Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
The Europe We Are Forgetting
A review of Ian Almond. Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians across Europe’s Battlegrounds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
(University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand)
Ian Almond’s Two Faiths, One Banner is a necessary book, history as activism in the best sense of both of those words. Almond attacks the all-too-prevalent rhetoric of the ‘clash of civilizations’, which imagines two well-defined, easily separable, and historically real groups – known collectively as ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ – locked in a necessary and perpetual conflict, and does so not with histrionics or with ineffectual ‘can’t we all just get along’ pleading, but with the simple, cumulative force of historical fact. Almond’s stated goal in this book is to point out the deficiencies in reductive models of European religious history through an accumulation of case studies that point to an undeniable historical reality: for centuries, Christians and Muslims fought alongside each other on battlefields across Europe, against various enemies and in defence of various interests. That the existence of these many alliances will come as a surprise to many people, Almond continually reminds us, only because of our collective historical ignorance and our willingness to forget those parts of history that we find inconvenient or simply embarrassing. In his brief conclusion, Almond restates his basic argument with admirable simplicity, ‘the story of Europe … is the story of three religions, not one’ (218). Any credible story of Europe, Almond tells us, must consider not only Christianity but also Judaism and Islam. Almond’s history puts the lie not only to the clash of civilizations thesis - which he describes in no uncertain terms as ‘historical ignorance’ (32) – but to the whole political map of the world as we know it. ‘Those little coloured shapes we divide our map of Europe into’, he writes, ‘simply have no place in the story I am going to tell’ (50). As any good work of history must, Two Faiths, One Banner awakens in the reader a realization that the world taken for granted in the present is neither inevitable nor even very long-lived.
Almond lays out his intentions in a manner Baudrillard might well appreciate:
This book is a somewhat primitive book. It has a very straightforward purpose: to relate a selection of moments in European history when, in the very heart of countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece and Hungary, Muslims and Christians collaborated and co-operated with one another to fight against a common enemy – often an enemy also composed of Muslims and Christians. The book does not do much more than this … It does not offer profound gems of philosophical insight into how human beings can learn to love one another, nor moving moments of idealism concerning the common humanity which can overcome all political/social/religious divisions, etc., etc. The book’s very modest aim, on the contrary, is to show Muslims do not belong to an ‘other’ civilization, but rather to the essence of a ‘Europe’ we are quickly in the process of forgetting (1).
This might be a modest goal, but it is an indispensible one, a needed challenge to popular vilifications of Islam and Islamic cultures, a needed corrective to the ever-more-dominant fiction of Christian Europe. Taking his goal to its logical conclusion, Almond reminds us that Europe itself is a ‘fantasy’, a ‘fiction’, and in the final analysis, despite its seeming solidity and its seemingly deep roots in history, ‘a relatively recent invention’ (2-3). The same is true of the idea of a unified ‘Islam’, another convenient and deeply destructive fiction that is becoming ever more influential as the battle lines drawn by the putative ‘war on terrorism’ continue to harden and the dream of Europe is further reified into ‘Fortress Europe’, a Europe ‘sealed off and designated exclusively “Christian”’ (4). In ways that bring to mind the seminal work of Edward Said, this is principled, self-critical scholarship, an examination of long trends in European historiography by an insider who is rightfully suspicious:
Perhaps the most meaningful point to be made is that, historically speaking, the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ simply cannot do all the things we expect them to – and those who claim they can almost always have a different, hidden agenda … The point is true even today, when an army of media experts uses Islam and jihad to ‘explain’ the violence in Palestine and Iraq – ‘explanations’ which are not only inadequate, but which free us in the West from any reflection on our involvement in these situations. The current violence in Afghanistan may well be painted as a struggle between Islamism and democracy – but the fact that Afghanistan’s president works for a Californian oil company does say a great deal about what kind of ‘democracy’ that is. In many ways, this abuse of history and chronicle is one of the most strikingly regular phenomena of this study (220).
