Thursday, May 22, 2008

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

I have just finished reading God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, by NYU history professor David Levering Lewis, a dense, exhaustively-researched, and evenhanded treatment of a subject I knew very little about.

Oh, I once thought I knew a lot about it. I grew up with a sanitized Catholic European version of the story. The Song of Roland. Charles Martel and the Battle of Poitiers. Charlemagne. The Crusades. Christians against the unholy infidels. The triumph of light and truth over darkness and error. It wasn't until I was young man and visited Grenada in southern Spain that I began to suspect the story was more nuanced than my teachers had led me to believe. Of course, that wasn't a matter of deception on their part; they were inculcated in the same Eurocentric myths. Lewis' book is a superb attempt to separate myth from fact -- to understand those fraught years of Islamic-Christian conflict from both sides of the Pyrenees. The relevance of the story to present-day world affairs is not lost on the reader.

Lewis details half a millennium of conquest and slaughter, driven by power and greed on both sides, with both sides invoking the approbation of God. Both sides were also racked by internal doctrinal disputes -- Shia vs. Sunni, Arian vs. Trinitarian -- with each doctrine's adherents attempting to violently extirpate the heresy of the other. Of course, the hacking and torture of infidels had motives other than religious intolerance, but religion legitimized the bloodshed and stiffened the backbones of warriors on both sides with the promise of eternal bliss.

Meanwhile, Charlemagne, that Catholic hero of my early education, was wreaking horror on his pagan Saxon neighbors across the Rhine, giving them the choice of baptism into the true faith or annihilation. This was done, of course, with the satisfied blessing of the papacy for the greater glory of God.

Islamic Cordoba under the Umayyad dynasty was a center of relative enlightenment and religious tolerance compared to the Europe of Charles Martel and Charlemagne, although the Umayyads would have quite happily overrun their more illiterate and economically primitive Catholic neighbors to the north. Indeed, at times it was touch-and-go, and with another roll of the dice at any one of several crucial junctures Europe might have become an Islamic continent. But the relatively enlightened Islamist regime south of the Pyrenees lapsed into fundamentalist squabbles that took the wind out of their sails and ultimately made possible the Catholic reconquista.

If Christianity and Islam are religions of love, there is precious little evidence of it in the pages of Lewis' balanced and nonjudgmental book. What we see instead are religious doctrines being shaped to suit political purpose, and God's communications to his saints and prophets conforming to the needs of wealth and power. With or without God's providence, the newly united Europeans under Charlemagne and his successors managed to hold back the tide of Islamic conquest -- and immediately began contriving the mythic narrative that made it all seem divinely preordained.

There is an ironic conclusion to this story which Lewis doesn't mention. From the Islamic preservation, enhancement and transmission of classical science sprang the European Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. With the Enlightenment, came secularization and religious tolerance. And now, due to differential birth rates and liberal immigration policies, European nations like France and Holland might acquire Muslim majorities in the coming decades. What centuries of armed conflict could not achieve -- a Muslim Europe -- scientifically-enlightened, secular tolerance might facilitate.