Multiculturalism: Ottoman experience

The Ottoman style multiculturalist idea was based on religion rather than culture. Thence, it is maybe more appropriate to call it as ‘multireligious’ idea...

Multiculturalism: Ottoman experience

Hafsa Orhan Astrom / World Bulletin 

Our previous article ended with a sentence mentioning briefly the difference between Ottoman style versus Swedish multiculturalism. To compare the multiculturalist idea in Ottoman period and in modern day Sweden is an ambitious task which necessitates a detailed investigation. Hence, in this essay, the focus will be on the Ottomans meanwhile the Swedish case is planned to be the main focus of the next article.

Multiculturalism is a few decade-old term and there is no widely accepted definition since it does not stay static through time (there is already a term called ‘new’ or ‘post-’ multiculturalism) and it has different reflections on different dimensions such as politics  and philosophy. Despite the difficulties in defining the term, I find Castles’ explanation very simple yet well-directed. According to him, multiculturalism means “abandoning the myth of homogenous and monocultural nation-states.” As a matter of fact, non-homogeneity of the current nation-states, no matter the level of it, is difficult to deny. The explanation underlines another important point where the relationship between monoculturalism and the existence of nation-states is indicated. This is important because the basic idea behind the establishment of nation-states was to separate concretely one nation (embodied from within one culture) from another one.

At this point, it can be asked whether it is appropriate to evaluate a pre-nation empire with a modern concept. I can answer that question by arguing that it is not the term itself with all modern meanings attached to it but different reflections of the idea of multiculturalism in time and space which we are interested in.

Reflections of multiculturalist idea in Ottomans

As it can be noticed easily, the term multiculturalism has two parts, the prefix multi- and culture. While the notion of religion is one of the elements inherent in the description of culture, the Ottoman style multiculturalist idea was based on religion rather than culture. Thence, it is maybe more appropriate to call it as ‘multireligious’ idea. The famous system, upon which such a multireligious idea is built, was millet/the religious community. However, as indicated by Şener Aktürk, such a system did not mean the existence of limitless multi judiciary and equality among religious groups but a relatively wide autonomy for People of the Book (ahl al-Kitab) under the umbrella of Islamic jurisprudence. This is also the reason why Şükrü Hanioğlu underlines the fact that Ottoman style multiculturalism was hierarchical, hegemonic and the main focus was on the concept of justice, whereas, the modern multiculturalism has its main focus on the concept of equality.

Having said that, this justice based hierarchical multiculturalism was one of a kind in its time. As a proof, Aktürk compares the amount of people with different religious identities in different places such as England, France, Spain, Italy, and Ottomans. He finds that as of 1500, the population of England, Spain and France was hundred percent Catholic meanwhile the number was in between 98-99% in Italy. Of course such a picture is not a coincidence. The main reason behind the picture was harsh policies against the existence of foreigners whose identity was mostly defined by religion. On the other hand, the picture was quite different in Ottomans. At around the same period, the Christian population was even more than the Muslim one.

End of the experience and current reflections

Above example about population comparison can give a general idea regarding to the acceptance of different people. However, the reason for the differences in acceptance levels necessitates detailed investigation since I think it depends on more than a single factor.

To define the subjecthood with religious identity continued in Ottomans until the Nationality Law of 1869. Today, the main identity constituent is nationality all around the world. And, the concept which identifies the existence and acceptance of different people in nation states is multiculturalism. Nevertheless, I think that the questions regarding to the parameters of identity construction, how to organize the relations among people with different identities in today’s conditions should be discussed in detail, especially by Muslim people.

In this context, I find the attempts of Tariq Ramadan very stimulating. In the book called Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he suggests the term alam al-shahada/world of testimony instead of dar al-Islam and dar al-harb (both of these concepts were in use in Ottomans). Furthermore, he asserts that “Muslim identity is a response to the question: ‘Why?’, while national identity is a response to the question: ‘How,’ and it would be absurd and stupid to expect geographical attachment to resolve the question of being.”

Güncelleme Tarihi: 11 Kasım 2013, 09:39