For Almond, perhaps the most important step towards confronting such abuse is to accept the absolute complexity of human history, which resists easy, comforting answers such as those that the ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric seeks to supply: ‘History is simply too messy, and too abundant, to be packed into such boxes; it spills everywhere, its anecdotes and marginalia and sidelines causing even the most confident historians to hesitate and falter’ (219). What is perhaps most striking about Almond’s history is just how much his account of Muslims and Christians tells us about the practice of history in the European sphere going back centuries. The dominant, highly misleading contemporary representations of Islam as barbarous and alien did not arise out of a vacuum, nor did they arise by accident; Almond never lets us forget that history can be a weapon:
To point out this process is not to idealise or exonerate real Muslim extremists, nor to portray Islam as a faith any freer from the dilemmas a modern liberal might find in Judaism or Christianity. It is not to argue that hate-filled homophobic clerics are deep down ‘nice’ human beings, or that figures such as Bin Laden are really misunderstood victims. The point, rather, is to emphasise that the selective repetition of such images from the Muslim world in the Western media serves a variety of particular functions – to preserve a status quo, distract attention from genuine political issues and provide a justification for an increasing obsession with ‘security measures’. Moreover, the aim of this brief history is certainly not to show that Muslims and Muslim authorities were somehow ‘better’ than their Christian equivalents – they were not. Strategically choosing when to talk about religious differences and when to keep quiet is the oldest trick in history, and one which Muslims employed just as much as Christians (8).
For all of his evident respect for the messiness of history, Almond’s account is brisk, lively, and intensely readable. Though the book is pitched to a general audience, it is both detailed enough and challenging enough to be of interest to academic historians. And there is, sadly, no less a need for such a corrective history within the academy as in the wider world outside of its walls. To cite one of what could be a great many examples demonstrating this very real need, while reading through a recently published book on cross-cultural Christian theology, I encountered the following statement, breathtaking in both its arrogance and its sheer ignorance of the complexity of Europe’s religious history: ‘the West has only one holy book and has been influenced strongly by that book’ (Brinkman 2009, 40). Against this, Almond’s account is finely balanced, tempered throughout with warnings against taking it all too far the other way; writing of the Islamic influence in Europe, he offers an elemental caution: ‘It cannot be exaggerated, it should not be idealized’ (217).
In all of this, Almond demonstrates a keen eye for the irony, the comedy, and the sheer perversity of human history, which comes through in a series of well-chosen anecdotes, more than a few of which are laugh-out-loud funny. Almond’s account returns to European history the sense of chaos and endless changeability that is characteristic of all authentically human history and which is strangely absent from triumphalist, reductive accounts of ‘Fortress Europe’. There is, at the same time, a palpable sense of frustration lurking behind Almond’s words: ‘Perhaps the lesson in all of this is that the decision to give up words such as ‘Islam’ and ‘Christendom’, ‘infidel’ and ‘Turk’ requires a certain courage, a willingness to open up oneself and one’s society to unreserved criticism. In many ways, the myth of a Christian Europe, attacked by an army of Islam, persists because we have not yet found this courage’ (178). One of the greatest strengths of Almond’s approach is his willingness, all too rare in an era saturated with the therapeutic ethos and its pretentions to universal respect, to treat bad ideas with the contempt that they deserve:
When people today speak in a general way of the ‘conquest’ and ‘re-conquest’ of ‘Muslim Spain’, the impression is of a football match, two sets of ideologically opposite teams playing in perfect unity against one another. The image of a swarm of turbaned ‘Moors’ rushing into Christian Spain with their scimitars poised high above their heads has had a strong effect on the European mind, despite it being a complete and utter illusion. What any serious and sober look at the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 700s reveals is a much more complicated picture (19).
Much of the book’s length is taken up by Almond’s case studies and it becomes apparent from the first that these alliances were indeed complex matters, each in important ways very different from the others. There were a number of reasons that Christians and Muslims united over the centuries, few of which, it should be mentioned lend themselves well to idealization. There were ‘purely political alliances’, ‘those based not merely on political necessity, but also on a sense of genuine friendship’, and those in which those ‘Muslims and Christians involved would have shared a common level of culture and language’ (9). What shines through in all of this is humanity’s collective drive to be practical, even mercenary, in its social relations: ‘The promise of payment – gold, booty, land, food – in return for service probably accounts for more cross-faith collaboration than any other factor in this book’ (10). The arrival of Muslim soldiers in Spain in 711, less than a century after the emergence of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula, provides Almond with a beginning to his story. His first chapter takes on the case of eleventh-century Spain, detailing the many ways in which Muslims and Christians fought together on both sides of a series of conflicts. As in all of the case studies that follow, Almond concentrates on complicating any simplistic readings of history and of Muslim/Christian relations. The chapter begins with a concise and illuminating capsule history of Muslims in Spain, a period of some seven centuries that is all too often laid by the wayside in accounts of European history, beginning with the observation that Muslims first landed on Iberian soil at the invitation of the Visigoths, a Christian Germanic people, to help in a fight with a group of fellow Christians. Nor was this a simple case of barbarian hordes overrunning an enlightened and successful kingdom; in many ways Muslim Spain adhered more closely to what we might consider ‘civilization’ than its Christian counterparts, as Almond demonstrates by bringing in that other overlooked aspect of Europe’s religious inheritance: ‘Although anti-Semitism, for example, was a constant feature of eleventh-century Spain, there is almost universal agreement that Muslim Spain possessed an infinitely more tolerant environment towards Jews than any Christian society could offer. Indeed, such tolerance was a reason why outside Jews came to Spain in their thousands’ (29). Indeed, during much of the period of Muslim rule, the Christian areas of Spain remained cultural and economic backwaters, which Almond describes as ‘very much the poor relatives of Spain’ (17) and as ‘tin pot, backward Christian states’ (20). Nor did the Catholic reconquista of Spain supplant barbarism with civilization any more than the Catholic soldiers were welcomed by the Spanish peoples. There is a chilling echo of the present in Almond’s description of those who sought to ‘liberate’ Spain, partially through the manipulation of the symbolic dimensions of the conflict, which mattered (then as now) far more to those in power than to those on the ground: ‘Although papal outsiders and North African clerics tried to turn it into an abstract war between belief and unbelief, they repeatedly failed. Time and time again, Castilians and Zaragozans, Mozarabs and Granadan Muslims, ended up trusting their neighbours more than a garrison of French knights or Tunisian Berbers’ (46).
