What Clash of Civilizations?

Mr. Almond's latest work is Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians across Europe's Battlegrounds (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Around the time of Turkey’s application for entry talks into the EU a couple of years ago, a campaign was started up in Austria against Turkey becoming a member. Part of this campaign involved the memory of the “Tuerkenjahr” of 1683, when the fearsome army of Islam threatened to swarm through the gates of Vienna and into all of Christendom. Let Turkey into Europe, ran the subtext, and the Siege of Vienna will happen all over again – only this time we will be inundated not with janissaries and pashas, but with immigrants and Islamists.

In reality, over half of this “Army of Islam” was Christian – not just the various Christian soldiers (Greeks/Serbs/Armenians) within the Ottoman army, but also the hundred thousand Hungarian Calvinists who were revolting against Catholic (Habsurg) oppression. Those Austrians (and others) who paint a picture of Islamic hordes storming the gates of a Christian Europe have swallowed a Disney version of history. The fact that such a ridiculous myth still circulates is due, more than anything else, to our abiding desire to be seen as the victims of outrage, not the perpetrators of it.

The history of Muslim Christian alliances in Europe, when looked at overall, is quite remarkable. Moments when Muslims and Christians banded together to fight a common foe have taken place repeatedly throughout the history of Europe, in every age, in every country, and (most interestingly) on both sides of the Crusades. Muslim soldiers were the bodyguard of Frederick II when he negotiated for Jerusalem in 1226, and the Aragonese helped the Arabs defend Tunis against Charles of Anjou in 1271. The factors were also various, and not always cynical: sometimes the reasons were Realpolitikal, of course, as well as having to do with  mercenary and conscription. Sometimes, however, there was also a common culture or a genuine sense of friendship at work.

The Serbian prince, for example, who fought for the Turks at the Battle of Ankara (1402)  and risked his life to save the Sultan’s son, seems to have acted beyond the duty of a vassal. The thousands of Arabs who, in the time of Dante, fought for a German Christian emperor outside the walls of Milan and Verona appear to have had an extremely un-Islamic loyalty to the Hohenstaufen cause. The fact that a Russian Field Marshall in the Crimean War could talk about the Tartar soldiers in his Russian army as “our Muslims” says a great deal about how closely Muslim soldiers interacted in Christian armies.

Muslim Christian alliances were no strange exceptions but rather a normal and widely-used standard procedure for most Mediterranean conflicts, from the Arab gunners who worked for the Spanish to the Greek sailors in the Ottoman navy who were eventually replaced by Armenian ones in the 19th century. Muslim-Christian military cooperation is inextricably woven into the fabric of European – particularly southern European – history. Airbrushed out by both sides, the presence of the infidel in the armies of a queen or a sultan was a regular occurrence. Neither Christian chronicler nor Muslim poet was too happy to record this (although, to his credit, the allegedly Islamophobic Gibbon dutifully recorded each Greek-Turkish alliance that took place, including the wedding of the Byzantine emperor’s daughter to the Turkish sultan Orhan).

The term ‘Clash of Civilizations” has been bandied about a great deal over the past ten years. Despite its refutations from several quarters, the phrase has achieved its purpose, even in its failure to convince: it has created a pseudo-debate of the most simplistic proportions, one which decides that there is something called the Muslim World and something called Christian Europe, and that a permanent tension must exist between these two. What any sober view of medieval history reveals, more than anything else, is the historical ignorance of Samuel Huntington’s phrase, how it assumes that cultures push one another out as oil displaces water, without any regard for the millennium of Christian/Jewish/Muslim co-existence around the shores of a Mediterranean where, as late as the 1970s, Greek could still be heard on the streets of Alexandria and Istanbul.

