Andre Singer hopes the call of the muezzin from a new mosque in Granada will herald dialogue and acceptance between Islam and the West.
On July 10, a highly symbolic event took place in Granada. Some 500 years after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella drove out the occupying Muslims, a new mosque was opened there. The cry of the muezzin was heard in a land that had been under Islamic rule for 800 years (until the end of the 15th century), but under Christendom for the subsequent half century.
It was an event not without strong local opposition, even before the catastrophe of September 11 2001 accentuated fears that evangelical, fundamentalist Islam was again looking hungrily across the Mediterranean at lands it once controlled. Many other events over the past 25 years have encouraged scholars to look more closely at the stormy relationship between Islam and the West: the Iranian revolution, the Gulf wars, the Palestinian intifada , and the rise of the Taliban. September 11, however, was so shocking that new assessments have become inevitable, with history being the key to understanding the confusions of the present.
Andrew Wheatcroft's wide-ranging Infidels: The Conflict between Christendom and Islam 638-2002 covers the whole tumultuous story, from the early Islamic conquests of Christendom, following the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632, to the current post-September 11 society in which what Wheatcroft calls the "maledicta" - or words of hate - between Islam and Christianity once again reverberate around the world. President George W.
Bush's use of the word "crusade" in a speech on September 16 2001 exemplifies for Wheatcroft a cycle that began in the 7th century.
Infidels is a superbly researched and detailed cultural, social and political history of the relationship between the two religions. But Wheatcroft wants the book to be more than that. He wants to leave us with his own message of caution against the inevitable yet destructive resort to fear and violence in the wake of horrors such as those of September 11. He criticises, from detailed knowledge, the West's widespread ignorance of Islam, and the populist interpretation of violent acts such as the destruction of the Twin Towers, as the work of "primitives stuck in a set of 7th-century beliefs". Yet after reading his informative survey of conflicts between Christendom and Islam that range over Spain, the Levant, North Africa, the Balkans and the Holy Land, his conclusions, albeit sincere and incontrovertible, leave one with a sense of helplessness in the face of unstoppable forces. Wheatcroft believes that if history teaches us anything, it is that atavistic hatred between religious faiths and the resort to force of arms are likely to "slowly unravel the past two centuries of the West's social, cultural and spiritual development". For Wheatcroft, Bush and his crusade against evil-doers is the antithesis of the weapon he would prefer to see employed in current circumstances; the weapon espoused by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence; the weapon of reason. Amen to that, though I fear this is one more book that Bush is unlikely to read.
He might be more excited by Hugh Bicheno's Crescent and Cross , a detailed account of a single event in the struggle between Christianity and Islam, the battle of Lepanto in 1571. Wheatcroft also treats Lepanto as a significant moment, but he sees it as a prelude to a discourse on the perpetuation of an enmity that would last a further half millennium. For Bicheno, the battle is not only symbolic of the cultural conflicts between the papacy and the Ottomans, it is also what he calls "theatrical propaganda" played out against the backcloth of an extraordinary piece of military history.
Lepanto was the last great battle fought between oared fighting ships. It took place in the straits between Morea and Aetolia, within hailing distance of Ithaca, home of Odysseus; to the east was Missolonghi where Byron died in 1824. More than 200 poets, including G. K. Chesterton, have written about the battle; it inspired Cervantes who fought in it and was injured there; and it provided subject-matter for artists such as Titian, Tintoretto and Vasari. Clearly Lepanto's appeal goes beyond its historical significance. Indeed, the battle by no means determined the outcome of the struggle between the Ottoman empire and the Holy League (the latter formed by the the Papal States, Spain, Venice, Genoa, Tuscany, Savoy, Urbino, Parma and the Knights of Malta, with the Hapsburgs, France and Portugal waiting in the wings). However, Lepanto was the first time for more than 100 years that Christendom had won a significant victory over the expansionist Ottomans; and although Bicheno is happy to point out that it did not in itself dramatically alter the course of history, it did create the circumstances in which Christian nations gained a new cohesion and unity of purpose.
Since detailed studies of Lepanto have been generally neglected in British histories of the period, Bicheno's welcome description and analysis of the battle fills a gap. While telling a corking tale of military derring-do, he is careful and perceptive in his research and ensures that a purely western or Christian perspective does not dominate. This is not, he emphasises, a tale of good versus evil. He points out that by modern standards, Philip II of Spain, Pope Pius V and the Venetian oligarchs leading the Christian armies were "genocidal bigots", as apt to perform acts of barbarism as their Ottoman opponents. Although Bicheno's account remains firmly embedded in the 16th century, he gives insight into the cultural, religious and social complexities that formed the subsequent geo-political world of Europe and the Ottoman empire.
At the heart of the struggle lay the Holy Land. In Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East , John Keay, with his always beautifully honed prose, describes its lure graphically: "For here met not just Asia and Africa, or West and East, but Creation and Creator. God himself had chosen the Middle East in which to confront His people. Here were His Word revealed, His Commandments received, His miracles performed; here trod His prophets, His law-givers, His Son; and here, like swallows returning to the barn of their hatching, flocked His followers in prayer and pilgrimage." Keay's book moves the story onwards from the Crusades, past the time when European powers had switched their attention to the New World, Africa and Asia, past the two world wars, and on to our own time when Europe and America have focused again on the Holy Land.
