How should the U.S. government respond to the Shi‘a-Sunni sectarian conflict in Muslim countries? Should it side with one sect against the other, or should it play offshore balancer, throwing support to whichever side seems to be losing at any given time so as to prevent the establishment of a hegemonic regional victor? Should it prefer the side that is more state-based as opposed to social-movement based? Or should it pursue a peacemaking strategy in order to dampen the radicalism that could have a long-lasting negative impact in the region and beyond? Or should U.S. policy be mostly passive, focused on U.S. domestic security, in accordance with a judgment that the Middle East’s sectarian woes are really neither that important nor dangerous?
These are difficult questions, and the debate over them is hardly exhausted. As they have pondered these questions so far, U.S. and other Western analysts in government and out have overlooked an historical precedent that might offer us some insight. Nearly 500 years ago, as the modern world took shape, the proverbial shoe was on the other foot: A Muslim superpower, then very much a part of the world’s great-power system, had to reckon with the Wars of the Protestant Reformation. Obviously, times have changed and the analogy is imperfect: Protestantism was new in the 16th century, while Shi‘a Islam goes back nearly to the beginning of Islam itself, for example. Nevertheless, careful study bears several rewards. On balance, the Ottoman Empire’s response to the Protestant-Catholic divide suggests that, amid the ever-shifting political landscape of sectarian politics, great powers can gain tactically from manipulating them. It also suggests, however, that such gains cannot be sustained and turned into strategic victories.
The Ottoman Empire made its most sweeping conquests through Southeastern and Central Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries. Ottoman expansion began in 1354, when the Ottomans captured Gallipoli. Then, in 1526, Ottoman armies led by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent defeated the Hungarian Kingdom at the Battle of Mohács. During this period, the Ottomans captured territories belonging to the Byzantine Empire and medieval Serbia, Bulgaria, Wallachia, Moldavia, and Bosnia, leaving Istanbul the de facto metropole for all the Orthodox nations of Europe except Ukrainia and Russia. Even those two nations felt the Ottoman pinch: In 1478 the Crimean Tatar Khanate joined a commonwealth with the Ottomans that controlled much of Ukraine and parts of Russia.
Meanwhile, the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian and Spanish Empires—two Catholic states ruled briefly by Charles V and, after his demise, by different branches of the Habsburg family—became the main contenders to Ottoman supremacy in Europe. In this endeavor, the Spanish and Austrian states were often joined by the Catholic maritime powers of Southern Europe, prominently the Papal States, Venice, and Genoa. Over long periods relations were mixed, as relations between putative adversaries often are mixed today; the Ottomans traded with the Genoese, the Venetians, and other Italian city-states as often as they fought them. Nevertheless, the Ottomans and the Catholic powers became each other’s chief adversaries in 16th-century Europe. Russia gradually joined the camp of Ottoman adversaries as it solidified its rule north of the Black Sea in the late 17th century.
This is the basic background against which to understand the Ottoman response to the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent outbreak of Protestant-Catholic wars. While there had been dissenting movements within the Catholic Church before—a few of them armed, as with the Avignon Papacy conflicts of the 14th century—the Wars of the Reformation were greater in scope and wider in social and political dimensions than any conflicts that had come before. Scholars still debate the direction of the causal arrows between the rise of Protestantism, early modern capitalism, and the invention of the printing press and other technological developments, but there is no doubt that the combination changed the political map of Europe. It further fragmented political power, polarized contending sectarian communities, and changed the religious and political orientation of powerful, newly evolving modern states. By 1534, only 17 years after Luther nailed his famous paper to the church door in Wittenberg, England had broken with Rome. The German principalities divided between Catholic and Protestant, setting the stage for the bloodiest theaters of the Wars of the Reformation, and also for massively violent chiliastic and apocalyptical cults, such as those that gave rise to the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1524–25. (Just think for a minute about the similarities between the beliefs and behavior of Thomas Müntzer and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.)
As Europe fractured and fell into war, Ottoman leaders shrewdly guided their empire to forge strong relations with the new Protestant powers of Europe, including Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. The Ottoman leadership responded to mercantilist overtures by Protestant powers such as Britain and the Netherlands in order to balance first and foremost against the Habsburgs, and later against Russia. The Ottomans sought to deepen the Protestant-Catholic divide within the Habsburg Empire, with the Porte ultimately supporting Hungarian Protestants to undermine Habsburg power in Central Europe and thus facilitate Ottoman expansion in that region.
