|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
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Tales of bigotryFrom Cordoba to New York, John Tolan* follows the path of violence between the "infidels" and the "righteous"
On 11 September, crazed fanatics tried to sow hatred and war between "Islam" and the "Crusaders," convinced that they were bound for heaven as God's martyrs. Since those events, I have often found myself thinking about a group of Christian fanatics who similarly tried to sow hatred and division between Muslims and Christians of Cordoba in the years between 850 and 859.
Anti-clockwise: a mosque in Cordoba; the victory of the Crusaders in Constantinople; eternal battles
In the year 850, Cordoba was Europe's most populous and prosperous city. Its Umayyad Emirs ruled over Al-Andalus and imported to this Muslim "far west" the urbane culture of the Near East. Emir Abdal-Rahman II (822-852) set out to make Cordoba into a new Damascus or Baghdad: he built up his palace complex, minted coins, imitated the style and ceremony of the Abbasid court, imported luxury items and patronised scholars, poets and musicians from the East. He brought from Baghdad the poet and singer Ziryab, who became so popular, widely imitated and fashionable that one historian has compared the impact of his arrival to that of the Beatles in the United States. This cultural awakening affected Muslims and Christians alike: one Cordoban Christian moaned that Christian youths could all write love poems in Arabic, yet none could read the Church fathers in Latin.
A small band of fanatical Christians looked on with horror as their compatriots fell under the thrall of a newly assertive Arab Muslim culture and as many of them chose to convert to Islam. These fanatics reacted with what historians have called the Cordoban Martyr movement. From 850 to 859, forty-eight Christians were put to death by the Muslim authorities of Cordoba for blasphemy or apostasy. Many of these Christians deliberately sought out the Qadi of Cordoba, or other Muslim officials, insulting Mohamed and the Qur'an in hopes of being rewarded by execution, or, in their terms, martyrdom. These "voluntary martyrs" were unpopular among the vast majority of Cordoba's Christians, who pointed out that, unlike the Roman pagans who had put earlier martyrs to death, the Muslim rulers were "men who venerated both God and law" and who permitted Christians to worship freely. Many Christians feared that the fanatical martyrs would poison relations between Christians and their Muslim rulers, and their fears were well founded: Abdal-Rahman II and his successor Mohamed I issued new regulations restricting the role of Christians in the emiral court, and many Christians converted or emigrated in the decades that followed.
The brutal logic of the fanatics of the 850s is the same as that of the fanatics of 2001: use violence to throw up a wall of hatred and distrust between the "righteous" and the "infidels." Of course, the perpetrators of the terror of 11 September sought to kill and not only be killed, and they had the technology of mass destruction at their disposal. Yet the strategy of both groups is the same; it corresponds to that of what Edward Said describes in his Culture and Imperialism as "resistance culture": demonise the enemy and discredit those who collaborate with him, using violence to dramatise the opposition between "us" and "them." The perpetrators of these acts deliberately seek to provoke the indiscriminate violence of their adversaries; such a spiral of violence is meant to push those in the middle (Christians in Cordoba in the ninth century, Muslims throughout the world today) onto the side of the "righteous" in a Manichean struggle between Good and Evil.
The attacks of 11 September have left many Americans astounded at the depth of resentment that some Muslims feel towards the United States and more generally towards the "West." In the same way, Muslims of Cordoba were shocked at the fanatical hatred of the Christian martyrs. Christian minorities living as protected dhimmis (people of the book) in Cordoba and throughout the medieval Muslim world forged an ideology hostile to Islam that served as a sort of protective shell, meant to shield its members from the feelings of insecurity caused by their political, military and economic inferiority to Muslims. Christians living under Muslim dominion needed to feel that, despite all apparent evidence to the contrary, they were in some essential way superior to the Muslims around them. As European Christians came into increasing contact with Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries, they adapted this same ideology to their own situation: acutely aware of Christian Europe's inferiority to the Islamic world in military power, wealth and learning, they affirmed their religious superiority which became a justification for wars of conquest against Muslim-ruled territories. These medieval Europeans defined their perceived "superiority" primarily as religious (though cultural and other concerns were inseparable); in the wake of increasing European and American power, their modern counterparts have tended to see themselves as culturally or intellectually superior: more "enlightened," more technologically advanced, more "modern."
