Posted on November 19, 2019

Thinking About the Ottoman Threat

James Hankings, The New Criterion, November 2019

Useful Enemies- Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450–1750, by Noel Malcolm

Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450–1750, by Noel Malcolm; Oxford University Press, 512 pages, $24.


Europe first began to worry about the Ottomans in the late fourteenth century when Byzantine diplomats tried, with uneven success, to enlist the aid of Latin Christendom in the defense of their little Greek empire placed on the seam between Europe and Asia Minor. But the Ottomans well and truly exploded into Western consciousness with their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and it is here that Malcolm begins his study. The fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Christian Empire—or what was left of it after the medieval Crusades—set off a burst of lamentations, terrified panics, feverish military preparations, and apocalyptic prophecies that echoed in the West for more than a century. Preoccupied as ever with its internecine wars, Europe was suddenly forced into awareness of a non-Christian power that could defeat its combined armies and which threatened to wipe out its religion. In the seventh century, Islamic armies had taken two-thirds of the old Roman empire away from its Christian rulers; now, in the fifteenth century, a new Islamic power that threatened to finish the job. For the next three centuries, while Europe helplessly continued its debilitating religious wars and dynastic struggles, it had to fight with its left hand against an aggressive and merciless opponent driven by an intensity of religious fervor that Europeans could not match. As Malcolm notes, there was no quarter century between 1450 and 1750 when some European power was not at war with the Ottomans. The chief markers of Ottoman rise and decline were great battles and sieges: the brief but terrifying Ottoman occupation of the southern Italian town of Otranto in 1480; the Battle of Mohács in 1526, when Suleiman the Magnificent’s armies defeated and subjugated the Hungarians, once the shield of Christendom; the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where Christian navies, assembled under the aegis of the pope, prevented the Mediterranean from becoming an Islamic lake; and the siege and Battle of Vienna on September 11, 1683, one of the great battles of world history. After their defeat in the Battle of Vienna, the Turks were no longer a military threat to Europe, and the Habsburgs were able to begin the reconquest of Ottoman Hungary and eastern Europe.

One might expect that this long history of terror, blood, and violence would lead Western students of the Ottomans to dehumanize them or turn them into diabolical caricatures of hate and tyrannical oppression. That is certainly what readers of Edward Said’s famous study, Orientalism (1978), would be led to expect, but it is one of Malcolm’s main points that such a representation is far too simple, if not entirely wrong. It does not begin to capture the complexity of Western responses to the Ottoman threat. There were certainly some Westerners, like Martin Luther, who regarded the new Islamic empire as essentially evil, the Sultan as the Devil’s servant, and Islam as a perverted religion of the sword. Such responses can be found throughout the three centuries covered by Malcolm’s book. But there were also many admiring responses both to the Ottomans and even to Islam.

Malcolm coins the useful term “shame-praising” to draw attention to one way that Westerners formulated positive descriptions of the great Islamic empire. To shame-praise means to praise a different culture or people as a way of shaming one’s own people and culture into better behavior.


The humanists of the Renaissance turned shame-praising into a light industry; the inferiority of Christian to pagan virtue was a regular theme in their pedagogy. Christian-on-Christian violence was a deplorable feature of early modern Europe, and the Ottomans, with their unswerving devotion to smiting the enemies of their faith, were constantly held up as better models of unified purpose and religious loyalty than any to be found in Christian Europe, torn apart as it was by selfishness and sectarian hatreds.

Shame-praising was one end of a spectrum of positive responses to Ottoman government and religion. At the other end was frank admiration for the superiority of Ottoman ways and a sense that Christendom, if it were to survive in its struggle against Ottoman power, had to discover and replicate the secrets of Ottoman success. Malcolm speaks of a “new paradigm” in Western understandings of the Ottomans that emerged in the course of the sixteenth century. In the old paradigm, in part inherited from medieval authorities, Westerners typically saw Ottoman government as a malevolent and oppressive regime inspired by an evil religion. But thanks to increased diplomatic and mercantile contacts between the Turks and the West as well as to figures like the humanist Guillaume Postel, who took the trouble to learn Arabic and Turkish, materials for a more positive assessment of the Ottomans began to be assembled by Western scholars and men of state.

