John Hayden, whose blog I highly recommend, left a long and interesting comment on our blog yesterday. Here is an excerpt from the comment that can be found in its entirety here:
Conflict between the Moslem world and the Western world has been ongoing for a thousand years, give or take. It used to be called a conflict between the Moslem and Christian worlds, and some would continue to characterize it as such. However, it is no longer reasonable to characterize the Western world only by Christianity. The hold of western religions on populations has weakened in many places. But the hold of religion seems to have intensified in much of the Moslem world.
Almost from the beginning, Muslims were expansionist, conquering Northern Africa and half of Spain. During the era of the Crusades, Christianity, led by the popes, saw the Muslim world as “Infidels.” Likewise, the Muslim world saw Christians as “Infidels.” Centuries of land and sea battles ensued.
This longstanding battle between east and west has been on hold for a century of more. During that pause, “modernization” has tremendously widened the gulf between the Muslim world and the West, with Turkey sort of caught in the middle. Muslims and Christians have lived side by side in many places. But the breakup of Yugoslavia is instructive. As soon as central government disappeared, ancient enmities between Christians and Muslims turned violent.
Thank you, John! I love long, intelligent, passionate comments like yours. Since you mentioned Spain, I was inspired to write a little comment of my own. If any of my students are reading this, I warn you that you will be bored to death because you’ve heard this a hundred times already.
In 710, the Iberian Peninsula (the part of the world where Spain and Portugal are located today*) was a very sad place. The barbaric tribe of warrior Visigoths had conquered the peninsula and destroyed the great civilization of the Roman Empire that used to be there. These barbarians had no appreciation for the philosophy, art, and culture of the ancient civilizations of Europe. They ravaged the peninsula, enslaved the Jews, demolished the repositories of knowledge, and the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans was lost. The situation in rest of Europe mirrored that on the Iberian Peninsula.
Then, in 711, an enormously more advanced and civilized culture came to the the Iberian Peninsula. Muslims crossed the Straight of Gibraltar and soon conquered almost the entire peninsula. They brought with them the scholarly, artistic, and scientific sophistication that the poor, dumb Visigoths couldn’t even begin to imagine. They built palaces, gardens, repaired the Roman roads, and – most importantly – they brought to Europe the greatest gift our Western Civilization ever received. Muslims brought back the lost knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The Iberian Muslims established the Caliphate of Córdoba which was later destroyed in a civil war and was substituted with a number of smaller Muslim kingdoms called “reinos de taifas.” In all of these Muslim states on the territory of the Iberian Peninsula, Christians and Jews could practice their religions freely, with only few minor restrictions (for instance, the sound of the bells on a Christian church was not allowed to drown out the call of the muezzin and the tallest church was not allowed to be higher than the tallest mosque.) Jews were known to reach highest ranks in the management of some of these Muslim kingdoms. The most famous example of that is Sh’muel HaLevi ben Yosef HaNagid who served as a vizier to the Muslim king Habbus al-Muzaffar.
Now, let’s remember that this was all taking place in the Middle Ages when everybody was constantly at war with each other. Christians kings fought other Christian kings, Muslims battled with other Muslims. Often, Christian leaders would recruit Muslims to fight against other Christians. Then, one Muslim kingdom would turn against a former Christian ally, and they would fight against each other, etc. Everybody had their religion, everybody’s religion was super central to their lives, but somehow, all these folks managed to co-exist quite well together, creating what today is our Western civilization. Crowds of scholars and intellectuals from all over the known world would congregate on the Iberian Peninsula to imbibe the great knowledge of the Western and Eastern civilizations.
* Of course, the words “Muslim Spain” in the post’s title are incorrect. While there were still Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula, there was no Spain. Once Spain started to consolidate around a shared manufactured identity, Muslims (and, of course, Jews) had to be expelled and vilified.