Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Banditry and Violence in the Ottoman Empire

New academic year, a new season with the Sociology Research Seminar Series at the University of Derby. Opening for the semester was Baris Cayli, Research Fellow in Criminology with his paper, ‘Zones of Fragility: Outlaws and the Forms of Violence in the Ottoman Empire’. This was one of a series of interlocking projects spun off from Baris’s work in the old Ottoman archives scattered about its former territory. These range from the Grand Vizier’s office and Imperial decrees on foreign affairs hosted in Istanbul, to smaller collections of correspondence and edicts from governors and local officials. The basic question guiding the paper was how the structure of the empire was shaped by violence, or rather how the sporadic violence undertaken by bandits, outlaws, and rebels – regardless of subjective intentions – contributed to this shaping of the empire.

Received histories of the Ottoman Empire, particularly from the 19th century on to its eventual collapse after the First World War was one of decline and gradual dismemberment by the European Great Powers and newly independent Balkan states. Pressed by imperialism and colonialism from without, the Ottomans faced instability thanks to the spread of national consciousness among subject peoples, and perpetual cycles of tension and revolt around land ownership and tax, the latter varying enormously across the empire’s territory. This was symptomatic of a weak central state and high levels of autonomy for governors. Effectively, they comprised petty states within a state and was seldom in touch with the imperial centre. This itself was a consequence of poor and/or non-existent infrastructure. In TE Lawrence’s First World War memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he notes it was quicker and easier to move reinforcements from London to the Palestine front than it was for the Ottomans to transfer forces from Constantinople to the same.

A consequence of this ramshackle state structure was its lack of immediate presence. There was no social fabric as such to support Ottoman rule, little or no identification with the centre. Issues of hegemony and consent, traditionally bound up with socialist strategy in the advanced countries were absent because the structures underpinning them were absent. This meant in towns and villages throughout the empire, there was no rule of law. Instead there was sporadic and unrestrained violence on the part of bandits. The archives talk about Bosnian outlaws sometimes, but not always, influenced by nationalist ideas who would sack towns and villages. It follows that if a state cannot acquit itself of the very basic function of protecting life and property of subject populations, then its potency, power, and legitimacy becomes much diminished.

This is where Baris introduced his notion of zones of political fragility. These are simply spaces where political violence occurs. Likewise, zones of social fragility are locales in which non-political violence are regular occurrences. Where they proliferate, antipathy towards central authority grows. And the second consequence is that terrorised subject populations may surrender to outlaw groups, form alliances with others, and/or take on a nationalist coloration. In short, fragile zones act as centrifugal pressures that prise away national minorities and territories. This dynamic seems to have been at work especially in the Balkan provinces previously under Ottoman control. However, while political and non-political violence contributes to this fragility, and therefore should be viewed holistically in its consequences for state authority, Baris was clear that this is only a provisional concept and requires refinement through the examination of comparative cases.

In the subsequent questions, Baris was asked about how does one differentiate from political and non-political violence? Especially as criminal enterprise can be carried out for political reasons, as well as sustain political violence (an example that immediately jumped to mind was of a youthful Stalin and his bank-robbing scrapes in the Caucasus that helped fund the Bolsheviks). For Baris, the definition just concerns goals, though in practice they may entail similar consequences. With Stalin, for example, the criminality of his enterprise was wedded to political objectives. For most bank robbers, that obviously isn't the case, but a multiplication of this violence for whatever subjective reason results in the fragility zone problem.

While far from a modern state on the 19th century/early 20th century West European model, I asked if hegemony was entirely absent from the Ottoman Empire and if the central apparatus and the constellation of forces bound up with the empire at least promulgate an official ideology and inculcated discourses of consent? Baris replied that its internal looseness (provincial governors often paid none of their tax take to the central treasury) meant such a project had only a limited scope. Plus for consent to be obtained, it needs to acquit the basic function of providing security - a point long noted by Max Weber and the state as the repository of the monopoly of legitimate force. However, as the empire was officially Islamic, while there were degrees of religious freedom for subject populations Muslims were officially privileged. However, late in the day it did try and introduce citizenship laws that guaranteed all subjects certain rights and obligations. The problem here is that in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith empire in which there was already a legally privileged population, stripping those advantages away stirred up resentment among what would be its social bedrock. It was also difficult to enforce. Given the autonomy of the periphery, different areas were ruled alternately by imperial law, Sharia law, Christian covenants, and other local political and religious permutations of both. Not only were these sources of existing tension, a hegemony-building edict from the outside would do exactly the opposite. The state, rather than placing itself as an arbiter of tension becomes its origin, therefore contributing to the dynamics rending the empire.

