Response: Norman Itzkowitz’s “Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition” and Leslie Pierce’s “The Imperial Harem”

In Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition, Norman Itzkowitz presents an account of the period traditionally considered to be the rise of the Ottoman Empire. His account is complex, explaining that the ghazis weren’t driven by a purely religious zeal for the conquering of new territories, though that was certainly a part of it, but also for economic and psychological reasons (11). He explains the process by which new areas were incorporated into the empire and ends his book with an explanation of the Ottoman world view at the height of their power, thinking little of Europe and only then as a backward place of no consequence, which Itzkowitz claims resulted in a feeling of complacency reinforced by the Islamic abhorrence for bid’a, or innovation (105-107).

In the reading, I was struck by the fact that much of the land the Ottomans gained in Europe was done through a long process of vassalage and annexation. Even more so, I was surprised to see that many lords offered their allegiance to the Ottomans willingly, as in the case when Stephen Dushan died (14). Obviously there were still wars, but when compared with other empire builders, the Ottoman’s methods come across as more gradual, purposeful and efficient. If local lords were convinced they wanted to be a part of the empire, then there wasn’t as much chance of them quickly rebelling, though according to Itzkowitz’s account, there were plenty of times when land and cities were reconquered multiple times. I also found it to be very telling of the status of corruption in local Balkan governments, that the Orthodox church peasants often preferred Ottoman rule to Christian rule because the taxes were more fair. Reading modern ideas back into Ottoman times, I’ve heard people say that it wasn’t good to be a religious minority in the Ottoman empire, because no matter how good they were treated, they were still considered second class citizens, and treated as such, but if that’s the case, then how much worse were they treated by their governments prior to becoming Ottoman citizens? And was it really a bad move?

I found it interesting that the fact that some families tried to safeguard their positions by converting their lands into waqfs, which the sultan Mohammed II then began confiscating anyway (29). It made me wonder if there were different tax codes relating to property that was in waqf status, and if this was an ancient form of tax evasion that the sultan became aware of and tried to stop. Also, the author characterized Suleiman the Magnificent’s anti-Hapsburg alliance with France in the early-mid 1500s as being in the “ghazi spirit” (34). Was this stated in some primary source document? Or is this the author applying the complicated idea of what ghaza is that he developed to describe behavior in the early Ottoman period to the ongoing conflict for political and territorial gain in the 1500s?

Itzkowitz mentions that the period during which Kosem and Turhan were competing for power was known as “The Sultanate of the Women,” but I think Leslie Pierce would disagree and argue that this period began with Hurrem, almost a hundred hears earlier in the 1520s. Hurrem gained Suleiman’s undivided attention, causing him to break with tradition and give her multiple sons, marry her and move her into his palace.

Pierce’s descriptions of how sexuality and reproduction were used for political purposes was extremely detailed and extremely informative regarding the evolution of the nature of succession practices in the Ottoman empire. I found it extremely interesting that sexual control was exerted not just over women, as is popularly depicted, but also over men, to render them politically insignificant. It’s easy to see an essentially captive male offspring as unthreatening, but I think it was a bad solution to the problem of creating stability, because the confinement seemed to weaken the Ottoman line physically and mentally and almost led to its collapse. It’s odd to think that the Ottoman empire was saved by the sexual ability of a mentally retarded man who was the last living Ottoman male.

Would You Leave A Kid on the Side of the Road?

If I were in Singapore, or the Philippines, the answer would most definitely be no, but the US and other Western countries are gripped by paranoia and fear.  Every man is a potential molester, deviant or criminal.  Every woman, on the other hand, is safe.  Or at least that’s the common belief, despite the fact that there are documented cases of female murderers and molesters.

Earlier today, I was checking Facebook and a relative had posted a link to a Wall Street Journal Article called “Eek!  A Male!  Treating all men as potential predators doesn’t make our kids safer.”  It’s a good article, and one part of it in particular caught my attention.

In England in 2006, BBC News reported the story of a bricklayer who spotted a toddler at the side of the road. As he later testified at a hearing, he didn’t stop to help for fear he’d be accused of trying to abduct her. You know: A man driving around with a little girl in his car? She ended up at a pond and drowned.

At first I was shocked by the guy’s behavior, but after I thought about it a bit, I realized that I don’t really blame him.  From the time kids are old enough to talk and understand what they’re being told, they’re told to be wary of strangers, and especially so of strange men.  The idea that every man is a prospective child molester is embedded in the national consciousness.  We grow up with it the same way we grow up knowing that cereal is a breakfast food.  Not that it’s a good thing, but that’s just how it is.

If this guy had been found with the girl in his car, it could have gone badly for him even though he hadn’t done anything. They might have suspected him of being involved in the girl’s disappearance somehow, or at the least have questioned him and landed his name in a police database somewhere. Or, the girl could have decided that she wanted to tell a fun story, partially prompted by the questions the police would invariably ask her, not realizing the consequences, but having heard it on television and having decided it would be exciting.  Maybe the guy would have been arrested and tried for something he never even did, all because he stopped to lend a helping hand to a lost kid.  Maybe he even would have found himself being jailed over it.

Ridiculous?  Well, is it really?  How many times do you hear in the news that someone was found to have been innocent of a crime they were convicted of decades ago, and that they’d spent most of their life rotting in prison as an innocent man?  Juries aren’t selected based on who’s the smartest.  The prosecutor and defender fight to keep people on the jury that are biased in their favor.

So, it all comes down to a question of self preservation.  What’s more important?  That random kid, or your well being, and if you’re a family man, the well being of your family?  If you wind up smeared and/or in jail over accusations of something like child molestation or abduction, it’ll have a lot of repercussions not just on yourself, but on your family as well.

Even if none of that happened, what if the kid twisted his or her ankle, or cut his or her finger while in your care?  Everyone’s looking to make a quick buck these days with a lawsuit.  If a woman can win a lawsuit for spilling hot coffee on herself and getting burned, and a criminal can win a lawsuit for hurting himself on a knife in the house he broke into, do you really think parents who let their kid wander on the side of a road might not sue you for a twisted ankle or other accidental injury?

And, beyond that, what if it were all a trick to get someone to stop and get out of their vehicle?  Something like a kid on the side of the road, looking helpless and in distress, would be particularly good bait to get women into a vulnerable, isolated situation.

My relative asked me if I could live with myself knowing that a kid had died because I didn’t stop to pick him or her up off the side of the road, and the answer is yes, I could.  It wouldn’t be a very pleasant thought, but given how stupid and paranoid most people in the US are, and all of the things that could go wrong, I wouldn’t want to risk it.  Like I said, if I were in Singapore or the Philippines, I wouldn’t worry about that sort of thing.  Not as much anyway, and it certainly wouldn’t worry me enough to stop me from helping some lost kid.  Here in the US?  I don’t really know.  I certainly wouldn’t stop.  I wouldn’t let the kid in my car.  The safest way would be to call the police from a payphone and then leave.  Depending on the situation, I might stop a distance away and call it in on my mobile.

What would you do?  Would you pick up a random kid off the street?  Would you simply call it in and keep going?  Would you call it in and hang around and wait for the police to show?