Military history


I REMEMBER SITTING BESIDE A ROAD IN THE MIDDLE OF MOROCCO, alone and fearful. Two men in an ancient little truck stopped and asked, first in Arabic and then in French, where I was going. I told them, north, to Tangier, and then to Spain. As we drove, very slowly, we talked in a desultory way, but most of the journey was silent. But when we got to the city, they insisted that I stay with them.

These two brothers took me to their home, where I stayed for several days. They showed me the low life of the city, which was extensive, and we spent (it seemed) many hours in the suq, drinking Moroccan mint tea, for which I have never lost the taste. At night the power invariably failed, leaving the center of Tangier in darkness. The hubbub would stop for a few seconds, and then lights and candles would be lit, people shifting effortlessly from a modern to a more traditional pattern of life. Eventually, and with some reluctance, I said that I had to catch the boat to Malaga, and undertake another long walk to Granada. My new friends, Hassan and Mahmud, took me to the port and I left. I never saw them again, but that is where this book began.

This is the kind of experience that many travelers, men and women, have had. Later on the road I heard of people who had been robbed or held up in Morocco. From the stories I could tell that while some accounts were obviously true, others stemmed from some instinctive suspicion and from the consequent misinterpretation of a friendly gesture that can arise between “East” and “West.” At the time I said nothing, thinking how foolhardy I had been. But subsequently I understood not just the hospitality of my two chance friends but also the risk that they had taken, picking up someone who might claim that they had stolen from him, or worse. This had not stopped them. Hassan and Mahmud saw only someone tired and thirsty.

The fear was real and so too was the friendship. Over the succeeding years researching in Spain and the Middle East, I read more and more about the deep antipathy between Islam and the Western world, about the violence and hatred that it generated. But as the pile of material grew, the clarity of this image diminished. So too did the connection between cause and effect. Often some occurrence, a massacre or some other act of violence, was rooted in particular events, but as often the trail petered out. The rationale just lay somewhere in the undifferentiated past. It was a given: the two worlds (“East” and “West” or, more accurately, “north” and “south,” at all events “Christendom” and “Islam”) were in opposition to each other. There were connections even longer in duration, such as the relationship between the Christian and the Jewish worlds, that often generated atrocity. But it was not the same. There was something quite specific in the meeting between Islam and Christendom that seemed to engender violence. The deep cause seemed hidden beneath the normal explanations, underlying political and economic rivalries, personal ambitions and vanities, chance and accident.

As a child I used to play a game called Chinese Whispers. There is a story from the First World War of a message being whispered down a trench, Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance, and emerging at the end of the long line of soldiers as Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance. In communications theory this would be an example of interference and dissonance. In our playground games, you passed on what you heard, never intentionally changing it (however absurd) before you whispered it to your pal. We never said to the next in line that the message seemed meaningless or stupid—at most we raised an eyebrow, but we repeated what we thought we had heard. The meaning obviously changed as the phrase traveled from person to person, but no one was consciously responsible for the distortion.

This aleatoric, or unintended, consequence is implicit in any act of communication. When Pope Urban II stood outside the cathedral of Clermont in 1095 and called for Christians to rescue Jerusalem, he did not have “the Crusades” in mind. He launched an idea to the winds, trusting to the grace of God. But Urban had no control over the effects of his words. They echoed and resonated for centuries long after his own death.1 This is the history of non-ideas, of Chinese Whispers. Yet the consequences in human terms of these fuzzy messages are fearsome. This book tries to trace a few of the myriad ways in which the Christian West has responded to the Islamic East. But even talking about the task is complicated. Words such as “West,” “East,” “Christendom,” “Europe,” “Islam” are so strongly contested that it is hard to get beyond them. Typing any of them felt uncomfortable, for I was only too aware that they could (and would) be misinterpreted. Since Edward Said eviscerated “Orientalism,” no one can write on these topics with insouciance. These are now, indeed, things of which we cannot speak with any confidence.2 For me the way through has been to focus on how hatred was communicated, rather than pursuing the why of insult and abuse.

