Convivencia and Muslims

* This article was originally presented at the NATO Air Force Chaplains’ Conference i
n Tromsø, Norway on 17 June 1999.
It was revised and presented as a College Lights Lecture, “Muslims, Tolerance, and History,”
on 9 November 1999 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
My thanks to William Merryman, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, and Sylvia Hoffert for their suggestions.

A few years ago, The Economist cover screamed “Not Again,” as the illustration below showed Crusaders and Muslims engaged in combat on horseback. Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order had become a New York Times bestseller. The popular US television news magazine Twenty-Twenty presented a segment called “American Jihad.” On the other side of the Atlantic, British correspondent Clare Hollingworth warned in “Another Despotic Creed Seeks to Infiltrate the West” that

Muslim fundamentalism is fast becoming the chief threat to global peace and security as well as a cause of national and local disturbance through terrorism. It is akin to the menace posed by Nazism and fascism in the 1930s and then by communism in the ‘50s.1Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation : Religion and Politics in the Middle East (London : I. B. Tauris, 1996), 185.

Der Spiegel devoted a whole issue to the resurgence of Islam, complete with alarming photographs. Jeffrey Tayler claims that

colloquially, the word immigré has become something close to a slur, evoking larcenous, dark-skinned Muslim freeloaders who demand more and more social benefits from the state as they inundate, pollute, and subvert La France française.2Jeffrey Tayler, “Another French Revolution,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2000, 59.

The resurgence of Islam.

On both sides of the Atlantic, in the academic as well as the policy-making communities, fear seems to be the dominant motif underlying studies and proclamations about Islam and Islamic political movements. The rise of Islamic political movements and continuing conflicts in the Middle East have been presented by scholars, politicians and the entertainment industry as merely the latest reflection of an inherent Muslim propensity toward violence, an essential character that has poisoned relations between the Muslim world and the Christian world for centuries.

What I hope to do is to re-interpret that myth by looking at both a long-ago past and a more recent past. From a historical point of view, the relationship between the Muslim and Christian worlds cannot be construed as one of essential, timeless antagonism. Moreover, the rise of Islamic political movements is a reflection not of centuries-long conflicts, but of new realities in the Middle East dating only from the nineteenth century. I speak today as a historian who studies and teaches about the Muslim world. It seems crucial, in analyzing the proliferating alarms, to look to the past for an accurate assessment of the relations between the Muslim and Christian worlds, and to discover the origins for both the rise of Islamic political movements and the growing Western dread of Muslims.

Myths and History

Today’s headlines are based on two myths. First, they assume an inherent conflict, for all time, between the Muslim world and the Christian world. This battle is presented as a result of civilization, of essential nature, of good and evil. Second, the myth assumes that the Muslim world is intent on conquest and domination at any cost, even through the use of terror.

I will argue that there is little historical evidence to suggest that Muslims have been intolerant of Christians and Jews. In addition, I hope to show that the current inflammatory rhetoric should be understood in its context. In aggressive statements by both Muslims and non-Muslims, we can detect a set of underlying goals that can be served by the civilizational struggles they predict.

I continue to use the word “Muslims.” A Muslim is one who believes in the one God, and that Muhammad was the final messenger of God. French-speakers call God “Dieu.” Spanish-speakers call God “Dios.” Arabic-speakers, whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, call God “Allah.” There have been many people throughout history who have claimed to speak for Islam, the faith to which Muslims adhere. But since the 600s, Muslims have recognized no single religious dignitary with the right to speak for the community. There is no Pope, no Patriarch, no head of the Church. Through the centuries, Muslims have disagreed on basic issues, including how rule was to be carried out, where Truth comes from, what to do in cases of unjust leadership, which version of Muhammad’s life to accept. It is important to recognize that there is a wide spectrum of opinion on many central issues.

For our purposes, the notions of ahl al-kitab, jihad, and dar al-Islam are central. I want to outline the spectrum of beliefs for all three.

  • Ahl al-Kitab: ‘Peoples of the Book.’ Muslims believe that God provided revelation to many peoples before Muhammad. Jews and Christians have received revelation from the same God, and therefore they are to be respected and protected. (Indeed, the Muslim revelation, the Qur’an, recognizes Jesus’ virgin birth and miracles, devotes a chapter to Mary, recognizes that Jesus is not dead, and predicts the second coming.) During the initial conquest into Byzantine areas, Muslim armies offered all towns capitulation terms that provided security for life and property on payment of taxes to the new government. This status did not confer equality, but it did guarantee tolerance.
  • Jihad: ‘Struggle.’ The word comes from a root verb which refers to striving. Most Muslims explain that the greaterjihad is a struggle waged internally to become the best Muslim one can be. The lesser jihad is warfare waged against others, to make the world a better place for Muslims. Western policy makers elicit fear by using the term jihad to explain (or merely stand in for) what they view as a Muslim tendency toward violence. At the same time, the Taliban web site reinforces that perception by calling on Muslims to engage in violent jihad to change the world.
  • Dar al-Islam: ‘Lands of Islam.’ From the beginning, Muslims divided the world into the lands they controlled, and the lands outside their control, thedar al-harb (the lands of war). While on one hand they considered the outside world potential enemies, Muslim governments made frequent alliances with non-Muslim governments. Perhaps the most famous was between the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and King Francis I.

