Letters to the Editor

On “Teaching Middle Eastern History”

Alice Whealey, May 2014

To the Editor:

In response to my statement "the Christians of Anatolia did not decline from well over 90 percent of the population before Turkish conquest to only about 20 percent on the eve of WWI because they flourished" (Perspectives on History, December 2013), Professor Yasar needlessly writes that the "Turkish conquest of Anatolia began in 1071." As a historian whose research includes the medieval period, of course I know that the Turkish conquest of Anatolia began in the 11th century, and that the demographic decline of Anatolian Christians was the result of "processes that transpired over nearly 1,000 years," including the process of what Yasar calls "Turkish colonization." Yasar erroneously assumed that my reference to "Turkish conquest" referred only to the Ottoman conquest; in fact, it referred to the conquest of Anatolia by the various Turkish dynasties. But the argument that the Christian population in Anatolia had already started to decline under the Seljuks does not prove that it flourished under the Ottomans, as Yasar claimed. On the contrary, the fact that the proportion of Ottoman Christians continued to decline under the millet system of the "classical age of the Ottoman Empire," with its "institutionalized space of autonomy," is important for historians to acknowledge honestly. It proves that such autonomy, if accompanied by systematic discrimination and other inequities, does not necessarily lead to flourishing. And I certainly did not confuse "Turkish colonization of Anatolia" with "religious persecution of Christians," as Yasar implies, because I never used the expression "persecution of Christians." On the contrary, I argued that the fact that Christians in Anatolia underwent such drastic decline under Turkish rule, despite not experiencing "extreme intolerance," including systematic persecution, proves that a subordinated population need not experience "extreme intolerance" to decline rather than flourish.

Yasar argues that because "parts of the Balkans" remained "majority Christian" under Ottoman rule this renders "invalid" my straightforward point that a subordinated population that experiences substantial decrease relative to the dominating population by definition is not flourishing. But the fact that the proportion of Ottoman Christians in one region declined less than elsewhere certainly does not prove that they flourished anywhere. A number of factors contributed to different regional rates of demographic decline, but decline is still decline, and should not be presented as a case of flourishing. Put simply, if Christians under Ottoman rule had flourished as much as Yasar claimed, there would have been no significant decline in their proportion of the population. Recent study indicates that under Ottoman rule the proportion of Balkan Christians decreased overall by about 40 percent, and in Albanian-speaking areas Christians decreased from majority to minority status, in a decline almost as great as that experienced by Christians in Anatolia, where Turkish conquest began many centuries earlier.

Yasar labels Anatolian Christian decline under Ottoman rule "minor," but he highlights, as an example of Ottoman Christians' "institutionalized autonomy," that in the 14th to 17th centuries "some Christian churches carried out missionary activities among Muslims." Because Ottoman rulers in this period imposed severe penalties on Muslims who converted to other religions, missions to Ottoman Muslims cannot have been meaningful, and, in fact, very few converted to Christianity. Compared to the substantial decrease of the proportion of Christians in the empire, Christians' proselytizing Ottoman Muslims truly was a minor phenomenon. If, however, Yasar means that under Ottoman rule some Western churches proselytized Eastern Christians, this does not prove that Christians flourished under Ottoman rule, for these activities did not halt the substantial overall decline of their share of the empire's population.

Dr. Alice Whealey
Pacifica, California




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