But the Ottomans did not have a binary Protestant-versus-Catholic view; Suleiman first supported the Catholic Hungarian King John Szapolyai against the Catholic Habsburg’s Ferdinand in order to consolidate his power in Hungary. He rather had a strategic view of territorial expansion and political power in which he used Europe’s religious divides as a tool for making gains. That same flexibility shows in the alliance between Istanbul and France, then an emerging power and, though Catholic, an enemy of the Habsburgs. On balance, the Ottomans followed an “enemy of my enemy is my (temporary) friend” approach. This required them to understand the religious divides of Europe, but it was an instrumental understanding, devoid of sentiment or theological concern.
This kind of thinking was hardly new for the Ottomans. As the empire established itself and grew, it learned to navigate and take advantage of divisions in the Balkans and the Middle East as it encountered cleavages among various ethno-linguistic groups. In the 16th century, the Ottomans co-opted Orthodox Greeks, adding many of them to their bureaucracy and turning them into a tool for the Empire’s successful advance in the Balkans against Orthodox Slavs. And in the 17th century, the Sultans co-opted the Slavs, recruiting them into the imperial administration in large numbers and facilitating the Empire’s advance into Central Europe at the expanse of Catholic Hungarians and the Holy Empire. The Ottoman experience shows us that there is no clear or simple algorithm that policymakers can use to formulate policy. Every enemy, ally, and threat must be understood on a case-by-case basis. One must avoid creating, and then coming to believe in, false binaries.
The Ottomans also understood that theirs was a long game in which they had to balance immediate objectives against long-term aims. Tactics made sense only within a larger strategy, and to devise a larger strategy, Ottoman Sultans had to have a clear idea of their own interests. They also came to understand that their own political stability mattered. For more than a century after the Reformation took root, there were only five Ottoman Sultans, all of whom ruled until their deaths: Suleiman (1520–66); Selim II (1566–74); Murad III (1574–95); Mehmed III (1595–1603); and Ahmed I (1603–17). By the time the Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, and all throughout its course, Ottoman leadership had weakened severely. Osman II, who ruled for four years during this period, was overthrown in a palace coup and executed by his own military in 1622. A new stability did not arise until around 1687. Thus, Ottoman policy generally proved more successful in the fluid conflicts of the early Reformation period and less so once Christendom’s religious divide more or less congealed into state-to-state warfare in the early 17th century. But by the time Ottoman internal stability returned and enabled its post-Westphalian surge toward Vienna, culminating in the famous battle of 1683, Catholic forces had sufficiently recovered from the decimation of the Wars of the Reformation to turn back the Turkish tide.
The very nature of the Ottoman Empire played an even more significant role than political stability at the top in how it understood and dealt with Europe’s sectarian wars. The Ottoman Empire was dramatically more tolerant of differing religious beliefs than its contemporaries in Europe. The Ottomans controlled vast lands with large and diverse populations of non-Muslims; co-opting them into the Empire called forth several nimble institutions. In time, the Ottomans developed a system that codified religious forbearance, if not always genuine equality. This system expressed itself in a kind of ethno-religious federalism that was reflected in taxation scales and internal security arrangements. This system, a tool of imperial statecraft as well as domestic administration, would in later centuries be called the millet system.
The millet system stems from the Quranic doctrine of ahl al-dhimmi, or protected people, specifically Jews and Christians, who are deemed “people of the book.” Protected peoples were free to practice their religion and live peacefully, but they were also obligated to pay a jizya (poll) tax to the Islamic government in order to ensure this protected status. The millet system established protocols in which each religious group in the Empire was free to formulate its own institutions and systems of local governance, complete with family law courts, schools, and hospitals. In return, each community was required to pledge loyalty to the Empire and to help defend Ottoman lands if attacked. In the case of the Jews, in particular, the Ottomans used this millet for special purposes, sometimes transferring loyal Jewish populations to newly conquered territories to facilitate their commercial and political stabilization. In sum, the millet system revolutionized the treatment of minority groups across the Eurasian divide, establishing a system of tolerance (but not equality) and freedom for diverse religious groups then unknown inside Europe.
Starting in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire provided four main millets with religious autonomy and limited self-governance: the Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Armenians. The Ottomans denied Catholics within the Empire their own millet system, however. This stemmed from the Ottoman perception that the Catholic powers were their main enemy, and their fear that even the small number of Catholics within the Empire might become a fifth column of espionage and intrigue. Indeed, wherever the Ottomans looked in Europe after 1453, they saw Catholic powers trying to check and undermine them.
