Historical hindsight, it is commonly said, is always 20-20. One can see the past perfectly since it is the past and no longer alterable by man’s hand.
What is not perfectly clear is the relationship of the past to our present and future actions. Or, to put it another way, do we truly learn from the past?
Again, invoking an old adage popular among historians and those who enjoy and benefit from history, a people who forget their past are like a woman who loses her memory.
Given the current state of affairs between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the geographic spaces we have designated the “Middle East—“ a Eurocentric determination by the way–I thought a brief review of how these three faiths have related in history is in order.
When the Prophet Muhammad preached and taught in the early seventh century, he basically aimed to correct inaccuracies, errors, flaws, and faults in Judaism and Christianity. His followers believed that God—acting through an angel—directly dictated the Q’uran, or God’s word, to Muhammad and his followers. They were the descendants of the child Ishmael born to Abraham and his wife Sarah’s slave girl Hagar as told in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
Ishmael was thus the bastard son of Abraham, and so out of the line of God’s chosen people—the Israelites– descended from Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s legitimate son. Furthermore, the followers of Muhammad—Muslims—did not believe in the divinity of one of their principal prophets, Jesus Christ.
Denying Jesus’s divinity divided Muslims from Christians. Being descendants of Ishmael pushed them beyond the pale of the legitimate chosen people of God from the Jewish perspective.
The stage was set for an off and on relationship between these three people of the same book—the Bible—that endures to this day. Each claims absolute authority over interpreting the will of God, both on earth and for all eternity.
While good will and harmony has often marked their co-existence, it has just as often broken out in warfare and even genocide as each—especially the two larger of the three—Christians and Muslims—war over souls in the next world and riches and dominance in this world.
Who is right in all this? It depends, obviously, on who you ask.
When Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in 1095 A.D., Christians were sure that it was their destiny to free the Holy Land of Islam’s control. Off they went for the next three hundred years, Crusade after Crusade, of warring Christian knights and nobles, and one even of children, to drive the infidel out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They actually succeeded in some instances, and Jerusalem and its surrounding region were ruled by warrior Christian knights for decades at a time.
But, in the end, Christians were expelled from the Holy Land as the rising Turkish empire seized the capital of eastern, or Orthodox, Christianity in 1453. With the capture of Constantinople Christian rule was ended in that part of the world. But the aspiration of recapturing the Holy Land for Christendom did not die.
It was given new life by the voyages of a relatively unknown Genoese mariner in the service of the very pious Queen of Castile, Isabela, and her less pious but ambitious husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. Christopher Columbus may have discovered a “new world” on October 12, 1492 when he fetched up on some islands in the Bahamas, but he actually was searching for a route to the fabled “East” the land of spices and legendary wealth, and a way to raise resources to once again seize Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
For better or worse, the Indians of the Americas got in the crosshairs of Spanish conquistadors, and the Crusading spirit died down to some embers as the Spanish sacked the Americas.
In fact, Spanish Christians had just finished a 500 year old war against Muslims from Africa who had crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 A.D. and conquered much of Iberia. In 1492, Granada, the last Islamic kingdom of the Spanish Moors, fell to the besieging knights and soldiers of Isabela and Ferdinand’s army, and Spain’s long “Reconquest” was finally completed, all of Spain now united under a triumphant Roman Catholicism.
By 1502, all Moors in Spain were either forced to convert to Christianity or go into exile. The same was done to the Sephardic Jews of Spain in 1492: conversion or exile. This was a militant, orthodox, non-comprising face of Christianity that had been at war—off and on—with Moors for half a millennium.
And now jump up four hundred years or so, to about 1897 when a group of European Jews created the modern Zionist movement, devoted to restoring Jews scattered all over the world to their historic homeland in the lands of ancient Israel. The upshot of that Zionist (referring generally to Jerusalem in Hebrew) movement was the creation of modern Israel in 1947-1948, living out in part the promises in the Bible, such as in Psalm 102:16, 21 “For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory….So the name of the LORD will be declared in Zion and his praise in Jerusalem.”
