Europe and the Islamic World

Europe and the Islamic World: A History
John Tolan, Gilles Veinstein and Henry Laurens
Princeton University Press   455pp   £27.95   

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The spate of protests across the Muslim world in 2012 against the film The Innocence of Muslims has highlighted once again what many see as a ‘clash of cultures’ between Islam and the West. The western value of free speech seems to be irreconcilable with the Muslim belief in the unassailable holiness and authority of the Prophet Muhammad. The theory of Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) that in the post-Cold War era Europe and America will increasingly come into conflict with non-western civilisations which reject its ideals of democracy, human rights and the rule of law appears once more to be vindicated. Yet perhaps there is an alternative way of thinking amid the chaos and the shouting. In his introduction to this book, John L. Esposito of Georgetown University claims that it provides a ‘major antidote to this dangerous, myopic world view’.

That is a bold statement indeed but, as the authors make clear in their introduction, the book is not designed to be a polemical riposte to Huntington’s thesis. Rather it aims to highlight neglected aspects of the relations between Europe and Islam across the centuries which suggest that, however bitter the conflict might have been at times, culturally the two spheres have always had a great deal in common. After all, Britain and France were at war for most of the 18th century but no one would claim that they were divided by a clash of civilisations. The authors divide their work into three, along chronological lines. John Tolan tackles the period from the initial expansion of Islam into Syria, Egypt and Persia in the seventh century up to the 15th. Gilles Veinstein looks at the period of Ottoman ascendancy in the 15th to the 18th centuries and Henry Laurens takes the story up to the present day.

Veinstein’s analysis of the early modern period typifies the methodology of the book as a whole. He traces the westward expansion of the Ottoman Empire up to the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66), by which time it included about a quarter of the European land mass. The capital of the empire was in Europe, first at Edirne (Adrianople) and after 1453 at Istanbul (Constantinople). It would be very easy to envisage this dramatic expansion of a Muslim power at the expense of Christian ones as resulting in a division of the continent along the lines of the Cold War Iron Curtain, with the fault line running not from Stettin to Trieste but from the Crimea to the Adriatic. There was sharp conflict across the border, as in 1683 when the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna. Christian propagandists, Protestant and Catholic, vilified the Turks as not only infidels but depraved and amoral barbarians.

Behind the undeniable conflict, Veinstein shows, there was a remarkable degree of assimilation. The border of the Ottoman Empire was in fact not that between Islam and Christianity. Muslims were in a minority in the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire and the sultans never attempted to enforce the conversion of their Orthodox Christian and Jewish subjects. Rather, Muslims and Christians tended to share saints and pilgrimage sites. Another area of assimilation was diplomacy. In the medieval period ‘pacts with the infidel’ had been regarded as sinful and treasonous but, in the world of Renaissance Europe, the Ottoman Empire became a central player in the great game. After all, the two ‘civilisations’ were hardly internally unified and monolithic. Faced with the threat of Catholic Spain, Elizabeth I of England entered into a treaty of alliance with the Ottoman sultan in 1583. In 1613 the Druze emir of Lebanon, Man’oğlu Fakhr al-Din, who was in rebellion against his Ottoman overlord, visited Tuscany to cement an alliance with Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici. In practical diplomacy there was no border, no chasm between the two worlds.

Sadly it is unlikely that 450 pages of packed print by a troika of erudite professors will ever have much impact on the kind of people who deliberately cause offence to deeply cherished religious beliefs or who delight in publicly burning flags. Nevertheless this book is an important contribution to an ever more urgent debate. By providing a wealth of inconvenient detail that fails to fit in to the simplistic stereotypes, it challenges the very notion that humanity can be divided into separate ‘civilisations’, however bitter at times the conflict between them.

Jonathan Harris is Professor of the History of Byzantium at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of The End of Byzantium (Yale University Press, 2010).

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