by Bruce S. Thornton
In 1984 George Orwell described how the abandonment of belief in objective truth makes possible a politicized history that legitimizes tyrannical power:
If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death . . . . And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
The danger Orwell describes does not just afflict totalitarian societies in which the organs of information are controlled by the state. Free peoples too must watch out for the manipulation of historical fact in the service of ideology. The techniques may be subtler and more insidious than the crude propaganda that typified the Soviet Union, or that can still be found in the state-run media of North Korea or Cuba. Yet the distortion of history through mythic historical narratives continues to shape policies that ultimately abet the aggression of our enemies.
The fight against jihadism has been compromised by just such narratives in which the facts of history are twisted into a melodrama of Western imperialist aggression against a peaceful and tolerant Islam. This idealized picture of Islamic history would have astonished our ancestors, who for centuries called Islam the “religion of the sword” based on their own unfortunate experiences with centuries of Muslim aggression. This whitewashed history would have insulted the Muslim historians who proudly recorded the triumphs of Allah’s warriors and the devastation they left behind them.
Consider, for example, the following description, by the Muslim historian Ar-Razi, of the battle of Valdejunquera, fought in 920 between the Christians of northern Spain and the army of ‘Abd al-Rahman III. (Al-Rahman was the self-styled caliph of Córdoba — that mythical paradise of interfaith tolerance and cooperation, which in fact was the center of the Muslim imperialist occupation of Spain.) Before the battle, Ar-Razi writes, “he [al-Rahman’s general al-Nasir] penetrated deeply into enemy territory, laying it waste, destroying the fortresses of Osma and San Esteban, and many monasteries and churches.” After the Spaniards’ defeat and the capture of the survivors, “The combatants among them were put to the sword in the presence of al-Nasir, more than 500 of their counts and knights.” Another account, by the writer Arib ibn Sa’id, informs us that there were too many heads of slain Christians for the mule-trains to take back to Córdoba. Those heads that did make it were put on stakes around the city walls.
There exist numerous such accounts from the thousand-year assault of Islam against the West. Yet when do we ever hear that history anymore? When do we hear about the centuries-long occupation of Christian Spain, the Balkans, and Greece? When do we hear about the thousands of plundered, desecrated, and destroyed churches and temples? When do we hear about the two million Europeans kidnapped and sold into slavery? Or the 10 million slaves taken from Africa, many of whom were castrated then marched across the Sahara Desert?
That history is absent from most of our public commentary and from our popular culture, where the “fundamentalist Christian” remains the most dangerous threat to our freedom. Nor is that history taught in our schools, where we are told that “Islam spread” into Christian lands, without any acknowledgement of the death and destruction that followed.
Rather, the glories of Islamic civilization are celebrated even as Christianity is chastised for its history of pogroms, witch-burning, and religious wars. We hear all about the Inquisition, which in its entire history executed at most 5000 people, a fraction of those killed just in the Muslim conquest and occupation of Spain. The Crusades are trotted out repeatedly as the premier example of Western proto-imperialist aggression fueled by religious and racial bigotry. Forget the persecution of Christian pilgrims in Palestine, forget the fact that the region was Christian, Jewish, and Hellenic for six centuries before it was brutally conquered by Muslim armies and absorbed into the Islamic empire. And by no means point out that the Crusaders, whatever their baser motives, were pushing back against centuries of Islamic invasion, raids, and plundering of Christian lands.
For the jihadists and their Western apologists, that history “never happened,” which is why the jihadist narrative has gained traction among so many in the West. By accepting that distorted history, we put ourselves in the role of the aggressor who has provoked by his depredations the current terrorist attacks against us. Our behavior, not the religious motives of the jihadists, is the key to the conflict. Hence the futile attempts at outreach, displays of respect, protestations of admiration for Islam, celebrations of Muslim holy days in the White House, fawning school curricula, groveling apologies, and all the other ways in which we tell Muslims that our own historical crimes and continued bigotry against their wonderful religion is the real problem.
Such efforts, of course, haven’t worked and won’t work. By endorsing the jihadist narrative, we cede to them a moral authority that justifies their attacks and inhibits our own response. We calibrate everything we do according to anxious calculations of how our actions will affect the alleged “moderate Muslims” who will support us if they just realize we regret our historical crimes and want nothing more than peaceful coexistence. Hence the desperate attempts to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict, which “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” and “al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support,” as General David Petraeus put the received wisdom in his testimony before Congress.
This distortion of history is based on the jihadist narrative of Western crimes against Muslims, one of which is the neo-colonialist creation of Israel as an outpost of Western imperialist aggression. But long before Israel existed, jihadism historically gained traction among Muslims in times of Islam’s retreat and weakness, whether in Spain of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when growing Christian power encroached on al-Andalus and provoked the brutally fundamentalist Almoravid and Almohad regimes; Mesopotamia in the fourteenth century, when the Mongol slaughters brought forth Ibn Taymiyyah, who wrote, “Since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought”: Arabia in the eighteenth century, when European penetration of the Middle East sparked the fundamentalist Wahabbist sect, still a premier fomenter of jihadist violence; or Egypt in the early twentieth century, where Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna likewise counseled struggle against the West in order to undo the catastrophe of the dismantling of the caliphate in 1924.
“Fighting the unbelievers,” al Banna wrote, “involves all possible efforts that are necessary to dismantle the power of the enemies of Islam including beating them, plundering their wealth, destroying their places of worship, and smashing their idols.”
More recent jihadist attacks are likewise part of this long tradition of returning to a strict reading of the Koran and its jihadist imperative when Muslims are in retreat. From this perspective, Israel is merely a symptom, not a cause, one of many signs of infidel arrogance brought on by Muslims who whore after the false gods of modernity, nationalism, democracy, or any other ideology incompatible with Islamic doctrine.
The acceptance of the jihadists’ false history confers some measure of legitimacy on their attacks on the West, and makes more palatable policies of appeasement. Worse yet, it distorts the true nature of traditional Islam and its theology of violence, leading to efforts at “outreach,” “understanding,” and “recognition” of Islam’s superiority that hamper both our tactics and strategies for defeating the jihadists. By allowing Islamists to “control the past,” we are making it easier for them to “control the future.”
©2010 Bruce S. Thornton