The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities
From Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East
© 1998 Oxford University Press
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press
5. The Age of Organized Identity (millet)
The fall of Constantinople (1453) and the subsequent rise of the Ottoman Empire, saw an important change in the status of Christians. Not that there was any radical change in the laws regarding Arab Christians, but the communities were increasingly institutionalized.
The religious or ethnic groups of the Empire were organized by then into, millets, or 'nations'. The Greek (Orthodox) millet, headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, restored to his position of power, and later the Jewish and the Armenian millets, formed the nations of the Ottoman Empire. Together with the Muslims they made up the multinational State, based on the religious and national divides of its people, which was to become the Ottoman Empire. The millets did not all have the same social status of course, as the Sunnites were entitled to a position of superiority at the heart of the State. The creation of the millets gave communities a wide autonomy to run their own civil, marital, and financial affairs, as well as to organize both the life and the properties of the community.
The importance of the millet as a legal structure must not be overestimated. 6 Clearly the millet did not arise from a conscious effort by the Ottoman administration, but from the need to deal with communities or tawa'if (plural of ta'ifa ) which, in the case of Christians, designated a strongly united social group linked to a Church and its representatives. The Ottomans had to converse with these groups to gain their loyalty and to guarantee payment of taxes. The Church authority seemed to be the natural representative of these communities, especially as they had had no figure of purely political authority since the Ottoman conquest. The millet system, which was to form the unique organizational framework of the Ottoman Empire, was only put into effect at a late stage. However, at least two aspects of this system were to make it important in the construction of society.
Firstly, the division of the population into millets was to differentiate among the peoples of the Empire according to certain 'nationalities', which became fixed. It mattered little whether these divisions corresponded to real distinctions (the Christians of Mount Lebanon were initially put in the same category as Croats and Hungarians under the 'Armenian Gregorian Orthodox' millet ). Neither did it matter whether or not they applied to the whole population (some communities, such as the Shi'ites, had no millet ). What seems to be important is the idea of dividing society up into groups. This idea was in fact to become an all-encompassing rule: only individuals who belonged to an identified and recognized group could be recognized.
Secondly, and this is undoubtedly an important aspect, other countries' perception of the Ottoman Empire as an empire of millets eventually accentuated this type of division. When the European States insisted on obtaining privileged status for their citizens living in the Empire or for their partners in trade, they created the need for a category, and in some senses a millet, of non-Ottoman residents of the Empire. This was to give rise to the Capitulations. 7