by Walter Short
It is the aim of many Muslims belonging to the Sunni sect to restore the Khilafah (Caliphate) abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924. In the modern context, this is linked to the desire of proponents of the Islamic revival to see a global, united Islamic state. Inevitably, however large the borders of such a state, it would contain religious minorities. Muslims are usually insistent that other religious communities have always been treated with respect and dignity by true Muslim rulers. It is therefore pertinent to examine Islamic history to test the authenticity of this claim.
Since it was under the Ottomans that an Islamic state contained the largest number of Christians, and actually occupied a substantial part of Europe, we shall restrict our study to an examination of events in the Ottoman state, especially since the last Khilafah was held by the Ottomans. The emphasis in this paper will be to examine massacres executed by the Ottoman Khilafah. After all, if the most basic right of all, the right to life, was frequently violated by the Ottoman Khilafah, those Muslims seeking the revival of the institution, and asserting that non-Muslims were generally respected under the Islamic regime, have some explaining to do.
1. The emergence of the Ottomans and the conquest of Constantinople
The Osmanli or Ottoman Turks emerged as a force in the 14th century, replacing the previous Seljuk Turkish Emirate of Konya.  They were ‘…fanatical Moslems… Their clan leaders called themselves Ghazis, warriors for the faith of Islam. Conquest of the infidel was for them a religious duty.’  Hence, jihad by the Ottomans was as much offensive in character as defensive, and their belief was that non-Muslims should be subjugated by the sword. In 1354 they occupied Gallipoli, and then spread across the Balkans, defeating the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, and completing the conquest of Bulgaria and Thessaly by 1393. This meant that the capital of the Byzantine Empire (or what little was left of it), Constantinople, was now isolated. ‘Close the gates of the city’ said the Sultan to Byzantine Emperor Manuel II (1391-1425), ‘for I own everything outside.’ 
By then it was only a matter of time before Constantinople was attacked, and under the energetic and ruthless Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottomans began the siege of the Byzantine capital in April 1453 – this despite the fact that at his accession to the Sultanate in 1451, he had sworn on the Qur’an to the Byzantine embassy that he would respect the latter’s territorial integrity.  Obviously, an oath to an infidel meant nothing. There is no way that the siege of Constantinople could be classified as ‘defensive’ jihad: rather, it was an unprovoked act of aggression. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the city fell on Monday 28 May 1453. It should be noted that on 6 April Mehmet II had sent Emperor Constantine XI a message, the terms of which the latter declined, ‘declaring that, as Islamic law prescribed, every citizen would be spared if the city would surrender without resistance.’  The implication was clear: if the city resisted, the lives of its residents would be forfeit.
This in fact happened when the city fell on Tuesday 29 May, with Muslim forces slaughtering, plundering, and enslaving multitudes of Christians.  This fact, seldom mentioned by those Muslims glorying in the event, demonstrates how intrinsic were massacre and oppression to the Ottoman Khilafah, and naturally gives reason for concern to non-Muslims when they hear of nostalgia for the institution among Muslims. Mehmet II entered the great church of Hagia Sophia, the premier cathedral of eastern Christendom, and rather than respecting its religious integrity, expropriated it for Islam, formally transforming it into a mosque. By the 16th century, the Balkans as a whole had come under Muslim rule.
2. Christian liberty and dignity under the Ottomans
The picture was not totally dark. The Ottomans allowed the Greek Orthodox a large measure of internal autonomy as to their social and religious concerns – the Millat concept. The Sultan often appointed a Greek as Grand Vizier, and the commander of the Ottoman Navy was frequently a Greek.  However, full citizenship was reserved only for those embracing Islam. The Sultan often interfered in the elections for the Orthodox Patriarch, and could even over-rule them. On a number of occasions, Patriarchs were executed. Neither full religious liberty nor equality existed.