The definitions point to contested arenas in which Muslims’ understanding of pluralism takes concrete form. Although many Muslims in the present and the past focus on jihad as self-struggle, others take an aggressive position, arguing that Muslims are required to spread the faith, or at least to create the political entities conducive to living within Muslim law. At the same time, while some Muslims talk about dar al-harb to advocate the creation of Muslim states even using violent means, other emphasize centuries of experience in which Muslims coexisted peacefully within a plural world. Many have understood the Qur’an’s veneration of Jesus and the Muslim recognition of God’s previous revelations to require not only tolerance but also respect for other believers in God’s oneness and revelation. Others have understood Islam to provide a sense of validation, of justification, for Islam’s owning sole and final truth. While those at one end of the spectrum embrace religious pluralism, those at the other end demand superior treatment.

By the Sword?

My students come to my classes with an image of Muslim conquest, a bearded and turbaned fighter with upraised weapon, demanding that the conquered population choose between Islam and the sword. Indeed, Muslims did conquer large areas of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires in rapid time. City after city capitulated to the new rulers. Although conquest is rarely without casualties, Muslim control in many cases followed agreement, not war. Conquest during the seventh century meant the replacement of one tax-collecting government for another, and both the Byzantines and the Sassanians had resorted to high taxes to pay for their wars.

What of the image that the Muslim armies required conversion? It seems to have been the fanciful construction of the Byzantines. The Church saw Islam as another heresy, and tried to delegitimize the faith, explaining its success by speaking of its violence. Muslims, however, did not require conversion. In fact, for the first century they discouraged conversion. The new rulers sought land and tax revenue. From the earliest times, people of the book who lived in these territories were offered a choice. They could either fight the conquering armies, or they could accept Muslim rule, paying a tax in return for protection. Accepting all willing converts would have significantly reduced tax revenue. The early Muslim rulers made conversion to Islam very difficult. Although the first Muslims presented Islam as a universal religion, the Umayyad dynasty (which controlled the growing empire from a few decades after Muhammad’s death to 750) thought Islam was a religion for Arabs alone, and required that non-Arab converts be allowed entry into Muslim society only as “clients,” not permitting them full participation. (The large-scale revolution, which swept the Umayyads from power in 750, was fought partly in the name of the equality of all believers.) The image we have of Muslims’ converting others by sword is clearly not accurate for this early period. On the contrary, Muslim respect for other monotheistic faiths joined with the need for more taxes to produce pressure for Christians and Jews to remain Christians and Jews.

Muslims tolerated other monotheists in the dar al-Islam, demanding taxes in return for protection. Despite Christian focus on Muslim violence, it was usually Christians themselves who were intolerant of other faiths in their territories. For example, the conquering Christian armies in Iberia expelled or killed Jews and Muslims who refused to become Christian. On the contrary, at the end of five hundred years of Ottoman (Muslim) rule, the Balkans remained overwhelmingly Christian.

Christians and Jews lived for centuries under Muslim rule, in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. History provides little evidence for the modern notion that Islam is intolerant. This is not to say, however, that non-Muslims were equal in Muslim lands. Political equality is a product of later eras, and even under democratic republics, some have been more equal than others. Muslim rulers defined those belonging to the community of believers as having more rights. In the Muslim world, privileges were extended for the first hundred years to Arabs, after that to Muslims. While talking about tolerance, then, I am not discussing equality.

Those seeking to prove that Islam is hostile to non-Muslims could find what they want by connecting the dots from one incident of persecution to another. Indeed, there were periods when non-Muslims were oppressed by the Muslim majority or a Muslim government. There was a code of behavior for non-Muslims, devised during the period of Caliph Umar II (717-720). He is credited with having created an elaborate set of regulations controlling the behavior and appearance of religious minorities. The regulations, which clearly disadvantaged minorities, seem to have been observed only during times of acute stress in the community. Otherwise, few seem to have paid attention to them.

