Islam and Christianity

When the Soviet empire fell, articles appeared speculating that the next big threat to the West would be Islam. In the United States and, to a lesser extent in Europe, Muslims (or Moslems - pick your spelling) are considered something alien. When you feel out Belgians on their prejudices, once you get past French or Flemish (depending on whether they are Flemish or French speaking) you find Moroccan - a term used for all Muslims.

Yet in Iran (before the fall of the Shah) we found Jews, a group said to date from the time of the Babylonian Captivity, prospering. And many Christians, and others such as Zoroastrians. In Damascus there are Christians and Jews, not held there against their wills but because they want to stay and can prosper. In Jordan there are many Christians. In Turkey until WW1 a large part of the population was Christian. Indonesia is not only said to be the largest Muslim country, it is also a major Christian country. Egypt has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. There were (and generally still are) Christians in senior government positions in every Islamic country we visited.

Why is there such a fear in the West of Islam in the west, when Islam is clearly not a threat to Christianity or Judaism as religions, or Christians or Jews as individuals? I submit that there are two sources of this fear.

Subconscious Memory

The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, and of Mohammed, as recorded in the Koran, are very similar. Both were clearly concerned with reforming a religious situation which they saw as having gotten away from the truth. They both preached the worship of A God, very similar systems of laws and ethics for the earthly life, and reward in the afterlife for obedience. Both taught toleration and forgiveness.

And the practices of early Christianity and Islam were very similar: profession, prayer, tithing or alms, fasting and pilgrimage. (If you doubt the latter for Christianity, consider the year 2000. Rome officials figure they had 25 million visitors in 2000, up 25% on 1999. Now certainly not all of them were religious pilgrims (we weren't), but presuming that some normal tourists would have stayed away because of the Year of Jubilee hype, it would be safe to say that something on the order of 10 million were pilgrims. That is many more than visited Mecca in the same year.) Both consider(ed) women second class. Both religions were very egalitarian, and some branches have never developed any sort of hierarchy of leaders. (Shia Islam and the church of Rome are the largest sections that ended up with a formal hierarchy.)

Why then were there in 1900 Christians and Jews in large numbers throughout the Muslim world, and no Muslims to speak of in western Europe? Why do European Renaissance town clocks portray death as the Turk, and educated westerners write stories about the threat of the star and crescent?

Much of the reason, I submit, is a a subconscious memory. Western Europe for 1000 years saw itself threatened by the armies of Islam. Few Americans are aware of that history, but the reflex is still there.

Islam is unique as a religion, and nearly unique as a political institution, in the speed with which it spread. More was conquered faster by Alexander and Jengis Khan, but with their deaths their empires split up. Islam just kept rolling. Perhaps the only parallel in European and Mediterranean history is the continued spread of Rome for 200 years after the death of Julius Caesar.

The official founding date of Islam is 622, the Hegira. When Mohammed died 10 years later the movement controlled much of what is now Saudi Arabia. By 672 Muslim armies had conquered the rest of the Middle East, Persia and part of what is now Pakistan, to the west what is now Egypt and Libya, and to the north were knocking on the gates of Constantinople.

The northern thrust was then defeated by the Byzantines and fell back to what is roughly now the border between Turkey and Syria. But that did not stop the advance elsewhere. Islam continued across north Africa to the Atlantic and then turned north into Spain. By 732 they were most of the way to Paris. They were stopped at the Battle of Tours and fell back just below the modern border of Spain.

The extent of the threat posed by the Muslims (typically called Saracens by medieval Europeans) as seen by the Christian powers in Europe was not just political. Islam had taken much of the heartland of Christianity in SW Asia and north Africa. Europe north of the Alps was by no means firm Christian territory. East of the Rhine and in the Baltics Christianity hardly existed. And even though the main northwestern thrust of Islam was stopped in 732, much of Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and parts of the coastlines of France and Italy were controlled by Muslim governments for many centuries.

For 700 years the fear of and fight against Islam in the west was a central feature of European geopolitics. In 1098 western Europe took the fight to the Middle East with the Crusades, but the period of bloody occupation of Jerusalem (the Cross Carriers did not consider non-Roman Christians or Jews as worthy of partnership) lasted less than 100 years and the last of the westerner forces were pushed out of the region less than 100 years after that. (One of the major disasters of this period was the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 - for which Pope John Paul II apologized during a visit to Greece in early 2001.)