Of course, the Catholic powers saw things rather the other way around. The Ottoman Empire’s consistent expansion across Europe from east to west in the 14th and 15th centuries spurred fear particularly within the Habsburg domains extending from Spain to Austria. The Habsburgs ruled over the Holy Roman Empire, and another branch of the family ruled Spain between 1516 and 1700. The Habsburgs were also allied with the Papal States, and the Jagiellonians who ruled Hungary. This axis was the main roadblock to further Ottoman penetration and domination of Europe. Naturally enough, when the Catholics acquired an enemy within in the form of Protestantism, the Ottomans explored whether they could use this new force to their advantage. The initial theater for such exploration was Hungary.
The Kingdom of Hungary had been a powerful adversary of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Throughout the Protestant Reformation, Hungary served as a battleground for Ottoman strategic expansion and policy toward the new religious fragmentation within Europe. Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman forces defeated the Catholic Hungarians in multiple major battles in the early 16th century, just as Protestantism was emerging inside Europe and among the Hungarians. Suleiman used Hungary’s new Protestant-Catholic divide to his advantage, defeating the Kingdom of Hungary outside its borders and inside them as well.
In 1526, Ottoman forces launched the Battle of Mohács, a major invasion that led to the defeat of the Kingdom of Hungary and its partition. The death of Hungarian King Louis II in the battle led to the collapse of centralized control within the kingdom. After the battle, Ferdinand of Habsburg became King of Hungary and Bohemia, taking control of western and northern Hungary. But in due course about a third of the former Hungarian Kingdom, mostly the eastern and southern parts, became part of the Ottoman Empire. To solidify its control, the Ottomans over time deepened their ties in what is today known as Transylvania (then called Erdel) under Szapolyai and the infamous Elizabeth Báthory, the former an uncharacteristically broad-minded Unitarian, the latter raised as a Calvinist. Transylvania gradually became an Ottoman vassal and strategic ally against the Habsburgs. Thus, the Ottomans divided and conquered according to religious lines in order to empower a vassal state that would not only pay tribute to the Ottomans but also fight the Habsburgs through civil-war-style conflicts. This Ottoman strategy helps explain the present concentration of Protestants in eastern Hungary and in Transylvania. This is no historical accident, but a direct result of Ottoman imperial policies.
Ottoman strategy could also be blind to sectarianism when necessary, reflecting plain and unvarnished geopolitics instead. One of the earliest relationships between the Ottoman Empire and Europe was the Ottoman-Franco Alliance of the 16th and 17th centuries. Some historians have deemed this relationship “the sacrilegious union of the lily and the crescent.”1 The Ottoman Empire desired a strong relationship with emerging west European powers to counterbalance the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. To this end, the Sultans had no problem allying with one Catholic power against another. They were “offshore balancers”, albeit on land.
The Ottoman-French relationship was founded on diplomatic and economic connections that were strategically useful to both parties. Unlike other alliances between European nations at the time, which were mainly founded on religious affinity, the Franco-Ottoman alliance was shallow, rooted only in shifting considerations of realpolitik. This was a time when the Christians were the true believers, and the great Muslim superpower of the day was far more at ease with a strictly utilitarian calculus of military advantage and economic gain.
The fellowship of Catholic France and the Islamic Ottoman Empire shook the Christian world to its core. But despite its “impiety”, the alliance was critical for both parties. France, which consistently found itself hanging by the Holy Empire’s noose, needed an alliance with the Ottomans to ensure its basic security. France’s mortal danger was never clearer than in 1525, following King Francis I’s surrender to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in Pavia. French leaders saw the imperative of uniting the country into a single political entity and expanding its alliances; the alternative was subjugation and probable dismemberment.
