by Mike Booth
There Was a Time…
There was a time—though nobody’s quite sure of when that was—when the culture clash between Christians and Muslims might have been avoided through mutually respectful conversations and compromises. But that time has passed and no amount of talking now will yield a quick solution. The issues are too encysted, the offenses too damaging, the retributions too exaggerated, the players too polarized. That said, something has to be done at least to try to begin some sort of détente with the Muslim world. The only alternative—an upward spiraling permanent war—would be infinitely worse.
Could some concessions to the Muslims, starting with an acknowledgment of and apology for the high-handed treatment the Christian West has always dispensed to them, serve to improve relations, if only marginally? President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo looked like a tentative step in that direction but was soon buried under the pressure of military expediency.
The always arrogant West seems not to be prepared to bring to the table the first essential ingredient of a fair negotiated solution: respect. Respect for the Muslim people (who consider themselves one family, the ummah, whether they be Arabs, Persians, Indonesians or Spaniards). We’ve always treated them like second-class citizens in their very own countries, which we have marauded and manipulated, humiliated and exploited for the last century. We have never accorded them any respect—a massively important factor in Muslim society and societies they have influenced ever since–and we’re not about to start now.
Many of the world’s Muslims perceive the current jihadi terrorism as a response to centuries of Western disrespect and injustice and, to a certain extent, they’re right. This historic state of affairs came about originally with a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Catholic church. We call them The Crusades, the first of which was organized by Pope Urban II in the year 1095. It’s not clear whether Urban’s motives were religious or geopolitical, as the initiative coincided with the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios the First’s need for military assistance against encroaching Turks. Nor is it clear what right the Crusaders claimed to justify marching across southern Europe and the Levant to make war on Muslims, whose only sin was that of not being good Christians. As it turned out this first Crusade managed to capture Jerusalem and hold the city briefly but the ensuing two-century effort to reconquer the Holy Land by means of six major crusades was unsuccessful.
God Is on Our Side
Religious fanaticism was rampant on both sides and their differences were magnified by the fact that both religions shared the same sacred places in the “Holy Land,” particularly Jerusalem. The Christians were eventually defeated by their impossibly long lines of supply and the Muslim armies under the charismatic leadership of Nur al-Din and Saladin who retook Jerusalem at the end of the 12th century. The Crusader states of the eastern Mediterranean were finally eliminated with the fall of Tripoli in 1289 and Acre in 1291.
The last major Crusade, the Christian Reconquest (Spanish “Reconquista”) of Iberia took place at the other end of the Mediterranean. Under the endorsement of Pope Innocent III a Christian coalition effort managed to push the Moors of al-Andalus southwards down the Iberian peninsula. Between 1212, the year of the resounding Christian victory at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, and 1265 when King Jaume I won a series of important battles in what is today the province of Murcia the Christian armies drove the Moors to the borders of the Emirate of Granada. Granada finally fell to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492, ending 800 years of Moorish domination of most of the Iberian peninsula.
The Reconquest represented a watershed in European history, as a long-standing and highly-civilized culture for its time—the Muslim surgeon, Al-Zahrawi was performing eye, nose and throat operations in 10th-century al-Andalus and his surgical procedures were still taught in medical schools hundreds of years later.– was uprooted and replaced by a retrograde Christian society that harked back to the Dark Ages. Queen Isabella was such a religious zealot that she refused to wash for fear of desecrating the saintliness of her body, becoming notorious for her body odor. One of the first repressive measures she took upon conquering Granada was to close hundreds of public baths, this in a Moorish culture in which personal hygiene was a tenet of their religion. Muslim citizens of al-Andalus were obliged to choose between conversion to Christianity or expulsion. Spain’s Jews and Gypsies were submitted to the same measures. The resulting Muslim-Jewish-Gypsy diaspora fled mainly to the North African Maghreb and the Middle East.
A Mottled History of Injustice
These three ethnic groups still have not forgotten their treatment at the hands of the late Medieval Christians. The Muslims had ruled a relatively peaceful, multi-racial, multi-religious society in most of Iberia for almost 800 years. Little wonder that their descendents feel a vested interest in al-Andalus. For comparison’s sake, count back 800 years from today and we’re looking at the year 1217. By this same yardstick today’s Spaniards would have to wait until the 24th century to have ruled as long as the Moors.
Fast forward some 400 years from the Spanish Reconquista and it’s 1916, in the middle of the First World War. The British and the French were already making contingency plans for how they would redistribute the Mideast after their victory over the Germans and the Ottomans. In the great imperialist tradition they took it upon themselves to carve up the Ottoman nations with no regard for nationalities, tribal affiliations, distribution of resources or other considerations beyond British and French perceptions of their own interests and convenience.
The results of these conversations, once ratified by both colonial governments, became the Sykes-Picot Treaty, an imposed agreement that was an offense to all of the peoples of the Mideast. To many students of the history of the 20th century, Sykes-Picot represents the genesis of virtually all the conflicts in today’s Near East. The unilateral proclamation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land by Great Britain in 1948, did little to placate tensions in the region. Try to imagine, if you will, Britain ceding New England to Paraguay. That’s not an entirely unfair comparison. That said, it should be clear by now that the origins of Muslim grievances date not only from World War I nor the creation of Israel, but go back at least to the First Crusade more than 900 years ago.