This is a wonderful, albeit depressing, read. How the map of the Middle East was changed and shaped into its current configuration is a fascinating tale, which could have no better storyteller than the author whose previous books brought us insights into India, the Far East, the Himalayas and Indonesia. Anyone who believes that today's machinations in the Middle East are based on noble sentiments such as those trumpeted by Bush and Tony Blair - to rid the world of oppressors and those threatening world peace and stability, and to further the spread of democracy - need only dip into the deviousness, treachery and betrayal that fill Keay's book. British, American and French greed dominate the 20th-century turmoil in the region, played out against the creation of Israel, the rise of Arab nationalism and the western desire to control oil supplies. As the "sick man of Europe", the Ottoman empire's hegemony was crumbling, and by 1917 the keys of Jerusalem passed from the Turkish to British hands. Keay creates a tapestry of incompetence, back-stabbing and international jealousies interwoven with marvellous threads, following the individuals whose lives and adventures shaped the region. The indomitable Gertrude Bell, T. E. Lawrence, General Allenby, Winston Churchill, A. T. Wilson, Freya Stark, Orde Wingate, the earl of Balfour, Lawrence Gafftey-Smith, Alec Kirkbride, Harry St John Philby and Jack Glubb march across the pages, accompanied by sometime-allies and sometime-rivals from other nations: France, the US, Israel, the Arab states and Persia.
This is a book that political leaders should read and absorb. It will remind them how often wars have been fought in the region to depose independent leaders, tyrants or not, which were then forgotten, superseded by new pragmatic needs. When the French army under the one-armed General Gourand routed the Syrians in 1920 and took control of that country for 25 years, they deposed King Faysal, lost not a single Frenchmen in battle but killed more than 4,000 Syrians. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the British ran into difficulties with a swell of nationalistic fervour. The British military adviser in Iraq during the 1930s was Alan MacDonald. Keay tells us that in MacDonald's view British interference and control in Iraq made the British "unpopular, positively disliked, even hated... we are loathed". The political case for a British presence was considered to be the need to uphold the principles of democracy, as laid down by the League of Nations. The reality came down to protecting oil supplies and keeping control over air defences in the face of a growing threat from Bolshevik Russia. Today's hypocrisies and confusions in Iraq seem depressingly similar.
Wheatcroft, Bicheno and Keay use history as a tool to provide insights into the anger, incomprehension and intolerance created by the intifada , the wars in the Gulf and Iraq, the Balkan chaos, Afghanistan, and the events of September 11. Akbar Ahmed, in Islam Under Siege , depends on his comprehensive personal experience and background as an anthropologist to confront the same failings head-on. At various times, he has been high commissioner for Pakistan in London; the creator of a set of films and writings on Muhammed Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan; a researcher and political officer among the Pukhtun tribes of Pakistan's northwest frontier; and a scholar of Islamic society living in the West. His book is a unique study by a Muslim struggling to use his faith, his academic training, his past political and administrative positions, and his lifelong involvement in both Islamic and western society, to make sense of the present turmoil.
This is a huge undertaking in not much more than 200 pages. With almost a sense of relief, Ahmed confesses that he does not pretend to have the answers to how Muslims and non-Muslims will create global stability and harmony in the future; but he has some optimism and does respond to the daunting challenge of trying "to make sense of a changing, complicated and dangerous world". Above all, this is a courageous book. Ahmed uses his knowledge of the Koran and anthropology to confront his co-religionists with uncomfortable truths about women, honour, social cohesion and leadership at a time when Islam is confronting all major world religions:
"Judaism in the Middle East, Christianity in the Balkans, Chechnya, Nigeria, Sudan, and sporadically in the Philippines and Indonesia; Hinduism in South Asia; and, after the Taliban blew up the statues in Bamiyan, Buddhism." Throughout, he seeks to reinforce his view that dialogue and understanding are an essential prerequisite if we are not to sink into a morass of conflict.
The "maledicta" at the heart of Wheatcroft's history are here replaced with a demonstration of how we have moved into a "post-honour" world, symptomatic of societies that are both threatened and vulnerable. Ahmed acknowledges his debt to the great 14th-century social historian Ibn Khaldun in borrowing his concept of asabiyya to describe the situation in which group loyalty, social cohesion and solidarity are essential mainstays of society, which in today's world seem to be breaking down. They need, Ahmed maintains, to be re-established. But above all, we need to "reconstruct notions and practices of justice, compassion, balance and knowledge". Without them, it is all too easy erroneously to justify violence as a defence of honour. In common with Wheatcroft, Ahmed knows that nothing will be achieved if Islam and the West continue to demonise each other through words and deeds. This is an important point. As the Taliban stirs once again in Afghanistan, as violence continues in Iraq and Israel, we should hope that the call of the muezzin in Granada will herald dialogue and acceptance rather than shouting and confrontation.
Andre Singer is adjunct professor of anthropology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, US.
Infidels: The Conflict between Christendom and Islam 638-2002
Author - Andrew Wheatcroft
Publisher - Viking
Pages - 443
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 670 86942 2