The Modern Shaping of “Minorities” in the Post-Ottoman Era: An Anachronism in Service of Sectarian Powers and Nation-States

AuthorStephanie Khouri
The Modern Shaping of “Minorities” in the
Post-Ottoman Era: An Anachronism in
Service of Sectarian Powers and Nation-
Stephanie Khouri
As an innovative system of protection based
on the identification of non-Muslim
communities within the Ottoman Empire,
the Millet system led to the
institutionalisation of ‘minorities’ within
post-Ottoman states of the Middle East. In
a global historical context, labelling of the
‘minority’ referred to the process of
identification of ‘the Other’ under a
protective legal agenda. It echoes concern
for ‘the ill-treatment of the Other’. This is
precisely how Ottoman authorities
introduced it in the late 19th in an attempt
to foster a protective regime able to contain
centrifuge forces threatening the empire by
delegating power, control and prerogatives
to local elites. This is also how, upon
independence, national States readily
advertised them, boasting sectarian equality
or a protective legal formula for the
minorities. Draped in the gratifying
60 SLJ 5(2)
costumes of political modernity and
enlightened agenda, this discourse fails to
acknowledge the ingrained ambiguities of a
regime that kept religious and lay elites as
the exclusive intermediaries between the
governed population and the governing
entity. Doing so, it belies the national
interests at stakes in preserving religious or
sectarian prerogatives up to this day and at
the expenses of individual citizens.
I. Introduction
An enduring romanticised representation of the late Ottoman
era depicts this era, together with its ‘millet’ system, as a
peaceful model of religious coexistence. Restoration of
Ottoman nostalgia as a beacon of tolerance especially re-
awakened towards the end of the 20th century when the very
idea of the nation-state came into crisis. These ‘nostalgic
accounts’ and ‘fascinations’1 are at times premised on a
failure by the state to impose national unity, as manifested by
the recurrence of intra-national conflicts showcased in the
wake of wars in Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and Iraq. Rehabilitated
* Stephanie Khouri is a SOAS international law graduate. Her
researches focus on the long-term implications of the colonial
project within international, regional and domestic legal
1 Karen Barkey and George Gavrilis, ‘The Ottoman Millet
System: Non-Territorial Autonomy and its Contemporary
Legacy’ (2016) 15(1) Ethnopolitics 29.

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