Muslims have at times allied with Europeans, sometimes even against fellow Muslims; as such, why see any Muslim attacks on Europe as ideologically driven—as jihads (“holy wars”) against the infidel? Why not see them all as generic wars? Such is the academic world’s main apologia against the notion that Islam’s military expansion throughout history was driven by a theological mandate.
Thus, weeks before my recent lecture on the topic of my book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, at the US Army War College, another speaker was brought in to present an “alternative view.” That speaker was John Voll,* professor emeritus of Islamic history and past associate director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (This center was “gifted” 20 million dollars from Prince Alwaleed—a Wahhabi who suggested that the 9/11 attacks were based on America’s position “toward the Palestinian cause”—for the express purpose of improving Islam’s image in the West.)
According to the Army War College’s advertisement:
In contrast with the well-known story of Muslim-Christian military conflict, less well-known is the long history of Muslim-Christian alliances and cooperation, even in times of conflict. Voll will address risk of misunderstanding when the history of clashes between Islam and the West is viewed in broad generalizations. Voll will focus his discussion on alliances and conflicts in the modern era…
Weeks after he presented, Voll reasserted these themes in a less-than-honest Army Times report that depicted him as “a more mainstream speaker … who CAIR-Philadelphia did not object to” (as opposed to me):
Voll does not agree with Ibrahim’s view that Christians and Muslims are almost inevitably at odds. Extreme advocates of this “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis tend to deal with only half of the historical record of relations between the West and Islam, he said in an email.
“While the history includes many wars and conflicts, that history also includes many experiences of cooperation and alliances,” Voll explained. “To ignore the history of Muslim-Christian cooperations and only emphasize the conflicts is to present a misleading narrative that opens the way for dangerous misunderstandings of world history in general and current global affairs in particular.”
Is this true? Yes and no. Yes, Muslims have (infrequently) allied with non-Muslims, in this case, Europeans. No, this does not prove that the exponentially greater, perennial attacks on every corner of Europe were not ideologically driven by jihad. It merely proves that Muslims are pragmatic—which Islam endorses—and willing to ally with whomever best serves their interest.
For instance, in its announcement, the Army War College noted that “Voll will focus his discussion on alliances and conflicts in the modern era, to include the history of the Anglo-Egyptian relationship, and the enemy-ally transitions of the Sanusiyyah and the Angle-American powers of World War II and the Cold War.
Why the “modern era”? Could it be that, as opposed to the twelve centuries of Islamic raids on Europe (circa. 634-1830, when Barbary was subdued), Muslims have been remarkably weak vis-à-vis infidel Europe beginning in the late modern era and therefore had much to gain by allying with them?
Relying on the late modern era—the last two centuries which Voll bizarrely claims represent “half of the historical record of relations between the West and Islam”—to explain the totality of Islamic/European relations (nearly fourteen centuries) is, of course, one of the oldest tricks relied on by Islamophilic academics: presenting rare exceptions (alliances with non-Muslims) to the rule (jihad against infidels) as the rule itself.
This is well epitomized by the recent book, Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War between the Muslim World and the Global North, by William Polk, a retired professor of history at Harvard (my complete review here). Despite its ambitious subtitle, only some 30 of its 550 pages deal with the first millennium (when jihad was the norm—not that Polk mentions it even here); 95 percent is devoted to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the “modern era.” As with Voll, this lopsided approach allows Polk to present Muslims as, not just occasional allies of the West, but its eternal victims as well.
However, as much more balanced historians such as Bernard Lewis put it:
We tend nowadays to forget that for approximately a thousand years, from the advent of Islam in the seventh century until the second siege of Vienna in 1683, Christian Europe was under constant threat from Islam, the double threat of conquest and conversion. Most of the new Muslim domains were wrested from Christendom. Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa were all Christian countries, no less, indeed rather more, than Spain and Sicily. All this left a deep sense of loss and a deep fear.
“We tend nowadays to forget” these troubling facts precisely because those most charged with reminding us—the professional historians of Islam, the Volls and Polks of American academia—go out of their way to suppress them.
Moreover, Islam’s modus operandi has always relied on circumstances. When Muhammad was weak and outnumbered in his early Meccan period, he preached peace and made pacts with infidels; when he became strong in his Medinan period, he preached jihad and went on the offensive. This dichotomy—preach peace when weak, wage war when strong—has been instructive to Muslims throughout the centuries.
Indeed, when it comes to making life easy for Muslims, particularly vis-à-vis infidels, Islamic law (shari‘a) is remarkably lenient, via the doctrine of taysir (ease). It is why millions of Muslims—who under strict shari‘a are banned from willingly relocating to infidel nations—are flooding the prosperous West: it is beneficial to them, even if they hate and occasionally abuse their hosts (which, for some clerics, validates their presence as a form of jihad).
At any rate, ignoring the first millennium of Muslim/European history—when Islam was frequently stronger than Europe, and therefore regularly waging jihads on it—and focusing only on the last two centuries—when Islam has been much weaker than and therefore often “friendly” to the West—is truly what “present[s] a misleading narrative that opens the way for dangerous misunderstandings of world history in general and current global affairs in particular,” to quote Voll, though in reverse.
* As an amusing side note, I actually sat in on one of Voll’s courses on Islamic history at Georgetown University nearly two decades ago. An apparently too challenging or contentious question I asked concerning what he was saying ended, I distinctly recall, with a curt response and a very dirty look—and my deciding not to sign up for his class.