A revived millet system?

Russell Blackford, in the second part of his response to me, brings up the Ottoman millet system as an example of a political arrangement based on accommodating different ethno-religious communities—an example of what not to do.

As it happens, I was born and raised in the old Ottoman capital. I might be able to say a few things about the millet system.

I’m not going to praise it. For someone like me, it has few attractions. And this is not, by the way, because of discrimination against the unorthodox, corruption, the constant interfering of religious leaders with daily life, and so forth. There was plenty of all this, and more. (Though I should add that the state developing an effective police apparatus that kept tabs on people came quite late in the empire, as a product of modernization.) The worst aspect for someone like me would be the community. It’s not the mullahs or the rabbis that you really had to worry about, as much as your neighbors. People had warm and close relationships within their community, which meant that the moral police was everyone and everywhere.

But especially in Turkish conservative circles, there is still plenty of nostalgia for Ottoman days. And it starts with the neighborhoods. What I would consider oppressive and stifling, they see as an environment where you could enjoy true human relationships rather than the superficial bureaucratic and commercial interactions that dominate modern life. The moral self-policing of a neighborhood is its glory: exactly what you need to be able to live your religious convictions properly and cultivate an environment that encourages virtue and discourages vice.

For people with my sort of temperament, modern life is perfectly fine. We thrive in its freedom, love the way that the world can open up in front of us beyond any community. But to a very significant number of others, the environment that sustains secular liberalism is one of anomie, rootlessness, and moral rudderlessness. They would thrive in the old neighborhoods.

For most people, I imagine, it’s not purely one thing or another. Modernity breeds ambivalence. It’s nice to have more material conveniences than your grandparents, and maybe to go out for a drink once in a while. It’s not so nice to live in apartment blocks where you rarely know more than a name about your neighbors, to drain yourself at work and come back to unwind with trash on TV. Some people will, on balance, prefer modernity, including a secular political order. Others will not.

I should put my emphasis on the words on balance. The Ottoman public order was not hell on Earth. For the kind of audience likely to read this, it probably was quite negative on balance. If my audience consisted of historically-informed Muslim conservative intellectuals, they would likely think differently.

Now, the sort of conservative intellectuals I run into in Turkey are not idiots. I dislike their Ottoman nostalgia, and we are competitors politically. But they’re not idiots. Especially the more thoughtful among them disavow any interest in reviving the millet system as it once was. But there is nothing wrong with learning from history. They want to restore some of the human warmth of the old neighborhoods, and to put religion back into the center of communal life. The millet system is an example to learn from, good and bad.

The sort of Turkish conservative I’d be willing to take seriously might list the pros and cons of the millet system in something along these lines:

  • It kept the peace. Yes, this meant occasional imperial terror and continual economic exploitation. But you did not have people from different communities slitting each others’ throats all the time. Compare the times when the Ottomans were strong to the last 150 years in the Balkans, say. Was it really such an improvement to substitute autonomous communities with ethnic-cleansing nationalisms? (And historically, liberalism and nationalism are closely related. Liberal countries just did their ethnic cleansing earlier and more thoroughly.)
  • People were free of heavy-handed government interference. The Ottoman state was weak. People primarily interacted with local, religiously and therefore morally legitimized authorities, not lawyers and faceless bureaucrats.
  • The imperial nature of the system was problematic. It exploited communities and acted as a protection racket, rather than being a system of dynamic equilibrium between different religious communities that respect one another’s autonomy.
  • Favoring one religion over all others—Islam for the Ottomans, Catholicism for the Habsburgs, and so forth—is not acceptable. We cannot have persecution of heterodox sects, classical dhimmitude, or other gross interference with community life. Any community that institutionalizes respect for others and will play nice in a society based on different communities must be able to enjoy its autonomy.

Some Turkish conservatives and fans of “postmodern democracy” continue to toss around such ideas. Interestingly, they would grant secular liberals the status of having their own community. This would be odd in the Ottoman millet system, built on imperial minimal interference with existing Abrahamic religious communities, and no other. It may even be an improvement over policies in countries today that retain a relic of the old millet system, where only a narrow set of authorized and specifically religious communities get recognition.

So, what is wrong with this? That is, what can we say if we were to address an audience who were not already secular liberals, who did not start with assumptions about facilitating the freedom of choice of unencumbered individuals being the object of a political order? I’m not sure there is much. This variety of conservative can take most of the modern emphasis on democracy on board. They adopt a live-and-let-live attitude: we let you live as secular people, let us live as religious communities.

The question is important, because liberal political philosophy generally makes the (sensible enough) assumption that you cannot expect people to change whatever comprehensive ideas for a good life that they might have. We then have to settle on a public order that does not privilege any particular religion or moral philosophy. So you have to seek public reasons that can convince people without requiring them to abandon their theology. All well and good, but I don’t think we are entitled to demand everyone make the same assumptions about unencumbered individuals exercising pure practical reason either.

So, what it is that we can say that might make some headway with a nonliberal, religious, community-oriented person? If many of the comments I have received are any indication, what we secular liberals do when challenged to do this is fulminate and traffic in stereotypes about uncivilized religious fanatics.