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Book Review


Noel Malcolm, Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 14501750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv + 487. Bibliography and Index. $34.95 (cloth).


     Useful Enemies provides a model for how a book that articulates its core objective with judicious precision can open a window, simultaneously, onto a landscape of intellectual cross-fertilization. Knowing that the ideas and perceptions under analysis have been subject to complex strategic appropriations in the past and today, Noel Malcolm explains, "this book…is a study of Western political thinking about Islam and the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period, not a study of Islam and the Ottoman Empire in their own right" (xii). Nor does Malcolm purport to offer "the entire historical reality of relations between [the Ottoman and Islamic worlds and the West European Christian one]", or even "a general cultural history of Western Europe's experience of the Ottoman and Islamic worlds", and least of all, any "'key' to understanding relations with the modern phenomenon of political Islamism" (ix–x, xii). However, by unearthing the presuppositions, predilections, and motivations of the European clerics and courtiers, jurists and rebels (to name a few, non-mutually-exclusive categories of interested thinkers) who regarded "their powerful Eastern neighbours with a whole gamut of attitudes, from fear and fierce disapproval to fascination, admiration, and envy" (417), Useful Enemies reveals insights for advanced students across a number of world-historical fields.

     Beyond globally-minded early modernists, as well as those interested not only in relations between Europe, Islam, and the Ottomans, but also inter-denominational rivalries within Christendom, the book holds especial significance for readers seeking critical re-assessments of Edward Said's 1978 "Orientalism" thesis.1 While Malcolm does not expressly address Said until the conclusion, there seems little doubt that Useful Enemies aims to counter current orthodoxies, established "under the influence of…[Said]" (415), averring the long-standing, concerted colonial domination of East by West.

     In a related vein, Malcolm makes a major contribution to the history of political thought, particularly the burgeoning, cross-disciplinary and transboundary realm of comparative political thought that traces the interchange of influences between differing world traditions. It would be valuable enough if the book's basic intervention were to demonstrate the multiform Western absorption of rivalling Eastern inputs. But Malcolm underscores, further, how employing "the phrase 'political thought'" rather than "'political philosophy' or 'political theory'" broadens the "scope…[beyond] any canon of abstract theoretical works" (xi). By encompassing the "[m]any different sorts of material contribut[ing] to the development of political thought," such as "descriptive writings by travellers, speeches by diplomats, political pamphlets, [and] millenarian treatises" (xi), Malcolm casts political thinking as a polyphonic enterprise that unsettles expectations for a canonical set of texts and doctrines.2

     The use of 1450 as a general starting point stands in for the more precise moment of Constantinople's, and with it the vestigial Byzantine Empire's, 1453 fall (logically following, some Western clerics suggested, from Eastern Christian heresies) to the forces of Sultan Mehmed II. Although the symbolic significance of "the 'New Rome'" being conquered by infidels who "might claim the historic rights of the Roman emperors" was assuredly troubling to European observers, more so was the soon-realized possibility that the Ottomans would advance on "Catholic Europe", cutting through Balkan terrain that proved to be the pivot of Ottoman power (3–4). As calls for reversing the threat variously drew on crusading motifs and Renaissance humanist accounts of classical evidence for Ottoman barbarism, there crystallized by the sixteenth century a trait featuring prominently in Malcolm's account: "shame-praising" (39 ff.). Figures ranging from Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and Martin Luther in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Germany, to the Protestant Pierre Bayle in late-seventeenth-century France, cited Muslim virtues like piety, fortitude, or partial theological legitimacy while proclaiming the imperative for Christians to surmount their own spiritual and moral failings.

