The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ...

I was listening to the Sunday political shows as usual, and many of the GOP politicians and pro-Republican commentators continued their standing criticism of the Obama administration for not using the phrase “radical Islam” (or “radical Islamic terrorism“). Recently, President Obama shot back at his critics, making his case for not publicly associating Islam with the violence and killing that ISIL and other terrorists who claim Islamic inspiration are doing.

In a nutshell, the President is trying to say that the terrorists are wrong in that they are not a legitimate part of the Islamic tradition. I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do through his cautious phrasing; but then again, Obama himself is not a Muslim (despite the efforts of many right-wing nuts to paint him as one), nor is he an Islamic scholar. I agree that it is good for the President to communicate to the vast majority of peaceful and patriotic Muslims in our nation and throughout the world that “we know you are better than that”. However, in choosing one’s words so as to make that implication, aren’t you also acknowledging those who believe that there IS a problem inherent to Islam as it presently exists, and that it is responsible for the rising levels of jihadist-inspired violence?

There are other thoughtful commentators who take the position that although the great majority of Muslims do not support and generally oppose jihadist violence, perhaps they are not doing enough to discourage and stop those who become radicalized. Instead of having US government officials say in effect that terrorism is not a legitimate religious practice for those of the Islamic faith, perhaps we need multitudes of Islamic leaders, both secular and religious, who clearly express a ban on politically-inspired jihadist violence, and who firmly teach this to their young members (while strongly condemning all who teach the opposite). Yes, I agree that most Islamic leaders condemn violence, but some informed commentators have questioned whether they are doing all they can, and whether an anti-jihad ethic is (or is in the process of becoming) an inherent if not mandatory part of the Islamic culture.

In situations like this, I like to look to history. So I took a few hours yesterday to refresh myself on the history of warfare and geopolitical conquest between Islam and Christianity (and then with Christianized Western civilization as a whole) since the time of Mohamed. I’ve read a fair amount over the years about the various phases of Islamic history, but I’ve never tried to pull it all together into a unified timeline, so as to see if there is a “grand sweep”. But yesterday I did just that, and there does appear to be an “arc of history” behind the phenomenon of Islamic and Christian (or mostly Christian) armies battling for control of people and territory in what we today would call the European Union (plus Switzerland, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro, which are surrounded by the EU).

What the grand sweep of all the battles over time between Europe and the Islamic powers says to me is that there has been almost constant struggle and bloodshed between Islam and Western civilizations from the time of Mohamed’s death (632 CE) all the way to the end of World War 1 (with the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of secular strong-man governments in the Turkish and Arab lands). I checked a variety of websites offering time-lines of Euro-Islamic history and put together a rough sketch of events that gave me the flavor of the unending battle for the hearts and minds of Europe. I copied my rough time-line with its source links to a PDF file, which you can click and open to peruse for yourself. But don’t say I didn’t warn you, I’m not a professional historian or academic and I don’t claim this to be entirely accurate or comprehensive representation. History is always a lot more subtle than a timeline.

As an over-simplified, not-entirely accurate summary of the major trends in this “grand sweep”, let’s start with Mohamed. Mohamed was certainly an inspired spiritual figure who founded a new faith movement, and he clearly made use of warfare along with proselytizing, organizing and social welfare to guarantee the survival and flourishing of his beliefs. However, Mohamed’s armies stayed within the Arabian peninsula and focused on the tribal culture that he and his followers were familiar with. One could argue that his use of violence was necessary to ensure that the powerful and hostile tribes existing in his desert nation would not persecute and destroy the way to salvation and justification that he and his followers worked so hard to bring to his land, based on their call from Allah. What Mohamed established in his lifetime was not appreciably more radical than the rationale behind the modern state of Israel.

Things changed a bit not long after Mohamed died, however. His relatives and followers soon decided to take their show on the road, so to speak. They had been relatively successful in weaving an Islamic nation together in Arabia, and their military skills had been honed quite finely. But now they were about to venture beyond the land of their once pantheistic tribal leaders and start bringing their new way of faith to those of neighboring lands, many of whom already had well-established monotheistic religious traditions courtesy of the Jewish diaspora or the more recently Christianized Roman Empire. They were going to use their swords and then later their guns to convert those from an established form of monotheism to their own form of it.

And they did quite well! Within 100 years, they took all of Palestine, the middle east, Egypt and northern Africa and had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain and were pushing well into what we now call France. But of course, there was then the Battle of Tours in 732 that marked the high-water mark of the incursion of the Caliphate into western Europe. Slowly over the next 700 years, the Holy Roman Empire and other various medieval kingdoms that succeeded the classical Roman Empire pushed the Islamic forces out of western Europe. In 1492, the final Islamic strongholds in Spain fell.

