Elusive Equality: The Armenian Genocide and the Failure of Ottoman Legal Reform
15 Pages Posted: 6 May 2010
Date Written: May 5, 2010
This essay, prepared for a symposium on legal aspects of the Armenian Genocide, addresses the treatment of the Armenian community in Ottoman law. For most of its history, the Ottoman Empire adhered to classical Islamic law, which viewed Armenians and other Christians as dhimmis – formally protected, but legally subordinate, minority communities. The nineteenth-century Ottoman reform movement known as the Tanzimat granted dhimmis legal equality for the first time. Equality for dhimmis subverted the traditional social hierarchy and sparked a religious backlash, including the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896, which killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians and other Christians. The Hamidian massacres in turn initiated a cycle of violence that led eventually to genocide. Although the Tanzimat did not itself cause the Armenian Genocide, the failure of legal reform, and the resentment that equality for religious minorities created in Ottoman society, were important contributing factors.
Keywords: Armenian Genocide, Islamic Law, Ottoman Law, Religious Minorities, Tanzimat
JEL Classification: K30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation