Muslim and non-Muslims, equal under civil law. The Ottoman Empire’s goal was to incorporate minority into government services and the educational system for purposes of nation building. However Ottoman society at this point had become segregated along economic lines as well with minority groups such as Armenians and Greeks dominating trade, industry, and finance to the exclusion of Muslims, although minority groups still held very few governmental or administrative posts. By 1885 minorities comprised 60% of Istanbul’s merchant and artisan population, while only 5% were state officials. 
Muslims reacted with anger to the reforms and places such as Mecca erupted into riots when the Muslim population was notified. Cedvat Pasha, an Ottoman administrator in Mecca, stated that when some Muslims heard the news they incited others to riot by telling them “the Turks have become Christians and Franks, you should carry out a holy war against them. There is no doubt that those who die among you in such an endeavor will reach heaven and those you kill will go to hell”. Other Muslims were reported to have gone to the residence of the Ottoman governor where they spit at him while calling him a “Christian” and a “Jew”. 
Christians also reacted with hesitation to the decree as they were now expected to serve in the Ottoman army. In several ways the Ottoman minorities were often better off then the average Muslim peasant, being exempted from military service and having the support of both a tightly bound religious community and often the support of foreign consulates that allowed them to be excluded from prosecution in Ottoman courts, as well as protected their homes from being searched, and freedom from Ottoman taxes.
Ottoman officials also attempted to apply the ideals of the French Revolution to the state education system and thus foster reform and unity throughout their Empire. Western styled schools and higher education institutions only seemed to further divide the population with the majority of Muslims attending state schools and the minorities in foreign and minority schools. While the Ottoman officials intended to apply the ideas of the Enlightenment for purposes of nation building, most of the minority groups utilized the same principles for increased cultural identities that ranged in character from reform to rebellion. 
This resulted in dual systems of education, one created by the Ottoman state and the other by the minorities and foreign powers. These two systems created further increases of ethnic division as Muslim and non-Muslim students educated in differing education systems applied their knowledge differently and separately sought solutions to the direction of the Ottoman state. Prior to the Western styled schools the Ottoman state education system was based around religious schools called medrese attached to mosques and kept funded through religious endowments. Students would primarily read and recite the Koran as well as attend lectures on the Koran, Islamic law, history, medicine, and mathematics. Higher education was received through apprenticeship to scholars or specialized administrative training for the Ottoman state. Muslim graduates would then become a lecturer in another medrese, lead a mosque, or become a judge or other state official. 
The minority population had access to the foreign schools established by outside governments in Ottoman territory to both educate and protect their capitulated subjects, these schools were established in the seventeenth century with the beginning of the French missionary movements chiefly led by Jesuits. Economic competition for Ottoman trade taking place between the states of Europe and later with the United States led to large increases in the number of foreign schools within the Empire. In Lebanon, French Catholic missionaries competed fiercely with American Protestants for the recruitment of Ottoman minorities.
The western styled education given to the Ottoman minorities by both community schools and the foreign schools took place at a much faster rate then it did with Ottoman Muslims. In 1896 83,000 non-Muslims were attending foreign and minority schools while the sultans’ schools only provided education for 31,000. The British, French, Americans, Russians, and Germans all founded schools in the Ottoman Empire. By 1894 the French had 115 schools, the United States had 83, England 52, while Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia had 50. While the number of schools open to minorities continued to increase, their increased education did not by any means guarantee participation in the administration of the Ottoman state, often excluded specifically because of their connection to foreign powers. 
Minorities such as Greeks and Armenians were mostly excluded from Ottoman government but they did constitute a significant minority of the Foreign Services and Translation Bureau. Service in the Foreign Services was a prestigious career and much sought after, highlighting the importance that the Ottoman Empire placed on diplomacy in the years of its decline. The best and brightest of the Ottoman Empire whom entered the service of the state chose to join the Foreign Ministry and the three prominent Grand Viziers (roughly equivalent to prime ministers) Mustafa Resit, Mustafa Fuat, and Ali Pashas, had all been foreign ministers serving in the most celebrated posts of Paris and London. 
