Wednesday, June 24, 2015

End of the Ottomans by Tamin Ansary

Historians looking back can see quite clearly that Suleiman’s failure to take Vienna in 1529 marked a watershed. At that moment the empire had reached its greatest extent, it was no longer expanding.  This was less than obvious at the time because the empire was still fighting someone somewhere all the time, and the news from the battlefield was often good. The Ottomans were losing battles here and there but they were also winning here and there. Were they losing the big ones and winning only the little ones? The answer was yes but that was hard to gauge for people swimming through the historical moment.  How does one weigh the significance of a battle? Some people were alarmed, but some people always are. After all, the empire was not shrinking.

Unfortunately, however, not shrinking was not good enough for the Ottoman Empire. In truth, this empire was built on the premise of permanent expansion. It needed a constant and generally successful war on its borders for all of its complicated internal mechanisms to work.

First of all, expansion was a source of revenue, which the emperor could ill afford to lose. Second, war served as a safety valve. For example, peasants who were forced off the land for one reason or another didn’t hang out hungry and hopeless, turning into a surely rabble. They could always go join the arm, go on a campaign, score some booty, and then come home a start a little business. Once expansion stopped this pressure of agrarian displacement and surplus population drifted into the cities. Even if they had a skill, they might not be able to ply it. The guilds controlled all the manufacturing and they could only absorb so many new members. A good many drifters ended up unemployed and disgruntled.

Third, the classic devshirme depended on a constant conquest of new territories out of which “slaves” could be drafted for the institutes that produced the empire’s elites.  The janissary had originally labored under one important restriction: they were not allowed to marry and produce heirs, a device designed to keep new blood flowing into the administration.  Once the expansion stopped the devshirme began to stagnate. Then janissaries began to marry and swing their clout to get their kids the best possible educational and employment opportunities. This meant the janissary encrusted into a permanent, hereditary elite, which reduced the vigor of the empire because it meant that experts and specialists who ran the empire were no longer drawn exclusively from those who showed early promise but also included dullards with rich and important parents.

Then came the follow-up to Sulieman’s failure. In 1683, the Ottoman’s tried against to take Vienna, just as they had 154 years earlier and were routed by a coalition of European forces. Whereas in 1529 failure to score a victory resulted in, at worse, a sort of general, indefinable social malaise that was hard to explain or caused religious conservatives to rail about the moral fabric of society and the importance of restoring old-fashioned values, this time the Ottoman elite knew they had been trounced and something had gone very wrong.

It made them doggedly determined to pump up their military strength. Against the formless forces eroding the empire, they thought to fling up a military bulwark. Pouring resources into their military, however, only imposed more expenses on a government that was already overburdened.

It was overburdened in part because European traders entering the economy had upset the delicate checks and balances in the Ottoman system. Forget the battle of Lepanto, the failed siege of Vienna. Ultimately, it was traders, not soldiers, who took down the Ottoman Empire.

In the Ottoman Empire, guilds (intertwined with Sufi orders) controlled all manufacturing and they protected their members by locking out competition. One guild had a monopoly on producing soap, for example, while another had a monopoly on making shoes.  The guilds couldn’t exploit their monopoly positions to jack up prices, because the state imposed limits on how much they could charge. The state protected the public and the guilds protected their members; everything balanced, everything worked.

Then the Westerners came into the system. They didn’t compete with the guilds by trying to sell soap or shoes – the state wouldn’t let them. No, they came looking for stuff to buy, raw materials mainly, such as wool, meat, leather, wood, oils, metals and the like – whatever they could get their hands on. Suppliers were happy to sell to them, and even the state smiled on this trade, because it brought gold into the empire. Unfortunately, the Europeans were after the same materials the guilds needed to make their products. And the Europeans could outbid the guilds because they had the gold of the America in their satchels, while the guilds only had their profits, which were limited by government price controls. They couldn’t make up the difference with volume – by producing and selling more goods, that is – because they just couldn’t get enough raw materials to increase production. With foreigners sucking those out of Ottoman territory, artisans in the Ottoman world felt the pinch: domestic production began to fall.