One of the most telling practices which questions the view that the Ottoman Khilafah was a Golden Age as far as religious minorities were concerned was the forced recruitment of Janissaries, which started in the 14th century. ‘… they forcibly took male children of the enslaved Christian families (mainly Greeks. and later also Armenians Bulgarians, Albanians and Serbs), and brought them up in special camps They conditioned them to become fanatic Turks and relentless killers to their own people. These children would grow up to believe that their father was the Sultan and that if they were to die in battle they would go to heaven. Thus, because of this New Army, or Janissaries, (Yeni-ceri in Turkish) the Turks continued to pursue their conquests.’ 
Ottoman forces would raid Christian villages, and kidnap boys, who were then brought to Constantinople as slave-soldiers, and forcibly converted to Islam. They were banned from intimate relations with women, except when they attacked an enemy town or village, at which point they could pillage and rape for three days. This continued until 1700, after which membership became hereditary, and finally ended with the abolition of the Janissaries, after a rebellion. Other Christian children were kidnapped into slavery as palace officials, eunuchs and concubines. It is practices like these that have left dark memories in Balkan peoples and Armenians about the long years of Muslim rule.
These practices could have become normative in Western Europe as well if the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 had been successful. Again, this cannot be construed as ‘defensive’ jihad: it was an unprovoked act of aggression. The actions of Ottoman forces as the attack on Austria began demonstrated what Europe could expect if the Khilafah managed to extend its borders over the rest of Europe. Members of the Ottoman forces ‘burnt villages, enslaved the women and children, and the men fit to work. The sick and the old they decapitated. They sacked the churches and trampled the crucifixes into the ground.’  They engaged in ‘burning, raping, killing, enslaving…’  It should be remembered that the Muslim army was commanded by the Grand Vizier himself, Kara Mustafa. It is difficult to see how such behaviour could be considered as attracting people to Islam.
Discrimination against Christians continued throughout the centuries of the existence of the Ottoman Khilafah. An example of this is found in the peace treaty ending the Crimean War of 1854-56. The War began as a squabble between Russia and the Ottoman Khilafah. Peace was restored by the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. Usually attention is given to Britain and France’s imposed clause that banned Russian warships from the Black Sea. Less attention is focussed on Article 9 of the Treaty, which obliged the Ottoman Khilafah to recognise equality among its subjects ‘without distinction as to religion or race’. This demonstrates that the Ottoman Khilafah was indeed engaged in such systematic discrimination. Rather than honouring the treaty, the Khilafah passed a decree the same year requiring non-Muslims to obtain a permit from the Khalifah himself to build or repair their places of worship. Effectively, this meant a continuation of the principles of Islamic law, and a circumvention of the Treaty of Paris.
Not only was Christian liberty under the Khilafah limited, Christian dignity was also frequently disregarded. Until the time of the Great War and their ethnic cleansing in 1915, Armenian Christians dressed their young girls as boys to prevent their rape or kidnap (or both) by Ottoman Muslims. In fact, any child was in danger of being kidnapped. A typical example of Ottoman Muslim contempt for Christians is supplied by a consideration of the burial-permit issued by a qadi (Muslim official) in 1855 for a deceased Christian: ‘We certify to the priest of the church of Mary, that the impure, putrefied, stinking carcass of Saideh, damned this day, may be concealed underground.’  Undoubtedly, Muslims would regard such sentiments made in regard to a Muslim corpse to be bigoted and insensitive; they should not be surprised that Christians would react similarly, and find it difficult to credit that the Khilafah was indeed a Utopian regime.
3. Massacres by the Khilafah
By the 19th century the Ottoman empire was in decline, and moves towards liberty began among the Balkan peoples. This period saw the first stirrings of modern nationalism, and there was a great desire among the Balkan Christians to rid themselves of their Turkish overlords (and in the case of Romanians, of the Phanariot Greeks that the Ottomans used as administrators). However, nationalism alone did not provide the spur to liberate Europe from the Turks. As Christians, the Balkan peoples were at best second-class citizens – conquered subjects, denied religious equality. ‘The Christians, indeed, were excluded from political power, made subject to a special tax, [i.e. the Jizyah] and were on more than one occasion exposed to the risk of systematic extermination.’ 
