P W Thayer (ed) Tensions in the Middle East 1958


PAUL STIRLING Lecturer, The London School of Economics, University of

The society of the Ottoman Empire was highly complex and heterogeneous.
Recently almost everything in its former territory that can possibly be included in the
pantechnicon "culture" has been changing. In the face of so much material, most of
it unanalyzed from a sociological point of view, what I can say in one essay is
necessarily superficial—an exercise in trying to follow through the consequences of
a theoretical approach, rather than an examination of the vast piles of unsorted data.
The key to this approach is the notion of “social structure,” that is, that all the
activities that go on in a given society can be analyzed as the contents of a whole
series of more or less defined social relationships which together form the "social

What is important to my purpose in this essay is not argument about this approach,
but the questions it prompts us to ask. What were the main groups and social
positions in the late Ottoman Empire? How were they arranged vis-a-vis each other
in terms of power, prestige, and mutual dependence How have these arrangements
altered with the breakup of the empire into smaller political units, the winning of
independence, and the accelerating arrival of Western technology and social
institutions? Since one cannot speak of change without assuming something that is
changing or has changed, I am going to assume, wrongly, a traditional social
structure of the Ottoman Empire. This society contained three main types of
people—nomadic tribesmen, villagers, and townsmen. The pastoral tribes in their
deserts or mountains were largely or completely independent of the central
government. The size of the autonomous unit varied greatly and often rapidly.
Occasionally, it grew large enough to attack and conquer towns and establish new
ruling dynasties. The tribes constantly raided each other, and, insofar as the central
government was unable to prevent them, they also raided the settled towns and

The villagers, the most numerous category by far, were the worst off. Those in
fertile or accessible country were usually indebted sharecroppers on the estates of
absentee landlords; those in more remote areas had no defense against tribal raids but
to accept and pay in kind for the protection of other tribesmen. The exceptions, who
managed to own their own land, were mainly situated in mountainous areas, or else
were settled tribes who retained enough of their tribal organization both to defend


  themselves against outsiders and to prevent their own leaders from turning into
landowning townsmen. So long as they paid their rents and taxes, and refrained
from really serious breaches of the peace, they were largely left alone

Towns are more complex and heterogeneous than tribes and villages. Those of the
Ottoman Empire varied from small almost agricultural towns to vast cities like
Istanbul and Cairo. They contained landowners, merchants of all types from
shopkeepers to owners of important international export houses, a great number of
craftsmen, porters, laborers, servants, and so on. Most towns also contained a
farming quarter, in which life was much like that of the villages. There were also the
administrative and garrison venters, the seats of the centrally appointed governor or
the local dynasts, and their armed forces.

The imperial rulers were also city dwellers, but they were a distinct subdivision—the
sultan and his ministers and officers. They were drawn mainly from the great
hereditary families of Istanbul, supplemented by recruits from a wide range of

The rulers' power rested largely on control of the professional army, and this control
in turn rested on the power to pay and feed them, that is, on the ability to collect the
taxes, which in turn rested on the control of the army.

Besides these main social divisions, the empire was also divided into thousands of
much smaller communities. These groups were organized on three criteria—religion,
languages and locality—and formed a multiple structure of semiautonomous groups
of many kinds and sizes.

Sunni Moslems were dominant, but they were not, in spite of theological theory, a
single community, for they were divided along language, territorial, tribal, and
social-class lines into many communities that differed considerably in their
application of customary law and of Sunni dogma and ritual. Shii Moslems were
divided into a number of sects recognizing different imams, and in practice if not in
theory, each sect used its own customary law. The Christians and Jews constituted a
number of formally distinct millets, each having its own heads, at once civil and
religious, and administering their own personal law. The internal organization of the
religious communities was by no means simple. Distinctions into language groups
and local groups, and into the three categories of tribe, village, and town, often
operated to produce internal cleavages and crosscutting loyalties. Since an individual
often belonged to a number of groups based on different criteria and, furthermore,
had social relationships that went outside these groups, he could choose the
membership or relationship that he felt most advantageous as his guide to action in a
given situation.


  But if loyalties were complex and conflicting, they were never loyalties to the empire
as such. The notion of an Ottoman nation could never have come anywhere near
realization. Armenians, Greeks, Catholics, and even Arab and Kurdish communities
were mainly interested in preserving as much autonomy as possible. Only members
of Sunni communities could in some contexts class themselves in the same group as
the rulers and acknowledge direct loyalty to them.

