How important, really, is history to current affairs? Do events from the 7th century—or, more importantly, how we understand them—have any influence on U.S. foreign policy today?
By way of answer, consider some parallels between academia’s portrayal of historic Islamic jihads and the U.S. government’s and media’s portrayal of contemporary Islamic jihads.
While any objective appraisal of the 7th century Muslim conquests proves that they were just that—conquests, with all the bloodshed and rapine that that entails—the historical revisionism of modern academia, especially within Arab and Islamic studies departments, has led to some portrayals of the original Muslim conquerors as “freedom-fighters” trying to “liberate” the Mideast from tyrants and autocrats. (Beginning to sound familiar?)
Today’s approach to teaching the history of the Muslim conquests of the 7th century is something as follows: Yes, the Mideast was Christian, but local Christians helped Arab Muslims invade and subjugate their countries in preference to Christian Byzantine rule, which was oppressive due to doctrinal disagreements over the nature of Christ. Hence, the Muslim conquerors were actually “liberators.”
This perspective, as with many modern Western perspectives concerning Islam, is less a product of objective scholarship and more of modern day epistemic distortions, chief among them: 1) repackaged narratives of the “noble savage” myth—yes, 7th century Muslim invaders were coarse, but had elevated ideals, including a fierce love for freedom and religious tolerance in comparison to Christians of the time (not to mention now); and 2) entrenched political correction that seeks to whitewash the true history of Islam followed by the uncritical acceptance of Islamic apologetics, some of which border on the absurd.
Of course, before the Islamic “liberator” thesis had become mainstream, historians such as Alfred Butler, author of The Arab Conquest of Egypt, had this to say about it:
Even in the most recent historians it will be found that the outline of the story [of the 7th century conquest of Egypt] is something as follows: …. that the Copts generally hailed them [Muslims] as deliverers and rendered them every assistance; and that Alexandria after a long siege, full of romantic episodes, was captured by storm. Such is the received account. It may seem presumptuous to say that it is untrue from beginning to end, but to me no other conclusion is possible. [emphasis added; pgs. iv-v]
In fact, one of the major themes throughout Butler’s Arab Conquest of Egypt—which, published in 1902, is heavily based on primary sources, Arabic and Coptic, unlike more modern secondary works that promote the Islamic “liberator” thesis—is that “there is not a word to show that any section of the Egyptian nation viewed the advent of the Muslims with any other feeling than terror” (p. 236).
Butler and other politically incorrect historians were and are aware of the savage and atrocity-laden nature of the Islamic conquests. The Coptic chronicler, John of Nikiu, a contemporary of the Arab conquest of Egypt and possibly an eyewitness, wrote:
Then the Muslims arrived in Nikiu [along the Nile]… seized the town and slaughtered everyone they met in the street and in the churches—men, women, and children, sparing nobody. Then they went to other places, pillaged and killed all the inhabitants they found…. But let us say no more, for it is impossible to describe the horrors the Muslims committed…”
Nonetheless, today’s accepted narratives do not come from antiquated historians or primary historical texts; they come from the Saudi-funded ivy league—Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, etc.—all of which peddle pro-Islamic propaganda (I personally had direct experience at Georgetown), including the “freedom loving jihadis” vs. “oppressive tyrants” thesis.
Percolating out of liberal academia to liberal mass media, the effects of this well-entrenched but false narrative have taken their toll, ultimately helping to create a disastrous U.S. foreign policy.
Put differently, the Islamic terrorists waging jihad against autocratic (but secular, religiously tolerant) governments—most notably in Syria today—are easily portrayed in the West as “freedom fighters” against oppressive tyrants and thus deserving of U.S. support in great part because this motif has permeated the social consciousness of America, molded as it is by Hollywood and the news rooms, and based on academic distortions of events that took place nearly fourteen centuries ago.
That is the only unwavering constant in this sad story.