Neither a Suicide Noose nor a Sword of Vengeance

You can use history to fashion a suicide noose or a sword to wield against others. Europe has fared somewhat better than America in the face of the current Cultural Revolution launched by a generation of new Jacobins. Churchill and Napoleon, even Columbus and Cecil Rhodes still stand. But the ideological onslaught is relentless. Revolutionaries seek not only to remake the present and shape the future but to rewrite the past. Fashioning a guilty history—deeming country’s past to be uniquely racist and oppressive—seems an essential element of this ongoing revolutionary work (“revolutionaries” with corporate sponsorship) in the West.

Whilst European statues may have fared better than American ones, European football teams have felt compelled to bend the knee, buildings and prizes have been renamed, and the whole panoply of the Antifa/BLM Industrial Complex has been translated into the languages of the old continent. The angst and self-loathing are already there.

Examining this phenomenon, so pronounced in the United States but also present to some extent throughout the whole West, has been an interesting exercise for me as a former American diplomat. Especially given that I was a diplomat who often specialized on topics like propaganda and ideology. This ideological self-abasement and masochism seem primarily a Western phenomenon, spreading across a region that, despite wealth and power, represents only a small minority of the world’s population. There is certainly no appetite for this sort of revisionism in China or Russia or India, and none that I can see in Africa or Southeast Asia, and definitely not in the Muslim world, that massive swathe of territory stretching from North Africa to Central Asia, that has produced so much of the recently arrived immigrant population in the West.

Some who come to the West are precisely fleeing the worldview of this region—fleeing Islamism, fleeing intolerance against religious minorities, avoiding war, and escaping violence towards homosexuals, freethinkers, and heretics. But many who come to the West bring with them the spirit of the persecutors rather than the persecuted. Such people bring a historical narrative that dominates in the lands of Islam, a narrative of victory, of supremacy, of long-nurtured resentment towards the West for perceived past wrongs. And this is a mindset not limited to Jihadists, Islamists, and Turkish Grey Wolves. Not for them are Westerners’ thoughts of civilizational suicide and exhaustion, and of self-loathing, but a potted, popular history of both grievance and power, spanning centuries.

The persistence of this Islamist worldview should not surprise us. For almost a thousand years, from the 7th century to the 16th century, Islam—in its various empires and states—was clearly a militarily and technologically superior rival of a besieged and defensive Christian West. The fall of Granada, the two broken sieges at Vienna, the Christian victory at Lepanto and, especially, the inexorable advance of Western colonialism and imperialism in the early modern period would be shocks to a Muslim world more accustomed to triumph than defeat. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it is the West that believed in its innate superiority and—a few naysayers like Sir Richard Burton and Hilaire Belloc notwithstanding—was certain of the permanent decay and decline of Islam.

The new book by Dr. Luigi Andrea Berto, Professor of Medieval History at Western Michigan University, is a bracing contradiction to narratives of Western evil and Eastern virtue. The relatively short (172 pages) Christians under the Crescent and Muslims under the Cross (Routledge, 2020) was likely intended as a volume for upper-level university undergraduates, but works well as a useful corrective to facile historical narratives by introducing much needed complexity and contradiction to the ever more polemical topic of historic Muslim-Christian relations.

If one wanted to construct a history of (relative) Islamic tolerance through the ages, the material is there. And if one wanted to construct another emphasizing intolerance, those building blocks exist as well. The challenge is to neither idealize nor demonize historical actions. By dealing with both “Others,” Christians under Islam and Muslims under Christianity, Berto subverts well established narratives—there are examples of (relative) tolerance by Catholic kings in Spain and Sicily, even by Crusaders, towards Muslims. And Muslims not only employed Christian scribes and scholars, but at times hired Christian knights as mercenaries against other Muslims (some Christian kings had Muslims in their personal guard). Both sides used physicians from the other faith (as well as Jewish physicians). Spanish Catholic monarchs had favored Muslim carpenters, jewelers and tailors. Both sides were tolerant and intolerant in similar ways at different times when they were in dominant positions dealing with subject peoples of a different faith.

Berto does leave out one of the more startling early examples of military tolerance in Islamic history, an example that can discomfit young Muslims used to a simplistic image of formative Islam: the battle of Harra in 683 A.D. when a mixed Muslim-Christian Syrian army sent by the Caliph Yazid triumphed over Muslim rebels and then proceeded to sack the holy city of Medina for three days. The Christian Arab Beni Kalb tribe were mainstays of early Umayyad rule.

Outside the scope of this study, the example of hundreds of thousands of faithful Muslim colonial troops fighting for the British Empire and the French Republic in the First and Second World Wars should not be forgotten. The recent French film Indigenes (2006), about North African Free French troops and the discrimination they suffered, has made this history better known. Less well known, certainly not acknowledged in Turkey, is the case of faithful Ottoman Armenian soldiers in World War One who were disarmed, formed into unarmed labor battalions and then slaughtered by their own country.

Even after the Armenian Genocide and the 1923 exchange of populations, Republican Turkey repeatedly used punitive laws, taxation and pogroms to decrease its remaining Christian and Jewish populations. In the same century, within living memory, other independent post-colonial Muslim governments forced out some of their minorities: Jews throughout the Middle East, Italians from Tunisia, Greeks and Levantine Christians from Egypt. Communities, some of them hundreds of years old, were demolished not by Islamist terrorism but by deliberate state action. What an irony it is to see calls for diversity and special treatment for Muslims in the West by the regimes that intentionally destroyed their own religious diversity—and not in the Middle Ages but in the 20th century, without pity or apology.

The Muslim conquerors of the 7th century were tolerant of their subject Christian populations. It was later, in the 8th and 9th centuries, that the purpose emerged to impose “an ever-lengthening series of limitations and prohibitions” on Christians to underscore their inferior legal status and encourage conversions. Not surprisingly, when Catholic kings conquered Muslim populations in Spain, they initially imposed their version of a punitive jizya tax on Muslims, similar to that which Christians had paid under the rule of the Crescent. There is no reason to think that this was not as onerous and demeaning for Muslims as it had been for Christians during centuries of Muslim rule. Jizya could be between 10% to 30% of a subject’s income, it was a heavy weight indeed on larger families.

The Crusader slaughter of Muslims and Jews at the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 is well known to this day, and is much used in modern rhetoric, but the slaughter of Christians at the hands of Muslims in the 19th and 20th century is less known. In the past, Muslim rulers spared Christian populations just as King Ferdinand III of Castile spared the Muslim populations of Seville and Cordoba (they were expelled from those cities). Like the Muslims, the Christians in Spain were initially more tolerant conquerors, becoming less so over time until the fall of Al-Andalus.

Berto makes the important point that discriminatory laws and prohibitions were often issued but not always enforced, both by Muslims and Christians. Death penalties issued to minorities—Muslim and Christian—were not always carried out, even on issues as charged as apostasy and sexual immorality. In theory, Christians under Islam should not have held offices which would place them in authority over Muslims—but that did happen, in Damascus, Baghdad, Palermo and Cairo. Furthermore, two Ottoman Sultans in the 16th and 17th century wanted to forcibly convert the entire Balkan Christian subject population to Islam but were talked out of it by Muslim religious authorities.

There were also times when Christians were indeed presented with the choice of conversion or death, as Muslims were later—in Spain—given the option of conversion or expulsion. Conversions occurred mostly for social and economic reasons, and Sultan Mehmet IV offered special cash prizes to Christian converts to Islam, prizes that were bigger for a convert who was a priest or bishop. Muslims under Christian rule also willingly converted to Christianity, and this happened in Syria (under both Byzantines and Latin Crusaders), Sicily and Spain.

Even though renegade Christians often had a dubious reputation for morality (some converted to Islam in order to avoid punishment or to obtain a divorce), other conversions were sincere. And just as there were Moriscos (Muslims forcibly converted and pretending to be Christians in Spain) so there were also crypto-Christians pretending to be Muslims who endured for centuries. Berto presents the fascinating example of a 17,000 strong community of secret Christians that emerged in Pontus after the liberal Ottoman Tanzimat reforms of 1839 promulgated, at least in principle, the concept of religious freedom. Decades later some Armenians would seek to save themselves from the slaughter of the Genocide by converting to Islam.

Although this is a short book, which is essentially a broad survey of historical processes, by it I was glad to reacquaint myself with some fascinating historical figures, such as those fabulous Phanariot Greeks in the service of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. And the brilliant George of Antioch, the 12th century Levantine Christian administrator and admiral who ably served first the Tunisian Muslim Zirid dynasty and then the Norman King Roger II of Sicily. And Gabriel Noradunkyan, the Istanbul Armenian son of a baker who rose to become a high-ranking Ottoman official, including Foreign Minister in 1913.

With the world increasingly thrown together by globalization and migration, and with a West seemingly at bitter cultural war with itself, a more realistic and nuanced view of history is a must—one that avoids judging the past with the unreasonable and fast-changing standards of today. The West was not always the oppressor it is often portrayed to have been. Certainly, conquest and slavery were not unique to the West. Indeed, the enslaving of Western European Christians by Muslims, particularly by North African corsairs, lasted for centuries before petering out finally in the early 19th century.

Many Muslims also would benefit from coming to terms with the dark and bright corners of their own history, with the complexities and contradictions, rather than seeing it all through the prism of anti-Western, antisemitic or anti-Christian rhetoric, which is still so prevalent on a popular level. Ahistorical Islamist fantasies about the supposed righteous behavior of early Islamic rulers have not only contributed to the slaughter of Christians and Jews in recent decades but also to the persecution of Muslims themselves at the hands of Islamic rigorists. The martyrs Farag Foda and Mahmud Muhammad Taha were neither Westerners nor Christians.

Perhaps societies less concerned with supposed past guilt and past grievances, less obsessed with undoing the past, will be more likely to try to improve our present condition and bring about a better future. It is truer to say that we, as a collective, are not guilty of some ancient and imagined civilizational historical burden and neither are our Muslim neighbors, or that we are equally guilty together. The West needs no suicide pact and the East no sword of vengeance. Oppression, conquest, slavery, and exploitation are part of the shared human condition and not the exclusive property of a specific civilization. Berto rightly points out that complex and contradictory histories of nuanced intercommunal relations in the lands of Islam were forgotten in times of tumult, war, and catastrophe. That is often when minorities were slaughtered and extremists were listened to by the masses. We should not forget that we too are living through times of tumult.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.


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