3.1 The Greek Revolt
The defeats the Ottomans had suffered at the hands of the Poles and Austrians in 1683, by the Russians thereafter on a number of occasions, and Venice’s temporary occupation of the Morea in the 1690s until 1718 demonstrated that the Khilafah was not invulnerable. The first attempts at liberation came with the Serbs under Kara George in 1804. The uprising was successful, but Ottoman authority was restored in 1813. Another uprising in 1815 under Milosch Obrenovitch gained the Serbs a measure of self-rule, and himself received the title ‘Prince of the Serbians’ from the Sultan.  The principal event, however, that began the collapse of Ottoman power was the freedom-struggle of Greece in 1821. Ever since the times of classical Greece, Greek communities had resided around the Black Sea, including areas that had come under Russian control in the 18th century. The aide-de-camp to the Tsar in 1821 was a Greek, Prince Hypsilanti, who was also the leader of a Greek nationalist secret society called Hetairia Philike – the ‘Association of Friends’, which had been established in 1814 in Odessa. It possessed 20,000 members, and operated in Greek-populated areas of the Ottoman Empire. 
The campaign began almost farcically, when Hypsilanti and a group of Greeks crossed into Moldavia in March 1821, and urged the Orthodox population to rise against the Ottomans. However, the Romanians, whilst Orthodox, were not Greeks, and resented Greek superiority in the Empire, and conflict between the Greeks and Romanians soon erupted. It is only fair to state that Hypsilanti and his followers behaved as badly as the Ottomans by permitting a massacre of the local Muslim community.  In these circumstances, it was unsurprising that in June at Skaleni the rebels were been beaten by the Ottomans.
However, the events in Moldavia encouraged a popular uprising by the Greeks of the Morea at the instigation of the Hetairia Philike. Again, the Greek shamed their cause by a general massacre of virtually the entire 25,000 strong Muslim community within six weeks of the outbreak of the event. The Ottomans retaliated by massacring Greeks in Thessaly, Macedonia and the Aegean islands. On one of the latter, the Aegean Island of Chios, the Ottomans massacred 27,000 Christians, including women and children.  Most of the Christians in the Greek quarter of Constantinople were massacred.  On Easter Day 1822, the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople was hanged by the Ottomans, and his body was later was thrown into the Bosphorus, eventually recovered by a Greek boat and brought to Odessa, where the Patriarch was given a martyr’s burial. 
The murder of the Patriarch was a disastrous miscalculation by the Khilafah, and caused widespread revulsion in Europe, with Russia threatening intervention. The cause of Greek liberation now became a popular concern among Europeans, horrified at the oppression of their fellow-Christians, the massacres and the sale into slavery of Greek Christian captives in Egypt.  The deep religious conviction of King Charles X of France led him to support the Greek Christians. The famous British poet Lord Byron, like many other Europeans, volunteered to fight alongside the Greeks, and lost his life there. Equally, many Muslims heeded call to jihad against the infidel made by the Khalifah in March 1821.
Greek military and especially naval successes caused the Khalifah to appeal to Muhammad Ali, his vassal in Egypt, to intervene with the Egyptian fleet, promising him control of the Morea, Crete and the Levant. Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim, landed in Crete, where the population was at that time roughly one third Muslim, and began to massacre the majority Christian community. Similarly, when Ibrahim’s forces landed in the Morea, they ‘began to wipe out the Greek population.’  It should be stated that this was the result of the Khalifah’s direction, as urged by the Muslim ulema, that ‘the rebels be openly fought and put to the sword, that their property be plundered and their wives and children reduced to slavery’ . As we have seen, both the enslavement and genocide actually occurred – ‘the whole population of the Greek mainland was in danger of extermination’ .