It has always seemed strange to me that, for all our conviction of the separateness of the West from Islam and the Arab world, each of us knows at least ten Arabic characters – ones which we use each day, so frequently and so familiarly, that we have forgotten they are actually Arabic. Our notion of a “Christian Europe,” in many ways, is a similar case of historical amnesia. What a recollection of the thousands of moments of Muslim-Christian military collaboration brings us closer to is a recognition, however politically inconvenient, that the history of Islam and the history of Europe belong together. They are two strands of the same rope. To think in this way is not to idealize or romanticize the very definite conflicts which have taken place, but to try and see why we, in Europe today, continue to emphasise those conflicts – and overlook an equally significant amount of shared cultural history. Instead of harping on the Crusades, why not talk about the bishops who knew Arabic and the imams whose only language was Spanish? Instead of endlessly invoking the image of the Terrible Turk, why not speak of the Greek monks who shared their Cappadocian caves with Sufis, or the Turcophone Greeks, Armenians and Jews who worked in the highest echelons of the Ottoman Empire? How did we forget that thousands of Arabs, in the time of Giotto and Aquinas, fought for the Hohenstaufen north of Milan, in the very heart of Europe, at the foot of the Alps ? Until we learn to deactivate and uninstall the version of a Christian Europe which we cling to today, such facts are never going to seem anything other than unlikely and surreal.

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art eckstein - 7/10/2009

Dear Fahrettin,

Nice point, there at the end. No doubt you are correct.

The persecution of non-Anglicans was vicious in 16th century Britain, as was the persecution of non-Catholics in other areas of Europe. My point is: I think the persecution of religious minorities is inherent in any regime that claims to speak for God--including the Caliphate. It may not have been as bad as Christian Europ. On the other hand, Patricia Seed has argued in a famous and recent book that the worst Spanish humiliations of Indians in the Americas were copied from the Spanish Christian experience of humiliation imposed upon them on a daily basis under the Islamic regimes in Medieval Spain.

We agree that Islam is running in the wrong direction, and I think we agree also that it need run in that wrong direction; i.e., that what we see in so many places now (throwing acid in the faces of uncovered women; the penchant for terrorism against innocent civilians) is not an "essential" Islam.

The events in Iran recently, which have a strong religious overtone (as well as secular and modernizing) among the Mousavi people, suggest some reason for hope in that respect. Of course, only some reason, not a lot, since the vile Ayatollah Khamenei claims to speak directily for Allah. He--and his son, who now controls the Revolutionary Guard, and intends to succeed the old man as ruler.

Fahrettin Tahir - 7/10/2009


I would tend to accept that the abolishment of the Caliphate was a crime of the West against the world of Islam. This view strongly differs from the Turkish secularist view which is repetition of Ataturk’s propaganda against the Caliphate as a refuge of reaction which was preventing modernisation. I think exactly the opposite is true. It was the office with the ability to define Islam. It is interesting to note that Turkish Islamists want to stop modernisation at the point the last Caliph left it, which was anyway a dramatically modernised Islam. The Sultan Caliph was the first member of the Turkish upper middle class and projecting the views of this class into religion. The secularisation of the Turkish upper middle class has left the right to interpret Islam to the likes of Osama. For me a sucidal development. I remember what Chou En Lai said when he was asked what he thought about the French revolution: it is to early to tell. The same was valid for the abolishment of the caliphate. One thing is clear, Islam is running in the wrong direction.

Perhaps you are right about the clas of civilisation. Nemche (Austria) was hated as a police regime like the free world hated communism. The Islamic civilization was far more liberal than the catholic police regime of the Habsburgs. If they saw you washing yourself you got sued by the inquisition because good christians had no need of cleaning themselves. The Islamic civilization was the one giving Jews, Protestants etc the right to live in -for that era- freedom.

Also the prosecution of non Anglicans in England I knew little about. It confirms the propaganda we get to eat – England, always free. Wheras it wasn’t. Bunch of pirates they were.

It is true that in the end the US saved the Moslems of Bosnia, after 250000 were killed. After they made their point that we need them. If it had been Moslems killing Christians in Europe it would have been stopped after 3 days and a dozen killed. That would have been the point they make.

