Karen Armstrong: We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam





[ Karen Armstrong is the author of Islam: A Short History.]

In the 12th century, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, initiated a dialogue with the Islamic world. "I approach you not with arms, but with words," he wrote to the Muslims whom he imagined reading his book, "not with force, but with reason, not with hatred, but with love." Yet his treatise was entitled Summary of the Whole Heresy of the Diabolical Sect of the Saracens and segued repeatedly into spluttering intransigence. Words failed Peter when he contemplated the "bestial cruelty" of Islam, which, he claimed, had established itself by the sword. Was Muhammad a true prophet? "I shall be worse than a donkey if I agree," he expostulated, "worse than cattle if I assent!"

Peter was writing at the time of the Crusades. Even when Christians were trying to be fair, their entrenched loathing of Islam made it impossible for them to approach it objectively. For Peter, Islam was so self-evidently evil that it did not seem to occur to him that the Muslims he approached with such "love" might be offended by his remarks. This medieval cast of mind is still alive and well.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI quoted, without qualification and with apparent approval, the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Vatican seemed bemused by the Muslim outrage occasioned by the Pope's words, claiming that the Holy Father had simply intended "to cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, and obviously also towards Islam".

But the Pope's good intentions seem far from obvious. Hatred of Islam is so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in western culture that it brings together people who are usually at daggers drawn. Neither the Danish cartoonists, who published the offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad last February, nor the Christian fundamentalists who have called him a paedophile and a terrorist, would ordinarily make common cause with the Pope; yet on the subject of Islam they are in full agreement.

Our Islamophobia dates back to the time of the Crusades, and is entwined with our chronic anti-semitism. Some of the first Crusaders began their journey to the Holy Land by massacring the Jewish communities along the Rhine valley; the Crusaders ended their campaign in 1099 by slaughtering some 30,000 Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem. It is always difficult to forgive people we know we have wronged. Thenceforth Jews and Muslims became the shadow-self of Christendom, the mirror image of everything that we hoped we were not - or feared that we were.

The fearful fantasies created by Europeans at this time endured for centuries and reveal a buried anxiety about Christian identity and behaviour. When the popes called for a Crusade to the Holy Land, Christians often persecuted the local Jewish communities: why march 3,000 miles to Palestine to liberate the tomb of Christ, and leave unscathed the people who had - or so the Crusaders mistakenly assumed - actually killed Jesus. Jews were believed to kill little children and mix their blood with the leavened bread of Passover: this "blood libel" regularly inspired pogroms in Europe, and the image of the Jew as the child slayer laid bare an almost Oedipal terror of the parent faith....



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Ben Gillard - 10/6/2006


You say:
"Our Islamophobia dates back to the time of the Crusades, ..."

I would have thought the phobia would pre-date the Crusades. In the space of about 100 years, Muslims had conquered predominantly Christian lands reaching as far as Bulgaria, Spain, Northern Africa and even France.

It seems that there might be a little bit of justification for a few phobias regarding Islam on the part of the Europeans.

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