- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009



By James Reston Jr.

Penguin Press, $29.95, 407 pages

Reviewed by Martin Sieff

James Reston Jr. has written a readable, enjoyable and professional popular history of a crucial era in Muslim-Christian conflict, but it suffers badly from being truncated at the end and leaving the story dangling halfway.

Mr. Reston is a skilled and highly experienced professional writer who here focuses on the tremendous clash between the Catholic Christian European and Muslim worlds in the 16th century. The struggle was embodied in the titanic figures of Suleyman the Magnificent, who ruled for almost half a century as the greatest of Ottoman Muslim caliphs, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ruled more of Europe than anyone except Napoleon and Hitler ever managed.

The obvious relevance and “marketing hook” of this book is the 21st-century challenge to the West of radical Islam. But the clash of enormous “super-” or even “hyper”- power systems that Mr. Reston describes is more reminiscent of the first quarter-century of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The difference here is that the religious collision between Suleyman and Charles was not merely a Cold War. During the 16 years covered by this narrative, it was repeatedly, endlessly “hot.” The two giant systems clashed in full-scale war head-on and hundreds of thousands died violently on both sides. Christian Europe was always on the defensive.

The Ottoman Turkish drive into the heart of Europe swallowed the entire Balkans and Hungary as well. Hungarian independence was snuffed out for centuries on the tragic battleground of Mohacs field. The Ottoman Turkish drive brought Suleyman’s ferocious janissary elite warriors, the imperial storm troopers or U.S. Marines of their day, all the way to the gates of Vienna in 1526. As Mr. Reston relates, the deliverance of the military and political capital of Christendom was a very close-run thing.

There are fascinating echoes here with modern conflicts and strategic dilemmas. The Christian world was heavily divided and it was going through convulsions itself. Protestantism was being born and modern European nationalism also reared its head, both under the dynamic and preternaturally expressive leadership of Martin Luther in Germany. “Cursed be the pope who has done more harm to the kingdom of Christ than Mohamet,” Luther exclaimed. The millions of Christian soldiers, peasants and their families who were killed, pillaged, raped, enslaved or forcibly converted by Suleyman’s armies understandably would not have agreed with him.

Suleyman was distracted, too, by his Shia Muslim enemies to the east, the Safavid dynasty that ruled Persia, modern Iran. Had it not been for the Persians, Suleyman could have focused his forces to conquer and hold the heart of Europe.

Mr. Reston performs a valuable service by mining a huge library of specialized works to make this compelling and highly relevant story available to the general reading public. He does, however, get bogged down in the minutiae of marches, maneuvers and political intrigues, particularly in the Ottoman capital Constantinople and he is frustratingly deficient on issues of military, tactical, technological and cultural analysis that would explain why the Ottoman drive to the heart of Europe came so close to succeeding in the 1520s but then petered out.

Most frustratingly, Mr. Reston provides only extremely brief notes about the later failure by Suleyman and his successors to capture the island of Malta in 1565-66 and then the defeat of the great Ottoman navy at Lepanto by the Holy League alliance of Spain, Austria, the Pope’s forces and the cities of Venice and Genoa in 1572. The stories of Malta and Lepanto have been told often and well, but they belong here, too.

Mr. Reston does well to quote at length the scathing observations of Suleyman’s Grand Vizier, or prime minister, Ibrahim, that the weaknesses of Spain had all been caused by religious intolerance. Ibrahim claimed the Spanish had crippled themselves by expelling their Jewish and Moorish Muslim minorities 40 years before in 1492. “Such manliness is mere hotheadedness,” he said. “Such false pride is in the blood.”

Nevertheless, Catholic Christian Europe overcame its divisions to survive and flourish in a new age of greatness after the greatest threat it ever faced from the Muslim world. Mr. Reston’s book is a good place to start learning how.

Martin Sieff is a veteran foreign correspondent who has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. His most recent book is “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East” (Regnery, 2008).

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