Ottoman officials saw the problem and dealt with it by banning the export of strategic raw materials needed by domestic industries. But laws of this type only opened up contraband opportunities: when exporting wool is a crime, only criminals will export wool. The black market economy began to thrive: a whole class of nouveau riche black-market entrepreneurs emerged: and since they were breaking the law to make money, they had to bribe various officials to look the other way, which opened up opportunities for corruption, which spawned another class of nouveau riche “entrepreneurs”: bribe-battened bureaucrats.

So now a lot of folks had illegal cash to spend that didn’t come out of increased productivity. But what could the newly rich Ottoman citizens spend their money on? Investing in aboveboard industries was out: it would attract unwelcome attention from the state. So they did what drug dealers do in modern American society. They spent freely on extravagant luxury items, including consumer goods from the West, which could be had for cash paid under the table. The very trends undermining Ottoman ability to manufacture goods were providing a market for European industry and incidentally draining the gold back to Europe.

Outside cash coming into the system just as production was falling generated inflation: that’s what happens when you have more money chasing fewer goods.  Whom does inflation hurt? It hurts people on fixed incomes, and not only the poor.  In Ottoman society people on “fixed incomes” included salaried government bureaucrats and more particularly the salaried officials at court- that bloated, wholly nonproductive upper class. These officials were rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. But even the richest of the rich somehow feel threatened when their buying power goes down. How much they had didn’t matter: it was how much less they had that got to them. Inflation made rich courtiers living on fixed salaries feel like they had to tighten their belts and this they didn’t like.  They began to supplement their incomes by controlling access to the administrative and legal workings of the state.  When people have no role except to provide access, they have no power except to deny access. Courtiers and bureaucrats began to prevent instead of facilitate – unless they were given bribes. The Ottoman Empire became a paperwork nightmare. To negotiate one’s way through it, a person needed to bribe people who knew people who could bribe people who could bribe other people, and so on, creating an expensive maize of delays and bottlenecks.

To combat this gumming up of the works, the state raised salaries, so official wouldn’t feel the need to take bribes. But the state didn’t have any source of extra funds based on real productivity, especially since the empire was no longer expanding and flush with the revenue that came from conquest. In order to raise salaries, pensions and soldiers’ wages, therefore, the empire had to simply print money.

Printing money spurs inflation –which puts us back where we started! Everything the Ottoman government did to stem corruption and promote efficiency only aggravated the problem it was trying to solve. Eventually, government officials gave up and decided to hire some consultants to come in and help them set things in order. Western business forces thus began to operate freely in the Ottoman Empire.  Their interaction with the Ottomans can be summed up in one word: capitulations.

These capitulations began when the empire was still at is height, and the term simply referred to permissions granted by the mighty sultans to petty petitioners from Europe pleading to do business in the Empire. Capitulations were lists of permitted business activities for Europeans, organized by category. There was no single moment when capitulations stopped meaning “permissions doled out haughtily by mighty Ottoman lords” -in exchange for a fee or percentage of gross sales (rarely a percentage of profits) –and started meaning “humiliating concessions wrung out triumphantly from Ottoman officials (by haughty European bosses backed by the military might of their governments).” But that’s certainly what they meant by 1838, when the Ottoman’s signed the treaty of Balta Liman which, for example, which placed low tariffs on European goods coming into the Empire but imposed high tariffs on products flowing out. It forbade Ottoman subjects to establish monopolies but permitted and eased the way for Europeans to do just that, ensuring that Ottomans would be unable to compete with European businessmen on their own soil.

These capitulations were soon followed by ‘reorganization measures”  - The Noble Edict of the Rose Chamber” (1839), “The Imperial Edict” (1956) and a third in 1860- designed to construct a modern secular state on democratic principles- written out by the British Ambassador Stratford Canning and handed to Ottoman officials with instructions to translate it and proclaim it publically.

