What is the dominant branch of Islam

Special issue online 2014: "Freedom - Diversity - Europe"

Three phases of the Islamic struggle

The West has been in conflict with the Muslim world for more than a thousand years. Immigration has taken the place of armed conflict today

Bernard Lewis


Traditionally, modern Middle Eastern history is started at the end of the 18th century when a small French expeditionary force, commanded by a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte, managed to conquer Egypt and subdue it with impunity. It was a terrible shock to Islam that one of its centers could be conquered, occupied and controlled with practically no significant resistance.

The second shock followed a few years later when the French withdrew again, which was not due to the Egyptians or their protectors, the Turks, but a small naval squadron of the Royal Navy, commanded by the young Admiral Horatio Nelson, who led the French distributed and sent back to France. The incident is symbolically significant because from then on the heartlands of Islam were no longer fully controlled by the rulers of Islam. They were under direct or indirect outside influence.

From then on, the dominant forces in the Islamic world were forces from outside. Western influences determined life. Western rivalries opened up the only alternatives. The only political leeway that Islamic leaders had was to take advantage of the rivalries of the outside powers and play them off against one another. Little has changed in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. During the First and Second World Wars, and also during the Cold War, we saw Middle Eastern governments play this game with varying degrees of success.

But now it's over. The era that began with Napoleon and Nelson was completed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Since then, the Middle East has no longer been ruled by outside powers. The nations there are having difficulties adjusting to this new situation, taking responsibility for their actions and bearing the consequences, but they are starting to do so, and this change has - to put it casually - found expression through Osama bin Laden in his own clarity .

After the end of the era of external dominance, we are witnessing the return of certain older tendencies in Middle Eastern history that were buried under the centuries of Western influence or at least not readily recognizable. Now these old friends have come to the fore again. One of them is the internal struggles - the ethnic, religious and regional. Of course, these disputes also existed in the imperialist era, but they were of lesser importance then. Now they are breaking out again and increasing in intensity. The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites reveals it - something that has not existed in this form for centuries.

Furthermore, there are signs among Muslims of a return to what they see as the cosmic struggle of two religions for world domination: the conflict between Christianity and Islam. There are many religions in the world, but there are only two that claim that their truths are not only universal - that is what all religions claim - but also exclusive; that they - the Christians in one case, the Muslims in the other - are the lucky recipients of God's final message to humanity, a message that they - like the Jews or the Hindus - are not selfish to keep to themselves, but without regard to to bring any obstacle to the rest of humanity. This self-understanding shared by Christianity and Islam led to that long struggle that has lasted for more than fourteen centuries and is now entering a new phase. In the Christian world, this triumphalist attitude is no longer relevant in the 21st century of its era and is limited to a few minorities. In the world of Islam, however, triumphalism is still a major force that finds its expression in new militant movements.

It is interesting that for a long time both sides refused to recognize this struggle as such. For example, they used to call each other non-religious names. The Christians called the Muslims Moors, Saracens, Tatars or Turks. Even one convert was said to have become a Turk. The Muslims, in turn, spoke of the Christian world as the Romans, Franks, Slavs and so on. It was only hesitant to give each other religious names, which were then mostly derogatory or wrong. In the West it was customary to call Muslims Mohammedans, which they never said themselves - a term based on the misconception that Muslims worshiped Mohammed like Christians worshiped Jesus. The Muslim term for Christians, on the other hand, was Nazarene. It implied the notion of a local cult.

Nevertheless, the declaration of war is at the beginning of Islam. There are supposedly letters sent from the Prophet Mohammed to the Christian Emperor of Byzantium, the Emperor of Persia and other rulers. They say: I have now delivered God's final message. Your time is over Your belief is suppressed. Accept my mission and my faith or thank you or submit - you are done. The authenticity of these prophetic letters is questionable, but the message is clear and authentic in that it represents the long-standing view of the Islamic world.

A little later, the evidence gets harder - in the literal sense: in the form of inscriptions. Many of the readers of these lines have certainly already been to Jerusalem. You probably visited the Dome of the Rock there. Its architecture corresponds to that of the earliest Christian churches. Built by one of the early caliphs in the late seventh century, it is the oldest religious building in Islam outside of Arabia. The message of the inscriptions in the interior is indicative: "He is God, He is one, He has no partner, He does not procreate, He was not begotten." This is a declaration of war on the central tenets of the Christian faith. Interestingly, the same thing was struck on a gold coin.

