Western Intervention and Mideast Christians: Lessons from the Nineteenth Century

by Mark L. Movsesian  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский  |  српски

The history of Christian persecution in the Middle East – which, sadly, is quite long, though not unmitigated – should inform the strategies we use in our relief efforts for Mideast Christians today. One important episode from this history that is worth considering is the 19th century Ottoman movement known as the Tanzimat, which caused unintended harm to Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

The Tanzimat – the word in Turkish means “Reorganization”– was a wide-ranging reform movement from the 1830s to the 1870s. The reforms were promoted by the West, which sought, among other things, to relieve the situation of Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Although the movement was well-meant and had some success, in the end the Tanzimat exposed Christians to a violent backlash and actually worsened their situation. I believe the episode offers lessons for today.

For centuries before the 1800s, the Ottoman Empire generally conformed to the classical model of Islamic government, in which the state had a religious foundation and was organized along confessional lines. In classical Islamic law, Christians were tolerated as dhimmis, the subjects of a notional treaty called the dhimma, which granted Christians state protection and some communal autonomy in exchange for Christians’ payment of a poll tax called the jizya and their acceptance of social and legal inferiority.

The dhimma was not always strictly enforced. Christians could live peaceably with their neighbors for long periods and individual Christians could rise in society. But a sense of social and legal inferiority always existed, even in the best of times, and Christians could suffer brutal repression if they breached the treaty, for example, by affecting an air of equality or by cooperating with foreigners.

The 19th Century reforms radically altered this arrangement by removing the dhimmi restrictions and granting, in theory, legal and social equality to Christians. The Tanzimat granted Christians equality in the courts, the military, and the civil service, and with respect to taxation. It outlawed all discrimination against Christians, even name-calling. Conversion from Islam to Christianity, once a crime punishable by death, was made, as a formal matter, legal.

Despite great hopes, the Tanzimat failed Christians. In fact, the reforms caused a violent Islamist backlash against them. This is because the equality granted on paper subverted profound social norms. The violation of centuries-old social understandings, combined with the fact that Christians had the support of Europeans, deeply unsettled conservative Muslim opinion and led to the so-called Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, in which hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Syriac Orthodox Christians lost their lives. The European powers that had raised Christian hopes in fact did little to help them.

Now, all this was a long time ago and much has changed. Dhimmi rules no longer exist in most Mideast countries and throughout the region equality is enshrined in basic law. One could understand the episode I have described simply as a sad event from a different time, of interest only to historians.

But I think lessons for today do exist. Notwithstanding formal equality, many legal and social restrictions on Mideast Christians continue. Conversion to Christianity is often still a crime, for example; even if not a crime, conversion can easily lead to private violence. In the region’s media, one hears Islamist complaints that echo the charges against Christians at the time of the Tanzimat: Christians have become too powerful and arrogant, Christians are treacherous, Christians are aliens who cooperate with our enemies. On this last point, many in the Mideast apparently continue to see Christians as foreign, “Western” elements, even though Christianity is native to the region and Christians have been part of Mideast society for 2000 years.

I do not suggest that religion was the only factor in the 19th Century persecution of Mideast Christians, or that it is the only factor in the persecution of Mideast Christians today. Undoubtedly, political and economic factors had and have a role. Nor do I mean to essentialize Islam or Christianity, both of which have multiple expressions. I maintain only that the religious norms about Christian inferiority were an important factor in the backlash against Christians at the time of the Tanzimat, and that such norms continue, and contribute to the mistreatment of Christians, even today.

Given those social norms, the West must choose carefully its strategy for helping Mideast Christians. The West should not make promises that it can’t or won’t keep, and should not raise hopes that it does not intend really to fulfill. Whatever it does, above all, the West should be careful not to create conditions that might lead to a backlash against Christians in the region. The West acted this way in the 19th Century and the result was a disaster for Mideast Christians.

It is very difficult to know how best to balance a concern for the rights of Christians and other, prudential factors. But whatever we do, we must be careful to avoid steps that inadvertently make the lives of Mideast Christians even more difficult than they already are.


Mark L. Movsesian is Frederick A. Whitney Professor & Director, Center for Law and Religion, St. John’s University.

This post is a shortened version of an earlier article by the author, “The Price of the Ottoman Failure,” Oasis, Vol. 7, No. 14, December 2011, at 55.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.