Skip to content

Response to Review of State, Faith and Nation in Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Lands

I thank Alex Drace-Francis for his thoughtful review of my book. My hope was to prompt readers to think afresh about the past and present of the Balkans, Middle East, and European-Middle-Eastern relations, so his concluding comment that the book has caused him to ‘think much more deeply about many aspects of comparative, imperial, transnational and national history’ delights me. In that spirit, I take the fact that the majority of his review details points where he disagrees with me as indicative of his engagement with the book. Rather than respond point-by-point to his reservations, I will indicate as briefly as possible why my own patience wore thin with the historiography in which his scepticism is rooted, and where I see an alternative view of the dynamics of historical development as more credible.

For all the recent activity in Ottoman and post-Ottoman Balkan and Middle Eastern historiography, not much actually changes in our conception of the milieux that shaped developments in those places and eras. The accepted view of the modern era starts with a view of general dissolution in the late 18th-century Ottoman Empire that hastened two trends: the spread of revolutionary nationalism in the Balkans, and a determined Ottoman effort to Westernise. Imperial elites embraced rationalist European ways to recentralise the empire against the propagators of dissolution, and along with rationalism they adopted secularism. They failed to halt the spread of disaffection, however: nationalism made the Balkans ungovernable and eventually spread to Asia as well. The empire broke apart as the direct or indirect result of successive nationalist revolts (Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Armenian, Arab, Turkish). The post-Ottoman period featured enduring struggles to overcome underdevelopment, the main Ottoman legacy inherited by the nation-states won by those nationalist movements. They made real progress, until some of the old Ottoman-era demons (religious and nationalist extremism) broke free of the restraints that progress had imposed. While recent research has stripped away much of the hyperbole and added nuance, the basic narrative endures.

Numerous scholars have provided genuinely new insights on particular issues, but in contextualising their research most shoehorn their findings into the established narrative of historical development. The influence of the narrative thus flows from political into social, cultural, intellectual and economic history. According to Richard Bulliet, an eminent historian of the Middle East, the dominance of nationalism, and its kindred theme of post-colonialism, has made that region (including the Ottoman Empire) ‘a historiographical backwater’.(1a) The same holds true of the Balkans, and indeed much of central Europe.(2a)

That emphasis upon nationalism and post-colonialism suggests to me the point of origin for the standard narrative: the nation-building era seen in every new post-Ottoman country. With the partial exception of Turkey, these countries were founded not through revolution but by the action of Europe’s great powers, and in all of them (including Turkey) early regimes had shallow roots in the country and weak popular legitimacy. Most regimes became authoritarian to survive, and each embarked on a nation-building programme to give legitimacy to both the country and its rulers. History became a tool to build the idea that the state and its political orientations were the natural, just culminations of deep, age-old currents. Ottoman, Balkan and Middle Eastern historiographies struggle to break free from this backward-looking ‘origins of …’ approach (3a), and from the resulting ethnicisation of history and the stressing of progressivist themes of Westernisation and secularisation in society and politics.

Drace-Francis’s reservations suggest how difficult it is to break free of the Balkan channel of the narrative, as most of the works he references fit within it. Clogg’s The Movement for Greek Independence, 1770–1821, cited as offering a ‘balanced range of views’ about Ottoman Christian attitudes, is a good example of backward-looking, nation-building historiography. It starts from the idea of the Greek Revolt of 1821 as a national revolution and chooses documents that are supposed to explain its origins. Document selection for such a book is hardly ‘balanced’. Most of the sources meant to highlight dissatisfaction did not originate in the Ottoman Empire or date to the time of the revolt; their explanatory value depends upon the questionable assumption that there was a united, homogeneous Greek nation that built over 50 years the will and means to liberate itself from its oppressor. It is also difficult to see how these written texts had any meaningful link to the Greek Revolt that broke out in the Morea, where the literacy rate was probably under 1 per cent.(4a) Clogg’s book is now 40 years old, but more recent recommended work shows that any change has been fitful. As the title of van Meurs and Mungiu-Pippidi’s Ottomans into Europeans suggests, the main interest of contributors is in measuring young Balkan nation-states against ‘European’ models (more than half of the chapters make no, or only passing, reference to anything Ottoman), except for discussing negative ‘Ottoman’ legacies (corrupt bureaucrats, violent paramilitaries) that proved difficult to overcome. Where Ottoman history is referenced, it is the same version available to Clogg in the 1970s. Is it nuanced and credible, or simply reassuringly predictable?

