Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lessons from the Ottoman Empire

I have always been fascinated by Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, which was a fascinating nexus of Islamic, Christian and Jewish civilization. Ottoman music, cuisine, art and architecture represented a fascinating amalgamation of the diverse groups which made up the empire, which included: Turks, Tatars, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Arabs, Assyrians, Albanians, Kurds, Bulgarians and many more. And of course the Ottoman Turkish culture left a linguistic and cultural mark on the said groups.

But, as someone well versed in Ottoman history, I am painfully aware of the downside of diversity. The experience of the Ottomans shows that ruling diverse populations is only possible with a strong, centralized and undemocratic state. As the empire came to include diverse populations that lacked common interests, values and visions, the heavy hand of the state became increasingly necessary. Routinely inter-communal conflicts were suppressed by the Ottomans, such as blood libels issued by Greeks Christians against their Jewish neighbors.

Endemic tension between ethno-religious groups contributed to the revolution of 1908, which led to a more democratic and representative state. Unfortunately, democratization did not lead to a decrease in inter communal tension, but a marked increase. In the remaining European territory of the Ottoman Empire, not only did the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Macedonians and Albanians battle the Ottoman State, but also against each other. Ultimately inter-communal tensions led to the death and displacement of millions of individuals in Anatolia and the Balkans.

Sadly, it was determined that the only way to create lasting peace by Greece and Turkey was to institute a population exchange in 1923 via the Treaty of Laussane. This treaty stipulated that 1.4 million Orthodox Christians of Turkey would be exchanged for 0.4 million Muslims of Greece. In addition, a three way population exchange occurred between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. And within the Turkish Republic, as the unifying Ottoman-Muslim identity was supplanted by individual Turkish and Kurdish identities, violent uprisings erupted that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Similar outbreaks of violence occurred in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Iraq and other nations, as shared identities and interests were cast off and individual ethno-religious identities were reaffirmed. In all of the cases we learned that only a heavy handed government was able to hold diverse groups together and accordingly democracy heralded disorder and conflict.

So, I am understandably skeptical when Americans promote policies that increase diversity and philosophies that highlight it, while eschewing integration and our shared identity. When I hear our academic, political and corporate elites extolling us to "celebrate diversity" my response is that they should temper their positive optimism with a better understanding of history. This is increasingly true as the American government seeks to redistribute wealth and employment along ethnic lines, as seen in affirmative action. Even the most tolerant individuals become chauvinists when you touch their wallets.

The underlying problem is that we take it for granted that we have maintained a diverse society that is free, peaceful and prosperous, when it is the exception to the historical rule. This does not mean that individuals and groups shouldn't be free to determine and express their identities. It merely means that we as a society must be optimistic, while also being cautious and skeptical about claims based in utopian visions rather than the real experience of empires that came before us.

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