A. M. Eckstein - 7/9/2009

Dear Fahrettin,

I accept the essential accuracy of the first five lines above, at least.

My point is that since Cortez had huge numbers of willing Indian allies against the Aztecs, the fact that some Protestants joined with the Turks at Vienna against the Habsburgs does not in itself constitute proof that the siege of 1683 (let alone 1529( was not "a clash of civilizations."

A. M. Eckstein - 7/9/2009

Dear Fahrettin,

The British king certainly DID bother his subjects about their religion! Notoriously in the 16th century, the period under discussion (Henry VIII, who, like Mehmet II apparently, made up his religion as he went along, and woe to anyone who objected--remember the execution of Sir Thomas More, among many others?). Queen Mary followed suit with executions--except in her case it was Protestants, not Catholics--hence her nickname "Bloody Mary". When you get people who are propelled by religious belief, this is what happens.

This lasted well into the 19th century--indeed, in India the conversion efforts backed by the British Raj lasted until the rebellion of 1857. It's one of the things that govts did, it seems to me.

It's interesting what you say about the Caliphate's changing meaning, but it's hard for me to see how it wasn't important religiously in the 16th century. The Ottomans may've been more sophisticated here than their contemporaries; but Bin Laden sure thinks the Caliphate is religiously important, it's abolition is the main crime he sees perpetrated by the West against Islam...but then, I guess he's a crank. But the Sherif of Mecca also thought the Caliphate was hugely important religiously in 1916. But I guess your point is that it wasn't hugely important relgiously in 1616.

As for the Balkans, the U.S. were the folks--the only folks--who have ever protected the Bosnian Muslims. I know a U.S. paratrooper who walks with a terrible limp as a result of U.S. efforts to save the Bosniaks.

Fahrettin Tahir - 7/9/2009

Spain was acontemporary of Ottoman Turkey. Everywhere they invaded they destroyed the civilizations they found, to replace local culture with their own. Only 3 maya books survived the Spanish invasion. This is why there is a "Latin" america. Turkey did not doe this although they also had had the power to do so. It was not their way of doing things. All local cultures they found survived centuries of Ottoman rule intact. Only at the very end when the people who has survived thanks to Ottoman tolerance turned around to exterminate the Moslems, killing 5 millions and showing their determination to kill the rest did the Ottoman government get brutal.

The christians were repeating in the Ottoman lands what they had done in the Americas. We had become the Mayas and the indians.

Fahrettin Tahir - 7/9/2009

Yes and the British King was the Caliph of the Anglican Church (maybe he used a different title) without bothering his subjects with religion.

The Sultan was proud to be the protector of the three Abrahamitic religions. Mehmet II, the conquerer of Istanbul, actually wanted to become catholic and crowned the emperor of Rome by the Pope, his advisors talked him out of it because of raison d'etat. That was the real content of the office of Caliph, it was purely political. The office only became important in the late 19th century when the christian powers masquerading as protectors of the christians intervened in turkish affairs and the sultans used the title to create a counter balance by „protecting“ for example the indian moslems. Ataturk abolished the office as a sign of recognizing imperialist rule over india.

The christian powers were primitive religious states to begin with, they presumed the moslems were also like that. Later they subjugated the rest of mankind, legitimizing this with their own inherent superiority. Moslems had always been barbarians. This was history being invented. Today there is a fight over who will control the moslem world with islamic groups using religious arguments, beacuse these are the only arguments their governments let them learn. and their enemies also to motivate their own people against religious fanatics. Ever heard Bush argue about the oil? Seems to play no role. It is much easier to motivate people to fight fanatic followers of a foreign religion than to get them to die for Texaco. Fact is it is quite possible to formulate anti western politics using marxist, nationalist or liberal arguments. If you really believe the anti moslem theory, you are fooling yourself.

In discussing history we must first start by identifying propaganda. The Hungarian protestants has had a chance to see both Austria and Turkey and decided to join Turkey. We must presume they knew why. Naturally the chrsitian countries hated this and after winning the war (there is never any guarantee that the good guys will always win) they concentrated their formidable propaganda machine making us look bad.

