HISTORY is plagued by all kinds of obsessions. For us Indonesians, ‘the West’ is one of them. ‘The West’ makes us anxious, nervous, disturbed. It feels threatening, but also seduces and mobilizes people in the East—if indeed there is something one can clearly call ‘the East’.
Since the birth of the modern world, or since exploration in the name of European kingdoms, ‘the West’ has haunted the peoples of Asia and Africa. Oppression and revolution, grievance and violence—with ‘the West’ as the obsession—arrived.
But reading history is like reading an old map awaiting change. This year, 2020, has seen the publication of God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail, a historian from Yale University. The book has shaken the way of viewing the past: no longer placing ‘the West’ at the center and as holder of world hegemony, as has been repeatedly proposed for centuries. Mikhail shows that “in 1500, and even in 1600, there was no such thing as the now much-vaunted notion of “the West.” Throughout the early modern centuries, the European continent consisted of a fragile collection of disparate kingdoms and small, weak principalities locked in constant warfare.”
In this context, the holder of hegemony—that shadowed international politics of the time and haunted Europe with fear and trepidation—was the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Under the Ottoman dynasty, Turkey controlled an area of Europe larger than any European kingdom anywhere. Of course it later declined; at its nadir, it was ridiculed as ‘the sick man of Europe’, and after World War I it collapsed. But, maybe because it had no equal competitor from Europe, this sultanate lasted more than 600 years.
Inevitably, a conquering empire has to be continuously involved in conflict to enforce power. However, unlike the experience of the Roman Empire at its height, in the Turkish Ottoman conflict there was something interconnected with weapons: religion.
It is unclear why over those centuries ‘Islam’ (however interpreted) and ‘Christian’ (whatever this meant) were in conflict, with blood and iron. What is clear is that this complex and tragic conflict—which was probably fanned by worldly affairs—could never be settled. Maybe this is why Alan Mikhail tells not only of power in Istanbul under Selim. The book starts out in an interesting way: a story about a town on the Texan-Mexican border. The town is called Matamoros. Mata is from the Spanish matar, meaning ‘to kill’. Moros (Moors) is what Christians called Muslims, who from 711 to 1492 lived alongside each other in the small kingdoms that came to unite and be called ‘Spain’. Matamoros means ‘killer of Moors’—a term of honor among Christian citizens for their heroes in the centuries-long conflict. The town on the Texas-Mexico border has no history of involvement in that conflict: it got its name from the Spanish who subjugated America in the 16th century and brought their European obsession with them.
That obsession was ‘Islam’. Actually, ‘Turkey’. In God’s Shadow, Alan Mikhail even reveals Columbus as a matamoros. According to Mikhail, the discoverer of America wanted to sail to the unknown world not to discover spices, but to oppose ‘Islam’. Columbus was an Italian from Genoa, an important port town where ships of the world docked and set sail. Destiny, ambition and skill brought him to Portugal, then to Spain, with the aim of obtaining support for his project to sail to India, the fantastic land he had long dreamt of. He approached Isabella, the Castillian Queen who was attacking the Muslim kingdom of Cordoba. He even joined the Castillian troops, who finally won, ending forever the history of Islam in Spain.
Rejoicing, Columbus wrote to the Queen: “On 2 January in the year 1492, when your Highnesses had concluded their war with the Moors who reigned in Europe, I saw your Highnesses’ banners victoriously raised on the towers of the Alhambra, the citadel of that city, and the Moorish king come out of the city gates and kiss the hands of your Highnesses.”
Columbus eventually got what he wanted. He promised Isabella he would reach India. There—as he imagined from the stories of Marco Polo’s travels—ruled the Grand Khan who had opened his heart to Jesus. Mikhail says that Columbus was convinced that with the support of the Khan’s army, the Christian world would be able to defeat Turkey and Islam. Jerusalem could be reclaimed.
We know he never reached his destination. His three ships only reached the continent that, when he died in Valladolid in Spain on May 20, 1506, he still thought was India. But in that mistake and paranoia he was not alone. The Spanish who came after him continued to carry the ghost of the war against Islam when they met the locals (‘Indians’) in the New World: they saw Aztec weapons, clothing and dances as variants of Moorish traditions. Then, we know, they slaughtered the people. History is plagued by all kinds of obsessions—particularly when there is the promise of paradise on earth and in heaven: sometimes realized, often with piles of corpses.