With Charles V and Ferdinand II aiming for Catholic supremacy of Europe, the French began to look west and east. Francis I’s attempt to attract English help did not pan out, and his imprisonment in Madrid in 1526 spurred the first French mission to the Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1533, the Ottomans sent their first mission to France, led by Ottoman Chief Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. (Barbarossa and his fleet wintered in Toulon that year and were allowed by the French to openly practice Islam, a rare occasion of religious tolerance in Europe at the time.) This marked the beginning of a long and powerful alliance. Francis I explained his strategic intent in a conversation with the Venetian Ambassador in the 1530s:
I cannot deny that I wish to see the Turk all-powerful and ready for war, not for himself—for he is an infidel and we are all Christians—but to weaken the power of the emperor, to compel him to make major expenses, and to reassure all the other governments who are opposed to such a formidable enemy.2
The Ottoman alliance, a necessary evil for France, ensured French survival against Habsburg domination. But Francis had other concerns as well. He believed that a formal alliance with the Ottoman Empire was a necessary precondition to ensure the safety of French citizens, including Protestants, who found themselves under Ottoman protection. One might say, therefore, that while circumstances forced Francis to be a realist, his was a higher realism of sorts, as well.
One might also say that in the Franco-Ottoman alliance there were planted the seeds of Italy as a unified nation-state. Italy was a long-standing project of French statecraft designed to keep Habsburg armies north of the Alps. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the main imperial powers, from the Moghuls to the House of Habsburg, from the Ottoman Empire to the British one, began to see the entire Eurasian continent and its island brackets as a single strategic theater. This enabled Suleiman to view France as the key to expanding Ottoman influence within Europe and capitalizing on the Protestant Reformation in order to weaken the House of Habsburg—especially its menacing Spanish branch, which controlled not just the Iberian peninsula, but all of southern Italy and Milan, the Low Countries, and Franche-Comte (which is today part of France). The French hoped the Ottomans would, in various ways, help them to pry Italy away from Habsburg domination.
Some Catholics back in the day claimed to see a religious affinity between the Muslim Ottomans and the Protestants. After all, both disliked icons and imagery in places of worship. It is natural to want to amalgamate various unpleasant traits in one’s adversaries, but in this case theology was truly beside the point. Suleiman allied with Catholic and “iconophile” France to gain leverage against and legitimacy within the west European world. By opening the French door, Suleiman, who ruled much of southeastern and central Europe from Istanbul and saw himself as the legitimate heir to the Romans, established himself on the Habsburgs’ outer flank. What is more, the Ottomans needed France almost as much as France needed the Ottomans. Following the Ottoman defeat at Tunis in 1535 at the hands of a Habsburg-led fleet commanded by Andrea Doria—and the massacre of some 30,000 Muslim civilians after the battle—the Ottomans knew they needed to expand their diplomatic and military ties.
The basis of the Franco-Ottoman alliance consisted of a set of agreements called Capitulations and multiple joint military campaigns beginning in 1543–44. The Capitulations codified the diplomatic and economic relationship between the two powers. The Ottomans and the French implemented the first Capitulation agreement in 1569 (from a treaty signed in 1539 but never ratified). The Capitulations benefited the French immensely. The agreements ensured the security of the French citizens living in Ottoman lands, freedom to trade and transport goods, thus giving the French a near monopoly among European nations in trade with the Empire. The Ottomans viewed the solidification of these agreements as a means to broadcast the strong ties between it and France, a major Christian power, thus bringing the Sublime Porte further into the fold of European affairs.
The Franco-Ottoman alliance was broad, but not very deep. There was no shared affinity, and on multiple occasions when France was cornered, its leaders leaned against Ottoman interests. This occurred in 1538, for example, when King Francis I and Charles V agreed to the Truce of Nice. Francis agreed to assist the Habsburgs in expelling the Ottomans from Hungary. Of course, the Ottomans could be just as cold-blooded, and the French knew it. Ottoman policy toward France was equally driven by geopolitical concerns; there is no basis to any argument that religious similarities were in play. The Ottomans even allowed the French Catholics the custody of Catholic holy places in Ottoman lands, despite the ban on the establishment of a Catholic millet.
The same goes for the Ottoman policy to defend, protect, and ally with Protestant powers. In the 16th century, the Ottomans supported the Dutch in their revolt against the Spanish Empire, which blossomed into a fairly close relationship with the Dutch Republic. The Netherlands established permanent representation in Istanbul as early as 1612. Both parties were balancing against real and prospective adversaries. The same was true to one degree or another for Ottoman liaisons with Denmark and Sweden. With Britain, however, there was more than met the realist eye.