Ottoman Greeks and Armenians served in the foreign services in numbers somewhat larger then their percentage of the population, a total of 29% of all Foreign Ministry officials. Although slightly overrepresented in the Foreign Ministry the Christian minorities, in proportion to their numbers did not hold positions of influence and although some did head major embassies they mostly served in minor consular positions despite the fact that they were on average the better educated group. In short, Greeks and Armenians readily entered the Foreign Services in large numbers but did not have equal access to education. 
Ottoman Muslims trained in the western styled schools had learned new skills and were exposed to the new alternative methods in which a society could be organized, they did not, as was expected, increased their loyalty to the sultanate who had granted them their education. Personal allegiance to the sultan was instead transferred to an abstract allegiance to the Ottoman state. To further develop and discuss this new model of society they began to form study groups and secret societies such as the Young Ottomans and the Young Turks.
The Committee for Union and Progress, the group that would eventually overthrow the sultan, considered the issue of minority participation in membership discussions; some members argued for the inclusions of minorities while others favored a strictly Turkish group. The Committee for Union and Progress continued to skirt the issue of including minorities in their group throughout their history and even after their seizure of power they continued to utilize the existing quota systems of minority participation the sultan had developed. 
At this point in Ottoman society the historical rule of Muslims and Islam itself was being challenged by western ideas whose increasing economic, political, social, and cultural power was setting in motion a transformation of the Empire. Three sets of social hierarchies competed for supremacy, the first of which was the old order that had existed formally for centuries which placed Muslims in positions of political and legal dominance over the Non-Muslim minorities. The second model, a model of foreign corporations and schools, positioned foreigners at the top, non-Muslims in a middle positions, and Muslims themselves as unskilled laborers. The third model was that of Ottomanism, an abstract concept previously touched upon that sought to create a cadre from every religious and ethnic group within the Empire and make all citizens equal under secular law. 
The Ottoman minorities developed distinctly different views of society and instead of seeking to reform the Ottoman state they had a desire to be independent, this was motivated by many of the same factors that motivated Muslim students and activists, namely the introduction of western enlightenment thought and the concept of nationalism. The years of ethnic separation and segmentation that was reinforced by the Ottoman state now combined with western ideals of nationalism to cement a sense of separateness in the minds of the minority populations. Many minority groups believed that transitions from autonomous religious community to autonomous ethnic minority to political independence and sovereignty were rational and necessary steps. 
Initially many minority groups called for increased autonomy, the freedom to structure their relationship with Ottoman society that suited them and their specific cultural concerns. This was not a call for independence from the Ottoman state and several minority groups, such as the Jews, had modest goals that included legal emancipation, moral improvement, and better citizenship. However the Ottoman state would frequently interpret these goals as mere steps to political independence and thus reacted with anger. 
Previously, issues of increased autonomy from territorial governors and native rulers resulted in land secessions. Throughout the decline of the Empire the territories of Egypt, Baghdad, Tripoli, Algeria, and Crimea were granted increased territorial autonomy, becoming semi-independent provinces under the authority of local administrators. Other territories became nearly fully independent Vassal states such as Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania with their own native kings and only retained a small Ottoman garrison nearby their capitals. 
The Greek minority was the first to iniciate a demand for autonomy that, much like the other minority groups, was initially not a call from independence. However as the situation progressed the Greeks soon demanded territorial autonomy, which led to the formation of the first totally independent state to emerge from the Ottoman Empire. Following the formation of Greece the Ottoman Empire viewed all minority calls for autonomy as concerning territorial autonomy and ultimately independence. This view held by the Ottoman authorities caused many minority groups that had not already adopted an independence stance to do so. 
Minorities, Muslim groups, and the Ottoman state throughout the decline of the Empire also utilized political violence. Following the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-1878 the military power of the Ottoman Empire as well as their political capital was diminished and the European powers increased their efforts to partition the remainder of their territory using their capitulated Ottoman minorities for influence. The Berlin Conference actually reduced the size of Russian conquered territory (nearly all of eastern Anatolia) and also spelled out the legal rights of Armenians living in Anatolia to be the same as Bulgarians or Serbs, mandated their protection by the Ottoman military and their inclusion in governmental administration. The Berlin conference also demanded that the nomadic Kurds, whom threatened Armenian communities, be given permanent settlements. 
