A story long popular in London tells of a foreign visitor losing his bearings while walking along Whitehall and politely asking a passerby, “Excuse me, sir, which side is the Foreign Office on?” Hearing the visitor’s accent, the Brit despairingly replies, “Yours, probably.” This story comes to mind when we read the histories of Western culture and civilization served up by many current academics, particularly in popular textbooks that are sold by the millions. Over the last generation or so, the one thing we can reasonably assume about these works, regardless of the exact topic or period under discussion, is that they are going to be on the other side. If an evil interpretation of Western conduct can possibly be applied to a given event, if a Western achievement can be distorted to expose the sinister and exploitative side of our civilization, then, without fail, it will be done. The story of ancient Greece thus becomes a heartrending saga of slavery and patriarchal brutality; the age of global discoveries is seen in terms of imperialism and genocide; Christian churches existed to demean women, suppress knowledge, and persecute their rivals.
Modern scholars have no wish to repeat the errors of their despised predecessors, who supposedly served as mindless cheerleaders for Western imperialism and oppression. No, indeed! Why do that when you can be a mindless cheerleader for the imperialism and oppression of every other civilization on the planet? Perhaps it is a perverse scholarly variant on Newton’s law of motion: For every action, there is an opposite and wildly disproportionate reaction.
Though academics have turned venomously against Western Christian civilization, they certainly have not abandoned their willingness to make moral judgments, to present history in terms of heroes and villains. In many ways, contemporary liberal history looks very much like the most simplistic works of bygone days about the glories of civilization, but the civilizations that are now extolled are, basically, everyone except the West. This means the world of Islam, China, and even the Aztecs—perhaps the bloodiest and most ruthless bunch of thugs ever to be graced with the word “civilization.” When we see how contemporary academics have turned so enthusiastically to any and all other societies, we might think of George Orwell’s explanation of the extreme political ideologies of the 1930’s. In Orwell’s view, a generation of young people brought up on flagwaving jingoism had come to despise their own country, but they still felt a powerful compulsion to express their patriotic passions, and so they transferred their loyalties to more fashionable nations—to Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany.
To observe the process of transferred cultural patriotism in operation, we can trace how scholars over the years have treated the European Middle Ages. Once upon a time, the Middle Ages were seen as a magnificent peak of cultural achievement. This was the view epitomized by Henry Adams’ Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and popularized in such Catholic bestsellers as James J. Walsh’s The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries (1907). Clearly, a view that at once glorified the West and Christianity was going to be a prime target for liberal historians from the 1960’s on. These skeptics made short work of naive romanticism about an age reputedly characterized by pervasive faith and heroic chivalry, a world of saints and scholars. If we look at a modern “Western Civ” textbook today, the Middle Ages are portrayed much differently. Instead of the old Eurocentric nonsense, the blaring triumphalism, we now know the truth: Medieval Europe was replete with superstition, class violence, and religious bigotry. Fortunately, though, Christian Europe was able to pull itself together through the aid of the great Muslim civilization, with its matchless saints and scholars, its heroic chivalry, and . . . you get the picture. Literally every one of the crudest stereotypes about medieval Christianity still flourishes, but it has been transferred en masse to Islam in the same period.
Beyond question, medieval Islam did possess a glorious civilization. Muslim scholars did a superb job of preserving classical writings, and they made significant progress in science and philosophy. I have no wish to denigrate Muslim achievements, past or present. Even now, entering a mosque can be a moving experience—all the more so when the building stands as an island of dignity and decency amidst a sea of extreme poverty. Islam itself is not the problem. Still, current Western views of the history of Islam are so over the top in their obsequious desire to praise Muslim achievements over Christian ones that they have simply become ludicrous. Just look at the bestselling religious books of Karen Armstrong and try to find a respectful word about Western or Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages, in contrast to the lavish praise heaped upon their Muslim counterparts.
This past May, PBS stations nationwide devoted three hours of prime time to a major documentary called Empire of Faith, which presented the current myth of Islam at its most extreme. This production, with actor Ben Kingsley as narrator, was trumpeted as one of PBS’s leading events of the season. At every point, the portrait of Islam offered by this program was staggeringly uncritical, although it featured commentary by a dozen or so leading academic historians—or perhaps I should say, because it featured so many eminent historians. Even the tide is indicative of the slanted approach. Islam, we are told, was a “worldwide power founded simply on faith.” Not surprisingly, the account of the religion’s spread conveniently overlooks the fact that faith received a significant assist from a massive and consistent exercise of armed force. The whole “empire of faith” notion subtly, and improbably, suggests that millions of Christian Syrians, Egyptians, and others suddenly volunteered to become a despised underclass under Muslim rule. In fact, Christianity survived only because the Byzantines were sufficiently powerful and inventive to outfight the Muslims for several centuries, and because they possessed a potent secret weapon called “Greek fire” (we call it “napalm”).