It was the level of genocide and the threat of Russian intervention that eventually caused the Great powers, led by Britain, to intervene at the battle of Navarino in 1827, which destroyed the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets, and allowed French forces to invade the Morea, whilst Russian troops advanced into Thrace. It must be stated that prior to this, the Powers had offered the Ottomans a settlement which would have provided for nominal Ottoman suzerainty with full autonomy for Greece, but the Khalifah, committed to the Islamic idea of the subjugation of non-Muslims, declined the offer. This miscalculation led to the Powers forcing recognition of full Greek independence in 1832.
3.2 Khilafah Massacres from 1840-1860
In fact, it was the constant incidence of genocide that obliged Western intervention in Ottoman affairs, leading to the eventual collapse of the State. In 1842, Muslims engaged in the following massacre:
Badr Khan Bey, A Hakkari Kurdish Amir, combined with other Kurdish forces led by Nurallah, attacked the Assyrians, intending to burn, kill, destroy, and, if possible, exterminate the Assyrians race from the mountains. The fierce Kurds destroyed and burned whatever came within their reach. An indiscriminate massacre took place. The women were brought before the Amir and murdered in cold blood. The following incident illustrates the revolting barbarity: the aged mother of Mar Shimun, the Patriarch of the Church of the East, was seized by them, and after having practiced on her the most abominable atrocities, they cut her body into two parts and threw it into the river Zab, exclaiming, “go and carry to your accursed son the intelligence that the same fate awaits him.” Nearly ten thousand Assyrians were massacred, and as large a number of woman and children were taken captive, most of whom were sent to Jezirah to be sold as slaves, to be bestowed as presents upon the influential Muslims. (Death of a Nation, pp. 111-112). 
Similar events occurred in 1846.  In neither case did the Ottoman Government or its security forces intervene to prevent the massacres or punish the wrong-doers, indicating that they were happy with the outcome, and thus making the Khilafah accomplices to the massacres. In 1847, Muslim forces massacred 30,000 members of the Assyrian Christian community. A good example of State complicity by the Khilafah in massacres of Christians begun by individual Muslims occurred in Lebanon and Syria in 1860, and which were only finally ended by the intervention of French forces:
In Lebanon, from April to July, more than sixty villages of Al-Matn and Al-Shuf were burned to ashes by the Druze and Kurdish forces. The big towns then followed. The Ottoman garrison commander again offered the Maronite population asylum, as he had offered to the small villages, asking for the surrender of their arms and then slaughtering them in the local serai. Such was the fate of Dayr al-Qamar, which lost 2600 men; Jazzin and environs, where 1500 were slaughtered; Hasbayya, where 1000 of 6000 were cold bloodedly killed; Rashayya, where 800 perished. The orders for Hasbayya were that no male between seven and seventy years of age should be spared. Malicious eyes feasted on mangled, intermingled bodies of old and young in the courtyard of the Shihabi palace. Zahla, largest among the towns with 12000 inhabitants, held out for a short time and then succumbed under an attack by a host including fighters from Harwan and Bedouins from the desert. The town lay snugly in a deep ravine carved by the Bardawni flowing from the Mount Sannin. Hardly a house escaped the flames. The total loss of life within the span of three months and a space of a few miles was estimated at 12000. From Lebanon the spark of hate flew to Damascus and ignited a reservoir of Muslim ill-feeling generated by the policy of Ibrahim Pasha and the egalitarian provisions of Khatti Humayun. The Assyrian quarter was sent on fire and some 11000 of its inhabitants were put to the sword. 
3.3 The Balkan Massacres of the 1870s
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the rural Christian peasantry still lived under a system of serfdom, and faced heavy taxes from the Khilafah that were not endured by the Muslims. The Balkans suffered poor harvests in 1874, threatening starvation, yet the Ottoman State, far from assisting the populace, still demanded the usual taxes – again, influenced by Islamic law.  The pressure-cooker finally blew-up in 1875, when the Christians of Bosnia-Herzegovina revolted against the Khilafah. The uprising spread to Serbia and Montenegro, which had been autonomous since 1829 whilst remaining under Ottoman suzerainty. Soon the revolt spread to Bulgaria, which had no rights of self-government under the Khilafah, because of the large Turkish and Muslim communities in the country and its proximity to the imperial capital.