Before the threat in the west was finally removed with the capture of Granada in 1492, a new front had opened in the east. A Turkish tribe led by a man called Othman had adopted Islam before or as it migrated into what is now Turkey around 1200. They slowly spread their influence in what is now Turkey and the Balkans, being very visible to western Europe by 1355. In 1453 they conquered Constantinople and finally ended the Roman Empire 1000 years after the fall of Rome. By 1526 they had Hungary and what became Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and most of Rumania. They knocked on the door of Vienna in 1529. At this time they also were pretty much in control of shipping in the Med. Constantinople, now renamed Istanbul, became the cultural center of Europe.

They remained in firm control of much of eastern Europe for over 100 years, with occasional battles on land and sea, before the tide turned. (Of course, western Europe was occupied with the Christian Wars - AKA 30 Years War - from 1618 to 1648, and had little strength to spare on the Turks. In fact the Ottoman Empire was allied with France during most of that war.) However, it was nearly 400 years - until 1918 - before the Turks had been pushed back into what is now Turkey. And even that did not remove Islam from the Balkans, as we see in Bosnia and Albania today.

Islam in the meantime had long ceased to be a united political force, but had continued spreading in the same ways that Christianity did: missionaries and occasional conversion of leaders. Through the Mongols and Turks it reached China, and from there into the Malaysia and Indonesia. Within the areas controlled by Islamic rulers there was rarely any forced conversion as was practiced in particular by the Bishop of Rome (where he could) and Spain. Conversion was by persuasion. And refugee Jews and Christians, particularly from Spain after 1500, added to the numbers of non believers, particularly in major centers such as Istanbul. Hence you had in 1900 no areas outside the Arabian Peninsula that were totally Muslim.

In addition to toleration, the Islamic powers (with important centers in Spain, Morocco, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Persia, Samarkand, and later Constantinople and India) were for most of 1000 years far ahead of Europe in the things we consider civilization - philosophy, the physical sciences, medicine, architecture, poetry.

But pendulums swing. Around 1400 CE Europe began to awaken. Universities were founded, mass production of the written word was developed, universal education (at least for males) was promulgated by Erasmus and his spiritual successors, and then the conquest and rape of the central and south America created a great flow of money - gold. Western Europe slowly crept up and finally ahead in population and technical skill. After 1800 the industrial revolution enabled European powers to gradually take over northern Africa and much of the Balkans. Concurrently the vigor of the Islamic powers in India, the Ottoman Empire and Persia was in decline. By 1918 much of the Muslim world had been chopped into colonies of France, Britain, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Russia. When the victorious western leaders met at Versailles it appeared to them that they could and would dictate the future. They drew up maps of the world, creating borders where none had existed before, dividing most of Africa and much of Asia into their colonies.

Recent Events

The relative strength of the west has if anything increased since 1918. Why then does the west consider Islam a threat?

First, a generality: Muslims have a long history of reasons to fear Christian governments. While Muslim governments practically never persecuted or tried to ethnically cleanse Christians and Jews, Christian governments (and lately Israel) have often done that.

Ibn Saud and the Wahabis From shortly after the death of Mohammed until 1926, the holy places of Islam were controlled by sophisticated, educated elites in Damascus, Baghdad and then Istanbul. In 1926 the Wahabi sect took control of the holiest places of Islam, Mecca and Medina. This is a puritanical sect born in the Arabian desert and based on the teachings of Mohammed Abd. al Wahhab (1703 - 1792). This event was equivalent to the Christian right taking over the government of the United States and throwing out the Constitution.

Ibn Saud was a skillful and lucky military leader who happened to be around at the moment that Turkish power in the Saudi peninsula was destroyed in WW1. With the Ottoman forces gone and the western victors uninterested in the deserts, he had a free hand to take over.

Suddenly the holy places were in the control of a desert sect that has since used those pulpits to impress a single, extremely limited and intolerant version of Islam on pilgrims.

