“I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” — Barack Hussein Obama
Here are some facts that are worth returning to from time to time, as arguments over the history of Islam and Islamism are back in the news with today’s beheading in London. In debates over the history of tension between Muslims and Christians, the Crusades are often cited, out of their historical context, as the original cause of such clashes, as if both sides were peaceably minding their own business before imperialist Westerners decided to go launch a religious war in Muslim lands.
his is not what actually happened, and indeed it is ahistorical to treat the fragmented feudal states of the West in the Eleventh Century as capable of any such thing as imperialism or colonialism (although, as Victor Davis Hanson has noted, even in the centuries after the fall of Rome, Western civilization retained a superior logistical ability to project force overseas due to the scientific, economic and military legacies of ancient Greece and Rome). Moreover, when Islam first arose, much of what we think of today as Islamic ‘territory’ in Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa was Christian until conquered by the heirs of Muhammad, such that speaking of one side’s incursions into the other’s territory requires you to ignore how that territory was seized in the first place. That entire region had been part of the Roman and later Byzantine empires, and was culturally part of the West until it was conquered by Muslim arms — Rome is closer geographically to Tripoli than to London, Madrid is closer to Casablanca than to Berlin, Athens is closer to Damascus than to Paris.
All that said, it’s worth remembering that the Crusades arose in the late Eleventh Century only after four centuries of relentless Islamic efforts to conquer Europe, and the Christians of the Crusading era cannot be evaluated without that crucial context.
It’s somewhat hazy to identify the genesis of the first battle between the Byzantines and Islamic forces, which probably took place around 629 at the Battle of Mu’tah, before Muhammad had even completed the conquest of Mecca; the first sea battle between Muslim and Byzantine forces took place a few years later. The fall of Mecca in 630 solidified Muhammad’s control of the western side of the Arabian Peninsula, and Muhammad died in 632. A decisive Muslim victory at the Battle of Ajnadayn in 634 spread Muslim control into modern Israel. Between 634 and 689, Muslim forces conquered Christian, Byzantine-held Syria and North Africa.
Starting in the middle of the Seventh Century, when Islam was still mostly united under a single political entity, you begin to see Islamic incursions into Europe (including Constantinople, which was effectively one of the leading European cities at the time) — and from there, the conquests and attempted conquests marched on. If you look on a map over this period, you see an almost continuous line of advance on Europe from all sides but the north – from Spain and France in the west to Italy in the center to Constantinople in the east to the frontiers of Georgia in the Caucasus, with the islands of the Mediterranean on the front lines:
650-54: Muslim conquest of Cyprus.
674-78: First Siege of Constantinople, repelled with the invention and deployment of “Greek Fire.”
711-18: Muslim Conquest of Spain, which would not be reconquered completely by the Christians until 1492.
717-18: Second Siege of Constantinople.
719: Muslim invasion of France begins, establishing Muslim control of the Septimania region of southwestern France.
732: Battle of Poitiers (Tours); Charles Martel halts Muslim northward march into central France.
736: Muslim Conquest of Georgia, where the Emirate of Tbilisi would hold sway until 1122.
820: Muslim Conquest of Crete, which would be held until 961.
846: The Muslim Sack of Rome by troops landing at the port of Ostia, including the sack of St. Peter’s Basilica while Pope Leo III and the helpless Roman garrison retreated behind the city walls.
847: Muslim Conquest of Bari in southern Italy; the Muslim presence on the Italian peninsula proper lasted 25 years. In 915, at the Battle of Garigliano, Pope John X personally led an army against Islamic forces in southern Italy
863: In a rare break from the pattern of this era, the Byzantines go back on offensive, with mixed results over the next 200-300 years of warfare.
902: Muslim Conquest of all Sicily. In 965, an independent Emirate of Sicily would be established lasting until 1091.
