Journalist Chris Bambery delivers a message to right-wing, Islamophobic hate-merchant Douglas Murray. He says that Europe owes a lot to Islam and needs to confront its own irrational hatred of a great tradition.
In the wake of the terrible events in France the idea that we are living through a clash of civilisations between the Christian West and the Islamic world has been pouring forth from the media. Alongside it is the idea that Europe must resist the process of Islamisation supposedly underway.
Before the attack on Charlie Hebdo we were already seeing demonstrations in Germany against “Islamisation.” Islamophobia has been a permanent feature of Western society since 9/11 in 2001. Then the idea of a clash of civilisations existed on the fringe. Since it has moved into the mainstream.
I switched on the radio to hear Douglas Murray, the associate director of the firmly neo-liberal Henry Jackson Society, arguing Muslims had to integrate into European society 100 percent. The thrust seemed to be “shape up or ship out.”
Murray rejects the existence of Islamophobia and has argued: “The claim that Islam is a religion of peace is a nicety invented by Western politicians so as either not to offend their Muslim populations or simply lie to themselves that everything might yet turn out fine. In fact, since its beginning Islam has been pretty violent.”
The greatest act of violence perpetrated in world history was the Holocaust. Were Muslims to blame? Were they to blame for the two World Wars which blighted the 20th century or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The answer is no. They were very much products of European and Western civilisation.
The most recent wars in Europe were in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and were accompanied by ethnic cleansing, carried out predominantly by Christians. Indeed NATO intervention was on behalf of Muslims in first Bosnia and then Kosovo. I don’t know where Douglas Murray stood on this but I suspect he backed military action on behalf of Muslims.
He spoke out strongly for freedom of speech following the Paris killings and in defence of publishing the cartoons showing Prophet Muhammad. But like me I suspect he agrees there are limits to free speech.
I oppose Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic material and child pornography. I oppose the Royal Family acting to stop the BBC showing a documentary about Prince Charles’s personal life; the conviction of a fellow supporter of the Radical Independence Campaign for heckling David Cameron when he visited Scotland during the referendum campaign; and laugh now at the memory of a Tory government banning us from hearing the voice of Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.
I am sure Douglas Murray agrees.
I recall that the issue of the cartoons showing the Prophet began with a Danish magazine, which refused to publish cartoons of Jesus Christ, specially commissioning those depicting Muhammad and then selecting the ones which were clearly going to be seen as offensive.
Far from satirising the rich and powerful it was joining with them in attacking some of the most down-trodden people on this planet, and people whose faith was being attacked as the root of great evil.
The opposition of Muslims to such representations of Muhammad is not somehow irrational, it is very rational. For them he is simply a Prophet, carrying the word of God, and Islam was founded in opposition to idolatry so representations of him carry that danger.
Islam and Europe
But what I want to focus on is the idea that Islam is alien to Europe and European civilisation.
Murray is a Scottish surname so Douglas has some association with the country of my birth. Perhaps he could imagine joining me on an imagery journey – from the Scotland of the 1,000 to Cordoba in what is now Spain but which was then the capital of Al Andalus.
We would be going from a land where even the monarch lived in semi-filth, bathing irregularly and with little linen to change into. He and his courtiers lived, slept and ate in a hall where they drunk too much alcohol and “feasted” on great lumps of roasted meat, when these things were available.
War, raiding and feuding was the norm, literacy uncommon even among the nobility, with the church maintaing strict control of access to books and learning. Towns were tiny, filthy and unlit after dark. The vast majority of the population lived never far from starvation or death by disease. As we journey south things get better by the time we reach Paris, but not by that much.
To enter Cordoba is to enter another world. Streets are cleaned and lit. Hygiene is a virtue, as is following a good diet. Knowledge is at a premium. Scholars arrive from across the Islamic world while in the houses of learning Muslim, Jewish and Christian writers translate texts from the Roman and Greek world and newly written ones by Muslim scholars – pioneers in mathematics, medicine, science, anatomy, cartography and much else.
In the Christian north the church views such texts with deep suspicion, locking those it possesses away and forbidden teaching of them as un-Christian.
In Cordoba we see many mosques but also Christian churches and synagogues. The people of these faiths are treated with a degree of toleration unknown either in Catholic Europe or the Byzantine Empire where violence against Jews occurs regularly.
Cordoba has a population of around 100,000 people at this time, and it’s the biggest city in Europe, bigger than Constantinople. Its central mosque, the Mezquita, is an architectural wonder of the world. It remains so although after the Christian reconquest a Catholic cathedral was built in its midst in an act of vandalism meant to demonstrate Christian supremacy. Muslims and Jews are prevented from praying in it even now by the Church and local authorities, despite many requests for joint prayers.
