State, Faith and Nation in Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Lands
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press , 2014, ISBN: 9781107615236; 339pp.; Price: £55.00
University of Amsterdam
Date accessed: 6 June, 2023
This review was developed from a discussion on the occasion of the launch of the book, hosted by the 'Rethinking Modern Europe’ seminar in which both author and reviewer participated, together with Professor Benjamin Fortna (University of Arizona).
Frederick F. Anscombe’s State, Faith and Nation in Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Lands is the latest of a number of works in Ottoman history that have focussed attention not on a rise-and-fall paradigm of ‘grandeur and decline’ but on long-term trends and continuities. Rather than analysing what caused the Ottoman polity to be defeated by European Powers, Anscombe considers instead why it ultimately lasted longer than Europe’s other eastern Empires; and also offers a synthetic account of how it worked. Particular attention is paid to the internal transformation of governance, and this is used to give a new interpretation to both the origins and character of the independent successor states. As such it follows several recent trends: first, in questioning the myth of Ottoman weakness, and second, in attempting to analyse the evolution of post-Ottoman polities in a comparative light rather than as discrete (European and Asiatic) developments.(1)
Anscombe’s book begins with an account of the structure of Ottoman governance in its classical form (pp. 21–33). He identifies the first major crisis period facing the Ottoman state as being that of 1768–1839, and the early part of the book is dedicated to understanding how this crisis came about and led a restructuring of the Ottoman order (pp. 33–89). He then provides an account of the religious, political and legal thought and practice that formed the basis of the Empire in the period from 1839–1908 (pp. 90–120) followed by an account of its destruction in the period from 1908–24 (pp. 121–48). The second half of the book (pp. 148–291) deals with the successor states which emerged in the Balkans and the Middle East, including Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey and the Arab states.
While other scholars have identified the crisis and transformation of the Ottoman polity in earlier periods (2), Anscombe’s analysis of the 1768–1839 transition is convincing, and gives attention to the military superiority of foreign powers as well as to any perceived structural weaknesses in the Ottoman state. He also provides a convincing account of the weak nature of the successor states, particularly in the Balkans but also in the Arab Lands.
I very much appreciated Anscombe’s account of the religious, legal and intellectual underpinnings of the reforming Ottoman state. At the same time, I wonder whether the account implies too much uniformity and intellectual coherence both to the concept of the state and to that of Islam, to the extent that he declares the Empire to have been Islamic ‘from beginning to end’. Other accounts of the Ottoman order stress that it was Islamic in some areas of life (law) but eclectic in others, with the continuation of informal practices of governance being the norm.(3) Anscombe’s answer to this is to show the relevance of Islamic law (sharia and kanun) to non-Muslim communities (pp. 26–31)). The discussion here is certainly interesting, and he is right to override the now increasingly-questioned older view of the Empire as being divided for legal and administrative purposes into separate religious communities (millets) (4); but his examples pertain only to criminal law. He does mention that family law remained the preserve of non-Muslim religious authorities, but this was an important fact not just for social life but for a political system where patronage and household networks played such a major role.
Moreover, I also wonder whether the reassertion by Ottoman actors of principles of religion and state as a response to crisis can be interpreted paradoxically as a result of interaction with (not blind imitation of) European models, particularly that of Russia but also that of western states, countries in which monarchical and imperial authority existed in symbiosis with a control of the church hierarchy.(5) At other junctures Anscombe makes very suggestive comparisons between the religious nature of the Ottoman state and that of, say, 19th-century Britain. I think the non-Ottoman world could be seen in this narrative as a dynamic stimulus which whom the Ottomans had a longer history of interaction rather than as an alien sphere which arrived as a shock in the late 18th century.(6)
While the post-Ottoman states’ instability, weak economic performance and lack of success in attracting loyalty from their citizens is hard to deny, I think Anscombe has to some extent succumbed to the temptation to draw too strong a contrast between the old Empire and the new states. It is stated at several points that the Christian population of the Empire were never dissatisfied with Ottoman rule, which I think is not tenable. Attention is not given to Christian actors who made numerous explicit statements of dissatisfaction with the regime.(7) There is also a tendency to label activists who developed ideas of independence as ‘alien’ to the Ottoman order, or as deriving their ideas solely from Europe. The Greek proto-nationalist Rigas Velestinlis is described as living ‘in Vienna’ (p. 152), whereas in reality he spent only the very last portion of his life there; most of his political ideas were developed in Ottoman Wallachia. Likewise, Bulgarian revolutionary Georgi Rakovski is described as operating from abroad (pp. 152-3, 171), when in fact he worked mainly in Belgrade and Bucharest when they were still part of the Empire, in Bulgarian communities which owed their flourishing existence inter alia to Ottoman political and commercial routes; like Rigas, he spent an important part of his early life in Istanbul.
I would agree with Anscombe that few of the earlier leaders of revolts in the Balkans can be described as ‘nationalist’, and his critique of the paradigm of decentralization through the rise of ayans and bandits in the 18th century is fascinating, particularly the point that these people – whether Christian, in the case of the Serbian rebels, or Muslim, in the case of figures such as Ali Pasha of Yanina or Osman Pasha of Vidin – claimed loyalty to the Ottoman system at the same time as their actions seemed to undermine it. However, their interaction with European powers did in fact entail the introduction of norms and expectations along European nation-statist models, at these figures sometimes sought foreign protection (of Napoleon, in the case of Ali Pasha, or of Russia or Austria, as in the case of the Phanariots) (8); and also sometimes moved to another region to claim further authority, as in the case of figures like Mohammed Ali or Kemal Atatürk who came from Balkan roots to transform Egypt and Anatolia.
