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Book Review


Karen Barkey, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 358. $25.99 (paper).


     Karen Barkey's Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective provides a promising model for world history scholarship. A professor of both sociology and history at Columbia, Barkey integrates scholarship from her two disciplines—theoretical constructs from the social sciences and deep knowledge of historical events—to create a portrait of Ottoman rule that is at once a nuanced account of this particular empire and a generalizable model of the components of successful empires. Rather than replicating older organic models of the rise and fall of empires, Barkey explores "the organization and longevity of empire…the critical but slow processes of transformation that empires underwent as they inserted themselves into an international arena, constructed domestic institutions of rule, and adapted to change as they navigated the complexity of foreign and domestic tensions" (5). She seeks to explain how a multireligious, multiethnic state maintained legitimacy by drawing peripheries into the state through a variety of flexible, brokered patterns of relationship with local elites, rather than one through a uniform policy. At nearly 300 pages, Empire of Difference is a dense, challenging text that rewards the careful reader with its bold theorizing and detailed evidence. The book falls into two uneven parts: two thirds of the book is devoted to Part I, where Barkey creates her model of the Ottomans' successful imperial structure; Part II examines the empire's 18th century confrontation with modernity and ultimate transition to a nation-state.

     For Barkey, successful empires—characterized by stability and longevity— share three key features. First, they adopt a convincing strategy of legitimation, which she defines as a situation where subjects accept the government's authority, or at least tolerate it, because the government maintains sufficient order to make subjects feel secure. Apart from administering justice equitably, empires typically adopt some ideology to justify their rule. This often includes, as in the Ottoman case, identifying a line of dynastic succession and embracing some version of a "civilizing mission" ideology. Given her interest in legitimacy, it is no surprise that Barkey makes significant use of Max Weber to formulate her argument. She also borrows from Clifford Geertz to explore the way the Ottomans used Islam to legitimate their rule, since, in Geertz's words, religions are "frames of perception, symbolic screens through which experience is interpreted and they are guides for action, blueprints for conduct" (107).

     Second, successful empires must effectively control peripheries. The great danger is that centrifugal forces will draw elites away from the central government and precipitate the collapse of an empire. The Ottomans integrated peripheries into the central state, while also maintaining their distinct identities—and keeping them separate from other local elites. Barkey draws on a hub and spoke metaphor to illustrate this arrangement (at the end of the book, she replaces the hub-and-spoke with a solar system model, unfortunately missing the opportunity to use this more complex cosmological model throughout the book). Peripheral elites were lured to the hub through patrimonies, government positions, and tax exemptions. Barkey repeatedly emphasizes the flexible ways that various elites were rewarded and incorporated into the empire based on their particular contributions to the empire, the religious identity of their community, or the historical circumstances in which it came to be part of the empire. Imperial boundaries were neither fixed nor blurred, but mobile, shifting under different circumstances. To highlight the way that relationships with peripheries developed in disparate, improvised ways, she employs the metaphor of "bricolage." Claude Levi-Strauss coined this term in his 1962 work The Savage Mind to describe the disparate elements that combine to create mythical thought. More recent political theorists have adapted this metaphor to refer to "reworking of the institutional materials at hand" (7).

     Finally, imperial states successfully solve the "problem" of diversity, either through toleration or more coercive methods. Barkey steers a middle course between scholarly debates on dhimmis, non-Muslim communities, namely, Jews and various Christian groups. Some scholars praise the Ottomans for their beneficent tolerance of dhimmis, while others emphasize the second-class status these religious groups faced in the empire. She argues instead that surprisingly little intercommunal violence took place because the state typically dispensed justice fairly, treating dhimmi as "separate, unequal, and protected" (120). The government also generally allowed religious communities to police themselves through the millet system, a term Barkey defines as a "loose administrative set of central-local arrangements…a script for multireligious rule, although it was neither fully codified nor comparable across communities" (130). Self-policing generally worked well, because community leaders recognized that the stability and security of their community hinged on their ability to discipline their own members and thus prevent state intervention. The policy of toleration, however, also reflected the self-interest of the state, which wanted to preserve its rule, rather than enlightened benevolence. The pragmatic nature of Ottoman toleration is evidenced by three common tools of control: occasional imposed conversion, relocation of subjects to other regions, and, most commonly, the devshirme system. Through this system, young Christian boys were taken from their families, forced to convert to Islam, and employed by the state, often in the Janissary military corps. Evidence about Christian families' reactions to this policy is mixed: while many lamented the loss of their sons, others seem to have embraced the opportunities for advancement the system provided.