1048-1308: The Byzantine-Seljuk Wars, yet another continuation of the mutual, longstanding efforts by the Byzantines and their Islamic neighbors to conquer each other’s territory. In 1071, the Battle of Manzikert would prove the first of a series of decisive engagements (followed by the 1176 Battle of Myriokephalon) that gradually wrested Asia Minor from the Byzantines, converting it from a Christian land to a Muslim one and isolating the remaining Byzantine presence to the immediate surroundings of their historic capital of Constantinople.
And, of course, Islamic efforts against Europe and the West would continue well after the Crusades, from the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the naval incursions finally stopped at Lepanto in 1571 to the epic Siege of Vienna in 1683 (which in turn was followed by another century of bloody wars between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs).
As has often been noted, the early history of Muhammad as a military leader and Islam as the driving force of conquest is quite different from the early history of Christianity as the persecuted faith founded by a non-violent martyr, and these differing foundations have presented different challenges for Christian and Muslim thinkers dealing with questions of war, peace, and the defense of self and others. That said, none of this is intended to demonize Muslims as uniquely violent in the Dark Ages. Aggressive wars of conquest were the rule throughout the world in those centuries, and have become only fitfully less so into our own age.
But the Crusades did not originate in a vacuum; they were launched in a world where the Roman Empire, the guardian of Western Civilization, had fallen to outside invaders 600 years earlier and European Christians had been on the defensive ever since. The Europe that would stand astride the non-Western world into the middle of the Twentieth Century was still distant in the future. The fearful and divided Christian principalities of 1095 had grown up in a world where Islam, not Christianity, had been the engine of imperial expansion for long before living memory.
Virtually nobody in the West and/or what passes for Christendom today argues that violence can or should be justified on the basis of things that happened a thousand years ago. The insistence of Islamist propagandists on revisiting such ancient history for present-day propaganda purposes should be resisted – but it should also be subjected to the corrective of accurate history. And that history is one in which Muslims carried the sword to Europe for centuries before Christian armies took the Crusade to them.
A video of a rebel commander eating the lung of an enemy fighter and the horrific scenes of children massacred by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are only a few of Syria's ever-growing catalog of atrocities. This stuff of nightmares has raised fears that Syria's civil war is spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict across the Middle East — fears galvanized by the escalating body count in Iraq, the dismal standoff in Bahrain, and the seemingly uncontainable tensions in Lebanon.
Many now see this sectarianism as the new master narrative rewriting regional politics, with Syria the frontline of a sectarian cold war permeating every corner of public life. The Sunni-Shiite divide, argues Brookings Institution fellow Geneive Abdo in a report released last month, "is well on its way to displacing the broader conflict between Muslims and the West ... and likely to supplant the Palestinian occupation as the central mobilizing factor for Arab political life."
Perhaps. But think about how little deep Arab sympathy for the Palestinian cause has actually produced effective or unified Arab official action in its support. Will Sunni solidarity be any more effective?
The sectarian master narrative obscures rather than reveals the most important lines of conflict in the emerging Middle East. The coming era will be defined by competition between (mostly Sunni) domestic contenders for power in radically uncertain transitional countries, and (mostly Sunni) pretenders to the mantle of regional Arab leadership. Anti-Shiism no more guarantees Sunni unity than pan-Arabism delivered Arab unity in the 1950s. Indeed, if the vicious infighting among Arab regimes during Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's years is any guide, the competition between "Sunni" regimes and political movements is likely to grow even more intense as the sectarian narrative takes hold.
That certainly seems to be the story thus far. Sunni identity is hardly unifying Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia — just look at the raucous political debates occurring in each of these countries. The rise of Islamist movements since the Arab uprisings, especially the public emergence of Salafi trends with noxiously anti-Shiite prejudices, has certainly introduced a new edge to the region's sectarianism. But that's nothing compared to how it has affected intra-Sunni politics. Muslim Brothers and Salafis are at each other's throats in Egypt, while Tunisia's Ennahda Party has just cracked down hard on its own Salafi challengers.
Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia have also divided the Arab Sunni world more profoundly than they have united it, antagonizing Saudis and Emiratis rather than unifying them around a Sunni identity. Newly open political arenas, like the war in Syria, have provided new opportunities for the region's would-be leaders to compete with each other. Qatar similarly faces a fierce Saudi and Emirati-driven backlash despite their common Sunni identity, partly because of its alleged support for the Brotherhood, but mostly due to the long-standing competition for power between these Arab Gulf states.
The sectarian narrative radically exaggerates both the coherence of the "Sunni" side of the conflict and the novelty of a long-standing power struggle with Iran. It is better understood as a justification for domestic repression and regional power plays than as an explanation for Middle Eastern regimes' behavior. Arab autocrats, particularly those in the Gulf with significant Shia populations, find Sunni-Shiite tensions a useful way to delegitimize the political demands of their Shiite citizens. Shiite citizens of Saudi Arabia in the kingdom's Eastern Province and the Shiite majority of Bahrain who attempt to protest their systematic dispossession are demonized as an Iranian fifth column because this is useful to the ruling regimes.
Similarly, Arab leaders (and Washington) often found labeling their rivals as "Shiite" a valuable way to undermine the popular appeal of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah "Resistance Axis." This isn't to say that some leaders don't genuinely dislike Shiites — Saudi King Abdullah famously distrusted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as an Iranian agent -- but their personal beliefs aren't really necessary to explain their behavior.
For this reason, a "Sunni" conquest of Syria is unlikely to turn the country into a reliable ally of other Sunni regimes in the region unless such alliances happen to serve the self-interest of the new leaders. The traditional rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has reasserted itself in Syria — competition between their networks of rebel groups has been one of the major factors hindering the unification of the Syrian opposition. Should a Sunni coalition of some sort take power in Syria, it will likely be the object of similarly fierce battles for influence among ambitious external players.
Remember, we've been here before — and recently. Today's sectarianism looks very much like that of the mid-2000s, when Iran and Hezbollah seemed ascendant, Vali Nasr warned of the "rise of the Shia," Jordan's King Abdullah fretted about a Shiite Crescent, and the sectarian cast of the execution of Saddam Hussein infuriated even those Sunnis who felt no love for the fallen dictator. Particularly during George W. Bush's administration, Washington appeared to view such sectarianism as useful to policy goals such as containing Iran, undermining Hezbollah, and cementing its alliance of "moderate" Sunni dictatorships.
The sectarian rages of the mid-2000s had faded by the end of the decade, however, along with the worst days of the Iraqi inferno. But the anger, resentment, and political identities which were forged during those days didn't disappear entirely, and proved all too easy to mobilize when Syria's conflict escalated. The great mass of Syrians or Iraqis may have rejected sectarianism at first, but such restraint grows harder in the face of massacres and massive displacement based on the victims' Sunni or Shiite identities. Local horrors travel quickly in the new Arab media environment, as images of sectarian massacres and the rhythms of sectarian rhetoric too often go viral online and satellite television stations too eagerly adopt sectarian frames. Arab regimes then happily use the horrors of Syria to justify their refusal to reform — "look how bad it could get!" — and deploy sectarian language to demonize any political mobilization by their Shia citizens.
The fact that sectarianism is being ginned up for political ends does not mean that the hatreds won't be internalized over time -- to deadly effect. The shift toward a sectarian worldview among Arab publics, evident not only in Syria's bloodbaths but in bigoted banners in Egypt and the burning down of a Shiite residence in southern Jordan merits more attention than power politics dressed up in sectarian drag. The cultivation of these sectarian animosities could consolidate dangerous fault lines constantly available to ambitious, unscrupulous elites that would prove very difficult to reverse.
Preventing the conditions for pogroms against Shiite in Sunni majority countries, not cultivating another Axis of Sunni Moderates against Iran, should be at the top of the agenda. And the key to that may be accepting an imperfect political solution in Syria and de-escalating its horrific violence.
Sunni-Shiite hatreds are the least of the Middle East's problems — it's the struggle within the Sunni world that will define the region for years to come.