The treatment of the nationalist ideologies of the 19th century, and of trends in the 20th and 21st such as the revival of religion after the fall of communism in the Balkans, is somewhat sweeping.(9) It is true that much historiographical activity in post-Ottoman states consisted in the production of factitious and stereotyped narratives, but this is not something exceptional about the Balkans.(10) Likewise, on language reform, Anscombe has a point in noting that in the development of modern standard Bulgarian, differentiation from other south Slavic norms sometimes proceeded from political considerations (pp. 150-151), but it is an exaggeration to conclude therefrom that Bulgarian is an artificial language.(11) The existence of different dialectal norms and centres of authority across a broad linguistic continuum merely reflects the realities of Ottoman decentralization, the presence of Balkan peoples in other empires, and the role of religious missionaries. As such it is an interesting case for understanding the nature of late Ottoman diversity, rather than an aberration from a putative early Ottoman ecumene or in contrast with the successful language-building enterprises in the countries of Western Europe.
These are some points which arose in my mind when reading Frederick Anscombe’s fascinating and provocative interpretation of late and post-Ottoman realities. Whatever its debatable aspects, I learnt a huge amount from it and thank Anscombe for making me think much more deeply about many aspects of comparative, imperial, transnational and national history. He has also done well to bring together a wide body of recent research into a clear narrative covering the long term. Sharply written and provocative in its interpretations, Anscombe’s work will undoubtedly be of interest to anyone researching or teaching Ottoman or comparative imperial history.
- See e.g. the work of; Selim Deringil, The Well-Protected Domains. Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876–1909 (London, 1999); Virginia Aksan, Ottoman Wars, 1700–1870 (Harlow, 2007); Christine Philliou, Biography of an Empire (Berkeley, CA, 2011); Benjamin Fortna, ‘The Ottoman Empire and after’, in State-Nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire, Greece and Turkey. Orthodox and Muslims, 1830–1945, ed. Benjamin Fortna et al. (London, New York, NY, 2013).Back to (1)
- E.g. Rifa’at ‘Ali Abou-El-Haj, Formation of the Modern State. The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centures (2nd ed., Syracuse, NY, 2005), esp. pp. 40–52.Back to (2)
- E.g. Cemal Kafadar, Between Two Worlds (Berkeley, CA, 1995); Colin Imber, The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1600 (Basingstoke, 2004); Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream (London, 2007).Back to (3)
- See also here the work of Paraschevas Konortas, ‘From ta’ife to Millet’, in Ottoman Greeks in an Age of Nationalism, ed. Dimitris Gondicas and Charles Issawi (Princeton, NJ, 1999), pp. 169–80; and Tom Papademetriou, Render Unto the Sultan. Power, Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church in the Early Ottoman Centuries (Oxford, 2015).Back to (4)
- See e.g. Mustafa Aksakal, ‘Europeanization, Islamization, and the new imperialism of the Ottoman State’, in Paradoxes of Peace in Nineteenth-Century Europe, ed. Thomas Hippler & Miloš Vec (Oxford, 2015), pp. 250–8.Back to (5)
- See e.g. Suraiya Faroqhi, The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It (London, 2005); The Frontiers of the Ottoman World [Proceedings of the British Academy, 156], ed. A. C. S. Peacock (Oxford, 2009); The Renaissance and the Ottoman World, ed. Anna Contadini and Claire Norton (Farnham, Burlington, VT, 2013); Palmira Brummett, Mapping the Ottomans. Sovereignty, Territory and Identity in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Cambridge, 2015).Back to (6)
- To take just the Greek case, the documents in The Movement for Greek Independence, 1770–1821, ed. Richard Clogg (Basingstoke, 1976) give a balanced range of views.Back to (7)
- Fikret Adanır, ‘Semi-autonomous forces in the Balkans and Anatolia’, in The Cambridge History of Turkey, vol. 3, ed. Suraiya N. Faroqhi (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 183–4.Back to (8)
- More nuanced accounts, looking at continuities, may be found in the books State-Nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire ed. Fortna (cit. supra); Ottomans into Europeans, ed. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Wim van Meurs (London, 2010); and Balkan Nationalism(s) and the Ottoman Empire, ed. Dimitris Stamatopoulos. 3 vols. (Istanbul, 2015).Back to (9)
- Marius Turda, ‘Academic history writing in the Balkans to 1945’, in The Oxford History of Historical Writing, vol. 4, ed. Juan Maiguaschca, Stuart Macintyre and Attila Pok (Oxford, 2011), pp. 349–66. The inclusion of Turda’s analysis alongside the other contributions to this volume gives a good opportunity for readers to think about the Balkan case in comparative context.Back to (10)
- Compare Maria Todorova, ‘Language as cultural unifier in a multilingual setting: the Bulgarian Case during the nineteenth century’, East European Politics and Societies, 4, 3 (1990), 439–50; and Rossitza Guentcheva, ‘Symbolic geography of language: orthographic debates in Bulgaria’, Language and communication, 19 (1999), 355–71. Just on a technical note, Anscombe is in error to state that the adoption of postpositive articles in Bulgarian caused the abandonment of noun inflection: as the examples of Romanian and Albanian show, it is possible to have both features.Back to (11)
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.
- H-Environment Roundtable Review, 3, 8 (2013), 11 <https://networks.h-net.org/system/files/contributed-files/env-roundtable-3-8.pdf> [accessed 25 July 2016].Back to (1a)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)