Book Review - Western encounters with the Ottomans: Noel Malcolm 'Useful Enemies'
David Tresilian, Friday 9 Oct 2020
'Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750' provides a detailed history of European attitudes to Islam and the former Ottoman Empire

The long history of relations between Europe and the Middle East is a marvelous topic for the historian. Not only is the Arab world and broader Middle East Europe’s nearest neighbour, but the two regions also have much history in common.

Both the Middle East and Europe are the heirs of classical civilisation, with the Arabs and the Ottomans taking over much of the eastern Roman Empire in the same way as the Germanic peoples did the western. And at least after the 16th-century Ottoman conquest of the Middle East, and probably for centuries before, the states of the region were essential stakeholders – sometimes rivals, sometimes allies – in the European system.

Probably the latest historian to investigate these relations in detail is UK historian Noel Malcolm, who in his recent book Useful Enemies has reconstructed the history of European attitudes towards Islam and the former Ottoman Empire. The latter once stretched across Anatolia, the Arab world, and into eastern Europe before breaking up at the end of the First World War. While in the 19th century the Empire entered into the long decline that saw it dubbed the “sick man of Europe,” in earlier centuries it was both a formidable rival and an intriguing example for many Europeans.

Useful Enemies focuses on the period between 1450 and 1750, beginning with the aftermath of the conquest of Constantinople, last redoubt of the former Byzantine Empire, by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1453 and ending in the mid-18th century with the analysis of Ottoman institutions by writers of the European Enlightenment. In the interval, Malcolm has much to say about the ways in which the Ottoman Empire was a “useful enemy” for many European thinkers. It allowed them to rethink their own societies, sometimes using praise or criticism of the Empire for quite other purposes.

“On the morning of 29 June 1453 a ship arrived at Venice, bearing the news that Constantinople had been conquered by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II,” Malcom writes. “Letters describing the fall of the city written by officials in some of the Venetian possessions on the coast of Greece were read out to a shocked Senate in the Doge’s Palace. On the following day the Venetian government sent a messenger to Rome to implore the help of the Papacy… In Florence, Cosimo de Medici described the loss of Constantinople as the most tragic event the world had seen for centuries.”

The immediate task was to identify whether the Ottoman conquest represented a military threat to neighbouring European states and whether to respond to it by military or other means. There was then the question of how to understand the new power that had arisen in the east and whether it could be either invited in or shut out of the European system.

Initial reactions were fearful, with the European humanist writers of the 15th and 16th centuries, themselves rediscovering the civilisations of Greece and Rome, seeing the Ottomans as latter-day conquerors on the model of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. “Many western thinkers, for whom classical history was a significant part of their mental world, found it easy to ascribe such motives [territorial conquest] to the Ottomans, as they believed the sultans were almost as deeply interested as they were in the history of ancient Greece and Rome,” Malcolm says.

However, others wanted to see Ottoman virtues imported into Europe, thinking that there was much in the Empire that could be emulated. Malcolm quotes from the mediaeval English writer Sir John Mandeville, who in his famous Travels had imagined a conversation with the Mameluke sultan in Egypt in which the latter makes telling criticisms of the corruption and hypocrisy of Christian Europe. This was the beginning of a tradition of praise of first Mameluke and then Ottoman societies that saw them as being in some respects superior to Europe.

The mediaeval philosopher St Thomas Aquinas’s suggestion in his Summa theologiae, a summary version of Roman Catholic faith, that non-Christian religions should be tolerated also “left the door ajar for some pragmatic [European] policy-making” in later years, Malcom says, when various European powers sought to make alliances with the Ottoman Empire at the expense of their rivals.

Even if the Ottomans were not seen as being entirely part of the European system, they could be useful allies, perhaps something in the way the Russian tsars could be roped in from time to time to confirm or disrupt the balance of power in Europe.



The 16th-century religious Reformation in Europe saw a reshuffling of the cards with respect to the Ottoman Empire.

The Dutch scholar Erasmus was against Austrian Hapsburg attempts to drum up European support for their campaigns against the Ottomans, seeing these as veiled attempts to bolster Hapsburg prestige. The German reformer Martin Luther, neither a friend of the Hapsburgs nor of the rest of Catholic Europe, was suspicious of military campaigns against the Ottomans, seeing them as ways of raising troops for use against European Protestants.

“One of the noteworthy things about Luther’s whole approach to Islam and to the Ottoman Empire is his appetite for detailed knowledge about them,” Malcolm comments. Catholic polemicists such as the early French orientalist Guillaume Postel claimed that the Ottomans were actually disguised European Protestants. Protestant polemicists such as the German reformer Philip Melanchthon argued that “at least [Ottoman] Muslims were not as badly corrupted in their beliefs and practices as [European] Catholics.”

It was against the background of European power-political discord that the Austrian Hapsburgs proposed an alliance with the Ottomans (against Venice), followed by the French (against the Austrians), the Dutch (against the Spanish), and finally the English (against the Spanish), all of them seeking Ottoman support against their enemies in Europe. “The balance of forces in Europe made England a natural ally of… the Ottoman Empire in the final decades of the sixteenth century,” Malcolm comments, when the government of queen Elizabeth I was looking around for allies against Philip II of Spain.

Malcolm’s book explores the views, positive and negative, of European writers about the Ottoman Empire and its political and religious systems, taking in ideas associated with such influential writers as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. Some of the ideas these expressed became commonplaces of the European response to the Ottomans, including the tradition of so-called “oriental despotism” developed by Montesquieu.

Like many of the other figures Malcolm considers, Montesquieu wrote in the absence of first-hand knowledge of the Ottoman system and perhaps relied on half-garbled reports that the Ottoman system, like the Mameluke one in Egypt, relied upon slave soldiers to replenish its elites. But there were also other European writers, as Malcolm notes, who were not convinced by Montesquieu’s scheme of government limited by law in the West and arbitrary despotism in the East. Some contemporary commentators considered the rule of the Ottoman sultans to be less “despotic” than the rule of king Louis XIV in France.

Malcolm ends his survey in the 18th century, when there was a new and more open-minded approach to both Islam and the Ottoman Empire associated with Enlightenment thinkers. Windows were thrown open and fresh air came in, with the crabbed controversies of previous centuries being hauled up before the tribunal of reason. While Spinoza in the 17th century was still worried about what he saw as the absence of freedom of thought in the Ottoman Empire, Voltaire’s main enemy in his critical writings in the 18th was what he considered to be the fanaticism and hypocrisy of the society of his day in France.

In his final pages, Malcolm considers other influential accounts of the historical relationship between Europe and the Middle East, including by Palestinian scholar Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism. The temporal sweep of Said’s book is less than Malcolm’s, being confined mostly to the 19th and early 20th centuries, and so is its geographical range, since it mostly considers only certain English and French authors.

Said tends to lump the authors he considers together as illustrating a common tendency towards “orientalism,” whereas in fact there was always a range of different views. There were debates about the positive and negative sides of the Ottoman system, Malcolm writes, with these often reflecting debates about European societies at home. “The reality here is altogether too multiform, too various and dynamic, to be confined by Said’s own narrow and prescriptive ‘disciplinary order,” he comments.

“What they [the writings examined in Malcolm’s book] show is active – even creative – engagement with their Islamic or Ottoman subject matter as part of a larger pursuit of religious and political arguments within their own culture. The Eastern material was not there to be beaten down, as Said imagined, into conformity with complacent Western attitudes; often it was used to shake things up, to provoke, to shame, to galvanize.”

Noel Malcolm, Useful Enemies, Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, pp487

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly.