Americans find it difficult to understand the Islamic threat. It is not just that they have made the mistake of listening to presidential speeches on the “religion of peace” or dulled their wits reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The fault does not lie exclusively or even primarily with American schools, private as well as public, that strive so earnestly to keep American ignorance untouched by historical knowledge, sound logic, and even basic English grammar. Even if the media and the schools were not faithfully disinforming the people, the fact would remain that nothing in our history inclines us to understand so alien a threat.
According to President Obama, “Islam has always been part of America . . . American Muslims have made extraordinary contributions to our country.” This is a preposterous lie, though a President who knows so little of our history can be pardoned for telling it. Indeed, he probably believes it.
In fact, the opposite is true. Our nation first made the acquaintance of Muslims when our pacific President Jefferson had to deal with the brutal though incompetent Barbary pirates who infested the coast of Tunisia and Libya. Like most Americans of my age, I did not meet an American-born Muslim until I was in my 60’s, and, though it were to save my life, I cannot think of one single good thing any Muslim has ever done for our country. Even today, the most prominent Muslim in America is without question Louis Farrakhan, the most significant Islamic contributions to our culture are in “rap,” and politically Muslims voted 90 percent for Obama. That alone is enough to suggest how undesirable their presence is in our country.
Our complete lack of experience with Muslims is a major part of our difficulty in dealing with their aggression. Between the arrival of John Smith at Jamestown in 1607 and the Iranian hostage crisis, we were blissfully unaware of the malice and violence of the Islamic religion toward the West. The American founders came from the British Isles, one of the few parts of Europe not exposed to attacks from the Muslim world. (Hilariously, some Muslims have claimed, on the basis of a bungled imitation of an Arabic coin, that King Offa was a convert to Islam!) The only notable exceptions were the now-forgotten kidnappings and raids made all over Europe, including the British Isles, by Barbary slavers.
Our British ancestors were, indeed, fortunate to live in their “fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war.” The Christian peoples of the Mediterranean world were not so fortunate: Muslims have been killing and enslaving Christians since the days of Muhammad. Syria and Palestine were attacked and subjugated in the 630’s, Egypt by 642, most of Spain before the end of the eighth century, Greece and Serbia in the 1300’s, the last remnant of the Roman Empire—Constantinople itself—in 1453.
Anyone with any knowledge of European history knows something of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Hungary and the sieges of Vienna in 1589 and 1623. Some may even know something of Charles Martel’s success in driving the Muslims back across the Pyrenees, but few of us know anything of the raiding, pillaging, and attempted conquests of Italy beginning in the ninth century, when Pope Leo IV—the last of the Romans, as Gibbon calls him—formed a coalition to defeat the Saracens who had already devastated the Vatican and then began work on the walls that still defend the “Leonine” city that bears his name.
Nonetheless, the Muslim advance continued. By the end of the ninth century they held Sicily and had established fortified havens in Fréjus (Fraxinetum in southeastern Provence) and on the Liris/Garigliano river, near the coast between Rome and Naples. These Muslim robbers, who looked upon monasteries as soft targets, destroyed the great abbey of Farfa. Subiaco, which had been rebuilt after the Saracens had left it in ruins in 828, was once again destroyed in 876.
Many Italian rulers took part in the defense of Christendom: South Italian Normans reconquered Sicily, the popes—notably John X—defended Rome and Southern Italy repeatedly, and Emperor Louis II (grandson of Charlemagne) teamed up with the Byzantines to defend Southern Italy. Several remarkable cities played a gallant part in this heroic story—Genova, Venice, and most importantly Pisa.
Visitors to Pisa come mainly to view the glories of the medieval city in the so-called Piazza dei Miracoli, but they should not miss the Renaissance Piazza dei Cavalieri designed by Giorgio Vasari. This beautiful piazza has many stories to tell. In the great days of Pisan independence, it was the political heart of the city, and at one entrance stood the famous Torre di Fame where (in the late 13th century) Ugolino della Gherardesca was starved to death along with his sons and grandsons.
