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Lessons from Salonica

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Can you imagine a city where Jews, Christians and Muslims can live peacefully? There are no wars and no violent acts towards one another. Does it seem too ideal in the present state of the world? Well, there was once a city where these three religious groups have lived with one another without killing each other. Have you ever heard of the city Thessaloniki? This is just one of the alternative names for Salonika or Salonica. Salonica has a rich historical background. It was one of the cities in the past which were progressive and looked upon by most cities at that time. It was once the city of a major empire however little or nothing is left of that heritage. There are a lot of things which the present European cities as well as the world can learn from the Salonica and how it was successful in maintaining a peaceful and orderly atmosphere despite the fact that the people who lived in the city comes from different religions and some of the people are actually immigrants. This paper will give a descriptive analysis on the history of the city and its development as one of the successful cities in the past. This paper will also give some recommendations on how the present European cities can learn a lot from the past of the city.

During the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim as well as the Jewish population of the city increased. The increase in the population was due to the increase of immigrants from these religious groups. As such, there were a lot of immigrants in the city. One good reason why there was an increase in the immigrants was the fact that the city has become one of the trade cities at that time. There were a lot of people who migrated into the city in order to conduct their businesses. As such, this has resulted into a city with a population which comes from diverse backgrounds and religions. Indeed, for more than five centuries, Salonica was ruled by the different empires but it was always inhabited by people who come from different religious groups: Muslims, Jews and Christians. As such, it has been known as the tri-religious city. In general, these different religious groups lived peacefully with one another in their stay in the city. There were a lot of catastrophes in the city, still the religious tolerance of the individual members of the city succeeded in the end. The discipline of the empire was the means to hold the city together. The main reason for this was the fact that the Ottoman Empire acknowledge the rights of the three religions which coexisted in the city. According to Mark Mazower, “it was the hometown for all, the melting pot for Islam, Christianity and Judaism, a port where European and Middle East met. (Mazower 87)”

Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the religious communities have autonomy (Mazower 89). It was the Muslim rulers which concentrated on the increase the taxes.  On the other hand, laws were left to be discussed and ruled by the religious authorities of each religious group. However, there are certain instances where the people would appeal to the Sultan to intervene in their case if they object to the rulings and actions of the leaders in their respective communities. The Christians were not as strong as the Jews both in population and in wealth. In addition to that, the priests of the Christians at that time were ill-educated. For the Jews, they were ruled over by the rabbinical authorities who came from Spain and Italy which received good education. Nevertheless, these three religious groups existed without violent acts against one another. At the present time, this peaceful and violent free relationship among the three religious groups is a thing of the past.  The government should have control over the members of their community. This is not to say that they should be authoritarian rather they should be authoritative meaning they recognize the capacities of each individual at the same they will strictly implement the rules. This would mean that the government should make sure that the laws of the city are being followed by all the members. Any person who violates the law should be accountable no matter what his/her position is in the city.

Even if the three religious groups existed peacefully, the non-Muslims were arranged in the Millet system.  These would mean that the Muslims ruled at that time. There were no equal powers among the three religious groups. In every community in the city, there were religious leaders and religious groups.  This system was defined by the religious affiliation of each individual however respects the autonomous administration in each group whether it is the allocation/collection of taxes or community/legal matters. Within this context, the main determinant of identity was religion and not language nor ethnicity. This structure is the most developed model of religious tolerance in the history of mankind.  By evaluating the structure of the community, one can say that the leaders in each group are respected and have authority over the people. Today, the people do not listen to the respective leaders in their communities. It was as if all of the people do not believe in the leaders and the leaders do not represent their constituents very well. Perhaps, the reason this is happening in the present time is the fact that the people do not trust the electoral system. As such, the local governments must be transparent and accountable with their actions and programs. With regards to transparency, the government officials should publish all official documents of the city especially the financial statement of the funds of the city. With regards to accountability, if any government official should be found guilty of a crime then he/she must face the consequences.

Obviously, in this context, a classification of the people who lived in the city into a single cultural criterion would be impossible and arbitrary. This is similar to the case wherein we also cannot limit to one classification, the modern multicultural societies we have today. However, it is clear and indubitable that Salonica is multicultural since it gives freedom to the religious groups even for people who are immigrants to the city. This allowed the co-existence of the three religious groups in the city. The Ottoman Empire cultivated a city which is composed of different people and different culture which we can see in other cities as separated and always in conflict with one another. The population of the city in the present time is a consequence of the population movements and exchanges during the Ottoman Empire. In fact, a leader of the empire once said that: “There are no Greeks and no Armenians, we, all of us, are Ottomans and we would welcome Jewish immigration (Mazower 267 ).” Even if they do give importance to the different religions of the individual, they would still instill in each individual that they are all citizens of the same city as such they should work hand in hand in making it a progressive and peaceful place to live and grow in. They do not impose their beliefs in the individuals. If only, the governments of each city these days would instill this in the members of their communities then people would help one another instead of just thinking of one’s individual interests.

When people immigrate, they are expected to assimilate into the place they are moving into. This is the status quo in France. The country has a one-way approach when it comes to the immigrants. They have to assimilate the French culture and remove all of the things which have come from their original country. In other words, immigrants have to look like the French people and live like the French people. This is opposed to a two-way approach wherein the immigrants are given the time and space that they need in order to become used to the host country. The host country would even take some elements of the culture of the immigrants. This is obviously not the case in France. They believe that their culture should be imposed on whoever wants to live in their city. This is completely the opposite of what Salonica stands for. Each member of the city who is a member of a religious group was respected for their individuality. They were not pressured to become alike to the members of the city back then. They co-existed with one another even if they have differences and conflicts with one another.

In the present time, we cannot say the say the same thing. We can see that most of the cities not only in Europe but in the whole world where there are communities with diverse religions, it is often the case that these groups use violent acts towards one another. Salonica is a city which is multi-cultural, no pressures for assimilation and it was integrated into one city. While it is true that Muslims ruled most of the time, each and every member of the community has their own rights. Even though Salonica has three different religions, there was still one person who led the city and all of the members of the city would respect and listen to this leader. This part of history teaches the present society that inclusion and exclusion with the individuals in the community plays an important role in the peacefulness, unity and cooperation of the whole. The government should have programs for the welfare not only of it’s the old members of the community but for the new ones as well. They should be able to have a department for the concerns of the immigrants and be able to ready to address possible problems. This is what the present cities need to learn about the past: recognition, respect and accept. We must recognize that each people have different religions and different attitudes. We must also respect these differences. We have to accept one another despite the differences because we are all members of the same city or members of one world.

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