Clamor of Civilizations

Infidels is the history of three Muslim-Christian encounters: The first is the 8th-century Muslim conquest of Christian southern Spain from its Visigothic kings, and its subsequent rise to riches as “Al-Andalus.” Cordoba, its greatest city, was known to 11th-century Europeans as “the jewel of the world,” an almost unrivaled center of learning and culture. Many southern Spanish Christians converted voluntarily to Islam, but many did not. Mostly, these two communities, together with a third community of Jews, managed a highly productive, if wary cooperation.

It was, however, an arrangement based on keeping the communities operating in parallel rather than in any true partnership. As with any apartheid, it was buttressed by words. This from the Muslim rulers of 12th century Seville: “Frankish women must be forbidden to enter the church except on days of religious services or festivals for it is their habit to eat and drink and fornicate with the priests”; and this from the Christian side: “Muslims are… fickle, crafty, cunning…. completely befouled… rejecting chastity as though it were filth, disparaging virginity as though it were the uncleanness of harlotry….” Note the symmetry, especially the sexual innuendo. But some Christian kingdoms survived in northern Iberia, and beginning in the late 11th century, slowly rolled back Muslim power. Toledo was recaptured in 1085, and Ferdinand and Isabella, rulers of Aragon and Castile as well as patrons of Christopher Columbus, completed the “Reconquista” with the capture of Granada in 1492. The monarchs of newly Christian Spain, however, knew a thing or two about irredentism. The Jews were expelled in the same year, although those who converted were permitted to stay. By 1614, the last of the Moors had gone–even those who professed Christianity were evicted.

The linguistic front developed in parallel. The “Moros” (Moors) who could occasionally be “noble” in a ballad, became “Mudejares” (the left behind), and then “Moriscos,” a people who “have only the outward appearance of a man, for the rest of you are beast.” Such linguistic barbarity was, of course, a two-way street.

Wheatcroft’s second story is the 300-year struggle for the Levant and in particular Jerusalem, beginning with the First Crusade in 1096. Here he draws attention to the parallel linguistic development of those totemic words “crusade” and “jihad.” The term “crusade,” he reminds us, was not coined until the 13th century in Spain. The verb did not arrive in English until the 18th century, just in time to be taken up by the muscular Christianity of Victorian England. “Jihad” meanwhile mutated to become its mirror image. The Prophet’s distinction between the “greater jihad,” the internal struggle to become a better Muslim, and the “lesser jihad,” war to defend or extend Muslim lands became lost. Jihad and crusade however, are merely emblematic of a whole lexicon of reciprocal denigration. As Wheatcroft puts it:

Wheatcroft takes his third example from the Balkans. Serbian folk animosity towards Muslims and particularly towards the Ottoman Turks has been fuelled by two mythic events: The cataclysmic defeat at Kosovo Polje (“The Field of Crows”) in 1389, and then the “Great Migration” of 1690, a Serbian “Exodus from Egypt” complete with the Moses-like figure of Patriarch Carnojevic. In that year, a large portion of the Serbian nation fled the advancing Ottomans in the wake of a retreating Austro-Hungarian army. Their descendants still live in Vojvodina, Serbia’s northern province. What interests Wheatcroft, though, is the survival of Serbian hatred of the Turks, and after the Turks quit the Balkans in 1922, the Bosnian Muslims and Albanians. It was still in evidence in the late 1980s and became one of the precursors to another round of Balkan slaughter and ethnic cleansing. Wheatcroft quotes to good effect an interview with an aging Serbian nun in Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: “I am a good Christian, but I will not turn the other cheek if some Albanian plucks out the eyes of a fellow Serb, or rapes a little girl, or castrates a twelve year old Serbian boy.” As she must have been born no earlier than the 1920s, and this interview was conducted before the post-Yugoslavian conflicts, it seems likely that this was not her own memory, but a communal one. Kaplan’s coda certainly suggests this: “Her eyes, while fiery, also appeared strangely unfocused, as though blotted out by superstition.”

Which brings us to the two closing chapters of Wheatcroft’s book. They revolve around the use of maledicta. Here he makes the striking observation that there are two parties to every malediction and that while it might seem logical that the one insulted would be the more affected. In fact, the opposite is true. Commonly, the insult is not heard, or if heard not fully understood, and even if understood, it can always be shrugged off. You may call me an evil and perverted ape, but I am unlikely to believe you. “But,” Wheatcroft continues, “those who curse certainly hear the words resonating in their own minds.” It is they and their followers whose behavior is more likely to be affected. Their suspicion and hatred are justified, their self-righteousness reinforced. What is more, these maledicta remain powerful for generations after their coining, as witness Kaplan’s elderly nun. Lurking in memory they await the summons of blood.