When Florence finally succeeded in her campaign to enslave Pisa (1406), it was in this piazza that the decree ending the independence of the proudest of medieval cities was read. When Vasari was sent by the Grand Duke Cosimo I to redesign the square, his two great contributions were the Scuola Normale, with its lovely curving façade, and the church of Santo Stefano. (Vasari’s designs were modified by other architects, including Cosimo’s illegitimate son, Giovanni.) The church used to be closed much of the time, but it is now open, and when you enter you will see everywhere banners and spoils from Turkish ships as well as paintings commemorating great naval battles with the fleets of the Ottoman Empire. They remind us that the Knights of St. Stephen were a Tuscan naval order whose primary mission was to defend Christendom from the Islamic menace. The church was consecrated in 1560, only two years before the Battle of Lepanto, in which Grand Duke Cosimo’s Tuscan navy took part.
Pisa played a comparatively minor role in the later and less crucial struggle with the Ottoman Empire, but in the first phase of the European reconquest, she was the dominant maritime power that beat back the Muslim menace from Italy and the Western Mediterranean. By the early tenth century, Saracens were raiding the Ligurian coast all the way to Nice. Genoa was sacked in 935, and her people were slaughtered mercilessly by the Islamic terrorists. The destructive Arab raid on Genoa left the defense of the Tyrrhenian Sea to Pisa, which made herself mistress of the Ligurian coast for 100 years.
All of Italy was under threat, but the South was hit particularly hard. Amalfi, though a powerful maritime power, did not have sufficient strength to fight off the attacks of Muslim pirates, and Pisa, for motives of Christian charity and “capitalist” greed, came to the rescue of the maritime cities in Southern Italy.
From the late ninth century, Pisan vessels had been raiding North Africa and defending the South. Her ships fought the Saracens in Calabria in the tenth century and drove the infidels out of Reggio in Calabria. Early in the 11th century, while the Pisan fleet was away defending Southern Italy from Muslim attacks, Saracen pirates from Spain sailed up the Arno and burned part of Pisa. Eight years later, they laid siege to the city. It was on this occasion that Kinzica de’ Sismondi is said to have heard the arrival of the invaders and rallied the men and saved the city.
It is hard to say how much truth there is in the legend. The pirates were certainly successful in looting and burning Pisa and in slaughtering the women and children who were left in the city. Then there is her name, Kinzica, an Arab word apparently, and the name of the mercantile part of the city across the Arno, the very place where Arab merchants would have come to do business, set up shops, and even establish residences. Some of the residents might have welcomed a piratical raid staged by their coreligionists. It is only conjecture, of course, but I am not the first to make it.
From their colonies on Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands, Muslims were constantly threatening the coastline of western Italy. Sardinia had remained a part of the Roman Empire (with a brief Gothic interlude) since the Punic Wars. Under Byzantine rule, the unified province of Sardinia, which had become de facto independent, disintegrated into four rival judgeships (judicatus) governed by rulers chosen from dominant families. In their constant bickering, divisions, and wars, the competing judges were extending an open invitation to any ambitious Muslim chief. In 1015 Mogahid, a Muslim war-leader in Spain, conquered the weakened and divided island. This Mogahid had been a Christian Slav who had worked his way up to a dominant position in Western Spain, from which he launched his invasions of the Balearic Islands and Sardinia. His initial conquest (and subsequent invasions) of the island were extremely brutal.
Two lessons are obvious: First, so long as Christian powers are divided, they are easy pickings for Islamic conquerors; and second, our worst enemies have been not so much Muslim Arabs or Turks as Christian renegades who either embrace Islam fervently as a religion that justifies their violent propensities or at least cynically pretend to convert for the sake of personal gain. Historically, the former motive appears to be typically Albanian; the latter, more Slavic and Greek. These days, it is common to meet African-Americans and Mexicans who are drawn to the religion of war, and European post-Christians who see the advantages of going along to get ahead.
In retaliation for the Spanish Muslims’ attack on their city, the Pisan fleet, assisted by Genoese allies, sailed to Sardinia. In the face of the Christian counterattack Mogahid chose to withdraw and bide his time, but, upon the departure of the Pisan and Genoese fleets, he returned with a vengeance to terrorize the Sardinians. When Pisa and Genoa returned, Mogahid made good his escape, but Pisa and Genoa defeated the Muslims and captured Mogahid’s brother.
