Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born 1969) is a Somali-born Dutch-American activist, author, and former Dutch politician. She is has been a vocal critic of Islam, as well as a feminist and atheist. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and the founder of the AHA Foundation, which exists to protect women and girls from abuses. She will visit Australia in early April to discuss reforming Islam.
Tag Archives: Islam
The proliferation of terrorist attacks in the US, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa saturate the media with attention to and analysis of these outrages. From the murder of a Catholic priest in France to the massacre of 80 Hazara people in Kabul, these lead us inexorably to question the origins of such attacks and why these extremists claim Islam as a justification.
Equally, the focus upon the Man Haron Monis inquest as well as emerging details of the Anzac day plot capture our attention in Australia. Without alternative commentary, this leads many of us to equate Islam with terrorism, false as this may be.
But some headlines are now informing us of a “new” risk, with the arrest on terrorism charges of a white “nationalist extremist” from an avowedly right-wing organisation.
A history of foreign fighters and extremist violence
Is this something new? Of course it is not. Despite the recent focus on those who malign the name of Islam in the name of terrorism, Australia has a long history of terrorism.
This is true, too, of our history of foreign fighters. They have been every bit as diverse as the multicultural country we live in. Though we argue the relative merits and ethics of particular causes, Australians have travelled to foreign conflicts since before federation.
Australians have been involved in conflicts from the American Civil War and fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War to more recent examples of individuals fighting for Islamic State and against it. Some have involved themselves in continuing conflicts and causes far from their adopted country of Australia. One example is the Ustaša and their activities against the former Yugoslavia.
While many may applaud involvement in some of these conflicts, a dark side of this has been the continuing presence of far-right-wing neo-Nazi groups in Australia. There has been analysis of why the more mainstream of these groups have achieved recent electoral success – a recent John Safran documentary is particularly good at teasing this out. However, the underside of the far right is more pernicious and potentially more dangerous.
Neo-Nazi members have been guilty of ongoing violence against migrant communities. The bashing of Minh Duong was a particularly significant example of these groups’ commitment to violence.
Don’t neglect radicalisation on the right
Australia has suffered right-wing extremist violence in the past, though none comparable to the Breivik massacre in Norway or the McVeigh bombing in the US. However, the arrest on the weekend should alert us that it is imperative that any consideration of counter-radicalisation should include members of the extreme right.
The arrest follows a disturbing series of vile attacks against the Muslim community around Australia. These range from those random rants of racists abusing Muslims or suspected Muslims on public transport to attacks in which mosques have been set alight and daubed with racist graffiti, coming on occasion very close to causing injury or death.
Those who subscribe to an extremist Islamic narrative may indeed give us cause to fear their actions and the influence of technology-assisted radicalism. Equally, we should fear members of the far right who have access to a poisonous blend of neo-Nazi motivation that is as global and as accessible as their chosen information technology device.
As we urge representatives of the Muslim community to look for solutions to the apparent siren-like attraction of violent extremism for those in disenfranchised communities, so we must also robustly reject the simplistic and unauthentic rhetoric that right-wing parties peddle about Islam.
A good place to begin would be to have those government members who make a noise about the threat of Islamist extremism, such as George Christensen and Cory Bernardi, as well as One Nation’s Pauline Hanson, to set the example and reject right-wing extremism in all its forms.
Yes, I’ve had to add a new category of post: “terrorism.” It’s sad. When I wrote about the Nice attack yesterday, I suspected that the perpetrator, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, might have religious motivations, or at least be working for an organization like ISIS, but there was little information. This morning I learned from CNN that ISIS has now claimed credit for the murders:
In an online statement by the terror group’s media agency Amaq and circulated by its supporters, it said the person behind the attack is an ISIS “soldier.”
Five others, including Bouhel’s wife, have been arrested: the CNN piece gives more detail. It’s not clear whether Bouhel was actually sent by ISIS to do the deed, or was a sympathizer working under their direction. Or, I suppose, ISIS could be lying, but I’m not aware that they’ve falsely taken credit for an attack.
Yesterday Maajid Nawaz weighted in…
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Cohen’s new piece in the Guardian, “Don’t look to the Pope for enlightenment values“, is his usual good stuff, criticizing the Vatican for calling Charlie Hebdo anniversary cover “blasphemous,” and especially for the hypocrisy of a Church whose history showed and whose scripture still shows approbation for awful crimes. But there’s one bit of the piece that struck me strongly.
