Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery
by bernard lewis
oxford university press, 101 pp., $16.96

Karl von Hapsburg, one of the heirs to the old Austro-Hungarian throne and a member of the European Parliament, is fond of telling a story about the deep connections between religion, politics, and history. While he was visiting one of the troubled fractions of the former Yugoslavia, the local bishop was abducted for a few hours, but released later the same day to a Franciscan monastery where von Hapsburg was staying. This puzzled him, and he asked one of the monks why the abduction had occurred. “Well,” the monk began, “it all started in 1523 . . . ”

Bernard Lewis’ Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery reminds us that many current questions have ancient roots. In fact, the conflicts Lewis examines were already eight hundred years old by the time the Age of Discovery began in 1492. Islamic conquerors had spread out of Arabia and across Palestine, North Africa, and much of Spain by 711, less than a century after Muhammad’s birth. The relations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims around the Mediterranean were tumultuous for centuries, and still have consequences—in the Balkans, for instance—that we need to understand if we are to cope with politics and conflict today.

Because of the contemporary dominance of the West, many people anachronistically read back into the conflicts of the age of exploration a European preeminence that did not exist. Lewis, perhaps the most distinguished Arabist in the English-speaking world, shows how, on the contrary, it was Muslim cultural and military power that seemed ascendant both earlier and later, with a few exceptions. The Christian Crusades to retake the Holy Land from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries failed. Muslims captured thousand-year-old Christian Byzantium in 1453, not only posing a military threat in the Eastern Mediterranean but necessitating new trade routes to the Far East. Muslim raiders approached Venice in Northern Italy, and even captured Otranto in the South of Italy during the 1480s, while Barbary pirates carried on a “naval jihad ” as far as the British Isles and Iceland.

Although in 1492 the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella took Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, they still faced a long struggle that involved the pacification, conversion, and expulsion of their large Muslim population. Other Muslim forces were far from dead after 1492. The Moroccans dealt the Portuguese a severe blow in the 1578 Battle of the Three Kings. And it was not until 1683 that the second Turkish retreat from the siege of Vienna limited the Muslim presence in Europe to Turkey and the Balkans. Other outcomes, far less favorable to Christian nations, had been quite possible—as the Europeans of the time knew well.

Lewis remarks that Christianity and Islam were similar in their belief in a universal missionary purpose and in their drive toward military dominance. The civilizations of China, India, and the Americas were quite sophisticated and advanced, he says, but regional. When Buddhism lost its missionary fervor, Christianity and Islam were the only remaining religious movements with global aspirations. For much of the Middle Ages, Islam—which was far more advanced than Christian Europe—seemed the likely successor to classical civilization. Yet for not wholly understood reasons, Christian Europe was to show a global thrust and transcultural curiosity (along with a large dollop of outright greed) that led to its worldwide dominance.

Medieval Jews were in a far different position. In Europe and throughout the Muslim world, Jews at the time posed little political and military challenge to either power. They did, however, pose a theological, intellectual, and legal one. In the “Dark Ages” (darker in Europe than in the Islamic world), Jews were generally tolerated in both Christian and Muslim states. It was largely as the Muslim threat rose and Crusades were undertaken during the High Middle Ages and the Age of Exploration that Christians included Jews in the efforts they were making against external Muslim opponents. Jews were expelled from England, France, Naples and other cities, and, notoriously, from Spain in 1492. Many fled to North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean where Muslim rulers regarded them as reliable economic and political allies.

Lewis examines little-known Arabic sources to arrive at a remarkable picture of the way Christians and Muslims looked at one another. Despite their mutual hostility, they understood each other’s views rather well. Muslim theology was largely dismissed by medieval Christians as post-Gospel heresy; but the Muslims themselves were regarded as serious social and military challengers. By contrast, a still primitive Christendom looked to sophisticated Muslims “rather as Central Asia or Africa appeared to Victorian Englishmen.”

By 1492, Christians were powerful and sophisticated enough to defeat the Muslims in the Iberian peninsula, but Spain faced a complex problem. Like the Jesuits in Elizabethan England, moriscos (converted Muslims) and marranos (converted Jews) in Spain were both a religious and a political threat. Not only were they suspected of being crypto-infidels, they were also “suspected of complicity with the Muslim powers.” Nonetheless, their treatment was not uniformly harsh. Just prior to the government’s 1609 decision to expel all the moriscos, for example, the bishops of Spain refused a collective condemnation of them and urged efforts at real conversion. The choice between conversion or death may not seem very appealing to modern eyes, but under the circumstances it reflected not entirely unfounded fears.

Lewis is impartial in describing this history. Yet he takes some odd positions. He argues that Islam was the first universal, multiracial, multiethnic religion. But after asserting this and describing Christianity as, until 1492, an essentially European faith, he goes on to describe how the “vast majority” of Muslim converts in the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and Sicily came from Christianity. This is all the more puzzling since he rightly points out that the Crusades, far from being an early attempt at European imperialism, would be better understood as, in the mentality of the time, a kind of reconquista, similar to the recapture of Spain and Sicily in Western Europe and Ivan the Great’s throwing off the “Tatar yoke” in Eastern Europe.

The crusade, a long-delayed Christian response to the jihad , was an attempt to recover by holy war what had been lost by holy war, and what could be more important for Christians than the Christian Holy Land, lost by the Byzantine emperors to the Muslim caliphs in the seventh century?

The obvious implication is that Christianity, from its first movements out of Palestine to Greece, Rome, and the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, was itself a multiracial, multiethnic, universal movement.

Unlike many others who have tried to tell this tale, however, Lewis does not indulge in facile castigation of the West or try to pretend that all cultures are equal in the multicultural dispensation. After a sympathetic treatment of all three faiths, in his closing pages he comes down squarely in favor of Western culture: “In setting out to conquer, subjugate, and despoil other peoples, the Europeans were merely following the example set them by their neighbors and predecessors and, indeed, conforming to the common practice of mankind . . . . The interesting questions are not why they tried, but why they succeeded and why, having succeeded, they repented of their success as of a sin. The success was unique in modern times, the repentance, in all of human history.”

In that light, multiculturalism itself reveals itself to be very Western. For Lewis, “The special combination of unconstrained curiosity concerning the Other and unforced respect for his otherness remains a distinctive feature of Western and Westernized cultures and is still regarded with bafflement and anger by those who neither share nor understand it.” If the West “goes,” he concludes, imperialism, sexism, and racism (three words of Western coinage) will not also “go.” Rather the power to criticize them will disappear and the world will be impoverished and endangered as a result-a lesson a truer knowledge of history and the Other might teach self-critical Westerners.

Robert Royal is Vice President and John M. Olin Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History.