P W Thayer (ed) Tensions in the Middle East 1958
STRUCTURAL CHANGES IN MIDDLE EAST SOCIETY
PAUL STIRLING Lecturer, The London School of Economics, University of London
The society of the Ottoman Empire was highly complex and heterogeneous. Recently almost everything in its former territory that can possibly be included in the pantechnicon "culture" has been changing. In the face of so much material, most of it unanalyzed from a sociological point of view, what I can say in one essay is necessarily superficial˝an exercise in trying to follow through the consequences of a theoretical approach, rather than an examination of the vast piles of unsorted data. The key to this approach is the notion of ýsocial structure,ţ that is, that all the activities that go on in a given society can be analyzed as the contents of a whole series of more or less defined social relationships which together form the "social system."
What is important to my purpose in this essay is not argument about this approach, but the questions it prompts us to ask. What were the main groups and social positions in the late Ottoman Empire? How were they arranged vis-a-vis each other in terms of power, prestige, and mutual dependence How have these arrangements altered with the breakup of the empire into smaller political units, the winning of independence, and the accelerating arrival of Western technology and social institutions? Since one cannot speak of change without assuming something that is changing or has changed, I am going to assume, wrongly, a traditional social structure of the Ottoman Empire. This society contained three main types of people˝nomadic tribesmen, villagers, and townsmen. The pastoral tribes in their deserts or mountains were largely or completely independent of the central government. The size of the autonomous unit varied greatly and often rapidly. Occasionally, it grew large enough to attack and conquer towns and establish new ruling dynasties. The tribes constantly raided each other, and, insofar as the central government was unable to prevent them, they also raided the settled towns and villages.
The villagers, the most numerous category by far, were the worst off. Those in fertile or accessible country were usually indebted sharecroppers on the estates of absentee landlords; those in more remote areas had no defense against tribal raids but to accept and pay in kind for the protection of other tribesmen. The exceptions, who managed to own their own land, were mainly situated in mountainous areas, or else were settled tribes who retained enough of their tribal organization both to defend themselves against outsiders and to prevent their own leaders from turning into landowning townsmen. So long as they paid their rents and taxes, and refrained from really serious breaches of the peace, they were largely left alone
Towns are more complex and heterogeneous than tribes and villages. Those of the
Ottoman Empire varied from small almost agricultural towns to vast cities like Istanbul
and Cairo. They contained landowners, merchants of all types from shopkeepers to
owners of important international export houses, a great number of craftsmen, porters,
laborers, servants, and so on. Most towns also contained a farming quarter, in which
life was much like that of the villages. There were also the administrative and garrison
venters, the seats of the centrally appointed governor or the local dynasts, and
their armed forces.
The imperial rulers were also city dwellers, but they were a distinct subdivision˝the sultan and his ministers and officers. They were drawn mainly from the great hereditary families of Istanbul, supplemented by recruits from a wide range of classes.
The rulers' power rested largely on control of the professional army, and this control in turn rested on the power to pay and feed them, that is, on the ability to collect the taxes, which in turn rested on the control of the army.
Besides these main social divisions, the empire was also divided into thousands of much smaller communities. These groups were organized on three criteria˝religion, languages and locality˝and formed a multiple structure of semiautonomous groups of many kinds and sizes.
Sunni Moslems were dominant, but they were not, in spite of theological theory, a single community, for they were divided along language, territorial, tribal, and social-class lines into many communities that differed considerably in their application of customary law and of Sunni dogma and ritual. Shii Moslems were divided into a number of sects recognizing different imams, and in practice if not in theory, each sect used its own customary law. The Christians and Jews constituted a number of formally distinct millets, each having its own heads, at once civil and religious, and administering its own personal law. The internal organization of the religious communities was by no means simple. Distinctions into language groups and local groups, and into the three categories of tribe, village, and town, often operated to produce internal cleavages and crosscutting loyalties. Since an individual often belonged to a number of groups based on different criteria and, furthermore, had social relationships that went outside these groups, he could choose the membership or relationship that he felt most advantageous as his guide to action in a given situation.
But if loyalties were complex and conflicting, they were never loyalties to the empire as such. The notion of an Ottoman nation could never have come anywhere near realization. Armenians, Greeks, Catholics, and even Arab and Kurdish communities were mainly interested in preserving as much autonomy as possible. Only members of Sunni communities could in some contexts class themselves in the same group as the rulers and acknowledge direct loyalty to them.
This society was not run by a Western type of bureaucracy. Except for some supervisory
officers in the cities, like the inspectors of weights and measures, the official
hierarchies were mainly concerned with collecting taxes, preserving order, keeping
the military organization in being, and running the religious institutions of the
Sunnis. Barth remarks that for southern Kurdistan in 1950 it was a necessary qualification
for office that a man already hold de facto enough power and prestige outside his
office to be able to exercise his official functions,(1) and we may tentatively assume
these to be the normal conditions of the Ottoman Empire. The hierarchy did not consist
of channels down which detailed orders could be passed from the center with confidence
that the effects at the bottom would resemble the intention of the legislators. Rather
the power of government stood outside and between the communities. The official hierarchy
was a hierarchy of responsibility for good order and the payment of taxes. Each official
was dependent on his superior, whom he supported against his rivals and whom he used
as far as possible to defeat opposition among those below
him. So long as funds were forthcoming and no serious trouble occurred, he had a free hand.
