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Islam in the Middle East and Europe -- Some Ramifications of Cultures in Conflict

Islam dates from 610 CE when, according to the Qur'an, the Prophet Mohammed had an experience that changed the history of the world. Mohammed was first a businessman, then a preacher, and finally a warrior who conquered the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. The hijrah in 622 marked the beginning of the Muslim era.

Mohammed's successors went on to conquer the entire, largely Christian, Middle East. But all was not harmony, civil wars (fitnahs) in 656-660 and 680-692 erupted. Rebellions occurred again in 814-815.

Nevertheless, by the early 8th Century the Muslims had conquered parts of India and North Africa, all of Spain, and were preparing to conquer the Franks and all of Europe.

In October 732, approximately 350 years before the first crusade, a Saracen army under Abderrahman Ibu Adbillah lost one of the most decisive battles in history against the Franks under Charles Martel at a place near what is now Tours in France. The goal of the Saracens was the conquest of Europe for Islam, and the goal of the Franks was to avoid that fate. During the battle, Abderrahman was killed and the leaderless Saracens fled in defeat. Martel's pursuit essentially destroyed the Saracen army with remnants retreating into Spain. This battle prevented the conquest of Western Europe by Islam and marked the high water mark of the Saracen invasion. (An aside here is that historians on each side differ in their accounts of the the battleit lasted either 2 days by Moslem accounts or 7 days by Frankish accounts. This merely underscores the difficulty in interpreting history. Propaganda is not at all a recent invention.)

In all it took about 700 years for the Spanish Christians to finally defeat the Spanish Moors (Muslims). The great victory of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 broke the back of Muslim influence in the Iberian Peninsula, leaving only scattered enclaves. Granada, the last such Muslim enclave, fell by a negotiated capitulation in 1492, the year of Columbus.

Meanwhile, in eastern Europe, the Russians had their hands full with the Tartars (Muslims). That struggle paralleled the one in Spain. Following a key victory in the battle of Kulikovo in 1380, Ivan III (The Great) finally threw off the Tartar yoke 100 years later.

Along with all of that were the Crusades, counter Crusades, the fall of Byzantium, and most of the middle ages.

The first Crusade was called into being in 1095 by the Pope. It was the Christian equivalent of the Jihad. Popes issued promises to army regulars remindful of those of bin Laden today. Over the next 200 years or so there were eight Crusades and some counter crusades by the Muslims. Like the Saracen invasion of Europe in the 8th century the goal of the Crusaders was not attained and led to a period of stalemate that lasted until the early 19th century and the Napoleonic wars.

Then there was an attempt by the Ottoman Muslim empire to conquer Europe through the Balkans. (America and Europe are still dealing with the aftermath today, on the Muslim side for a change.) Not until the Ottoman empire was finally and completely broken up after World War I, did the Middle East more or less assume its present composition with many new or re-formed states.

Doubtless the extremist (expansionist) mentalities that led to these religious wars were also responsible for the Inquisition as well as the heresies it was organized to combat. The Reformation began basically as a protest to the exploitation by the Catholic Church of its own members; it concluded with a schismthe Protestants, who promptly divided into many sects.

Like the Reformation experience that led to the Protestant branch of Christendom, the Saracen invasions and the Crusades had unintended consequences. Amongst the horrors of religious warfare, trade was established and flourished, which helped the cultural and economic Renaissance in Europe but left stasis in the Middle East. The Middle-Eastern economies early on were largely supported by taxes on goods traveling overland along trade routes. With their superior seamanship, the European powers were eventually able to bypass the world of Islam and keep the trade tariffs for themselves.

Fourteen centuries of religious warfare do not go away lightly. For the early part, Islam clearly had the superior civilization as well as the upper hand militarily. The tide turned slowly at first, then with a rush. European development of firearms and seagoing vessels, able to handle the North Atlantic and establish empires, were bigger and stronger than what the Muslims used in the Mediterranean. Muslim empire ambitions were in effect more provincial.

Numerous other technologies contributed to the decline of the Middle East, notably the printing press which spread the words of politics, religion and science throughout Western Europe. Remarkably, when the printing press did finally arrive in Arab lands, the Muslim authorities allowed printing only in non-Arabic languages! Information passed freely out of the Arab-Muslim world world but not into it. Maintaining the sanctity of printed Arabic to the human hand gave the European Christians the upper hand in understanding their adversaries.

The benign climate of Europe also allowed a more stable agricultural output and greater population growth. Finally, the New World colonies and their riches, materially aided the European model of civilization to prevail.

It is not that the Muslim states did not have similar opportunities. After embracing paper, they were first in line for, but rejected, both gunpowder and the printing press. Not until the French Revolution did Islam become aware of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution. Bernard Lewis, in his "Cultures in Conflict" and "What Went Wrong," provides a poignant description of how these events came about.

The European ascendance was not a victory of Christianity, for the Popes tried mightily, but failed to hold onto their secular functions via the Inquisition. They suppressed free individual expression and progress in science. With the advent of the reformation, the Popes lost their control of mass-think in Europe. This freeing of thought naturally led to the rise of mathematics, science, engineering, technology, and, and most importantly, the separation of church from state.

By being able to make these social adjustments to changing times, Europe turned the tide. The subsequent industrial and scientific revolutions largely left the Islamic nations behind, their losses continue in modern times, in spite of their petroleum riches. It may be a supreme irony that Christianity, weaker than Islam in being able to hold onto the masses, "won" by losing out to the secular forces that were to change the world. The Popes did not turn the other cheek; they went down fighting hard to suppress freedom, an idea whose time had come, to borrow from Victor Hugo.

From this vantage point, suicidal terrorism might seem to be the only recourse for those with impoverished cultures. While this may be partly true, we believe the West has also contributed mightily to the present situation. For example, most historians are critical of the way the Middle East was divided up after WW I. More recently Israel has been able to paper over its Zionist policies in Palestine. By all accounts, the Jews were there first, at least in recorded history. They gave way first to the Christians and then to Islam some 600 years later. For roughly 100 generations, the Jews have managed to survive on the sidelines in conclaves, without a home so to speak. All the while, they were both valued and feared by others for their ability to organize, create capital, and maintain their faith. And one has to admire the fact that they maintained their cultural identity.

Another irony is that the Jewish prophet Abraham is included in both Christian and Islamic faiths; their prophets came later and seemed more in tune with their times.

The Holocaust turned world sympathies toward the Jews; the United Nations formally endorsed the creation of Israel. By supporting Israel and its Zionistic policies, the West has now established a militarily-strong outpost in the heart of Palestine, not to mention the whole of Islam.

A closer read of the above might say the current conflict is just history as usual; Zionism and the Palestinian response simply comprise the latest chapter in 20 centuries of two- or three-way cultural conflict. Isn't it time humanity found a better way?

Further insight from a Jewish point of view was provided by the visionary, Vladimir Jabotinsky in his "Iron Wall." His title was prescient; indeed, Israel exists today only because his metaphor was supported and made real, first by Britain, then by America.

Nevertheless, Islam has much to teach us all and it has contributed importantly to civilization. Moorish art and architecture in Spain are among the best the world has seen. Like the culture of ancient Greece, many elements of Arabic culture permeate all modern societies. We certainly have more in common with the people of Islam than we have in difference. Like them, we have our share of human failings and extremism. Let us hope we can find a turn in the road for better relations.

How can we move forward, individually or in concert?


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