In Turkey anti western groups are mostly secular. They are absolutely disgusted by western propaganda, which always shows the west as fighting for human rights and democracy and even when they are engaged in mass murder against moslems as in Bosnia.

A. M. Eckstein - 7/9/2009

Dear Fahrettin,

The Ottomans were more tolerant of religious minorities than the Habsburgs, as tolerance was understood in the 16th century. But ultimately the sultan was also the Caliph, and hence the head of islam. A Turkish victory at Vienna would thus have meant a major victory of Islam in central Europe. You argue that such a victory might have led to good consequences for Europe, for Islam, and for religious minorities. It's possible. Others are free to argue the opposite: look at the Ottoman legal system, where Islam is so dominant, and which I mentioned above. We can't really know.

That the Turkish govt had a good many Christian allies in the 1680s (Protestants) is actually not as strong an argument as it appears at first sight against "the clash of civilizations" here. The Romans had many Greek allies when they fought against Macedon and then Syria in the 190s B.C., and indeed those allies were truly crucial for the victories that were won both over Macedon and then Syria; but ultimately those turned out to be Roman victories, and (ultimately) no one else's. Similarly, Cortez had many many thousands of Tlaxcaltecan allies against the Aztecs in the 1520s, and without them he could not have defeated the Aztecs; but ultimately the victory was Spain's and (ultimately) no one else's. So, it can easily be argued, it would likely have been at Vienna in 1683 (or 1529) for Ottoman Turkey and the Caliph.

I really wish that HNN would publish your pieces on Turkey, though. There is always food for thought in them, and I always learn a lot.


Fahrettin Tahir - 7/9/2009

Dear Art,

you would be right if there were one Islam. There never was. Nor was Ottoman Turkey a colonial power like say Britain or Spain imposing its culture on occupied countries. Culture was continuously being reshaped by the empire, like the US American culture which is also being reshaped by immigrants. Religiously and liguistically there is not much difference between Iran and Turkey. In both countries Turkish is one of the dominant languages, in the Iranian case spoken by aroung 35-50 of the population, in earlier centuries north Turkmenia and Aserbaijan were also a part of Iran, which was very much a Turkish country. The language (Azeri/Turkmen) also differs not much more than American and English. Yet you have two radically different polities. Turkey was shaped by Rome, visitors to Greece are amazed by how similiar the two countries are. Then by Eastern and Central European immigrants. Toynbee writes that the imperial court in the 16th century spoke Serbian, the navy Italian. Even today Turkish maritime terms are all Italian. Two of the most famous admirals were nick named Barbaros Hayrettin and Mezzomorte Hasan Pasha. He is said to have come back from a journey half dead.

As Austria invaded Hungary in 1699 there was large scale immigration to Turkey by Hungarian Moslems and Protestants. The consequence was the „lale devri“ modernisation. Ibrahim Muteferrika, a Hungarian immigrant built the first printing press using a moslem language. All the talk about taxes (who doesn’t hate them?) distracts people from the basic fact that subjects did have the possibility of keeping their religion but a majority preferred to becoem moslems. It was the simple process of assimilation, no different than what happens to immigrants to the US. Nationalists in the home country might feel sorrow, but so is the world.

In the beginning years of the republic a majority of Turkey citizen were descended from european immigrants/refugees. Ataturk himself was from Macedonia and was blonde with blue eyes, a typical European. It is only now that people from the eastern half of Anatolia are running the country. Of course their idea of Turkey is radically different from the Europeans’. They themselves partially understand the problem. You can read in their papers that people of wrong blood are deislamifying Turkey. Millions of secret Jews, Armenians, and even Greek blood who are superficially moslems without seeing what in other countries is considered true Islam like chopping off peoples arms, stoning people to death killing homosexuals etc. We think of ourseves neither as Europeans nor members of ethnic groups but as Turks but this is a political definion. Foreigners misunderstand the situation imagining we were the descendants of barbarians from Mongolia.

