Locke’s famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” urged us to “get out of our grooves and study the rest of the globe.” In particular, he pointed to Turkey where the “Sultan governs in peace twenty million people of different religions . . . .”
Karen Barkey of Columbia University has given us a chance to get out of our church-state grooves with many terrific insights into the crucial role of religious toleration in the Ottoman Empire. Her wonderful book is Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (2008). What’s most interesting, at least from my point of view, is how Ottoman rulers pursued toleration as a policy to the extent that it had political, economic, strategic and other benefits for the rulers.
We often see issues of religious toleration/freedom as essentially intellectual or philosophical matters, something that governments should provide simply because it’s the right thing to do. Professor Barkey, a sociologist and historian, shows clearly how Ottoman “toleration is neither equality nor a modern form of ‘multiculturalism’ in the imperial setting. Rather, it is a means of rule, of extending, consolidating, and enforcing state power.”
It’s a fascinating book not just about religion, but also about how empires establish and sustain themselves over time and extended geographical areas. And, though I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far to an empire built on raiding and booty, for those of us who have spent considerable amounts of time in the “real world,” there are a lot of issues common to running an international company and maintaining a sprawling empire. (Even the most imperial CEO, however, is unlikely to have the full range of enforcement mechanisms available to the sultans.)