Following the model he set out in his study of Spain, Almond’s second chapter recounts the history of the Italian village of Lucera, which was for centuries a Muslim enclave in the heart of the European continent, a home to respected soldiers who repeatedly fought for the various Christian powers of the day. Perhaps even more than the case of Muslims in Spain, this incident cuts to the heart of the mythology of Christian Europe: ‘The Italian thirteenth century is so firmly cemented in its place as the essence and foundation of the European tradition that to mention anything remotely Muslim in the same breath would seem ridiculous’ (49). Nonetheless, the Luceran Muslim warriors, who had been driven out of their homes in Sicily, not only fought for the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II but fought for the Empire during the Crusades, revealing severe weaknesses in the papal justification for the seemingly endless war for the Holy Land: ‘The example of Muslim Lucera, with its shari’a law, its Muslim royal guard and its prayer calls (all a hundred and fifty miles down the road from the Vatican), contradicted the entire papal concept of crusade’ (78). As has been the case time and again in the matter of Jews and Muslims in Europe, a concerted effort to erase the memory of Lucera from the European record began as early as 1300.
The third chapter shifts the scene of action to Greece and present-day Turkey during the tumultuous period that saw the end of the thousand-year Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Empire in its place. This, like the case of Spain, was not a simple tale of one culture dominating and instantly dispelling another, but a gradual and altogether messy amalgamation of languages, influences, and cultures: ‘Identities do not change overnight, even when their lands are conquered by other peoples; the Greek-speaking regions conquered by the Turks … played a significant part in the evolution of the Ottoman Empire, not just accounting for the overwhelming Christian presence in its military, but also forming a crucial cultural and political influence on the Ottomans themselves’ (96). Here Almond makes a very important point; for centuries and for reasons that have had little to do with historical accuracy, history has been continually rewritten by all sides:
Many of the later Ottoman poets, embarrassed by the mention of Christians in the founding of their Muslim empire, simply airbrushed any non-Muslims out of the poems they were writing for their sultans. Our simplistic, ‘football-match’ understanding of the history of Asia Minor – essentially Greeks versus Turks, with one group pushing the other out in much the same way oil displaces water – is partly a consequence of this re-writing of history (104-105).
Bad history, Almond tells us, is often written about events that are still happening. The next chapter remains on the same ground but moves forward to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, examining the intersection of Islam and the fracturing of Christianity in the Reformation in Ottoman Hungary. Almond also takes time out to deconstruct the mythology of the Turkish attack on Vienna in 1683, an important event in many dominant accounts of European history:
The story, for some people, goes like this: in 1526, the Turks marched into Hungary and held its free, Christian peoples captive for over a hundred and fifty years. The country was laid waste, its people either starved or massacred, held under the rule of the despotic Turk despite all the attempts of their Christian neighbours to free them. On two occasions the Muslim hordes even tried to march on Vienna – the shadow of Islam was about to fall on the heart of Europe itself … The memory of the Turkish siege of Vienna (1683) arises from this landscape of symbols – a Muslim army, bristling with crescents, scimitars, and turbans, laying siege to a Christian city at the gate of Europe (139).