Having entered the Islamic world of this time Douglas and I could have continued our journey onto North Africa, Baghdad and Iran. It would be obvious we had entered a civilisation far in advance of anything that existed in Christendom.
We could travel on our return through Muslim Sicily which helped give birth to what became the Renaissance. Muslims were living in Europe within a short time of the Prophet’s death and have been part of European society ever since. Considerable sections of the population converted to Islam after the Balkans was conquered by the Ottomans, not through force but by choice (in Bosnia many had been targeted by Rome because they were considered heretics).
The influence of Islam and Muslims runs through the emergence of what we term European civilisation like the writing through a stick of rock. Stand in St Marks Square in Venice and look at the Doge’s Palace and the Islamic influence is obvious, naturally because Venice’s wealth depended on its trade with Egypt.
In 10,000 there was little notion of Europe among the people living in the area stretching from the Urals to the west coast of Ireland, even at elite level. Before 1,000 there was nostalgia for the Roman Empire but that was based on the Mediterranean. People from today’s Syria or Tunisia were closer to the dominant culture or civilisation than those in what is today England or Belgium. After 1,000 if there was any collective notion it was that of Christendom. The idea of Europe only comes in early modern times, from the 16th century onwards.
The question of tolerance is one worth thinking on because when the last Muslim kingdom in Spain was conquered, in 1492, the Catholic monarchs ordered the expulsion of all those Jews who would not renounce their religion.
Where did they go? The answer is to North Africa and further east in the Ottoman Empire. While the Pope ordered a ghetto built for Jews in Rome (it continued until the city was incorporated into the new in 1870). Anti-Semitism is very much a Christian and European thing.
But to return to my main point; you cannot talk about civilisation in Europe without talking about Islam because Muslims preserved and developed the knowledge of the Roman and Greek world at a time Europe was living in what is called the Dark Ages. The Islamic world was not focused on Europe in the main but eastwards.
In the greatest story cycle of the Arab world, Sinbad the Sailor does not sail in the Mediterranean because there was little there for him. Rather he and other seafarers from Basra were trading across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea with civilisations far richer and far in advance of anything in Europe at the time the stories are set, in the 8th century CE.
There was no notion of European superiority much before 1800. Prior to that rough dating British visitors to Indiarecognised a more developed culture and took to it with gusto, marrying Indians. After that date colonialism and the rise of racism ruled against such marriages and portrayed India as inferior to Britain.
The rise of Europe in the 18th century did not, at the beginning, depend on economic and cultural superiority. Rather it relied on greed, aggression and military expertise honed in various European wars. It brought slavery and colonialism.
Douglas Murray might accept Islam’s role in the Dark Ages and the Medieval period but respond by arguing that since 1800 Islam has undergone its own Dark Ages from which it is yet to emerge. It is clearly true the Muslim world suffered set backs over the last two centuries, but why?
Is it to do with Islam itself as Murray might argue? The answer might lie with colonialism, the partition of the Middle East and Western support for autocratic regimes. We might add too that the West has sided with groups which helped spawn today’s Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS when they seemed to share immediate goals.
Europe’s hatred of Islam
The ability of Europe to welcome and integrate people it invited as cheap labour following the Second World War is also striking. Segregation is a reality in France where the wounds of the Algerian war of independence remain open. After four or five decades the Turkish population of Germany very much remain “guestworkers.”
Nor have we addressed our own recent history. The worst terrorist attack in recent years was carried out by a Nazi Norwegian. In France the Front National still honours its founder Jean Marie Le Pen who described the Holocaust as a “detail” of history.
Above all there remains the reality of Western “intervention” across the Muslim world. It is a daily reality if not in the form of invasion and occupation but that of drone strikes. We create chaos and barbarism across the Middle East and then blame it on the inhabitants but I suppose that was ever the way with imperialism.
We cannot talk about European civilisation without talking about the contribution Islam has made to it. Neither is Islam alien to Europe. Muslims have lived in Europe since the 8thcentury CE.
When Douglas Murray lambasts Islam for its intolerance perhaps he should delve into the recent history of, say, Scotland. In Edinburgh in the early 1960s they still chained up the swings in the park every Saturday evening so we could not enjoy ourselves on the Sabbath. Sex between men was illegal until 1980 and anti-Catholic bigotry was still rife with the Orange Lodge taking it as its right to parade past Catholic churches.
Europe needs to break with hatred of Islam and indeed Judaism, it needs to confront racism and Europe’s own history. Then we can move on.
These are dark times but let us look at our dark past because we need to know from whence we came in order to move forward.