‘The new Sultan, Abdul Hamid II (known appropriately in history as the “red Sultan”) gave no quarter to the insurgents.’  The Khalifah’s policy was genocidal: ‘whole villages were razed to the ground, and the inhabitants murdered. Bulgarian prisoners were shot after being subjected to the most barbarous tortures.’  Between April and August 1876 thousands of Bulgarian Christians were horrifically massacred by Khilafah forces – 12,000 men, women and children were butchered in May alone.  The Great Powers responded by sending the Khilafah the Andrassy note, so-named after the Hungarian minister, proposing reforms in Ottoman administration, which the Sultan pretended to accept. The Balkan Christians, however, after their experiences, refused to take seriously Ottoman promises in the absence of firm Western guarantees.
The Great Powers, with the crucial exception of Britain, at that point sent the Berlin Memorandum to the Ottoman Empire, threatening to assist the Balkan revolts if the proposed reforms were not implemented within two months. However, in the absence of British involvement, the Ottomans felt confident enough to ignore the advice. Russia began preparations for an assault on the Ottoman Khilafah, but this was prevented by an international conference at Constantinople where Abdul Hamid II submitted to constitutional reforms, proposed by his minister Midhat Pasha, a man of liberal views, which involved better treatment of Christians. However, virtually as soon as the conference finished, Midhat Pasha was removed and killed soon after. The new constitution was also withdrawn, along with the guarantees to the Christians.  This demonstrated that the persecution of Christians was bound to continue as long as the Khilafah continued to exist.
Eventually, Ottoman prevarication and treachery led to a Russo-Romanian attack, and ultimately intervention by Britain, leading finally to the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 which recognised the total independence of Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro, whilst the Austria occupied Bosnia and the Sandjak of Novibazar. Bulgaria received home rule, with eastern Rumelia, bordering eastern Thrace, always to have a Christian Governor.  The war had cost the Khilafah much of its European territory, a point of rejoicing for the Balkan Christians. It must be confessed, however, that the now-independent Balkan states after 1878 were often as bigoted and cruel to their Muslim communities as had been the Khilafah to the Christians, and consequently, many Muslims, frequently persecuted, migrated to the Ottoman Empire.
A more crucial loss for the Ottoman Khilafah was British support. News of the Bulgarian massacres was greeted with popular outrage. The Prime Minister, Disraeli, afraid of Russian expansionist plans, dismissed tales of the massacres as mere propaganda – ‘coffee-house gossip’. His opposite number, Gladstone, leader of the Opposition, wrote a famous pamphlet entitled The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, which enjoyed large sales. For a time, the Ottoman Khilafah was held in as great disdain as Nazi Germany today. The situation was not aided by the actions of the Sultan-Khalifah Abdul Hamid breaking his promises of better treatment of the Christians that he made ate the Berlin Congress. 
3.4 The Massacres of the 1890s
On the other hand, the Ottomans continued to massacre whole Christian communities, the most notable event being the massacres of 1894-96 when thousands of Armenian and Assyrian Christians – over 300,000 – were brutally murdered at the instigation of the Red Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The German alliance had given him confidence against any European reaction, and he was proved correct. Six thousand Armenian Christians were butchered in Constantinople alone.  In Britain, Gladstone came out of retirement to demand action against the Ottomans, and the British Government did indeed approach other Powers on the subject, but there was no interest in taking any measures.  Facing nationalist partisans in Macedonia, the last European province still under complete Ottoman control, Turkish forces were lacking in restraint. Faced with an uprising in Crete in 1897, the Turkish authorities not only suppressed the rebellion but went to war with Greece, defeating the old enemy, only to have the Powers intervene and to insist upon a Christian Governor for the island.
