Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Thousand Years of Mutual Cultural Indifference

On September 16, 2001, mere days after the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush stood on The South Lawn of the White House to answer questions and comfort a shocked and grieving nation. He invoked his Judeo-Christian faith, extolled his confidence in his nation and the peoples of that nation, and he denounced the “barbaric” “evil-doers” who had attacked his fellow citizens (Bush, 2001); and then he declared war against the perpetrators with the forewarning that “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while” (Bush, 2001). His unfortunate choice of the word “crusade” resonated across the world, especially among many in the Middle East, for whom the term remains loaded with the weight of centuries of rancor and acrimony, (Buzbee, 2001). This incident illustrates only one small instance of how views shaped by centuries of contact and conflict between Christian Latin West and Islamic Middle East, in the Middle Ages, has had a strong and lasting impact on attitudes and relations between Muslims and the West.

While the Bush Administration quickly back-pedaled from the implication of the word, it nevertheless caused widespread consternation and concern (Buzbee, 2001). This is most likely due to the arresting similarity of his entire speech to one given about 910 years before, on November 27, 1095, in Claremont France, by Pope Urban II (Tyerman, 2004). This speech, rooted in the Latin traditions of the Judeo-Christian faith, also extolled the faith and virtues of his people, not only Latin Christians, but particularly Urban’s own people, the Franks, (Munro, 1895; Tyerman, 2004). In addition, Urban, too, denounced the enemy, referring to them as an “accursed” and “wicked race”, and calling them “a race utterly alienated from God”, urging those present to take up the cross and wage war, in order to “wrest that land from the wicked race” (Robert the Monk, RHC Occ., III, pp. 717-882, trans. in Munro, 1895, p.12). In short, Urban also called for a military action, one that came to be known as a crusade.

There was no shortage of information about Muslims available to the people in 1095 (or for that matter, in 2001). The Franks and the Muslims had come into conflict nearly three centuries before Urban’s speech. Indeed, after the Umayyad Muslim invasion of Andalusia, in 713, the Muslim army drove victoriously northeast, into Frankish lands in what is now southwestern France, which they held until it was wrested from them by Frankish warlord Charles Martel, at the Battle of Tours-Poitiers, in 732 (Falk, 2010). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that, in the centuries immediately prior to the initiation of the First Crusade, there was ample information about Islam, and the actual character of Muslims, available to the people of Latin Christendom (Cruz, in Frasseto & Blanks, 1999). It would further be a valid assumption that the failure of the Latin Christian literati to take advantage of this knowledge came from “a general lack of interest in the subject” (Kedar, B.Z., 1984, cited in Hamilton, 1997, p.2). Nonetheless, Latin Christians formulated their own often misguided and misinformed views about Muslims and Islam.

Among the earliest and most enduring of these views are those that appear in the various versions of La Chanson de Roland (Cruz, in Frasseto & Blanks, 1999). Here, Muslims are portrayed as beyond villainous, they are duplicitous, craven, bloodthirsty, and most significantly, idol worshiping pagans, even, in later versions, “hating God and actively seeking Satan” (Cruz, in Frasseto & Blanks, 1999, p.57). Another of these early Frankish epics, Le Couronnement de Louis, demonstrates only slightly more knowledge of Islam, but with no more real understanding, as one of the protagonists exclaims to the Muslim antagonist “Mohammad…was a prophet of our Lord Jesu. He crossed the mountains preaching the truth and came to Mecca where he abused our faith with drinking and pleasures crude and fittingly ended as pigs’ food. If you believe in him you are deluded” (Guillaume d’Orange, in Ferrante, 2001). It is, in fact interesting to note that the treatment of Muslims in these epics not only becomes, over a relatively short time, more detailed but also overtly religious. Protagonists are depicted as exemplifying Latin Christian virtues, in direct contrast to their “Saracen” enemy, who remain vile, “willing to sacrifice their firstborn sons…hideous and treacherous, arrogant and cowardly, also wealthy and cultivated” (Cruz, in Frasseto & Blanks, 1999, p.56).

Cruz (1999) and Hamilton (1997) suggest that the injection of erroneous religious information about Muslims into the tales of the day was done so “not with the intention of wilfully (sic) [mislead] the reader” (Hamilton, 1997 pp. 373-387), but rather represented the beliefs about Muslims popular among the people of the time. It is unlikely that, in the time immediately prior to the First Crusade, a great many Latin Christians had had very much firsthand interaction with Muslims. However, they nevertheless seem to have demonstrated an almost prescient understanding that their two faiths were bound to come into wider conflict (Stearns, 2004).

Perhaps one of the reasons for this general hostility stems from the glaring disparity in the general quality of life between Latin Christian civilization, and that of the Muslims both in the Caliphate of Cordoba and in the Levant. It is telling that, of the many slanders and vilifications that appear in several pre-Crusader Frankish texts, one oft included description, that of Muslims being erudite and wealthy, is one of the most correct (Stearns, 2004).

