The Charter of Principles of French Islam declares the religion to be compatible with France’s particular brand of secularism, laïcité, and its attendant values; in other words, it represents the subjugated and heavily privatised form of the religion that President Macron wishes to see. In January, a close advisor to Macron warned that Muslim organizations which refused to sign the charter would “see their operations inspected very, very closely by our services.”  The French Republic cannot tolerate Muslim difference: it aims only to homogenize and assimilate.
Any Muslim response to the situation must first question how a state can tolerate pluralism without feeling fundamentally threatened. To this end, a foray into global history may prove valuable: Europe has always struggled with internal diversity, whereas elsewhere it has been the historical norm. The early modern Ottoman Empire presents an example of a polity that was not secular, yet facilitated greater diversity than liberal states do today.
In their early modern heyday, the Ottomans cultivated a self-confident pluralism. In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain by the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. They were subsequently invited to Ottoman shores by Sultan Bayezid II. “They say Ferdinand is a wise monarch,” Bayezid famously remarked. “How could he be, he who impoverishes his country to enrich mine!”  The millet system, which had been codified by Sultan Mehmet after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, organized every ethnic-religious group into autonomous communities. They owed allegiance and taxes to the Sultan, and in return were empowered to govern their internal community affairs under their own denominational laws. The Ottomans were especially gracious to those who surrendered to their armies. “Let them observe their own laws and customs,” Mehmet declared during his treaty with the Genoese, “and preserve them now and in the future.”  The millet system did not spell segregation; urban areas were invariably diverse, with religious groups living alongside one another and working together in bazaars and guilds. “The centuries of pax Ottomanica,” Karen Barkey reports in Empire of Difference, “were relatively calm and free of ethnic and religious strife.”
The jizya, the poll-tax on adult non-Muslim males, evidences that they did not have the same legal status as Muslims, but it marked them as protected subjects under the law. The poor were exempted from the tax, as were men who provided military service. In the Balkans, the Ottomans would often simply rename pre-Ottoman poll taxes as jizya. Upholding Islamic dominance, importantly, did not entail the eradication of difference. Non-Muslims, moreover, were always able to convert to Islam, and no inquisitions would be forthcoming, since it was assumed that those who adopted Islam insincerely would eventually come to accept it wholeheartedly. For example, Murad bin Abdullah, a Hungarian Christian who fell captive to Ottoman forces at Mohacs in 1526, converted and then only later studied and fell in love with Islam. “God granted me grace,” he declared thankfully, “and it is my hope that my last profession of faith will be sealed with belief.”
Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad argues that the Ottoman “agglomeration of rules and congregations presumed a foundational, rather than a customary, pluralism.” The Shari’a had no canon of statutes, and while the Hanafi school of law was dominant in the empire, the others were not suppressed — legal pluralism was normative. Muslims believed that Jewish and Christian codes were derived, albeit obscurely, from divine revelation, and so it was deemed natural that such minorities could be “abidingly different.” That Islam was dominant, Murad argues, seemed “metabolically correct,” for “only Muslims revered the founders of all the empire’s official religions.”
The Ottoman Empire provided no legal equality between communities. But in secular liberal states, non-citizens do not enjoy the same legal rights as citizens, and becoming a citizen is far more difficult than it was to convert to Islam in the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, Ottoman pluralism offered what modern nations like France cannot: minorities were generally able to preserve their ways of life. As Wael Hallaq notes in Restating Orientalism, they were neither forcibly integrated into the Islamic legal system nor subject to any state educational apparatus. An Orthodox Christian artisan, stepping out of his house in sixteenth century Constantinople, could breathe freely in the expectation that his grandson would likely speak his language, worship at a church of his denomination, and share his values.
The Mughal Empire, a Muslim-ruled polity, offered its majority-Hindu population a similar cultural security. Early Mughal expansion was based on the incorporation of territories governed by the Hindu Rajputs into the imperial fold, often by conquest but regularly by mutual consent. Rajput rulers within the Mughal imperium enjoyed full autonomy within their native lands and were not expected to become Muslims. In territories under direct Mughal rule, meanwhile, district-level judges adjudicated cases involving Muslims according to the Shari’a, while cases involving non-Muslims were decided by village councils based on local custom. The empire knew no systematic forced conversion; state officials were punished for attempts to coerce Islam onto non-Muslim subjects. Like its Ottoman counterpart, the Mughal imperial structure facilitated dramatic heterogeneity and vibrant religious and cultural differences.