During those 700 years, however, Islamic forces had various (but short-lived) victories in Sicily and parts of Italy. More significantly, they had grown in power in eastern Europe, as the Byzantine Empire, successor to classical Rome, gradually shrank and ultimately made its last stand in Constantinople in 1453. Over time, the Caliphate and then Turkish forces (the Ottomans) battled and took Asia Minor (Turkey), Greece, Albania and the other Balkan states, and then moved up into Hungary and Austria. They even reached the borders of the Polish and Russian empires and engaged in various battles, although without successful incursions into these lands. Islamic troops tried several times to take Vienna (in 1529 and 1683), but did not succeed. The high-water mark of the Ottoman Empire was reached in the early 16th Century, and by 1600 the first signs of retrenchment became apparent.

Before considering the decline and eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century, we should take a moment to consider what was going on in western Europe as the main stage of encounter slowly shifted to the east during the 10th, 11th and 12th Centuries. As Islam in Spain declined, most of modern France, Italy and Germany were free of any Islamic interference. In fact, these lands were making something of a come-back under leaders such as Charlemagne and Pippin. They decided to use some of their growing strength to go on the offensive, and thus the time of the Crusades began (with the First Crusade in 1096). Eight major Crusades, lasting until the end of the 13th Century, had some success in re-taking and temporarily holding “the holy lands” in Palestine, Syria and Egypt.

However, the Crusaders were defeated over time by the Islamic sultans, and thus did little to help the Byzantine Empire stem its declines. The Roman / Eastern Christianity schism took place in 1054, just before the Crusades began, which meant that the western “Franks” failed to cooperate and often fought against the interests of the Byzantines. The Crusades were almost as much about Rome trying to subjugate Constantinople as it was about trying to defeat the Saracens. Just as the internecine battles between the Sunni and Shia factions would eventually sap the strength of Islam, the Christian schism also helped to ensure the political decline of Christianity on Europe’s eastern flank.

Although the Arab caliphates were losing their power as the Islamic “Golden Age” came to an end in the 13th Century (partly due to the growth of Shia in Persia and the Frankish Crusades, but mostly because of the Mongol invasions), the Turks of Asia Minor were able to pick up the torch and become defender of the people of the Prophet and the Book (although admittedly, the Ottoman Empire was more tolerant of Jews and Christians living within its bounds). From the 14th to 17th Centuries, the Turks spread their power from Iran and Ethopia to Tunisia, and from the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea and the gates of Vienna.

And yet, after 1600, the cultures and traditions of southern Europe began to re-assert themselves, and battles continued into the 18th and 19th centuries to oust the Ottomans. An industrializing western Europe was now on the rise, and its influences could be felt in the east. Of course, there was Napoleon and his short-lived re-taking of Egypt in 1798; but in 1882, the British Empire moved into Egypt, to protect its interest in world trade (i.e. the building of a Suez Canal). The Enlightenment world was changing, and the Islamic east was not keeping up with progress in science and industry and trade (ironic given the great civilizational accomplishments of the Caliphate while Europe struggled in its Dark Ages). In 1832, with the help of the British and French, Greece declared its independence from the Ottomans.

The new rising Euro powers had their own donnybrook starting in 1914 (with the assignation of Duke Ferdinand and the start of WW1), to find out who was going to run the show. The Ottomans picked the wrong side in that fight, and with the British and French victory came the western re-arrangement of the middle east. Given the success of Ataturk in post-Ottoman Turkey, the stage was set for the rise of secular nation states in the Arab and Persian lands. Unfortunately, after they had been given their independence, these states devolved into strong-man governments lacking commitment to democracy and human rights — e.g. Nasser in Egypt, the Iranian Shahs, the Saudi princes, the al Assads in Syria, Sadam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (and now Ergodan in Turkey). Unfortunately, as the 20th Century progressed, these semi-westernized leaders inspired a backlash due to their cruelties and corruptions, leading to a newfound interest in Sharia law and in renewal of armed struggle against the west. Modern progress could not wipe away over a millennium of tradition in a mere half century.

So . . . perhaps we are overestimating the powers of our modern post-Enlightnment culture in believing that our technology and rationality and democratic ways have the power to erase all that had inspired the long struggle between Islam and the West until not so long ago. It is instructive to note that Euro culture itself once held similar beliefs regarding the need for violence and conquest to save the souls of those who do not accept and do not readily adopt the “true” faith. Recall the 16th century and the incursions of the various Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors into Latin America to defeat the Aztec, Inca, Maya and Muisca civilizations. The Franciscans and other missionary orders usually followed the generals so as to bring salvation to the militarily defeated pagans.