The resulting conflict, which arises from similarities rather than differences, has gone through three phases. The first begins with the beginnings of Islam, which spread across the Arabian Peninsula, where it originated, conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa - all then part of the Christian world - and then reached Europe: Spain, Portugal and southern Italy all of which became part of the Islamic world. As is well known, Islam even crossed the Pyrenees and occupied parts of France for a while.

After a long and bitter struggle, the Christians succeeded in recapturing parts of the area, but not all of the lost area. In Europe, however, Christians have succeeded, and in some ways Europe has been defined by the limits of that success. The Christian kings failed in North Africa and the Middle East. Most notably, the recapture of the Holy Land failed in a series of campaigns known as the Crusades.

Meanwhile the Islamic world, defeated for the first time, prepared the second attack. This time it was led by Turks and Tatars. In the middle of the 13th century, the Mongol conquerors of Russia had converted to Islam. The Turks, who had already conquered Anatolia, advanced to Europe and in 1453 took Christian Constantinople. They occupied large parts of the Balkans and for a time ruled half of Hungary. They advanced twice as far as Vienna, which they last besieged in 1683. Corsairs from the barbarian states plundered Western Europe. They even reached Iceland and robbed (the original) Baltimore in 1631. A contemporary document lists 107 prisoners who were deported from Baltimore to Algiers.

Europe struck back again, this time more successfully and faster. It was possible to recapture Russia and the Balkan Peninsula, to advance further into the Islamic countries and to drive their rulers back to where they had come from. A new term was invented for this phase of the European counterattack: imperialism. Strange, isn't it: when the peoples of Asia and Africa invaded Europe, it wasn't imperialism. When Europe attacked Asia and Africa, it was which.

This European counterattack heralded a new phase that carried the European attack into the heart of the Middle East. In our time we have seen the end of the dominance that followed. In speeches and statements, Osama bin Laden said interesting things about the war in Afghanistan, which, as you will remember, ended with the withdrawal of the Red Army and the collapse of the Soviet Union. We tend to see this as a victory for the West, more specifically as an American victory in the Cold War against the Soviets. It was nothing like that for bin Laden. It was a Muslim victory in a jihad. If you look at what happened in Afghanistan and what followed, that is not a completely implausible interpretation.

As bin Laden saw, Islam had suffered the worst humiliation since World War I, when the last of the great Muslim empires - the Ottoman Empire - dissolved and largely divided its territory into the victorious Allies and abolished the caliphate and the last caliph into exile was driven. That seemed to be the low point in Muslim history. From then on it went up.

In this perspective, the millennial struggle between believers and unbelievers has gone through various phases, in which the latter were led by various European powers who are said to have succeeded the Romans as leaders of the world of the unbelievers - the Christian-Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the British and French and Russian empires. In this last phase, according to Osama bin Laden, the world of the infidels was divided between two rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The Muslims would have faced the more dangerous and deadly of these two superpowers, they would have fought against them, defeated them and destroyed them. The soft, pampered, and effeminate Americans wouldn't be a big deal after that.

This belief was confirmed in the 1990s when we witnessed one attack after another on American bases and installations, which, apart from bad words and expensive rocket attacks on remote and uninhabited areas, had virtually no consequences. The lessons of Vietnam and Beirut were confirmed in Mogadishu: "Hit them and they will run away." That was the perception until 9/11. The attack of September 11, 2001 was obviously intended as the end of a first wave and the beginning of a new one. The war was to be carried into the middle of the enemy camp. In the eyes of a fanatical and determined minority of Muslims, the third wave of attack quickly began: the attacks on Europe. In this context, we should not kid ourselves: this time the attacks take different forms, more precisely - two forms: terror and migration.

In earlier times it would have been inconceivable that a Muslim would have voluntarily moved to a non-Muslim country. The subject is widely discussed in the literature on Sharia law, but in a slightly different form: Is it permissible for a Muslim to visit or live in a non-Muslim country? And if so, what does a Muslim have to do there? A prisoner obviously had no choice but to keep his faith and return as soon as possible. Another example is the case of an unbeliever in the land of the unbelievers who sees the light and accepts the true faith - in other words, becomes a Muslim. He has to leave the country as quickly as possible and move to a Muslim country. In short, for a long time Muslims in unbelieving countries were only tolerated by their fellow believers if they were kidnapped or - later! - were active as diplomats and traveling salesmen.

