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The Ottoman Millet System

The caste division between Moslem and Rayah, for instance, may stamp the Ottoman "State Idea" as mediaeval and incapable of progress; but this has injured the state as a whole more appreciably than the penalised section of it, for extreme penalisation works both ways. The Government ruled out the Christians so completely from the dominant Moslem commonwealth that it suffered and even encouraged then to form communities of their own. The Rayah became Millets - not yoke-oxen, but unshackled herds.

These Christian Millets were instituted by Sultan Mohammed II, after he had conquered Constantinople in 1453 and set himself to reorganize the Ottoman State as the conscious heir of the East Roman Empire. They are national corporations with written charters, often of an elaborate kind. Each of them is presided over by a Patriarch, who holds office at the discretion of the Government, but is elected by the community and is the recognized intermediary between the two, combining in his own person the headship of a voluntary Rayah association and the status of an Ottoman official.

The special function thus assigned to the Patriarchates gives the Millets, as an institution, an ecclesiastical character (the word Millet means simply "religious sect" in the Arabic language, from which it was borrowed by the Turks); but in the Near East a church is merely the foremost aspect of a nationality, and the authority of the Patriarchates extends to the control of schools, and even to the administration of certain branches of civil law. The Millets, in fact, are practically autonomous bodies in all that concerns religion, culture and social life; but it is a maimed autonomy, for it is jealouly debarred from any political expression. The establishment of the Millets is a recognition, and a palliation, of the pathological anomaly of the Near East - the political disintegration of Near Eastern peoples and the tenacity with which they have clung, in spite of it, to their corporate spiritual life.

The organization of the Millets was not a gain to all the Christian nations that had been subjected by the Ottoman power. Certain orthodox populations, like the Bulgars and the Serbs, actually lost an ecclesiastical autonomy which they had enjoyed before, and were merged in the Millet of the Greeks, under the Orthodox Patriarch at Constantinople. The Armenians, on the other hand, improved their position. As so-called schismatics, they had hitherto existed on sufferance under Orthodox and Catholic governments, but the Osmanlis viewed all varieties of Christian with an impartial eye.

The policy followed by Mohammed II. on the capture of Constantinople, in allowing the Jews and Christians to retain their own administration and social and religious organisation, was undoubtedly a sound policy at a time when his power was not yet securely fixed, and when he had little leisure to develop his government. But with the passage of time the two great divisions of the Ottoman Empire did not come any closer together, but remained absolutely apart. In fact there was a division of the state into two distinct classes similar to the division into Patricians and Plebeians in Rome. The first, the Mohammedans, similar to the Patricians, the ruling class having a monopoly of the civil, legal and administrative rights, and free from the burden of taxation; the second, the Rayahs, in a subordinate position similar to the Plebeians, not allowed to hold any government office, not eligible for service in the army, worried by petty regulations in respect of their dress and daily habits, but withal heavily taxed and persecuted. And to the jealousy of the Patrician we must add the religious fanaticism and intolerance of the Mohammedan.

A new principle of equality between the two divisions of the people received two important acts of confirmation. Riza Pasha in 1843, addressing certain of the Christian communities, said: " Mohammedans, Christians, Jews, you are all the subjects of one emperor, the children of one father. If there are any among you who are oppressed, let them show themselves, it being the steadfast intention of His Majesty that the laws which secure the life, honour and property of all subjects shall be strictly observed in his Empire."1 And similarly, Raschid Pasha, who was minister in 1846, addressed the non-Mohammedan communities at Adrianople in these terms: " His Majesty the Emperor, as he desires the good fortune of his Mohammedan subjects, also wishes that the Christians and Jews, who are equally his subjects, may enjoy peace and protection. The difference in religion and sect only concerns themselves; it does not interfere with their rights."




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