On March 15, 2019, a young man strode into a mosque in the quiet city of Christchurch, New Zealand and was welcomed as a “brother” by a community member standing at the door as other worshippers streamed into the sacred space for Friday prayers. Moments later, he opened fire, ultimately killing 49 people and wounding a further 20.
In the wake of this tragic event, journalists scoured his manifesto and countless social media posts for clues to his motivations. Among the both cryptic and overt references to his white supremacist ideology, the shooter had scrawled on his rifle the names of historic generals who led their armies against Muslim forces and the phrase “Tours 732,” a reference to the 8th century Battle of Tours in France in which Frankish forces stopped a Muslim army’s advance into Europe. In their antipathy towards Islam, white nationalists often hold up the Battle of Tours as an early victory of Christendom over the forces of Islam, the first in a centuries-long struggle between these two civilizational blocks. The former Trump advisor Stephen Bannon similarly referenced this battle, alongside the Ottoman sieges of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries, when he exhorted the European right to defend the “Judeo-Christian West” against Islamic terrorists.
This perspective reflects the controversial theory of a clash of civilizations, a concept first coined Middle Eastern historian Bernard Lewis and later expanded upon by political scientist Samuel Huntington. Lewis saw the Islamic and Christian civilizations locked in a conflict stretching back over a millennia, understanding the al-Qaeda attack on 9/11 as “the opening salvo of the final battle.” Huntington further saw these inter-civilizational battles, “fault line wars,” rising to dominate the post-Cold War political landscape. He, in particular, warned of increasing clashes with the Islamic civilization. In Huntington’s view, Islamic civilization is inherently more violent given its history of glorifying violence and military conquest, absolutist beliefs, and demographic explosion, thus containing both “bloody borders” and “bloody innards.”
Despite being exhaustively challenged by scholars, many US policymakers have been influenced by the seductive simplicity of this idea, using it as a foundation for framing the “War on Terror.” They were able to point to the West’s enemy (Islam) and its tactics (jihadist terrorism), giving US political leadership greater leverage for uniting the public and supporting various policies in the wake of the 9/11 attack. The Trump administration, in particular, has embraced this view, with its rotating rosters of senior officials having extensive ties with the Islamophobia industry. The fiery rhetoric of President Trump and his senior officials against Islam, a “cancer” according to disgraced National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, struck a nerve with Trump supporters, many of whom have advocated for a “holy war” against Muslims seeing them as seeking to “eradicate” Western civilization.
This perspective, however, is historical revisionism which ignores extensive evidence to the contrary within the historical record.
The Muslim-ruled Cordoba Caliphate in southern Spain’s al-Andalus region in the 9th and 10th centuries and the Christian-ruled Norman Kingdom of Sicily in the 11th and 12th centuries are two striking examples from Europe’s medieval past undermining the narrative of a clash. Prior to the invasion of the fundamentalist Almoravids and Almohads from the deserts of Morocco in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Cordoba Caliphate advocated an idealized concept to its differing religions known as la Convivencia, or coexistence, that stressed acceptance of religious differences. Many Christians and Jews rose to positions of influence such as the 10th century Caliph Abdur Rahman III appointing a Jewish chief minister and a Catholic bishop as his ambassador to the courts of Europe. The Cordoba Caliphate, referred to as “the ornament of the world” by a contemporary Catholic Nun, was not only remarkable for the presence of religious tolerance but also its embrace and advancements in scholarship. Among the caliphate’s several hundred libraries was the largest in Europe, which housed 400,000 books at a time when the largest library in Christendom barely held 400. It was also through Muslim Spain that Europe “rediscovered” the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, accessed through Latin translations of Arabic editions accompanied by commentaries of Muslim scholars expanding on the great philosophers’ ideas. In Saint Thomas Aquinas’ magnum opus Summa Theologica written in the 13th century, for example, he famously refers to Aristotle simply as “the Philosopher” but also refers to the Muslim philosopher of medieval Spain Ibn Rushd (or Averroes) as “the Commentator.”
Even after Christian kings began their southern march of conquest across the Iberian Peninsula, some preached tolerance of their newly acquired Muslim subjects, most famously the 13th century king of Castile Alfonso X. This Castilian monarch passed laws protecting the rights of Muslims and their freedom of worship, declaring, “the Moors who are in all our realms are ours and we have to guard and protect them and to have rights from them in whatever place they may live.” He even introduced legal reforms to his kingdom based on Islamic Sharia code, reforms which would later become the framework for the modern laws of Spain . Given his respect for Islam and the influence it had on his rule, Alfonso X was known as the “last Almohad Caliph.”
