Understanding Bosnia through Europe’s Fears: The “Ottoman Peril”

Note: This is the only the first essay of three that I have written about Western orientalist discourse on Bosnia. This essay will provide proper context. To understand the discursive history of Bosnia, I propose beginning at the Ottoman empire’s influence on the European mind — and, even further, how this created the European identity. 

Western discourse towards Bosnia, and all Muslims living in Europe, historically centers around European’s deepest existential worries. It was produced as a result of growing Ottoman influence, and is therefore deeply infused with European identity, and the spatial dimensions of what constitutes a “European.” And because Bosnia occupies a unique situation within Europe, orientalist discourse on Bosnia can be also be used as commentary on Europe’s historic relations with its greater Islamic community. To understand this discourse towards Bosnia, we must first begin at the source – to a time of unprecedented European fragmentation and panic on all levels of society. It is on these grounds that it would be appropriate to begin any inquiry into on Bosnia with the creation of what Edward Said in Orientalism calls the “Ottoman peril.” OttomanEmpireExpansionto1683 The historical separation of Bosnia from the rest of Europe began most concretely in the 14th century, when Ottoman expansion entered into Southeastern Europe. It was officially declared an administrative unit (eyalet) known as Bosansko Krajište in 1451 [1]. In around 100 years the Muslim population swelled to immense numbers and constituted the majority of the providence. Bosnia was fully integrated into the Ottoman social structure: governed by a vizier, the region was administered by high civil officials (pashas) and judges while also having an elaborate tax policy, mandatory military service, and a Ottoman feudal system to reorganize land [2]. Bosnian Muslims were given privileges unavailable to non-Muslims, and they also did not need to pay the harač, which was a tax levied on all other faiths [3].

Although the Ottoman occupation had changed the very positionality of Bosnia towards Europe, it was only a precursor to the full realization of orientalism seeping into Europe’s discourse towards the historically war-torn region. This would reach its height during the Austro-Hungarian invasion of 1878, during which an orientalist Western power would dominate the supposed Bosnian Orient. This arguably positioned Bosniaks as the permanent “Other” within this imagined Europe, if they had not been already. Regardless, the Ottoman conquests and their rule over the region set the groundwork for this differentiation from the rest of the Southern Slavs – but, as it was the case until 1878, it was “the Other ruling over the Other” so the Bosniaks were not in the spotlight of European Christendom; rather, it was the Ottomans. As Ottoman armies penetrated deeper into Europe, they shook the minds of Christians living on the continent. As Edward Said writes in Orientalism:

Until the end of the seventeenth century the “Ottoman Peril” lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life [4].

Therefore, it would lend itself useful to understand how the “Ottoman Peril” became a central facet of Christendom, in an effort to understand how this same pathology was reproduced in discourse on Bosnia. This fear began at a crossroads of world history, which shook all of Europe to the bones – the fall of “Second Rome,” Constantinople, in 1453.

1453 allowed all European fears to be projected onto a new enemy, and it signified a shift in how Europeans conceived of themselves. Western discourse on Islam, consequently, began to change drastically. This shift in European consciousness can be described in its many forms, and it manifested itself in an innumerable amount of ways, but for the purposes of this inquiry it would be best if we discussed the “Ottoman Peril” as relevant to Bosnia, although virtually all of it relevant just by the fact that Bosnia is an Ottoman construction. Despite this difficulty, let us be reductive for a moment and outline a few crucial changes that occurred in the European mind. First was one of narratives: a new identity of a “united Christian Europe” was popularized which ran counter to the then-fractured European narrative dominant since the Great Schism of 1054. A little over a year after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would become Pope Pius II, delivered a speech at the Imperial Diet in Regensburg calling for the necessity of war against the Turks [5]. This speech was thereafter distributed many times over, in print form, with the Gutenberg printing press pushing the discourse to new audiences. Pope Pius II thus crowned himself as speaking on behalf of all Christendom, calling on European powers to rally together against this Ottoman threat. In doing so, he ignored the divide between Eastern and Latin Christianity. He narrativized them as one because their collective security was in the interest of all Christians.

Yet, still earlier, the very fabric of Europe was being reimagined in Italy around the mid-15th century. Italian humanism turned patriotism and cultural pride into a super-national European concept, which meant “also a rebirth of the Classical semantics of discrimination and xenophobia” [6]. One such Italian humanist, Flavio Biondo, wrote of the First Crusade as a “Pan-European project,” as opposed to a purely Frankish one as medieval sources describe [7]. In doing so, he directly connected the first crusade to the war against the Turks as both being in defense against an existential threat to all of Europe. Thus, Italian humanism and its corresponding Renaissance was a “source of European identity… and [it] decidedly contributed to a cognitive-cultural nationalization of Europe through the initiation of the (re)discovery of Greek and Roman historiography and ethnography” [8]. In doing so, they also inherited “one of the key concepts of Roman cultural superiority… ‘barbarism’” along with an “ancient tradition” which Europe could now cling to and mythologize to justify their superiority [9]. These influences permeated from the cultural hub of Italy and spread throughout Europe, as Christendom became rejuvenated with the threat of Ottoman destruction. “Europe” had begun to take on actual, political signification. Christian salvation history (Heilsgeschichte) had moved from Jerusalem to Europe, and everyone on the continent was implicated in protecting it; God was now invigilated in the continent’s steady march forward in history, against the barbarians, on behalf of the true heirs of His justice.

