New Books: Useful Enemies

Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750

by Noel Malcolm

From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 until the 18thcentury, many Western European writers viewed the Ottoman Empire with almost obsessive interest. Typically they reacted to it with fear and distrust; and such feelings were reinforced by the deep hostility of Western Christendom towards Islam. Yet there was also much curiosity about the social and political system on which the huge power of the sultans was based. In the 16th century, especially, when Ottoman territorial expansion was rapid and Ottoman institutions seemed particularly robust, there was even open admiration.

In his ground-breaking new book Noel Malcolm ranges through these vital centuries of East-West interaction, studying all the ways in which thinkers in the West interpreted the Ottoman Empire as a political phenomenon - and Islam as a political religion. He shows how the concept of 'oriental despotism' began as an attempt to turn the tables on a very positive analysis of Ottoman state power, and how, as it developed, it interacted with Western debates about monarchy and government. Noel Malcolm also shows how a negative portrayal of Islam as a religion devised for political purposes was assimilated by radical writers, who extended the criticism to all religions, including Christianity itself.

Examining the works of many famous thinkers (including Machiavelli, Bodin, and Montesquieu) as well as lesser well-known ones, Useful Enemies illuminates the long-term development of Western ideas about the Ottomans, and about Islam. It shows how these ideas became intertwined with internal Western debates about power, religion, society, and war. Discussions of Islam and the Ottoman Empire were thus bound up with mainstream thinking in the West on a wide range of important topics.

As Malcolm sums up, “To study the history of Western ideas about Islam and Ottoman Empire in this period may help us to understand some of the origins, or at least the development, of Western prejudices that have had long subsequent histories. But it should also show us something else: that the early modern Europeans viewed the government and religion of their powerful Eastern neighbours with a whole gamut of attitudes, from fear and fierce disapproval to fascination, admiration and envy.  For many Western thinkers, the Ottoman Empire and Islam played an important part in their own mental world, not as mere ‘others’ to be put in their subordinate place nor simply as threats to be conceptually isolated and neutralized, but as active ingredients to be worked into their theories. Western political thought, in this period, was in the West and for the West, but never exclusively about the West. The East was not only too important to be ignored; it was too interesting – and most of all, too useful.”

Noel Malcolm began his career as Fellow of Gonville& Caius College, Cambridge. He went on to become Foreign Editor at the Spectator then chief political columnist at the Daily Telegraph. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, was knighted for services to scholarship, journalism, and European history in 2014 and has publishedwidely on, among other subjects, early modern philosophy, and the history and culture of the Balkans, especially during the Ottoman period.

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