There were exceptions. Under the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, the discriminatory measures were enforced and minorities persecuted. Al-Hakim was thought to be either insane or holy, and mistreated (and arbitrarily executed) Muslims as well as Christians. He first destroyed and then rebuilt the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Mamluks, who ruled from Egypt and defeated the Crusaders, initially treated non-Muslims badly. Nonetheless, and despite the Qur’an’s injunctions to exclude non-Muslims from public office, Coptic Christians gained power and influence and accumulated wealth. The resentment that followed led the Mamluk rulers to remove them from power.

But each large dismissal of Copts paralyzed the machinery of the state, and after a respectable interval the Mamluk authority would once again seek their services in order to restore efficiency.3Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues, Christians and Jews under Islam, Judy Mabro, trans. (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998), 19. See Qur’an 3:128, 4:144, 5:57, 9:23, 60:13. The Abbasid caliph al-Mutasim (833-842) had two Christian ministers, one in charge of finance; his successor al-Mutawakkil dismissed all Christians from administration. In Islamic Spain, both Christians and Jews entered government service, and some enjoyed significant influence.

Muslims, Tolerance, and History

But it would be much more accurate to connect the dots in a different way, a way which emphasizes Muslim tolerance of non-Muslim groups. Clearly, throughout most of their history, Muslim governments not only tolerated, but even valued other faiths.

For Muslims, the clearest example of the vast difference between Muslim tolerance and Christian intolerance centers on Jerusalem. When the Muslim armies under the second caliph, Umar, took Jerusalem in 638, the Caliph entered the city for a tour. He was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher when the call to prayer rang out. He asked his host where he might pray; the priest told Umar he could pray there, in the church. Explaining that if he prayed in the church, Muslims would claim it as a mosque, Umar spread his carpet elsewhere, wanting to avoid a Muslim claim on such a holy Christian site. As he predicted, the Umayyads built a mosque on the place where Umar had prayed, Al-Aqsa.

By contrast, when the Crusaders took the city of Jerusalem in 1099, they set out on a rampage of carnage. According to one of the chroniclers,

The population of the holy city was put to the sword, and the Franj spent a week massacring Muslims. The Jews had gathered in their synagogue and the Franj burned them alive. They also destroyed the monuments of saints and the tomb of Abraham, may peace be upon him.4Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, translated by Jon Rothschild (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984).

Stories describe knee-high blood running through the streets of the holy city. But the Crusaders did not stop there. They also expelled the priests of all the non-Roman rites, who in turn refused to divulge the location of the True Cross. The invaders tortured them for the information.5The later period of the Crusades reflects the same divide. Salah al-Din (Saladin) released all inhabitants of Jerusalem after the Muslims retook the city in 1187. By contrast, Richard the Lionheart slaughtered the entire garrison at Acre, 2700 people.

Al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain, is a frequently-cited example of tolerant living together. Muslims arrived on the Iberian Peninsula in 711, and the last Muslim government there was defeated in 1492. Despite almost continuous warfare in the intervening centuries between the Christian states in the north and the Muslim states in the south, the Muslim rulers treated their non-Muslim subjects with such tolerance that local religious leaders became alarmed. Muslim clerics warned their faithful not to celebrate the holidays of the Christians, for example, implying that some of the borders were becoming blurred. Convivencia also alarmed some Christians. Fearful that the absence of both Christian government and anti-Christian persecution would threaten the survival of a separate Christian population and identity, one extreme group created a martyrs’ movement. Although the boundaries were regularly reinforced by the exhortations of the elites, they seem to have been transgressed by many. Richard Fletcher gives a vivid illustration in his book, Moorish Spain, when he describes a tombstone in a church at Toledo. The main inscription is in Latin:

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the grave of Miguel Semeno. He died on Sunday 4 November in the Era 1194.

Around it, almost like a frame, reads in Arabic:

In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful, Mikayil ibn Semeno was he who went forth to Allah, with His mercy, from the abode of this life to the life to come, on Sunday 4 November in the year 1194 by the dating of the Romans. May Allah give light to him.

The physical evidence from Toledo shows a Christian tomb, in a church; a Christian name, on whose behalf are invoked both the standard phrasing of Christian burial and the usual funereal pieties of Islam.6Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 140-41.

