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– Twenty-First Century Crusades?
Prediction 1 -
tension and backlash against Muslims in Europe
The war against Islam
By James Carroll
AMONG THE factors leading to the French and Dutch rejections of the
European constitution last week, none looms more ominously than the
nightmare of antagonism between ''the West" and Islam. Many Europeans
fear a rising tide of green, both within the continent and from outside
it. Where once communists threatened, now Muslims do. A new wall is
|They, too, like prelates,
crusaders, conquistadors, and colonizers, have turned fear of
Islam into a source of power.
Muslims, meanwhile, see a flood of contempt in pressures on immigrant
communities in European cities, in restrictions on Islamic expression,
and in openly expressed reservations about Turkey's admission to the EU
precisely because of its Islamic character. Given escalations of the war
in Iraq together with widely reported instances of Koran-denigration by
US interrogators, such trends in Europe make the global war on terror
seem expressly a war against Islam. The ''clash of civilizations" seems
closer at hand than ever.
To make sense of this dangerous condition, it can help to recall some of
the forgotten or misremembered history that prepared for it, from the
remote origins of the conflict to its manifestations in the not so
distant past. As the story is usually told in Europe and America, the
problem began when a jihad-driven army of ''infidel" Saracens, having
brutalized Christians in the ''Holy Land," threatened ''Christendom"
itself with conquests right into the heart of present-day France.
Charles Martel is the hero of primal European romances because he
defeated the Muslim army near Tours in 733. But for Martel, Edward
Gibbon wrote, ''the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford."
Across subsequent centuries, in the European memory, Islam posed the
great threat to the emerging Christian order. But was that so? Lombards,
Normans, Vikings, forces from the Slavic east, and violent contests
among Christians themselves all wreaked havoc in Europe, even in
Martel's time. As I learned from the historian Tomaz Mastnak, the threat
from the Saracens was one among many. It was defined as transcendent
only with the later Crusades, when Latin Christian armies set out to
rescue that ''Holy Land" and roll back Islamic conquests. The crusading
impulse presumed a demonizing of Saracens that was justified neither by
the threat they actually posed nor by their treatment of Christians in
Palestine. Indeed, chronicles of the earlier period take little or no
notice of the religion of Saracens. Religious co-existence, famous in
Iberia, was a mark of other lands conquered by Arabs. Europe's
initiating ''holy war" with Islam, that is, was based on flawed
intelligence, propaganda, and threat exaggeration.
The poison flower of the Crusades, with their denigrations of distant
cultures, was colonialism. The dark result of European imperial
adventuring in the Muslim world was twofold: first, the usual
exploitation of native peoples and resources, with attendant destruction
of culture, and, second, the powerful reaction among Muslims and Arab
populations against colonialism, a reaction that included an internal
corrupting of Islamic traditions. The accidental wealth of oil in the
Middle East made both external exploitation and internal corruption
absolutely ruinous. The political fanaticism that has lately seized the
Arab Islamic religious imagination (exemplified in Osama bin Laden) is
rooted more in a defensive fending off of assault from ''the West" than
in anything intrinsic to Islam. The American war on terror, striking the
worst notes of the old imperial insult, only exacerbates this
reactionary fanaticism (generating, for example, legions of suicide
Having forgotten the deeper history, nervous Europeans seem also to have
forgotten how large numbers of Muslims settled in the continent's cities
in the first place. In the 1960s and 1970s, Turks, Arabs, and North
Africans were welcomed as ''guest workers," taking up menial labor with
the implicit understanding that they could never hope to be received as
citizens of the nations that exploited them. The rank injustice of a
system depending on a permanent underclass was bound to issue in
political resistance, and now it has, but with a religious edge.
The point is that this conflict has its origins more in ''the West" than
in the House of Islam. The image of Muslims as prone to violence by
virtue of their religion was mainly constructed across centuries by
Europeans seeking to bolster their own purposes, a habit of politicized
paranoia that is masterfully continued by freaked-out leaders of
post-9/11 America. They, too, like prelates, crusaders, conquistadors,
and colonizers, have turned fear of Islam into a source of power. This
history teaches that such self-serving projection can indeed result in
the creation of an enemy ready and willing to make the nightmare real.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.