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Letters to the Editor: On Teaching Middle Eastern History

Alice Whealey, December 2013

Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues relevant to the discipline, responses to articles, and letters that contain information for our members. Authors of letters should review our submission guidelines . Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the letters’ contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.

To the Editor:

Professor Murat Yasar portrays himself as challenging “certain prejudices” because under his teaching about the Ottoman Empire, “students learned how an Islamic empire promoted religious tolerance and allowed many different cultures and languages to flourish under its rule, contrary to the widespread notion of Muslims being extremely intolerant of others.” (“Teaching Middle Eastern History in North America,” Perspectives, Sept. 2013) If this is true, I contend that Yasar’s students have been encouraged to merely replace one “prejudice” with another. For there is an enormous range between being “extremely intolerant” of others, on the one hand, and promoting religious tolerance and the flourishing of others, on the other. The Christians of Anatolia did not decline from well over 90 percent of the population before Turkish conquest to only about 20 percent by the eve of World War I because they flourished. By any normal sense of the word, such demographic decline is not a case of flourishing. Nor did the intellectual level of the Christian population improve with the destruction of the Byzantine state and the prolongation of Ottoman rule. Despite various inequities, the Ottoman Christian population did survive until World War I, but survival is not the same as flourishing. This pattern of slow but unidirectional Christian demographic and intellectual decline under Islamic rule was not unique to the Ottoman case but had occurred before under Arab Muslim regimes, with the notable difference that in some regions, such as the Maghreb, indigenous Christians did not even survive but disappeared altogether. Such cases prove that it is not necessary for a pre-­modern regime to exercise “extreme” intolerance to drastically reduce or, in some cases, even eliminate a subordinate population. Limits on expansion, which in the case of Christians under Islamic rule meant the prohibition of conversion, coupled with systematic discrimination accomplished much the same end without “extreme” intolerance being necessary.

Let me add that my objection to phrases such as “promoted religious tolerance” and “allowed many different cultures and languages to flourish under its rule” to describe the policies of traditional Islamic empires, including the Ottoman, does not derive from “prejudice.” It derives from my more than twenty years’ reading as a trained historian of multiple primary sources written by Christians living under various different pre-­modern Islamic regimes.

Dr. Alice Whealey
Pacifica, California

Murat Yasar responds:

I thank Dr. Whealey for responding to my article. It is curious to see that a long-­criticized and discredited argument about Ottoman policies over non-­Muslims resurfaces in the context of challenging prejudices associated with the Middle East. Moreover, it is disappointing that instead of responding to my main arguments about tackling these prejudices, Whealey targets one of the minor examples provided that the Ottomans were tolerant of other religions and allowed other “cultures and languages” to flourish under their rule. The first part of my statement refers to all non-­Muslim subjects of the empire, not only Christians. Being about the millet system, the example clearly refers to the classical age of the Ottoman Empire, i.e., the 14th through 17th centuries. In this period, the Ottoman state allowed an institutionalized space for autonomy for their non-­Muslim subjects to an extent that some Christian churches carried out missionary activities among Muslims and welcomed Jews fleeing from the Inquisition in Spain. The second part of my statement refers to non-­Turkish and non-­Muslim cultures and languages, such as Ladino culture and language or Greek culture and language. This part actually has nothing to do with religious delineations.

Whealey also states that from the Turkish conquest to the eve of the First World War, the Christian population of Anatolia dropped from 90 percent to 20 percent. These statistics fail to tell the story of demographic and social processes that transpired over nearly 1,000 years. Turkish colonization of Anatolia should not be confused with religious persecution of Christians. Besides, the Turkish conquest of Anatolia began in 1071 under the Seljuks. The Ottoman State was founded in the period 1299–­1301 and was able to subjugate the entire peninsula only in the beginning of the 16th century. As such, the aforementioned percentages, despite already being vague, are not directly pertinent. Furthermore, the fact that parts of the Balkans, such as the region of Macedonia, remained under Ottoman rule longer than most of Anatolia and Christians there consistently constituted the majority of the population renders Whealey’s argument invalid. Lastly, Ottoman institutions were not the same as those of their Turkish and Muslim predecessors or Middle Eastern neighbors. We cannot really talk about a uniform and monolithic Islamic rule. This sort of generalization is exactly what I ask my students to avoid in understanding Middle Eastern/Islamic history.