For his posthumous 1937 book Mahomet et Charlemagne: Byzance, Islam et Occident dans le haut Moyen Age, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne became an early victim of political correctness in the academy.
Already taking hold in the 1930s was an account of early medieval history that few today will fail to recognize: of Islam as a beneficent force that, despite the occasional misdeed, restored Europe to itself by rediscovering the lost Hellenic ages, and advanced it by the magnanimous gift of its mathematical and scientific prowess. This account maintains that Europe would never have become Europe without the gifts of Arabia.
Pirenne thought differently. There was, he said, strong evidence to show that the so-called Dark Ages were far from dark in the late fifth, sixth, and early seventh centuries — the period after the formal fall of Rome. In fact, evidence showed that Roman civilization had flourished in a number of locations during that period, and that areas that had fallen victim to the barbarians’ sacking had recovered and more. The lights go off in Europe in the mid seventh century, with the arrival, from the south, of the Arabs. “The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity,” wrote Pirenne, “was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam.”
For his thesis Pirenne was scoffed at and scolded and dismissed. But Pirenne is undergoing a renascence of sorts. In 2012, historian Emmet Scott published Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, in which he surveys a glut of recent scholarship supporting Pirenne’s thesis. Of particular note, he says, is the archaeological evidence, which suddenly vanishes between the seventh and tenth centuries — the period of the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe, and the commercial and cultural isolation of the Continent. The evidence suggests that the Muslim invaders commenced a great destruction.
These historical considerations are particularly interesting in the light of the Islamic State, which is currently attempting a similar sort of cultural expiation in Iraq. This week, the terror outfit released video of militants taking sledgehammers to ancient Assyrian artifacts in a museum in Mosul, which was conquered last year. Mosul is built atop Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, which lasted from approximately 2500 B.C. to 600 B.C., and because it was to the Ninevites that Jonah reluctantly gave witness; according to the Hebrew scriptures, his tomb was there. Until last summer, when the Islamic State blew it up.
This week, Islamic State fighters also ransacked the city’s library, setting fire to rare books and manuscripts. Initial reports suggested the destruction of some 8,000 tomes, but one Mosul library official says the number is much higher.
President Obama has chosen to ignore the motivations of the Islamic State, preferring to cast the group as a gang of murderers, a Middle Eastern Mafia in it for the kicks. But these latest exhibitions make unmistakable what the Islamic State really is: a totalitarian ideology comparable to Nazism, Communism, and the other ghastly utopianisms that came of age in the 20th century.
Recall that for totalitarians conquering territory was not sufficient; it might fairly be said that they sought to control time. The burning of books, the destroying of churches, the confiscation and destruction of artwork — it was all part of purging the historical record of unsavory elements in the interest of a master narrative that revealed the future: a thousand-year Reich, a classless society.
By setting its sights on Iraq’s cultural heritage, the Islamic State is setting itself in that tradition. It has an apocalyptic vision that requires that the past be rewritten. The horizons of time, past and future, are to be brought under the control of the Islamic State. Our word “Islamofascism” is well suited to this phenomenon.
It is true that no religion has failed to participate in the destruction of a culture of which it disapproves. Of the Amorites and Canaanites and the rest, the Lord commanded Moses, “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, and cut down their Asherah poles” (Ex. 34:13). Cromwell’s Puritans did the same millennia later.
But in the religion that has undergirded the West, one finds an impulse that opposes the one driving the Islamic State. The Apostle Paul gave it voice at Mars Hill: “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” The greatest preacher of Christianity did not take his hammer to the shrines of the pagans. Rather, he rejoiced in their longing for the Divine, then tried to restore their vision to see that the answer to the question they had been asking had come.
When has that impulse for peaceful persuasion prevailed in Islam? Will it ever?