     Contrary to the modern Eurocentric understanding that the Ottomans became "formally inducted into 'the European state system'" (104) only upon their nineteenth-century Tanzimat reforms, sixteenth-century geopolitical dynamics manifested the Empire's much earlier centrality to the system. Once Hungary emerged as a fault line of imperial competition following Ottoman victory at the 1526 Battle of Mohács, Habsburg claims to be the defenders of Christian Europe were delineated by diverse chroniclers' reports of Ottoman military might rather than impotence, sometimes rising to apocalyptic prophecies. Simultaneously, the Reformation saw interdenominational deployments of the Turkish specter, with the Habsburgs and Papacy seizing on supposed, condemnable commonalities between Protestantism and Islam, while "Calvinoturcism" (76–103) asserted the shared brutality of Muslims and Catholics. Then again, the most pronounced "Christian-Muslim confederacy in early modern Europe" was that between Catholic France and the Ottomans, persisting from the first half of the 1500s through the "anti-Habsburg [realpolitik]" of the early 1600s (110–113), even as Elizabethan England looked to the Ottomans for anti-Spanish assistance.3

     A further motif from the 1500s onward involves Western political thinkers' adaptation of what Malcolm terms "a new paradigm", depicting "Ottoman government and society as a well-ordered and stable system" hinging on obedience to the Sultan's rule, and conferring "real material benefits" for "ordinary people" (137). This paradigm factored prominently in molding "reason of state" thought, exemplified by Niccolò Machiavelli's admiration for Ottoman statecraft as a model for efficacious rule by a skillful prince who knows how to make himself feared, but not hated, by his people (159–183). Malcolm astutely negates the "popular view of Machiavelli as an anti-religious writer" (167). On Machiavelli's view, deficiency lay with an excessively humble and obedient "version of Christianity," instead of the "quasi-pagan religion devoted to action and worldly success" marshalled by the Ottomans (167–168).

     Then, too, was the "simultaneously Machiavellian and anti-Machiavellian tradition" that deplored Machiavelli's imagined anti-Christian heresy, yet sought "reason of state" strategies for making "a Christian state…inherently stronger than an infidel one" (179–183). Malcolm illustrates how this tradition reached its apogee in Tommaso Campanella, a decidedly unorthodox Dominican from Calabria. Writing to advise the King of Spain during the late 1500s, Campanella called for adopting a supposed Ottoman-style duplicity to defeat Muslims for Christendom, before Campanella was, in turn, imprisoned for life by Spain on charges of revolt and heresy.       

     In an extended re-evaluation of pejorative assumptions concerning putative Eastern despotism, Malcolm builds on the foundational French legal and political thinker, Jean Bodin. Malcolm shows how Bodin read the Aristotelian notion of a "master ('despotēs' in Greek)" ruling over slaves first through a Roman, then an Ottoman lens to arrive at an approving notion of "'seigneurial' theory" (201–228). Taking note of the devşirme levy through which the Ottomans seized Christian boys who went on to uphold the formidable Janissary corps, Bodin construed a lawfully conquering, rather than natural form of slavery, the result being a defensibly merit-based form of "'lordly' monarchy" (216). By the seventeenth-century English Civil War era framing Thomas Hobbes's model of sovereignty, the positive valences of despotism had become internalized within the notion of sovereign authority as an absolute, inherently religious bulwark against chaos (356–358).

     The book draws to its chronological closing with an Enlightenment-era focus on the Baron de Montesquieu's interpretation—more redolent of paradigmatic Orientalism—of Ottoman, together with Persian despotism as forms of rule unfettered by law and predisposed by hot climate. Although, in a compelling twist, Malcolm gives the last word to Montesquieu's prescient critic, Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, a scholar of Zoroastrianism and first-hand observer of Mughal Islam, who decried the emerging notion of "Asiatic despotism" as veneer for Western imperialism (406–407).

     When Useful Enemies appeared, this reviewer was grateful to share it with upper-level history and political science undergraduates in a seminar on religion and empire, and in courses both on Western imperialism in the modern Middle East, and comparative political thought. Students found unexpected and compelling Malcolm's evocation of early-modern Europeans who regarded the Ottoman Empire as a formidable foe from whom to learn, one hardly facing terminal decline. Revealing the mutual, intellectual and political constitution of West and East valuably questions the presumed subjugation of East by West.

Andrew M. Wender is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Departments of Political Science and History, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada. He may be reached at



1 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994). For one of the most thoroughgoing critiques addressing Said's delimited account of Orientalism, see Wael B. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).     

2 Cf. Michael Freeden and Andrew Vincent, "Introduction: The study of comparative political thought," in Michael Freeden and Andrew Vincent, eds., Comparative Political Thought: Theorizing practices (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).  

3 See also Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (London: Allen Lane, 2016).


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