Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450‑1750, by Noel Malcolm, Oxford University Press, 512 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198830139
In the early hours of May 29th, 1453, Turkish Ottoman forces burst into the city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Greek (or “eastern Roman”) empire and for most of the medieval period Europe’s wealthiest and most populous city. Constantinople’s formidable defensive walls had been pounded for weeks by the Ottomans’ heavy cannons, including the huge, thirty-foot weapon built for them at Edirne by the Hungarian iron founder known as Master Orbán and hauled by teams of oxen 130 miles to the city. The attack came in waves: first to be deployed were the Azabs, a peasant light infantry. Then followed Anatolian mercenary troops, and finally the janissaries, an elite corps recruited from occupied Christian territories in southeastern Europe, the soldiers taken from their families as children and impressed into imperial service, trained to have a deep loyalty to each other and to the sultan. The Venetian physician Nicolò Barbaro, who was lucky enough to escape the city and who later wrote an account of its capture, takes up the story of the attack:
At this moment of confusion, which happened at sunrise, our omnipotent God came to His most bitter decision and decided to fulfil all the prophecies … and at sunrise the Turks entered the city near San Romano, where the walls had been razed to the ground by their cannon. But before they entered, there was such a fierce struggle between the Turks and the Christians in the city who opposed them, and so many of them died, that a good twenty carts could have been filled with the corpses of the first Turks. Then the second wave followed … and anyone they found they put to the scimitar, women and men, old and young, of any condition […] The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm, and the corpses of Turks and Christians were thrown into the Dardanelles, where they floated out to sea like melons along a canal.
After a protracted period of looting, rape, slaughter and the rounding up of the young and able-bodied to be sold off as slaves, the new master of the city, the twenty-one-year-old Sultan Mehmed II, called an end to the carnage and declared that any Christians still in hiding who wished to return to their homes would not be harmed. The military engagement was over. The Byzantine empire was effectively a thing of the past, the last emperor or basileus, Constantine Palaeologus, having been killed in the fighting. Constantinople, or Kostantiniyye as it was now called, had become the capital of the Ottoman empire. “Christendom” had received a mighty blow and, as the Turks extended their power over the course of the century that followed, the Mediterranean seemed well on the way to becoming a Muslim lake. When news of the defeat reached Rome, via Venice, there was dismay in the Curia and panic in the city streets. Florence’s ruler, Cosimo de’ Medici, said it was “the most tragic event the world had seen for centuries”. How could it have happened?
If the loss of Constantinople to the Ottomans ‑ and hence to Islam ‑ had major symbolic significance for Christian Europe the event itself can scarcely have been surprising to anyone aware of the balance of military forces in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the city’s fall. The Byzantine capital was already surrounded by Turkish-held territory, the empire’s only other significant remaining possessions being the despotate of the Morea in the Greek Peloponnese peninsula and Trebizond on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea.
In 1437, Emperor John Palaeologus, the penultimate basileus and older brother of Constantine, had travelled with a large delegation to Italy to seek help against the Ottomans. He knew the price he would be asked to pay for such help – the submission of the independent Orthodox Greek church to Rome’s authority – and in extremis he was apparently prepared to pay it. The result was the papal bull Laetantur Caeli (Let the heavens rejoice) announcing Christian unity, promulgated in 1439 at the Council of Ferrara-Florence. This union, however, was almost immediately repudiated by most eastern bishops and was deeply unpopular in Constantinople, where indeed many were said to believe they might fare better, retaining the autonomy of their church, under the turban than the mitre.
In the 1430s the Ottomans had pushed into Serbia and Transylvania. The Hungarian military leader János Hunyadi scored significant victories against them but was beaten at Varna on the Black Sea in 1444 and again in the Second Battle of Kosovo in 1448, two defeats which certainly compromised the prospects of a much-proposed mobilisation of Christendom through the revival of the medieval practice of crusade, or holy war.
