By Ronald Brown
Most commentators call the current American involvement in the Muslim world the “War against Terrorism,” “War against Islamic Extremism,” “War against Radical Islam,” or one or the other pseudonyms that politicians, analysists, and journalists have dubbed it. In essence, it is simply the latest installment in the millennium-old confrontation between the Christian and Muslim civilizations.
The Rise of Islam
Since God first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed that he was the completion of a long line of divinely inspired prophets, Islam has considered itself the authentic religion of God. Each of the many prophets from Adam and Abraham through the prophet Dhul-Kifl to Jesus revealed elements of this primal religion, but sadly their followers failed to understand the content of these revelations.
Jews turned the revelations of Abraham into a tribal religion that shunned outsiders while Christians distorted Jesus’ teachings and declared him a deity equal to God, thus abandoning the core monotheistic goal of God’s revelation. But finally, God called up still another prophet to return humanity to his path and Islam was the result.
The Golden Age of Islam
Sweeping across the Arabian Peninsula and into the heartland of the Middle East, Islam was confident that Jews would emerge from their self-imposed ghettos and embrace the “fulfillment” of the religion founded by the prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, and Christians would abandon their deification of Jesus and return to monotheism.
After the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the four Rightly Guided Caliphs — Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali — continued the expansion of the new-old faith into modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey in the Middle East, Egypt to Morocco in Africa, and Pakistan to Indonesia in Asia. As if by divine providence the temples of long-worshipped gods tumbled and even the largely Christianized peoples of the Middle East and North Africa embraced the new faith, and large numbers of Jews succumbed to the advancing wave of Islamic culture, literature, economic power, and military might.
Islam was here to stay and seemed to be the wave of the future. Peoples in the way of this seemingly unstoppable new civilization had the choice to either join it or become impotent bystanders to the glorious future.
In the East, the Byzantine Empire abandoned province after province. The armies of Islam continued into the Balkans and along the shore of the Black Sea. A coalition of Austrian and Polish Catholic armies was able to save the city of Vienna and thereby saved the Germanic heartland of Europe from Islam. In the West, Spain and Portugal fell by 718 and the forces of Islam marched into France. Again an almost miraculous defeat of the advancing wave of Islam at the Battle of Tours in 732 saved the French heartland from Islam. In the South, Islam took the islands of Malta and Sicily by 902; again a coalition of Catholic armies repelled the Muslim advance into Central Italy and Rome itself. In 1453 Constantinople fell to Caliph Mehmed the Conqueror.
Christendom more or less abandoned the forward march of history to the Muslim world as it barricaded itself into its Medieval Fortress. Commonly called the “Dark Ages,” even the name “medieval” evokes images of fear, superstition and ignorance. From the great Muslim cities of Cordoba to Baghdad and from Cairo to the renamed Istanbul, Islamic art, architecture, medicine, science, mathematics, theology, and philosophy flourished. The populations of Black Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia were irresistibly attracted to this brilliant, wealthy and powerful civilization.
During this Christian “Millennium of Humiliation,” only tiny enclaves of Christians managed to survive in Ethiopia and Egypt, Armenia and Georgia in the Caucasus, and even smaller remnants in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Jews managed to establish a modus vivendi with the Islamic Empire and rose to positions of great power. Jews in Spain, Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq founded brilliant Jewish renaissances while the Jews of Christian Europe were persecuted minorities forced into ghettos.
The Muslim Millennium of Humiliation
The first nation to employ the phrase the “Century of Humiliation” as a powerful tool to overcome Western military, economic, and cultural domination was China. The term 百年國恥 first appeared in print in 1915. Mexican revolutionaries, Israeli Zionists, Shiite revolutionaries in Iran, and many other once great nations have adapted the phrase to their own purposes. Currently, the Muslim world has successfully applied the phrase to their own quest to restore their long-lost greatness.
The Muslim Millennium of Humiliation began with the expulsion of Islam from a reunited Spain in 1492. The victorious Christians gave Muslims and Jews the choice of conversion or expulsion. Until today, the Spanish celebrate this great victory of Christianity over Islam with statues of Mary with her foot on the Islamic crescent; the famous Spanish image of Our Lady of Almudena dramatically depicts this victory.
Following the defeat of Islam at the gates of Vienna in 1683, the Austrian and later the Russian empires advanced into Eastern Europe and the Balkans pushing the Muslim Ottoman Empire ever southward. The Ottoman Empire eventually earned the nickname “The Sick Man of Europe.”
