Though Noel Malcolm’s superb Useful Enemies is not a book about present-day politics, one of its triumphs is to show just how long a history such ideas have. An encyclopedic compilation and dissection of European discourses on “Islam, the Ottomans, and ‘Oriental despotism’ ” in Western political thought, this book illustrates not just the origins and development of Western prejudices, but also the many ways in which the East has been used “to provoke, to shame, to galvanise” the West over the centuries... The mirror that Malcolm’s sources held up to early modern Europe may have been distorted by prejudice and incomplete knowledge, but it was vital to Europe’s self-image. And even as writers looked into it to solidify their own assumptions and beliefs, it challenged and tested them, sowing the seeds of radical critiques of Europe’s systems of government and laws, and of the Christian religion itself. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are today should read this book.
The message at the heart of this rich and fascinating study is perhaps best epitomised by the image on the dust jacket: a lovely drawing by Gentile Bellini of a Turkish janissary. This seated figure, arms planted on his thighs, his upper body thrust forward as if about to pounce, seems at once self-contained and aggressive, alert yet calm, exotic but strangely familiar – the embodiment of all the ambiguities Noel Malcolm so vividly explores.
The very memory of a more textured encounter was further occluded by the 20th century scholar Edward Said, who depicted the quasi-entirety of modern western scholarship of Islam as a scheme of intellectual colonisation. “It is unfortunate,” Malcolm writes with a lulling mildness, that Said didn’t study one of his bugbears, Barthélemy d’Herbelot, closely enough to realise that the alphabetical classification to which the Frenchman subjected the Prophet Muhammad was in fact inspired by an earlier, Muslim encyclopaedist, Kâtip Çelebi. Far more than Said allowed, information about Islam wasn’t simply there “to be beaten down … into conformity with complacent Western attitudes; often it was used to shake things up, to provoke, to shame, to galvanise”.