3.5 The 1915 Genocide
In April 24 1915 the Ottoman authorities ordered the deportation of practically the entire Armenian and Assyrian Christian populations of eastern Asia Minor to Syria and Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and to massacre many of them. The genocide continued throughout the year. By the end of 1915, 1,500,000 Armenians and 250,000 Assyrians had been murdered. Many women were raped and children were kidnapped and enslaved to be brought up as Muslims. Many Christians – especially women – were crucified (the photographs are still extant).
About 200,000 Armenians avoided ethnic cleansing/massacre by converting to Islam. Entire villages converted to Islam to avoid massacre. Churches were destroyed or defiled by being turned into barns. A serious attempt was made to destroy every vestige of Christian identity in the region. Ottoman ‘justification’ for their actions concerns the claim that the Armenians were a fifth column and that there were Armenians in the Russian Army. This ignores that Russian Armenians had little choice in the matter, that Muslim Turkic peoples also served in the Russian army, and that Assyrians were few if any in the Russian forces. In 1914 the Ottoman Armenians had declared their loyalty to the state, despite isolated defections and a small uprising in Cilicia. The Ottomans falsely claimed that there was a rebellion in Van, and that what killing took place was in the context of civil war. This assertion is likewise false, since 250,000 Armenians served in the Ottoman army. Indeed, Armenian soldiers prevented the capture of one of the Ottoman leaders, Enver Pasha, after his defeat in battle by Russian troops. 
Most of the massacres were carried out by ordinary police, although a ‘Special Organisation’ was established, made up of common criminals released on condition that they murdered Armenians.  Furthermore, even the Russian Armenians were massacred in the Ottoman assault of 1918 – 15,000 Armenians were massacred in Baku. Armenian refugees were used for bayonet practice.  In fairness, it should be noted that many Arab villages in Syria aided the Armenian refugees, and some Muslim religious officials protested about the policy.  Turkey still denies the historicity of the genocide. Hitler justified his policies on the ground that the world did nothing when the Ottomans massacred the Armenians, so they would do nothing to stop his plans for those peoples he wished to eliminate.
The massacres of Muslims carried out by the Greeks in 1821 and later by other Balkan peoples as they attained their independence were as indefensible as those committed by the Muslims on the Christians. However, there are distinct nuances to those committed respectively by the Greeks and other Balkan peoples in the 19th century and those by the Khilafah. The Greek massacres bring shame on Greek nationalism, rather than Christianity; it was in the name of the former, rather than the latter, that such outrages were committed. Moreover, the Greeks were not a Government, but an insurgent group (obviously, this does not apply to massacres effected when the Balkan provinces had become states). The massacres committed by the Khilafah, however, are of a different character. Not even the Greeks would claim the divine inspiration of Greek nationalism, and few would now justify the massacres. Muslims, however, precisely believe the Khilafah to be divinely ordered, and that jihad is indeed divinely inspired. It was in the name of the Khilafah and jihad that the genocide was committed.
Furthermore, the Khilafah was the legal government of the Greek and other Balkan peoples; it had a duty to defend, rather than exterminate its subjects. This raises two problems for Muslims seeking the revival of the Khilafah: firstly, a Government that believes it is legitimate to commit massacres in the name of religion is scarcely an attractive concept for those who might be its victims; secondly, because the Khilafah is considered as divinely ordered, Muslims are left defending the idea that God ordered the massacre of innocent women and children because of their religion.
The problem is that the Greek massacres simply demonstrate the universal condition of moral depravity – original sin – that Christianity holds is true of all humanity. True Christians would in no way defend such actions. At any rate, Christians do not hold Greek nationalism (or any nationalism) to be divinely inspired. Muslims, on the other hand, cannot state this about the Muslim massacres. They were ordered by the Khalifah in the name of jihad – i.e. Islam. Hence, whilst all genuine Christians would unswervingly condemn the Greek massacres, Muslims would find it difficult to reciprocate.
1. Smith, Michael Llewellyn, The Fall of Constantinople, in History Makers magazine No. 5, (London, Marshall Cavendish, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1969) p. 189.
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