This society was not run by a Western type of bureaucracy. Except for some
supervisory officers in the cities, like the inspectors of weights and measures, the
official hierarchies were mainly concerned with collecting taxes, preserving order,
keeping the military organization in being, and running the religious institutions of
the Sunnis. Barth remarks that for southern Kurdistan in 1950 it was a necessary
qualification for office that a man already hold de facto enough power and prestige
outside his office to be able to exercise his official functions,(1) and we may
tentatively assume these to be the normal conditions of the Ottoman Empire. The
hierarchy did not consist of channels down which detailed orders could be passed
from the center with confidence so that the effects at the bottom would resemble the
intention of the legislators. Rather, the power of government stood outside and
between the communities. The official hierarchy was a hierarchy of responsibility
for good order and the payment of taxes. Each official was dependent on his
superior, whom he supported against his rivals and whom he used as far as possible
to defeat opposition among those below him. So long as funds were forthcoming
and no serious trouble occurred, he had a free hand.

Each community was left to manage its own affairs—religion, social services,
schools, judiciary, internal taxation. They were thus able to see themselves as the
center of the social universe, apart from a more-or-less remote overlord. The pomp
and permanence of the imperial government and its service in preserving order gave
it legitimacy. However, loyalty was not to the sultan, but the local community.

This structure was stable, but not rigid. The continual clash of interests constantly
brought about slow permanent changes in the structure. Such permanent changes as
were taking place internally were never shattering. Indeed, it is hard to see how they
could have been, without either drastic changes in technology, or conquest from
outside. Both arrived together.

By far the most important thing about the Western nations is their vast power. The
people who ruled the Ottoman Empire had been accustomed to assume without
question their superiority over the northern infidels. The remarkable technological
and administrative advances in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
upset this assumption and gave Europe political and economic power, backed by an
increasing military advantage. Eventually, the Western nations acquired the prestige


  of belonging to the one and only civilized and advanced society, the criterion by
which all other societies should be judged. Hence the series of imitations of Western
techniques and institutions and the adoption of at least some Western assumptions
and standards.

Part of this process happened spontaneously. In self-defense, for example, military
techniques had to be learned and military equipment purchased. At the same time,
the European powers imposed on the Ottoman administration the enacting of a
number of "reforms."

These measures entailed a new conception of government. The Ottoman Empire was
assumed to be a modern nation-state, and its hierarchy of officials to be a civil
service. Measured by these standards both the government and its organs were not
unnaturally found wanting by the Ottomans as well as by their European advisers. A
series of legislative acts between the late 1820's and 1878—legally and on paper—
removed the disabilities of all subject peoples and the feudal rights of fief-holders
and of absentee landlords, enforced primary education, introduced proper legal
process for all accusations and penalties, and even set up a constitution and a
parliament.(2) The officials charged with administering the new laws had been used
to a system in which office was a profitable prerequisite of their social rank.
Naturally, they exercised their talents in the new situation, not because they were
immoral, but because they had been formally assigned a role they had never heard of
and which they could not in their situation possibly play. Moreover, the new concept
of efficient government required the interference of the central government in the
innumerable semiautonomous communities.

The prize example of the confusion caused by assuming the hierarchy to be a civil
service was the attempt at land registration. Land in the Ottoman Empire was not
registered, and in the middle of the nineteenth century the government decided it
should be. The power relations in the Ottoman Empire were largely decided by
rights over land, since land was by far the most important economic resource. By
rights, I mean de facto rights as practised and accepted by the people concerned.
These de facto rights were always complex, and very often more than one party had
a recognized interest in a piece of land. The reformers, however, thought in terms of
simple "ownership," and wanted to see the peasant cultivators registered as the
outright owners of their own land. They expressly forbade the registration of any
kind of joint rights or special rights over a landowner by others. This prevented any
legal protection of the rights of tenants, or of the rights of tribesmen to communally
owned land, against their sheikhs. In practice, in almost all areas, land passed into
the hands of members of the literate class—existing owners, tax collectors, officials,
political heads of tribes or sections of tribes. In many cases, of course, the new
rights remained for a long time a dead letter because no one had the necessary force

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