Archive for April, 2007

Prince Bandar and Bush Connection

April 29, 2007

In the following article New York Times shows the role played by the Saudi royal family in the American Administration and its ‘policies’ in the Middle East.

A Saudi Prince Tied to Bush is Sounding Off-Key: New York Times

By Helene Cooper and Jim Rutenberg, published April 29, 2007

WASHINGTON, April 28 — No foreign diplomat has been closer or had more access to President Bush, his family and his administration than the magnetic and fabulously wealthy Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia.

Prince Bandar has mentored Mr. Bush and his father through three wars and the broader campaign against terrorism, reliably delivering — sometimes in the Oval Office — his nation’s support for crucial Middle East initiatives dependent on the regional legitimacy the Saudis could bring, as well as timely warnings of Saudi regional priorities that might put it into apparent conflict with the United States. Even after his 22-year term as Saudi ambassador ended in 2005, he still seemed the insider’s insider. But now, current and former Bush administration officials are wondering if the longtime reliance on him has begun to outlive its usefulness.

Bush administration officials have been scratching their heads over steps taken by Prince Bandar’s uncle, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, that have surprised them by going against the American playbook, after receiving assurances to the contrary from Prince Bandar during secret trips he made to Washington.

For instance, in February, King Abdullah effectively torpedoed plans by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a high-profile peace summit meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, by brokering a power-sharing agreement with Mr. Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas that did not require Hamas to recognize Israel or forswear violence. The Americans had believed, after discussions with Prince Bandar, that the Saudis were on board with the strategy of isolating Hamas.

American officials also believed, again after speaking with Prince Bandar, that the Saudis might agree to direct engagement with Israel as part of a broad American plan to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. King Abdullah countermanded that plan.

Most bitingly, during a speech before Arab heads of state in Riyadh three weeks ago, the king condemned the American invasion of Iraq as “an illegal foreign occupation.” The Bush administration, caught off guard, was infuriated, and administration officials have found Prince Bandar hard to reach since.

Since the Iraq war and the attendant plummeting of America’s image in the Muslim world, King Abdullah has been striving to set a more independent and less pro-American course, American and Arab officials said. And that has steered America’s relationship with its staunchest Arab ally into uncharted waters. Prince Bandar, they say, may no longer be able to serve as an unerring beacon of Saudi intent.

“The problem is that Bandar has been pursuing a policy that was music to the ears of the Bush administration, but was not what King Abdullah had in mind at all,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel who is now head of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Of course it is ultimately the king — and not the prince — who makes the final call on policy. More than a dozen associates of Prince Bandar, including personal friends and Saudi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if his counsel has led to the recent misunderstandings, it is due to his longtime penchant for leaving room in his dispatches for friends to hear what they want to hear. That approach, they said, is catching up to the prince as new tensions emerge between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bandar, son of one of the powerful seven sons born to the favorite wife of Saudi Arabia’s founding king, “needs to personally regroup and figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty together again,” one associate said.

Robert Jordan, a former Bush administration ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said the Saudis’ mixed signals have come at a time when King Abdullah — who has ruled the country since 1995 but became king only in 2005 after the death of his brother, Fahd — has said he does not want to go down in history as Mr. Bush’s Arab Tony Blair. “I think he feels the need as a kind of emerging leader of the Arab world right now to maintain a distance,” he said.

Mr. Jordan said that although the United States and Saudi Arabia “have different views on how to get there,” the countries still share the same long-term goals for the region and remain at heart strong allies.

An administration spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, said none of the current issues threatened the relationship. “We may have differences on issues now and then,” he said, “but we remain close allies.”

Or, as Saleh al-Kallab, a former minister of information in Jordan, put it, “The relationship between the United States and the Arab regimes is like a Catholic marriage where you can have no divorce.”

But there can be separation. And several associates of Prince Bandar acknowledge that he feels caught between the opposing pressure of the king and that of his close friends in the Bush administration. It is a relationship that Prince Bandar has fostered with great care and attention to detail over the years, making himself practically indispensable to Mr. Bush, his family and his aides.

