Terror and Toleration: The Habsburg Empire Confronts Islam, 1526-1850

May 22, 2008

Paula Sutter Fichtner wants to explain how the Habsburg Empire's changing relationship with the Ottoman Empire affected its perception, and representation, of the "Turkish", Islamic other. Her hypothesis is that while the Ottomans constituted a military threat they were vilified as cruel and barbarous, yet after their defeat following the siege of Vienna in 1683 this stereotype was replaced by another: that of the dull-witted, comical Turk.

This linear narrative of the history of representations is qualified by her argument that simultaneously, as a consequence of "Western curiosity about the East and ... open-mindedness", a tradition of critical scholarship on the Orient was developed in the Habsburg Empire with the establishment in the 18th century of the Imperial Royal Academy of Oriental Languages with the intention of better understanding their adversary through the acquisition of accurate information.

A strength of the work is that it provides a good survey of early modern Habsburg representations of the "Turkish" other and gives the reader a fascinating insight into Habsburg anti-Ottoman propaganda: for example, the depiction of Jesus's tormentors on his way to Calvary as wearing Ottoman headdress.

However, the book lacks analytical depth and critical insight. There are plenty of facts and anecdotes, but these are not really structured into a coherent argument. Moreover, the author does not critically interrogate her primary sources; instead she tends to accept their rhetorical representations and pronouncements as largely accurate reflections of reality.

Particularly problematic is chapter one, where rather than exploring, explaining and challenging the images of the Ottomans in early modern Habsburg propaganda, Fichtner uses these representations as the basis for her own view of Ottoman society, a fact that she explicitly acknowledges: "One of the underlying premises of the present text is that hateful depictions of an aggressor ... are often not 'imaginary resolution of real anxieties' but quite realistic appraisals of what that enemy might do." She continues that it was actual brutality and cruelty that "hardwired the European imagination with dark and unflattering stereotypes of the Turks and their creed". This conflation of the voice of the historian and those of the authors of Habsburg propaganda results in the reiteration of old orientalist stereotypes.

Fichtner is an historian of the Habsburg Empire and thus understandably not an expert on the Ottoman Empire, but her depiction contains a number of significant inaccuracies and, more worryingly, the evidence she presents for some of her more contentious claims does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny.

In a climate characterised by tabloid journalism's frequently misinformed and thinly disguised anti-Islamic polemic, we need a scholarly book analysing how and why negative representations of an Islamic other arise in particular contexts, exploring the extent to which these views were accepted as accurate by the wider community, and examining how and why they ultimately changed. Unfortunately this is not it.

Terror and Toleration

The Habsburg Empire Confronts Islam, 1526-1850
By Paula Sutter Fichtner
Reaktion Books
ISBN 9781861893406
Published 15 February 2008

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