The Christian-Oppressor Narrative of Islamic History Is Tired and Wrong

by David French

Here’s my question — are intelligent liberals actually ignorant of Islamic history or do they actively attempt to whitewash its extraordinarily long record of military aggression? Over the weekend I read an interesting piece in The Atlantic by Robert Kaplan that makes the case that “Europe” as we understand it was actually “defined by Islam.” In antiquity, Europe was the region that bordered the Mediterranean, including North Africa. As Kaplan notes, Saint Augustine “lived in what is today Algeria, North Africa was as much a center of Christianity as Italy or Greece.” True enough, but then what happened? 

[T]he swift advance of Islam across North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries virtually extinguished Christianity there, thus severing the Mediterranean region into two civilizational halves, with the “Middle Sea” a hard border between them rather than a unifying force. Since then, as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset observed, “all European history has been a great emigration toward the North.”

That’s an interesting way to describe a terrifying jihad that swept aside Middle Eastern and North African Christianity and captured the Iberian Peninsula — as a “swift advance.” There was no mere “emigration” to the North. There was a flight to the North. Then there’s this:

Islam did much more than geographically define Europe, however. Denys Hay, a British historian, explained in a brilliant though obscure book published in 1957, Europe: The Emergence of an Idea, that European unity began with the concept (exemplified by the Song of Roland) of a Christendom in “inevitable opposition” to Islam—a concept that culminated in the Crusades. The scholar Edward Said took this point further, writing in his book Orientalism in 1978 that Islam had defined Europe culturally, by showing Europe what it was against. Europe’s very identity, in other words, was built in significant measure on a sense of superiority to the Muslim Arab world on its periphery. Imperialism proved the ultimate expression of this evolution: Early modern Europe, starting with Napoleon, conquered the Middle East, then dispatched scholars and diplomats to study Islamic civilization, classifying it as something beautiful, fascinating, and—most crucial—inferior.

So here’s Kaplan’s history of the conflict between Islam and Christian Europe — first there is a morally neutral Islamic “swift advance,” then came the Crusades and a Christian sense of superiority that culminated in colonialism. That fits neatly into a view of the world that sees Muslims as victims and the marauding West as the great oppressor.

But why don’t we try historical accuracy? While the Christian West obviously saw its faith as superior to Islam, Muslims saw their faith as superior to Christianity. Moreover, the “inevitable opposition” between Islam and Christianity had a little something to do with centuries of offensive jihadist warfare waged by a series of Muslim Caliphs. The Ottomans didn’t besiege Vienna with evangelists. And the idea that Christian opposition “culminated” in the Crusades ignores the far larger-scale fighting centuries later, when the Christian West fought for its very survival in eastern Europe, at the gates of Vienna, at Malta, and at Lepanto. 

Yes, Napoleon conquered parts of the Middle East with relative ease, and the power of the Ottoman Empire receded, but even as late as World War I it was still capable of inflicting severe defeats on the West’s great powers (see, for example, Gallipoli). The long dynamic between Islam and Christianity is one of relentless jihadist offensives, Christian counter-offensives, and a series of wars that ultimately broke Ottoman power but did not break the hold of Islam over the lands Islam conquered.

While the history is complex, it is most assuredly not the kind of oppressor/victim narrative advanced by Kaplan above. Indeed, the entire goal of the modern jihadist is to flip the script back to what is seen as the ancient and natural order — Islam on the march. At its heart, the jihadist grievance over the very brief period of western colonialism in the Middle East isn’t grounded in a moral objection to colonialism per se, but rather fury that Muslims were no longer the colonizers.

Kaplan says that through mass immigration, “Islam is helping to undo what it once helped create.” No, it is simply continuing the process of creation that it began centuries before — the process of creating an Islamic world. Islam is continuing its long expansion through non-military means, and Europe — in its absolute folly — is facilitating its own cultural and religious collapse. Europe as we know it exists because of its resistance to Islam. When that resistance ends, so will Europe.  

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