This book covers a huge sweep, of both time and place. It begins in the seventh century and extends into the twenty-first. Its boundaries are Tamanarasset in Algeria to the south, and Vienna to the north, the Atlantic to the west, and the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to the east. Occasionally, it strays outside those limits, but its center is the world connected with the Mediterranean. That is where I begin. Part One starts with the galley battle at Lepanto off the shores of Greece in 1571. At the time, many thought it the transforming moment in an already age-old conflict. It was not, and I go back to the first point of conflict—in Palestine nine centuries before. Parts Two, Three, and Four take, in turn, three areas—Spain, the Levant, and the Balkans—where Christianity and Islam existed side by side over a long period. Spain takes priority and pride of place. Perhaps the reason is that I understand that land better than the eastern Mediterranean or southeastern Europe. But while the story of the Crusades is well known, and recent tragic events have played a bright light upon the Balkans, Spain’s history “of the Moors” remains in the shadows. Yet much of what happened in Spain had its echoes and connections elsewhere along the shores of the Mediterranean.

I am very conscious that a volume as long as this (or longer) could be written on each of those areas, and still not tell the whole story. This book follows a single thread—the antagonism between the Western Christian and the Mediterranean Islamic worlds, and even then I have space to consider only one aspect of the story. In Part Five I suggest how antagonism was spread, and how it has lasted into the present.

There are other powerful terrors about which I could have written. Western fears of people with dark skins, or malign prejudices in the West extending to half the human race, that is, women, both tempted me. These too, like the fear of Islam, have altered over the centuries but have not been eradicated by enlightenment. Moreover, they appear here, weaving in and out of the long antagonism to Islam. But at least with Islam, there was a starting point, a chronology, that gives some shape to the story. Events, like the storming of Jerusalem in 1099, the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the surrender of Granada in 1492, the battle of Lepanto in 1571, and the obliteration of the Twin Towers in 2001, have a visible consequence. We can read them and see how they made an impact on the human imagination.

Part of the how lies in the structures and mechanisms of language itself. A major part of language is communication by the human voice. Another part lies in the qualities of physical texts, handwritten or printed. Images, on the page or on the screen, are another form of language, whose rules are completely different from the spoken or the written word. The transmission of misunderstanding has in the past involved a mixture of all three. Now, with film and television, and the Internet, there is a completely new recombination of image, sound, speech, and, sometimes, text. It is still mysterious to us. I have taken only part of this spectrum from a longer history. My story began with the power of the spoken word and handwritten text in the seventh century and (I had intended) would end with a world dominated by the printed word and the printed image on the cusp of the twentieth century. Yet from the moment that my wife called me to the television to watch the burning towers in New York on September 11, 2001, I sensed that this was no longer possible. In the days following that catastrophic act of mass murder, a long-dormant style of public communication was revived. Before that day we spoke and wrote with one set of assumptions. Afterward, we did things rather differently. This is not a value judgment, but simply an observable fact. We had shifted into a new register.

“Register” describes the sort of talk or writing that is suitable for particular situations.3 The words that bounce around a locker room are different from those you will hear at a church social. Neither form would be appropriate to the other situation. Humans are extraordinarily well adjusted to using the correct register for different circumstances. So, faced with an unparalleled situation on September 11, what register would have been suitable? For an apocalyptic situation, the president of the United States and his advisers chose an apocalyptic register. This was the end of the world as they had known it, and a new and darker age had been ushered in. However, this instinctive dialogic shift did not have quite the results that were intended, nor did each subsequent attempt to use the new register prove wholly successful. One unexpected consequence was that it connected directly to the long-dormant memories that form the subject of this book.

I had just finished the bulk of this book and so recognized other points at which “apocalypse” had been evoked, either deliberately or by accident. I thought of W. E. Gladstone in 1876, thundering like an Old Testament prophet at the bestial Turk. I thought also of Urban II speaking to the huge crowd at Clermont. Words, as Homer says in the Iliad, have wings.4 With the Internet, e-mail, television, radio, movies, they can fly farther than they could in the days of print alone. Fueling these media with an ancient apocalyptic discourse can have unforeseen results. The novelist Douglas Adams told us in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives, but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.

For instance, at the very moment that Arthur said “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle,” a freak wormhole opened up in the fabric of the space-time continuum and carried his words far far back in time across almost infinite reaches of space to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings [Vl’hurgs and G’Gunvuntt] were poised [in conference] on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.

 … At that very moment the words “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle” drifted across the conference table.

Unfortunately, in the Vl’hurg tongue this was the most dreadful insult imaginable, and there was nothing for it but to wage terrible war for centuries.5

From the perspective of 2004 it seems that just such an interminable war (against evil) may be under way, not in fictional hyperspace but on earth.

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