Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Military Mission of the Ottoman Empire

I previously discussed the difference between the military and missionary models of conversion as they relate to the Islamic and Christian traditions. The military model sees the conversion of the targeted population as a logical consequence of political rule, while the missionary model eschews politics, even to the point of accepting martyrdom, in the hope of converting the dominant society through argument and claims of miracles. I would like to point readers to an example of the military model as practiced under the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century.

Marc David Baer, in Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe, analyzes Ottoman conversionary tactics during the reign of Mehmed IV (1648-87). Mehmed IV is best known to Jewish history for being sultan during the outbreak of Sabbatai Sevi's messianic movement in 1665-66, to European history for presiding over the failed attempt to capture Vienna in 1683 and to Turkish history for being a pleasure seeking hunting enthusiast who allowed his empire to decline around him. Baer puts all three of these things together to knit an apology for Mehmed IV. Baer sees Mehmed IV's policies as being part of a consistent and remarkably successful plan of converting Christians, Jews and wayward Muslims. In this Mehmed IV was largely influenced by the conservative Kadizadeli movement, particularly the preacher Vani Mehmed Efendi. Instead of killing Sabbatai, the Ottomans hoped to use Sabbatai as a conversionary tool. Baer conclusively demonstrates how Sabbatai's conversion fit into a common pattern of ritualized conversions where Jews, Christians and heterodox Muslims would come before the court of the sultan to receive instruction in the faith, be dressed in new garments, and to be rewarded with a purse full of coins and a symbolic position at court. The failed siege of Vienna and the setbacks suffered at the end of Mehmed IV's reign, leading to his overthrow, should not detract from several decades of Ottoman military expansion, enlarging the sphere of Islamic power. This involved not just conquering territory, but the "Islamification" of the physical space under their control. This was also accomplished, in cases like the major fire in Istanbul, by not allowing Jews and Christians to rebuild and expelling them from specific neighborhoods thus turning former Jewish and Christian neighborhoods to Islamic spaces. Even Mehmed IV's love of hunting is seen as a means of projecting an image of the conquering Muslim warrior. Hunting served as a form of mock warfare where the sultan could demonstrate his personal bravery and command over other men. Furthermore the hunt served to allow Mehmed IV to travel around the empire and bring him in contact with his non-Muslim subjects and bring them to the faith.

What interests me about the conversion tactics described by Baer are that, while they bear a surface resemblance to the missionary model, they are still rooted primarily within the political and as such remains part of the military model. In our Ottoman scenario people might come to Islam out of their own free will. Even the accounts of Sabbatai's conversion, the major example in Baer's discussion of a forced conversion, carry the sense more of a gentlemen's agreement than brute force. The gist seems to be: "you Sabbatai are guilty of treason and should be put to death, but the sultan has nothing personal against you and is willing to call the whole thing off. He would just like you to do him a small favor, convert to Islam." Despite the absence of formal violence, though, the primary vehicle of conversion (for Sabbatai or anyone else) was the State and the realization that one could most effectively deal with this State by simply converting.

Such conversions lack drama and it was probably the point for it not to be dramatic. Jews and Christians are people of the book; they just need to accept the true conclusion of their faith and accept Islam, which should not be a big deal for them or require any sort of "rebirth." As such there is no need to use physical coercion. There is also no need for a sophisticated attempt to understand Judaism and Christianity and argue with their adherents on their own ground. There is something positive about this, in that Jews and Christians are not demonized; there is no need for them to be shown the "error" of their ways because they already know the truth and should be expected to readily convert. On the flip side, such a view does not take the opposition seriously even to the extent of acknowledging that the other side has opinions to be refuted. Christianity at least took Judaism seriously enough to polemicize against it. One is hard pressed to find an Islamic tradition of even achieving that baseline of respect.

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