Expansionist Christianity and Peaceful Islam

This is an essay I've meant to write in some form for years. It's particularly important now, because Europeans and North Americans are more than ever being taught that peaceful Christianity is under perpetual threat from violent expansionist Islam. This is wrong.

The narrative I learned when growing up goes something like this. Christianity was started by an oppressed minority, who by their own nonviolent suffering converted people in the Roman Empire and beyond. Barbarian invaders were gradually convinced, and civilization was on a path to having a single peaceful religion. Then in Arabia, Islam broke out, spread by the sword, insatiable for conquest. The Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and finally even Constantinople fell. Were it not for defensive battles in Southern France and Eastern Europe, all of Christendom would have collapsed before the Muslim onslaught. For centuries, Western civilization has been fighting for its right to exist, and must continue this struggle or perish, because make no mistake, Islam wants to conquer us.

Colonial Empires

You can dispel this myth with two maps (see right): a political world map dated from sometime around the 1920s, and map of predominantly Muslim regions. See the part highlighted with a green border in the Colonial Empires picture to the right – that's how much of the Muslim World wasn't ruled by the West. It's not a very big proportion.

Between the First and Second World Wars, nearly every Muslim land was ruled by a Western Christian power. The exceptions were Turkey (which fought off two European invasions, none of which justifies the Armenian genocide), some areas of the Arabian Peninsula (left self-governing as a reward for fighting with the British against the Turks), Iran (officially unoccupied as a buffer-state between British and Russian interests), and Afghanistan (invaded three times by the British and partially occupied). Egypt was officially self-governing, though British troops remained, and the British and French invaded again in the 1950s to assert ownership of the Suez canal. And even the countries officially independent in the 1920's have been subject to invasions, coups, or some form of military engagement by Western powers since then. Apart from these debatable exceptions, from Morocco in the west to Malacca and Mindanao in the east, the entire Muslim world was ruled by France, Spain, Italy, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States.

Imagine that the other way round. Other than a few parts of Southern Europe and the Vatican itself, the whole of Christendom is ruled by Muslims. Nothing like that has ever happened. Not even close. Is it really Christians who should fear Muslim invasion? Can everyone at least see how a narrative of Islam having to fight back against the West might take hold?

That's just recent history. Let's go back to the beginning, when we're told that Islam spread by conquest. It's true that victorious Arab armies conquered the Middle East and North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries. These areas had been conquered by Persian, Greek, and Roman armies before. Each time, there was a new ruling elite, but no widespread immediate change in everyday religion. We talk about the Macedonian conquests under Alexander, but nobody says "Olympianism was spread by the sword". Why are Arab conquests described differently?

By the beginning of the seventh century AD, most of North Africa was Christian, true – but hardly peaceful. Theological disputes about the Trinity and the single-or-dual nature of Jesus Christ had boiled over into schism and even widespread killing. A Coptic Christian who believed in the single nature of Christ could literally be put to death by Orthodox judges who defended the official doctrine that Christ was both wholly God and wholly Man. Once the Arabs invaded, the Coptic Christians could instead pay a tax levied on all non-Muslims, and otherwise be left in peace. Of course, I don't like the idea of having a state religion that levies taxes on nonbelievers: but it's way better than being put to death for heresy. A thousand years later, similar alternatives played out – Greek Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire were allowed to remain Orthodox, whereas in some areas "liberated" for Christendom by Venice, subjects were forcibly converted to Catholicism. (Even this was hardly uniform, and appears to have been different on the Aegean islands compared with the Peloponnese mainland.)

In their relations with Africa, both earlier Muslims and later Christians appear to have been drawn by two commodities – gold and slaves. Estimates vary: probably somewhere between 5 and 10 million Africans were carried away by Muslims and between 10 and 20 million by Christian slave-traders. The larger number taken by Christians probably has everything to do with the demand for plantation slaves, the available weapons, and the means of transport: nonetheless, the Christian slave-traders were encouraged by a particularly hideous claim (beginning with Henry the Navigator) that baptizing and enslaving Africans was better for their souls than the alternative of earthly freedom and eternal damnation. There's nothing peaceful about that.

Further East, a standard history of Southeast Asia will explain that Islam was spread by Arab traders starting around the 12th and 13th centuries, and was attractive because it linked kingdoms to a trading network across the Indian Ocean, and because the Arab traders were largely peaceful and respected local peoples and customs. By contrast, when the Portuguese and later the Dutch arrived, Muslims in Malacca were put to the sword, and clove trees throughout the region were burned to prevent local farmers from damaging the European monopoly. Of course, it's not true that Islam has never been repressive in Southeast Asia, but it's easy to see that Indonesia and Malaysia make up the world's most populous Muslim region partly because at key times, Islam was peaceful and attractive but Christianity was warlike and ugly.

As a digression – in case we're tempted to think that it's monotheist religions that are the problem – in parts of Southeast Asia where Buddhism is the dominant state religion, such as Myanmar and Thailand, both Christian and Muslim minorities have suffered and still suffer persecution, including the horrific attacks this year on the Muslim Rohingya people. Even Buddhism can be repressive when it becomes officially part of government. And so far, Atheism in official government has produced even worse results – rather than empowering the likes of Bertrand Russell and Alan Turing, it has empowered the likes of Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, whose mass killings might amount to more deaths than those due to Christian and Muslim slave traders combined. When profit or ideology becomes more important than common decency, people can do terrible things. The kindest of teachings can be ignored or twisted to justify the worst actions, when people feel threatened or there's money at stake.

Personally, I find the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth inspiring and challenging, and I hope they bring the best out of me. None of this essay is meant to convince Christian readers that they should become Muslims instead. Nor is it intended to explain or condone any acts of violence or repression in the name of religion anywhere. But just as Islam is used by Al-Qaeda and ISIS today, I know that Christianity has been used to justify some of history's most despicable deeds. However much I admire the commitment, self-sacrifice, and sheer goodness that my parents and so many other people have demonstrated in the name of Jesus, the claim "Christianity is a kind and peaceful religion" is a dangerous generalization, just as the claim "Islam is a cruel and warlike religion" is a dangerous generalization. If someone tries to convince you of any such simplification, they are trying to deceive you, and have probably already deceived themselves. These claims are made to perpetuate fear and hatred, and a brief analysis of history shows that they are absurd.

Dominic Widdows, July 2017.