     Ultimately, the Ottoman state treated heterodox Islamic traditions more harshly than dhimmi communities. At first glance, this paradox seems to validate Freud's argument about the narcissism of minor differences, but Barkey argues that these groups constituted a greater potential for dissent, which she defines as challenging the existing organization of imperial relations (157). As such, Sufi orders and secret Islamic sects posed a much greater danger to the legitimacy of Ottoman rule than did dhimmi communities that had come to accept predictable Ottoman rule. As Barkey explains, "Ottomans were more likely to persecute those who did not easily fit their organizational mode: those who defied boundaries and those for whom a blueprint did not exist" (163).

     Part II, shorter and less compelling than Part I, seeks to explain the Ottoman state's movement away from this stable, flexible model of empire during 18th century in the face of modern challenges. Explicitly criticizing the widespread use of the label "decline," Barkey instead describes the empire's "transition." Rather than basing an evaluation of Ottoman efforts on a European model of modernization, she appeals to S.N. Eisenstadt's articulation of "multiple modernities." Barkey never clearly articulates what it is about Eisenstadt that she finds compelling, nor does she provide her own clear, robust definition of modernity. She spends an entire chapter discussing the Ottomans' ultimately doomed attempt to maximize state revenues through the creation of a tax farming system as an illustration of the empire's rational efforts to adapt to change. Revenue collection seems like a narrow focus for a discussion about state modernization. She offers some discussion of commercialization, but many possible features of modernity get little or no mention; for example, there is nothing about urbanization, free labor, the open exchange of information, advancements in science and medicine, or technological improvements in production and in the military. In terms of political reform, she ignores ideas of constitutional government, and devotes only one paragraph to liberal notions of equality before the law. Given that her model of successful empire hinges on the effective management of difference, the notion of political equality would seem to deserve more attention.

     Apart from the weakness of Part II, the biggest problem with the book is its treatment of other empires. Barkey does provide some useful comparisons of the ways other empires—especially Rome, Byzantium, and Russia—maintained stability. For the most part, however, her comparisons feel ad hoc, rather than being sustained and clearly structured. It may be too much to expect Barkey to develop the Ottoman case in detail and to provide well-developed comparisons in one book and still have a text of manageable length. But the examples she does provide combine well with her clear, compelling theoretical framework for empire to illustrate the fruitfulness of a comparative study of empire. Empires all have to confront the issue of difference. They must find ways to establish and maintain their legitimacy, develop policies for the tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities, and successfully incorporate peripheries in a flexible manner. This model of empire provides a tremendous service to world historians and teachers of world history.

     Unfortunately, the same features that make Empire of Difference a compelling work of scholarship render it unusable for most high school and lower-division undergraduate courses. The dense text provides sophisticated argument and analysis throughout, bolstered by extensive theorizing. In addition, Barkey's use of over two dozen transliterated Turkish words for Ottoman institutions requires substantial familiarity with Ottoman history, or at least a very careful and patient reader. Many readers of world history know terms like millet, Janissary, and gaza, but they may be less familiar with terms like ayan, mahalle, and askeri. A glossary would have helped the general reader. Better yet, simple use of an English equivalent would work for many terms. For example, throughout Part I, Barkey uses ayan, sometimes with a definition nearby, often without. In Part II, she dispenses with the term altogether, using "notables" instead. Why not just use notables throughout? At the very least, she should be consistent. For example, sharia (obviously an important term in a work like this) appears no less than four different ways: Shari, sharia, Shar'ia, and religious law. This quibble aside, this work is of tremendous use for world history instructors, who can mine its sophisticated arguments for course lectures, assign individual chapters to students, and, for more intrepid advanced students, require them to read the entire book.

Dave Neumann is Site Director of The History Project at California State University Long Beach, a history-social science professional development organization that links K-12 teachers with university faculty. A former high school teacher, Neumann has been a reader for the Advanced Placement World History exam for six years. He can be reached at


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