As the European counterattack progressed, of course, a new question arose: What about a Muslim whose country was conquered by infidels? Was he allowed to stay? We have interesting documents from the 15th century when the reconquest of Spain was complete. They say: No, he is not allowed to stay. The question then was: can he stay if Christian rule proves tolerant? That was a hypothetical question at the time, but the answer was no, because the temptation to apostate would only be greater. The conquered would have to go and hope that their homeland would be regained and that the true faith would be restored. That was the view of most scholars. Others, of course - initially a minority, then an increasingly important group - declared that Muslims were allowed to remain in the conquered areas if certain conditions were met, first and foremost permission to practice their faith.

This raises the next question: what does practicing the faith mean, exactly? I would like to remind you that we are not only dealing with a different religion, but also with a different understanding of religion, especially where it relates to Sharia, the holy law of Islam that covers many areas, which itself in the Christian Middle Ages, but certainly in our epoch, which is sometimes referred to as post-Christian, are considered secular.

Obviously there are some things in Europe that attract Muslims, given the increasing impoverishment of the Muslim world - not least the European social systems and the labor market. Europe also offers freedom of expression and an education system that does not exist in Muslim countries. This is a great incentive for migrating terrorists. Terrorists have an easier time preparing their actions in Europe - and to a certain extent in America too - than in Islamic countries.

I would also like to draw your attention to a few other important factors. One of them is the new radicalism in the Islamic world, which appears in various forms: among Sunnis, especially Wahhabis, and Iranian Shiites since the Iranian revolution. We experience the strange paradox that the danger posed by Islamic radicalism or radical terrorism is far greater in Europe and America than in the Middle East and North Africa, which are far better at keeping extremists under control.

Wahhabism has benefited from the prestige, influence and power of the House of Saud, which controls the holy places of Islam and the annual pilgrimage and has enormous revenues from the oil business. The case of the Iranian revolution is different. The term revolution is used a lot in the Middle East. It is almost the only generally accepted title of legitimation. But the Iranian revolution is a real revolution in the French or Russian sense. Like this, it had an enormous impact on the entire region with which the Iranians are in discourse - in other words: on the Islamic world.

Let me turn to the subject of assimilation, which is widely debated today. To what extent is it possible for Muslim migrants who have settled in Europe, North America or anywhere else to become part of the local society? There are several points to address here. One of them is the different notion of assimilation and acceptance. There is a difference here between the situation in Europe and the USA. To become an American, an immigrant must change political allegiances. To become French or German, on the other hand, means a change in ethnic identity. England knows both. Those who were naturalized were British, so they did not become English.

I've already mentioned the different ideas about what religion is. For Muslims, it spans a multitude of areas - marriage, divorce and inheritance are only the most obvious. In the western world, these have been secular matters since ancient times. The separation of church and state, spiritual and temporary, is a Christian distinction that has no place in Islamic history and is therefore difficult to explain to Muslims - until today. Until recently, they didn't even have words for it. Now there is.

How does Europe react to this situation? Often, as in the United States, with multiculturalism and political correctness. There are no such inhibitions in the Muslim world. You are very aware of your identity. You know who you are and what you are and what you want, a quality that we seem to have lost to a great extent. This is a strength on the one hand, and a weakness on the other.

Sometimes the term constructive engagement is used: let's talk to them, let's sit down, let's see what can be done. It has a long tradition. When Saladin recaptured Jerusalem and much of the Holy Land, he allowed Christian merchants to stay in the seaports. Apparently he believed he had to justify himself and wrote a letter to the caliph in Baghdad.The merchants are useful, he wrote, because "there is not one among them who does not bring us and sell weapons to their detriment and to our advantage". This continued during the Crusades. It went on like this even after that. It stayed that way as the Ottomans invaded Europe, where they always found merchants willing to sell them the weapons they needed and bankers willing to finance their purchases. The constructive engagement has a long history.

It also has an amazing modern look. We ourselves witnessed an extraordinary spectacle when a Pope apologized to the Muslims for the crusades. I don't want to defend the behavior of the Crusaders, it was horrific in many ways. But let's think in proportion. We are now to believe that the Crusades were an unjustified act of aggression against the peaceful Muslim world. Hardly likely! The first papal call to the crusade came in 846 AD, when an Arab expedition from Sicily sailed up the Tiber and sacked St. Peter in Rome. A synod in France called on Christian rulers to rally against "the enemies of Christ" and the Pope, Leo IV, offered heavenly rewards for those who fell fighting the Muslims. A century and a half and many battles later, in 1096, the Crusaders did indeed arrive in the Middle East. The Crusades were a late, limited, and unsuccessful imitation of jihad - an attempt to win back through holy war what was lost in holy war. It failed and was not repeated.

