Turkish Studies Lecture Traces Origins of "Minority"

By Loren Michael Mortimer - On March 9, 2016, the Turkish Studies Research Cluster hosted a public lecture by Janet Klein, associate professor of history at the University of Akron. Entitled "Making Minorities in the Late-Ottoman Period: Armenians and Kurds," Dr. Klein’s talk argued that scholars frequently deploy the term "minority" without duly considering its evolution—particularly in the context of the Ottoman Empire.

From the fourteenth century through its collapse following World War I, the Ottoman Turks ruled a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire in the region now known as the Middle East. Diverse groups coexisted under the millet system, which protected the rights and cultural autonomy of non-Muslims. Before the nineteenth century, the concept of majority-minority populations in the Sultan’s pluralistic empire simply did not exist. 

But as European nation-states emerged out of feudal polities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the “nation” concept reconfigured political alignments within the Ottoman Empire. Secular nationalist movements created new categories of identity within the empire, fostering tension between religious groups.

Oppositional identities

Under the old millet system, Kurdish and Armenian peoples had peacefully coexisted in eastern provinces of Anatolia. As Dr. Klein explained, state builders in the late nineteenth century wanted to map and classify geographic regions within clear national borders. Residents of these regions received new markers tied to their identities. Turkish nationalism was thus born out of oppositional identity formation. As European interference undermined the Ottoman state, Muslims around the empire accused their Christian neighbors of inviting European invasion by feigning oppression. Turks, seeking dominance, could identify as “Turks” simply because they were not Armenians or Kurds.

Dr. Klein argued that an essential element in the making of mass violence is the designation by one group of another as a threat to the nation. In the Ottoman example, minority making was by no means inevitable—rather, Armenians were actively accused of disloyalty and collusion with foreign governments. The state then imposed loyalty tests for newly marked citizens. As a consequence, Muslims—later Turks—became the majority “we” that needed no articulation. This process of “othering” Armenians led directly to genocide and mass deportation, claiming the lives of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1917.

The term “minority” begins appearing in Turkish documents during the 1920s. Professor Klein’s research shows how the nineteenth-century construction of Armenians and Kurds as a threat to the nation led directly to their classification as minorities in the early twentieth century.

Learn more about the Turkish Studies Research Cluster at the Middle East/South Asia Studies (ME/SA) website.

Learn more about Janet Klein at her University of Akron faculty webpage.