Starbucks’ Islamic Brew

Starbucks is the symbol of American capitalism, but it's principle product was first brought to the West by an Islamic empire

Few major streets in any capital city now lack a branch of Starbucks, the brand that has overtaken McDonald’s as a symbol of American influence. An urban oasis where visitor and local alike may cheerfully ignore one another, Starbucks represents the globalisation of the café culture of old Europe in its most democratic form.

Yet consider for a moment the deeper significance of this triumph of American capitalism. What do people mainly drink at Starbucks? Coffee – a beverage first brought to the West by the Ottoman Turks, for centuries the superpower of the Muslim world.

According to Terror and Toleration, Paula Sutter Fichtner’s fascinating history of how the Habsburg Empire confronted Islam between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Turks made “black water” (as coffee was initially known) fashionable at first with their embassies. When diplomatic missions of East and West met, they used the new drink – sweetened and perfumed – as a ceremonial toast more suitable than wine for a prohibitionist Muslim culture.

It was only after the second siege of Vienna in 1683 that the Turks retreated once and for all, leaving behind a trail of devastation. But once the Ottomans were no longer seen as a threat, their luxuries became very popular and the taste for coffee spread rapidly across Europe. Those who regard Starbucks as a hateful symbol of American cultural hegemony should be reminded that the rise of the coffee house (like Turkish baths, Arabic numerals and much else besides) is actually a legacy of Islamic imperialism.

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