First, though, we have Cohen’s definition of the Enlightenment, taken from Kant. It’s as good as any I’ve seen:
Kant provided a guide for the uninitiated. What is Enlightenment? he asked in 1784…
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Jeff Tayler seems to have moved his “blog” articles on religion and politics from Salon to Quillette. I approve. In late April, Jeff wrote a widely-read piece on Quillette whose title tells it all: “In defense of Sam Harris.” Now he’s written a new piece that might well be called “In defense of Maajid Nawaz,” except that it’s a defense of all progressive Muslims and ex-Muslims, so its real title is “Free speech and Islam—the Left betrays the most vulnerable.”
It might also have been called “The perfidy of Nathan Lean,” that unctuous defender of all things Islam and ample employer of the term “Islamophobia.” For it was Lean who wrote a New Republic piece on Maajid Nawaz that was one of the most odious and unscrupulous pieces of “journalism” I’ve ever seen. (It may not be irrelevant that Lean is employed at the Saudi Arabian-funded Prince…
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by Tim Harding
(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
March 2016, Vol 35, No. 1, under the title ‘In the Dark’).
Like other skeptics, I often despair at the apparent decline in the public understanding of science. Anti-science, pseudoscience, quackery, conspiracy theories and the general distrust of experts seem to be on the rise. I sometimes even wonder whether we in danger of regressing into a new dark age.
So what do we mean by a ‘dark age’? Was there really a dark age in post-Roman Europe? If so, what were its most likely causes? These questions are difficult to answer, and not just because of disagreements among historians. The difficulty is in some ways circular – we call the post-Roman period a ‘dark age’ because we don’t know enough about it (relative to the periods before and after); and we don’t know enough about it because not much was written down at the time.
My own observation is that western civilisation has already suffered two dark ages about 1300 years apart. (There was an earlier dark age in Ancient Greece from around 1100 to 800 BCE). If this ‘trend’ is repeated we should be due for another one in a couple of hundred years’ time.
The term ‘Dark Ages’ commonly refers to the Early Middle Ages, which was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000 CE. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the Central Middle Ages (c. 1001–1300 CE) and the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500CE). The period saw a continuation of downward trends begun during late classical antiquity, including population decline, especially in urban centres, a decline of trade, and increased translocation of peoples. There is a relative paucity of scientific, literary, artistic and cultural output from this time, especially in Western Europe.
Historians suggest that there were several causes of this decline, including the rise of Christianity. The other causes are often overlooked, especially by antitheists trying to score points such as ‘look what happened when your mob was in charge!’. So like good skeptics, let’s examine the historical evidence.
The Greek Dark Age
The first European dark age occurred in ancient Greece from around 1100 to 800 BCE. The archaeological evidence shows a collapse of the Mycenaean Greek civilization at the outset of this period, as their great palaces and cities were destroyed or abandoned and vital trade links were lost. Unfortunately, their Linear B script also disappeared, leaving us with no written accounts of what really happened or why.
Linear B script. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Legend has it that Greece was invaded by the mysterious Dorians from the north and/or the Sea Peoples of uncertain origin but possibly from the Black Sea area. The archeological evidence is of little help to us other than showing a simpler geometrical style of pottery art than that of the Mycenaeans, hinting at occupation by a different culture.
Geometric (9th-7th century BCE) pottery from Melos in Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons
There is archeological evidence of a revival of Greek trade at the beginning of the 8th century BCE, coupled with the appearance of a new Greek alphabet system adapted from the Phoenicians which is still in use today. This led to creation of western civilisation’s oldest extant literary works, such as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad. From succeeding centuries we have been bequeathed major texts of ancient Greek drama, history, philosophy and science.
The decline of the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent during the 2nd century CE, reaching from Babylonia in the East to Spain in the West, Britain and the Netherlands in the North, to Egypt and North Africa in the South. The following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories. The Emperor Diocletian split the empire into separately administered eastern and western halves in 286CE. In 330CE, after a period of civil war, Constantine the Great refounded the city of Byzantium as the newly renamed eastern capital, Constantinople.
During the period from 150 to 400CE, the population of the Roman Empire is estimated to have fallen from 65 million to 50 million, a decline of more than 20 percent. Some have connected this to the Dark Ages Cold Period (300–700CE), when there was a decrease in global temperatures which impaired agricultural yields.