A growing movement of reformists throughout the empire and the Muslim world embraced and promoted the reforms. They thought that the only way to defeat the Europeans was to beat them at their own game which would necessitate, first of all, adopting whatever European ideas accounted for European strength. But to many Ottoman Muslims, the tanzimat  smelled less like reform and more like fresh evidence of alien power over their lives.

The Ulama was still around. The Tanzimat worked directly against their interests by taking education out of clerical hands, replacing Shari’ah courts with secular courts and substituting French laws for Islamic laws. Of course they were going to resist; and the ulama still had a lot of moral authority among ordinary people and clout at the court too.

 The sultan and his advisors soon found themselves caught between the clamor of the secular modernists and the yammer of both the Islamic old guard and various ‘schools of reform’ whether of the fundamentalist Wahhabism, the Aligarh Movement or those associated with Sayyid Jamaluddin-i-Afghan.

It was a see-saw battle.  It wasn’t like one group of agitators were nationalist, another group secular modernists, some other one liberal constitutionalists. Many ideologies and movements were intertwined and interacting. Any single person might espouse a bit of this and a bit of that.  Eventually a group, held together for a brief time by their youth- The Young Turks- overwhelmed the last Ottoman sultan, a weak and silly man named Abdul Hamid II. In 1908 they forced him to reinstate the constitution (briefly suspended in the turmoil) and reduce himself to a figurehead.  On January 23, 1913, the ultranationalist Committee for Union and Progress staged a coup d’etat, assassinated the incumbent vizier, deposed the last Sultan, ousted all other leaders from the government, declared all other parties illegal and turned Ottoman Turkey into a one-party state. A triumverate of men emerged- the Three Pashas- and they were ruling the truncated remains of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, when the long-anticipated European civil war broke out.

.  .  .  .  .

From the Western side, it seems plausible (to some) to assert that funding and arming rulers amenable to Western ways in places like Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt helps bring democracy to those societies, as well as the blessings of the ‘free market.’ It also seems plausible (to some) to assert that Islamic social values are backward and need correction by more progressive people, even if force must needs be applied to get it done.

From the other side, however, the moral and military campaigns of recent times look like the long familiar program to enfeeble Muslims in their own countries. Western customs, legal systems, and democracy look like a project to atomize society down to the level of individual economic units making autonomous decisions based on rational self-interest. Ultimately, it seems, this would pit every man, woman and child against every other, in a competition of all against all for material goods.

What looks, from one side, like a campaign to secure greater rights for citizens irrespective of gender,looks from the other side, like powerful strangers inserting themselves into the private affairs of families and undercutting people’s ability to maintain their communal selves as familial and tribal networks. In sort, what looks from one side like empowering each individual looks, from the other side, like disempowering whole communities.

The conflict presently wracking the world is not, I think, best understood as a “clash of civilizations”. It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting. Muslims were a crowd of people going somewhere. Europeans and their offshoots were a crowd of people going somewhere. When the two crowds crossed paths, much bumping and crashing resulted and is still going on. Unraveling the vectors of those two crowds is a minimum precondition for sorting out the ideas and feelings of the present time. The unraveling will not itself produce sweetness and light, because there are actual contradictions within each vector and incompatibilities between them, not just ‘misunderstandings’.

1 comment:

  1. In ‘Desiring Arabs” by Joseph Masdad:

    “What has developed is something that Raymond Williams would call a “structure of feeling” wherein a kind of excess and deviation from moderation were seen as reasons that brought down classical Arab civilization after the Abbasids came to power and continued until the present. This is what made Arabs “weak” and led to their subjection by foreign powers and to the perpetuation of their “decadence.” This is not unlike what Williams discerned in the case of English nationalist mythology, namely, that “the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause of our social suffering and disorder. [This myth] is the main source for the structure of feeling we have been examining: the perpetual retrospect to an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ society. For Williams, structures of feelings are

    affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of the present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension. Yet we are also defining a social experience which is still in process, often not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis (though rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics, indeed its specific hierarchies. These are often more recognizable at a later stage, when they have been (as often happens) formalized, classified, and in many cases built into institutions and formations. By that time the case is different; a new structure of feeling will usually already have begun to form, in the true social present.”