As Europe descended into religious war, some Western writers began to appreciate the relative tranquility and prosperity of Ottoman lands and to wonder whether Turkish autocracy was superior to Western royal and republican governments. They noted with unease the numerous Christians fleeing to Ottoman lands to escape religious civil wars, some of whom even converted to Islam. The Sultan, after all, allowed people of different faiths to practice their religions without molestation, whereas toleration of any kind was hard to find in Europe. Western humanists had long been critical of legal pettifoggery and endless delays in resolving cases in Western courts, but the Ottomans seemed to be able to deliver justice that was both swift and fair. Western governments were ineffective in part because royal power was shared with nobles and other intermediate and subordinate powers whose interests diverged from those of the crown. By contrast the Ottomans, some Western observers believed, had a meritocratic system where officials were appointed by the sultan on the basis of their virtue and accomplishments, not their noble descent. Such officials were not in a position to place their private interests before that of the empire, and their loyal service made Ottoman government the best in the world.


 More commonly, the uses Western Christians made of their Muslim enemy were motivated by interests internal to European culture and statecraft. Machiavelli made the Turks into models of the correct use of religion for those who sought to acquire and retain power. Erasmus and Ludovico Vives saw the Ottoman threat as a call to improve the moral character and piety of Christians through humanistic studies. Luther saw Ottoman religious law as a parallel to the Popish religion of works as distinct from the Reformers’ religion of faith. In the era of religious war, the beliefs of Lutherans, radical reformers, Calvinists, and Catholics could all be stigmatized by likening them to those of the hated infidel. Political theorists who sought to moralize Machiavellian realism like Giovanni Botero or Justus Lipsius turned the existential threat of the Ottomans into an excuse for the violation of moral norms. Just war theorists like Grotius or Alberico Gentili used the Ottomans as a corpus vile for debates about the morality of war and conquest. Yet few theorists disagreed with the position, adopted already in the thirteenth century by Pope Innocent IV, that attacks on infidels like the Ottomans could not be justified merely because they were infidels; even religious war needed a legitimate casus belli. In controversies that sound strangely familiar, the real issue was whether atrocities and misrule, what today would be called human rights violations, could become grounds, or excuses, for offensive war and conquest of Muslim lands.

AOttoman power became less formidable towards the end of the seventeenth century, a complementary tendency became evident in the globus intellectualis to regard Ottoman government, and Islam’s role in government, in a less positive light. It was in this period that the later Western view of Ottoman rulers as sensuous, feeble, and corrupt began to take hold.


More important for the history of Western political thought, however, was the concept of “oriental despotism” that first emerged in the sixteenth century. It became a major analytical category in Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois, the most important treatise on politics of the eighteenth century (and a major influence on the American Founding Fathers). According to Malcolm, who devotes three chapters to discussing its evolution, the concept of oriental despotism had its roots in Aristotle’s Politics, where its theoretical role was marginal, but it was “revived and developed specifically in order to describe the power wielded” by the Ottoman sultans. Despotism for Aristotle differed from tyranny in that tyrants used armed force to exercise arbitrary rule over free men, while despots commanded their subjects as masters commanded slaves.

It was Luther’s learned follower, Philip Melanchthon, who first associated despotism with the Ottomans in his commentary on the Politics (1530). The concept crystallized later in the century in the work of Giovanni Botero and René de Lucinge. These writers further distinguished tyranny from despotism by using the Ottomans as an example of the latter. Their presentation of Turkish government, despite the “new paradigm,” was purely negative, hardly more than caricature. The sultan was an autocrat who treated his subjects like slaves and even animals, whipping them into absolute obedience with cruel discipline. Yet he held his office by a legal process of succession and ruled by means of fixed laws. The Ottoman Empire was peaceful, but its peace came from subjects too slavish and terror-stricken to disobey their rulers. The sultan allowed no rivals to his power and thus ruled through officials rather than a hereditary nobility. The great men of his kingdom had no independent political rights. Unlike the absolute sovereign described by Bodin, the Sovereign of the Sublime House of Osman regarded the property of his subjects as his own. He discouraged letters and sciences as such studies tended to make men independent and gave them dignity. “Ignorance,” wrote one Spanish diplomat, “is the main foundation of the Ottoman Empire.”