In a letter to the conference the Armenian patriarch stated that the Armenians did not desire territorial independence from the Ottoman Empire, only an Armenian governor and autonomy in areas where Armenians formed a majority and submitted detailed plans on how to achieve such a governmental structure. The Ottoman Empire reluctantly signed the treaties and following the departure of the Russian army from eastern and central Anatolia moved their own troops to the area under the guise of protecting the Armenian communities from Kurds and other raiders. 
The Ottoman government delivered negative results in terms of Armenian reform, the treaty with Russia and the European powers was increasingly a source of polarization and resentment among the both the Muslim population and the Ottoman government, with the Ottoman government even attempting to prove to Europe that Armenians did not constitute a majority in any areas of Anatolia. The violence by Christians in the Balkans including massacres and land seizures, modern day ethnic cleansing, also fostered increased solidarity among the Ottoman Muslims in relation to the minority groups.
By the 1890’s the increasing persistence and agitation of minorities within the Empire pushed the Ottoman authorities, such as Sultan Hamid II, to roll back unification reforms and instead utilize the polarization of Muslims to form a political current called Pan-Islamism and bind the Empires Muslim subjects to the sultan. Using the pretext of increased Armenian militant activity and Russian collaboration the Ottoman authorities began to recruit and arm Kurdish irregular cavalry units. Officially these Kurdish units, called Hamidiye Regiments, were formed to address low numbers of manpower in the armed forces but whatever their intended purpose they were used to oppress and ultimately massacre Armenians. 
In 1894 the Armenian village of Sasun broke into revolt after the peoples there were forced to pay taxes to Kurdish tribes that exceeded the amount of taxes paid to the Ottoman government resulting in nearly poverty conditions. The Ottoman authorities responded with swift action to suppress the revolt, the military action quickly spread throughout the Armenian areas in eastern Anatolia and resulted in massacre, notably when the cathedral of Urfa, housing three thousand Armenian refugees, was burned to the ground. Massacres continued throughout the Armenian historic lands of the east as well as cities throughout Anatolia. 
In 1895 a protest demonstration by Armenians in Istanbul was labeled as violent by the Ottoman authorities and used as a pretext for massacring Armenian intellectuals living within the capitol. The following year, 1896, the revolutionary Armenian organization, the Dashnaks, raided the Ottoman federal bank in Istanbul to draw international attention to the plea of the Armenians, a large-scale massacre of Armenians followed in many major cities resulting in widespread protest from European and Russian governments, although making it clear that they would not intervene solely for Armenians. In 1897 Sultan Abdul Hamid II declared the Armenian question resolved, various sources estimate the number of Armenians killed to be between 50,000 to 100,000 while Ottoman officials (as well as modern day Turkey) place the number of Armenians killed at 15,000. Thus the policies of the foreign powers towards the Armenians and other minorities created deeper resentment between Muslim and non-Muslims ultimately acting as a catalyst for violence.
The westernized Muslims would also utilize political violence to achieve their goals. This westernized sector of Ottoman Muslims would bring about both the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which restored the Ottoman parliament dissolved under Sultan Hamid II, and the Armenian Genocide, resulting in the systematic killing of an estimated 300,000 to 1.5 million Armenians. The tension between minorities and Muslims living within the Ottoman Empire had reached a boiling point by 1918 when the Ottoman Empire was all but dismantled, leaving only Anatolia, by the allies of WWI. 
By 1919 Turkish Nationalism emerged as the dominant political vehicle of Anatolian Muslims, replacing earlier westernized Muslim movements such as Pan-Islamism or Ottomanism, to establish a secular republic for the Turkish nation. While minority populations notably Armenians, but also Jews, became increasingly confident that the Defeat of the Ottoman Empire following WWI would provide them the opportunity to dislodge themselves from the Empire. The Ottoman sultan struggled to maintain Anatolia as a monarchist Islamic state even as its popularity and power was rapidly fading. These opposing views on the direction of the Empire, a culmination of the previous decades of ethnic and social stratification, would ultimately result in the final chapter of the Ottoman Empire, the War for Turkish Independence. The war for Turkish Independence resulted in the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of a secular Turkish republic.
