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A Thousand Years of Jihad
By Piers Shepherd
Since the events of 11 September 2001, numerous books have been written on Islam chronicling that religion’s long record of violence, conquest and persecution of non-believers. What makes this book different is that it is not simply a list of Islam’s crimes but a series of reflective historical essays that illustrate aspects of Islam’s interaction with the west, each of which teach an important lesson from which modern commentators, cultural critics and policy makers can learn.
The book’s authors are the classicist Thomas Fleming, former editor of Chronicles magazine, and Frank Brownlow, a former professor of English Literature. They have produced a fascinating series of essays each of which can be read and understood on its own without necessarily having to read the whole book.
Several themes run through the book including Islam’s continuous acts of aggression against the west, its apparent inability to live at peace with its neighbours and in many cases the inability of the west to effectively resist it due to rivalry among western leaders with certain leaders siding with Islam against their fellow Christians. Examples of this have included the French king Francis I’s alliance with the Turks against the Holy Roman Empire, British Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s support for the Ottoman Empire as a barrier against Russian power and the support given by NATO and the Clinton administration to Islamic insurgencies in the Balkans.
The book’s introduction gives us the gruesome facts about Islam which should be well-known but due to modern politically-correct sensitivities are not much publicised. The authors estimate that there have been around 270 million non-Muslim victims of Islamic aggression, roughly 93,000 per year. Mohammed’s massacres and oppression of Jews and Christians is briefly described as is Islam’s exploitation of divisions within the Christian community as part of a divide and conquer strategy.
The rest of the book examines Islam’s conflict with the west through a series of relevant historical episodes. A chapter by Brownlow titled ‘Byron among the Turks’ recounts the travels of Lord Byron in Ottoman-ruled Greece between 1809 and 1811. Though Byron would later fight with the Greeks in their struggle for independence, at this earlier stage in his life he had a strong sympathy for Islam. Byron’s exotic attraction to the ‘other’ can be seen as the beginning of what has become known as ‘orientalism’, a fascination of the western elite class with all things associated with the east. While this may have been fairly harmless to begin with it took on a more sinister note with the western-educated Palestinian Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism. Said, explains Brownlow, redefined the meaning of the word ‘orientalism’:
The influence of Said’s book can be seen today in academia and government circles where the west is blamed for all of Islam’s problems.
A fascinating chapter by Fleming titled ‘Cowboys and Muslims’ tells the story of Captain John Smith. Smith is best known as the founder of the Virginia colony and for being rescued from death by Pocahontas. But it is little known that Smith had an earlier and even more dramatic career. Having been a mercenary in wars in France and the Netherlands, Smith subsequently served with the Hungarians fighting the Turks. He killed and decapitated several Turks in single combat and was awarded a coat of arms consisting of three Turks’ heads by Prince Sigismund of Transylvania. Smith was subsequently captured and enslaved by the Turks but escaped after killing his master. Such was the background of the man who created the first English colony in America.
Fleming ends his chapter on Smith with a controversial statement that will undoubtedly bring howls of rage from the liberal and neo-conservative establishments:
Brownlow contributes two detailed chapters on the ‘Barbary corsairs’. Those raised on anti-western propaganda will probably never have heard of the Barbary pirates and the terror they inflicted on much of Europe for a few hundred years.
The Barbary States of North Africa had economies based on piracy and slavery. In 1582 raids on the coasts of Spain and Italy kidnapped 1,730 people to be sold as slaves in Algiers:
‘...at any one time between 1580 and 1680 there were about 35,000 Christian slaves in the Barbary states and that since the attrition rate from death, ransom, apostasy and escape was about 25 per cent, it required an annual intake of 8,500 to keep numbers up.’
Sicily was attacked on an almost daily basis. While initially the Barbary pirates operated solely within the Mediterranean they eventually extended their area of operations into Northern Europe. The coasts of south-west England became a regular target. In 1645 240 people were seized in raids on the coast of Cornwall. Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel was occupied for a time. In 1631 over 100 people were taken from the village of Baltimore in Ireland. The pirates even ranged as far north as Iceland, were in one raid over 300 Icelanders were taken into slavery.
As so often in European history the Christian nations did not unite to deal with this menace but frequently allied with the pirates against one another. Elizabeth I and the Moroccan emperor, Ahmad al-Mansur attempted to form an alliance against Spain, while Francis I, as part of his war against the Habsburgs, allowed the dreaded pirate Barbarossa to use the port of Toulon as a base for raiding the coasts of Spain and Italy.
It is usually forgotten that the first war engaged in by the United States was against the Barbary pirates who began attacking American shipping as early as 1784. Two wars were fought by the United States against the Barbary States, the first from1801-1805 and the second in 1815. Various treaties were signed between western nations and Barbary States but, as Brownlow says, ‘Barbary treaties only lasted as long as the Christians’ warships were in sight’. Ultimately, the only way of ending the Barbary raids and Christian slavery was for western nations to occupy North Africa a process which began under the French who occupied Algiers in 1830. Those who today decry colonialism often forget its origins.
The book’s last two chapters deal with the unsuccessful Islamic attempts to conquer France and Italy. Brownlow gives a commentary on The Song of Roland, a literary work that has become the something like the French equivalent of the Arthurian legend. Fleming’s chapter on Italy deals with how the different Italian states dealt with the Islamic onslaught including the roles of Rome, Sicily, Venice and Pisa. Fleming concludes:
Modern western leaders should take note.
Fleming and Brownlow have produced a scholarly, fascinating and brilliant series of essays that should be read by anyone who wants a better understanding of Islam and its relations with the west.
Piers Shepherd is a freelance writer based in England who has been published in Chronicles, Crisis magazine, Catholic World Report and the Wanderer among others. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right. © 2020 Piers Shepherd.