A few nights after he resigned his post as secretary of state two years ago, Colin L. Powell answered a ring at his front door. Standing outside was Prince Bandar, then Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, with a 1995 Jaguar. Mr. Powell’s wife, Alma, had once mentioned that she missed their 1995 Jaguar, which she and her husband had traded in. Prince Bandar had filed that information away, and presented the Powells that night with an identical, 10-year-old model. The Powells kept the car — a gift that the State Department said was legal — but recently traded it away.

The move was classic Bandar, who has been referred to as Bandar Bush, attending birthday celebrations, sending notes in times of personal crisis and entertaining the Bushes or top administration officials at sumptuous dinner parties at Prince Bandar’s opulent homes in McLean, Va., and Aspen, Colo.

He has invited top officials to pizza and movies out at a mall in suburban Virginia — and then rented out the movie theater (candy served chair-side, in a wagon) and the local Pizza Hut so he and his guests could enjoy themselves in solitude. He is said to feel a strong sense of loyalty toward Mr. Bush’s father dating to the Persian Gulf war, which transferred to the son, whom he counseled about international diplomacy during Mr. Bush’s first campaign for president.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, as the United States learned that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi and focused on the strict Wahhabi school of Islam that informed them and their leader and fellow Saudi, Osama bin Laden, Prince Bandar took a public role in assuring the Americans that his nation would cooperate in investigating and combating anti-American terrorism. He also helped arrange for more than a hundred members of the bin Laden family to be flown out of the United States.

Even since he left the Saudi ambassador’s post in Washington and returned to Saudi Arabia two years ago, Prince Bandar has continued his long courtship, over decades, of the Bush family and Vice President Dick Cheney, flying into Washington for unofficial meetings at the White House. He cruises in without consulting the Saudi Embassy in Washington, where miffed officials have sometimes said they had no idea that he was in town — a perceived slight that contributed to the resignation of his cousin Prince Turki al-Faisal as ambassador to the United States last year. He has been succeeded by Adel al-Jubeir, who is said to have strong support from the king.

Prince Turki was never able to match the role of Prince Bandar, whom the president, vice president and other officials regularly consult on every major Middle East initiative — from the approach to Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iraq. Prince Bandar played a crucial role in securing the use of the Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj, roughly 70 miles outside Riyadh, in the attacks led by the United States against Afghanistan and Iraq, despite chafing within his government.

He helped in the negotiations that led to Libya giving up its weapons programs, a victory for Mr. Bush. He pledged to protect the world economy from oil shocks after the invasion, the White House said in 2004, but he denied a report, by the author Bob Woodward, that he had promised to stabilize oil prices in time for Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign.

The cause of the latest friction in the American-Saudi relationship began in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. The Saudis agreed with the Bush view of Saddam Hussein as a threat, but voiced concern about post-invasion contingencies and the fate of the Sunni minority. When it became clear that the administration was committed to invading Iraq, Prince Bandar took a lead role in negotiations between the Bush administration and Saudi officials over securing bases and staging grounds.

But Saudi frustration has mounted over the past four years, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated. King Abdullah was angry that the Bush administration ignored his advice against de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Iraqi military. He became more frustrated as America’s image in the Muslim world deteriorated, because Saudi Arabia is viewed as a close American ally.

Tensions between King Abdullah and top Bush officials escalated further when Mr. Bush announced a new energy initiative to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil during his 2006 State of the Union address, and announced new initiatives in that direction this year.

Both American and Saudi officials say that King Abdullah clearly values — and uses — Prince Bandar’s close relationship with the White House. And that, associates said, will dictate what Prince Bandar can do.

“Don’t expect the man, because he happens to have an American background, not to play the game for his home team,” said William Simpson, Prince Bandar’s biographer, and a former classmate at the Royal Air Force College in England. “The home team is Saudi Arabia.”

Michael Slackman and Hassan M. Fattah contributed from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Steven R. Weisman from Washington.