In Sicily, following its conquest by the Normans in the late 11th century, the largely Muslim population also found its newfound Christian rulers willing to embrace the cultural and religious differences of their kingdom. The Christian King of Sicily Roger II famously spoke Arabic, practiced Islamic customs, had Muslim bodyguards, bore Arabic on his royal mantle and coins, and encouraged the intermingling of religious and cultural traditions in art and architecture, most famously his Palatine Chapel in Palermo. A Muslim visitor to his court observed that Roger
followed the way of the Muslim rulers with mounted companions, chamberlains, arms-bearers, body-guards and others of that kind. Thus, he broke with the custom of the Franks, who were not acquainted with such things. He founded a Court of Complaints, diwan al-mazalim, to which those [Muslims] who had been unjustly treated brought their grievances, and [the king] would give them justice, even against his own son. He treated the Muslims with respect, took them as his companions, and kept the Franks off them, so that they loved him.
This respect between Christian king and Muslim subjects would continue with Roger’s successors, especially his grandson the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
Both medieval Spain and Sicily experienced close interaction and cooperation between Muslim and Christian communities who worked together in the pursuit of knowledge, art, architecture, and other cultural achievements still evident in both regions today. At these “civilizational” borders, we find cultural synthesis, not bloody conflict.
In gazing across the civilizational barrier at the Muslim world, many leading European figures in subsequent centuries similarly saw a religion and culture worthy of respect, not derision or antipathy. The celebrated German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a life-long admiration of the Islamic faith, even dedicating a poem to Prophet Muhammad whom he referred to as the “head of created beings.” David Urquhart, a British diplomat who served in Istanbul in the 1830s, wrote, “It is unquestionable, that if London were [Muslim]…the population would bathe regularly, have a better-dressed dinner for his money, and prefer water to wine, or brandy, gin or beer.” Pointing to the Islam of the Ottoman Empire, which relied on a millet system granting minority religious communities freedom of worship and legal autonomy, Urquhart further argued that its Islamic faith was a “tolerant, moderating force.” Richard Burton, the famed British explorer who entered Mecca disguised as an Indian-born Afghan on Hajj, similarly observed in the mid-19th century, “The fact is…Al-Islam, in its capital tenets, approaches much nearer to the faith of Jesus than do the Pauline and Athenasian modifications which, in this our day, have divided the Indo-European mind into Catholic and Roman, Greek and Russian, Lutheran and Anglican…The Moslem may be more tolerant, more enlightened, more charitable, than many societies of self-styled Christians.” During the 19th century against the backdrop of the Great Game, an enterprising group of British officials, among them Urquhart, even sought to increase British ties to and support of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic civilization as a “bulwark” against an expanding Russian Empire, a “bulwark…of civilization against barbarism.” Such inter-religious alliances against the Russians would be mirrored over a century later with the US support for the Islamic mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
This is not to say that conflict between Muslims and Christians did not occur. However, it is historical revisionism to superimpose retrospectively a larger and amorphously defined civilizational conflict onto these historical incidents, misrepresenting the political context within which they occurred. Throughout the history of Europe, Christians and Muslims routinely formed military alliances in opposition to co-religionists given the prevailing political interests of the day. In medieval Spain, for example, the Christian knight Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar — known as el Cid and famously portrayed by Charlton Heston in film — fought for the Muslim king of Zaragoza against its rival the Christian kingdom of Aragon before he joined the opposition to the Muslim rulers of Lerida and their Christian allies. Similarly, in the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottoman military was supported by Hungarian nobles rebelling against Hapsburg rule. The Catholic Hapsburgs, on the other hand, were backed by a Polish army consisting of a large number of Muslim Tartars.
There are also countless contemporary examples that reflect this historical reality — examples so prevalent that they are too numerous to list here. Despite this, the argument for a clash has endured and infected public opinion. Peddling in the politics of fear requires an enemy, which the narrative of a clash of civilizations readily provides. The political rhetoric surrounding this idea has whipped up hatred of the other, sentiment that led an Australian politician to even blame Muslim immigration for the Christchurch shooting. Confronting the problem of terrorism and political violence within Muslim-majority nations, the idea of a civilizational clash also whitewashes away any culpability on the part of Western society by pointing to Islamic civilization as somehow more violent or barbaric. Under this frame, it allows politicians to sell the narrative that the West is an innocent victim, without acknowledging the numerous problems in many Muslim societies engendered by a long history of economic and political exploitation by Europe and the United States, especially stemming from the legacy of colonialism.
Such a view blinds us to the commonalities held between cultures and religions and the actual causes of the violence that continue to plague many societies today. Attacks by white extremists embracing the idea of a clash of civilizations, like the mosque shooting in Christchurch, are unfortunately on the rise around the world with past incidents feeding the outbreak of future attacks. Without recognizing and strongly challenging the narrative of a clash, the potential for violence will unfortunately persist.
Harrison Akins is a research fellow at the University of Tennessee’s Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy.