- Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians across Europe's Battlegrounds
Ian Almond had an interesting idea: demonstrate that Christians and Muslims are not inevitable enemies, contrary to popular opinion, and that they have occasionally cooperated in the pursuit of common goals virtually since the emergence of Islam. In his opinion, "Muslims do not belong to an 'other' civilization, but rather to the essence of a 'Europe' we are quickly in the process of forgetting," a Europe of Christian-Muslim cooperation. As he phrases it: "we airbrush Muslims and Jews out of our European heritage" and thus fail to appreciate the full complexity of European cultural development (p. 1).
Almond presents his argument in five chapters, each devoted to a period during which European Christians joined forces with Muslims to achieve political goals. He begins with the medieval experience of Christian-Muslim alliances in eleventh-century Spain, moves on to Frederick II's use of Muslim troops and officials in thirteenth-century Italy, and then to fourteenth-century Asia Minor as Latin Christians and Muslims struggled over the lands of the declining Byzantine Empire. Turning to the modern world, Almond offers the example of Hungarian Protestants supporting the Ottoman assault on the Habsburg Empire at the siege of Vienna in 1683 and finally, in perhaps the most ironic case, he discusses the Crimean War, in which European Christian states defended the fading Ottoman Empire from the expanding Orthodox Christian Russian Empire, a war in which Muslims fought in various armies on both sides.
Taking the large view, Almond is correct in pointing out that individual Christian and Muslim leaders have cooperated at the operational [End Page 595] level for the furtherance of their own political goals. Inspired by preachers of the crusade and their portraits of the evils of the Muslims, newcomers to the crusader kingdoms in the Near East were often appalled at the way in which earlier crusaders who had settled there had gone native, married local women, and cooperated with Muslims on a daily basis. They were equally appalled at the Byzantines who both fought and cooperated with their Muslim neighbors. Centuries later Hungarian Protestants saw the Ottomans as less of a threat than their Catholic Habsburg masters. In the nineteenth century, English and French politicians were much more worried about the impact of Orthodox Russia on their political interests in the Middle East than that of the Muslim Turks.
What exactly has Almond demonstrated? Obviously he has demonstrated that for a millennium, Christians and Muslims have fought and cooperated along the frontiers of Latin Christendom with Islam. The cooperation, however, was of the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort, as leaders on the ground sought to take advantage of their political situation in their own interest. It certainly did not breed a desire for religious toleration or even of respect for one another except in some limited cases. Also he does not demonstrate that Muslims and Christians came to understand one another better in the course of their long contested relationship. The real world of border conflict is more complex, even paradoxical, than the ideologues who preach crusade or jihad from a distance realize.
In the second place, Almond's argument raises some serious questions about what constitutes religious identity. Exactly how devout was the average crusader or his Muslim opposite number? Did men go on crusade inspired only by a desire to defend Christendom, or did they only seek their own advantage, or were they motivated by the mix of religious and personal goals as indeed Urban II suggested at Clermont? As an old cliché has said about missionaries, "They came to do good and remained to do well." From the perspective of those involved, both goals were feasible, especially if there were occasional military alliances across religious lines.
What about the claim that "we airbrush Muslims and Jews out of our European heritage" when we write the history of Europe? To the extent that Europe is Latin Christendom...