In 1063, a Pisan fleet attacked Arab-held Palermo to support the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard, who, with his brother Roger, was retaking the island. By medieval standards, Palermo—with a population exceeding 300,000—was a vast and well-fortified city. In a concerted effort, Pisan ships broke the harbor chains and hoisted their new flag: a Pisan cross on a field of red, which they had adopted after wresting Sardinia from the Muslims. Although they could not actually take the city so long as its defenders remained within the walls, the Pisan adventurers took home so much booty that they were able to begin construction of their new cathedral.
Italian merchants were pragmatists, trading with the Muslims when it was possible, fighting and despoiling them whenever Muslim rulers felt strong enough to go back to oppressing Christians. For the Italians, North Africa was the key place, both for trade and for potential loot. The Moroccan port city of Mehdia was held by a Muslim prince named Temim, who built it up into a thriving center of trade—and piracy. Its natural fortifications made it nearly impregnable. Inside its walls, thousands of Christian prisoners despaired of liberation.
Whether their motives were Christian charity or the more down-to-earth desire to protect their shipping from piracy, Pisa and Genoa decided once again to combine forces. Their request for Norman support was turned down by Guiscard, who probably had enough work to do pacifying Sicily and keeping his unruly vassals in order. The expedition set sail in 1087. Its first objective was the island of Pantelleria, a prison for high-ranking prisoners in Roman times and, more recently, a vacation resort. The crusaders took the island, though not before the defenders smuggled out warnings to Temim by means of carrier pigeons. The Visconte Ugo was killed in the fighting for Mehdia, but Temim was forced to capitulate: He surrendered his Christian captives—along with a great deal of his treasure—and granted Pisa trading privileges.
Enriched by the spoils of North Africa, the Pisans dedicated a huge amount of the loot to the further adornment of their cathedral. The entire Piazza dei Miracoli, in fact, was made possible only by the city’s aggressive maritime adventures, especially the constant conflicts with Muslim powers. There are more charming cities in Italy—Pisa suffered from centuries of neglect only to be bombed by both sides in World War II—but the cluster of religious monuments on Pisa’s great piazza is unparalleled: Taken separately, the cathedral, baptistery, Campo Santo, the Ospedale that houses the Museo delle Sinopie, and, of course, the famous Tower constitute the most splendid collection of buildings in any one city, but taken as a whole, as one harmonious system of structures, the Piazza, as has been said truly (by Piero Sanpaolesi), is the most beautiful religious site since the Athenians rebuilt their temples on the Acropolis in the fifth century b.c.
Pisa’s wars with the Muslims were conducted by individual admirals and consortiums rather than by the city itself, but they were not haphazard expeditions in search of booty. The Pisans, though working as entrepreneurs, were single-mindedly working to drive the Muslims out of Christian Europe. In 1099, along with Genoa and Venice, Pisa sent 120 ships to support the First Crusade. Records are scanty, but Pisan importance can be measured by the fact that the Pisan Archbishop Daibert was made bishop of Jerusalem. To enrich their above-ground cemetery, the Campo Santo, the Pisans excavated tons of earth from the Holy Land and shipped it back to their own sacred city.
This was no quaint gesture. These men were, of course, ruthless adventurers who all too often behaved more like pirates than like merchants, but they were also Christians—fervent, passionate Christians. If in defending their Faith they made themselves rich, it was all the more necessary to dedicate a large part of their gains (well or ill gotten) to their church and its heroic archbishop, a war-leading man of the cloth in the style of Archbishop Turpin, one of the heroes of the Chanson de Roland, whose sermon to the Frankish warriors breathes defiance:
“Lords, we are here for our monarch’s sake;
Hold we for him, though our death should come;
Fight for the succor of Christendom. The battle
approaches—ye know it well,
For ye see the ranks of the infidel.
Cry mea culpa, and lowly kneel;
I will assoil you, your souls to heal.
In death ye are holy martyrs crowned.”
The Franks alighted, and knelt on ground;
In God’s high name the host he blessed,
And for penance gave them—to smite their best.
This is “muscular Christianity” with a vengeance. Once upon a time, when men were men and Christians Christian, we had no trouble in taking on a powerful Islamic insurgency, and divided as the Italian cities and kingdoms were, they could always leave off fighting each other long enough to deal with the real enemy. Girls driving tanks and pushing buttons will not defeat Muslim soldiers, who will spring up from the blood of their martyrs like the warriors Jason sowed from the dragon’s teeth. We need the toughness of the Pisans, but even more we need their faith.