Symposium 2015

By , January 24, 2015


Xenophobia and Alterophobia in Pre-Modern Ottoman Lands

The University of Chicago | October 22-23, 2015


A Symposium organized by

Hakan T. Karateke (University of Chicago); Helga Anetshofer (University of Chicago), and Erdem Çıpa (University of Michigan)



Historians know well that post-nationalist societies are not unique in nurturing dislike, hostility, or hatred of foreigners and members of marginalized subcultures. Positioning certain groups against perceived outsiders or alternative groups within the same society is a salient feature of bygone societies as well. In fact, it is fair to say that the distrust of outsiders is an essential condition of society throughout history.

Recent historical studies on the Ottoman Empire, as well as a contemporary Turkish political rhetoric that glorifies the Ottoman enterprise, have lately taken for granted that subjects of the Ottoman polity flourished under the so-called “Pax Ottomanica.” The widely accepted view posits that the economic and social stability of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire made it a safe and secure environment for a peaceful coexistence. Historical sources, however, suggest that the social and cultural realities of the Ottoman era were far more complex. In an effort to fill a major lacuna in the accepted narratives of Ottoman society, our symposium focuses on two related themes: xenophobia and alterophobia.

Although many scholars have focused their attentions on the socially and religiously stratified structure of Ottoman society, a systematic analysis of antipathy between communities has not yet been attempted. Most studies investigating controversies stemming from antipathy between groups within the Ottoman society have focused on the nineteenth century and looked at enmities resulting from varied expressions of nationalisms and religious identities underscored by nationalistic ideals. Their findings, while valuable for the present project, provide only limited relevance to an effort to understand xenophobia and alterophobia in early modern Ottoman society.

Xenophobia (and/or alterophobia) is usually defined as an “irrational or unreasoned” fear of outsiders and foreigners. However, historians look for ways to explain the root causes for dislike and distrust of other groups in the pre-modern world. The implications of “xenophobia” (dislike towards foreigners) and “alterophobia” (dislike towards the “other,” i.e., members of alternative groups within the same society) have only been sketchily investigated in the Ottoman context.

This symposium aims to reconstruct, to the extent possible, the mind-set of people living in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman lands. Presenters will explore patterns in expressions of dislike in literature, historiography, and religious texts, but particularly in those texts that one would classify as “ego documents,” such as memoirs or otherwise personalized accounts. By studying a range of historical narratives, we will be able to develop rare insight into the self-described perceptions of individuals. Perceptions are necessarily difficult to delineate, and can be open to multiple interpretations. One needs usually to read carefully between the lines, sweep through the adjectives used about a group of people, and compare expressions uttered about various other groups in order to reconstruct a perception. However, utilizing a range of historical narratives yields opportunities to identify people’s perceptions which can become a very useful tool to understand the intricate workings of bygone societies.

The line of inquiry will not center on perceptions alone; this project will naturally extend to an analysis of the repercussions of antipathy felt between groups, and this data will comprise an important component of our findings. We must be cautious, however, not to conflate feelings of prejudice or dislike with actions, which are likewise not necessarily the result of enduring negative cognitions and feelings. Rhetoric of dislike and actions of hate will form two separate analytical categories in our approach.

Of course, “dislike” takes a multitude of forms and degrees: systematic state persecution, forced migration, and violence are located at one end of the spectrum, with contempt or distrust in business dealings at another. The symposium “Xenophobia and Alterophobia” proposes to develop a historical approach to classifying forms of social antipathies, contextualizing them against early modern Ottoman society.

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Whether the notion of a “Pax Ottomanica” (created by analogy to the more common term Pax Romana) is valid depends on modes of interpretation. The widespread argument is that the economic and social stability of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made the Ottomans lands a relatively safe and secure environment for settlement, particularly for groups (e.g., Jews) who could make favourable comparisons to other parts of the world at that time. Be that as it may, even if the historians were largely in agreement on such a supposition, the relative stability of Ottoman lands at this time did not preclude established or even formal antipathies among groups of people in Ottoman society. Some prejudices stretched back to the middle ages and even earlier times, while others arose from contemporary political tensions. Religious convictions and affiliations were a factor in the formation of mutual antipathy, but economic threat played a significant role as well. As demonstrated by the list of research questions below, personal or communal aversions with origins in religious convictions constitute an important part of our inquiry. However, the project will also parse and categorize those hostilities that may arise resulting from other social or economic factors, including personal ambition.