In a period when almost no state – excepting the Ottomans with their elite janissary corps – maintained a standing army, the bringing together for a particular purpose of a military “coalition of the willing”, and the mustering of sufficient troops and ships to transport them to the field of battle, constituted a supremely difficult task. The necessary diplomatic manoeuvring and fundraising would normally devolve to the only multinational organisation that had contacts and efficient administrative structures in every territory: the Roman Catholic church, whose chief means of procuring money were tithes and the sale of indulgences (the printing of which constituted a valuable earner in the 1450s for one Johann Gutenberg of Mainz). But even if the requisite funds could be raised one could not necessarily count on the willingness of sufficient, or sufficiently powerful, participants in the crusade. The wealthy Venetians and Genoese had money, ships and military expertise but were reluctant to risk their future trade with the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, no matter who was in charge of these territories. The king of Naples, Alfonso I, indicated that he would be prepared to support a crusade if he was placed at the head of it; it was suspected that he wished to take power himself in Constantinople. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, did not want to take any action that might advantage his neighbour and rival, Ladislas, king of Poland and Hungary. The papal nuncio in Germany, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later to become pontiff himself as Pius II, complained to Pope Nicholas V that the egoism and short-sightedness of Europe’s rulers was opening the door to further Turkish conquest. As Piccolomini later recalled in his Commentaries, the Germans in particular seemed to view the idea of rescuing the Greeks, whom many thought had brought their troubles on themselves, less a matter of urgent European solidarity than a trick to relieve them of their money (ut a Germanis aurum subtili ingenio … extrahatur).
One of the archetypal myths of the Turkic nomads of central Asia who were the ancestors of the Ottomans was the fabulous legendary city of Kizil Elma, the Red Apple, which the tribesmen would one day capture and occupy. Kizil Elma was at various times identified as Jerusalem, Vienna, Buda and even Rome, but at this point of history primarily as Constantinople. The Byzantine capital had only partially recovered by the mid-fifteenth century from the destructive Latin occupation (1203-1261) that followed the Fourth Crusade. The first Palaeologus emperor, Michael, succeeded in doubling the population, to 70,000, during his reign – it had probably been half a million at the turn of the millennium ‑ but it subsequently fell back again. After a series of wars, natural disasters and, most seriously, repeated outbreaks of bubonic plague, the population of the city when it was besieged by Mehmed II was probably no more than 50,000 and possibly a good deal less. From this, all that could be mustered for defence was a force of about 7,000 fighting men, against which the Ottomans threw 50,000 to 80,000: there could scarcely be much doubt about the outcome. In this context, the apple which was about to fall into the Ottomans’ laps could be seen as a rather rotten one. But the young emperor, Mehmed, had the vision and energy to restore the city’s fortunes with a vigorous programme of redevelopment and forced repopulation in the decades after he took possession of it.
The year 1453 brought a significant increase in awareness of, and concern about, the Ottoman empire on the part of Christendom, or Europe, or “the West” (in German the Abendland, evening-land, the place where the sun sets), concepts which while they did not denote precisely identical entities began over time to converge in many minds. The empire was to survive as an institution until the abolition of the sultanate in 1922 and the establishment of Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish republic in 1923. It had perhaps ceased to unduly worry western European powers militarily from the later eighteenth century, but before then, and certainly in the first two centuries after the capture of Constantinople, its military capacity and the nature of the religious, social and political structures that underpinned that capacity were very much in “Western” minds. It is those minds that Noel Malcolm sets out to examine in his thorough and compelling study Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750.
The very large number of thinkers Malcolm cites and whose works he examines cannot be dealt with in detail here, but I will attempt to give a brief idea of the general tenor of the Western response to Islam and – as Malcolm’s title suggests – the uses that were often made of it and of the existence and perceived threat of the Ottoman empire in internal disputes in Western societies, whether between Protestants and Catholics or proponents of rival systems of government.
“Early modern Europe,” writes Malcolm, “inherited from the Middle Ages a large body of ideas about Islam, of which some were broadly correct, some fanciful, some innocently uncomprehending, and some wilfully false and defamatory.” The most fundamental trope of the defamatory line, and the one constantly advanced by the most basic Christian polemicists, was that Islam was a religion based on impostures and tricks that had been simply invented by its founder, Muhammad, for the purpose of providing him with a means to power and conquest.
