On the role of gangs in urban social history of the 19-century Ottoman empire; with a decline in government control, gangs ran protection rackets and acted as a parallel government, making alliances and becoming popular leaders against an alien threat.
published in Past and Present, 112, pages 112-143 1986
About: A virtual rebellion of the Iraqi city of Karbala against central government rule brought about a catastrophic invasion by Baghdad-based Ottoman Turkish forces in January 1843. Because the urban social history of the nineteenth-century Ottoman empire remains comparatively little known, the forms of social organization and local culture that led to the revolt deserve detailed treatment. The following analysis examines the role of urban gangs in leading the rebellion, in coalition with other social groups. Neighbourhood vigilante bands had long existed in Islamic cities. But in the first decades of the nineteenth century, paralleling a decline in government control, "mafia" - gangs that ran protection rackets and acted as a parallel government - grew up in Karbala. Even in this "antisocial" form, it will be shown, the urban gangs could make alliances within the city to emerge as popular leaders against an alien threat, therefore acting as more than mere exploiters.