It’s not about religion. It’s about geopolitics. It’s about controlling precious natural resources. It’s about expanding an empire.
And no, Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon. It has been around for a few hundred years even though it has not always been known by that term.
There is no monolithic West and no monolithic East. Likewise, Islam has not always been associated with East; neither is Christianity inherently Western (bear in mind that Jesus was a Jew born in Bethlehem). The Christian Byzantine Empire thrived in “the East” up to the fifteenth century while Islam in al-Andalus lasted for almost 800 years. The notion of “clash of civilization” between Christian West and Muslim East is highly flawed.
The first contact between Islam and Europe was in the seventh century. At the time, the Europeans saw the Muslim invaders as nothing more that yet another enemy, no different from the idolaters of Northmen, Slav and Magyars. There is no indication that anyone in northern Europe knew anything about Islam or had heard of Muhammad. This lack of information didn’t stop them from developing an image of the people they called the Saracens, who they reviled as barbarians.
Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula (al-Andalus) lasted for eight centuries. During this period, Christians and Jews were tolerated as People of the Book and were allowed to practice their religion. This sustained contact mitigated and tempered the more hostile images.
While the rest of Europe endured a period of stagnation during the Dark Ages, al-Andalus experienced growth and development of knowledge. Various great works of great scholars, from the Greeks and the Persians, were translated into Arabic and made available in many libraries established by Muslim rulers. In the context of this flourishing civilisation, negative attitudes toward Moors (Spanish Muslims) dissipated.
al-Andalus was characterised by vonvivencia, or co-existence in relative peace. Even though there were conflicts, it serves as an example of tolerance and relative harmony between people of various faiths.
When Europe finally moved out of the Dark Ages, the intellectuals flocked to the libraries of the Muslim empires to regain lost knowledge. This was when the great works were translted back from Arabic to European languages.
By this time, the pagan riders, like the Normans and Magyars, had been converted to Christianity and integrated. The only remaining enemy was the Muslims. Europe was neither united nor peaceful, but Islam became a convenient “other” to mobilize support for the territorial ambitions of European leaders.
When the Christian Byzantine Empire was repeatedly defeated by the Muslim Seljuk Turks, the Emperor wrote to Pope Urban II to seek Europe’s help against the Turks. Urban launched a holy war in 1095 and called upon Christians in Europe to fight against the enemies of God. The pope’s call to defend the faith was actually a means to gain recognition for papal authority and to reunite the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) churches. Using religion to consolidate identity and loyalty, the papacy aimed to create a united Christian Europe over which it would hold spiritual authority. Religion became a screen behind which social and economic conflicts were played out.
The European rulers, knights and merchants who took up the call to Holy War did so for numerous reasons unrelated to religion. They were driven by political, military and economic advantages that would result from the establishment of a Latin kingdom in the Middle East. The image of the Muslim enemy and Islam as a demonic religion surfaced in this context in the late eleventh century.
Islam was seen a dangerous enemy because it was not only taking over Christian land, but was successfully converting many non-Muslim subjects (Christians and Jews alike). Non-Orthodox Christians who were persecuted by the Greek Church welcomed Muslim rule and over a period of several centuries, many converted.
Even though the dominant view of Islam was extremely negative and the crusaders loathed the infidels, they praised the Muslims’ military prowess and told stories of brave Muslim warriors. Saladin, who took Jerusalem from the crusaders, was an archenemy and admired for his chivalry at the same time.
As Europe came out of the Middle Ages into the modern era, Islam was increasingly less seen as a threat and an attitude of indifference crept in. This developed due to a number of factors, one of which is the threat the Mongols posed to Europe — the world was no longer divided in Europe vs. Muslims, resulting in a more tolerant view of Islam.
During the seventh and eighth centuries, when Ottoman armies expanded in the Mediterranean and Balkan, some people in Christian states welcomed the Turks in order to escape religious persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. The Ottoman policy of “live and let live” contrasted the intolerance that the Orthodox Christians and other religious minorities faced under the Church. After the Ottoman captured Constantinople in 1453 and the conquest of Belgrade in 1523, the incursions into Europe brought the Muslim enemy back into focus, but the threat was seen as a political threat.
Jews fleeing Europe, especially after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, found a home in the Ottoman Empire. So too Protestants and other dissident Christians seeking to escape Catholic persecution. The diversity that marked al-Andalus found its reflection in the Ottoman territories — Christian and Jews not only live in an atmosphere of tolerance, they prospered.
European thinkers during and after the Renaissance imagined their history as an unbroken line of continuity from ancient Greece and Rome to the present — in the process exorcising the Islamic history of Europe. Europe now imagined itself superior as they are the heir to the democratic political systems of the Greeks and Romans, and therefore, different from the despotic regimes that it now saw as characterizing the East. In contrast to the democratic West, the Ottoman was seen as the manifestation of Asian despotism.
The Saracens were believed to be descendants of Abraham, and therefore, from the same family as Christians and Jews. As other pagans integrated into Christian Europe, the Muslim enemy became the “other” that has to be vanquished through holy wars. The papacy sought to unite a fractious Europe under the banner of Christianity as a way to advance its power.
“Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire” examines the relationship between Islam and “the West” from their first encounter in the seventh century to the present day. The image of Islam changes according to the political climate of the time. The author illustrates how the “clash of civilization” between “the West” and Islam has never been about religion or civilization. On the contrary, it has always been about politics and expanding an empire even though the battles has always been fought behind the smoke screen of religion.
The Irrationality of Islamophobia — Interview with Deepa Kumar