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Outline for a Discussion on Toleration

Par Karen Barkey
Publié par Clifford Armion le 09/01/2015
"There are a few ways of thinking about toleration: I define toleration as more or less absence of persecution; the acceptance of a plurality of religions, but not necessarily their acceptance into society as full and welcomed members/communities. Toleration can mean the acceptance of “difference” and a lack of interest beyond the instrumentality to maintain a coherent polity."

Tous droits réservés
Karen Barkey (Turkey/USA), sociologist and historian, specialist of the Ottoman Empire, teaches at Columbia University (New York). She studies decentralization, state control, and social movements against states in the context of empires. She is the Director of the Institute for Religion Culture and Public Life, which is currently working on various research projects on religion and tolerance.

Boundaries of Toleration (coll. dir. A. Stepan et C. Taylor, University Press Group Ltd, 2014)


Toleration is a condition of diversity. Religious and ethnic diversity existed in most societies of the world for long historical periods. Diversity has sometimes led to brutality and violence and at other times diversity has led to different types of arrangements that have promoted peaceful coexistence. A sociological analysis of toleration would need to highlight the conditions under which notions and practices of toleration emerge in a society and polity, the role of different public authorities and social groups, the boundaries that are erected between groups and the resources that actors have access to. In my work on toleration I take a relational approach that underscores the power of relations between groups to make for tolerant outcomes. I especially stress the role of public authorities and the relations between authorities and communities of difference.

Definitions of Toleration and Continuing Importance Today

There are a few ways of thinking about toleration: I define toleration as more or less absence of persecution; the acceptance of a plurality of religions, but not necessarily their acceptance into society as full and welcomed members/communities.  Toleration can mean the acceptance of “difference” and a lack of interest beyond the instrumentality to maintain a coherent polity. As Ira Katznelson suggests, “Toleration addresses some of the most difficult and persistent features of human social relations. When hatred combines with hierarchy, individuals and groups are exposed to zealotry and danger. Toleration is an act of bearing and allowing. It is a choice of not doing despite the ability to act” ((Ira Katznelson, “Regarding toleration and liberalism: considerations from the Anglo-Jewish experience.” 48 in Religion and the Political Imagination, eds. Ira Katznelson and Gareth Stedman Jones, Cambridge University Press, 2010)). Toleration implies therefore “not acting” that comes from thoughtful or strategic action that causes restraint. It denotes a choice made by public authorities as well as groups within society to use command and moderation. In that sense toleration is still essential to many societies where diversity and difference are the norm and where groups strongly claim their groupness as essentialized identities, and therefore remains a core value of human societies, because it cautions us to use restraint. This is one way of defining toleration and relating the concept to enduring concerns of living in societies fraught with difficult diversity.

There is another way of thinking about toleration that is similarly about the lack of persecution and the acceptance of the plurality of religions. But it goes a step further and makes arguments about the value of the plurality of religions, presenting a case where every group is portrayed as bringing something different and valuable to the society and polity. In this sense we move beyond just a pragmatic understanding of toleration where the key is to bear the other and to maintain peace without any appreciation. It is acceptance at another level that urges and implies respect.

Both of these existed in imperial situations and I want to argue that often public authorities pledge the first form of toleration and then social and political forces might drive the shift to a more expansive and appreciative form. I will return to examples of these.

Yet, toleration is not the only form of rule of diversity and often toleration and persecution can work hand in hand. In many empires for example, toleration was accorded to some groups, while others were persecuted. Therefore, any study of toleration has to also consider its opposite, persecution or even other policies such as assimilation, exclusion etc. For example, imperial states maintained rule over religious and ethnic diversity through a variety of policies from the “toleration” of diversity and its incorporation to forced conversion and assimilation. The different outcomes are the result of religious, utilitarian and strategic thinking with regard to diversity. Strategy might lead state elites to shift their policies: toleration and persecution can happen very close in time and take turns; states may tolerate some groups while persecuting others. Such cases indicate that toleration might be partial and certainly not a condition afforded to all.  

An Historical Example

Both a pragmatic and an expansive toleration emerged in the Ottoman empire, mostly vis-à-vis many non-Muslim groups of Christians and Jews. As the Ottomans conquered the Balkans in the early fourteenth century and established footholds in the peninsula, they were significantly outnumbered by Christians and under those circumstances, they were pragmatic in their approach to Christians, accomodating to them, providing them with privileges and essentially trying to gain their acquiescence with a form of toleration that maintained peace and co-existence. Co-opting many Christian warriors into their ranks, they also understood the need for some sort of joint project that brought Christians and Muslims together. Beyond this initial cooperation, the local practices at the level of communities also worked to promote coexistence. Especially the actions of the Sufi dervish leaders who were among the frontrunners of the Balkan colonization were critical to such indigenous occurrence. As they reached across boundaries and settled Christians, appealed to their own heterodox movements in the Balkans, they highlighted cross-frontier similarities and brought about a local practice of tolerance between groups. Overtime, Muslim newcomers and Christians became acquained with each other, shared secular and sacred spaces, innovating in their relations and becoming sympathetic to each others’ traditions. A practice of state furthered accomodation and local societal coexistence was formed through these initial centuries of conquest and contact with difference.

After the conquest of Istanbul, with the zeal to gain international legitimacy, the Ottomans more self assuredly described their pluralism as not only a pragmatic choice, but a policy of positive inclusion. Mehmed the Conqueror (1451-1481) established the initial set of agreements between communities and the state, agreements that would periodically be renewed ensuring the safety, autonomy and protection of the non-Muslim communities in return for an extra tax, the cizye. The Sultans continued to be legitimate Muslim rulers, the empire was seen as a Muslim empire, yet, it was understood that there was no need to impose their religion on non-Muslims living in peace in their lands, no need to turn difference into sameness. In this way, it was not that the sultans were neutral about their religion and the religion of the empire, but they chose to be protective of other religions. We have examples of such thinking in the edicts and words of Sultans. For example, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) when asked whether Jews should be exterminated from his empire since they were usurers, responded by asking his councilors to observe the vase of multi-colored and shaped flowers, admonishing them that each flower with its own shape and color added to the beauty of the other. He then went on to affirm that “he ruled over many different nations - Turks, Moors, Greeks and others. Each of these nations contributed to the wealth and reputation of his kingdom, and in order to continue this happy situation, he deemed it wise to continue to tolerate those who were already living together under his rule” ((Mark Haberlein, “A 16th-Century German Traveller’s Perspective on Discrimination and Tolerance in the Ottoman Empire,” in Discrimination and tolerance in historical perspective / ed., Gudmundur Hálfdanarson (Pisa : Plus-Pisa university press, 2008))).

For imperial states what is behind their choice of policies of toleration is complex. It can be a religious understanding of diversity, a cultural past of living in diversity, a particular decision of rulers about their own religiosity and the protection of others, as well as a strategic response to conditions on the ground. For the Ottomans in the period from 1300 to 1800 each of these conditions impacted the particular type of toleration that emerged. The Ottomans emerged out of a frontier tradition of conflict and coexistence between Seljuks and Byzantines, with a past history of mixed ethnic and religious cohabitation in the Central Asian steppes. They brought with them an understanding of diversity. The religion they espoused, Islam, also had a particular understanding of relations with non-Muslims, that emerged as the Pact of Umar in the first centuries of the rise of Islam. The pact of Umar acknowledged Christians and Jews to be the Peoples of the Book, and demanded the payment of an extra tax in return for peace and protection. Such historical and cultural blueprints provided the framework for engagement with the other. Sultans even as they aligned with their Islamic identity chose to remain cognizant of diversity; to praise it openly as against those who were against it.

Yet this image would be incomplete if we ignore that not all groups were tolerated. While the Ottoman state pressed for toleration of non-Muslim groups, they actively pursued and persecuted Shi’a groups and some Sufi sects in the empire. We therefore have to see toleration in relation to persecution and to a variety of other state policies of the rule of diversity. The persecution of Shi’a sects was often related to their percieved alliance with the Safavid Shah Ismail whose rivalry with the Ottomans was geopolitical though often overlaid with a discourse of sectarian conflict. Such sectarian divisions, real or percieved, transformed the communities that practiced any form of Shi’a ritual into enemies of the state, shaping a different set of relations then with non-Muslims communities.

Finally the other important question to ask is whether toleration that can be accorded to a group can also be withdrawn? We cannot speak of the toleration in the Ottoman empire without discussing its breakdown and collapse into genocide. The societal balance of toleration was disrupted in the nineteenth century with changes of the world economy and the modern system of ideas that impacted all pre-modern societies. Where an equilibrium of subjecthood, imperial statehood and diverse identities existed in a precarious balance and hierarchy, modernity imposed new ideals, and toleration that was based on pragmatism, inclusion and respect unraveled ((Many of the arguments in this short paper make up the basis of my book, Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).)).

Cette ressource est publiée dans le cadre de la quatrième saison du festival "Mode d'Emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Karen Barkey, "Outline for a Discussion on Toleration ", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2015. Consulté le 17/06/2019. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/outline-for-a-discussion-on-toleration

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