A success of the siege of Vienna had stabilized the European character of the Ottoman Empire and allowed her to catch up with the then growing technology of central and western Europe. I am sure it woudl also have civilized Europe. In 1992-93 there were attacks in Germany on Turkish immigrants, several were murdered. Germany’s leading weekly newsmagazine der Spiegel wrote an editorial by founder and chief editor Augstein stating that there was no place in Prinz Eugen’s Europe for Turks. That was one of the generals who defeated the Turks at Vienna. It took Germany a couple of days to understand what the man had said and then he apologized but essentially he was right. No place for Turks, for Jews for Gypsies, blacks whatever. Prinz Eugen’s Europe is a very small place, if not territorially then in their minds.

art eckstein - 7/9/2009

Dear Fahrettin,

I very much wish to hear your point of view. I guess we're going to be restricted to long comments on what others write (including myself).

Regarding the Ottomans and Islamic tradition, and what would have occurred if the Ottoman reach had extended past Vienna (vile as the Habsburgs themselves were), it seems to me that since in the day-to-day lives of the sultan's subjects, the system of law courts reflected the dominant position of Islam, that an Ottoman victory at Vienna, either in 1529 or even 1683, would have been a victory for Islam and resulted in its extension westwards into Europe.

As I understand things, Christian and Jewish communities within Ottoman dominions maintained their own courts for regulating intracommunal affairs. But only the network of Muslim courts covered the entire empire, and any cases involving a Muslim and a non-Muslim had to be heard in the sultan's Muslim courts and, in principle, a non-Muslim could not testify against a Muslim. The exclusion of non-Muslims from political office was thoroughgoing (though there were famous exceptions), and the supremacy of Islamic law guaranteed the hegemonic position of Islam within the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the imposition of jizya, a poll tax on adult non-Muslim males, and the occasional short-lived imposition of dress restrictions on non-Muslims, symbolized the inferior position of Christians and Jews. This has an impact in understand what might have happened if the results at the sieges of Vienna had been different.

I'm not saying the Ottomans were worse than anyone else, but these seem to me to be pretty harsh facts. If I'm wrong about this, let's discuss. You've enlightened me before, and I admit it!


Fahrettin Tahir - 7/8/2009

By the time of the Turco Austrian war Hungary had been divided between the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires for 150 years. The Hungarians knew what wa going on in the three parts of Hungary. Hungary and Transylvania were in Ottoman Empire, Upper Hungary (todays Slovakia) was in the Habsburg Empire. The casus belli was, when the protestant majority of Upper Hungary asked to join the Ottoman Empire. They knew why.

The victory of Islam was that Christians were voting to join the Islamic Empire. That is like communists voting to join the capitalist world.

If you live in Europe like I do you are often told that the Turks sieged Vienna to smash the christian’s skulls. This is one one of the major reasons for anti Turkish racism in central europe, on par with the „Jews murdered Christ“ theory as a reason for anti Semitizm..

Unfortunately HNN will not accept contributions from non historians.

art eckstein - 7/7/2009

Mr. Streeter is of course correct. The Ottoman Emperor was also the Caliph, Leader of the Faithful. And he had important duties in that respect. A victory for him would have meant, ultimately, a victory for Islam over Christianity. The "Disney" version of history here is Ian Almond's Happy Spain.

Dale R Streeter - 7/7/2009

In spite of your view that the characterization of the siege is a "Disney" version, you seem to have missed the larger point. Whether or not Christians (for whatever motivations) fought for the Turks, the result of their victory would have opened Europe to further Turkish (Muslim) expansion. Armies are often made up of mixed components; there were Lutherans alongside the Catholics of Charles' army taking part in the Saco di Roma in 1527, so what? It's the strategic implications that matter.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/6/2009

Such purveyors want a clash of religions for their own purposes, war to maintain control over us. An old idea writ very large and backed by the most recent developments of marketing and social hypnotism.

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