It was further asserted that its tenets had been framed to appeal to the immoral and the concupiscent: polygamy, divorce and concubinage were permitted in this life, while in the next, according to the French naturalist and traveller Pierre Belon, Muslims believed each copulation would last for fifty years. Yet other writers, and particularly those who had some experience of living in or travelling through Muslim lands, also had positive comments to make, remarking on believers’ “devotion in prayer, their pity for the poor … their sobriety in manners, their hospitality to strangers, their harmony and love for each other”. Such praise has often been denoted by modern scholars as “Turcophilia”, but Malcolm argues that this is not exactly what was principally involved since most of the writers concerned, even when speaking of Muslims, were actually thinking principally about Christians: if many examples of virtuous behaviour could be found among subjects of the Ottoman state was that not a particular reproach to the sinners and backsliders of Christendom? If the Muslims were – in many respects ‑ better than us, why should we wonder that God had allowed them defeat us in battle? And if we did not mend our ways, what hope could there be of restoring Christian rule in the lands where it once held sway? Look at the infidels; see the concord, good order and prosperity in their society: do you not blush? This strain of argument –which seems to have been quite common in writing on Islam in the early modern period – Malcolm dubs “shame-praising”: its polemical focus was not where on first sight it appeared to be but much closer to home.
European Christians’ fear of being overrun militarily by the Turks cannot be dismissed as fantasy, even if it may at times have been heated up by propagandists, principally intellectuals in the service of the church or the Habsburgs. The Ottomans raided Friuli in the far northeast of Italy – not far from Venice ‑ in 1471/72 and again in 1499. At the other end of the peninsula they occupied Otranto in the kingdom of Naples in 1480, where they stayed for a year. Indeed Sultan Mehmed II may have been on his way back to southern Italy for a further military campaign when he became ill and died in 1481. There was steady pressure too throughout this century and the next in the Balkans and right up into southcentral Europe. Piccolomini/Pius II, as we have seen, was insistent that the various secular powers of Christendom should come together to defend what he saw as their common homeland. Indeed he was one of the first to use the term “Europeans” in an ethnocultural as opposed to a purely geographic sense and was also pioneering in his use of the term as an adjective (“Europaeus”). His friend the humanist János Vitéz, bishop of Esztergom in Hungary, addressed the imperial diet at Wiener Neustadt in 1455, warning the delegates to “[b]elieve the signs: this enemy is trying not merely to harm just one part of the Christian world, but to tear up the very foundations of the Catholic religion”. In the struggle for survival, Hungary, he said, was an antemurale christianitatis, an outer wall or earthwork protecting the entire fortress: everyone benefited from this protection and it was the duty of everyone to arrive with aid when it was threatened.
But not everyone in western Europe in the sixteenth century was persuaded by the argument that it was a universal duty to fight “the Turk”. Venice tended to put commercial interests before ideological or religious ones; Protestant England, while as theologically opposed to Islam as anyone else, was unlikely to do anything that might comfort Catholic Europe, and in particular King Philip of Spain. The most notable absentee, however, from the table of the Christian coalition was France. The Turkish sultan’s ambition to continue expanding his empire had been said to derive from an insatiable libido dominandi or lust for rule, a vice which St Augustine had identified as a source of great evil. But if the Ottomans stood condemned on this ground, what about the most powerful of the Christian nations? The French diplomat Guillaume du Bellay declared in 1536 that the (Holy Roman) emperor Charles V was “motivated only by a greed for glory, and by a rivalry which he and the Sultan seem to have taken up, each against the other, for the monarchy of the world”, an opinion not so far removed the often expressed view of contemporary Protestant thinkers that the major Catholic powers, whether secular or sacred, were simply a mirror image of the Ottomans and much more concerned with power and wealth than true religion. French kings were as attached as any of their peers to Catholic faith and practice, but for them any enemy of the Habsburgs would always look like a potential friend. An interesting side effect of the country’s long-lasting de facto alliance with the sultan was the unusual access which French travellers gained to the territories of the empire and the accounts of the state and its laws and customs that they published on their return.