Nonetheless, the myths of Muslim violence against Christians proved essential to the pursuit of claiming the holy sites. When the Seljuks, a central-Asian Turkic dynasty, defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071, the Byzantine Emperor called for the aid of western Christians. In 1096, Pope Urban II responded with a call to crusade, providing graphic detail of supposed atrocities which he claimed Muslims were perpetrating on innocent pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. The elaborate accusations helped to induce thousands to leave their homes and make their way to the eastern Mediterranean. Muslims found the behavior of the Crusaders to be confusing and appalling. They did not honor their agreements, they had little knowledge of science or medicine, no compassion, and a propensity for brutality. The Muslim chroniclers made a clear distinction between these barbaric invaders whom they called the Franj (not using the words for Christian), and the Christians they had lived among. They knew Christians did not behave as these Franj behaved.7Usamah was in charge of what we might call the Franj desk for one of the Muslim leaders, Nur al-Din. He left extensive descriptions of his observations of these newcomers. The Templars, long resident in the region, became his friends. The newcomers, on the other hand, were completely unpredictable. Here is one of his many stories, retold by Maalouf:

When I was visiting Jerusalem, I used to go to al-Aqsa mosque, where my Templar friends were staying. Along one side of the building was a small oratory in which the Franj had set up a church. The Templars placed this spot at my disposal that I might say my prayers. One day I entered, said Allahu akbar, and was about to begin my prayer, when a man, a Franj, threw himself upon me, grabbed me, and turned me toward the east, saying, ‘Thus do we pray.’ The Templars rushed forward and led him away. I then set myself to prayer once more, but this same man, seizing upon a moment of inattention, threw himself upon me yet again, turned my face to the east, and repeated once more, ‘Thus do we pray.’ Once again the Templars intervened, led him away, and apologized to me, saying, ‘He is a foreigner. He has just arrived from the land of the Franj and he has never seen anyone pray without turning to face east.’ I answered that I had prayed enough and left, stunned by the behavior of this demon who had been so enraged at seeing me pray while facing the direction of Mecca.8Maalouf, 129.

Again, note that the violence here was not by Muslims against the people they ruled, but by Muslims trying to defend their lands against an attack by Europeans.

Under the Muslim Ottoman Empire, the treatment of Christians and Jews became institutionalized in a new way. The Ottoman Sultans appointed Patriarchs to head each Christian group. These leaders were in charge of enforcing each group’s laws and apportioning the taxes that were to be collected from its members. The Ottomans not only practiced a tolerance for religious minorities, but also created a pluralist legal system allowing each group to live by its own laws.9The now-standard description of this institutionalized system for minorities is Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire : The Functioning of a Plural Society, edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982). For a re-evaluation, see Daniel Goffman, “Ottoman Millets in the Early 17thCentury,” New Perspectives on Turkey 11 (1994). Islamist political movements are suggesting multiple legal systems, allowing non-Muslims in the future Muslim states to be controlled by their own laws. Demographers Courbage and Fargues suggested that the Ottoman system actually revived the Christian minorities, allowing them to flourish throughout most of the Ottoman period.10Courbage and Fargues, 105.

There are many stories circulating about the appalling treatment the Ottomans accorded Christians in Europe, especially in the Balkans. Current news reports uncritically repeat Serb accusations of Ottoman atrocities, referring to five centuries of what they call occupation. The archival records tell a story much different than that suggested by recent nationalist histories. The Ottoman expansion in the Balkans was facilitated by the cooperation of many local Christian rulers who acted as Ottoman vassals during the early decades. Local notables’ letters to the Pope complained of the populations’ eagerness to replace the oppressive feudal system with the more logical and less onerous taxation of the Ottomans. And arguments about conversion by the sword are ludicrous. As Courbage and Fargues remind us,

Although the empire occupied the Balkans almost continually for 500 years, they remained Christian except in three enclaves: Albania, Bosnia and Dobroudja.11Courbage and Fargues, 92.

It would not be accurate to argue that religious minorities were equal during the Ottoman period. Many non-Muslim individuals attained wealth and power, but the Ottoman government used the language of Islam to legitimate its rule, and in times of stress could fall back on anti-minority sentiment. Moreover, the institution of the devshirme clearly discriminated–both for and against–Christians in Ottoman lands. The devshirme was the slave levy, in which Ottoman officials went to Christian territories under Ottoman rule and rounded up boys to be used as servants of the Sultan and the state. These boys were converted to Islam, trained in literacy, law, arithmetic, and martial arts. They became not only the renowned Janissary soldiers, but also the most important ministers of the state, staffing the bureaucracy, and rising to leadership in the military. Many Ottoman Grand Viziers came from the devshirme. The famous Mimar Sinan, architect of the Suleymaniye mosque and numerous other monumental structures, was also a product of the devshirme. In addition, young Christian slave girls mothered most of the Ottoman Sultans from the third generation on. With the exception of Sulayman, who married his beloved former slave Hurrem, nearly all of the mates of the Ottoman rulers were Christian concubines. As their sons attained the throne, these women became Queen mothers (Valide Sultan), and were among the most powerful people of the empire.12See Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Changing Balance, Changing Context

