I received an email from “Stan,” who wrote to respond to my article “Donald Trump and Counter-Jihad.” Through Google I discovered that Stan is an Ivy-League-educated PhD. “Counter-jihadists,” Stan wrote, “deny that Islam was indeed more tolerant from the end of the 11th century down to the 17th.” Catholic Church teaching during that period “was far worse than dhimmitude … Jews and Christians could practice their religions … [There were] few forced conversions or massacres.” Catholic Spain expelled Jews who fled to Muslim territory. I would recognize these facts, Stan kindly advised me, “If you pick up a history book.” “No historian would consult with Robert Spencer,” as I do, Stan sniffed. Stan listed sixteen books addressing Christian anti-Semitism. If I had any “interest in the subject,” I would read them. Stan mentioned the 1209-1229 Catholic Crusade against Albigensians. “Would you rather have been an Albigensian in southern France or in Constantinople?” Please note: my article about Donald Trump never mentions Jews, Catholics, or Albigensians.
Counter-jihadis regularly confront variations of this: “Any intolerance that Islam shows today is the result of historical forces. Violence and intolerance are not inherent in Islam. Terrorism is caused by European colonialism, the recognition of the state of Israel, America’s support for dictators, and American wars-for-oil. In the past, Christianity was a violent, intolerant religion. The passage of time reformed Christianity; in the same way the passage of time will reform Islam.”
How can a counter-jihadi respond?
Differentiate between behaviors inspired by temporary historical circumstance and behavior inspired by canonical documents.Recognizethat most conventionally educated Westerners believe extravagant falsehoods and aren’t aware of important truths.Be aware of events outside of Western Europe and North America.
Differentiate between behaviors inspired by temporary historical circumstance and behavior inspired by canonical documents.
Scholars who describe medieval, Muslim Spain as relatively better for Jews than medieval, Christian Europe acknowledge that differences were inspired by temporary historical circumstance and not canonical scripture. Given that medieval socioeconomic conditions no longer exist, but canonical scriptures are still considered divine revelations, we should not expect medieval Muslim tolerance of Jews, or medieval Christian persecution of Jews, to recur. We should, rather, look to canonical scripture as inspiration for behavior.
In short, hostility to Jews is inextricable from Mohammed’s biography, the Koran, the hadith, and mandated daily Muslim prayer. Muslims have long been inspired by the ostensibly divine Koran to do what the Koran tells them to do: hate, murder, torture,steal, and rape.
The harsh criticisms of some, not all, Jews in the New Testament were written by Jews as part of Jewish tradition. The most severe passages are less severe than those in the Torah. Compare Matthew 23, where Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for straining on a gnat and choking on a camel, to Exodus 32, where God orders Jews, immediately, to massacre thousands of their own “brothers, friends, and neighbors” for worshipping a golden calf.
Jesus specifically taught that his disciples were not to interfere with free will. If people chose not to be Christians, Jesus said, just move on. Jesus never ordered his disciples to make converts by force, or to oppress nonbelievers. In contradistinction to Bukhari 1:24, Koran 66:9, Koran 5:51 and many similar verses, Jesus, in the Good Samaritan episode, counsels his followers to treat all humanity, not just fellow believers, with compassion.
Spreading the faith by military conquest was not part of foundational Christianity; for its first three hundred years, Christianity was an outlawed and persecuted faith. The second century Greek Pagan Celsusdescribed early Christianity as a marginal “religion of women, children and slaves.” Every time a Christian violates a Jew or anyone else, that Christian violates his own professed belief system.
When Christians committed crimes against Jews, other Christians protested and attempted to intervene. During the medieval Rhineland Massacres of the Crusades, Catholic bishops attempted to protect Jews. Popes repeatedly condemned blood libel. When Jews were expelled from Western Europe, they were invited into Catholic Poland and protected by the 1264 Statute of Kalisz and the 1573 Warsaw Confederation.
Confession and repentance are Christian rituals and virtues. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Christians have confessed their sins against Jews, and resolved to improve. This emphasis on confession and repentance is not found in Islam. Turkey, for example, prosecuted Orhan Pamuk, its own Nobel-Prize-winning writer, for merely mentioning the Armenian Genocide.
