Millet Systems & Current Minority Laws

For my final project I worked on comparing the Ottoman millet systems with current legislation in how Islamic countries treat minorities in order to combat ignorance. To fully understand the connection, it’s necessary to quickly summarize what the millet systems were. Originally, they were built to keep religious minorities in separate but ideally equal groups after the taking of Constantinople in 1454. If you were monotheistic, “of the book” (Judaism, Christianity), it was legally required for your group to be treated with respect (polytheistic people were still heavily discriminated against and usually killed). In order to implement this, each group had its own leaders and people who would legislate laws. There were still overarching legal and judicial systems; for example, in most cases, only a Muslim could be the judge, which could easily contribute to power imbalances. There was also the tax imposed on other groups other than Muslims, although this was often cited as equal to what Muslim people paid in alms, so it was a way to further equality between groups. Most people had good chances of rising through ranks in government, but no one but a Muslim could be at the head of any branch. These systems seemed to work for quite a while (nearly the entire five hundred years of the Ottoman Empire), but eventually gave rise to protests when the country turned more nationalistic as a whole and tensions grew between groups who no longer felt like they were being treated truly equally. For further context on how most countries of the time treated minorities, let’s say most ended with countless murders and the eradication of entire cultures.

So now that we’ve seen how minorities used to be treated in the Ottoman Empire, let’s take a look at how they’re treated currently. To do this, I think it’d be useful to look at a list of different Islamic countries/Muslims in non-Islamic countries and state some of the laws that focus specifically on minority groups. For example, in Canada, the Islamic Model that was released in 1993 states that, “The Qur’an (2:256) prescribes religious tolerance by clearly and emphatically stating that there should be no compulsion in religion.”. These laws seem to differ widely depending on the country, but when you look just at the Qur’an, the only religious law that it attempts to impose is tolerance for others to participate in their own religion. A prominent professor with several PH.D.s on Religious Studies, Dr. Jamal Badawi, says “ …the Quran doesn’t only address tolerating non-Muslim minorities under an ideal Islamic State, but it talks about having cordial and friendly relationships with them”. The Rights of Minorities in the Islamic State is a book written in 1954 that describes how the millet system is the ideal way to get back to a communal state with dhimmis (“protected person”).

Still, there is currently a good amount of troubles over minority treatment in Islamic countries, but as we’ve seen, Islam as a religion supports diversity in religious freedoms. While we can’t ignore this treatment as that would lead to the erasure of oppressed minorities in these countries, it’s important to not contribute to the spreading of misinformation. There are a fair amount of programs in place in various attempts to implement this type of thinking in government. The integration of culture seems to be a popular answer to these types of problems, as people often say that the millet systems were s type of segregation, and thus left it open for the groups to slowly move away from each other, where residual bitterness eventually overpowered them. Personally, I would argue that the struggle with “integration” is that it’s never equal, and that it’s either cultural globalization or assimilation, depending on what side you’re on (which usually ends up with the majority/those in power winning).


One thought on “Millet Systems & Current Minority Laws

  1. Kenneth Taylor

    There is a good deal of similarity in how the Ottoman Empire used the millet system to segregate different ethnic groups under their own form of judiciary and political systems, and how the “Western” powers broke up the middle east after WWI. Allied powers, like Britain, France, and Russia sectioned off different regions of the Arabian peninsula (and of course numerous other parts of the world), and chose local tribal leaders to lead the newly formed protectorates, whom they paid to be loyal to their colonial rule. During the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916, the Allies betrayed the Hashemite powers, and broke their goals of a united Arab nation. Instead, the tribes were arbitrarily split apart, and their control divided. Colonial laws were enforced by tribal leaders, empowered by foreign powers. Their division was used as a means of control by the colonial powers, and new meaningless nationalities were given to tribesmen. A completely new identity was used to basically sort, divide, and control an entire sub-continent in a similar way to how the Ottomans took control of the the Christians and Jews and other ethnicities occupying Anatolian peninsula.


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