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Group Rights in the Ottoman ‘Millet’ System

[U]nder Ottoman rule, an official millet system was established. The term millet was used to refer to communities of religious minorities, and eventually led to the standardized arrangement of a formal relationship between minority groups and the state. In other words, the Ottoman Empire developed a system in which millets had specific rights and responsibilities to state authorities in order to help define and ensure their legal autonomy. This system, which was refined over the course of Ottoman rule and eventually overturned in favor of a citizenship paradigm, is a prime example of a method that, while successful during its time (as will be demonstrated), ultimately succumbed to European imperialist pressures and demands to conform to modern forms of secularism and liberalism.

The millet system initially developed as a means by which the Ottoman administration could properly organize the various religious and ethnic groups under its rule. Incorporating these groups into the larger Ottoman economic and political system allowed for the preservation of the various cultural and religious identities these communities claimed. Thus, although the millet system required administrative and social reforms for each minority group, it overlooked ethnic and religious differences in order to maintain the Empire’s unity and productivity. It was no secret that Muslims still held the highest status under Ottoman rule, but in contrast to former Christian empires, the Ottomans never attempted to erase religious or ethnic identities through mass forced conversions, for example, in favor of sameness.

One of the most widely acknowledged aspects of the millet system was the appointment of official heads or patriarchs for each religious community.Every patriarch was appointed by his own community in order to ensure his authority vis-a-vis their respect and obedience; if he ever overstepped his boundaries, only they had the right to replace him. The head also had the dual responsibility of reporting to his Ottoman supervisor, usually the chief qāḍī or judge, and to his congregation. Members of his community, in turn, were required to bring all of their complaints to him in order to create an efficient process of filing and resolving claims. If there were members who could not afford to pay the jizyah, for instance, the patriarch would be responsible for granting financial aid and submitting the tax collectively on behalf of his entire community.

A Model for Tolerance

Despite the rights the millet system ensured, modern theorists have deemed this model deficient. In the late 20th century, political and moral philosopher John Rawls described the concept of religious tolerance in light of the liberal tradition as the individual choice to practice one’s religion freely or to change it as one saw fit. This freedom of conscience, or individual liberty, is considered to be the height of both tolerance and human rights. Will Kymlicka, another political philosopher, however, challenged this view that has been taken for granted in most Western democracies. Unlike the Rawlsian model which places the individual at the core of the argument, Kymlicka proposed a group-rights model, in which groups rather than individuals serve as self-governing units that are granted collective rights and responsibilities. His argument essentially boils down to the fact that group-rights models, like the millet system, were effective methods of granting religious liberties to communities as a whole, even though they may have restricted individuals’ opportunities to change or dissent from their original religion.

In the Ottoman embodiment of the group-rights model, the millets—primarily the Greek and Armenian Orthodox communities and the Jews—enjoyed self-government and legal autonomy. That said, in relation to the dominant religion of Islam, millets were limited in their public expressions of religion. Hence, under some circumstances, minorities were required to dress distinctly from the Muslims and could not proselytize. Nevertheless, the millet model allowed for religious coexistence and did not persecute those who obeyed their respective patriarchs as well as the laws of the land. This model is thus quite in contrast to liberal expectations espoused by Rawls, Locke, and others through its deep commitment to conservative and theocratic values, thereby uniting “church and state.” Through this system, the Ottoman Empire ruled vast territories, diverse in ethnicity and religion, for almost half a millennium, while avoiding religious wars and large-scale persecution, allowing Kymlicka to reason that the millet model “is arguably the more natural form of religious tolerance.”

The Rawlsian model, on the other hand, goes so far as to contend that individual liberty is the only way of ensuring tolerant and pluralistic societies, assuming that former methods (i.e., group-rights) could never guarantee this vision. Yet, as Kymlicka notes, religious toleration was indeed in effect prior to England’s Toleration Act or any universal declaration. 

While the millet system did not address Rawls’ individual liberty question, it was a model far ahead of any paradigm Europe had even considered. In fact, it was not until the signing of the Peace of Westphalia treaties in 1648 that Europe was able to end a century’s-long religious battle over whether it was possible for subjects to hold a religious belief distinct from the ruler’s faith. Hence, as Kymlicka points out, there were methods designed to establish tolerant and pluralistic societies prior to those of liberal democracies.

That said, with any group-rights model comes a concern for limited individual freedom in regard to one’s religious commitments. In other words, challenging one’s religious affiliation was virtually unheard of in the millet model; one was expected to follow the tradition one inherited and to fulfill the responsibilities set by the patriarch. Hence, proselytization and apostasy were, under certain conditions, criminal offenses.Adherents to liberal ideology, for this reason, may argue that this model curtails individual autonomy and consequently denies one the opportunity to think critically of their religion in their pursuit of the truth. This is presumably harmful for society since it removes rational thinking and choice, preventing individuals from pursuing their own interests for the sake of the larger society. 

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that every individual can properly assess what is good and is constantly seeking the benefit of their society. The group-rights model, on the other hand, presumes that the most powerful identity one holds is their religious affiliation. Since it was the absolute crux of holding society together, members of the community were expected to do everything they could to ensure the protection of that identity even if it overrode their own personal interests. Hence, there was no concern about the prohibition of proselytizing and apostasy since these were acts that would not merely harm the individual him or herself, but their community as a whole.

So what does this all mean for us? Well, for one, it allows us to recognize that the millet system created a template that recognized collective liberties and formed tolerant societies, despite our assumption today that tolerance is impossible without individual autonomy. From a bigger picture standpoint, however, creating tolerance between groups was see as more important than promoting individual liberties within a group. Thus group-rights models form a social plurality that ensures the protection of each community at large. Recognizing this alternative form of creating a tolerant society does not, of course, require us to insist that it is the only form. In fact, we can acknowledge the success of this system while still advocating for the liberal model of individual autonomy, as Kymlicka himself has done. The point is to be careful and not simply denounce historical Islamic communal and religious organization as intolerant or oppressive. The millet standard was not only successful in preventing religious wars, but it also granted collective liberties (e.g., their own courts, the right to practice their religion without interference, etc.) to each religious minority community.

Author: Tasneem Alkiek (Muslims4Liberty)

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Madina365

Madina365 is online magazine which mission is promotion of Islamic history and forgotten Islamic tradition such as liberty, freedom of thought and free market society.

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