The British had governed Palestine since the First World War as a mandate after the collapse of the Turkish Empire. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Great Britain supported the creation of an independent Jewish state, and after World War II, the British lived up to their promise and pulled out of Palestine in late 1947, thereby fulfilling the U. N. mandate creating Israel.
Six Arab states—all with huge Muslim majorities–surrounding Israel attacked the fledgling Jewish state, determined to destroy it. And they almost did.
Now it was Muslims and Jews duking it out, and they have been at it now for more than half a century, the latest expression being the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip to destroy or reduce the ability of Hamas to launch rocket attacks into Israel.
Furthermore, Christian minorities are being persecuted by the rising Islamo-fascist movement, ISIS, in Iraq and Syria. So, Muslims and Christians are once again struggling to dominate, and/or survive, in warfare reminiscent of the Crusades.
Now, let me get to the crux of this column. I know there other secular concerns that play in the complex calculus of why Muslims, Christians, and Jews are still making war on each other. There is oil, and other resources. There is poverty and wealth and gross misdistribution of power and wealth throughout the region. There are other political, social, and economic factors.
But the overriding one is religion. The United States is still a Christian nation and while our armed forces have small numbers of Jews, Muslims, atheists, and/or agnostics in service, they are seen in the main as representing the Christian point of view. They are the old Crusaders waging war against the Saracens in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nobody likes to admit this. We are there to protect democracy, to “nation build,” to avenge 9/11, to do a lot of things, but no one in authority wants to declare that the emperor indeed has no clothes on. You can Wikipedia that reference.
I am not arguing that Jews, Muslims, and Christians cannot get along in peace and harmony. Ever since even before the American Revolution, this nation embraced religious freedom and religious toleration and with some exceptions over the years, we get along pretty well, regardless of our religious beliefs. It can be done, and we do it.
But in much of the world, radical Islam has taken on a new edge, claiming supreme authority in the lands it governs. Israel has stuck its finger in the giant’s eye, much like David and his legendary victory over Goliath, now since 1947, and since the U. S. has supported Israel, the Arab Muslim world simply cannot destroy the small, but incredibly efficient and modern Jewish state.
And, in the face of all this, do you know what the fastest growing faith in the world is?
No, it’s not Islam. It is Christianity.
Is Christianity inherently more successful and more righteous than Islam? Again, it depends on who you ask.
The Pope, wanting to be a peace-making globalist (we used to call them internationalists) might equivocate a bit to give his Muslim counterparts some slack.
Our President did his bow and scrape tour of the Muslim world soon after his first election which some have interpreted as a sign of weakness. He is most certainly not cut out of the Crusading mode. Some even suspect he is not truly a Christian, but he goes through the forms and I cannot see into his heart and soul.
Are Muslims and Christians destined to be constantly at odds?
I’m an historian, not a prophet with a crystal ball, so I can’t answer that categorically.
But if the past is any predictor of the future, it seems we shall be at odds wherever Islam, or Christianity for that matter, takes on a radical, authoritarian edge.
The Jews will survive, for in Christian cosmology and theology, the Jews will be around for the Second Coming of Christ, and so Christians, especially evangelical charismatics, tend to support the Jews.
How it all plays out will be determined by, I tend to think, God’s will, taking into account man’s free will often to intercede and do the wrong thing. And, again my prejudice, I think the Christian way is the true way to find and stay in God’s will.
If we live out our faith in love, we can do little wrong. But it sure can be hard to do when someone is beating on your head, or, worse, cutting it off and screaming infamies and blasphemies at you.
You then, I think, have a perfectly good excuse to wage a just war on them. And I think, given the nature of the enemy, it has to be a war, just like the allies determined early in the Second World War, with no end but unconditional surrender.
Our terms, or no terms. There can be no conditions granted, no quarter given when dealing with pure evil.