The Broken Repertoires of Empire: Non-Muslims and the State in Ottoman and Post-Ottoman Space
Consonant with its growing professionalization and rapid expansion, Ottoman historiography has witnessed its respective turns and interventions. Much of this progress has been realized in social and economic history, with increasing forays into cultural history. Ironically, many of these revisions have reinforced what is arguably the most pervasive problem in the field: locating and peripheralizing the empire’s non-Muslims.
World-systems theory forced Ottomanists to confront important questions regarding capitalism and the empire’s relationship with Europe. It also strengthened the long-held view of non-Muslims comprador agents of European imperialism. Post-colonialism and the gradual opening of the Ottoman archives cast doubt on the modernization tale implicit in Turkish official history. The unintended effect was to further marginalize non-Muslims’ voices: reports of non-Muslim discontent echoed in European traveler accounts were deemed suspect, while new documents uncovered in the state archives meant that non-Muslims’ lives became increasingly mediated through the voices of the overwhelmingly Muslim state representatives. Recent work by leftist Turkish historians has interrogated more vigorously the etatist paradigm within Ottoman history, but they, too, rarely treat non-Muslims as agents of Ottoman history, casting non-Muslims as the state’s passive victims.
This panel treats Ottoman Christians and Jews as Ottoman social actors. Heeding Christine Philliou’s call that all materials produced by the empire’s subjects be treated as primary sources for Ottoman and Turkish history, the papers in this panel challenge widely-held views of state-society relations. Going beyond “connecting” disparate national histories, these papers use primary sources in Armenian, English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Ladino, and Turkish to demonstrate how non-Muslims maneuvered through state and society, their agency leaving an indelible mark on the social construction of the state and how it derived its legitimacy. The major reform projects of the nineteenth century that formed the basis of the later republic, for example, included key provisions aimed at assuaging non-Muslims concerns. Yet little of the source material produced by non-Muslims has been used to challenge, augment, or revise questions central to Ottoman and Turkish history. This panel seeks to centralize non-Muslims in narratives of late Ottoman and early Turkish Republican history. Antaramian demonstrates how the exclusion of Armenian priests from access to the imperial center in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war forced Armenians in Van to search for alternate paths to political representation, constituting a new form of Ottoman politics. Cohen argues that rather than serving as comprador bourgeoisie or westernizing agents, Ottoman Jews’ initiatives and niche markets demonstrate their sense of economic investment in the Ottoman Empire. Mays asserts that Jewish and Christian Ottomans in Latin America performed non-Ottoman nationalities in order to facilitate their economic mobility, defying state efforts to promote Ottomanism abroad. Finally, Ekmekcioglu argues that the public discourse of Armenian spokespeople in the new Turkish Republic reveal accommodation strategies similar to those of their Ottoman Armenian predecessors, challenging the dichotomous understanding of empire and nation-state. The papers of this panel, in plotting out the experiences of non-Muslims, provide important new insights into the social and cultural history of the Ottoman Empire.