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Islam in Western mirror

April 26, 2007

Nasir Khan

Present-day images of Muslims and Islam in Western media vary considerably. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the general drift of Western concerns has been to portray Islam as the main enemy of the West and the Muslim world as a hotbed of terrorism that threatens Western civilisation and its democratic values. Thus in the present-day hegemonic world order — under which all norms of civilised behaviour in the conduct of foreign policy have been discarded by the Bush Administration and its allies in London and Tel Aviv — Muslims are associated with terrorism. We have seen over the last few years the expansion of Mr Bush’s destructive war, the inhuman treatment of captive population of Iraq and Afghanistan, rampant abuse of prisoners from Muslim countries by American and British forces, total indifference towards the human rights of prisoners of war or of those suspected of resisting or opposing the American occupation of their countries and false propaganda to cover up the real objectives of the neocon rulers in Washington and London.

Needless to say, the so-called ‘Islamic challenge’ is based on assumptions that have no basis in reality. They misrepresent, distort and mislead rather than enlighten and inform. Over the last fifteen years a number of publications have appeared that have borne sensational titles like ‘Sword of Islam’, ‘The Islamic Threat’, ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, ‘Islam’s New Battle Cry’ and ‘What went wrong with Islam?’. They reveal the sort of preconceived image of Islam their writers had intended to convey to their readers. According to such projections, Islam is a challenge to Western values as well as to West’s economic and political interests. But in view of the real power wielded by the West in general and America in particular throughout the Middle East and beyond, the so-called ‘threat of Islam’ is quite groundless.

But right-wing political manipulators and Christian fundamentalists can very easily provoke major crises between the Muslim world and the West; we have only to recall the case of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The real aim of some Danish and Norwegian right-wing newspapers to publish these cartoons was to provoke hostile reactions from Muslims and thus cause more bitterness and resentment between the Muslims and Christians. They tried to cover up their anti-Islamic campaign behind the smokescreen of the argument that publishing the cartoons was a demonstration of the West’s freedom of expression. They were xenophobic, racist and disrespectful of immigrant cultures in Europe and the Islamic culture in particular. How could hurting the feelings of over one billion Muslims was to serve the interests of free Press, freedom of expression or civil liberties? An anti-Islam fundamentalist Christian by the name of Mr Selbekk, the Norwegian editor of Magazinet reprinted the cartoons which were first published in Denmark. He was asked if he would also publish any cartoons that insulted Jesus, said: No. Thus this gentleman’s vaunted ideal of ‘freedom of expression’ was limited to insulting the Prophet Muhammad and obviously did not extend to insulting the gods, prophets and spiritual avatars of any other major religion.

However, it is important to look at the strategic goals of such editors and publishers. They did succeed in their objective, which was to cause maximum provocation to Muslims worldwide and to create an atmosphere of contempt and hatred towards them among the followers of other religions. Muslims were predictably and understandably offended and their reactions led to some horrible incidents in various parts of the globe. What those who reacted violently did not realise was that they had fallen in the trap of anti-Muslim mischief-mongers, who, through provocation had achieved their goal. Now the stage was set to repeat the old charge: Muslims were fanatics, volatile and irrational — they were ‘terrorists’! The divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as cultural opposites was reinforced and widened.

The anti-Muslim media keep on churning out the common stereotypes that portray Muslims, compared to Westerners, as more prone to conflict and violence than are Westerners. These media publish accounts of conflicts in the Muslim countries as self-evident truths to reinforce the image. There is a general tendency to oversimplify or ignore altogether diverse trends and complex socio-economic factors that lead to instability and conflicts in various Muslim countries. The explanations offered and conclusions drawn sometimes are based on implicit, but more often, explicit assumptions about the superiority of Western, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ culture, while the Islamic world is thought to be an epicentre of brutality and disharmony.

A very common stereotype in the Western media is that Islamic countries are inherently prone to violence, fanaticism, medieval ideas and prejudices. This means that Islam, both as a religion and as a cultural influence, is to bear the responsibility for all such regional ills. The West is the harbinger of sweetness and light (but occasionally also darkness and misery), peace and civility (but occasionally predatory wars and barbarism), rationality and open-mindedness (but occasionally irrationality, racism and prejudice, and always is focused on its own interests). All those who have taken the trouble to look at the last few centuries’ history of Western colonialism, extending from time of the so-called ‘discoveries’ of America by Columbus in 1492 and of India by Vasco de Gama in 1498 by sea routes, the ‘discovery’ of Africa by the European for slave trade show the ‘noble’ hands of Western nations that were extended to the people of Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia have left their marks on every continent. We cannot go into historical details here. But the global expansion of Western colonialism is the story of plunder and destruction across continents. No doubt, the seeds of Western civilisation were sown in this way. Within Western societies, the internal conflicts, violence and wars present us with a gory history. This superior culture when seen in the limited sphere of geopolitics and international relations in the last one hundred years only leaves a legacy of two World Wars, more wars (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq), invasions and coups (Guatemala, Grenada, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Congo, southern Africa), concentration camps, racist massacres undertaken on a large scale by the flag-bearers of Western civilisation.