Many Muslims (and unfortunately fewer Americans and Europeans) are painfully aware of the nefarious consequences of continued feelings of Western superiority over the Arab and Muslim worlds (as, indeed, over much of the rest of the world). The French and British empires imposed their will over large swathes of the Muslim world, manipulating Arab nationalism to suit their own needs. The United States, while preaching
democratic values, gave its military and diplomatic support to autocratic and corrupt regimes (to the Baath Party in Iraq, to the Shah in Iran, to the Royal family in Saudi Arabia) and to Israel, a flawed democracy whose citizens enjoy broad rights while Palestinians suffer under 34 years of occupation. This short-sighted promotion of undemocratic allies, in the name of American interest, has created a series of major international crises, with dire consequences for the inhabitants of these countries and for the United States and its allies.
In this time of crisis, it is essential that we ask, continually and vociferously, a series of uncomfortable and embarrassing questions. Why, at a time when Europe and the United States have promoted democracy and respect for human rights in many parts of the world, encouraging the emergence of democratic regimes in Europe, Latin America, East Asia, and parts of Africa, have they not done the same for the Arab world? Why has the United States not brought real pressure to bear on Israel to pull out of the occupied territories of Palestine? Such pressure would not involve "abandoning Israel," as some have claimed. It would, on the contrary, give Israel an opportunity to find lasting peace and to end its international isolation. Why has the European Union continued to do business as usual with Tunisia, turning a blind eye to the harsh political repression that has resulted in the sharp curtailment of human rights and the imprisonment of hundreds of Tunisians? Why has the violence of terrorist fanatics who claim to be Muslims suddenly become a pressing problem when their victims were Americans, less so when they were over 100,000 Algerians? How can the United States expect to be able to alternately ignore and vociferously invoke international political consensus, depending on whether or not that consensus fits its own short- term interests? Many readers could fill in the blanks with a dozen similar questions.
But Americans and Europeans are not the only ones who need to squarely face the unpleasant consequences of their ideological contradictions. The same potent forces that created animosity towards Islam among Christians in the Middle Ages have been at work among Muslims more recently. In the struggle for decolonisation, leaders across the Muslim world concocted a potent brew of nationalism, religious identity and resentment against the colonial rulers, to fire their people into resistance. The French and the British (and later the Americans) were presented as the new Crusaders, intolerant fanatics bent on conquest. During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein did not hesitate to identify himself as a new Salaheddin. In the past half century, rulers in a number of countries have continued to foster this ideology, and they are playing with fire. In order to prevent their people from questioning their own lack of true political legitimacy, these rulers use Israel, America and the West as scapegoats: if you are poor and powerless, they seem to be saying, it is THEIR fault, not ours. At the same time they tell their Western allies (who are busy propping them up with economic and military aid) how fortunate it is that the West has such staunch allies in the region ready to suppress violent fanaticism (and anyone who opposes the government is branded as a violent fanatic). The result is a political discourse drenched in hypocrisy. International Muslim and Arab organisations have repeatedly and justifiably condemned the repressive treatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israel. They rarely show the same zeal in criticising repression by Arab and Muslim rulers.
If Muslim rulers wish to provide a much-needed counterbalance to Western hegemony, they must be willing to play a more active and positive role on the world's diplomatic stage. When fellow Muslims suffered massacre and expulsion in Bosnia and Kosovo, Muslim nations throughout the world could have seized the opportunity to lead international efforts to come to their aid; instead, they for the most part limited their action to statements of solidarity, waiting for the "West" to do something. In the horrendous civil war in Algeria, as a repressive government cynically squashed the people's democratic will and fanatical terrorists heartlessly butchered innocent Algerians, why was there not a louder and more forceful outcry from religious and political leaders across the Muslim world? Why was there not a major and concerted attempt to take action to end the bloodbath? When the Taliban, Al-Qa'ida, or the butchers of Algeria claim that it is Islamic to murder innocent people or to deny them basic human rights, why is the outcry of condemnation from the political, religious and intellectual leaders across the Muslim world not stronger and more unified? Is this the face of Islam that Muslims want presented not only to the billion or so people in the "West," but to all five billion non-Muslims in the world?
An Algerian friend told me that he and many of his compatriots looked longingly at the "velvet revolution" that swept central Europe in the wake of the collapse of the USSR: this, he told me, is what Algerians wanted, what they deserved. Yet the tragic truth is that few of the political powers that be, in the West or in the Muslim world, seem to agree with him. In the current crisis, there is plenty of blame to go around, and many will be tempted to play the familiar game of pointing the finger at others. If this game prevails, the fanatics will have scored a major victory, and we can confidently predict future horrors parallel to 11 September, or like those of Algeria. If cooler heads and clearer minds can urge all to recognise their share of responsibility and to squarely face the consequences of their ideological hypocrisy, perhaps some good can come out of the current crisis.
* The writer is professor of history at University de Nantes, France, and author of Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)
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