The polymath Guillaume Postel, a theologian, mystic, biblical scholar and linguist familiar with Latin and Greek, Spanish and Portuguese, Hebrew and Arabic and later some Syriac, Aramaic and Ge’ez (Classical Ethiopian), had been an associate at the Collège Sainte-Barbe in Paris in the late 1520s of the group that would a few years later come together to form the Society of Jesus and he shared the Jesuits’ enthusiastic interest in far-off lands, unfamiliar languages and the possibilities for missionary endeavour that their close study might open up. Postel accompanied the French ambassador to Istanbul in 1535 and also travelled to Egypt and Syria in the following year. He was again in the East in 1549-50 and had three books based on his travels and his reading published in Poitiers in 1560 – two of them under the name “Guillaume Postel Cosmopolite”: De la république des Turcs; Histoire et considération de l’origine, loy, et coustume des Tartares, Persiens, Arabes, Turcs; and La Tierce Partie des orientales histoires, ou est exposée la condition, puissance, & revenue de l’Empire Turquesque.
Postel’s idiosyncratic theology, to which his formidable linguistic abilities and wide scholarship were harnessed, focused on finding sufficient common elements between Christian, Jewish, Muslim and “pagan” belief systems to advance the prospect of religious unity. And yet he also supported the idea of a crusade against the Turks, to be led, preferably, by the king of France, whom careful biblical study indicated was the figure marked out to be the universal ruler: the Ottomans were, in the final analysis, infidels and they would have to be argued out of their error – or dissuaded from it by some other means. But for Christian thinkers religious error did not of itself necessarily entail a lack of virtue: who, after all, had been more virtuous than the pagan Romans? Postel admired Turkey’s humane measures of provision for the sick, indigent and mentally ill, the reputed honesty of its merchants, the people’s piety and adherence to religious obligations on charitable giving. Ottoman standards of “law and order” were also much commented on, by Postel and many others. One notable feature was the remarkable discipline shown by the Turkish army. In so far as this contributed to military effectiveness, Westerners were already well aware of their enemies’ strength in battle. But it was also to be welcomed that a disciplined soldiery (a rare thing in the West, it seemed) would be much less of a danger to the inhabitants of the villages and farms through which armies marched. The theft of a single egg, Postel recorded admiringly, was punished with a severe beating (fifty blows). Western observers, whose own penal codes were scarcely less severe than the Ottoman one, were not notably scandalised by harsh punishments; but they liked the idea that a man, and his valuables, might walk safely through the streets. No one in Kostantiniyye/Istanbul, it seemed, carried a sword in public. Luigi Bassano from Zadar in Dalmatia and Pierre Belon both welcomed the apparent absence in Turkey of the cult of personal honour, which led to so much brawling, duelling and death in European cities. As regards the status of women and their close confinement and supervision, Postel remarked that in this regard Turkey had the same custom as Italy, “which does not seem bad to me”.
The perception of an Ottoman, or Islamic, threat may have been widely shared in sixteenth century Europe across the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist communities, but what really spurred them to the greatest polemical feats was their objections to each other. In a short book published in 1543 Postel listed twenty-eight “axioms” of Islam which he claimed could each be matched by a Protestant doctrine or practice: the absence of images of saints from places of worship; the lack of recognition of the dignity due to a priesthood set above the people; the dismissal of pre-existing traditions (Christian ones for Islam, Catholic ones for Protestants); the appointment of senior clerics not by the church itself but by the secular authority, and so on. But two could – and would – play at this game. Martin Luther, in his Vom Kriege widder die Türcken (Of War against the Turks) of 1528, had argued that the Muslim was “papistical, because he believes that holiness and salvation come through works”. The Swiss biblical scholar Theodore Bibliander asserted that Islam and Catholicism relied on the same “invocations of saints, pilgrimages to holy places, and trickery offered as miracles” while his compatriot Heinrich Bullinger noted that Islam offered salvation “to a person who fasts, prays, gives alms, and fights bravely, just as some popes have promised indulgences to those who are killed in wars waged on behalf of the Roman church”.
Many observers had commented on the Ottoman practice of leaving conquered Christian communities free to practise their religion (while subjecting them to a higher rate of taxation than Muslims). Luther, however, pointed out that the sultan did not “allow Christians to assemble together in public, and everyone is forbidden to acknowledge Christ publicly”. He also saw Islam as a religion dependent on the sword:
For they are told by their law that it is a good, godly work to rob and kill … For that reason it is not a godly, orderly authority like others, keeping the peace, protecting the pious, and punishing the wicked; rather, it is … the sheer wrath of God, His rod and punishment meted on the unbelieving world.
In spite of these warnings, Protestant civil authorities could frequently see the advantage of dealing with their enemy’s enemy. Just as many of the Orthodox population of Constantinople had believed their religion might enjoy greater toleration from the sultan than under Roman Catholic domination so also the Protestant Dutch, fighting for their survival in the later sixteenth century against the Spanish, coined the slogan “Liever Turks dan paaps” (better Turkish than Popish). Indeed an Ottoman agent promising help arrived in the Netherlands in 1574, although nothing practical was to come of this. Elizabethan England was also keen to establish cordial relations, and where possible military co-operation. The English ambassador in Turkey, William Harborne, urged the sultan to join England in destroying the king of Spain “and all the other idolaters”.
The most interesting of early modern political thinkers, Niccolò Machiavelli, had little enough to say about the Ottomans, though Malcolm speculates that, as a Florentine patriot and confirmed anti-cleric, he would have shared his friend Francesco Vettori’s breezy enthusiasm for a military force thought likely to throw a scare into the papacy:
Fortune is on his [the sultan’s] side, he has loyal soldiers in his army, plenty of money, a huge country; and nothing to stop him … So I would not be surprised if, within one year, he had given this Italy of ours a great beating, and got these priests on the run.
In London in 1656, Francis Osborne, an avowed admirer of Machiavelli, published his Politicall Reflections upon the Government of the Turks. Writing at a time when the memory of civil war in England was still fresh, and preoccupied by the need to keep religious dissension within bounds, Osborne suggested that Muhammad, and following him the Ottoman sultans, had come closest to an ideal management of church-state relations. The biggest problem in society was the tendency of religion and the religious to meddle “in things purely belonging to the Magistrate [the civil power]” and the power of factional religious agitators over “the inconsiderate [unthinking] Rabble”. Islam, in the form practised in the Turkish empire, Osborne argued, tended to keep people obedient and honest, for “A false Religion doth contribute more to safety, then [than] Atheisme, or a stupid neglect of all worship …”
It was wise policy (“true Reason of State”) for the sultan to show his grand mufti (chief Islamic scholar) great reverence in public. But it was also good for the mufti to know that if he went against the sultan he would be executed. Conscious of the Western tradition of accusing “the Turk” of great cruelty and barbarity, Osborne insisted that there was no blot on the record of Muhammad or any of his followers as grave as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre carried out by French Catholics in 1572 (this is perhaps debateable). It was true that sultans often had their sons or brothers murdered, but an assassin “may be cheaper employed, then [than] an Army, and with lesse prejudice to the good of the Generality”. It was true that the Turks’ “law” –that is their religion – justified them enlarging their empire, but if they were going to be censured for this, Osborne argued, one might equally ask how the king of Spain had come to be in possession of Portugal, Naples, Milan and Sicily, to say nothing of the ocean of blood shed in the New World, “upon no more serious occasion, then [than] Gold, and the Conversion of the people into slaves to dig it”.
There is at one level, Malcolm writes, an element of the jeu d’esprit to Osborne’s work (a considerable element, the present reviewer would guess). He can scarcely have expected the Ottoman system, or anything remotely like it, to be adopted by an English government. It seems more likely that he was challenging his readers to examine their assumptions, prejudices and blind spots and to consider the possibility that the distance between the supposedly civilised practices of the West and the barbarism of the East might not have been quite as great as they imagined. For when one disregarded their cant and examined their policy, all men of power were remarkably similar, pursuing their ends by whatever means they found necessary. Why, Osborne asked, in his “Discourse upon Nicholas Machiavell”, was his hero so universally blamed merely “for setting downe the most generall Rules … such as all Statesmen make use of, either to benefit themselves, or hurt others?”
It would seem reasonable to conclude from Noel Malcolm’s wide-ranging survey of Western European thinkers’ response to the Ottoman empire in the three centuries he has surveyed that while there was an abiding interest in the kind of society that this powerful rival of the West had created there was in general little engagement with the nature of its religion short of a blinkered and propagandistic one. Two exceptions were the scholar and physician Henry Stubbe and the Irish freethinker John Toland. Stubbe’s 1671 work An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, and a Vindication of him and his Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians did what it said on the title page, if it can be said to have had a title page: though it circulated among friends and sympathisers in manuscript it failed to find a publisher. Stubbe viewed Islam as being in many ways a restoration of the simplicity of early Christianity which, by the seventh century, had “degenerated into such a kind of paganism as wanted nothing but the ancient sacrifices and professed polytheism, and, even as to the latter, there wanted not some who did make three gods of the Trinity”. In Stubbe’s account, Muhammad was more a rational reformer of religion than an inventor of a new one. As Malcolm puts it,
To borrow a Hobbesian metaphor, Muhammad did not [in this view] take the blank sheet of people’s minds and scribble it over with superstitions; rather, he found a set of badly scribbled-over minds and left them much clearer, with reasonable doctrines and just a practical minimum of religious observances.
Toland (1670-1722) argued that Muslims might as easily be tolerated in Christian societies “as the Christians of every kind are … at Constantinople and thro-out Turkey”. The early Christians, he argued, had practised “Union without Uniformity” and Islam was indeed closer in spirit to early Christianity – “the original, uncorrupted, easy, intelligible Institution; but not the fabulous systems, lucrative inventions, burthensome superstitions, and unintelligible jargon early substituted to it”.
The last thinker whom Malcolm engages with, and perhaps the most eminent in terms of reputation, is the French nobleman and political philosopher Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron of La Brède and Montesquieu ‑ generally known simply as Montesquieu. Montesquieu’s major work, De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of Laws), published in 1748, was an ambitious ‑ perhaps overambitious ‑ attempt to set out a theory of various modes of government that would cover societies everywhere. The book was in many ways a continuation of a long French argument about the appropriate constitutional role of the nobility and it used the concept of “despotism” as an external theoretical, or even rhetorical, counterweight to (more, or less) constitutional forms of government. Following in a long tradition of thinkers stretching back to Aristotle and Hippocrates who attributed a strong role to climate in determining human culture, Montesquieu suggested that in very hot countries people became passive and lacking in curiosity or initiative, making them very susceptible to be subjected to despotism. Geography also played a role: Asia, because of its vast open spaces and lack of significant internal natural barriers, had always had large, stable empires of a kind that were unlikely to survive in Europe. It was more difficult to assert that there was a specific kindred between Islam and despotism as this form of government was also characteristic of many non-Islamic states, from China and Japan to Christian Orthodox Russia. Montesquieu’s account of Ottoman society was, however, a generally negative one: he surely viewed the lack of a powerful hereditary nobility for whom important positions would be reserved as a sign of an oppressive regime rather than, as some were inclined to construe it, a salutary meritocracy with an enviable degree of social mobility. Montesquieu’s positions on these points drew criticism from Voltaire, who went so far as to argue that the sultans were not despots at all but only had the appearance of being such: in reality their position was often precarious and their power circumscribed by that of the janissaries and other political and military leaders. Christian writers in general, Voltaire insisted in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), broadcast many absurd calumnies about Muslims and what they believed, although – he hastened to add – “I detest them as tyrants over women and enemies of the arts”.
It should not surprise us, Malcolm writes, that the Ottomans continued to be regarded primarily as “infidels” quite late into the period he has surveyed. While some secularising currents of thought grew up from the seventeenth century onwards in particular, there existed alongside these a persistent view in which people understood themselves to be living through a “sacred history” which was moving inexorably to a conclusion prophesied long ago in the Book of Daniel and in Revelation. But if there were elements of prejudice, and many assertions which were not empirically sustainable, in accounts of Ottoman society, Malcolm cautions that Western writers were not simply engaged in the artificial construction of a hate-object.
Much of the literature and academic study of the relation between the West and the East has been influenced over the last number of decades, sometimes indirectly, by the work of the late Edward Said, in particular his Orientalism (1978). Said’s period of study in that work (the age of imperialism) and the period surveyed by Useful Enemies are largely mutually exclusive, so it seems noteworthy that Malcolm nevertheless takes the trouble to, as it were, cross the street to pick a fight with his shade over the one early modern text that Said does discuss in Orientalism, Barthélemy d’Herbelot’s encyclopaedic Bibliothèque orientale (1697). Here the force of Said’s certainly rather sneering summary –d’Herbelot is accused of imposing a “disciplinary order” on the fecundity of the Orient, reducing it to a bland alphabetical list “knowable by Western laymen” – is somewhat undermined, Malcolm argues, by his apparent lack of awareness of d’Herbelot’s methods and sources, of the
deep impress made on that scholar by compilations and reference works written by Muslim authors, above all the great bibliographical encyclopaedia of Katib Çelebi. Indeed, d’Herbelot not only followed Katib Çelebi’s own principle of strict alphabetical order, but relied exclusively on ‘Oriental’ sources, eschewing Western ones, and even using the categorizations that came to him from his mostly Islamic materials.
In keeping with his central thesis that Western writers about Islam or the Ottomans in the early modern period were less concerned to anatomise a malign “other” than engaged in pursuing religious and political agendas within their own culture, Malcolm rejects what he sees as the inadequacy to the “multiform … various and dynamic” documentary material he has worked on of “Said’s own narrow and prescriptive ‘disciplinary order’”. The tone is sharp: one feels there may be more at stake in this dispute than a defence of the reputation of a now obscure seventeenth century French scholar.
Noel Malcolm has confined himself in Useful Enemies to a study of writings which are largely political in intent (the religious being, throughout the period he examines, also thoroughly political). There are, however, some additional interesting perspectives on the development of ideas of ourselves and others (or the West and the Rest) to be gleaned from looking at other more speculative and literary productions from the early modern period and on into the century of the Enlightenment. It is reasonable to accept that the classic “here be monsters” view of the faraway and the unknown remained largely dominant in the West during the medieval period. Indeed the book historian Lucien Febvre (in L’apparition du livre, 1958) showed that The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a hugely popular mixture of plagiarism and a great deal of invention – “Mandeville” did not exist ‑ which was translated into a number of languages including Irish (Eachtra Sheóin Mandavil) in the late medieval period, remained popular into the age of print, continuing indeed to outsell many of the much more reliable narratives of sixteenth century travellers.
That century discovered not just the New World but also its inhabitants, and if the latter tended to fare miserably at the hands of their conquerors their cultures were not universally judged to be primitive or worthless. Michel de Montaigne met some native Americans (probably from what is now Brazil) at Rouen in 1562 and writes in an almost wholly laudatory fashion of what he was told of their culture in the chapter “On Cannibals” in his Essais. Montaigne’s discovery of what we might now call relativism – the insight that one’s own perspectives and assumptions might not be the only ones that are valid or of interest – sometimes took a quirky form: was he playing with his cat, he speculated, or was his cat playing with him? As regards the “Brazilians”, he asked his readers to remember that “barbarians are no more marvellous to us than we are to them” and suggested they might scrutinise more closely their notions of what is normal and what not, what civilised and what not. For
the common notions that we find in credit around us and infused into our soul by our fathers’ seed, these seem to be the universal and natural ones. Whence it comes to pass that what is off the hinges of custom, people believe to be off the hinges of reason …
This trick of mind, which perhaps found its happiest expression in Montaigne, was to have a considerable literary future, particularly in the eighteenth century, where it often involved opening these universally accepted “common notions” to the puzzled inspection of an outsider or “Other”. In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Lemuel Gulliver’s enthusiastic account of the enormous destructive power of explosives and cannonry leaves the king of Brobdingnag “struck with horror” while his description of the normal conduct of English political life leads him to conclude that his visitor must belong to “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. This technique of using an outsider to comment, normally unfavourably, on aspects of the life and culture of Western nations was also employed by Montesquieu in his early Lettres Persanes in 1721 (featuring two Persian visitors to France) and Voltaire in Micromégas in 1752 (a spacewalking native of a planet circling the star Sirius) among many other texts of the period.
It is certainly the case that a range of hostile and condescending images tended to be employed by the European colonial powers in the modern age to diminish those peoples whose countries they invaded and economies they dominated. This is the burden of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and for all the apparent scattergun approach of this work it would be difficult to gainsay its main thrust. But one wonders about the continued usefulness of the concept of “the Other” or if its centrality to our concerns has not been somewhat inflated in the modern academy.