Modern Transportation The pilgrimage (haj) to Mecca was until the 19th century limited to those with the time to walk there, and or the time and money to go by sailing ship. Pilgrims were counted in thousands each year. Soon after the Wahabi conquest, modern transportation enabled increasing numbers of pilgrims and oil allowed the Saudi government to support those growing numbers. There are now several million pilgrims a year, a large percentage non-Arabs who cannot read Arabic and come from non-Arab traditions. But they are taught the Wahabi way, and the devout take that word home.

Perhaps more important for the question at hand is the tendency of the press to portray Islam as Arab and Saudi. The press look at the spiritual center of Islam and act as if it reflects all of Islam. This has created a popular perception that ignores the fact that the majority of Muslims are not Arab, and the Saudis are a small percentage of the Arabs.

Population Growth

The legitimization of ethnic cleansing Human history is crammed with fights (wars) about who is in charge, and the winners would demand obedience. Sometimes the winners would also demand worship of some particular religion, but that trait was primarily restricted to western Christians. The concept of simply getting rid of some group because of what they were was not even feasible through most of history - the winners needed manpower to get things done, and rarely had enough of their own. The losers might be made slaves, but the most successful empires survived and prospered by co-opting and absorbing conquered peoples. (Note that there is general agreement that the first claimed ethnic cleansing, as recorded in the old testament, was not cleansing at all. Some populations of resisting cities were probably slaughtered, but not all the non-Jews.)

The 19th century saw the first wide scale intentional extermination of others by the United States and Britain. In the United States and Australia, this at times included government bounties for dead natives. Extermination was industrialized under Hitler, though more people died by Stalin's methods.

It is no surprise that extremists of all kinds (certainly including American racists) have decided that they like the idea of ethnic cleansing. And not just extremists. The requirement for groups different from the rulers to merge is in fact fairly widespread. For example, in Indonesia the large Chinese community has been forced to take "Indonesian" names, and the teaching or public display of the Chinese language banned. (This may have changed since the revolution.)

Ethnic cleansing was in fact never the policy of any Muslim government prior to 1900. Where it has been practiced since (major examples are Armenians and Kurds in Turkey, and Kurds in Iraq), it has been normally on ethnic rather than religious grounds. (Afghanistan today is an exception.) And so far as I can tell, the migration after 1948 of Jews from the Arab world was in no cases forced by the host government. (It was certainly encouraged by Zionist propaganda warning of impending pogroms - which never materalized.)

But popular perception in the west is different. Every time someone calls for a jihad (which in any case means war, not cleansing), it makes the western press. It does not matter that those so calling typically have little or no power.

Israel Whatever your view on the merits, the fact is that millions of outsiders have settled in Palestine. And those outsiders have systematically oppressed the non-Jews (a large minority of the population in 1900 was Christian) in the area. Property is confiscated with no compensation, assassination, torture and detention without any form of trial are common, expulsion has been common at times. Buildings and groves are routinely destroyed in the name of security. Punishing an entirely family by destroying their home, because one son is suspected of being anti-Israeli, is common. Students have often been denyed schooling, either by outright closure of schools and universities or travel restrictions that make it impossible to get to the school. And thousands of innocents have been killed in artillery attacks and such - attacks justified by the thought that some bad people might be in some location. The West Bank has been carved into scores of small reservations for non-Jews - Bantustans. Travel between the reservations is often banned on security grounds, particularly for every major Israeli holiday. Even non-Jews who remained inside Israel proper in 1948 are definitely second class citizens.

Now it comes as no surprise to me that the non-Jews object to this treatment. And what better way to cultivate terrorists than to deny teens education and jobs?

Other countries with such policies have been subjected to boycotts and even outright military attack by the United States. (Yugoslavia is the most recent example of the latter.) Yet Israel is given complete support, including a financial welfare program that gives Israel over $1,000 per Jewish (non-Jews receive virtually no benefit) capita per year.

Perhaps worse, the American political establishment and press repeat the Israeli government line on all events. Arabs are always portrayed as murderers who have not shaved lately.

It is long past time for the west to learn that Islam is no worse as a religion than Christianity. Muslims come in every color, speak dozens of languages, and have government systems ranging from dictatorships to democracies. And Islam is no more a unitary religion than is Christianity. To condemn all of Islam for the deeds and words of a minority is exactly as nonsensical as condemning all of Christianity because of Nazi Germany. And to deny human rights to any group is a violation of the whole concept.

last update 29 May 2001

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