Emancipation In Muslim Lands

European influence in the Middle East.


The emancipation of Jews who resided in Muslim lands differed in pace, process, and product from the emancipation of their coreligionists in Western Europe. These differences are all the more fascinating in light of the fact that the Western European nations directly influenced Jewish emancipation in the Muslim lands. The following article, which describes the process by which western and eastern spheres of influence collided over the question of Jewish citizenship in the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, is reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The change in the legal status of Jews in Muslim countries was part of a general process of westernization that took place in these societies between the end of theeighteenth century and World War I. Basically, this meant the revocation of the Pact of Omar–the series of regulations applied to the dhimmis (protected Christians and Jews) from the days of the first caliphs (religious and civic rulers of the Muslim world who claimed succession from Muhammad). Indeed, the advent of European-influenced reform, which left its mark on all countries in the Middle East and North Africa (except Yemen and Iran), brought with it considerable improvement in the social and political status of the Jews throughout the Muslim world.


The western powers’ concern with minorities–including Jews, Christians, and Greeks–in the Islamic countries was not simply humanitarian in nature. Dealing with these minorities conveniently served as a means of intervention and control in regions of great strategic and economic importance. For example, Sultan Abd Al-Majod’s proclamation of two important decrees, the Hatt-i-Sherif (1839) and the Hatt-i-Humayun (1856), which inaugurated a whole series of measures granting equal rights for all communities in the Ottoman Empire, were issued as a concession to European pressure.

Emancipation in Tunisia was precipitated by the Batto Sfez affair, which concerned a Jewish coach-driver executed in 1856 for having blasphemed Islam. Scandalized, Jews and Europeans in Tunisia sent a delegation to Napoleon III requesting his protection. The emperor responded immediately: he sent a squadron and ordered the commanding officer to instruct the bey (the provincial governor) to implement the principles of the Hatt-i-Humayun. On September 9, 1857, the "Pacte Fondemental" proclaimed equal rights to all Tunisian subjects, freedom of religion, and the abolition of the jizya, the humiliating poll tax imposed on all the dhimmis. The Muslim masses, however, regarded the pact as further evidence of capitulation to the Christian west, and an insurrection of tribes ensued. While the revolt resulted in a suspension of the pact, it also led to increased European pressure to stabilize the region and ultimately to the establishment of the French Protectorate in Tunisia in 1881.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University

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