Perceptions of the Other: The Ottoman Empire/Turkey and the West

Perceptions of the Other: The Ottoman Empire/Turkey and the West

Sat, 22 May 2021 17:30 - 19:30 British Summer Time (UTC+1)

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British Association for Turkish Area Studies (BATAS) Annual Symposium Perceptions of the Other: The Ottoman Empire/Turkey and the West

About this event


Sir Noel Malcolm

Western European Views of the Ottoman Empire, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Traditionally, a simple story is told about Western Europe’s attitude towards the Ottoman Empire during the three centuries that followed the fall of Constantinople. It was seen as an entirely alien power, outside the bounds of international society; it ruled over its conquered peoples by means of ‘the sword’; indeed, its whole system of government was cruelly despotic; but eventually, weakened by moral corruption at the top of the system, it would settle into its role as ‘the sick man of Europe’. While many modern studies of individual Western theorists and observers have qualified this, the general assumptions behind this story have, if anything, been strengthened by the influence of Edward Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’, which dictates, more or less a priori, that Western Europeans must always have been projecting crude stereotypes onto the Ottoman ‘other’.

A closer examination of the evidence suggests a much more complex and more interesting story. Crude stereotypes were certainly put to use in pamphlet literature, especially when trying to raise support for anti-Ottoman military campaigns; and theological writers could indeed associate an Islamic power with the devil. But at the same time there was a mass of writings, generated by travellers, diplomats, political analysts, philosophers, historians and others, which genuinely attempted to assimilate and make sense of the constantly expanding body of knowledge about Ottoman government and society.

Detailed Western accounts of Ottoman conditions began to form a kind of critical mass in the mid-16th century. As several writers noticed, these accounts portrayed a surprisingly efficient and civilised system of rule, which in some significant ways seemed better organised than its Western counterparts. The concept of Ottoman despotism was essentially invented in the late 16th century by Catholic polemicists desperate to overturn this picture. During the 17th century that notion of despotism underwent some changes, as the emphasis shifted away from absolute power towards implications of chaotic misrule and corruption. But at the same time there were theorists who found ways of putting a positive spin on the original concept of despotism, portraying Ottoman rule as a realisation of some of the ideals of the Machiavellian tradition.

This presentation will discuss these and other developments in Western European thought between the mid-15th and mid-18th centuries.

Dr Yaprak Gürsoy

Turkish Perceptions of the West and the UK: Between Admiration and Animosity

Turkish public and elite perceptions of the West have been widely covered in the academic literature. This extensive body of work has successfully shown how the seemingly contradictory attitudes of hostility and awe toward the West manifest themselves in Turkey almost periodically at different historical periods. While those who work more in the liberal tradition explain Turkey’s ups-and-downs with the West by looking at the ideological stances of various governments, those who adhere more to the realist perspective attribute changes in attitudes to transformations in the international and regional context. In most accounts of this literature, the West is seen as the U.S.A. and Europe, including NATO and the EU, with seldom any unpacking of different countries belonging to the category of “the West”.

Contributing to this literature, this talk unpacks Turkey’s perceptions of one Western country, the UK. It investigates attitudes toward the UK by examining the views of Turkish politicians based on data from the parliamentary proceedings of 2011–2018. This analysis reveals that the UK is seen as a role model with its exemplary political values, government and democracy. Yet these positive perceptions also exist side by side with an attitude of animosity and mistrust based on historical experiences. Evidence suggests that these ambiguous perceptions are permanent among all parties of the political spectrum and are also reflected in public opinion surveys. Furthermore, dual perceptions of admiration and animosity toward the UK can be found in attitudes toward the West in general.

Based on these findings, the talk argues against focusing too much on domestic politics or the regional/international context to understand Turkey’s changing relations with the West. Instead, the talk calls for a better understanding of Turkish collective identity in relation to the West as the basis of dualism in its bilateral relations with European powers and the U.S.A.

Dr Murat Akser

Turkey and the West: Mutually Suspicious Perceptions in Film

There have now been more than 150 popular Hollywood films that presented Turkey and the Turks as imagined in an Orientalist manner . That is, after more than sixty years of participating in Western democracy, having established a liberal market economy, and enjoying a functioning multi-party democratic political system, the image of Turkey in Hollywood is still emphatically Eastern, depicting the lustful and barbaric Turk. Against that background the Turkish cinema’s depiction of the westerner has been one of a cowardly, clumsy enemy. This talk will look at the discourse of Orientalism and Occidentalism that Turkish and Hollywood cinemas feed upon and reflect to each other.

Biographical information about the speakers

Noel Malcolm studied History and English Literature at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and was a research student at Trinity College, Cambridge, writing a doctoral thesis on Thomas Hobbes. He began his career as a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; he was then political columnist and, subsequently, Foreign Editor of the Spectator, and then chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph. In 1996 he was a Visiting Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and in 1999 he was a lecturer at Harvard; he gave the Carlyle Lectures at Oxford in 2001. Since 2002 he has been a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. In 2010 he gave the Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse, Trinity, and Gonville and Caius. He has published books and articles on, among other subjects, the history of political theory (with a particular emphasis on Hobbes: he is one of the General Editors of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Hobbes) and the history and culture of South-East Europe. He was knighted in 2014 for services to scholarship, journalism, and European history. His histories of Bosnia and Kosovo were published in 1994 and 1998. His recent publications include Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World (London, 2015), Useful Enemies: Islam and the Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450–1750 (Oxford, 2019), and Rebels, Believers, Survivors: Studies in the History of the Albanians (Oxford, 2020).

Yaprak Gürsoy is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Aston University and a research associate at the Centre for International Studies at the University of Oxford. She received her PhD on government and international relations from the University of Virginia. Prior to her current posts, she was an Associate Professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. Dr Gürsoy works on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy from a comparative perspective. She is the author of Between Military Rule and Democracy: Regime Consolidation in Greece, Turkey, and Beyond (University of Michigan Press, 2017) and The Transformation of Civil-Military Relations in Turkey (Istanbul Bilgi University Press, in Turkish). Dr Gürsoy’s complete academic profile can be found on her personal website:

Murat Akser is a Lecturer and Course Director in Cinematic Arts in the School of Arts and Humanities, Ulster University. Previously he served as a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, the Chair of the New Media Department, and the Founding Director of the Cinema and Television MA program at Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Turkey. He received his MA degree in Cinema and Media Studies and his PhD in Communication and Culture from York University, Canada. Murat’s research focuses on the history and aesthetics of Turkish cinema, film genres and transnational cinemas. His most recent book from Rowman and Littlefield is titled: Alternative Media in Contemporary Turkey (2018).

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