An important part of our inquiry will be on alterophobic sentiments based on sexuality and gender, and addresses questions relating to various forms of misogeny, gynophobia, and homophobia. Male-dominated societies, in general, treat women and gender non-conforming men as the “other” in relation to man. While the normative rules for gender roles as understood in the Ottoman society may have had their roots in religious canon, attitudes towards genders did vary over the centuries and within different strata of the society. Generally, we can argue that the major factors for aversions directed towards women as represented in the sources were caused by a fear of female public agency and female sexual autonomy. The evils associated with female public agency and sexual autonomy therefore emerge as the basis for a need for a male controlled society. Homosexuality and gender non-conformity in Ottoman society are complex and multi-facetted issues. However, sources including, but not limited to, eschatological treatises openly condemn and demonize love of boys, and especially love of men. Women looking and behaving like men, as well as effeminate men are equally loathed. We hope to explore gynophobic and homophobic attitudes and manifestations, including actions of hatred, in a wide range of sources beyond religious normative texts, and characterize biases and patterns of dislike of women and gender non-conforming men within pre-modern Ottoman society.

The case of the non-Muslim and non-Sunni subjects of the Ottoman Empire is another topic that is particularly revealing. For instance, while modern historiography of the Ottoman Empire highlights Sultan Bayezid II’s (r. 1481-1512) formal invitation to Iberian Jews in the aftermath of their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492, places the emphasis on the Ottoman ruler’s magnanimity and tolerance, and makes a larger argument about the open-mindedness of the Ottomans as representatives of the Turco-Muslim culture, a closer look at Ottoman realities also suggests that the relationship between the Ottoman polity, its representatives, and Muslim subjects of the Empire on the one hand and members of the Jewish community on the other also carried clear xenophobic and alterophobic overtones. To begin with, as a non-Muslim minority ruled by an Islamic polity, the Jews not only had legally inferior status, but were also treated with suspicion. Jews may have risen to prominence as royal physicians; but several Ottoman chronicles mention the role of Jewish physicians in the death of Ottoman sultans—ironically the first one mentioned is Bayezid II. The commercial and financial success of Jews living in urban centers is highlighted in several contemporary Ottoman historical narratives; but there are many more accounts referring to Jews as a source of socioeconomic ills such as usury. For example, the narratives of the slaughter of Kira (Esther Handali) in Ottoman historiography demonstrates an overt concern for certain degenerate individuals as a threat to the just social order of the universe, which was unmistakably understood to be the Ottoman polity. Kira was a jeweller and an economic agent at the imperial palace during the second half of the sixteenth century. The graphic descriptions of her brutal murder, the ills attributed to her, and the way in which these depictions were quoted by later historians need to be evaluated to find out whether they demonstrate a pattern directed towards her as a Jew.

While the main set of questions we wish to investigate during the course of the project are related to substantiating the forms and causes of dislike between communities, we also would like to establish the specificity of such perceptions, either to Ottoman society, or to their time.

The following list of research questions will guide symposium participants as they explore and inquire into similar problematics in their respective sources. Although the multiple modes of aversions may be in one way or another interrelated, for the purposes of clarity we classify our research questions into two main categories:

  • Research questions pertaining to aversions caused by ethnic and religious factors

Can prejudices be traced back to sacred religious texts, or to traditions emerging from them? What role did religious conviction and affiliation play in creating cultures of aversion? Did religious traditions influence one another or create collective antipathy toward third-party groups?

What were the similarities and differences between the respective antipathies held among different religious communities? Case studies will include, for example, the attitudes of Maronites towards Armenians, or of Muslims towards Jews.