It is obvious that cultural differences between nations and peoples of the world are a fact of history. And in this context generalising about cultural differences is unavoidable. But in no way can such differences be equated with mutual exclusiveness or inevitable hostility between different cultures. Where the initial instinct is not to enter into an anthropological or historical study of comparative cultures, but rather to foment strife and hatred between nations and religions for ulterior motives the consequences can be disastrous. Let us take the events in the aftermath of the bombing of Oklahoma City in the United States on 19 April 1995. The media rushed to spread rumours that a ‘Middle Eastern man’ [i.e. a Muslim Arab] was responsible for the carnage. As a result Muslims throughout the United States were targeted for physical abuse, rough treatment and social ostracism. Their mosques were desecrated, Muslim women ere harassed and cars belonging to ‘Middle Easterns’ damaged. A British newspaper Today published on its front page a frightening picture of a fireman carrying the burnt remains of a dead child under the headline In the name of Islam’. Identifying the perpetrator of such a reprehensible act alone would not be sufficient; Islam also had to be brought in to ignite the communal passions of people against members of another faith. However, it soon became evident that the bomber was a fair-haired American soldier, a decorated Gulf War (1991) veteran. The faith of this right-wing terrorist was not Islam but Christianity. But no one in either American or British media labelled him a ‘Christian terrorist’ or apologised to Muslims for the wrongs done to them. Once again the freedom to tell the truth and report events fairly had taken a back seat.

The second instance is the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon by a few persons, most of whom came from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a close ally of America. They saw the policies pursued by the US in the Middle East and its support for the anachronistic rule by the House of Saud as the stumbling block towards a fair social order in their country as well as the rest of the Middle East. No matter what the nature of their grievances, I regard this attack terribly wrong. It provided ammunition to the neocons and right-wing fanatics in Washington to unleash the reign of terror, war, death and destruction in the Middle East and the petroleum regions in the general vicinity. At the same time, we ask a simple question: What had these bombings to do with millions of ordinary Muslim citizens of Europe and America? The answer is: nothing whatsoever. We witnessed that they were victimised everywhere by many white Westerners in the most grotesque and despicable ways.

During my stay in Europe for more than four decades, I have become acutely aware that the negative images of Islam and Islamic civilisation need a serious historical analysis for general readers as well as academic scholars that enables us to rise above oft-repeated and worn-out clichés of media and partisan scholarship and thus show the facts of the problematic relations between the two world religions and their civilisations. My book Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms (2006) deals these themes and issues. It is clear that both Islam and the West suffer from the perceptual problems of adversary relationship going far back in history. Their mutual perceptions have been distorted by religious dogmas, political developments and traditional prejudices. If we take a look at the history of European colonial expansion in Americas, Australia and in the East (China, India, the Middle East and North Africa, etc.) the old balance of power between the East and the West had changed. The colonial power over other nations also strengthened the collective consciousness of the industrial West, or its assumption that it was more powerful and therefore superior to the rest of the world. The colonised and subjugated people also started to perceive the West as materially, culturally, and morally superior. It is true the West was superior in producing machines, modern weaponry and efficient armies to invade and subjugate other countries of the world. This made Western nations more powerful, but that did not mean they were morally or intellectually superior. But the subjugated races were not in a position to advance such challenging views. In such uneven power relations under colonialism no genuine communication was possible. The same is true of the current neo-colonial war in Iraq by the Bush Administration to achieve full control over the oil resources and assert political hegemony over the entire Middle East.