The Mughals eventually declined and were replaced by the British, who in the twentieth century introduced the nation-state model to the Indian subcontinent. The Ottoman Empire, by contrast, embarked on an unhappy process of centralization in the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century, Tanzimat reforms gave minorities legal equality but stripped them of much of their autonomy. The young Turkish Republic, repudiating the Ottoman model, enforced secularity by repressing any hint of religion within the public sphere. The modern French Republic, meanwhile, recoils in horror at visible signs of Islam and bans the niqab, while its Interior Minister expresses his outrage at the existence of halal food aisles in supermarkets. France has, ironically, repudiated its own heritage through its anti-Muslim fervour: when the Notre Dame was damaged in a fire, the country mourned, but the Virgin Mary whose image adorns the cathedral’s stained glass windows could not hope to step foot in a French school, for she wears a hijab.
France has proved incapable of reacting gracefully to its post-colonial ethnic and religious diversity, and where the state’s fanatical drive to bludgeon its people into uniformity will lead is unclear. In late 2020, a far-right politician tabled a bill in the French national assembly that proposed holding citizens on “radicalization watchlists” in detention centers. It seems unlikely that French Muslims will enjoy any semblance of religious liberty while laïcité reigns supreme. Macron desires that they accept no God but the nation-state: the dominance of French secular values spells the active destruction of meaningful difference.
What I am arguing for is not some revival of the Ottoman or Mughal empires, but rather learning from these histories in order to illuminate the possibility of moving beyond the liberal nation-state paradigm. In the European context, this could be beneficial not only for minorities, but for countries at large. Bruno Maçães has written of Britain’s potential following its departure from the European Union. The country has opened a path to citizenship for millions of Hong Kongers, and rather than assimilating them into British life and values, Maçães proposes the creation of a charter city, a second Hong Kong with its own laws in the UK itself, serving as a “giant enterprise zone.” The city could be situated in the North, balancing power with London. Such a bold project has the potential to revive Britain’s fortunes, but is practically impossible; neither the political establishment nor the population at large would be likely to tolerate such flagrant pluralism on British shores. This closed-mindedness is self-limiting.
The prosperity of European countries like Britain, France, and Germany relies on immigration, and they will have to learn how to manage increasing diversity. Perhaps immigrants and minorities will be forced to assimilate and shed their distinctiveness, in compliance with a majoritarian notion of how to live. But new conceptions of national identity can be formulated and popularized that allow for the existence and co-existence of illiberal ways of living, so that French Muslims would not have to subscribe to the month’s most fashionable social values to be accepted as citizens.
Muslim minorities in Europe may aspire to become strong and economically successful, building long-lasting institutions and contributing to their societies at large — this is necessary. But under state repression they will never achieve any autonomy or security, since even private Islamic schools and mosques will be heavily scrutinized and regulated. Governments that actively commit themselves to facilitating heterogeneity are needed; this cannot be a purely bottom-up process. To this end, Muslim minorities must mount a firm defense of religious freedom and pluralism, in parallel to creating and strengthening community institutions. The liberal nation-state, we should remember, is a recent creation. It may yet be a short-lived one.
 Page 99, Jason Goodwin, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire (1998)
 Claire Norton, ‘(In)tolerant Ottomans: Polemic, Perspective and the Reading of Primary Sources’, The Character of Christian-Muslim Encounter, Pratt et al (eds)
 Introduction, Karen Barkey, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (2008)
 Tijana Krstić, ‘lluminated by the Light of Islam and the Glory of the Ottoman Sultanate: Narratives of Conversion to Islam in the Age of Confessionalization’, Comparative Studies in Society and History (2009)
 Page 129, Wael Hallaq, Restating Orientalism (2018)
 Page 245, Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age (2019)
 Page 266, Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age (2019)
 Page 286, Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age (2019)
Photo by Léonard Cotte
About the Author: Imran is a student of History in Britain. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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