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Creating East and West
Nancy Bisaha's book Creating East and West: Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks is at once groundbreaking and unfortunately limited. The book is groundbreaking because it pushes back the development of European views regarding the Ottoman Empire, and non-Western peoples more generally, to the age of the Renaissance, rather than the age of colonialism and imperialism. By highlighting how the Renaissance saw a shift from a medieval era concept of a religious opposition between East and West to a post-medieval dichotomy of civilization vs. barbarism, the book draws a direct line between the Renaissance humanists and the later Europeans who would adopt ideas like the "White Man's Burden" to legitimize their colonial activities. However, at the same time the book feels woefully limited, because although it does an effective job of recentering the development of the East-West, barbarism-civilization dichotomy in the Renaissance, it fails to effectively relate this development to contemporary issues aside from some brief mentions of the September 11th, 2001 attacks aimed against American empire in the Middle East. While it is not necessarily Bisaha's job to tie all of her conclusions to some contemporary issue, the fact that her subject matter is so immediately relevant leaves the reader wishing for a more thorough account of how the development of Renaissance ideas led to current historical situation.
Creating East and West is broken up into four chapters and an epilogue, and it uses these division to progress its argument through history. The first chapter addresses the lingering influences of medieval thought on the Renaissance, and particularly the legacy of Charlemagne. The next chapter covers the actual shift in thought and rhetoric that occurred from medieval conceptions of an East-West dichotomy, largely as a result of the fall of Constantinople. In particular, Bisaha notes how the loss of Constantinople represented a serious psychological blow to the European humanists of the fifteenth century, because the city itself had secured such a special place in the rhetoric of Europe "as a barrier between Europe and the Infidel."
Bisaha relies on eyewitness and contemporary accounts of the sacking of Constantinople in order to highlight the almost-existential dread and sorrow felt by European humanist at what they saw as a kind of barbaric destruction of civilization and knowledge. Furthermore, Bisaha demonstrates how the sacking of Constantinople, which saw the destruction of thousands of books alongside Christian relics, was compared in the minds of Europeans to the sacking of Rome.
In the minds of many fifteenth century European thinkers and writers, the willful destruction of books appeared as an almost genocidal campaign against classical European history and culture. For example, Bisaha cites one Lauro Quirini, who described the loss of books as "the overthrow of an entire people."
This event more than any other served to shift the dichotomy from one of religious superiority to an all-out war between civilization and barbarism, because in the eyes of European humanists, the Ottoman empire did not represent an oppositional theocracy, but rather an anarchic, destructive force whose goal was the destruction of "civilization" (meaning classical history and culture) and humanity as such. Bisaha further explains this shift in the next chapter, when she describes the influence of Greek and Byzantine refugees on European culture. Not only did the fall of Constantinople itself present a perceived existential threat to Europe, it also precipitated a rapid influx of refugees who had fled from the advancing Ottoman empire, an influx that helped cement the notion of Ottomans as "barbarians" seeking to wipe out Western civilization (and particularly classical Greek culture and history).
The final chapter discusses the role of religion in this rhetorical and ideological shift on the part of European humanists, and it is notable for the way it demonstrates the European's tendency to transfer their fear and contempt for the "barbaric" Ottoman Turks to every other Muslim group. As Bisaha points out in delightfully blunt terms, "the syllogism is embarrassingly naive -- Turks are barbarians; Turks are Muslim; therefore Muslims are barbarians -- and yet we find several humanists subscribing to such a notion."
However, this quote also helps to demonstrate what seems to be the biggest gap in the whole book; namely, the connection between Bisaha's study and contemporary events. To see how connected the two are, one needs only to replace "Turks" in the above syllogism with something like "Al Qaeda" or "Taliban." The statement remains equally naive while effectively…[continue]
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