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The Weird Phenomenon of Ottoman Empire Nostalgia

If you hate America and the West generally, but aren’t crazy enough to long for Nazism or Communism, what’s left? Remarkably, many leftists have recently been expressing affection for the Ottoman Empire. Seriously. If you think about it, the Ottomans fulfilled a liberal fantasy: authoritarian so you get to boss everyone around and always get your way, but usually without actually having to murder your enemies. Plus, with no shortage of sex. I ridiculed Tom Friedman’s yearning for the days of the Ottomans here, and included this throwaway line:

It turns out that “Iron Empires” means the Ottomans, who, as Friedman writes, “had a live-and-let-live mentality toward their subjects.” Unless, of course, they were Armenians.

At the Middle East Quarterly, Efraim Karsh undertakes a more systematic demolition of Ottoman nostalgia:

It is commonplace among Middle East scholars across the political spectrum to idealize the Ottoman colonial legacy as a shining example of tolerance. “The multi-ethnic Ottoman Turkish Empire,” wrote American journalist Robert Kaplan, “was more hospitable to minorities than the uni-ethnic democratic states that immediately succeeded it. … Violent discussions over what group got to control which territory emerged only when the empire came to an end, after World War I.”

Karsh also cites the Armenian genocide in response to the idealization of the Ottomans:

While there is no denying the argument’s widespread appeal, there is also no way around the fact that, in almost every particular, it is demonstratively wrong. The imperial notion, by its very definition, posits the domination of one ethnic, religious, or national group over another, and the Ottoman Empire was no exception. It tolerated the existence of vast non-Muslim subject populations in its midst, as did earlier Muslim (and non-Muslim) empires—provided they acknowledged their legal and institutional inferiority in the Islamic order of things. When these groups dared to question their subordinate status—let alone attempt to break the Ottoman yoke—they were brutally suppressed, and none more so than the Armenians during World War I. …

A far cry from the tolerant and tranquil domain it is often taken for, Turkey-in-Europe was the most violent part of the continent during the century or so between the Napoleonic upheavals and World War I as the Ottomans embarked on an orgy of bloodletting in response to the nationalist aspirations of their European subjects. The Greek war of independence of the 1820s, the Danubian nationalist uprisings of 1848, the Balkan explosion of the 1870s, and the Greco-Ottoman war of 1897—all were painful reminders of the cost of breaking free from an imperial master. And all pale in comparison with the treatment meted out to the foremost nationalist awakening in Turkey-in-Asia: the Armenian.

He recites the brute facts of the Turks’ suppression of the Armenians; read it all if you aren’t already familiar with the depressing story. In the meantime, here are some excerpts. See whether some aspects of the story seem especially topical:

The first step in this direction was taken in early 1915 when Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army were relegated to “labor battalions” and stripped of their weapons. Most of these fighters-turned-laborers would be marched out in droves to secluded places and shot in cold blood, often after being forced to dig their own graves. Those fortunate enough to escape summary execution were employed as laborers in the most inhumane conditions.

At the same time, the authorities initiated a ruthless campaign to disarm the entire Armenian population of personal weapons before embarking on a genocidal spree of mass deportations and massacres. By the autumn of 1915, Cilicia had been ethnically cleansed and the authorities turned their sights on the foremost Armenian settlement area in eastern Anatolia. First to be cleansed was the zone bordering Van, extending from the Black Sea to the Iranian frontier and immediately threatened by Russian advance; only there did outright massacres often substitute for otherwise slow deaths along the deportation routes or in the concentration camps of the Syrian desert. In other districts of Ottoman Armenia, depopulated between July and September, the Turks attempted to preserve a semblance of a deportation policy though most deportees were summarily executed after hitting the road. In the coastal towns of Trebizond, for example, Armenians were sent out to sea, ostensibly for deportation, only to be thrown overboard shortly afterward. Of the deportees from Erzerum, Erzindjan, and Baibourt, only a handful survived the initial stages of the journey. …

Whenever the deportees arrived at a village or town, they were exhibited like slaves in a public place, often before the government building itself. Female slave markets were established in the Muslim areas through which the Armenians were driven, and thousands of young Armenian women and girls were sold in this way. Even the clerics were quick to avail themselves of the bargains of the white slave market. …

Nor for that matter is there any symmetry between the military (and other) resources at the empire’s disposal and those available to its subjects, not least since states by definition control the means of collective violence. In the Armenian case, this inherent inequality was aggravated by the comprehensive disarming of the community; and while some “gangs” may have retained their weapons, the vast majority of Armenians surrendered them to the authorities despite their stark realization that the 1895-96 massacres had been preceded by very similar measures.

We can only speculate as to why so many liberals have grown fond of the Ottomans.

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