In 400CE, the Visigoths invaded the Western Roman Empire and, although briefly forced back from Italy, in 410CE they sacked the city of Rome. The Vandals again sacked Rome in 455CE. The deposition of the last emperor of the west, Romulus Augustus, in 476CE has traditionally marked the end of the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire after the fall of its western counterpart, had little ability to assert control over the lost western territories. Although the movements of peoples during this period are usually described as ‘invasions’, they were not just military expeditions but migrations of entire peoples into the empire. These were mainly rural Germanic peoples who knew little of cities, writing or money. Administrative, educational and military infrastructure quickly vanished, leading to the collapse of the schools and to a rise of illiteracy even among the leadership.
For the formerly Roman area, there was another 20 percent decline in population between 400 and 600CE, or a one-third decline between 150-600CE which had significant economic consequences. To make matters worse, the Plague of Justinian (541–542CE), which has since been found to have been bubonic plague, recurred periodically for 150 years – killing as many as 50 million people in Europe. The population of the city of Rome itself declined from about 450,000 in 100CE to only 20,000 during the Early Middle Ages. The city of London was largely abandoned.
In the 8th century, the volume of trade reached its lowest level, indicated by very small number of shipwrecks found in the western Mediterranean sea.
One of the main consequences of the fall of Rome was breakdown of the strict Roman law and order, resulting amongst other things in the running away of slaves who had performed most of the labour. Less food and fibre was produced on farms, resulting in people leaving the cities to less efficiently grow their own. Lower agricultural activity resulted in reforestation, or in other words the forests naturally grew back. Travel and trade by land became less safe, exacerbating the economic decline.
The role of the Christians
The Catholic Church was the only centralized institution to survive the fall of the Western Roman Empire intact. It was the sole unifying cultural influence in Western Europe, preserving Latin learning, maintaining the art of writing, and preserving a centralized administration through its network of bishops ordained in succession. The Early Middle Ages are characterized by the control of urban areas by bishops and wider territorial control exercised by dukes and counts. The later rise of urban communes marked the beginning of the Central Middle Ages.
During the Early Middle Ages, the divide between eastern and western Christianity widened, paving the way for the East-West Schism in the 11th century. In the West, the power of the Bishop of Rome expanded. In 607CE, Boniface III became the first Bishop of Rome to use the title Pope. Pope Gregory the Great used his office as a temporal power, expanded Rome’s missionary efforts to the British Isles, and laid the foundations for the expansion of monastic orders.
The institutional structure of Christianity in the west during this period is different from what it would become later in the Central Middle Ages. As opposed to the later church, the church of the Early Middle Ages consisted primarily of the monasteries. In addition, the papacy was relatively weak, and its power was mostly confined to central Italy. Religious orders wouldn’t proliferate until the Central Middle Ages. For the typical Christian at this time, religious participation was largely confined to occasionally receiving mass from wandering monks. Few would be lucky enough to receive this as often as once a month. By the end of the Dark Ages, individual practice of religion was becoming more common, as monasteries started to transform into something approximating modern churches, where some monks might even give occasional sermons. Thus the evidence for powerful centralised Christian control during the Dark Ages is lacking.
The Western European Dark Age
The concept of a Western European Dark Age originated with the Italian scholar Petrarch in the 1330s CE. Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as ‘dark’ compared to the light of classical antiquity. The Protestant reformers of the 16th century had an interest in disparaging the ‘Dark Ages’ as an era of Catholic control, when they (the Protestants) thought that Christianity had ‘gone off the rails’. Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the Central Middle Ages (c. 11th–13th century), although in the 20th century the Dark Ages were contracted back to the Early Middle Ages (500-1000CE) again. I shall refer to this period in western Europe as ‘the Dark Ages’ from here on.
Evidence for the Dark Ages include the lack of output of manuscripts (both originals and copies), a lack of contemporary written history, general population decline, a paucity of inventions, a lack of sea trade, restricted building activity and limited material cultural achievements in general.
The lack of manuscripts in the Dark Ages compared to later Middle Ages is illustrated by the following graph.
The Romans were remarkable innovators. Their inventions of materials included kiln-fired bricks, cement, concrete, wood veneer, cast iron, glassware and surgical instruments. In construction, they invented paved roads, bridges, tunnels, aqueducts, arches, domes, dams, water supply, drainage, sewerage and even underfloor heating. Their production technology included the wheeled plow, the two-field crop system, harvesting machines, paddlewheel mills, the screw press, the force pump, steam power, gearing, pulleys and cranes. The Romans were also admired for their mining technology.