Later contact between the Muslim world and the Western world took place in a new context, as the balance of military power shifted to the West. During the last Ottoman century, European imperialism and growing nationalism changed the relationships between the Muslim world and outside governments, on one hand, and defined a new relationship between Muslim rulers and religious minorities on the other. For example, France began her occupation of Algeria in 1830, a brutal conquest which took the lives of non-combatants as well as soldiers, and required decades to complete. After the first invasion was successful, the local population rose in opposition to the new colonizer. The first successful anti-French leader, Abd al-Qadir, managed not only to hold off the conquerors, but also to create the foundations of an Islamic state. Finally captured by the French, he was sent into exile in Syria, and is still venerated by the Algerians as a nationalist hero. Abd al-Qadir raised his opposition in the name of Islam, as did others, like the Mahdi, who resisted British incursions into the Sudan later in the century. But their movements were against European invaders, not against Christians or Christianity. Indeed, Abd al-Qadir was decorated by the French while in exile for protecting the lives of Christians endangered during the mid nineteenth-century riots in Damascus.13In response to the growing role of the Europeans in the Ottoman economy, and the privileges accorded to religious minorities as a result of their connections to Europeans, Muslims in Syria and Lebanon attacked Christians in 1858 and 1860, looting their shops and attacking their homes. There is voluminous literature on these events. A good place to start is Ussama Makdisi’s The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). The French claimed that this shows that Abd al-Qadir had renounced his opposition to them. To the contrary, Abd al-Qadir’s position was completely consistent with his role as a religious Muslim: on one hand, it was necessary to oppose foreign domination, while on the other hand, it was required that he protected the Christians living within Muslim lands.14The nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether as anti-colonialism in Algeria or anti-Ottomanism in Greece, sharpened the lines between Muslims and others. Nationalism is inherently exclusionary; it defines people as belonging to a group, but defines all others as not belonging. It is this nationalism instead of religious intolerance which contributed to the anti-Western (not anti-Christian) sentiment so recently evident in the Muslim world. Perhaps the most interesting and telling episode of anti-Christian nationalism was in secular Turkey. Unlike the prior Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic which emerged from World War I would eschew empire and religious legitimation. It would be a nation-state, a state of Turks, whom Ataturk defined as those living within the borders of the new republic. It is ironic, then, that the League of Nations agreed to oversee a population transfer between Turkey and Greece. “Turks” left Greece, “Greeks” left Turkey. How did the authorities decide who was a Turk and who was Greek? The decision was based on religion, not language. Greek-speaking Muslims were sent “back” to Turkey; Turkish-speaking Christians were sent “back” to Greece. After centuries of pluralism under the Ottoman empire, the new nationalist secular republics considered religion a part of their identities. It was under the national state, not the religious Ottoman state, that the Christian population of Anatolia disappeared, as a result of flight, massacre, and transfer. Today, Turkey is 97% Muslim.

Fearful Images

The historical record suggests that fear of Muslim violence and intolerance was based more in Western rhetoric than in actual experience. Contemporary America seems to bear out these conclusions. American popular culture both reflects and creates a terror of terrorists. Who are terrorists? For us, they look like Muslims. Think about films, The SiegeTrue Lies. Hollywood has been so convincing that when the Murrow Building in Oklahoma City was blown up, our newscasters described someone with Middle Eastern features. Networks sought specialists on the Middle East to do radio interviews. It seems now that two mid-western former soldiers carried out the act. Indeed, the facts as presented by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation suggest that Americans need fear Muslims least of all. In the decade between 1982 and 1992, the FBI claims that Puerto Rican groups carried out 72 terrorist attacks in the US, left-wing groups 23 attacks, Jewish groups 16 attacks, anti-Castro Cubans’ 12 attacks, right-wing groups six attacks. Note the absence of terrorist acts in the US by people from the Middle East. Even abroad, 1994 witnessed 44 anti-US terrorist attacks in Latin America, eight in the Middle East, five in Asia, five in Western Europe, and four in Africa. In the years from 1982 to 1998, during which there were 130 attacks inside the US labeled terrorist by the FBI, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing appears to be the only attack by Middle Easterners.15http://www.fbi.gov/library/terror/terror98.pdf

Perhaps the fearful images come from coverage of angry groups in the Muslim world calling for retribution against the United States. Day after day in the US we watched “Death to Carter” demonstrations as Iranians “held America hostage.” The revolution in Iran twenty-two years ago provided Americans potent images for fearing crazed Muslims.

Why hold America hostage? Why burn the US flag? What were the Iranian students doing In the Name of Islam? Isn’t that evidence for the hostility we are being warned about? Anti-US sentiment in Iran did not result from an essentially timeless chasm between Christianity and Islam. It was anti-US, and it arose for clear historical reasons. The Shah of Iran spent enormous amounts of oil income on palaces and luxury, on military supplies, and on SAVAK, the secret police, which achieved world-wide notoriety for its brutal methods. According to an Amnesty International report for 1974-75, “The Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts, and a history of torture which is beyond belief.” By 1978, 80% of rural families in Iran were landless or nearly so, 60% of Iran’s adult population was illiterate, food prices were rising 25-30 percent each year, and a group of professionals, intellectuals, and clerics began demanding an end to torture, censorship, inflation, shortages, and corruption. In September 1978, 500,000 demonstrators from all classes rallied against government policies. The next day the Shah declared martial law, and sent tanks to fire on a peaceful demonstration. According to the BBC, more than 475 people were killed within 45 minutes.

The United States was responsible for keeping this extremely unpopular despot in power in Iran, and that was not lost on the population. When Iranians revolted, what we called an “Islamic Revolution,” Americans were confused. It looked like an anti-modern, anti-American insanity. We did not understand the reasons people were frustrated and angry with our ally’s regime, and the analyses of that fury have still not been widely circulated. The Iranians wanted to put their oppressive government on trial; the US allowed the Shah to enter this country for medical treatment.

“Resurgent Islam”

Even after the Iranian Revolution, however, western governments did not worry about Islamic resurgence. Focused on the Cold War, they funded and armed the Taliban as a way to remove the USSR from Afghanistan. They supported governments in Pakistan that oppressed local people in the name of Islam and continued to be allied with Saudi Arabia, despite its human rights record. Caught up in international cold-war struggles, western attitudes toward Islamic parties and governments were purely instrumentalist.

With the end of the cold war, Islamic political movements seem to elicit increasing interest among policy makers and growing fear in the population. Where does this fear of Islamist movements come from? Why the anxiety about civilizational struggle? Why are our policymakers warning us about an intolerant Islamic world hostile to Christians? Although many of the more recent Islamic political groups have tried to work within existing political systems, their critique threatens western economic, cultural, and political control over their countries.

Why, for example, would Turkey, a successfully secular and often-democratic state, have an electorally successful Islamic revolutionary movement? The westernizing and statist policies of the early Turkish Republic promised affluence along a western model, a modern state, but also a state in which the government would look out for the needs of the people. After an extended depression and the failure of import-substitution policies to create “modern” affluence, the government capitulated to IMF requirements, removing subsidies and large-scale employment commitments. In 1980 the military government shifted from a national-statist to a market-oriented, transnationalist strategy. The results were increasing poverty, the creation of large urban slums, corruption, and joblessness. The government could no longer rely on the loyalty of the people; it had broken its part of the old Republic’s contract. Economic restructuring ruined agriculture, leading to massive un­em­ploy­ment. By 1989, the richest 20% of the population controlled 60% of the national income, while the poorest 20% controlled only 4%. By 1993, only 10% of the budget went to education, 3% to health, whereas 40% to defense and security. Things were worse by 1994, with unemployment at 16.6%, hovering right around the rate for the US Great Depression. The Refah (Welfare) Party, an Islamist group, steadily increased its share of the vote. In 1995 the party won a plurality of votes, and the mayorships of both Istanbul and Ankara. Even then, the revolutionary part was the most important, as 41% of the people voting for Refah defined themselves as “secular.”16Middle East Report, spring 1996. The Refah Party was banned in 1998, to be replaced by a new Islamist Party. See Haldun Gülalp, “The Crisis of Westernization in Turkey: Islamism versus Nationalism,” in Innovation 8 (1995).

Revolutionary parties have been attractive throughout the Islamic world because the existing governments are viewed as corrupt, unjust, and unresponsive to the needs of the people. However, the current revolutionary sentiments are opposed not only to the existing state system, but also to the emerging global order. To many in the Muslim world, the emerging global order compromises not only autonomy, but also sovereignty.17This is an issue close to home for many in my home state of North Carolina, whose senior senator refuses to accept legislation which gives international bodies any form of control over the US economy or legal system. After long struggle for independence, many in the Middle East view the new globalization as simply another form of Western hegemony. At a political and economic level, old globalization under the IMF and the World Bank led those in power to act on behalf of foreign debt-holders instead of their own populations. The new globalization goes even further, implying also a loss of state sovereignty in the face of world bodies’ insistence on setting economic, environmental, and labor standards. At a cultural level, it means the presence everywhere of McDonalds, Levis jeans, MTV, US films, and Dallas. These do not reflect global values, Islamists argue, globalization imposes Western values. Islamic political movements demand a revolution, accusing the current regimes of acquiescing in this imposition of foreign economies and foreign values, refusing to accept the control of outsiders and the loss of sovereignty. Islamic political parties use anti-Western (not anti-Christian) rhetoric not because of a lack of tolerance, but because they desire to set themselves apart from failed political and economic systems, and because they see the new globalization as another form of Western domination.18“The old Westphalian concept of a system of sovereign states is no longer an adequate way of conceptualizing world politics. Sovereignty is now a much looser concept and largely empty of the meaning of the control of one’s domestic economy. The globalization of the economy renders the idea of sovereignty to a more restrictive meaning of affirming cultural identity. The paradox of economic globalization, of the homogenization of markets and consumer tastes, is the politics of culture and religion, of resistance to the emasculation of indigenous identity, has emerged as a counterpoint in the South to the suffocating power of the North.” Atif Kubursi and Salim Mansur, “From Sykes Picot Through Bandung to Oslo: Wither The Arab World,” Arab Studies Quarterly (1996).

