Is there a difference between the 1914 anti-Christian boycott in the Ottoman Empire of 1914 and the anti-Muslim boycott in the United States of America in 2016? To boycott means to abstain from buying or using a product or service. It’s a very old, usually effective, tactic for intimidation or coercion to obtain compliance.
Probably the earliest recorded instance of a boycott was in the ancient Greek play, Lysistrata. The main character, Lysistrata, persuaded her fellow women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peaceful end to the Peloponnesian War.
People who are considered “undesirable” are often boycotted: Neighbours practice shunning; Roman Catholics excommunication; Jews herem; Jehovah’s Witnesses disfellowshipping; Scientologists disconnection; and governments embargoing. Boycotts can be effective in changing behaviour, but they can also lead to violence. The Boston Tea Party is an example, albeit mild.
The Boston Tea Party
The revenue tax of 1767 imposed on the New England colony by Britain resulted in the boycott of British goods, and abstinence of importing and drinking British tea. It wasn’t a real hardship because they smuggled in plenty of Dutch tea to replace it. Though it worked for a time, the 1773 Tea Act tipped the scales, so to speak. The colonists decried the “taxation without representation.” After a peaceful protest meeting in Boston, men who disguised their identities dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbour. Rather than describe this illegal act as destruction of private property, colonial spin doctor Samuel Adams claimed it was a positive political protest.
Captain Charles Boycott
The word boycott was not known until 1880. As a result of a poor harvest in Ireland that year, the tenants in County Mayo of absentee landlord Lord Erne could not pay their rents. They asked for a 25% reduction. Erne offered 10% and no more. Those who couldn’t pay were to be evicted from their homes by Erne’s land agent, Captain Charles Boycott. The Irish Land League organized a non-violent ostracism of Boycott. He was socially shunned, his employees refused to work in his house, fields and stables, the local merchants stopped selling goods to him, and even his mail delivery was stopped. In Talks About Ireland the New York Tribune reporter James Redpath casually asked the local priest, Father John O’Malley, if there might be another word he could use to describe this ostracism. O’Malley suggested “Boycotting.” Thus the word was born.
The caricature of Charles Boycott is by Spy (Leslie Ward) from Vanity Fair, January 1881. The background is an 1880 photo of a tenant eviction in Moyasta, County Clare, Ireland from Wikipedia.
Boycotts of the Young Turks’ Era
A few months after the Young Turk revolution in 1908 the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman citizens were outraged at the loss of territory, and spontaneously boycotted Austrian goods. The new government, known as the Young Turks, were reluctant to go to war, and quietly supported the boycott. It later bowed to international pressure to end it. Two years later another boycott erupted against Ottoman-Greek merchants due to conflict with Greece over Crete. After the Balkan Wars (1912-13) ended, a third boycott began.
This one was directed against non-Muslims in what was left of the Empire in retaliation for atrocities conducted against Ottomans mostly by Christian Bulgarians. It didn’t seem to matter that not all Ottoman soldiers were Muslim; they were Christians and Jews, too. The boycott, which was secretly supported by the local branches of the governing Committee of Union and Progress Party (part of the Young Turks) became progressively more violent. The boycott movement also used pamphlets to encourage Ottomans to buy “domestic” products to support the (Muslim) Turkish national economy. Goods and shops were burned. Shoppers and Christian merchants were injured. Istanbul University Political Sciences Professor Y. Dogan Çetinkaya has done an excellent job of detailing the intricate progression of these boycotts in his doctoral thesis and in The Young Turks and the Boycott Movement.
The Boycott That Contributed to Genocide
In March 1914 The Orient, a weekly newspaper published by Bible House in Constantinople, reported that “the scattering of inflammatory literature, containing intentional misrepresentation against Christians works injury to the permanent relations between the communities.” (Sound familiar, but in reverse?) There appeared advertisements urging Muslims to boycott Armenian (Christian) merchants in local newspapers. By June US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau noted in Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, “An official boycott was established against all Christians.” It didn’t discriminate against Jewish merchants, but they were requested “to put signs over their doors indicating their nationality and trade, such signs as ‘Abraham the Jew, tailor’.” Morgenthau also reported that Talat, the Minister of the Interior (the most powerful ministry within the Ottoman Empire) explained his national policy of Turkification. “If what was left of Turkey was to survive,” Talat told Morgenthau, he “must get rid of these alien peoples. . . He asked me again to urge American business houses to employ only Turks.”
Less than two months later World War I started. On August 6th someone set the Armenian markets on fire in Diarbekir (Diyarbakır today). On August 13th the same thing happened in the Armenian quarter of Adrianople (Edirne today). Eight months later, the Armenian genocide began.
The 2016 Chobani Yoghurt Boycott
Some boycotts have been created for the public good (pro bono publico). But there are also some boycotts that are very dangerous, based solely on religion or nationality. There is currently a boycott against Chobani yoghurt. Its founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya is the epitome of the American success story. He’s a Turk of Kurdish descent, who immigrated to the United States in the 1990s, made and sold cheese, and bought an old yoghurt factory in upstate New York. He worked hard and became successful enough to expand to a second factory in Twin Falls, Idaho. He now employs 2,000 workers to make Greek yoghurt. Of these employees, 300 are refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, and other countries. Therein lies the problem—at least for some fearful people who see helping non-Americans as being anti-American. Not only has a boycott been called against Chobani yoghurt, the mayor of Twin Falls, Shawn Barigar, and his wife have received death threats for supporting the company’s hiring practices.
Will There be a Repeat in Reverse?
Change “1914” for “2016”, switch “Ottoman” for “American”, flip the “anti-Christian” sentiment for an “anti-Muslim” one, and you’ve got a situation that can easily lead to violence. Of course, boycotts were only one contributing factor to the early 20th century genocides. But the new American president-elect has vowed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has validated anti-Muslim attitudes in his country. Now is the time for all Americans—in fact, all concerned people—to be vigilant about what happens next.