Once Muslim power was established, Empire of Faith tells us that, in effect, Islam created the modern world. Muslim women, we are told, had many more rights than the primitive Christians. But the greatest accomplishments were in the sciences. “Algebra, astronomy, trigonometry, and engineering” all trace their roots to Islamic scientists. “The Renaissance had its beginnings in Baghdad,” and eventually, Muslims came “bringing the precious gift of knowledge to Europe.” Of course, the 13th was the Greatest of Centuries—not that the scrofulous Christians had anything to do with it. Bv the way, it is amusing to see these paeans to science and scientific discovery, because they contrast so sharply with conventional academic discussions of Western advances, including scientism and the tainted desire to subdue the material world. Science and technology are bad if they are developed by Europeans or Americans; they are good if cultivated by anybody else.
The documentary depicted everything Christian or European with the greatest hostility. Much of the supposed European backwardness was connected with the people’s primitive religion—namely, Christianity. Muslims were developing an admittedly sophisticated medical technology “at a time when Europeans were praying to the bones of saints to cure their illnesses.” While Muslims were publishing learned works on paper (a Chinese invention), “the monks of the West were hoarding their knowledge on scraps of expensive parchment.” The only true glories of Europe were to be found in Spain, in places like Cordova, “a city of light—a Muslim city!” Sometimes, visitors traveled from the “cold stone of their northern castles into the glorious Muslim cities of southern Spain.” While Muslims were portrayed as living in urban sophistication, “in contrast, people in Paris lived in shacks by the river.” (Rumor has it that the Islamic world was not entirely populated by wealthy lords and merchants living in the splendors of Club Muslim, but the program obviously did not have time to discuss the lower orders of that glorious society). One of the few media critiques of this particular piece of pro-Muslim fluff came from Claudia Rosett, writing in the Wall Street Journal (May 7). She wrote—accurately— that “This show bears a propaganda stamp akin to those old Soviet brochures once sent out by Intourist—the kind that were packed with pictures of colorfully costumed ethnic minorities and wide-angle photos of verdant fields but somehow went light on the grittier aspects of the situation.”
Empire of Faith merits careful viewing, but one point that emerges repeatedly is the double standard. For the filmmakers, the ultimate evil of the Middle Ages was the Crusades, dubbed with terms like “a campaign of bloodshed,” “a surge of religious tenor and fanaticism coming from Western Europe,” “incomprehensible horror,” where the warriors were “fired up with fanaticism and zeal.” After we have shaken our head sufficiently over these atrocities, described to music that is alternately terrifying and dolorous, we are relieved to hear of the liberation of the Holy Land by Muslim warriors, fearless and brave, motivated by religious zeal (but definitely not by fanaticism or fervor). Modern historians love to illustrate the bigotry of medieval Christendom by quoting the line from Chanson de Roland: “Les Chrestiens ont droit / et les paiens ont tort,” (“Christians are right, and pagans are wrong.”) How simplistic and stupid, we scoff, when everyone knows that, in Le Chanson de PBS, it is les paiens who are infallibly correct. Or to paraphrase Orwell once more: Cross bad, crescent good.
What Empire of Faith has done—like countless texts over the last few years—is to take an image of the Middle Ages that would have been familiar in the age of Sir Walter Scott and precisely invert it. Knowledge and culture come from Islam to Europe, not the other way around, and the fanatical barbarians on the frontier are not the stereotyped Saracens, but the mindlessly savage Catholics. Twenty years ago, Edward Said popularized the term “Orientalism” to describe a familiar package of prejudices about the savage and mysterious East. What contemporary academics are doing is applying the same notions to Christendom and the West: They are, in fact, inventing “Occidentalism.” And they are doing it without any significant criticism from the media. Since the West is self-evidently evil and repressive, its enemies must be laudable. To adapt the dialogue in my original story: Which side is PBS on? Anyone else’s, probably.
This documentary could be dismissed as an isolated event, except that it epitomizes many contemporary ideas about both Christianity and Islam, particularly in the Middle Ages. In the conventional image, the two faiths differ above all in their attitudes toward religious tolerance. “Islam” implies Muslim-ruled Spain, a society in which Christians and Jews lived and interacted with some freedom; “medieval Christendom” suggests the massacres of Jews and heretics during the crusading era, and especially the great pogroms during the Black Death. Presumably, scientifically advanced Muslims did not need to find scapegoats for the plague. Christian Europe is equally condemned by its involvement in the Crusades, those acts of religious-based militarism that foreshadowed the worst brutalities of later imperialism. The contrast between the two religions is simply good and evil, night and day.
Unfortunately, the conventional image is also utterly wrong at every point. Certainly, some Muslim societies were tolerant, for the simple reason that, for most of the Middle Ages, they were ruling over vast Christian majorities (not minorities) and simply could not suppress or massacre all their subjects. Somebody had to pay taxes and build roads. In countries like Egypt, therefore, the new Muslim rulers contented themselves with persecuting the tens of thousands of monks and clergy. Each was required to have the name of his church or monastic house branded on his hand, and if he failed to do so, the hand would be cut off. Christian laymen generally escaped these torments until the 14th century, when, during the Black Death, Muslim authorities launched a wave of massacres and forced conversions on a vast scale. Yes, Muslims did launch pogroms, though commonly against Christians rather than Jews. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the number of Christians living in Asia fell from perhaps 21 million in 1200 to just 3.5 million by 1500. Generally, Islamic tolerance is an historical myth. Muslims were not monsters, but—contrary to legend—they did not rise above the prejudices of their age any more than their Christian contemporaries.
