Europe and the Islamic World: A History

By Jenkins, Philip | The Christian Century, May 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

Europe and the Islamic World: A History


Jenkins, Philip, The Christian Century


Europe and the Islamic World: A History

By lohn Tolan, Gilies Veinstein, and Henry Laurens

Princeton University Press, 488 pp., $39.50

Since 2001, global politics have been shaped by the struggle of Western states against Islamist movements rooted in the Middle East and South Asia. But is the West also confronting a holy war rooted in the religion of Islam itself-- which, according to some, is the latest phase in a conflict of civilizations that has raged for over a millennium? That question has huge political consequences.

Christian-Muslim violence is a familiar historical fact. Much of what we think of as the Muslim world, in the Middle East and North Africa, was originally Christian before succumbing to armed invasion. Americans know something about the Crusades, but Europeans recall the prolonged Ottoman occupation of the Balkans and the southeastern regions of the continent and the threat that Turkish rule would extend into Austria or Germany. On both sides of these conflicts, combatants spoke the language of faith, as Islamic holy warriors confronted successive Christian coalitions that boasted the title Holy Leagues.

We sometimes think of these confrontations as "medieval," but in fact some of the bitterest fighting between Christians and Muslims took place between 1680 and 1720, at a time when the American colonies were just establishing themselves in the New World. The pivotal battle took place in 1683, when allied Polish and imperial forces saved Vienna. Well into the 18th century, during the Enlightenment era, Christians living as far afield as Iceland and Ireland lived in fear of Muslim slave raids, and the new United States fought its earliest wars against the pirate/slaver states of North Africa. Much of the story of European imperialism involved the conquest of virtually the whole Muslim world, an occupation that ended only within living memory. The past is scarcely even past.

Europe and the Islamic World is a grandly ambitious attempt to sketch the interaction of faiths and regions from the seventh century to the present day. The material covers three time periods, with John Tolan covering the Middle Ages, Gilies Veinstein the Ottoman Era, and Henry Laurens modern times. It concerns only the European and Mediterranean aspects of the story, rather than treating Islam worldwide.

The authors make no attempt to underplay the amount of warfare and violence that marks this history, but their story is highly nuanced. States and armies certainly fought, but in what sense can we properly consider them representatives of Islam or Christianity? In the era of European imperialism, for instance, Western countries with mainly Christian populations occupied lands with Muslim populations. But is it legitimate to describe the actions of, say, secular Republican France or Fascist Italy as an advance of Christianity? Similarly, the Ottoman regime adhered to the faith of Islam, but it also followed the dynamic of any expansionist empire.

Islam did not advance in these wars, any more than Christianity did. Rather, particular states following the Muslim or Christian faith gained or lost influence and territory. And the religious element becomes all the more confused when we think of the shifting alliances demanded by realpolitik. France's "most Christian kings" regularly allied with Muslim Turks against their fellow Catholics of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. The need to fight Catholic Spain persuaded the Protestant England of Shakespeare's day to enter into a close alliance with Islamic Morocco. The Ottoman Empire, in its turn, was locked in a death struggle with an equally faithful Muslim realm in Persia.

Identifying a particular state or empire with a religion is complicated by the great diversity of the population that it might include. The Ottoman Empire was an extreme example, with large Christian and Jewish populations. In the empire's European regions, Muslims were always in the minority, and they represented barely half the population of Constantinople itself, the imperial capital. …

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