Why, then, have Christians committed horrible crimes against Jews? Why did Christians, including priests, twist the original Christian message into one of hatred against Jews? And why have Muslim states tolerated Jews?
One ray of light into this complicated topic is Edna Bonacich’s work on middleman minorities. Jews in Europe occupied a particular socioeconomic niche. Jews were middlemen. Medieval Christians and Medieval Muslims viewed middlemen differently. That difference, not scripture, affected Jewish lives differently in medieval Christian and medieval Muslim countries.
Mark R. Cohen, Princeton University professor emeritus, is the author of Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, a book frequently cited to support the “Islam was more tolerant” generalization.
In his 1986 Jerusalem Quarterly article “Islam and the Jews: Myth, Counter-Myth, History,” Cohen acknowledges that Islam contains a “fundamental theological hostility towards the religion of Judaism … and towards Jews, stigmatized … as contemptible infidels.” Various historical and socioeconomic factors trumped Islam’s “fundamental theological hostility.” One of those factors was how Muslims viewed middlemen.
Mohammed was a merchant. He was born and lived most of his life in Mecca, a trading center. “Islam was born with a positive attitude towards commerce … Mohammed’s own life and … the Koran and other holy literature lent strong support to the mercantile life … Since many jurists in the early Islamic period were themselves merchants, Islamic law was shaped to meet the needs of a mercantile economy.” In the Muslim world, both Jews and Muslims were both moneylenders.
Medieval Christian Europeans were mostly peasants – poor people who valued rootedness, labor, and land. Jesus was a carpenter who preached the virtue of poverty. He lived in Galilee, a region of country bumpkins. Markets, money, travel and banks were underdeveloped in much of medieval Europe. Jews traveled, handled money, and appeared not to labor, as peasants understood labor. The Jew as merchant and moneylender was more troubling to economically naïve European Christians than to more economically sophisticated Middle Eastern Muslims.
Further, Cohen points out, Jews in medieval Europe were not just economically and religiously alien, they were ethnically and geographically alien. Jews were comparatively familiar to Middle Eastern Muslims – they came from the same geographic region, they spoke a language related to Arabic, similarly written right to left, and they shared a similar physical appearance.
Cohen cites another flashpoint for Jews living in Christian lands. Christianity separates church and state. This separation is rooted in Jesus’ saying, “Render unto Cesar what is Cesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Jews had to develop relationships with both secular and religious authorities. One might be friendly while the other might not be. Church and state might be in competition. The Jew was often stuck in the middle of that often violent competition.
In Islam, there is no separation of church and state. Jews had to cultivate fewer powers, and they did not have to worry about a non-existent competition between centers of power. Cohen says that it is this separation of church and state in Christianity, and the lack of same in Islam, that explains why, during the medieval period, Jews were sometimes expelled from Christian nations, but not from Muslim ones.
Another factor Cohen cites for Jews’ position in Islam. “In Europe, the Jews nurtured a pronounced hatred for Christians, whom they considered to be idolaters subject to the anti-pagan discriminatory provisions of the ancient Mishnah … the Jews of Islam had a markedly different attitude towards” Islam. There was a “tolerant Jewish view of Islam.”
In 2016, Dario Fernandez-Morera published The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. In 2013 he argued in Comparative Civilizations Review that Muslims favored Jews in Spain for tactical reasons. Visigoths, the rulers in Spain before the Muslim Conquest, discriminated against Jews. When Muslims invaded, significant numbers of Jews aided the Muslims as a way to improve their own lot. Muslims, he said, regarded Jews as “servants,” not as friends, and thus avoided violating the Koran’s admonition not to take Jews as friends. Muslim rulers feared betrayal from other Muslims. Elevating Jews to powerful positions protected the ruler’s back. A Jew, as a member of a hated minority, could never usurp a Muslim.
