- Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in a Comparative Perspective
In this important book, Karen Barkey casts the entire history of the Ottoman Empire in a comparative-sociological framework and addresses two interrelated questions: How did this empire last as long as it did in an environment that was far from hospitable? Why did the factors that were behind this longevity become irrelevant at some point, leading to a series of fundamental transformations that signaled the end of the Ottoman Empire?
Barkey argues that the key to the success of the Ottomans was the open and tolerant empire they established by incorporating and integrating a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups, institutions, and practices which they encountered in Anatolia, the Middle East, and the Balkans. They also managed to co-opt (with various degrees of success) several dissent movements that were organized by religious and other opposition groups in the course of the empire's history. The result of this dynamic and expanding system was a polyglot, diverse, and heterogeneous entity that adjusted itself fairly smoothly to the contingencies of its time.
However, according to Barkey, the Ottoman Empire did not just consist of a series of constantly shifting, indeterminate relations. Over time, a clearly identifiable structure came into being, with its specific institutions and claims to legitimacy. Barkey sees the reign of Mehmed II, who was responsible for conquering Istanbul in 1453, as a turning point in this respect. She likens the imperial system of rule and domination that emerged in the second half of the 16th century to the spokes of a wheel. Accordingly, there was a center that exercised power over the various groups in the periphery and in the intermediary zones. These groups were linked directly to the center, with little or no substantive ties that connected them to each other. Barkey credits the continuing capacity of the imperial center to enter into multiple negotiations and agreements with diverse local groups, rather than unilateral force, for the maintenance of this structure. There was some continuity between the latter and the earlier period when a framework was first created for effective political brokerage across diverse cultural and religious networks, but Barkey sees the post-15th century differently —as one in which the imperial state came into to its own as a strong center.
Barkey argues that, starting in the 18th century, this structure ceased to be functional because of several developments. Most significantly, privatization of revenue collection through the expansion of tax farming and the growth of international trade created new opportunities for peripheral agents who no longer saw their links to the center as their sole source of local power and influence. Barkey does not see the changes that came with tax farming as necessarily entailing decentralization. It was more of a realignment which, occasionally, made the central government even stronger but also created alternative paths for gaining power to the holders of tax farms and local notables. Whereas the changes that were brought by trade and commercialization ended up creating a new class of mostly non-Muslim wealthy merchants and intermediaries who engendered [End Page 686] the jealousy and enmity of older elites and increasingly impoverished Muslim subjects. The resultant environment of ethnic antagonism and violence shattered the defining relations of the empire and left the Muslim and non-Muslim groups with little choice but to exit this political system.
The twin concepts of political brokerage and institutional flexibility are at the heart of Barkey's explanation and they are very useful for explaining the foundation and longevity of the Ottoman Empire. They also help us to correct some widely held misconceptions about this history. One could even go further than Barkey and show that such practices were part of the entire history of the Ottoman Empire. It can be argued that the institutional changes of the 15th, 16th, and even the 19th centuries —rather than being...