Once liberated, Spain and Portugal directed their campaign of Reconquista at conquering the native empires of Latin America for Christendom, but the French, British, Austrian, and Russian empires directed their efforts at reclaiming the lost lands of Christendom. With brutal efficiency, France “liberated” North Africa and later Syria and Lebanon while Britain seized Egypt, the Sudan, and later Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. Russia joined in this campaign to liberate the long-lost lands of Christendom by aiding the peoples of the Balkans, Caucasus, and Black Sea in overthrowing Ottoman (as well as Austrian) rule, and even set out to add the long-Muslim empires of Central Asia to Christendom.
Like the Spanish in Latin America, the Russians advanced with a sword in one hand and the cross in the other. Britain and France likewise claimed long-Islamic as well as African, Hindu and Buddhist lands to Christendom and dispatched legions of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. The Chinese Empire annexed the vast Muslim territories of East Turkistan and even the Americans joined in this anti-Muslim crusade by seizing the Muslim islands of the Philippines. The last victory in this Christian Revival was the American, Russian and European handover of Palestine to the Jews in 1948 and the subsequent Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem and the third most holy city of Islam in 1967. In Muslim eyes, the most egregious act of this Christian Crusade against Islam was the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate by the Turkish Republic under British and French pressure.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba. During the Reconquista, the Spanish Catholics converted the mosque into the Cathedral of Córdoba in 1236 after half a millennium as the central mosque of Córdoba.
The Muslim Revival
The Muslim Revival began with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. When the Europeans granted independence to their colonial possessions, they shackled them with so-called “secular” governments and economic ties that continued their colonial status. Iran was the first Islamic nation to throw off its Western imposed “secular” government and install an Islamic Republic. Soon other nations liberated themselves and many made attempts to emulate the Iranian example. The most recent example was the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt in 2013, but massive American, European and Israeli intervention halted this experiment and restored a Western, anti-Islamic regime under President Abd El-Fattah El-Sisi.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in the rejection of Marxism and the independence of some 80 million Muslims in Central Asia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. The various Palestinian intifadas and acts of resistance added to this Muslim revival; for some, so did the dramatic destruction by Al Qaeda of New York’s iconic World Trade Center towers in 2001.
Islamic movements have taken firm root from Indonesia to Morocco and from Nigeria to Bosnia. Muslim volunteers from Europe and North America have joined in this revival. The United States has intensified its war against the Muslim Revival, branding it as terrorism, extremism, radicalism, and President George W. Bush even declared the American campaign a “crusade.”
Power of a Vision
Newly emerging powers, such as Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, and the European Union have no choice but to navigate unchartered waters in their quest for greatness. Old empires, such as Russia, India, China, Israel, the Islamic Ummah, and most recently the USA under Donald Trump and Great Britain after Brexit, on the other hand, are intent on restoring their once glorious and currently shattered greatness. Their faith in this former greatness is a powerful motivating force that tolerates no opposition and justifies the most brutal of tactics.
Presidents George W. Bush was and Donald Trump is intent on overcoming the “Decades of Humiliation” that began in the 1960s with a vision of restored American greatness (Trump said on July 6, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?… Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”). America’s decline was marked by moral decay, military defeat in the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, gay rights, abortion, the rise of China, the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria quagmires, uncontrolled immigration of non-whites, outsourcing of American jobs, and a black man in the White House.
Russia likewise has invaded Ukraine, violated basic norms of human rights, and annexed Russian populated areas to achieve its restoration of the Third Rome. The Indian BJP is intent on erasing a millennium of Muslim and British (Christian) domination from their history and its followers are relentless in erasing mosques and churches and “Hinduizing” national education in its quest to restore the Maurya Empire (322-185 BCE).
China likewise believes it is the will of heaven that it reclaim its divine role as the Middle Kingdom and Confucianism is as vital an arm as the military, economy and culture in its restoration of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). Even a small nation like Israel views the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as disposable barriers in their path to renewed biblical greatness and supports ruthless oppression, relentless settlement building, and systematic expulsion of non-Jews.
The current conflict between the United States and the Islamic Ummah pits two civilizations traumatized by their respective “Times of Humiliation.” Names like the “War on Terror” or “War against Islamic Extremism” do little to obscure this reality. Unlike the past, the clashes of civilizations Samuel Huntington so eloquently describes in his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, predict a 21st century marked by brutal warfare unparalleled by any in the past. Both sides in the American-Islamic conflict do not hesitate to employ vile torture methods, mass slaughter of civilians, and violations of the most basic norms of human rights and decency in their quests to make America and make Islam great again.♦
Dr. Ronald J. Brown is a professor of history, political science and ethnic studies at Touro College and teaches courses in world religion at Unification Theological Seminary. A docent at the New York Historical Society with degrees from Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Geneva, Switzerland, Brown is the author of A Religious History of Flushing, Queens; Into the Soul of African-American Harlem; and How New York Became the Empire City.