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Migration and Displacement in the Late Ottoman Empire

Session I-04, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel aims to explore the varied consequences of migration and displacement in the late Ottoman Empire. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the mass movement of people as the Ottoman Empire unraveled giving way to the establishment of nation-states, while at the same time it became a destination for Muslims fleeing colonial rule. Migration had not only profound demographic impact on the Ottoman Empire and its successor states but also a wide range of political, social, economic, and ideological consequences. This panel expands our knowledge of migration by underscoring the dynamic connections among these consequences, and by exploring the subject from different perspectives that include the Ottoman state, the post-Ottoman successors in the Balkans, and the refugees themselves. All three papers on this panel explore the issues of migration and displacement in the decades immediately following the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. Paper 1 examines the concept of Hijra and how it informed the Ottoman migration regime during the Hamidian period. As Hamidian Islamism unfolded in Ottoman immigration policies, officials elevated the Hijra. They did so not only to reinforce the status of the sultan as caliph but also to notionally restrict the migration of some Muslims not obligated to migrate for religious purposes. Paper 2 contributes to the study of the political economy of migrations by investigating the appropriation of land vacated by Circassian and Tatar refugees in the post-1878 Balkan nation-states. Through the lens of migration, it examines the continuity between the Ottoman land regime and the land regimes in post-Ottoman Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria; it highlights the political and economic value of land for state-led resettlement programs. Paper 3 explores Muslim narratives of displacement and exile relating to the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. Accounts produced by refugees presented their fate as being organically intertwined with that of the Ottoman state. Such perceptions served to further transform the nature Ottomanism in the Hamidian era. By examining migration in terms of state regimes, political economies, political identities, belonging, and narratives of displacement, these papers function together to reveal the phenomenon of migration as essential to understanding Ottoman and post-Ottoman Balkan states and societies.
  • This paper explores how Muslim refugees and migrants from the Balkans narrated their experiences of displacement during the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78. The war led to the flight of hundreds of thousands of people of various backgrounds in the Balkans and the Caucasus; however, Muslims constituted the most significant part of the displaced. The mass flight of so many people turned into a humanitarian crisis and presented the Ottoman authorities with the challenge of dealing with an unprecedented influx of refugees within such a short period of time. At the same time the encounter with the refugees produced shock waves within Ottoman society. Existing scholarship has provided valuable insights into issues, such as state policies towards migration, the efforts to accommodate and settle the newcomers, and society’s responses towards the refugees and migrants. In comparison, this paper seeks to add a different perspective to the subject of migration by addressing the question of how refugees and migrants experienced and narrated their ordeal. The paper examines archival documentation and contemporaneously published sources to uncover accounts of flight and exile. It focuses on the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78 and the Balkan theater of military activity. The paper argues that such narratives presented displacement as a defining event and experience – for the refugees themselves and for the Ottoman state. It shows that these accounts served several purposes. They were a way for authors to process the trauma and make sense of the experience on a personal, as well as on a historical level as they saw the fate of migrants as being closely intertwined with that of the Ottoman state. They were also a way for migrants who had lost their native places to claim belonging in a homeland which borders were shrinking progressively. Finally, these narratives served as criticism of European powers and the newly established post-Ottoman successor states for their double standards of humanitarianism. The paper concludes by highlighting how such accounts reflected and reinforced the emergence of a new kind of Ottomanism which placed greater emphasis on Islam and Muslims in the empire.
  • This paper explores how Ottoman officials framed the hijra – the act of moving from an area of non-Muslim rule into the territory of Islam (dar al-Islam) – as a component of migration management. Migration regimes, that is, the policies, practices, and infrastructures designed to regulate mobility – create distinctions within migrant populations. These distinctions include distinctions between those who sojourn and those who intend to stay long-term; distinctions between documented and undocumented migrants; distinctions between desirable populations and undesirable ones; and distinctions between those who conjure a sense of moral obligation among host communities (e.g. refugees/forced migrants) and those who do not (e.g. economic/labor migrants). During the Hamidian era (1876-1908), Sultan Abdulhamid II cultivated Islamic Ottomanism as a unifying ideology predicated on the sultan’s role as caliph, mobilization of Islamic religious symbols, and attention to improving Muslims’ economic and educational status. In this paper, I examine official records from the Migration Commission, Foreign Office, and Yildiz Palace to argue that even as Ottoman Islamism unfolded as a unifying ideology, the hijra, that is, the religious obligation to move, became a component in how officials distinguished not just between Muslim and non-Muslim migration but also among Muslim immigrants. In the nineteenth century, Ottoman territorial loss and European colonial rule encouraged Muslim populations to question whether migrants living subject to non-Islamicate governments were religiously obligated to move, and if they were, whether the Ottoman sultan, as caliph, had an obligation to provide them refuge. I argue that officials’ treatment of the question of the hijra sheds light on the consolidation of Ottoman migration control. Ultimately, bringing the hijra into the question of which Muslims the state was obligated to welcome reinforced the principle that the state had the right to deny entry to others. Recent consideration of Islamic Ottomanism has shown that the Ottoman state’s attempts to cultivate a secular nationality (Ottomanism) and to elevate the role of the sultan-as-caliph to appeal to non-Ottoman Muslims were at times contradictory political impulses. Scholarly work on an essential Islamic practice – the hajj – has highlighted the utility and limitations of Islamism and Pan-Islamism as analytic devices for understanding the Hamidian regime. The empire had to balance its role in facilitating the hajj with its concerns over sovereignty and nationality. This paper contributes to the ongoing reevaluation of Islamism by assessing the significance of the hijra as another Islamic-based mobility embedded within Hamidian-era governing practices.
  • This paper examines what happened to the “abandoned land,” once settled by Crimean Tatar and Circassian refugees, in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania after 1878. Between 1860 and 1877, the Ottoman government resettled several hundred thousand refugees from Crimea and the North Caucasus in the northern Balkans. Danube Province, which stretched from southern Serbia, through Bulgaria, to eastern Romania, was one of the largest resettlement provinces in the empire. Following the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877–78, almost all Circassians and many Crimean Tatars fled with the retreating Ottoman army and were prevented from returning to their homes by the Bulgarian, Serbian, and Romanian governments after the war. The lands vacated by Muslim refugees became a prized commodity in the three newly independent or autonomous countries. All three national governments passed legislation in 1880 to appropriate the land as state property. This paper argues that, first, the Bulgarian, Serbian, and Romanian governments used the “abandoned land” for internal colonization by co-ethnic immigrants, in the process homogenizing their border regions, and, second, that Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania largely upheld the Ottoman land regime, building their new land legislation upon the Ottoman Land Code of 1858. The “abandoned land” became a state tool to repopulate different regions with Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Wallachian, and Moldavian peasants, many of whom were refugees themselves. Meanwhile, the lands in question were often contested by local populations, who had pre-1860 claims on the land. Muslim refugees, now based in Anatolia, also attempted to claim compensation for their lost properties, through the mediation of the Ottoman government. By focusing on contested agricultural lands, this paper contributes to the study of the political economy of Ottoman and post-Ottoman migrations.