From the 14th century on, the fate of Christians living under Muslim rule is very much the same as that of Jews in medieval Europe. This parallel has continued into modern times, and for both minorities, the last century or so has been truly appalling. Though Christian communities survive across the region, their numbers are a pathetic shadow of what they were even in 1850, and entire peoples have been obliterated since that time. The Armenian genocide of 1915 is well known, but equally devastating were the massacres of tens of thousands of Lebanese and Syrian Christians in 1860. In 1915, the Ottoman Turks slaughtered and expelled hundreds of thousands of Christians of all sects, not just Armenians. A famine deliberately induced by the Turkish military claimed the lives of 100,000 Lebanese Maronite Christians. Across the Middle East, the bloodshed of 1915 destroyed ancient Christian cultures that had survived since Roman times—groups like the Jacobites, Nestorians, and Chaldaeans. And the carnage continued after World War I ended. Between 1919 and 1925, hundreds of thousands of Greek Christians were expelled en masse from the new Kemalist state of Turkey. As late as 1955, Istanbul’s Christians suffered what William Dalrymple called “the worst race riot in Europe since Kristallnacht.” Why do we never hear about such things? Do not expect them to form the subject of any future PBS documentary, with a title like Empire of Blood or Forgotten Holocaust. Such programs are about as improbable as studies publicizing the millennium-long Muslim hegemony over the African slave trade.
The long persistence of Christian communities under Islam challenges contemporary attitudes toward historical conflicts between the two faiths, particularly the monopoly of righteousness claimed by the defenders of Islam. In recent years, a powerful social movement has demanded that the West—specifically the churches—apologize for the Crusades. In this view, the Crusades represented aggression, pure and simple, against the Muslim world, and nobody can deny the resulting wars involved their share of atrocities. Underlying the movement for apology, though, is the assumption that religious frontiers are somehow carved in stone, and that the Muslim-ruled states of the Near East were destined to form part of the world of Islam. An equally good case can be made that the medieval Middle East was no more inevitably Muslim than other regions conquered by Islam and subsequently liberated, like Spain and Hungary. Should the West also apologize for those successful reconquests, or perhaps for failing to let Muslim forces roll over Austria and Germany? Curiously, Westerners do not suggest that Muslims apologize for the aggressive acts that gave them power over these various lands in the first place. If seizing Syria and Palestine by the Muslim sword was acceptable in the seventh century, it is difficult to see why reclaiming it with the Christian lance 400 years later was somehow a war crime equivalent to the holocaust.
I have suggested that liberal academics and opinion-makers sympathize with Islam partly because it is a leading historical rival of the Western civilization they hate. But there is something more to it than that, since the picture of Islam that emerges from recent writing looks suspiciously like the kind of history that liberals would like to have if they were to invent it afresh— which is, in fact, what they are doing. Just as Victorians created a romantic cult of the Christian Middle Ages as an intellectual refuge from the industrial society they loathed, so modern liberals are supplying themselves with a romanticized and sanitized Muslim past that substitutes for the authentic Western and Christian roots they have rejected. Accordingly, Islam is portrayed as everything that should have been: a glorious world of knights and castles blessed with a civilized, tolerant, and rational religion (a superior version of Unitarianism, perhaps); a sane mysticism, represented by the Sufis; sophisticated science and flourishing universities; and even signs of sexual equality. It sounds too good to be true—as, of course, it is. It is so inaccurate that, as time goes by, scholars will be forced to realize the gulf that separates their ideal Islam from the painful reality. At that point, tastes in invented history will shift once more, from Islam to some other civilization, preferably to one far enough away not to have too many embarrassing facts surrounding it (which is a leading reason why Tibet always appeals to Western dreamers). What we can say with confidence is that this quest for a usable past will not lead to a renewed taste for the Christian West. That society is too violent, too intolerant, too . . . real.
I began with the British Foreign Office, so let me end there. In the 1930’s, a novice reporter assigned to the FO found, to his horror, that the daily press briefings were held at 6:00 P.M., but his newspaper had a deadline of 4:00 P.M. How could he possibly keep his readers informed of daily developments in foreign policy? Not to worry, chuckled the old hands from the press corps. In any given situation, just assume that the British government has decided to do the most craven and sickeningly dishonorable thing possible, and write your story as if that is the policy they have just announced. You will never go wrong. The same principle applies when we try to understand how Western academics study their own culture in relationship to others. Just assume that the fashionable interpretation of the day will be uncritically obsequious to all other cultures, while scoffing at Western or Christian achievements at every possible opportunity, and you will never be far off the mark.
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