At the time of Urban’s speech, there existed a tremendous economic disparity between Latin Christian Europe and the Islamic world (Munro, 1911; Saunders, 1965). Life in the Eleventh century was hard for most people in Latin Europe, where struggle and starvation were the norm (Nicholas, D, in Power, 2004). Even for the relative few at the top of the socio-economic ladder, existence was seemingly a matter of perpetual conflict and competition, both for access to the scarce resources of the land and for authority over the people who provided them with the necessary labor force to retain their status (Aurell, M, in Power, 2004; Tamim, 2009). In other words, centuries of intertribal conflict had left a fragmented and disunified populace, disconnected from their rulers, and from each other, by seemingly insurmountable gulfs (Aurell, M, in Power, 2004; Tamim, 2009). By contrast, however, in Islamic lands from Andalusia to the Persian Gulf, there existed a reasonably unified collection of diverse peoples, brought together under a relatively stable system of governance, which allowed for nearly three centuries of steady economic growth (Kennedy, 2008; Tamim, 2009). It is not entirely known how Latin Europeans would have known of the precise nature of this Islamic prosperity prior to direct contact with Islamic kingdoms during the Crusades (Hamilton, 1997). However, it is clear that, aside from the popular belief that Muslims were perfidious idolaters, they were also falsely derided for the perceived immorality brought about by their affluence (Comfort, 1940; Tolan, in Frasseto & Blanks, 1999).

These stereotypes were repeated by Christian chroniclers throughout the First Crusade, and beyond, particularly pressing the image of their enemies as being pagans, and never once using the correct terminologies of “Islam” or “Muslim”, and instead calling them “’Mahummicolae’”: ‘Muhammad-worshippers’” (Tolan, in Frassetto & Blanks, 1999, p. 98). According to Tolan, (in Frassetto & Blanks, 1999), the categorization of the Muslim foe as pagans served to justify the impetus to wage war for land with them, and helped to cast the Latin Christian Crusaders as “the new apostles and martyrs, ushering in a new age for Christ and His church” (p.100). In this way, the negative generalizations of the Crusaders acted as a moralizing force for their actions, and allowed them to believe themselves to be actors in a cosmic struggle of good against evil (Tolan, in Frassetto & Blanks, 1999).

Subsequent to the bloody Latin conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 (Tamim, 2009), and the foundation of Latin Crusader kingdoms in the Levant, Muslim attitudes towards westerners also began to take a sharper focus. Whereas prior to this Latin encroachment, Muslim views appeared to only suspect Franks of being backward, brutish, and ignorant (Stearns, 2004), close contact with them seemed to have confirmed it (Stearns, 2004; Tamim, 2009). There exists, for example, a wealth of exemplar accounts of Frankish lack of knowledge and cultural differences in the memoir of Usama ibn Munqidh. Usama ibn Munqidh was an erudite Syrian warrior-scholar who “spent most of his long life in contact with the Franks” (Gabrieli, 1969, p.xxiii), and “whose life spanned almost the whole of the first century of the Crusades” (Gabrieli, 1969, p.44). One such account graphically contrasts the differences between Frankish and Muslim medical practices and knowledge, and portrays the Franks as superstitious, ignorant, and unskilled in the medical arts, as after having been skillfully tended to by a Muslim physician, the two Frankish patients die horrifically at the hands of a Frankish doctor (Usama ibn Munqidh, trans. in Gabrieli, 1969, p.46).

In fact, Ibn Munqidh discusses several intriguing differences between his own people and the Franks, including what he perceives to be their strange lack of marital protectiveness (Gabrieli, 1969, pp.46-47), their bizarre behavior in and out of combat (Gabrieli, 1969), and their odd and generally ethnocentric behavior, even among those Franks who had settled in the Levant. These, he states had “taken to living like Muslims” and “are better than those who have just arrived from their homelands, but they are the exception, and cannot be taken as typical” (Usama ibn Munqidh, trans. in Gabrieli, 1969, p.47-48). In another example, he recounts how “an affectionate friendship grew up between” himself and a Frankish knight who “had come on a pilgrimage and was going home again” (Usama ibn Munqidh, trans. in Gabrieli, 1969, p. 50). Before the Franks return, however, he offered to take Usama’s son back to Europe with him, “’so that he [the boy] could meet the noblemen of the realm and learn the arts of politics and chivalry. On his return home he would be a truly cultivated man,’” (Usama ibn Munqidh, trans. in Gabrieli, 1969, p. 50). “A truly cultivated man” Usama tells the reader, “would never be guilty of such a suggestion” and he provided the knight with a reasonable excuse, and politely declined his offer (Usama ibn Munqidh, trans. in Gabrieli, 1969, p. 50).