In contrast, hardly any new technology was invented during the Dark Ages. Nor were there any scientific discoveries of note; although science and mathematics continued to flourish in the Islamic world, as discussed below. Yet later in the Central Middle Ages, technological inventions included windmills, mechanical clocks, transparent glass, distillation, the heavy plow, horseshoes, harnesses, stirrups and more powerful crossbows. Architectural innovations enabled the building of larger cathedrals and faster ships.
The invention of the three-field system towards the end of the Dark Ages, coupled with higher temperatures and the heavy plow enabled higher agricultural yields, which kick-started economic recovery and the resumption of trade. Amongst other things, the three-field system created a surplus of oats that could be used to feed more horses. It also required a re-organisation of land tenure that led to manoralism and feudalism.
In the ancient world, Greek was the primary language of science. Advanced scientific research and teaching was mainly carried on in the Hellenistic side of the Roman empire, and in Greek. Late Roman attempts to translate Greek writings into Latin had limited success. As the knowledge of Greek declined, the Latin West found itself cut off from some of its Greek philosophical and scientific roots.
In the late 8th century, there was renewed interest in Classical Antiquity as part of the short-lived Carolingian Renaissance of the early 9th century CE. Charlemagne carried out a reform in education. From 787CE on, decrees began to circulate recommending the restoration of old schools and the founding of new ones across the empire. Institutionally, these new schools were either under the responsibility of a monastery (monastic schools), a cathedral, or a noble court. The teaching of dialectic (a discipline that corresponds to today’s informal logic) was responsible for the increase in the interest in speculative inquiry; from this interest would follow the rise of the Scholastic tradition of Christian philosophy. In the 12th and 13th centuries, many of those schools that were founded under the auspices of Charlemagne, especially cathedral schools, would become universities.
The expansion of Islam
After the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632CE, Islamic forces conquered much of the former Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, starting with the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century, North Africa in the later 7th century, and much of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711CE. This Islamic Empire was known as the Umayyad Caliphate. Its capital was the Spanish city of Cordoba, which by the 10th century CE had become the world’s largest city, with an estimated population of around 500,000.
The Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE
The Islamic conquests reached their peak in the mid-8th century. The defeat of Muslim forces at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 led to the re-conquest of southern France by the Franks, but the main reason for the halt of Islamic growth in Europe was the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty based in Babylon.
The works of Euclid and Archimedes, lost in the West, were translated from Arabic to Latin in Spain. The modern Hindu-Arabic numerals, including a notation for zero, were developed by Hindu mathematicians in the 5th and 6th centuries. Muslim mathematicians learned of it in the 7th century and added a notation for decimal fractions in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the course of the 11th century, Islam’s scientific knowledge began to reach Western Europe, via Islamic Spain.
The former Roman Empire was replaced by three civilisations – Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. The Dark Ages really only refer to one of these civilisations, Western Europe, where there is significant historical evidence of a marked decline in scientific, technological, agricultural, economic, educational and literary activities during this period. There was also a considerable decline in the population of Western Europe, notwithstanding migrations of Germanic peoples from northern Europe. Christianity is likely to have been only one of several causes of the Dark Ages.
Backman, Clifford R. (2015) The Worlds of Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Bennett, Judith M. (2011) Medieval Europe – A Short History. McGraw- Hill, New York.
Gibbon, Edward (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 6, Ch. XXXVII.
Tim Harding B.Sc. works as a regulatory consultant to various governments. He is also studying medieval history at Monash University.
How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.
Today, professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades: can we really understand anything about Islamic State by looking at its rise as the latest incarnation of a centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity?
In 1996, late US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, he argued, conflicts would increasingly involve religion.
Islam, which Huntington claimed had been the opponent of Christianity since the seventh century, would increasingly feature in geopolitical conflict.
So, it wasn’t particularly shocking when, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the then-US president, George W. Bush, used the term “crusade” to describe the American military response.
Framing the subsequent “war on terror” as a crusade acted as a red flag to journalists and political commentators, who could treat the events as simply the most recent stoush in a centuries-old conflict.
The actual Crusades (1096-1487) themselves evoke a romantic image of medieval knights, chivalry, romance and religious high-mindedness. But representing them as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.
Early Islamic conquests
That there were wars between Muslims and Christians is certainly true. After the death of Abu Bakr (573-634), the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph, the second Caliph Umar (583-644) sent the Islamic armies in three divisions to conquer and spread the religion of Islam.