Fernandez-Morera cautions contemporary Jews against romanticizing their forebears’ lives in Muslim Spain. Islamic law mandated that Jews had to pay the jizya, could not build synagogues, had to keep their buildings shorter than Muslims’ buildings, could not carry weapons or ride horses, and had to show deference to Muslims, including by wearing distinctive clothing. They could not testify in court against a Muslim. There were harsher court sentences for Jews than for Muslims. Jews could not criticize Islam. Capital punishment was prescribed for a Jewish man who had sex with a Muslim woman. (Compare this to the medieval Polish legend of Catholic King Casimir the Great and his Jewish companion, Esterka.) Even if these mandates were not always followed, Cohen writes, the “themes of segregation and humiliation” in “Islamic sources … rival if not exceed … the Christian West.” Canonical Islamic prescriptions communicated to Jews their subordinate status and kept them in their place.
Fernandez-Morera quotes a satirical poem that refers to Jews as “apes,” as does the Koran. Jews, the Muslim poet says, should be “the lowest of the low, roaming among us, with their little bags, with contempt, degradation and scorn as their lot, scrambling in the dunghills for colored rags, to shroud their dead for burial … hasten to slaughter…do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them.”
Jews’ middleman minority status and their alignment, however tactical and temporary, with Muslims, may have contributed to Christian antisemitism. A 1986 University of Notre Dame Press book, The Jew as Ally of the Muslim: Medieval Roots of Anti-Semitism, addresses a Europe-wide association, by Christians, of Jews with feared Muslims. Daniel Pipes’ mostly positive review of the book, that appeared first inCommentary, can be viewed here.
In any case, the twenty-first century understanding of the word “tolerance” should not be applied to Muslim Spain. A naive person might envision Jews and Muslims in Al-Andalus sipping cappuccinos and discussing philosophy while eating rainbow cake celebrating same-sex weddings and watching their daughters play on the boys’ soccer team. “Tolerance” meant something very different in medieval Muslim Spain than it means in 2016.
Suppose someone told a black person that the antebellum South was a “tolerant” place becauseJews were allowed to practice their religion without impediment. My reaction to discussion of Muslim Spain as “tolerant” is similar to that black person’s. Muslim Spain relied on slave labor. Its slaves were my forebears, Slavs. The word “Saqaliba,” derived from “Slav,” occurs in Arabic in reference to Slavic slaves and to eunuchs. In 961, there were 13,750Saqaliba eunuchs in Cordoba alone. Jews were often the slave traders who transported Slavic slaves to Muslim Spain. Saint Adalbert’s attempt to liberate Slavs from Jewish slave traders is depicted on the bronze, twelfth-century Gniezno doors. Adalbert was later murdered by European Pagans. Christians were martyred by Pagans in Europe right up to the fourteenth century. Applying twenty-first century definitions of “tolerance” and twenty-first century conceptions of what it means to be a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian to this medieval narrative can only cause complete misunderstanding. Christians were not all-powerful in medieval Europe but were often quite vulnerable. Jews were not always helpless; some exercised the power that all slave-traders do. “Tolerant” Muslims were enjoying sexual access to female and castrated male slaves, not serving up rainbow cake.
Stan asked if I would rather be an Albigensian in Turkey or in France. I’ve traveled in Turkey and I loved it. Even so, I’d rather not live as a female Albigensian or a female anything else in any Muslim country.
When Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded Spain in 711, he delivered a “sermon” promising his jihadis Christian women to rape: “In this country there are a large number of ravishingly beautiful Greek maidens, their graceful forms are draped in sumptuous gowns on which gleam pearls, coral, and purest gold.” Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Athir describes another Muslim warrior in Spain, who “traversed this land in every direction, raping women;” another “carried off women.” Yes, violation of women occurs in all wars, fought by men of every religion. Islam, though, sanctions rape in war, rape that Muslim chroniclers openly celebrate.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a million Jews lived in Muslim countries. Nine and a half million Jews lived in Europe. This was 57% of the Jews in the world. During the twentieth century, the Jewish population of the US rose from one to six million, and the Jewish population of Muslim countries shrank to near zero. Jews voted with their feet.