Treatment of Minorities by the Ottomans

Treatment of Minorities by the Ottomans

Category: History & Archives
Published: 16 November 2008
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The Ottoman Empire developed a policy of "Open Doors" and religious tolerance, beginning with the Greeks of Constantinople and the Haik of Bursa, and later the Haik of Crimea; continuing with the Jews expelled from Spain and later from Russia; and extending to numerous other minorities and victims of political persecution. In order to accomodate all these into the existing social, political and economic system, it developed the Quranic concept of dhimma , to ensure a method of Islamic rule tolerant to different cultures. This translated into a system of minority administrations known as the Millet system, whereby religious groups could rule their own people with minimal interference while ensuring Ottoman hegemony and efficient tax collection (Salahi Sonyel).


In 1492, the Iberic Jews were given a choice. Either accept Christianity (Roman Catholicism) or leave behind everything that you own, take only your life with you, and quit Spain forever. Otherwise, they would taste the unfaltering judgment of the Spanish Inquisition. Since the Jews are not much capable of make-believe, particularly when it comes to religious matters, most decided to abandon their fortune to the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabelle and depart for exile. The royal couple would turn this fortune into one of the best investments for Spain: They would use it to underwrite Christopher Colombus' expeditions to discover new worlds and usher in the Colonial Age. The expulsed Jews were mostly accepted by 3 countries. Morocco, Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire. Historians record that most of the exiled Jews ended up in the Ottoman Empire, at the time ruled by Sultan Selim II, son of Suleiman the Magnificient. As they were being settled in various provinces of the Empire, particularly in the Thracian domains, names, regions of origin, and areas of resettlement were meticulously recored, in Ottoman archives (Click here for translations of page 1, 2, 3, 4).The Ottomans would extend they saving grace to the Jews over and over again in subsequent centuries. Crimean Jews, Jews of Jerusalem. The only exception was in 1666, when the son of a wealthy merchant from Smyrna claimed to be the false messiah. This man, Sebbatai Sevi, was forced by the Sunni Ottoman regime to deny his heretical views on pain of torture and death. He converted on the surface but, deep inside, he and many of his followers continued their Kabalist beliefs and practices. Today, in Turkey, there are several hundred thousand Sabbataist muslims, who occupy affluent positions in politics, trade, arts, etc. Most of the founders of the Committee of Union and Progress were Sebbataist Jews from Thessalonika, as were most of the Ottoman and Turkish administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.In WWII, Jews again faced persecution on a grand scale. Most ended up in Nazi concentration camps and perished. Those who could escape went to Allied or neutral countries, including the Republic of Turkey. letter of Albert Einstein is testimony that the "Open Doors" policy of the Ottoman Empire had been inherited by and pursued under the Turkish Republic in the 20th century.In another example of personal heroism and sacrifice, the Turkish Consul General to Rhodes, Selahattin Ulkumen, himself a Sebbataist, interceded to save the lives of 42 Jewish families of Turkish nationality from depertation to Auschwitz. He was honored in 1990 as a "Righteous Gentile" (Zaddik) by Yad Va-Shem. His story is depicted in the movie, Desperate Hours


Millets In Balkan Territories

Turks first set foot in Europe in early 1300s and by mid 16th century, under successive successes of Mehmet II, Bayezid II, Selim I, and Suleyman I, they had already conquered all of the Balkans; what is today Romania, Wallachia, Transilvania and Moldavia; most of Hungary; and had made vassal states around almost all the shores of the Black Sea . From the onset, the Ottomans made it known to the people they subjected with these conquests that the local religious practices would not only be tolerated but respected with the utmost care by the central government and local administration. Let's follow the clear, fluid and informative style of Lord Kinross, from his "The Ottoman Empire"- Chapter 2: A Foothold in Europe, pp. 22-28 (London, The Folio Society, 2003):"The entry of the Turks into Europe was no sudden irruption, like that of the Mongols across Asia. ...As a later French traveler was to write, 'The country is safe, and there are no reports of brigands or highwaymen' - more than could be said, at that time, of other realms of Christendom". The archives are replete with documents that attest to this magnanimity so characteristic of the Ottoman rule:As Mehmet II advanced into Bosnia and Serbia, he issued an imperial firman to the Bosnian priests to practice their religious in freedom. A copy of the original letter, (dated April 4, 1478), its transliteration and translation are shown here (Living Together under the Same Sky, Archives of the Office of the Prime Minister, Republic of Turkey). This tradition would continue over the subsequent centuries, so much so that, the local Christian minorities kept sending letters expressing their appreciation for the religious tolerance of their Ottoman rulers. One such letter of gratitude (dated April 16, 1853) was sent by the inhabitants of Tuzla in Bosnia to Sultan Abdulmecid Han (ruled 1839-61), ( Transliteration Translation) and another written in Serbian and dated February 2, 1872, to his brother Sultan Abdulaziz Han (ruled 1861-76), for his assistance from the Ottoman treasury to the completion of a church in Yenipazar, Bosnia. Other examples of correspondences to and from the Sultans regarding their benevolent rule of the Christian minorities abound in the Ottoman archives.

Other Acts of Compassion

The Ottomans extended their care and compassion to other nations and groups in distress on a routine basis. Some examples are the help that was sent to Ireland during the great famine of 1847 (Click here for theoriginal document , its transliteration , and translation ); and the aid to United States during a period of devastating forest fires (Click here for the original document , its transliteration , and translation ).


The Haik

Under almost 5 centuries of Ottoman rule, the Haik prospered economically, their population increased by births and by migrations, and they were granted free religious practices, like all other non-Muslim minorities under Ottoman rule. The Haik have always been given special privileges by the Turks while their were under Turkish domination. They seldom observed the responsibilities that came with those privileges, though. They thought that an Empire as great as the Ottoman, even when ultimately weakened, would allow an ethnic minority to split and build its own state. They miscalculated several points: One, that the Balkan ethnicities were already forming a majority against the Muslims there; two, that the Allies and the Russians who sicced them against their masters would remain loyal to them till the dire end; and three, that rebellion and massacre would go unpunished. Below, is a synopsis of why the Haik were privileged and how they ignored the only responsibility that came with those privileges, i.e., loyalty.

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