Locals and foreigners alike often ask why people in the Middle East are “so lazy”. While such a view held by people from outside the region has its roots in racist stereotypes, many within the region hold a similar opinion, regardless of whether or not there is any merit to it. Where did the idea of Middle Eastern laziness come from, and why did it become so pervasive in our discourse? Tackling these questions is Melis Hafez in her book Inventing Laziness: The Culture of Productivity in Late Ottoman Society.
The notion took off in the 19th century in response to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the global capitalist economy. As Hafez argues, something changed in the 19th century. In earlier times, if the Ottomans found themselves economically or militarily weaker than their European rivals, a whole genre of literature would surface called nasihat, or advice. Nasihat publications would often contain specific criticisms by ruling elites and institutions of Ottoman policies; they would never think of blaming the people for political problems. Indeed, they would often highlight the suffering of the common folk as a result of bad policies.
All of this changed in the 19th century, when religious scholars, writers, intellectuals, policy makers, institutions and governing elites began to believe that the people were responsible for the Ottoman state’s decline. This new outlook developed as the notion of nationalism was emerging, which had at its core the idea of one homogeneous people representing a political entity. This concept of the people was new and it opened the common folk up to scrutiny. In the late Ottoman period, advice texts and nasihat criticising the people’s morality proliferated, and every aspect of their lives was placed under the microscope. “For these late Ottoman moralists, all members of society were responsible for saving not only themselves but also their empire,” explained Hafez.
The empire’s culture, society and laws shifted to reflect modernising productivity needs. Traditional Islamic concepts were changed to reflect these trends. The author explores ideas such as tawakkul or tevekkul, reliance on God or placing trust in God’s hands, which were reformulated in the context of work. Poet and moralist writer Mehmet Akif blasted the people for misunderstanding “true” Islam and distorting the meaning of tawakkul to mean being disconnected from worldly affairs. “In real Islam, believed Mehmet Akif, tevekkul was inseparable from steadfastness and hard work — it was the act of trusting God that hard work delivers,” writes Hafez. “In the golden age of Islam, he argued, this very concept was the driving force behind the success of Muslim conquerors, who expanded Islam’s rule ‘to the Pyrenees’. But in time, he believed, the concept was transformed into an overarching excuse for unwavering laziness, passivity, and social lassitude.” The more the empire suffered losses, the more written works attacking the moral laxity of the people appeared.
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Legal authorities also took an interest in productivity and finding ways to get people to work more. The expanding Ottoman bureaucracy and its increased importance to everyday life, led to complaints about lazy officials or inefficient men. It was believed that law could help bring about more efficiency: “In a letter signed by the deputy governor of Aleppo, some members of the Aleppo city council urgently requested a new bill to reward bureaucrats who fulfilled their duties with due diligence and punish those who did not.”
While the Ottoman interior ministry, which received the Aleppo letter, did not take up the suggestion, it reminded the governor that powers already existed for him to punish officials for not doing their job. What the letter illustrates is both an increase of, and a demand for, greater regulation of people’s working lives. Various ways to criminalise perceived laziness were brought in, including relocation, dismissal and official warnings. In 1878, after laws were introduced to combat laziness, there was an increase in recorded cases against bureaucrats, who would often go to court to get the punishments revoked.
Inventing Laziness… is a well-researched exploration of how the adoption of a culture of productivity radically changed the way societies and individuals measured themselves. The moralising of work is not a timeless thing but a recent idea whose emanation is in both the decline and state building process within the Ottoman and Turkish context. The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of how historians think and write about the period. For non-historians, it will surely prompt questions about concepts pervading our own lives and make us think more critically about the origin of ideas.