How can we compare and understand the antipathies felt by members of institutionalized religions towards communities, ideas, or practices of syncretic religious groups (e.g., Yazidis) or the marginal offshoots of the same religion? For instance, what feelings were nurtured by mainstream Muslims about the antinomian dervishes?

How did political conditions and effective state propaganda occasion new antipathies? For example, protracted political tension and war with the Safavid Empire enabled a more orthodox Sunnification of the Ottoman state and society during the sixteenth century, hence reifying the Shiite “other” as a clear enemy.

How did being a member of the majority (for instance, Sunni Muslim) or the minority group shape individual feelings about other groups? How did it affect an individual’s ability and willingness to express dislike in word or action?

How did the general religious rhetoric of the Ottoman State occasion feelings of superiority or inferiority within the same society?

How were feelings of antipathy directed towards certain ethnic groups (e.g., Kurds, Turks) regardless of their religious identities?

What were the Ottoman elites’ common perceptions of foreign others with whom they may have had little or no contact? How did such perceptions trickle down to common people?

How were religious identities perceived negatively when coupled with economic activities?

  • Research questions pertaining to aversions caused by social, professional, or economic factors

How did the inhabitants of the imperial center of Istanbul, or other established cultural centers (Damascus, Cairo) feel towards people immigrating into their cities from the provinces?

How can we characterize, generalize, or trace the particularities of antipathies based on gender or sexual orientation within Ottoman society?

How do gender or sexual orientation-related aversions compare in different types of writings and various segments of the society (court circles, sufis, etc.) How are they similar to or different from other comparable societies of the time.

Were the antipathies of religious or societal groups towards certain others particular to a time period (in the aftermath of a rebellion) or to a certain geography (large cities, borderlands)?

How were negative attitudes towards the poor, homeless, and outcasts of society manifested? Külhani, for instance, was a derogatory word used for the poor and homeless. The term drives from the word for the furnace rooms in the bathhouses where homeless people gathered to warm up. The term subsequently developed into a formal denomination for a drunk rogue or rowdy person with an implicit Lumpenproletariat connotation.


The anticipated impact of the project

This project will be a first attempt to explore xenophobia and alterophobia in the pre-modern Ottoman lands in a systematic way. The findings of the symposium will make significant contributions to scholarship about the Ottomans and beyond by bringing realistic perspectives to common idealistic, and perhaps distorted, modern-day perceptions about Ottoman society. However, the results of the symposium have additional implications for contemporary political landscapes. Glowing and repeated references to Ot­toman practices and policies have become commonplace in the political rhetoric of today’s Turkey; this phenomenon has led to the propagation of an uncritical and inaccurate depiction of Ottoman realities in a way that has real implications for contemporary Turks and their neighbours—for instance, when Turkish diplomats field questions about the less than smooth relations between Turkey and Israel in recent years, the responses usually commence with lengthy references to the Ottomans’ humani­tarianism and rosy treatment of Jews as exemplified by their invitation to Iberian Jews to settle in the Ottoman lands in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While such modern mis­uses of history are not the primary concern of the organizers, we do believe that the lack of balanced scholar­ship has played an im­portant role in the development of a distur­bingly ahistorical perception about the Otto­mans toward political and diplomatic ends.


Call for Papers

We encourage historians, literary historians, art historians, sociologists working with historical data, as well as those who think that they would bring comparative perspectives to the topic to submit a proposal for the symposium.

Pending funding, round trips to Chicago and accommodation will be covered by the organizers.

NOTICE: The organizers are determined to collect the developed articles by the indicated deadline (February 1, 2016) and prepare the volume for publication as quickly as possible. Therefore, those who think that they can not provide an article by that deadline are kindly asked not to apply for the symposium.

Please send your 300-word abstracts to symposium coordinator Nazlı İpek Hüner <>


April 15, 2015: Deadline for paper proposals

May 30, 2015: Provisional program ready

October 22-23, 2015: Symposium

February 1, 2016: Articles submitted for collected volume

End of 2016: Final version of the complete unpublished book

Early 2017: Collected volume published

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