On one level, of course, we are all someone else’s other. Medieval travellers, it is said, believed that a race of dog-headed men lived somewhere in the Far East and when they first arrived there they asked where they might find them. But their hosts replied: “The dog-heads? We’ve heard of them of course. But we thought they lived among you, in the West.” In European cultural history there has often been a tendency to attribute certain negative character traits to other nations: Italians might be lazy or untrustworthy, Spanish backward and superstitious, French arrogant, Irish ill-disciplined, Germans humourless. On top of these old and somewhat tarnished stereotypes, some of which go back to early modern times, we have overlaid new antipathies to chime with contemporary political/cultural cleavages. Hungarians or Poles should not expect to be currently very popular among the liberals, feminists or Greens of Utrecht, Hamburg, Aarhus or Stockholm. But rest assured the distaste is mutual. Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s foreign minister between 2015 and 2018, has spoken of his antipathy to a Europe that means “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energies and fight against all outward symbols of religious belief. What most moves Poles is tradition, a consciousness of their history, love of their homeland, a normal family life [based on unions] between men and women.” For some traditionalists the threat may be even more serious than vegetarianism: “ … many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities … implementing policies that put large families on the same level with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with belief in Satan.” Thus Vladimir Putin.
In summer 2015, as Europe faced a major migrant crisis sparked by the conflict in Syria, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico declared that his country would accept only Christian refugees; an interior ministry spokesperson offered by way of explanation: “we don’t have mosques.” In Poland Jarosław Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice party, warned that refugees were a danger to public health. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, said the EU had no moral duty to help refugees, only to protect its own citizens. In July 2015 Hungary started building a four-metre-high fence along its border with Serbia to keep the refugees out.
If Viktor Orbán had expected to be congratulated by the rest of Europe for building this twenty-first-century antemurale christianitatis he was to be disappointed. Christianity is of course a part – though not the whole – of our European heritage, but it seems to come in quite different shapes, from the humanitarian positions of Pope Francis to the “Sorry, Catholics only” stance of Robert Fico to the readiness of the pastor’s daughter Angela Merkel to try to practically manage the reception of one million immigrants. “If we start having to apologise for showing a friendly face in an emergency situation, then this is not my country,” the chancellor said. Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, announced the recruitment of more than three thousand teachers to handle the influx of new children in its schools. An estimated 10 per cent of German citizens engaged in voluntary work to assist the resettlement of refugees. Nevertheless, Merkel’s party lost ground to the far right politically, so in her intuitions about the nature of her country and her compatriots she was both right and wrong.
It is almost certainly naive to imagine that any society or political entity can be constructed or can function properly without a feeling of collective belonging, a sense of who its members are and who they are not, what its values are and what they are not: xenophobia is of course an ugly and unproductive phenomenon, but ultimately there can be no “us” – and thus no solidarity in society – unless there is some notion of a “them”. We are all aware that Europe is not perfect, but it is, by and large, a place where people are neither tortured, nor “disappeared”, nor executed for crimes they may – or may not – have committed, where freedom of opinion and assembly are guaranteed, where police officers or military tend not to be feared and where there is wide, if not perhaps universal, agreement that there is such a thing as society.
In the period studied by Noel Malcolm, religion was not just a defining matter of identity for most people inside Europe; for many leading thinkers it was what defined Europe. That is not likely to be the case again. An attempt to formulate European ideals through a written constitution foundered in 2005 and any early revival of the project is not to be expected. What will define Europeans in the future has yet to be decided. As seems to be the case in many other policy areas, perhaps the necessary orientations will be arrived at only through the process of dealing with difficulties. Whatever ensemble of values and practices it is eventually decided define “the European way” I would suggest only that enthusiasm for multiplicity, social solidarity and an openness to values other than the purely material should form part of the mix.
What appears a balanced treatment of the legacy of Edward Said is contained in a 2006 review in the London Review of Books by Maya Jasanoff of Robert Irwin’s Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. https://lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v28/n11/maya-jasanoff/before-and-after-said
The quotation from Witold Waszczykowski is sourced from Ivan Krastev’s After Europe (2017). The quotation from Vladimir Putin is taken from Pádraig Murphy’s December 2015 essay in the Dublin Review of Books, “Spiritual Security”.
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.