Here is a recent example of multiculturalism. On October 8, 2002, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin - a staunch Catholic, I understand - spoke to the French National Assembly about the situation in Iraq. About Saddam Hussein, he said that one of his heroes was Saladin, who also came from Tikrit. In the event that his audience did not know who Saladin was, Raffarin stated that Saladin had "succeeded in defeating the Crusaders and liberating Jerusalem." Yup! When a French prime minister describes Saladin's conquest of Jerusalem, held by largely French crusaders, as an act of liberation, it suggests a rather extreme change of loyalty.

The Islamic radicals have managed to find some allies in Europe. To describe them I have to use the terms right and left, which are increasingly misleading. They are difficult to apply to today's conditions in the West. And they are utter nonsense when applied to the different branches of Islam.

The Islamic radicals have a certain attraction to the anti-American left in Europe, for whom they have to some extent replaced the Soviet Union. They appeal to the anti-Semitic right because they take the place of the old Axis powers in their worldview. So they found supporters in both groups. For some Europeans, self-hatred outweighs loyalty to their own society.

The Turks in Germany are an interesting exception in this context. At times you have compared yourself to the Jews and, as victims of German racism, placed yourself in their succession. I remember a discussion with some of their representatives in Berlin, where I remember one phrase particularly vividly: "In a thousand years they (the Germans) have not been able to accept 400,000 Jews. Is there any hope that they will accept two million Turks? " The Germans' feelings of guilt were cleverly played with in order to prevent effective measures to protect a German identity, which, I believe, is also endangered, like other European identities.

But that should only be a brief objection. It makes more sense to come to the question of tolerance. At the end of the first phase of the Christian reconquest, Muslims were given the choice: baptism, exile or death. Things were a little more tolerant in the former Ottoman countries in south-eastern Europe. Some Muslim minorities stayed in certain Balkan countries, the problems continue to the present day. One only has to think of Kosovo or Bosnia. I mention this because it is in sharp contrast to the treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims in Islamic countries at the time.

When Muslims came to Europe, they expected a certain level of tolerance. They felt that they were entitled to the same level of tolerance that non-Muslims in the great Muslim empires of the past had shown. Of course, expectation and experience differed considerably. Because in Europe the Muslims expected both more and less than they had hoped for: more insofar as they were granted political rights in theory and often in practice, they were given access to the labor market, all the blessings of the welfare state, freedom of expression and so on could enjoy. But at the same time they got significantly less than they had once given to Christians in traditional Islamic states. In the Ottoman Empire, the non-Muslim communities had their own administration and collected their own taxes. They had their own schools and their own laws for marriage, marriage, inheritance. The Jews did the same.

So it could happen that three men who had lived on the same street inherited their property according to three different rules. A Jew could be punished in a rabbinical court for disregarding the Sabbath, a Christian could be arrested for taking a second wife. Bigamy is a Christian crime, it is not an Islamic or Ottoman crime.

There is no such independence in the modern state. It is unrealistic to expect it, but it is with that expectation that Muslims have come. As a Muslim friend put it: "We have allowed you monogamy, why should you forbid us polygamy?" Such questions raise other questions. Doesn't an immigrant who comes to Europe have the right to bring his family with him? But what exactly is his family?

Where are we now Is the third phase of the fight successful? The Muslims have certain advantages in this dispute. They are passionate and convinced that they have characteristics that are not very well developed in most countries in the West. They see their cause as fair while we spend much of our time making ourselves bad. They are loyal and disciplined and, perhaps most importantly, numerous. The connection between population growth and migration is changing the population structure significantly and could lead to significant majorities in at least some European cities or even countries in the future.

But we in the West also have advantages. The most important are knowledge and freedom. It is obvious that modern knowledge has an appeal to a society that can look back on a long history of scientific achievements. Islamic societies are painfully aware of their backwardness. They welcome the opportunity to catch up.

Less obvious is the allure of freedom. In the past, the term was not used in a political sense in the Islamic world. Freedom was a concept of law. You were free if you weren't a slave. Unlike in the West, freedom and slavery were not used as metaphors for good and bad forms of government. Instead, good and bad governments have been described in terms of right and wrong. Good government is just government, one in which sacred law, including its limitations on sovereignty, applies. The Islamic tradition emphatically rejects despotism - in theory and, until the dawn of modernity, often also in practice. Living under the right comes closest to what we call freedom.

But the idea of ​​freedom as interpreted by the West is spreading. It is better understood, more and more appreciated and more and more longed for. In the long run, it is our greatest, perhaps our only hope.

Source: Die Welt, April 20, 2013;
Republished here with permission

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