Historical cases. In the Ottoman Empire, Christians, Jews and other groups were recognised as having the status of protected communities deserving of inferior rights. This was a legislative system similar to that of the Roman Empire but one that was radically different as regards the principle of citizenship.
Ultimo aggiornamento: 22/04/2022 09:11:54
Islamic society in its traditional classic form was basically made up of the umma, that is to say by the Muslim faithful, whereas the followers of the great Biblical religions, Jews and Christians, who were called the people of the Book (ahl al-Kitab) the Book being the Bible were seen as dhimma, that is to say 'protected' people, when defining the community, or dhimmis, when individuals were referred to. The Ottoman socio-political approach and the corresponding juridical system of millet from the Arabic milla, meaning originally a group, a sect was based on the Islamic ethno-religious conception of dhimma, which was brought by the former to a fuller formulation as a basic element in the composition of the new Islamic political society. This system recognised, according to established criteria, the communitarian identity of the various ethnic groups, even though this identity was not territorial, with the limit, however, of being, after a fashion, somehow subjects of the state at a secondary level, with truncated rights compared to the Muslim umma. Although similar, to some extent, to the imperial system of law of ancient Rome, where non- territorial ethnic elements were also recognised this we know for certain at least with regard to the Jews the Ottoman millet system, as in general Muslim systems of law, differed from that system because of its discrimination between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects. In ancient Rome citizenship was acquired, and although not all the subjects of the Empire were ipso facto citizens, all citizens were equal before the law.
Such partial discrimination, such as that which operated in Islamic societies, existed, however, almost everywhere during the centuries following the collapse of the classic Roman system, even if in different measures and with different modalities, and this led to periodic persecution which could end in mass executions. Apart from these extreme cases, which prevailed at times of turbulence, war and invasions, it is evident that these forms of statehood and governance were essentially of a theocratic and absolutist, and consequently of a dictatorial, nature. Indeed, we should remember that these features were common traits, even though in different forms and degrees, of almost of all the various regimes of the pre-modern era in human history. We should also remember not to evaluate all those restrictions according to contemporary European/Western standards, which would be an anachronism, or on the basis of unique criteria or one-sided viewpoints, for the following principal reasons (to which others could be added) as far as the great Islamic Empires, es pecially the Safavid Empire and the Ottoman Empires, are concerned: a) the prohibition, for instance, on bearing arms and becoming soldiers or warriors, that was applied to Christians and Jews in Islamic societies, pushed the members of both these groups to develop mercantile skills which guaranteed many of them a high standard of living compared to the Muslim population; b) exceptions to the restrictive rules were sometimes made by the Shahs or Sultans if not on theoretical then certainly on practical grounds (for example, some privileges conceded by Shah 'Abbas to the Armenians offered these latter better opportunities than those enjoyed by Muslims; c) a very special status of exception was represented by the Khojas in Persia and the Amiras in the Ottoman State, some of whom occupied high-ranking positions as counsellors to administrators to the Shahs and Sultans.
Two Identities Alone
Notwithstanding the above-mentioned limits of both the general Islamic and the Ottoman systems of governments, if we compare these rules with the current Western system of the nation-State, in its rigorous and coherent formulation, it is only fair to admit that this latter is capable of achieving two kinds of identity: one involving citizenship and one derived from membership of a territorial minority, by which is meant a minority group that is linked to, and recognisable in, a well-defined territory, for example the Basques in Spain, the Magyars in Transylvania, the South-Tyrolese in Italy, etc. In all other cases, which offer a remarkable multitude of typologies, and are based on differences of ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, and similar peculiarities, the identity of minorities is recognised in public life and institutions, certainly at a lesser or much lesser degree (according to individual cases) than in the above mentioned traditional Islamic systems, even if a treatment of full equality is guaranteed individually (which unfortunately is not as frequent as one could or should expect from modern democracies) to all the citizens belonging to those minorities. Being an Armenian or a Greek or a Jew within the Ottoman State, was not a kind of 'hobby', expressible at best in forms of an association, as is often the case with non-territorial minorities in modern nation-states. Indeed, the ethnic, cultural, and religious identity of the various officially recognised Ottoman millets was realised in, and expressed through, typical and exclusively owned institutions which were bound up with the very existence of the community itself, independently of any contingent personal or group initiative.