Rather than letting the post-Ottoman nation-states frame the analysis, my book builds on a close look at the 1768–1839 period, a real turning point in Ottoman imperial history, when external and internal pressures threatened to destroy the empire. A series of disastrous wars against Christian European foes provided clear evidence that the empire faced an existential threat. How to respond effectively to that threat generated high drama in imperial politics and local turmoil in many provinces. A lot of people lost livelihood or life with little warning. Istanbul proved ruthless, demanding absolute control to enable defence of the empire, but arousing resistance among those who felt threatened by a state that renounced principles of legality and justice. Self-defence ‘rebellions’ erupted across the Balkans and the Middle East amongst Christians (e.g. the ‘Greek’ Revolt of the Morea) but more tellingly amongst Muslims. At his death, Sultan Mahmud II (1808–39) faced a real possibility of overthrow by the most successful Muslim resister, Muhammad Ali, the governor of Egypt. It was in effect a multi-front Civil War, prompted and nearly lost by the sultan.

This period, of course, furnishes the cornerstone for the standard narratives of nationalism, Westernisation and secularism, but these ideas were either irrelevant or antithetical to the pressing issues of the time. The conflict was not about who should rule, but about how those with power should exercise it. Religion, particularly in its social and philosophical aspects, suffused the scene: for sultans who legitimated their power as defenders of religion, the preservation of the empire as the Abode of Islam justified extreme measures; for those driven to arms to resist arbitrary ruthlessness, religion was the source of morality, of judging right and wrong, of justice. In relation to Westernisation, moreover, the prime purpose of power at the time was to repel invaders who threatened both imperial and local orders; adopting the ways and views of the Christian West would rob the defence of its purpose.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, little changed to make nationalism, secularism and westernisation more relevant. European pressure never relented (it determined the loss of every territory taken from Istanbul’s control, and was resented in every post-Ottoman country), but in 1839 the new sultan committed again to upholding principles of legality and justice – of fairness – in seeking to strengthen the state. Both the philosophy and the substance of law and justice were firmly rooted in Islamic principles, but non-Muslims benefitted also from the return of the rule of law. I do not say that ‘Christians were never dissatisfied with Ottoman rule’: I argue that they were sufficiently content to preclude serious rebellion, except in response to oppressive misgovernment (as in the early 19th century). And even if Christians were merely quiescent rather than actively loyal, the empire faced no serious domestic threat from nationalism.

Such a revised picture of the Ottoman background clarifies the challenges facing the nominal nation-states created under European direction. All disestablished Ottoman-era religious institutions and created new ones that were turned into supports for nation-building. All rewrote history. As noted, all became authoritarian. Where the region has suffered headline-catching trouble in recent decades, from Yugoslavia to Syria, the lineage of tensions goes back to the attitudes and policies adopted in this early phase of independent nation-statehood. The recrudescence of religion also shows that states’ efforts to capture religion was not completely successful, and in the strength of a group such as the Muslim Brothers it is easy to see parallels with some of the resistance to sultanic despotism in the early nineteenth century.

My argument triggers a wide range of reactions, from enthusiasm to complete rejection, but Drace-Francis’s is attuned to what I wanted: to provoke readers to think seriously about basic assumptions that shape Ottoman, Balkan and Middle Eastern historiography. Readers interested in Western-Middle Eastern relations also should find something to think about. As I say in the book, I think my account is sound, but I also have no illusion that it is definitive: I may go too far on some points – and not far enough on others. The book fleshes out the bare-bones summary I have given here, and I urge readers to approach it with open minds; it may not convince everyone, but where readers reject points, I merely hope that they will think about their reasons for rejection, and to apply that critical thinking also to the accounts that ‘prove’ me wrong.


  1. H-Environment Roundtable Review, 3, 8 (2013), 11 <> [accessed 25 July 2016].Back to (1a)
  2. On the endemic ethnicisation of the history of Habsburg Europe, see Jeremy King, ‘The nationalization of East Central Europe: ethnicism, ethnicity, and beyond’, in Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Habsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present, ed. Maria Bucur and Nancy Wingfield (West Lafayette, IN, 2001), pp. 112–52.Back to (2a)
  3. I take in this sense Bulliet’s further complaint that the little scholarly space left by nationalism and post-colonialism has been occupied recently by the study of Islam. As much of his own work could be counted in that category, he presumably meant the habit of treating ‘Islam’ as a problem to be solved or as some distinct, even exotic, thing (‘Islamic thought’ or ‘Islamic practice’) that, if isolated and traced back in history, can explain events like the Iranian Revolution or 9/11.Back to (3a)
  4. Given the recognised importance of literacy and education to the spread of nationalism, the fact that the most famous ‘national’ revolts, the Serbian of 1804, the Greek of 1821 and the Arab of 1916, started in some of the most backward parts of the empire has prompted surprisingly little curiosity.Back to (4a)