The Western ways to see Islam as a monolithic religious and political force is against all historical facts and contemporary political realities. Islam is not a monolithic force; the diversity within the Islamic world is wider than most Westerners think. Within three decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim community split into Sunni and Shia factions following a civil war. This division proved to be permanent, and further divisions within the two main branches have characterised Islamic faith and polity for fourteen centuries. The spread of Islam followed different paths in different countries and regions of the world. At present over one billion people of all races, languages, nationalities and cultures are Muslims. Their socio-cultural conditions as well as their doctrinal affiliations show much diversity and complexity. What this means is that Islam as a universal religion, like Christianity, is not a monolithic entity; this is despite the fact that Muslims share some fundamental beliefs in One God and His revelations through the prophets.

However, historical and religious traditions and myths have a life of their own. Once they have become part of a culture they continue to shape and restructure the collective consciousness of vast populations. The anti-Islamic tradition in the Christendoms has a long historical pedigree and it continues to be a dynamic factor affecting and determining international relations. The study of history helps us to see facts in their historical evolutionary process and thus lighten the cultural baggage that has often poisoned relationships between the two religious communities. An honest and balanced study of the past and the present-day geopolitical realities of the global hegemonic world order means that we no longer have to passively accept distorted legacies and close our eyes to what is happening in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and also in Pakistan at the hands of the United States, its allies and the marionette Muslim ruling cliques.

The question of ‘Islamic terrorism’, the denial of women’s rights under Islam and the alleged irreconcilability of Islamic and Western values appear all the time in the Western media. But such accusations reveal a deep-rooted ignorance and confusion. They have no relationship to reality. We should bear in mind that a follower of a religion is not necessarily a true representative or spokesperson of that religion. Neither can the individual acts of terrorism, state-terrorism or superpower-terrorism be imputed to religion whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism. If an individual or group from a Muslim community resorts to extremism in political or religious spheres for whatever reason or commits a crime, the general tendency is to hold the whole Islamic tradition responsible. What happens if someone from Western culture or a Christian right-wing extremist resorts to violence or commits a crime? He is held responsible as an individual and no one blames the Western culture or Christianity for his actions. Do we not have some powerful leaders in the West who are Christian right-wingers and are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslim men, women and children? Does anyone blame Christianity for that? We ask this question and expect our readers to ask this question and try to find an answer.

With regard to women, the Qur’an gave them legal rights of inheritance and divorce in the seventh-century, which Western women would not receive until the 19th or 20th century. There is nothing in Islam about obligatory veiling of women or their seclusion, either. In fact, such practices came into Islam about three generations after the death of the Prophet Muhammad under the influence of the Greek Christians of Byzantium. In fact there has been a high degree of cultural interaction between Christians and Muslims from the beginning of Islamic history.

The fundamental values of fraternity, respect, justice and peace are common in all the major civilisations and the five major religions. To call democracy ‘a Western value’ is simply bizarre; the monarchical system prevailed in Europe where the kings held absolute powers under the divine right to rule. The evolution of democratic and constitutional form of government took shape much later. Contrary to what the media and populist politicians assert, there is nothing in Islam that goes against democracy and democratic values.

Nasir Khan, Dr Philos, is a historian and peace activist.

Review: Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms

April 22, 2007

“Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms” is a historical survey of centuries of distorted encounters between Christians and Muslims.

By Dr. Sahib Mustaqim Bleher

“Why then do you call him a prophet and a messenger of God, who was but a voluptuary, defiled to the very core, a brigand, a profligate, a murderer and a robber? Tell me, pray, what do you mean by prophecy and by apostle? God knows you would not be able to tell had you not been taught by the Christian!” But for its greater eloquence this late Byzantine polemic by Bartholomew of  Edessa differs little from today’s bile spat out against the prophet Muhammad and Muslims in general by the tabloid press in support of a wider political agenda. In Norway, a little further north from Denmark, where similar polemic was recently directed in pictorial form against the prophet in a series of cartoons, a Muslim historian, Dr Nasir Khan, has given us a very useful tool in understanding the mindset of the West when it comes to Muslims and their religion. His book “Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms” is a historical survey of centuries of distorted encounters between Christians and Muslims.