In a way, these “new world” conquests (both military and missionary, which went hand-in-hand) can be seen as part of the same tapestry as the Crusades and the overall “long struggle” with Islam. This is just a guess on my part, but perhaps the ocean-going Spaniards and Portuguese were worried that the Ottomans might eventually use their own fleet to cross the ocean and conquer the new world in the name of Islam (and in the name of gold and lucrative trade, just as the Iberian Christians desired). Recall that in the late 1500s, the Ottoman Empire was a major sea power, and that it held territory along the Mediterranean as far west at Algeria and was sailing ships in the eastern Atlantic. One might imagine that the conquistadors and their kings and queens were looking over their shoulder at the Ottomans, just as the United States tried to pre-empt Soviet intrusions into emerging states around the world in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s (recall the Vietnam War). Perhaps their Christianization of the new world at the barrel of a musket was more truly inspired by their desire to protect this new source of treasures and wealth from Islamic encroachment than to spread the Gospel of Jesus. They certainly would not have been imagining the tendency of Islamic forces to do exactly what they were now doing, i.e. forcing the defeated natives to adopt their own religion and culture.

Christianity did have a Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and eventually lost some of its missionary zeal — the missionaries would no longer have the benefit of musket and canon. Some Islamic commentators (especially Reza Aslan) argue that Islam is now at the door of its own reformation process, of its own effort to align itself with the modern world (and at the same time offer a valid critique to the many flaws and spiritual failings of techno-modernism — are all our smart phones and smart cars and smart everything-else really making us happy?). Arguably, the renewed interest in jihad will turn out to be a temporary diversion, part of the process by which Islam itself will eventually find renewed meaning and direction in a more positive and non-violent fashion.

That notion does offer hope; but it is a process that we non-Islamic westerners cannot do much to promote or encourage. It will need to unfold according to its own dynamic. Our debates about whether to use Islam as an adjective in describing the awful acts that will eventually be seen by all Muslims (hopefully) as a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to recapture past glories probably won’t make much difference to them in the end.

Our society has the right to defend itself (including better control of refugees from troubled Islamic lands), and our calls for more Islamic effort to help prevent radicalization and jihadist incidents are not unfounded. But retribution or barring all Muslims from crossing our borders will not work (we have about 1,500 years of history which proves that!). About all we can do to support the eventual Islamic reformation is to avoid giving in to the temptation to compromise what is best about ourselves. We need to protect the fruits of our own enlightenments and reformations, even in the face of terroristic fears and threats. I hope that we can do it, and that our children will live to see a day when the long struggle between the West and Islam is finally brought to a close.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:20 pm      

  1. Jim, What a good history of the radical aspect of the two religions, Islam and Christianity; and because it is such a good history, I do not think I’ll have much to say here, just a few odd tho’ts of my own.

    I find myself wondering just why it is that these 2 religions have such a tendency toward politics and the military, which then seems to make both of them, at various times, have a radical streak. (Or so it seems to me.)

    But when I think about it is there much of the Bible (can’t speak for the Quran as I haven’t read it) has a tendency toward violence of some kind, going back to Abraham being told by God to kill his son. Seems both religions have this tendency toward violence when it comes to those who do not agree with them. Strange we should wonder about our own society, which in some ways, expresses its violence in psychological ways (bullying, etc.)—which might just be a technological update of the violence that went before.

    There have been times I’ve tho’t that Islam as a religion has not yet caught up with “the times”. Not that Christianity is much better; but Christianity has taken a more psychological approach to it all rather than physical violence in latter days.

    In the end it seems to me that the 3 religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have basically turned into not much more than a different version of politics and search for power. Even Israel is doing its best (so it seems to me) to eradicate the Palestinians, who themselves want to eradicate the Israelis. Hard to tell which came first, the chicken or the egg on that one.

    Christianity certainly was built on a military/political foundation when Constantine made it the official religion of his territories. Christians went from one day persecuted to the next day in charge; seems the power went to their head.

    I wonder what a religion based on cooperation between/among peoples would be like; I wonder what a religion based on peace would be like. Yes, there are the Quakers and there is Buddhism. (But is Buddhism a religion? I’ve always been told it is not.) I don’t know much about other Eastern religions so cannot say if they are based on a tendency less toward violence and more toward peace.

    I read today about 3 nuns who lived and worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo being killed outright for no seeming reason, all older nuns who worked with the poor for years. Why must a religion have martyrs? Then there are the martyrs of Central America.

    Another thing I find myself almost afraid of is that we have traveled now to Jupiter. I wonder: Are we carrying “our violence” out into space? If we are: Good grief! Anybody “out there” be forewarned!

    Finally, you’ve got me wondering what a religion based on cooperation, harmony, and peace among peoples would be like. I don’t think we’ve seen any, except perhaps Buddhism. But there is a tendency in Buddhism to “accept this teaching or that teaching” too, altho as far as I know no one has suffered martyrdom for not accepting this or that teaching in Buddhism. If I have it right, Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism, right? Is Hinduism then a peaceful religion? It seems to be a combination of a lot of various teachings. Obviously, I know very little about Hinduism.

    More questions than answers in this comment.

    The saddest part of all this is that all three religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) seem to me to be one; they are like three brothers/sister fighting among themselves. Each religion somehow flows from the other and seems to have picked up the worst of the one that went before. How about these 3 closely related religions deciding to get along and get rid of violence of every kind? Now there would be a first for a group of related religions to start practicing. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 6, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

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