I am no making a value judgement on the Italian Renaissance -- there is little doubt that some of the work produced was breathtaking, as is the above piece inspired by the Anient Greek artist Apelles, The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli.

So there’s not any confusion, I am not making a value judgement on the Italian Renaissance — there is little doubt that some of the work produced was breathtaking, as is the above piece titled The Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli inspired by the ancient Greek artist Apelles. I am simply describing the Italian Renaissance as it was. The innumerable historical consequences of such a period does not diminish the artful works. However, we must also speak of its influence in creating the “European” and how the Renaissance anchored the entirety of the continent to a mythologized Greco-Roman past. This was critical in the development of Orientalist discourse.


Peter the Hermit promised the poor peasants a better life in the Holy Land and spoke of God pushing them forward. They would embark on the First Crusade. This historical moment would be re-imagined by Flavio Biondo as a Pan-European military endeavor instead of a Frankish one. The above illustration is from the 14th century text, Abreviamen de las Estorias.

From the mid-15th century onwards, the discourse on Islam within Europe began to change to reflect this shift in European consciousness – or, alternatively, to reflect the creation of a European consciousness. “Muslim” had become a signifier of “Turk.” The phrase “turning Turk” to describe Islamic conversion gained currency in Western discourse, captured in works such as the play A Christian Turn’d Turk by Robert Daborne, Paradise Lost by John Milton, or even Othello by William Shakespeare. In this sense, Europe had absurdly essentialized “Turkish-ness” centuries before the Ottomans had even categorized themselves ethnically as such; “Turkish-ness” only emerged in Ottoman thought around the late 19th century [10].  The European narrative had totalized the Ottoman narrative, making religious, ethnic, and racial categories synonymous, and placed them in direct opposition to the new European, Christian identity. This new-found equation was the basis from which Bosnia would be Other-ized, for now Bosniaks were effectively Turks, and this placed them in direct opposition to the very fabric of European society.

The bulwark myth is still the basis of much of Balkan nationalism and folklore. In the Serbian city of Kikinda, the coat of arms is an Ottoman Turk whose head is impaled with a sword.

In the Serbian city of Kikinda, the coat of arms is an Ottoman Turk whose head is impaled with a sword.

Because of European discourse on the Turkish Other, some nations infused nationalist myth with protecting Christendom. They believed themselves to be bulwarks against Islam, against any force that supposedly existentially threatened Europe [11]. It is no coincidence that the bulwarks against intruders was taken up by the Balkan nations, as if they had to further prove their allegiance to Europe in order to demonstrate that they were, too, part of the European Christian project. Countries fighting against the “Turkish menace” were given the Papal title of Antemurale Christianitatis (i.e. “Bulwark of Christianity”) as Croatia was in 1519 [12]. The “bulwark myth” manifested itself in many nationalist myths including Albania, Serbia, Croatia, Poland, and Russia [13]. However, the stern belief of these nations being a protective wall against invaders was invalidated by the very existence of Muslims living in Bosnia. This proved to be a contradiction in the nationalist myth; the Bosniaks were thus a historical miscalculation, a mistake, an anachronism, and a people whose very existence was a disgrace to these nations that constituted the “the protective wall of Christianity” (antemurale Christianitatis).This cemented the Bosniaks are the definitive Other within their Balkan neighbors, and greater Christendom, because they were a living embodiment of Europe’s Christian failure. This has been demonstrated in the discourse towards Bosnia up until the present day. For Europe, and especially for the Balkan peoples, the Bosniaks was the Orient seeping into Europe; It was a contradiction that called the entire narrative of European Christendom into question, and the only way to resolve such contradictions in the given framework, in an example of pure politics, was through removal and violence – the contradiction had to remedied at all costs, and the Other had to be brought back to their “original” Christian-European past. This was the historical reality Bosnia was thrown into upon being re-imagined as a nation by the Ottoman Empire through their occupation.


– 1. Pickering, Paula. Bosnia and Herzegovina (Encyclopedia Britannica). Accessed May, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/700826/Bosnia-and-Herzegovina/42681/Ottoman-Bosnia
– 2. Ibid.
– 3. Ibid.
– 4. Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979), pp. 59 – 60.
– 5. Konrad, Felix. “Turkish Menace” to Exoticism and Orientalism: Islam as Antithesis of Europe 1453 – 1914 (European History Online, 2011). Accessed May, 2015. http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/models-and-stereotypes/from-the-turkish-menace-to-orientalism/felix-konrad-from-the-turkish-menace-to-exoticism-and-orientalism-1453-1914
– 6. Almási, Gábor. Composite States, National Histories and Patriotic Discourses in Early Modern East Central Europe (BRILL, 2011), pp. 91.
– 7. “Turkish Menace” to Exoticism and Orientalism: Islam as Antithesis of Europe 1453 – 1914 (European History Online, 2011)
– 8. Composite States, National Histories and Patriotic Discourses in Early Modern East Central Europe (BRILL, 2011), pp. 91.
– 9. Ibid., pp. 92.
– 10. Ziya, Gokalp. Nationalism in Asia and Africa (World Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 189.
– 11. Kolstø, Pål. Myth and Boundaries in South-East Europe (Hurst and Co., 2005).
– 12. Tanner, Marcus. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War (Yale Press, 1997), pp. 32.
– 13. Timothy, A. Byrnes. Katzenstein, Peter J. Religion in an Expanding Europe (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 180.

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