Khan does not hide his own leanings, and to claim complete neutrality would imply a level of dishonesty even for a historian, but he desists from polemicising himself, quoting instead extensively from original sources. If his book causes embarrassment for Western readers it is simply because their history is embarrassing and to be reminded of it may prove painful. For example, Fulcher of Chartres gives the following eye witness account of the Crusades at the end of the 11th century: “This may seem strange to you. Our squires and footmen … split open the bellies of those they had just slain in order to extract from the intestines the gold coins which the Saracens had gulped down their loathsome throats while alive … With drawn swords our men ran through the city not sparing anyone, even those begging for mercy … They entered the houses of the citizens, seizing whatever they found in them … whoever first entered a house, whether he was rich or poor … was to occupy and own the house or palace and whatever he found in it as if it were entirely his own … in this way many poor people became very wealthy.”

Khan does not sensationalise. As a serious historian he tries to offer explanations for how the negative stereotypes of the other came about, including probing into the social and economic causes. He starts his survey by giving a background to the development of early Christianity and its numerous, competing, sects. When Islam started to spread as a new faith from Arabia, Christians mainly viewed it as just another heresy from the officially accepted dogma, like Gnosticism, Manichaeism, or Nestorianism. Until Islam became viewed as more of a serious political threat their efforts against their own co-religionists with differing interpretations of what it meant to be Christian were much more pronounced than those aimed at Islam of which they knew little. However, Islam did not simply collapse and go away as predicted, and with taking Constantinople and pushing Christendom out of much of its previous territory became a serious contender. It was at this time, between the 12th and 14th centuries, that the misrepresentative image of Islam was created which still dominates the European psyche today. At the same time, due to the status afforded to Christians in the Qur’an as people of the book, the Ottoman rulers tolerated the practice of Christianity amongst themselves to a degree that at times emboldened their Christian subjects to openly challenge them and test the waters.

A similar arrogance was displayed in the 9th century by the movement of the martyrs of Cordoba who purposefully tried to blaspheme against the prophet in order to be punished and put to death. Their aim in instigating conflict arose from the deep worry that many Christians were drawn to Islam and its culture and sciences in spite of the bigoted image their church elders painted of it. Paul Alvarus, for example, observes at the time: “My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin Commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, and the Apostles?” Again, this observation of more than a thousand years ago has surprisingly modern undertones in the fear of losing one’s own heritage to a more attractive, albeit misguided, culture.

Khan quotes Grunebaum summing up the Christian approach as follows: “When the Christian looked upon Islam, his primary task was not to study this phenomenon of an alien faith that seemed both akin to and apart from his own but rather to explain the unexplainable, to wit, the artful machinations by which Mohammed had won over his people to the acceptance of his absurd confabulations. There is always, evening the most aggressive and contemptuous discussions of Islam, an element of apologetic self-defence in the utterances of the Christian writers, almost a touch of the propaganda for the home front. It is as if only the most derogatory presentation of the despicable but powerful enemy could allay the suspicion that his case be stronger than it was wise to admit.” And he cites Southern describing their wilful ignorance of the religion of Islam: “They were ignorant of Islam, not because they were far removed from it like the Carolingian scholars, but for the contrary reason that they were in the middle of it. If they saw and understood little of what went on round them, and if they knew nothing of Islam as a religion, it was because they wished to know nothing … They were fleeing from Islam: it is not likely that they would turn to Islam to understand what they were fleeing from.”

Whilst criticising Islam for alleged loose sexual morals European capitals were awash with debauchery; whilst attacking Islam for its alleged warlike nature in contradiction to the peaceful teachings of Jesus, Christian rulers made ready for war against Islam. The reconquista was the beginning of the Christian counter-attack. The conquering Normans took Sicily and Malta back from the Muslims and the Spanish Catholics prepared for pushing the Muslims out of the Iberian peninsula. Meanwhile there were internal conflicts both in Europe and in the Muslim world. The Seljuk Turks pushed from the East into Byzantine and in their advance made inroads into the Christian Levante, eventually capturing Jerusalem. The Berbers of North Africa kept the Spanish attempts in check for some two centuries, but eventually had to recede back to Africa due to internal problems of dissension. When the Spaniards took full control under Ferdinand and Isabella they meted out merciless retribution to the infidels, the Jews and the Muslims. Those who escaped the decimation fled to North Africa and Turkey, which is how the famous Jewish city of Thessalonica became established within the Ottoman realm. The papacy in Rome started to press for the crusades with the purported objective of recapturing Jerusalem, but once stripped of the propagandistic justification, the real aims were mainly economic and political. When the first wave of Crusaders moved eastwards they were just as good at plundering the towns and villages of their own co-religionist allies as they were at destroying Muslim towns and villages in their path. Maybe today, we would call it “friendly fire”. The cruelty and barbarism of the crusaders contributed to a shift in the Muslim perception of Christianity and the goodwill previously afforded to the people of the scripture started to evaporate and be replaced by an enemy image.

