The Impact of Ottoman Reforms and Foreign Powers Interventions on Christian-Muslim Relations in Demascus: 1839-1876 CE

Rana Abu-Mounes
PhD candidate, University of Aberdeen

The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural and multi-religious society since its early days in the fourteenth century. During its turbulent history, the followers of all three monotheistic religions found and experienced different atmospheres of coexistence and collaborations.

Notwithstanding, the long-lasting Empire also witnessed a history of intolerance and tension towards non-Muslims, and especially Christians. One incident that has attracted a lot of attention is the clashes of the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire, during the nineteenth century, witnessed a constant effort of reform. This century also marked the start of the changing balance of power between the West and the East. The European powers were ascending in supremacy whereas the Ottoman Empire was descending in power and influence.

However, both the weakness and reforms of the Ottoman government on one hand and the policies of foreign Powers on the other equally contributed in changing the atmosphere of coexistence and therefore resulted in shaping new attitudes for the followers of the two monotheistic religions, Muslims and Christians, toward each other.

The Christian and Muslim communities who established themselves in the Levant hitherto respected each other’s beliefs and ways of life. Even though there were sporadic tension and suspicion between them, they generally lived peaceably together. Admittedly, certain parts of the Levant, such as Lebanon, were torn by internal strife, but this was strife of factions and families rather than faiths and creeds.

The thesis for this presentation is: foreign intervention in the Levant rather than religion was the main cause of the conflicts in the area during the nineteenth century. My hypothesis is that even though it is easy to identify religion as the immediate cause of the clashes based on demographic considerations, a critical examination of the situation reveals the causes to be fundamentally economic and political. Thus, I would argue that the foreign powers were the active agents of change in the Christian-Muslim relations. They intervened in the society for economic reasons but used ideology, i.e. the missionaries, to facilitate these aspirations, and justified it by the so called ‘policy of protecting the minorities’.

Using the state of Christian-Muslim relations in Damascus during the Ottoman Tanzimat as a point of reference, I attempt to the address the following Questions: How did the Ottoman reforms and foreign powers’ penetrations impact on the Christian-Muslim relations during the period of Tanzimat? What was the extent of tension between the two religious communities? And did these tensions lead to massacre between the Christians and Muslims? To address these questions, I will elaborate on the following three main themes: 1. The attitude of the Ottoman State towards its Christian subjects based on the content of the Tanzimat Edict of 1839 CE and the Reform Edict of 1856 CE. 2. The foreign powers’ intervention in the Ottoman society in Damascus. 3. The impact of both the Tanzimat reforms and foreign powers’ penetrations on the Christian-Muslim relations.