This common picture is, he writes, ‘nothing more than a Disney version of history’ (140). Almond’s history challenges both the image of the Ottomans as bloody tyrants – though he doesn’t try to whitewash them either – and the strict separation of Christianity and Islam by the simple expedient of showing that both Christians and Muslims again fought together on each side of the conflict. The end of the Ottoman rule, painted even at the time as an act of ‘liberation’ from Muslim barbarism, was something altogether different for the majority of the Hungarian people, as both Jews and Protestants were to suffer under the reinstalled Catholic Hapsburg regime: ‘Hungary had slipped from one master into the hands of another, with little cause for rejoicing among everyday Hungarians. Platitudes from Western historians about how “Christendom was saved” tend to overlook this renewed subjection of the Hungarian people necessary in order to enjoy such a moment of European self-congratulation’ (177).
The final case study, of the Crimean War (1853-1856), brings us to the very doorstep of the present. The contemporary world shines clearly through the haze of the past not only in the concrete connections Almond identifies between this conflict and contemporary battles between Russia and its Islamic hinterlands, but also in his account of the uses that religion were put in the conflict, in which ‘a number of different parties, from all sides, would try to see the conflict as a religious one, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary’ (186). Inaccurate, ideologically-driven histories of the war were written on the battlefield itself; trumped-up and patently false reports of Turkish cowardice were sent to the newspapers at the same time these reports played down British blunders like the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which saw hundreds of British cavalry charge blithely into a closed valley ringed with Russian artillery. Towards the end of this fifth chapter, one might be tempted to allow one’s eyes to skip ahead as the endless lists of alliances marches on and on; however, even this adds to the force of Almond’s argument, as it demonstrates just how many of such alliances actually took place; these alliances are, he writes, ‘examples, not exceptions’ (25).
Almond’s patient deconstruction of triumphalist, evolutionary narratives of Europe is exceptionally nuanced and thorough, even taking on the myth of secularization. Almond’s book makes an unorthodox claim, one that is shared by a growing number of scholars in the study of religion; that ‘the Christian tradition swims about us, its values inform our world-view even in our most secular moments – for the Enlightenment, we now understand, was just as much a consequence of Christianity as a reaction to it’ (2). Throughout the book, in fact, Almond demonstrates an admirable grasp of the complexity of religion in human cultures; he notes that conflicts between groups are rarely, if ever, purely a matter of religion: ‘The belief in a transcendent God was a profoundly influential factor in the social and political realities of both Muslims and Christians. It could move people to violent anger, to sadness, to feelings of compassion and genuine solidarity. Such religious identities did lie, however, alongside a number of other identities – cultural, linguistic, ethnic, even economic; identities which sometimes became more important than simply being “Christian” or “Muslim”’ (11). In these particular conflicts, as in so many others, religion was not everything, but neither was it nothing. To believe either of these things is to miss something important, even fundamental, about history.
If we dig a little deeper, there is something even more deeply intriguing lurking underneath the surface of Almond’s argument, something that remains almost entirely unspoken. His account of the long history of Muslim/Christian military alliances points to a conclusion that will doubtless be uncomfortable for many readers: the lines of division between states, religions, and cultures have in important ways hardened and reified during the modern era, which in turn brings into serious question the efficacy of the whole contemporary discourse of multiculturalism. When reading this book, it is all but impossible not to realize that many of modern Europe’s most cherished notions of self-identity have only tentative roots in history and that many of the most cherished elements of this identity – the valuing of diversity, the porous nature of cultures and borders – were in fact more characteristic of Europe hundreds of years ago than they are today. To take one example, Almond argues that Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Spain in the eleventh century had ‘a fairly intimate knowledge of one another – certainly more intimate than the average Berliner has today of the German Turks in his neighbourhood, or than the middle-class British family has of the Syrians living in their London suburb’ (31). Though his emphasis is very different, Slavoj Žižek makes much this same point when he writes, ‘Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really other ... What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others’ (2008, 35). Given this, Almond tells a necessary story, not only of centuries of Muslim/Christian alliances across Europe but also of the history of popular views of ‘Europe’ and ‘Islam’ in our own time. Almond’s stated goals are modest, but there is a great deal at stake in the writing of this history: ‘To remind ourselves of the presence of Muslims among the Castilians, the Hohenstaufen, the Hungarians and the Greeks is to begin to arrive at a richer, stranger and more authentic European heritage than the one we have at present’ (12). As long as the harmful grand narratives of history persist, so must books like Ian Almond’s Two Faiths, One Banner be written, read, and championed. While Almond is no Baudrillardian his book sits well beside Baudrillard’s views on Europe and the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Brinkman, Martin E. (2009). The Non-Western Jesus: Jesus as Bodhisattva, Avatara, Guru, Prophet, Ancestor or Healer? Translated by Henry and Lucy Jansen.London: Equinox.
Žižek, Slavoj (2008). Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books.