Christians Converted to Islam in the Modern Mediterranean World

Noel Malcolm’s latest book looks particularly interesting, entitiled, Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750 (published 2019).

Suleiman the Magnificent


“In this path-breaking book Noel Malcolm ranges through these vital centuries of East-West interaction, studying all the ways in which thinkers in the West interpreted the Ottoman Empire as a political phenomenon – and Islam as a political religion. Useful Enemies shows how the concept of ‘oriental despotism’ began as an attempt to turn the tables on a very positive analysis of Ottoman state power, and how, as it developed, it interacted with Western debates about monarchy and government. Noel Malcolm also shows how a negative portrayal of Islam as a religion devised for political purposes was assimilated by radical writers, who extended the criticism to all religions, including Christianity itself.

Examining the works of many famous thinkers (including Machiavelli, Bodin, and Montesquieu) and many less well-known ones, Useful Enemies illuminates the long-term development of Western ideas about the Ottomans, and about Islam. Noel Malcolm shows how these ideas became intertwined with internal Western debates about power, religion, society, and war. Discussions of Islam and the Ottoman Empire were thus bound up with mainstream thinking in the West on a wide range of important topics. These Eastern enemies were not just there to be denounced. They were there to be made use of, in arguments which contributed significantly to the development of Western political thought.”

What will be interesting to discover is what the Europeans took with them, what they learnt from the interaction with the Muslim Ottomans in terms of how their reflection, their internal-discourse and dialogue helped them to re-think and develop their own political thoughts at the time. Could it be said that even as late as this period, Islam was still shaping what ‘good governance’ meant or looked like? One will instinctively regard their conclusions to be entirely negative against Muslim Ottoman society – but, from the video, above, it seems there is something that was appreciated, more positively, especially during the former period most probably. The topic of the constant need to evaluate the European or Western identity via-a-vis the Muslim and then to always be opposing that is a topic I have already discussed elsewhere, HERE: ‘There’s no such thing as Western Civilisation‘ citing Appiah’s article of the same name.


Noel Malcolm is an ex-political journalist; an ex-editor; an ex-lecturer having received a doctorate in History from Cambridge University. But he is a senior research fellow since 2002 at Oxford University and a writer.

Noel Malcolm

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Filed under Book Reviews, History

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