Whilst the crusades proved highly profitable for the West, enriching cities like Venice, Paris and Turin, and provided the desired achievement of the conquest of Jerusalem, they remained very much a side show for the realm of Islam. The biggest threat to its existence came from the East in the form of the Mongol invasion begun under Genghis Khan. Initially they had marched through the Caucasus and southern Russia in their conquest of the world in which “all cities must be razed so that the world may once again become a great steppe in which Mongol mothers will suckle free and happy children.” They would have overrun Western Europe in the 13th century had it not been for the fact that Batu Khan, who had led the attack on Hungary, had to hurry back upon the news of the death of his uncle Ogodai (Genghis Khan’s son) in order to qualify as a potential successor. Europe was spared and the Middle East lay in the uninterrupted path of advance of the Mongols instead. The crusaders saw this as a divine sign and even tried to make alliances with the Mongols, but since they made such offers preconditional on their conversion to Christianity, they had limited effects. In the end the Mongols were checked by the Mamluks in Egypt and prevented the eradication of Islam, and over time the erstwhile enemy was converted and provided strength to the recovering Islamic caliphate.

With the failure of the crusades and the early beginnings of the Renaissances the Western hopes of conquering Islam gave way to a more conciliatory approach in the hope of converting Muslims to the gospel, placing emphasis, however, less on Church doctrine and scripture and relying more on philosophical arguments. Roger Bacon and St Thomas Aquinas, for example, represent this new methodology. For the centuries to come the Christian dominions remains fearful of the Turkish threat, and when Luther and Calvin led the revolt against Papal authority, they did, nonetheless inherit the same venomous antipathy for Islam. With the new intellectual freedoms gained in the reformation, however, Arabic learning also became popular in the West, and the early Western universities as well as the Western philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries seriously engaged with Arabic literature and sciences. Gradually the image of Islam became a little more complete and less distorted. This respite, however, was short-lived, since European expansionism once more opted for the military solution during the period of imperialism and colonialism justified polemically by social Darwinism calling for the need to convert and civilise the savages of conquered lands. Missionary activity flourished in this political climate.

After two savage world wars, powered by Europe’s industrial killing machine and unprecedented in human cost, the imperialist project faltered and former colonies were given a level of independence, replacing direct with indirect rule. Khan ends his book on a positive note, pointing to serious attempts by Church and secular establishments during the 20th century to re-engage with Islam on the basis of mutual understanding. When looked at a year after the publication of the book, however, it seems that this interlude was as short-lived as previous ones, and power politics and economics once again dominate the relationships between the post-Christian and Islamic civilisations. In their rhetoric the new crusaders in the White House and their allies in Europe and Australia draw on the same old worn-out clichés of the past. Nasir Khan’s book is an excellent resource to enlighten these confusing times by providing a historic backdrop against which they can be evaluated, and to my knowledge it is the first such attempt. It is an excellent exposition both for Muslim and non-Muslim readers and helps them in understanding both of the origins of modern polemics against Islam as well as their ultimate futility.

Nasir Khan, Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms – A Historical Survey, Oslo 2006: Solum Forlag, 487 pages.

Dr. Nasir Khan has his own blog at http://nasir-khan.blogspot.com through which he can be contacted.

Mathaba Author Dr. Sahib Mustaqim Bleher is a German living in England, a Muslim and a pilot – in the oppressive neo-fascist climate of today, this means walking a tight rope. And it requires speaking out. He has done so through articles, pamphlets and books, many of which are available via his FlyingImam web site.

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