Resurgence of Fear

Just as the growth of Islamist political movements is a response to specific historical contexts, the resurgence of Western demonization of an Islamic enemy is likewise historically contingent. The new portrayal does reflect an older one: Islam as aggressive, intolerant, violent, uncompromising, and incomprehensible.19For a wonderful discussion of the arguments about civilizations in conflict, see Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 1996). I think that current situations explain this present polemic.

Islamic political rhetoric is about asserting autonomy, refusing the domination of Western companies, cultures, and politics. Many Muslim-dominated countries have important natural resources. Their governments are currently collaborating with Western governments to make those resources available on favorable terms. Islamic political opposition movements threaten Western control over those resources. Thus, while the US can ally with governments that purport to be Islamic in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they fear the consequences of Islamic movements in Somalia and Iran.

Myths of intolerance have also proved essential to countries trying to assert national identities in the Balkans. In order to create a specifically Serbian identity, those in power must find a historical adversary against which to define “Serbianness,” for example. The Muslim Ottomans are an obvious candidate, and the nationalist retelling of Serb history is fascinating. Threatened by the narrative that explains how Serbs collaborated with the Ottoman government, the new version redefines a fourteenth-century military defeat as a religious struggle between the forces of Islam and the forces of Christianity. Presenting centuries of Ottoman rule as foreign oppression, the new Balkan nation-states can create identities as freedom-lovers who suffered under foreign occupation while awaiting the time their true, non-Muslim identities could find full expression.

Thirdly, longer-established nation-states with thriving economies have imported Muslim workers for decades. As their economies begin to slow, those laborers appear to be taking needed jobs. More important, they can be accused of menacing the inherent nature of the true European character. Blaming immigrants or outsiders for current problems is a well-documented historical phenomenon. In this case, the threat is described by faith, and the faith is constructed as other-than-Christian. Muslims become the enemy within.

Conclusions

The images blend and blur, until Der Spiegel and The Economist cover become one: the Crusades are the same as Islamic political movements, and guest workers resemble Ottoman invaders. The result is fear and polarization. In an ironic twist, fear of Muslims leads simultaneously to the Huntington creation of separate civilizations, and the policy-makers demand for more military force to defeat this Other.

Some in the West, seeing the new Islamic religious militancy as a threat, an indication of the inherent differences and even mutual hostility of the two civilizations, have tried to read these back into a past of conflict. These leaders have their counterparts in the Islamic world, where many in the new Islamist political movements likewise see the two societies as essentially not only different but also incompatible. Both groups insist on perceiving a long history of mutual animosity and antagonism. A past with two faiths and cultures ceaselessly at war, a contemporary world with only one right path and a clear map to the truth. Clearly, from these vantagepoints, the two visions must fight to the death for both survival and domination.

These polarized views both reflect and necessitate clear political agendas. In each case, the argument for antagonism serves the needs of elites, both Christian and Muslim, desiring to remain in power. Western elites call for more military spending, more immigration laws, more ethnic cleansing. New “national security” restrictions are required to keep the enemies out, to prepare for the eventual confrontations, to “protect” the people – and win profits, elections, and power. Muslim elites demand an end to corruption and Western domination, even at the cost of curtailing freedoms of speech, press, dress, and assembly. Both elites flourish, at tremendous costs for non-elites at both newfound civilizational poles.

In sum, while elites conceive these societies as essentially adversarial, history suggests that we can connect the dots to find a long history of Muslim toleration. Convivencia helped to create the kind of society that Marco Polo was able to travel through, that freed King Francis I from captivity, and that produced the science, medicine and literature that propelled Europe into the early modern period and the Age of Discovery. In the present and the future, as in the past, the interactions between these societies will be determined by context, by the hierarchies of power and dependence, by the needs of some to exercise control over others both within their own countries and outside. Perhaps new Western policies replacing current concerns about power and resources with commitment to justice and universal human rights would make space for bridges between centuries-old neighbors, depriving new demagogues from claiming the hearts and rights of both East and West.

