Getting Out of Our Grooves — Part I: Where Does Religious Freedom Come From?

Locke’s famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” urged us to “get out of our grooves and study the rest of the globe.”  In particular, he pointed to Turkey where the “Sultan governs in peace twenty million people of different religions . . . .”

Karen Barkey of Columbia University has given us a chance to get out of our church-state grooves with many terrific insights into the crucial role of religious toleration in the Ottoman Empire.  Her wonderful book is Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (2008).  What’s most interesting, at least from my point of view, is how Ottoman rulers pursued toleration as a policy to the extent that it had political, economic, strategic and other benefits for the rulers.

We often see issues of religious toleration/freedom as essentially intellectual or philosophical matters, something that governments should provide simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Professor Barkey, a sociologist and historian, shows clearly how Ottoman “toleration is neither equality nor a modern form of ‘multiculturalism’ in the imperial setting.  Rather, it is a means of rule, of extending, consolidating, and enforcing state power.”

It’s a fascinating book not just about religion, but also about how empires establish and sustain themselves over time and extended geographical areas.  And, though I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far to an empire built on raiding and booty, for those of us who have spent considerable amounts of time in the “real world,” there are a lot of issues common to running an international company and maintaining a sprawling empire. (Even the most imperial CEO, however, is unlikely to have the full range of enforcement mechanisms available to the sultans.)

Don Drakeman

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2 responses to “Getting Out of Our Grooves — Part I: Where Does Religious Freedom Come From?

  1. Mark L. Movsesian

    Don, very interesting post, but Ottoman religious toleration was a complicated thing. The rules of classical Islamic law that governed the Empire for most of its history granted toleration to Christians and Jews as parties to a notional treaty called the “dhimma.” The dhimma granted Christians and Jews – known as “dhimmis” — protection in exchange for a promise to pay a heavy poll tax known as the jizya and accept social subordination. Attempts by dhimmis to rise above their station and pretend to equality with Muslims were seen as violations of the dhimma and exposed Christians and Jews to ruthless repression. The dhimma restrictions were not always enforced and dhimmis could thrive in Ottoman society for long periods of time. But the dhimmis’ existence was always a precarious one.

  2. Mark, you’re absolutely right, and Prof. Barkey does a good job of explaining how limited Ottoman religious toleration could be. What intrigues me is the issue of power: Rulers/governments with the power to persecute sometimes do so, and sometimes don’t. The question is: What motivates a government to tolerate dissenting religions, or even to give their adherents full and equal status as citizens? The Ottomans ran their political equations and came up with the dhimma approach you describe. I’m especially interested, for example, in the extent to which American governments ran similar equations with different results, leading them to choose the various approaches to religious freedom that they adopted, which changed over time and varied with respect to different religions.

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