In the final analysis the process of transforming religious communities into ethnic identifications coupled with the increasing amount of western styled schools bringing ideals of nationalism, independence, and progress lead to the polarization of populations on a scale that the Ottoman Empire could not resolve, thus leading to its destruction. I believe the case of the Ottoman Empire’s ethnic stratification highlights problems that many multi-cultural societies such as the USA deal with today, at times both seeking to preserve dominant cultures but also enacting programs to appease minority populations and their claims for freedom of expression.
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Roderic H. Davison
The American Historical Review, Vol. 59, No. 4. (Jul., 1954), pp. 844-864.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-8762%28195407%2959%3A4%3C844%3ATACCEI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-C
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3. (Aug., 1991), pp. 345-359.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-7438%28199108%2923%3A3%3C345%3ALSITOS%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F
Robert W. Olson
Die Welt des Islams, New Ser., Vol. 17, Issue 1/4. (1976 - 1977), pp. 72-77.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0043-2539%281976%2F1977%292%3A17%3A1%2F4%3C72%3ATOEITM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Feb., 1985), pp. 109-117.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-7438%28198502%2917%3A1%3C109%3ACSAPPI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-H
Michael R. Milgrim
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4. (Nov., 1978), pp. 519-537.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-7438%28197811%299%3A4%3C519%3AAOPITR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-3
Ehud R. Toledano
Poetics Today, Vol. 14, No. 3, Cultural Processes in Muslim and Arab Societies: Modern Period I. (Autumn, 1993), pp. 477-506.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0333-5372%28199323%2914%3A3%3C477%3ALOCOS%28%3E2.0.CO%3B2-%23
Walter F. Weiker
Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, Special Issue on Organizations and Social Development. (Dec., 1968), pp. 451-470.
Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0001-8392%28196812%2913%3A3%3C451%3ATOBMAR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-E
Arnold Joseph Toynbee
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 99, No. 3. (Jun. 15, 1955), pp. 119-126.
Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 17001922 (New Approaches to European History) Cambridge University Press (July 31, 2000)
Akcam, Taner. A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. Metropolitan Books (November 14, 2006)
Akcam, Taner. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. Zed Books (September 4, 2004)
Bryce, James. The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-1916: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon by Viscount Bryce. Taderon Press (April 30, 2005)
Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (New Approaches to European History) Cambridge University Press (August 22, 2003)
David Fromkin A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Owl Books; 2 Reprint edition (September 1, 2001)
Macfie, A.L. The End of the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1923 (Turning Points) Longman; 1 edition (July 28, 1998)
 Olson, Robert W. Die Welt des Islams, New Ser., Vol. 17, Issue 1/4. (1976 - 1977), pp. 72.
 Olson, Robert W. Die Welt des Islams, New Ser., Vol. 17, Issue 1/4. (1976 - 1977), pp. 73
 Ibid, p.31-32
 Weiker, Walter F. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, Special Issue on Organizations and Social Development. (Dec., 1968), pp. 456
 Davison, Roderic H. The American Historical Review, Vol. 59, No. 4. (Jul., 1954), pp. 846.
 Weiker, Walter F. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, Special Issue on Organizations and Social Development. (Dec., 1968), pp. 460
 Akcam, Taner. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. Zed Books (September 4, 2004) p.78-80
 Ibid, p.96-99
 Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (New Approaches to European History) Cambridge University Press (August 22, 2003) p.122
 Akcam, Taner. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. Zed Books (September 4, 2004) p.44
 Ibid, p. 93
 Suraiya Faroqhi, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1. (Feb., 1985), pp. 109
 Ibid, p.60
 Olson, Robert W. Die Welt des Islams, New Ser., Vol. 17, Issue 1/4. (1976 - 1977), pp. 77
 Akcam, Taner. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. Zed Books (September 4, 2004) p.12