Fotnoter   [ + ]

1. Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation : Religion and Politics in the Middle East (London : I. B. Tauris, 1996), 185.
2. Jeffrey Tayler, “Another French Revolution,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2000, 59.
3. Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues, Christians and Jews under Islam, Judy Mabro, trans. (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998), 19. See Qur’an 3:128, 4:144, 5:57, 9:23, 60:13. The Abbasid caliph al-Mutasim (833-842) had two Christian ministers, one in charge of finance; his successor al-Mutawakkil dismissed all Christians from administration. In Islamic Spain, both Christians and Jews entered government service, and some enjoyed significant influence.
4. Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, translated by Jon Rothschild (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984).
5. The later period of the Crusades reflects the same divide. Salah al-Din (Saladin) released all inhabitants of Jerusalem after the Muslims retook the city in 1187. By contrast, Richard the Lionheart slaughtered the entire garrison at Acre, 2700 people.
6. Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 140-41.
7. Usamah was in charge of what we might call the Franj desk for one of the Muslim leaders, Nur al-Din. He left extensive descriptions of his observations of these newcomers. The Templars, long resident in the region, became his friends. The newcomers, on the other hand, were completely unpredictable. Here is one of his many stories, retold by Maalouf:
8. Maalouf, 129.
9. The now-standard description of this institutionalized system for minorities is Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire : The Functioning of a Plural Society, edited by Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982). For a re-evaluation, see Daniel Goffman, “Ottoman Millets in the Early 17thCentury,” New Perspectives on Turkey 11 (1994). Islamist political movements are suggesting multiple legal systems, allowing non-Muslims in the future Muslim states to be controlled by their own laws.
10. Courbage and Fargues, 105.
11. Courbage and Fargues, 92.
12. See Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
13. In response to the growing role of the Europeans in the Ottoman economy, and the privileges accorded to religious minorities as a result of their connections to Europeans, Muslims in Syria and Lebanon attacked Christians in 1858 and 1860, looting their shops and attacking their homes. There is voluminous literature on these events. A good place to start is Ussama Makdisi’s The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
14. The nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether as anti-colonialism in Algeria or anti-Ottomanism in Greece, sharpened the lines between Muslims and others. Nationalism is inherently exclusionary; it defines people as belonging to a group, but defines all others as not belonging. It is this nationalism instead of religious intolerance which contributed to the anti-Western (not anti-Christian) sentiment so recently evident in the Muslim world. Perhaps the most interesting and telling episode of anti-Christian nationalism was in secular Turkey. Unlike the prior Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic which emerged from World War I would eschew empire and religious legitimation. It would be a nation-state, a state of Turks, whom Ataturk defined as those living within the borders of the new republic. It is ironic, then, that the League of Nations agreed to oversee a population transfer between Turkey and Greece. “Turks” left Greece, “Greeks” left Turkey. How did the authorities decide who was a Turk and who was Greek? The decision was based on religion, not language. Greek-speaking Muslims were sent “back” to Turkey; Turkish-speaking Christians were sent “back” to Greece. After centuries of pluralism under the Ottoman empire, the new nationalist secular republics considered religion a part of their identities. It was under the national state, not the religious Ottoman state, that the Christian population of Anatolia disappeared, as a result of flight, massacre, and transfer. Today, Turkey is 97% Muslim.
15. http://www.fbi.gov/library/terror/terror98.pdf
16. Middle East Report, spring 1996. The Refah Party was banned in 1998, to be replaced by a new Islamist Party. See Haldun Gülalp, “The Crisis of Westernization in Turkey: Islamism versus Nationalism,” in Innovation 8 (1995).
17. This is an issue close to home for many in my home state of North Carolina, whose senior senator refuses to accept legislation which gives international bodies any form of control over the US economy or legal system.
18. “The old Westphalian concept of a system of sovereign states is no longer an adequate way of conceptualizing world politics. Sovereignty is now a much looser concept and largely empty of the meaning of the control of one’s domestic economy. The globalization of the economy renders the idea of sovereignty to a more restrictive meaning of affirming cultural identity. The paradox of economic globalization, of the homogenization of markets and consumer tastes, is the politics of culture and religion, of resistance to the emasculation of indigenous identity, has emerged as a counterpoint in the South to the suffocating power of the North.” Atif Kubursi and Salim Mansur, “From Sykes Picot Through Bandung to Oslo: Wither The Arab World,” Arab Studies Quarterly (1996).
19. For a wonderful discussion of the arguments about civilizations in conflict, see Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 1996).

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