It’s been quoted hundreds of times in all sorts of contexts – anti-imperialist, pro-Islamic, the Jewish view, what it says about the failing EU – since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election victory. I refer, of course, to his grandiose statement on the wider impact of the election: “Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara …”

A number of commentators (here and here for instance) seized on Erdogan’s excited soundbite as though it were a call to revive the Ottoman empire, which ruled over the cities he mentioned. I’ve previously written here about the lingering effects of the Austro-Hungarian empire on modern history; what of Austria’s arch-rival, Ottoman Turkey? In particular, since the Ottoman state is often said to have been relatively immune from communal conflicts, do its minority policies have anything to tell modern Europe about living in diverse communities?

You could say the Ottomans practiced the ultimate in multi-cultural politics, although their worldview was profoundly un-modern in the sense that it used religion rather than “nationality” or “ethnicity” as the basic measuring rod. They allowed non-Muslims (in particular, the Christian and Jewish communities) wide freedom of action and internal autonomy, so long as they paid their taxes. Sephardic Jews and Armenians, to name two minorities, were prized as merchants and bankers.

Even if you wanted to adopt an Ottoman-esque minorities policy, one fairly big problem remains. Empires are not in much demand these days, especially not absolutist, slave-owning ones. Indeed, centrifugal forces in the empire only began really to gather speed when the highly centralized rule of the sultans was challenged by a growing class of large regional estate owners, earlier kept in check by frequently moving officials and officers around the empire to stop them growing local power bases.

The real difference though may be one of universalism versus ad-hoc-ism. Where the Ottomans, and you might add the pre-Christian Romans, were more than happy for minority communities to preach things that clashed with the dominant belief system so long as they did it discreetly, we live in a culture that prizes universal values and rights (although with a new “human right” announced almost every week it seems, you wonder when this unwieldy ethical scaffolding might begin to sway).

Speaking of absolute rulers, Dutch soccer great Ruud Gullit’s days in the court of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov came to an abrupt end when Terek Grozny, the team Gullit coached, lost yet another game in the Russian first division. “I knew this was no ordinary country and no ordinary football league. But it’s all been too bizarre for words,” Gullit was quoted as saying after his sacking by Kadyrov, who is Terek’s president in his spare time. Come on Ruud boy, be glad you’re leaving in a first-class seat, not a box.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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