Belated Ottoman Religious Reform

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 152-153:

In 1851 Christian testimony was admitted in a local criminal court for the first time, but it was not for another decade that it was given decisive weight when contradicted by Muslim witnesses. “Are we the masters of this empire or not?” demanded some of the beys, protesting on the “part of Islamism” against the constant infringement by foreign powers of the “rights of the Turkish nation.” A visiting dervish preached that Europe was “devoted to the extermination of Muslims,” and claimed that the sultan, by giving in to their demands, had shown himself to be no more than a gavur. “Let us massacre the infidels whom the Prophet and our first Sultans conquered,” he went on, “And then we will go throughout Frenghistan [the land of the Franks] sword in hand, and all will be well with us.” When Abdul Mecid died in 1861, the view in the local coffeehouses was that he had been “too favourably disposed to Christians,” and many of Salonica’s Muslims, including highly placed functionaries, openly hoped that his successor would bring back the janissaries and revoke the reforms.

This did not happen. Instead the number of non-Muslims in the civil service rose, and in 1868 a Council of State with non-Muslim members was created. In the provinces progress was slower: as late as 1867, justice in Salonica was still loaded against non-Muslims, taxes remained inequitable and the clause relating to Christians being appointed to official positions remained a “dead letter.” Ibrahim Bey, the mufti, resisted reform of the local courts, and as he was very popular among the poorer Muslims of the city, Salonica’s governors hesitated to take him on. But the lead from the top was clear: the Porte instructed Salonica’s mollah to speak respectfully when he addressed the Greek metropolitan, and to refer politely to the “Christian” religion. “Looking at things reasonably,” wrote the British ambassador, Sir Henry Bulwer in 1864, “it is but just to observe that this government is about the most tolerant in Europe.”

The old ideology of the sultan as Defender of the Faith was now no longer appropriate for the new-look empire. It was supplanted by a new creed of Ottomanism, an allegiance to the dynasty itself that supposedly crossed religious boundaries. As the government gazette for the province declared in May 1876:

Even though for centuries among us there has not existed something we might call public opinion, on account of our different religions, nonetheless Ottomans, Christians, Jews and in a word all those bearing the name of Osmanli and living under the sceptre of His Imperial Excellency have lived as faithful subjects of all ranks, as patriots and as a single unit of nationalities, each lending a helping hand to the other as brothers, none ever daring to attack the honour, property, life or religious customs of the other, and everyone enjoying complete freedom in the exercise of his social privileges.

The new policy was underlined in religious holidays and official ceremonies. After the Ottoman fleet arrived in port, Greek priests from the city performed mass for its Christian sailors in the Beshchinar gardens, and Turkish naval officers complimented the archbishop on a “very appropriate sermon.” When the chief rabbi Raphael Ascher Covo died at the end of 1874 after twenty-six years in office, his funeral was attended by the staff of the governor, the president of the town council, the Greek archbishop, consuls and other notables: the procession was “one of the largest ever witnessed in European Turkey.” All shops were closed, Jewish firemen in the service of the North British and Mercantile Insurance companies provided the guard of honour lining the streets, and bells were rung as the bier passed the Orthodox cathedral.” A century earlier, such an occasion would have been inconceivable.

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Filed under Balkans, Britain, France, Greece, religion, Turkey

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