A while ago the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, opined publicly that Muslims were completely innocent of the sins of colonialism and gave the example of Al-Andalus, (Andalusia) as an example of the allegedly peaceful and equitable coexistence of the three great religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam, under Muslim domination. This is, of course, a long standing Muslim propaganda belied by the simple historical fact that both Christians and Jews in Spain under Muslim rule had to pay the infidel tax jizya as a mandatory indication of their subservient status.
For people in the Balkans, it is not necessary to go all the way to Spain to find out that Al-Tayeb’s insinuations are nothing but a bold-faced lie. We have the well-documented and centuries-old experience of the Ottoman Empire to juxtapose to the likes of Al-Tayeb and even more so, Turkish Islamist dictator Tayyip Recep Erdogan, who is trying to convince us that the Ottoman Empire had been a paragon of tolerance. Nothing could be further from the historical truth.
Now, it is also true that the Ottomans were far from being the worst of Islamic overlords. For much of its existence, the empire was ruled by an essentially secular judicial system called canun rather than the uncompromising and oppressive Islamic sharia, because the early sultans realized that you cannot rule an empire in which non-Muslims were a majority by blatantly discriminating against them. It is also true that non-Muslims were often allowed to run their own ethnic affairs in a system called millet and that the Ottomans gave refuge to Jews and other persecuted minorities during the Inquisition.
Still, none of this means that the non-Muslims were not brutally oppressed and never allowed to forget that they were second-class citizens at best, even when many of them played an important role in the empire on account of their better education. To get a good sense of the historical truth, it is perhaps best to refer to a prominent Turkish historian, such as Halil Inalcik and his magisterial (with Donald Quataert), “The Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300 -1600,” Cambridge University Press, 1994.
To understand the nature of this oppression it is first necessary to come to terms with the nature of the Ottoman state, which was the quintessential war despotism, or to use more modern terms – military imperialism. This meant that the Empire depended on constant territorial expansion to stay in business and when that stage ended after the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) it started slowly but surely to decay and decline.
If there was one thing that proved the catalyst of the unhappiness of the many non-Muslims, it was the highly discriminatory poll-tax. The poll-tax or cizye (in Turkish) was not only a traditional Islamic instrument of showing the infidels their subjugated status, but also a vital economic necessity for the Muslim state. According to Inalcik (pp.55-75) the poll-tax was the single most important source (48%) of the Ottoman budget, with Rumeli (the European part of the empire) always providing the lion’s share (81%) of the revenues. An additional feature of the poll-tax collection that aggravated discontent was the Ottoman habit of imposing collective responsibility on the village community for fugitives and the dead, a practice that “sometimes caused the depopulation and ruin of the entire village.” Moreover, the cizye, while supposedly a fixed amount, constantly increased not just to reflect inflation, but also whenever the state needed money. Thus, while it amounted to 40 aspers per person in 1574, it climbed to 70 in 1592, 150 in 1596, 240 in 1630 and 280 in 1691.
An additional tax that caused significant discontent were the ‘temporary’ war levies (avariz) connected to the constant Ottoman campaigns which, in fact, became permanent and steadily increasing taxes on the raya (the flock). Avariz levies grew from 40 aspers in 1582 to 240 in 1600 and 535 in 1681.
There are, of course, many other reasons for the disaffection of the non-Muslim nationalities, but if we are to summarize, the Ottoman Empire was every bit a brutal colonial power, except that it was based on an even more retrograde and discriminatory ideology that had nothing to offer to the non-Muslims. This inevitably led to the rebellion and emancipation of virtually all of them as independent nations, including the Turks themselves under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
By Alex Alexiev