In the Nineteenth Century, Mahmud II and Abdulmecid promulgated reforms that gave to millet the sense it has always had to Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Western scholars, diplomats, and politicians.
The millet system furnished, degree of religious, cultural, and ethnic continuity within these communities, while on the other it permitted their incorporation into the Ottoman administrative, economic and political system. An ethnic-religious group preserved its culture and religion while being subject to continuous 'Ottomanization' in other spheres of life."
Non-Muslim minority groups, like the Armenians, were kept distinct from mainstream society, while at the same time performing functions that contributed to the well-being of the Ottoman society. The effect was one in which the Armenians, and others, became components in a kind of organic machine, each becoming associated with a specialized function within the Empire. To a considerable extent, they controlled their own affairs, and maintained their separate customs and legal and religious traditions.
The leadership of the community at the grass-roots level, that is, in the villages and in the town quarters ("mahalle"), consisted of the representative of the religion, the priest, and the actual administrative head of the community itself, usually a prominent layman living there.... The communal leaders at the town level formed the second layer of leadership and enjoyed greater authority and influence, not only because of their connection with the higher Ottoman authorities and their own ecclesiastical heads, but also because of their wealth and their responsibility in collecting taxes and supervising the distribution of state lands to cultivators. They represented the community in its day-to-day dealings with the Ottoman administration and were responsible for order, security, collection of taxes, etc., in the community.
The community-based organization of the millet meant, as well, that no two millets were organized in exactly the same way. Rules and customs differed from group to group, and the millets existed much as miniature nations within the larger Ottoman polity. Identification with the individual millet was so strong that the millet's origin and later historical development were seen in almost cosmologic terms. After his conquest of Constantinople, and his establishment of that city as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet II appointed a patriarch for the Armenian Church. The existence of the Catholicos in Echmiadzin notwithstanding, the new Patriarch was given authority over Armenians throughout the Ottoman realms - Patriarchate and Sultanate were joined from the beginning.
Members of the Armenian millet spoke a common language, Armenian, followed a common religion, and considered themselves to belong to a single, coherent ethnic group. They were, in effect, members of one great big Armenian family, all sharing a common ancestry and history.
Wherever they lived in the Empire, they shared common interests, and possessed a sense of solidarity that set them apart from members of other millets, or from the majority Muslim sections of the population. However, as far as the sultans were concerned, all Armenians were not created equal. The Armenian millet displayed a feature that set it apart from the other Christian millet. Whereas both Greek and Armenian clergy were reckoned a separate class from the common run of the population, within the Armenian millet there existed, as well, a distinct class of secular community leaders - the amira.
These amiras played a major role in the economy and government of the Ottoman Empire. Especially significant was the role of sarraf - a banker or moneylender whose primary responsibility involved the Ottoman iltizam system of taxation.
Sarrafs were overwhelmingly Armenians of the amira class.
Iltizam was essentially a form of tax farming in which,
The right to collect taxes from imperial or state-owned lands... was sold at auction to the highest bidder. The successful bidder had to have the guarantee of an Armenian sarraf, for the sum that was bid had to be deposited in the state treasury, either immediately as a lump sum or in installments.... The sarraf, as banker, would provide the [Ottoman officials]... with the necessary capital and the guarantee for payment. In addition to the interest on the money loaned, the sarraf was entitled to a commission or agency on the sale of commodities given in lieu of cash by taxpaying villagers, thus acting both as a banker and merchant.
The system was a recipe for stirring up public animosity against the Armenian population. The vast majority population of Turkish peasants would view the Armenians as grasping tyrants, stealing their hard-earned pittances. Armenians would be viewed as Christian parasites in a Muslim empire; the situation further exacerbated that most of those Armenian who lived outside of the Armenian homeland indeed lived in the Muslim territories of the Ottomans.
Worse still for the Armenian people, the Empire was only becoming more Muslim as the Nineteenth Century wore on. The drive for popular rule that had begun with the French Revolution had spurred nationalist and democratic movements throughout Europe. The first part of the Ottoman Empire to become seized with the new passions had been Greece. After a long and bloody war, during which it won the support of many European intellectuals, Greece had officially won its independence in 1832. Nationalist fever was soon infecting all of the Ottoman's European Christian possessions. As well, with Europe rapidly industrializing and advancing technologically, the Turks were falling behind. Their lands remained medieval, their economy, military, and political systems medieval. The once mighty Ottoman Empire was now the "sick man of Europe."
The sultans attempted to stave off the inevitable by instituting reforms. This comprehensive program, began following the death of Sultan Mahmud in 1839, and was know as the Tanzimat.
Although difficult to define, the reforms involved greater westernisation, from the adoption of European clothing to newspapers, schooling, and, above all, military change.... A group inspired by changes in the justice system, or adalet, called themselves 'New Ottomans' and they promoted the idea of fatherland (vatan), and constitutional freedom (hurriget)."
From the idea of the fatherland, it was not very far to nationalism.
As pressures began to mount from within and without the Empire, the push to reform became even greater, although the Sultans, in order to achieve that reform became ever more dependent on the threatening nations of the West for financial backing.
Efforts to reform the system only exacerbated already existing tensions. Divisions widened between the sultan, foreigners, and internal minorities like the Armenians.
In 1861, in the capital, riots broke out over the food supply, and shops were shut down, and the Sultan attempted to re-impose order by having a proclamation read out in the mosques: "It is noteworthy to see how the mosque, restricted to the Muslims, remained the center of imperial communication, thereby effectively cutting the minorities off from access to this significant source of information."
The traditional order was collapsing, and while attempts were being made to move the state into the modern era, increasingly, groups such as the Armenians, were being shut out of the public discourse; marginalized more than ever before. As Europe pressed closer, the Armenians were being forced to choose sides, to take an active role in determining the fate of themselves, and of the dying Empire. The Russo-Turkish War was a turning point. As the Russians invaded the Caucasus, in the East, residents of the Empire took sides according to religious affiliation. Peoples, like the Circassians, remained loyal to the Turks, while the Armenians rose in rebellion. The fact that Armenians sided with the invading Russians, and Circassians - themselves not necessarily desirous of Turkish rule - sided with the Ottomans revealed the inner incoherence of the Empire; its division along strict religious lines.
Furthermore, the years 1877 and 1878 had seen Armenians attacked by Kurdish tribes in reaction to the hostilities with Russian. Though all of the settled peoples of the region had suffered at the hands of the Kurds, the incursion had aggravated Armenian distrusts of tribal Muslims, and of the Ottoman government that had been unable to protect them.
The Armenians and other non-Muslim minorities naturally moved closer to Europe, as it was with the European peoples that they believed their interests lay. Merchants increased their trade with Europe, enriching the community, and enabling their children to study in the West. They learned European languages, studied European texts, and imbibed European ideas, including those of nationalism.
Nationalism was one of the most powerful creeds of the Nineteenth Century West and,
The West fed the fires of nationalism in many ways. Missionary schools, primarily operated by American Protestants, offered a fine education to tens of thousands of Christians, not to Muslims. The schools also became a gathering place of revolutionary nationalists -- students who learned nationalist doctrines and a sense of Christian superiority in the schools and translated them into action, first in student groups, then in armed revolt."
This was discrimination working in reverse. Armenians and other Christians - minorities within the Ottoman Empire - were being raised above the level of their fellow…