Each community was left to manage its own affairs˝religion, social services, schools, judiciary, internal taxation. They were thus able to see themselves as the center of the social universe, apart from a more-or-less remote overlord. The pomp and permanence of the imperial government and its service in preserving order gave it legitimacy. But loyalty was not to the sultan, but the local community.
This structure was stable, but not rigid. The continual clash of interests constantly brought about slow permanent changes in the structure. Such permanent changes as were taking place internally were never shattering. Indeed, it is hard to see how they could have been, without either drastic changes in technology, or conquest from outside. Both arrived together.
By far the most important thing about the Western nations is their vast power. The people who ruled the Ottoman Empire had been accustomed to assume without question their superiority over the northern infidels. The remarkable technological and administrative advances in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries upset this assumption and gave Europe political and economic power, backed by an increasing military advantage. Eventually, the Western nations acquired the prestige of belonging to the one and only civilized and advanced society, the criterion by which all other societies should be judged. Hence the series of imitations of Western techniques and institutions and the adoption of at least some Western assumptions and standards.
Part of this process happened spontaneously. In self-defense, for example, military techniques had to be learned and military equipment purchased. At the same time, the European powers imposed on the Ottoman administration the enacting of a number of "reforms."
These measures entailed a new conception of government. The Ottoman Empire was assumed to be a modern nation-state, and its hierarchy of officials to be a civil service. Measured by these standards both the government and its organs were not unnaturally found wanting by the Ottomans as well as by their European advisers. A series of legislative acts between the late 1820's and 1878˝legally and on paper˝removed the disabilities of all subject peoples and the feudal rights of fief-holders and of absentee landlords, enforced primary education, introduced proper legal process for all accusations and penalties, and even set up a constitution and a parliament.(2) The officials charged with administering the new laws had been used to a system in which office was a profitable perquisite of their social rank. Naturally, they exercised their talents in the new situation, not because they were immoral, but because they had been formally assigned a role they had never heard of and which they could not in their situation possibly play. Moreover, the new concept of efficient government required the interference of the central government in the innumerable semiautonomous communities.
The prize example of the confusion caused by assuming the hierarchy to be a civil
service was the attempt at land registration. Land in the Ottoman Empire was not
registered, and in the middle of the nineteenth century the government decided it
should be. The power relations in the Ottoman Empire were largely decided by rights
over land, since land was by far the most important economic resource. By rights,
I mean de facto rights as practised and accepted by the people concerned. These de
facto rights were always complex, and
very often more than one party had a recognized interest in a piece of land. The reformers, however, thought in terms of simple "ownership," and wanted to see the peasant cultivators registered as the outright owners of their own land. They expressly forbade the registration of any kind of joint rights or special rights over a landowner by others. This prevented any legal protection of the rights of tenants, or of the rights of tribesmen to communally owned land, against their sheikhs. In practice, in almost all areas, land passed into the hands of members of the literate class˝existing owners, tax collectors, officials, political heads of tribes or sections of tribes. In many cases, of course, the new rights remained for a long time a dead letter because no one had the necessary force to upset the existing arrangements, but where and when the new rights were enforced, the results were very often misappropriation, absentee landlordism, confusion, and protracted litigation.
Technical change is obvious. Aircraft, radio, and such are dramatic marvels. But perhaps even more socially relevant are improved methods of administration. More efficient record-keeping, communicating, and checking up amount to more efficient ways of pushing other people around. Technical and administrative advance go hand in hand. New technical organizations like factories call for new degrees of precision and reliability in the co-operation of large numbers of people. The new devices and new administrative methods give new power to interfere in the daily life of both urban and rural communities.
The positions in the new hierarchy require specialized knowledge and training. Power no longer rests simply on the command of hereditary resources. Important social positions demand indispensable technical knowledge and experience, and those who possess it are able to exercise power through this very fact. This involves the rise of the professional and business class, particularly represented in the Middle East by the army officers, who, while the professions are still small in numbers, are the only professional group that has the means, through its monopoly of armed force, of pressing the government really hard.
In discussing Westernization, people frequently assume that the main factor in change is intellectual conviction. Parliamentary government, a secular independent judiciary, and so forth are intrinsically such excellent ideas that once people know about them they adopt them. We shall be nearer the mark if we look at the social context and ask what in the situation is conducive to the use of these institutions and ideas˝if we look for manipulation, not simply conviction.
In 1918, the end of the Ottoman Empire left a politically open situation, with
Western powers and various indigenous groups and peoples competing for power and
territory. It is not surprising that with western Europe in the ascendant, ideas
that had both the prestige of belonging to the victorious allies and the more concrete
advantage of being likely to enlist their support should have swept the board. With
the establishment of the League of Nations, it was assumed that the nation was the
only possible politically autonomous unit, and nationalism was the most obvious political
ploy. Egypt, which really lay outside the empire already, had a clearly defined "protected"
status and accepted frontiers Even here the best weapons against the Westerners were
the Westerners' own weapons, and Egypt soon achieved nominal independence. Turkey
was also by an astonishing feat of arms able to secure national unity and independence.
The remaining states were eventually divided into British and French spheres of influence
from which, after another world war, emerged six independent Arab states and Israel.