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Identity politics destroyed the Ottoman Empire, will it destroy the West?

Identity politics is nothing new. It bears some eerie similarities to the Ottoman Millet system. What are the lessons countries like the US can learn from the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire?

Much has been discussed about the ineffective nature of so-called ‘identity politics’ in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory. Many on the socialist left, ranging from Bernie Sanders to George Galloway, have reflected on the fact that by segregating individuals into micro-identities, putative left politicians have totally lost touch with the classical leftist materialist dialectic, whereby society ought to be seen in terms of the ‘haves and have-nots’ instead of socially and personally defined identities.

The idea of identity politics wasn’t dreamt up in the health food shops of the Upper West Side nor in the day spas of North London. The concept of a divided society on the basis of identity has clear roots in the Ottoman Empire.

Long before the concept of identity based on citizenship, subjects of the Ottoman Empire were divided into groups based on religious confession. It was called the Millet system. The earliest Millets included the Muslim Millet which included both Turkic and Arab Muslims, the Rum Millet, sometimes referred to as the Greek Millet which included all Orthodox Christians, The Armenian Millet which included ethnic Armenians of all Christian faiths and a Jewish Millett which encompasses Jews of all varieties from what is now Iraq through to the Balkans and the Ottoman Maghreb.

Under this system, each group was governed by their own religious laws and it also meant that full property rights, preferential taxation and governmental positions were reserved for members of the Muslim Millet.

The system remained largely unchanged throughout Ottoman history until 1839. That year saw the first proposals of an extended period of attempted legal, religious and administrative reform in the empire known as Tanzimât.

Tanzimât reached its zenith in 1856 when Sultan Abdülmecid I issued an Imperial Reform Edict designed to modernise Ottoman society. In addition to administrative reforms, the Edict introduced national-secular justice in place of religious tribunals which had been administered by individual Millets. It expanded property rights and the right to work in the civil service for non-Muslims, and for the first time created the idea of an Ottoman identity, which would be theoretically superior to one’s religiously defined ethnic one.

Although many of the reforms could rightly be seen as a move towards a more inclusive society, after centuries of suppressed minorities living under the whip hand of the Sultan’s most favoured subjects, many were unhappy.

They did not want Christian soldiers serving (as now required) in an Ottoman army, they wanted their own states with their own laws and their own armed forces.

Tanzimât had the unintended effect of increasing the support for independence movements among Armenians, Bulgarians, Greeks who lived outside of the Kingdom of Greece and even Arabs who began to gradually consider the possibility of living under Arab rule rather than under an Ottoman Sultan.

The genie was out of the bottle. After years of living in separate and unequal Millets, Ottoman subjects were no longer content to continue living as such.

When the hard-line Sultan Abdul Hamid II came to power in 1876, he tried to reverse many of the changes which occurred during Tanzimât. In 1878 the new Sultan suspended the European style Constitution adopted in 1876 and began ruling as an absolute monarch.

It was during this time that Turks in the Empire began moving violently against ethnic minorities. This culminated in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 where both Turks and Kurdish irregulars systematically murdered over one and a half million Armenian men, women and children. Other minorities including Greeks and Assyrians were also slaughtered at this time.

I’m not suggesting that genocide will be the result of identity politics in the West. A more reasonable suggestion is that national cohesion in a country like the US, which has struggled to create a unitary American identity, is under threat.

Donald Trump has said he wants all citizens to identify as Americans first before referencing any micro identity, something which fits into both conservative notions of national unity and  socialist notions of unity based on material status rather than any other kind of delineations or segregation.

In the Ottoman Empire it was too late to reverse the social conditions created by centuries of the Millet system. Is it too late for America? Time and Trump will tell.

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