Wheatcroft then turns to today’s maledicta, specifically President Bush’s habitual use of the words “evil” and “evildoers,” and his single, but hastily retracted, use of the word “crusade” to describe his “war on terror.” To the evangelical Christians supporting Bush, Wheatcroft avers, “crusade” is not just an anodyne synonym for a worthy endeavor but also a word of power, religious power, just as Jihad is to Muslims.

To be sure, the Bush administration has taken great care to describe Islam as “peaceful” and to assure Muslims that America’s wrath is aimed at terrorists. But are Bush supporters listening? Are such careful words directed to them anyway? Wheatcroft quotes a certain Dr. Robert Morey of the “Crusaders’ Club” saying, “Islam stands to be the greatest threat against humanity that the world has ever known.” One can hear similar sentiments expressed any day on American talk radio.

Wheatcroft also quotes the evangelical pep talks of General William “My God is bigger than your God” Boykin. These referred to the “enemy” in Mogadishu as “the principalities of darkness…. a demonic presence.” Wheatcroft’s thesis is that Boykin’s apology to those who “might be offended by what I said” is entirely beside the point. Those who might be offended can dismiss his words as those of a raving, uninformed bigot, even if his continued tenure as assistant undersecretary for intelligence at the Defense Department makes this a little hard. It is those with whom Boykin’s words about evil and Satan resonate who are most likely to be influenced by them.

All this is very interesting–indeed Infidels became more engaging as I reflected on it. The notion that the interplay between Bush and bin Laden is the direct rhetorical descendent of maledicta that have been going back and forth for well over a millennium is worth considering. Even more so as bin Laden seems to be aware of it and Bush does not. And I urge those who share my aversion to the merest mention of the likes of Jacques Derrida to forgive Wheatcroft the occasional plonking reference to him and other philosophical worthies during his discussion of language and its meaning. This book is worth reading. Sadly, those whose ideology is unleavened by a sense of the tragedy of history are unlikely to do so.

I do not believe, however, that the discussion of maledicta can be confined to the field of Christian-Muslim relations–much that can be said about the relationship between the Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims can be said about that between the Serbs and the Croats. The overwrought taunts hurled between socially conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats constitute latter-day maledicta rather than serious political debate.

The denigration of one’s enemies is surely a general human characteristic. It is also true that such denigration gains in power as each subsequent generation refines it. Those awkward flashes of humanity that enemies are apt to display from time to time are edited out, their evil given a little extra color with each retelling.

To be sure, maledicta can concentrate a loose coalition into a common inflamed antipathy, mobilizing slogans of great value in a struggle to the death. Fortunately, our civilization has moved beyond such brutality. When Rome finally defeated Carthage, the proconsul Scipio Africanus ploughed it into the sands of North Africa. Today, he would ask the Senate to vote vast quantities of aid to rebuild it–in Rome’s image. In fact, today’s struggles are all ultimately political. We are not going to erase our enemies, and we will therefore have to live with them afterwards. In this environment, maledicta are downright counterproductive. The self-righteousness that is their natural offspring makes respect for the enemy unthinkable, compromise impossible, and subsequent relations fraught with bitterness.

The abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib will have come as no surprise to Andrew Wheatcroft, I suspect. The Geneva Conventions presuppose some respect for enemies as fellow human beings. In all conscience, any war makes this hard, let alone the sort of guerrilla struggle America faces in Iraq. To treat an enemy as human requires iron discipline and higher authority’s endless repetition of the simple sentence “We don’t do things like that.” And to be sure, most U.S. servicemen do not.

Ancient maledicta, however, have the power to sweep aside civilized restraint in some to whom they speak. Leaders who reach for them must understand that while such rhetoric will do no harm to the enemy, they will most certainly resonate with some of “us.” Once they do, barbarism and inhumanity will follow as surely as night follows day. Osama bin Laden seems to understand this. It is what he seeks. George W. Bush and William Boykin, on the other hand…

Grenville Byford conducts research on Turkey as an affiliate of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Grenville Byford conducts research on Turkey as an affiliate of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.