What is also intriguing is that, as contact between Latin Christians and Muslims in the Levant normalized between periods of outright conflict, the negative stereotypes of Muslims perpetuated in Latin Christendom continued to spread and build well into the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries, despite an increase in educated, Arabic speaking, Latin Christians (Hamilton, 1997). Hamilton (1997) suggests that, as more information of Arabic and Islamic theology and mythology found its way to Europe, Latin Christians “imaginative awareness of the Islamic world made it more difficult to think of Muslims in the black and white terms which the logic of twelfth-century Christian theology required” (p.8). In other words, the quasi-mythological nature of Islamic allegory prohibited Latin Christians from fully comprehending the genuine qualities of Islamic faith and Arab culture (Hamilton, 1997). While Latin Christians who lived closest to Islamic civilization in the Levant (as well as in the border regions of Andalusia) seemed better able to relate with Muslims as individual people, treating the Islamic faith with more compassion, genuine acceptance and understanding of their culture seemed exceedingly scarce (Hamilton, 1997; Usama ibn Munqidh, trans. In Gabrieli, 1969, p. 48).

Nevertheless, as new generations of Latin Crusaders came to the Levant, with their preconceived beliefs about Islam, and then experienced Islamic civilization first hand, very few seem to have changed their underlying beliefs about their enemies (Tyerman, 2004). In chronicle after chronicle, Muslims continue to be referred to as “pagans”, their realms “pagandom” and their place as outsiders to be reviled, firmly solidified (De Joinville, in Wedwood, 1906; Tyerman, 2004). In addition, Muslims continued to be portrayed as standing in direct diametric contrast to the faithful knights of Christendom, and the the entirety of their faith (De Joinville, in Wedwood, 1906; Riley-Smith, 2003), with little regard to actuality, veracity, or fact.

In contrast, while the behavior of Christians in the Levant was no less difficult for Muslims to understand, few Arab chroniclers appear to condemn the entirety of Latin Christiandom for the failings of their leaders or the ignorance of their people. Imad al-din al-Isfahani, an advisor to Salah al-Din, recounts (in Maalouf, 1984, p.193-194) an encounter following the Battle of Hittin (July 4, 1187), in which the victorious Salah al-Din asks of his prisoner Prince Arnat “How many times have you sworn an oath and then violated it? How many times have you signed agreements that you have never respected?” To which Arnat responded, “Kings have always acted thus” (Imad ad-din al-Isfahani, in Maalouf, 1984, p.193). Whether the prince was indulging in hyperbole or expressing a fact, as he understood it, this sort of behavior for leaders was considered anathema in Islam (Maalouf, 1984; Saunders, 1965). In fact, repeatedly, Arab historians found treachery and deceit a common trait of Crusading Frankish leaders in the Levant (Gabrieli, 1969), a trait that, more often than not, was paid for in the blood of non-Latin Christians (Gabrieli, 1969).

The attitudes of both Latin Christians and the Muslims in the Levant were greatly influenced by contact and conflict (Allen, 2010). Many of the prominent stereotypes about Muslims and Islamic civilization seem to exist today. The medieval belief that Muslims were “violent, barbaric and merciless” (Allen, 2010, p.29), and that Islam was “a Satanic force….planning to destroy Christianity” (Allen, 2010, p.29) seem to have resurfaced in the post 9/11 world. Today, the negative qualities cast on Muhammad by Latin Christian chroniclers, such as “licentiousness, promiscuity, sexual depravity” (Allen, 2010, p. 29) are commonly believed about the whole of modern Islam (Allen, 2010).

It is also interesting to note that the Islamic perception of a Western tendency for betrayal and treachery also seems to have resurfaced in the modern age. For many, it is typified by the betrayal of the Arabs who took part in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War (Voirst, 2006), and the failure of the H.W. Bush administrations promises to back a domestic uprising in Iraq immediately following the First Gulf War (Voirst, 2006, p.159). The situation in the Middle East prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are strikingly similar to the disparate economic condition that existed between Latin Europe and the Islamic world prior to the First Crusade; the modern Islamic world has struggled to remain economically viable to the West, leaving many disillusioned and disenfranchised (Slackman, 2008). There are, today, all across the Middle East , many who are “aware that the Islamic world has fallen behind the Christian West and the Jewish State in education, science, democracy, and development”” (Friedman, 2002, pp.334-335). Consequently, charismatic preachers across the Middle East have leveraged this into the impetus for holy war (jihad) against those whom they perceive to be the largest threat to their way of life (Friedman, 2002, pp.334-335), grotesquely mirroring Urban II’s call to Crusade.

While the ways that Christian West and Islamic East may have changed, in some ways, over the centuries, it is evident that the tendency for ignorance of the other has not. People in the West continue to remain largely uninformed of both classical and modern Islamic Civilization, preferring to see them as inferior, backwards, or somehow stuck in a different century. In turn, many in the modern Middle East seem to remain threatened by the dominance of the West, viewing any disproportion of economic or cultural supremacy as a deliberate attack on them, their faith, and their way of life. Nevertheless, it appears that many of the present attitudes of both toward the other are shaped by the conflicts of the past (Allen, 2010), and continue to play an important role the continuing conflicts of the present. The repeating pattern of competition for cultural dominance seems likely to continue until a more open cultural and social exchange and dialog can be established. Until such time, sadly, it is difficult to foresee a way to break the enduring cycle of violence and conflict that has typified historical contact between Christian West and Islamic Middle East.


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