A helpful reminder of the Ottoman Empire
Why is this helpful? Because it illustrates how many of today’s enduring conflicts–not only those termed “Middle Eastern”–are rooted in the Ottoman Empire and its immediate neighborhood: Bosnia, Kosovo, Greece/Turkey, Armenia/Azerbaijan, Israel/Arabs (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon), Iraq, Iraq/Iran, Shia (Iran)/Sunni (Saudi Arabia, Egypt), North/South Sudan, Yemen.
Ottoman success in managing the many ethnic and sectarian groups inhabiting the Empire, without imposing conformity to a single identity (and without providing equal rights) has left the 21st century with problems it finds hard to understand, never mind resolve.
In much of the former Ottoman Empire, many people refuse to be labeled a “minority” just because their numbers are fewer than other groups, states are regarded as formed by ethnic groups rather than by individuals, individual rights are often less important than group rights and being “outvoted” is undemocratic.
A Croat leader in Bosnia told me 15 years ago that one thing that would never work there was “one man, one vote.” It just wasn’t their way of doing things. For a decision to be valid, a majority of each ethnic group was needed , not a majority of the population as a whole.
In a society of this sort, a boycott by one ethnic group is regarded as invalidating a decision made by the majority: the Serbs thought their boycott of the Bosnia independence referendum should have invalidated it, but the European Union had imposed a 50 per cent plus one standard. There lie the origins of war.
The question of whether Israel is a Jewish state is rooted in the same thinking that defined Yugoslavia as the kingdom of the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, and it bears a family resemblance to the thinking behind “Greater Serbia” and “Greater Albania.” If it is the ethnic group that forms the state, why should there be more than one state in which that ethnic group lives?
Ours is a state (yes, that is the proper term for what we insist on calling the Federal Government) built on a concept of individual rights, equal for all. The concept challenges American imaginations from time to time: certainly it did when Truman overcame strong resistance to integrate the US Army, and it is reaching the limits of John McCain’s imagination in the debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But the march of American history is clearly in the direction of equal individual rights.
That is a direction many former Ottoman territories find it difficult to take, because some groups have more substantial rights than others; even when the groups’ rights are equal, they can veto each other. A lot of the state-building challenge in those areas arises from this fundamental difference.