Overall, an interesting start to the 2016-17 round of Sociology seminars.

9 comments:

Speedy said...

Interesting, which is presumably why the nation state remains the most successful form of government.

One could see this (repeated somewhat as farce) in the European Union, which increasingly appears to follow the Ottoman model: a deficit of national democracy (particularly economic control), while heavy handed decisions from the centre (for example using said economic power to replace elected heads of state) and unilaterally opening the doors to mass migration (Merkel - the Commission and Germany having become much the same thing) increases instability and lack of cohesion.

Meanwhile, Putin, China, Saudi and other big players exploit this weakness to further their own interests. Like the Ottoman Empire, the EU is a bloated, headless body rich for pickings: and the local responses are to extremism, like Front National, Golden Dawn, or independence - the UK (and I say this as someone who supported UK membership).

BCFG said...


Firstly, on this article:

Before we define political and non political violence we need to define violence. To quote Brecht, "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?".

There is a lot of violence committed by the owners of wealth and power that fails to fall under the category of violence. I suspect rigging Libor rates didn't fall into the violence category!

Now I must deal with that racist, anti racist, anti Middle class pro Middle class, pro war anti war marcher, hater of the working class the working classes greatest advocate, yes, that clown of paradox, contradiction, fraud and deception, speedy. Let me quote from the painted face fraudster,

"Meanwhile, Putin, China, Saudi and other big players exploit this weakness...."

Unreal, and totally predictable. This shows the power of the USA propaganda machine, unprecedented in history. Actually I think the nature of the US state and its destructive policies is something its immense propaganda wing (think Hollywood, Music, TV etc) masks and diverts attention away from. The US is the most militarised state in history, its reach across the globe more extensive than any in history, its wide pursuit of violent means to ensure it remains supreme only matched by imperial Rome. And yet the fools talk of Putin! The power of the unfree media is once again crystal clear.

The US, aided and abetted by Britain (among others) have invaded and occupied nation after nation, using tactics that include carpet bombing, chemical weapons and military invasion, they have destroyed the fabric of Iraq and Libya, and out of the disaster wrought by US imperialism we see its shattered victims attracted to groups like ISIS. Over a million and a half refugees fled to Syria as a result of US policy in Iraq, causing a huge trauma to that nation and the US use the misery they caused to turn Syria against itself and turn it into a living hell hole.

In the midst of the hell created by US policies (with the help of Britain), Britain decides to leave the EU because it thinks it has an immigration problem! The British don't know what an immigration problem is but boy they know how to create one. Britain creates disaster and destruction and then takes to the ballot box to say the rest of the world are the problem! The problem is with the very fabric of British values, which are the poisonous product of its imperialist policies.

Hopefully one day eminent historians will be able to tell the true story of one of the most evil, destructive military machines in history. But my guess is that the eminent historians will whitewash the truth, as usual.

Speedy said...

Fans! You flatter me, BCFG, and remember, this is Phil's blog - you'll make him jealous!

asquith said...

I'm more of a Habsburg myself. Readers of, for instance, "The Sleepwalkers" by Christopher Clark will know that often "liberation" by their countrymen made people worse off and they were better off living in a multi-racial, multi-confessional empire like Austria than with nationalist shite that led to war in the first place.

An ethnic Italian, for instance, could be led astray by the vomitings of d'Annunzio, Mussolini et al, or choose to Remain.

The Ottomans had been tolerant in the past but this was to alter with the rise of Turkish nationalism, which like its Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian etc counterparts caused so many tears to be shed for no reason.

Chris Rivers said...

Since when has the EU been a 'nation state'? Only in Ukip dreams.

pewartstoat said...

An alternative reading, and one practiced by non-Orientalists, is that the Empire fell as result new trading routes that bypassed the Empire with huge economic implications and too much tolerance. The Ottoman Empire was famously multicultural and pluralistic; the growth of insurgent cultural communities was tolerated with inevitable results.

Speedy said...

"the growth of insurgent cultural communities was tolerated with inevitable results."

Non Muslim communities were persecuted for hundreds of years before culminating in the Armenian genocide.

But still - your "inevitable consequences" don't say much for the future of minorities in the UK, do they. That's what you're saying, right? Right?

pewartstoat said...

I should revisit your understanding of the Ottoman Empire if I were you. Christian and Jewish schools and places of worship were increasingly tolerated as the Empire moved into the twentieth century. Look at cities like Alxandria and Salonika.

Speedy said...

Tell that to the Armenians.