The traditional Islamic systems emphasised another and very important reality of topical interest for our time: fundamentalism was alien to traditional classic Islam. This is clear because dhimm's and millets had their own law and procedures which did not coincide with Islamic law or shari'ah. This does not mean at all that there was no fanaticism in traditional Islam in the same way as there was, albeit to different degrees and according to different modalities, fanaticism else. The fact is that fundamentalism is not simply fanaticism. Nor is fundamentalism synonymous with 'integralism', which is an approach that involves a literal and very rigorous interpretation of religious law but remains within the inner sphere of a given religion and its community of faithful without conditioning other religious groups. Furthermore, fundamentalism is not synonymous with classical medieval theocracy which existed, as has already been pointed out, in both the Muslim and Christian worlds, and amounts to a very specific theological view of society, the state, power, sovereignty, law and related concepts.
Fundamentalism is a modern and technical concept used to refer to those cases in which religious law must be applied to all the members of a given political community whatever their religion may be. In this technical sense, fundamentalism assumes a conception of law as a pure form and this is a typically Western conception which underwent its most noteworthy developments during the modern era, in particular with the culture of the Enlightenment and Kantian philosophy. As a religious trend, its origins are to be found in some specific forms of Christian Protestantism that developed, especially in the New World, during the nineteenth century and even later. Normally, neither Ottoman Sultans nor Savafid Shahs imposed the Islamic shari'a on their Christian subjects. Sometimes fanaticism led them or their representatives (their high officials) to attempt to convert these subjects by force or simply to persecute them, as has already been pointed out. But it is evident that this did not happen, either universally or constantly.
The Origins of Genocide
What I am saying is not contradicted by the catastrophic tragedy of the Armenian genocide. In reality, its conception and execution were due mainly to the Panturkic/Panturanic nationalistic ideology of the modernising and westernising movement of the Union and Progress Party whose ideology was inspired and clumsily copied from Western, and especially French, models. It would be very difficult for theocratic Islamic ideology to have conceived such a universal target, unless in its more primitive form of a radically aggressive and devastating action, of 'not leaving one stone upon another'. But this form of action was typical of intense contexts of war or invasion. Moreover, it took place, and normally at a regional level, in concomitance with the advance of huge waves of migrating populations or invading and destroying armies. Such was not the historical context at all of Anatolian Turkey towards the end of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the westernising pioneers of the Union and Progress Party were able to project and execute mass murder, the murder of a millet, in an exemplary way. We also know that the Sheikh-ül-Islam of the time himself opposed the decision to 'deport' all of the Armenians on the basis of possible conjectural accusations and adjudged such a general measure against innocent people as being contrary to the Islamic faith and law, which required those whose guilt was proved to be punished but did not contemplate the punishment of an entire innocent people.
In the following points we can summarise what has been said in this paper and draw some conclusions which, I believe, are of topical interest for own times.
1. Religious fundamentalism, which should be distinguished from simple fanaticism, intolerance, and even from religious 'integralism', and which constitutes one of the major and most worrying concerns of our times, does not derive from the inner nature of Islam as such. It certainly did not exist, in the theoretical and universalistic forms of our days, either in the Safavid or in the Ottoman Empires, which were, without any doubt, theocratic Islamic entities based on the shari'ah. As a rule, however, except in cases of local violent persecution or institutional prescriptions, as in the case of the devshirme, neither Shahs nor Sultans thought of imposing Islamic law on their non-Muslim subjects.
2. The Islamic dhimma, and later the Ottoman millet systems, although limited in their conception of human rights, for example non-Muslim subjects were after a certain fashion seen as second level subjects, balanced this limitation with an explicit recognition of an ethno-cultural group identity that was different from that of the dominant Islamic majority. In the ancient classical West, the Roman Empire offered a similar prototype in which, however, all those who had Roman citizenship enjoyed equal rights regardless of their ethnic origin, which was nonetheless recognised, even independently from an immediate territorial tie. This we can state with sufficient evidence as far at least as Jewish communities were concerned.
A synthesis between the best of the classical imperial 'cosmopolitan' systems and the modern conception of full citizenship as taught and practiced in the nation-States of a Western standard which gave us a great charter of human rights and especially of the rights of human person, regardless of any eventual factor of discrimination seems not only theoretically possible but also suitable.
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