The formation of Protestant British-Muslim Ottoman ties began with a mutually reinforcing mix of British affinity, admiration, and fear of the Ottomans. Throughout the 16th century, at the height of the Ottoman Empire, the British believed that the Turks were the most civilized of the “Eastern Peoples.”3 The British admired the Ottoman Empire’s orderly government, educational system, and discipline. During a time of such religious turbulence, the British also admired Ottoman tolerance for other religious groups, which sat well with Anglo-Protestant sensibilities but contrasted with the rest of Europe. An example of Ottoman tolerance was the policy to allow Protestant refugees fleeing Catholic persecution into lands under Ottoman control. In addition, Christians in Turkey were permitted via the millet system to maintain churches and had the freedom to practice Christianity without persecution. The British, having the relative luxury of island-based security from the ravages of the Continent, have always been at greater leisure to entertain moral considerations in foreign policy. The Ottomans were early beneficiaries of that luxury.
The Ottomans, in turn, impressed by the rise of British power, were happy to reciprocate. And here, for a change, religious sensibilities seemed to play some role in the relationship. Sultan Murad III formed a strong relationship with Queen Elizabeth I. He posited a strong connection between Protestantism and Islam, as both religions rejected “false idols.” It is impossible to know how seriously Elizabeth took the proposition, but there is no doubt that this personal connection underlay a strong Ottoman-British relationship during the Reformation. Murad went so far as to call Queen Elizabeth the “pride of women who follow Jesus, the most excellent of the ladies honored among the messiah’s people.”4 The relationship between the two leaders set the groundwork for diplomatic, economic, and even military alliances.
The basis of the growing relationship was trade. The Ottomans granted the British trade privileges in 1579, and the British set up a permanent mission in Istanbul in 1583 when the representative of Britain and the Levant Company (the largest British trading company with the Ottomans) was declared the English Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Trade consisted mostly of raw materials, but specifically raw materials used for weapons manufacturing: large amounts of tin, lead, and other materials that the Ottomans used to cast cannons and ammunitions for war.
The relationship never took on the trappings of a formal military alliance, but not for lack of one party’s trying. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth tried to persuade the Ottomans to wage war against Spain and Philip II. The Ottomans, however, were occupied with the Persian War, and absent Ottoman help Philip assembled an armada to attack England in 1588. But for a fortuitous storm, it might have prevailed. Later on, in the 17th century during the Ottoman invasion of Crete (then a Venetian possession), the English, Dutch, and French were “involved with the provisioning and transportation of Turkish troops.”5
Although Catholics served as the Ottomans’ main adversary throughout the Reformation, Russia proved to be a dangerous nemesis during the 18th and the subsequent centuries. The Russian Empire grew dramatically throughout the period of the Protestant Reformation and directly inserted itself into European affairs and power politics, usually finding itself in the crosshairs of Ottoman interests. The Ottomans and Muscovy fought multiple times during the 17th century. Throughout these campaigns, the Ottomans worked with both Protestant and Catholic allies to counter the Russian threat.
The Great Northern War of 1700 is a good example. In this conflict between the Russian and Swedish empires, with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Great Britain on the side of Sweden, the Ottomans sympathized with the Swedish side as well. Following the defeat of the Swedish Army in the Pruth Campaign of 1710, Sultan Ahmed III provided refuge to the Lutheran Charles XII and other Swedish citizens. The Swedes founded a colony in Moldova, an area under Ottoman control, where they planned future attacks and campaigns against Russia. The Ottomans’ acceptance of the Swedish King infuriated Peter I. Following the Sultan’s refusal to revoke Charles XII’s sanctuary, the Russians invaded the Ottoman Empire, whereupon they suffered a great defeat that culminated in the 1713 Treaty of Adrianople. The treaty allowed for Charles XII’s return to Sweden and forced the Russian army to withdraw its forces from Ukraine.
Although the Ottomans directly assisted the Protestant Swedes, they did not do so out of any religious idealism, but out of a desire to weaken a rising power. At the same time, starting in the 18th century, as the Russian threat became more pronounced, the Ottomans saw no problem in working against Russia with Poland, another Catholic power and an erstwhile enemy at that. The Poles had been instrumental in the Ottoman defeat at the gates of Vienna.
Obviously, when we speak of Ottoman policy toward Europe in the era between roughly 1520 and the early 18th century, we speak of a vast array of circumstances and contingencies. Many factors are at work in such a vast array—geopolitics, economics, personalities, and ideologies (in those days constituted largely according to religious belief). The intensity of Europe’s religious wars (though they were never just about religion) was not constant throughout this long period, so the Ottomans could not rely on them to be useful except in particular cases.