Whole regions that were Christian fell to Islam. The Holy Land, which comprised modern-day Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for instance, was defeated. And Egypt was conquered without even a battle in 640.
Muslim armies marched across north Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into modern Spain, eventually securing a large territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known as Al-Andalus (also known as Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).
They also marched across the Pyrenees and into France in 732, the centenary of Muhammad’s death. But they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as Battle of Tours and, by Arab sources, as Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs) by the Frankish general, Charles Martel (686-741), grandfather of the great Emperor Charlemagne.
This was seen as a Christian victory and, after Poitiers, there were no further attacks on Western Europe. The Crusades came much later.
The causes of the Crusades
The proximate causes of the First Crusade (1096-1099) include the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), who was crowned in 1081 and ruled until his death. His armies met the Muslim Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and were defeated.
This placed the city of Constantinople at risk of conquest. So, the emperor requested that the West send knights to assist him – and he was prepared to pay.
Pope Urban II (1044-1099) preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. He argued that the Turks and Arabs attacked Christian territories and had “killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire”.
All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.
This was recorded by a monk called Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade.
Thousands answered the pope’s call and the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099. But the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East was short-lived and the port city of Ruad, the last Christian possession, was lost in 1302/3.
Many later conflicts that were called Crusades were not actions against Muslim armies at all. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), for instance, was a Venetian Catholic army, which besieged Constantinople. Catholic Christians attacked Orthodox Christians, then looted the city, taking its treasures back to Venice.
Islam was not a factor in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, either. In that instance, Pope Innocent III (1160/1-1216) used the language of war against the infidel (literally “unfaithful”, meaning those without true religion) against heretics in the south of France. So, “right-thinking” Christians killed “deviant” Christians.
The end of the Middle Ages
It wasn’t all intermittent fighting. There were also periods of peace and productive relationships between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages.
For instance, Charlemagne (742-814) (also know as Charles the Great or Charles I), who united most of Western Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, sent gifts to Harun al-Rashid (763-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. In return, he received diplomatic presents such as a chess set, an elaborate clepsydra (water clock) and an elephant.
In Spain, the culture from the early eighth century to the late 15th was known as “la Convicencia” (the co-existence), as Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace (though the level of harmony has been exaggerated). And there was an exchange of ideas in fields including mathematics, medicine and philosophy.
The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually reconquered Al-Andalus. And, in 1492, King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) reclaimed Granada and expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, or forced them to convert to Christianity.
A clumsy view
Clearly, to speak of an “us versus them” mentality, or to frame current geopolitical conflicts as “crusades” of Christians against Muslims, or vice versa, is to misunderstand – and misuse – history.
Modern Westerners would find medieval Crusader knights as unappealing as they do Islamic State.
And it’s impossible to miss the fact that the immediate entry into heaven Pope Urban promised to Christian soldiers who died in battle against the infidel Muslims is conceptually identical to the martyrdom ideology of contemporary jihadists.
Reality is more complex – and more interesting – than the simple continuation of a historical struggle against the same enemy. Muslims conquered Christian territories, yes, but Christians engaged in reconquest.
There were forced conversions to both Islam and Christianity, and – very importantly – actual governments and monarchs were involved. It’s a simplistic thing to say that “Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state”, but there’s an element of truth in it.
The most important reason we should resist the lure of the crusade tag to any fight against jihadists is that groups like Islamic State want the West to think like that.
It justified the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015 as attacks against “the Crusader nation of France”. Osama bin Laden used the same reasoning after the September 11 attacks.
By adopting the role of Crusaders, Western nations play into Islamic State’s hands. It’s how these jihadists want the West to understand itself – as implacably opposed to Islam. But it’s not, and it never has been.
This is the sixth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.
Here’s the header of today’s “Media” section on PuffHo; click to go to the article by Gabriel Arana, “Five ways journalists can avoid Islamophobia in their coverage“:
Arana’s view is that the media in general has “far too often served to spread misinformation and perpetuate prejudice” against Muslims. I’m not so sure that’s true; in fact, the opposite seems to be the case, though of course I read mostly left-wing media. Certainly President Obama has bent over backwards not only to tell Americans not to demonize Muslims (to his credit) but also has pointedly avoided mentioning Islam as a cause of terrorism (not to his credit). And opinion-forming papers like the New York Times and Washington Post almost never implicate religion as a cause of terrorism, and constantly publish editorials telling Americans to avoid “Islamophobia,” which I construe as “demonizing Muslims rather than the tenets of their faith.”
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