The millet system

I’m used to nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, particularly among religious and conservative circles. Nationalists like the “Turks carrying forth the banner of Islam” bit; the religious like to think of the Empire as a time when Islam was properly dominant.

The funny thing is, I run into praise for the Ottoman Empire’s “millet system,” in which subjects of the Empire were organized into semi-autonomous religious communities, from some unlikely quarters as well. Recently I was reading something by Noam Chomsky on the Middle East. He made some astute comments on how modern nation-states almost inevitably oppress ethnic minorities in much of the world. But then, he also remarked that the peoples of the Middle East might be better off under something like the old Ottoman millet system. Different ethnic and religious communities could then remain distributed in a very mixed fashion over geographic territories. They’d be autonomous, and a nationalism of a central state apparatus wouldn’t create second-class citizens.

Interestingly, may Islamic political thinkers suggest something similar: that the communal arrangements of classical Islamic states is an alternative, perhaps even more viable model, of multiculturalism. Instead of imposing secular individualism, a millet system would respect primary religious identities, allowing communities to fully live out their religious commitments under their own religious laws.

From a conservative Muslim perspective, I can see the attraction. And yes, this is an alternative way to keep the peace and to be multicultural and all that. But however much I share the distrust of nationalism shown by many secular liberals and leftists, I think sympathy to the millet system is a bit naive. Whatever its merits, an Ottoman-style arrangement of autonomous religious and ethnic communities would hardly be a good environment for secular, cosmopolitan people. What “community” are we supposed to belong to? Some Muslim political thinkers suggest that there could be a separate “secular community” with its own laws. But it’s hard to get the sort of coherence and cohesiveness among modern secular people as among religious communitarians. A millet system means communities living under the petty tyranny of their local priests, mullahs, and rabbis. Modern secular individualists generally like to avoid that sort of thing.

The benefits of a communally organized polity with a distant peacekeeper central authorityalso seem exaggerated. There is a reason most subject populations welcomed the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Is the system at all workable without a premodern economy, highly religious peasant populations, Islam as the privileged religion of the rulers, and the threat of imperial violence? I can understand frustration with the way the nation-state model has been imposed on many geographies with sometimes disastrous results. But still, this sort of state seems to go with the territory of being modern. I’m all for thinking about alternatives, but nostalgia for religiously defined Empires based on oppressing peasants seems an odd way to go about it.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University