In contrast, the United States, looking at the Middle East, can discern that sectarian conflict among Muslims became an active force in regional politics dating back to about 1979 at the earliest—a very short time span, as these things go. American policymakers can nevertheless draw some general lessons from Ottoman policy during the Reformation and the subsequent wars that wracked Europe for more than a century. The first is that Ottoman policy based itself on unsentimental strategic analysis and realpolitik. This policy, however, was neither mechanistic nor based on a binary choice that equated Protestantism with good and Catholicism and Orthodoxy with bad, or vice versa. Rather, the Ottomans consistently sided with the weaker party against a stronger European power, either Catholic or later Orthodox, that posed problems for themselves.
This suggests that it would be foolhardy for any U.S. administration to choose the Shi‘a over the Sunni side of the present sectarian conflict, or the other way around. As James Baker liked to say in an earlier conflict, the United States “does not have a dog in that fight.” Several commentators have nevertheless suggested that the U.S. government should do just that. And America’s key Sunni Arab allies believe that the Obama Administration has chosen the Shi‘a side, with Iran at its core. (No one, however, thinks the U.S. government makes such determinations based on theological affinity.) This is an unfortunate optic, even if the policy is not what many take it to be. It tends to alienate major regional actors—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey—and to make it more difficult for the United States to recruit partners for other missions, such as containing, if not destroying, the Islamic State.
A second lesson is that in fluid situations one should not expect constancy from either allies or adversaries. Decision-makers under duress will do what they need to do to survive, and the United States, not sensing any existential threat, may fail to realize this. In theory, at least, U.S. global policy is to transcend geostrategy with a values-based international system. This makes it hard for Washington to adopt an “enemy of my enemy” approach, especially if that enemy does not subscribe to American values. But others do not think that way because they generally cannot afford to do so. The Ottomans were not outsiders to the oscillations of European power struggles. At times they were very powerful, and at other times they were weaker, but they always felt themselves to be insiders. The United States, for the most part, does not; it has the option of “exit” if it chooses not to exercise more intrusive options that abrade against its sense of what is and is not principled behavior. This is a real difference, to be sure, but U.S. decision-makers must remember that other actors cannot afford to think like this. They will misjudge what other states may do if they fail to remember this distinction.
A third lesson from the Ottoman experience is that leadership, and relations among leaders, can matter a great deal. The chemistry that bound together Murad III and Elizabeth I, and Ahmed III and Charles XII, was real. We no longer live in an age of empires and all-powerful monarchs, but it would be a mistake to discount the importance of personal relationships. When Iranian leaders do not respond to personal presidential communications, it means something. When the leaders of Turkey talk out of their heads, which they have been doing with increasing frequency, it means something. When U.S.-Israeli relations and U.S.-Saudi relations deteriorate badly because leaders do not trust each other, it means something, too.
Finally, for all the differences in the American situation now and the Ottoman one in the 16th century, one commonality concerns the relationship of small-bore tactics to a larger strategy. The Ottomans had a strategy, and they knew their interests. They wanted to protect their original European empire and expand it if possible; they were somewhat less concerned about their newer Middle Eastern holdings, but only because, most likely, they seemed less under threat. As far as the history books tell us, the Ottoman sultans were devout Muslims, but half a millennium ago they already lacked any desire to make the entire known world Muslim by force of arms. They were defenders of the faith, but not zealots unmoored from geostrategic reality.
It is not as clear as one might hope that something similar can be said for the United States. At times of maximum arousal, U.S. policy has been known to resemble an attempt to globalize the Monroe Doctrine. No active American policy can sustain widespread and lasting political support unless it at least purports to do good and do well. Ottoman Sultans did not have this obligation. Their ambitions, and hence the definition of their interests, were limited by their relative power. The United States, an enormously powerful country, has no comparable means to limit its definition of interests, or to separate them from abstract principle. It is therefore not entirely obvious which great power, the avowedly Muslim Ottoman Empire, or the avowedly secular United States, is really the more “religious” actor.
1Maria Nikolaeva Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford University Press, 1997).
2Quoted in Roger Crowley, Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World (Random House, 2008), p. 66.
3Anna Suranyi, The Genius of the English Nation: Travel Writing and National Identity in Early Modern England (University of Delaware Press, 2008), p. 55.
4Karen Ordahl Kupperman, The Jamestown Project (Belknap, 2007), p. 66.
5Suranyi, The Genius of the English Nation, p. 57.