151. Not So New Enemies

Part two of a comparison of Christianity and Islam.

Bush Two called those who strap on bombs to kill their enemies, cowards. That was the most monumentally stupid statement to ever come out of the mouth of a man not noted for his wisdom. People who die for their beliefs are not cowards. If we are to defeat them, we have to understand them. Mislabeling them is not useful. And if we call them fanatics, we had better understand what fanaticism is.

We made a start yesterday by looking at Christian fanatics. Now it’s time to make the comparison to Islam.


Muhammad did not claim to be God or his son. He claimed to be God’s messenger, a prophet, making him closer to Moses or Isaiah than to Jesus. Muslims believe that Jesus was also a prophet, but not the Son of God. Christianity grew out of Judaism, fulfilling it and therefore removing its validity, at least according to Christians. Islam grew out of both and recognizes both as sister religions which have been rendered obsolete by the Koran. Christians and Jews get preferential tax treatment in Islamic law as People of the Book.

That doesn’t keep wars from happening.

Christians claim to be a religion of peace, but history does not bear that out. Actual wars of religion occurred throughout the Reformation period, and wars of politics and commerce often had a strong religious component. Think of the conquest of Mexico, with priests marching beside the conquistadores and building their missions in the shadow of the presidio.

Islam was born in conflict and has never hidden its belief that the Koran should be spread by military conquest.

Before the Reformation, Christianity had about a thousand years of supremacy, full of internal strife, but well able to keep that strife in check. When Jan Hus rebelled against the Church, they burned him at the stake; problem solved.

Islam, on the other hand, split into two parts almost from the beginning. Upon Muhammad’s death, two lines of succession emerged. Those who favored Abu Bakr became Sunni; those who favored Ali ibn Abi Talib became the Shia. Both sects follow the five pillars of Islam and both believe in the absolute authority of the Koran. They differ on their interpretations of the Koran, and those disagreements have been passed on by sectarian schools. Each sect would say that the other might think they follow the Koran, but they are following false doctrine, and have abandoned Allah. All of this sounds a lot like my Baptist father arguing with my Catholic uncle.

Each of the two sects of Islam remained unified. This was very different from the Catholic and Protestant split. The Catholic church remained unified, but Protestants exploded into hundreds of different denominations, mostly at verbal war with one another, and occasionally at real war.

Throughout the history of Islam, church and government have interacted closely. Islam was spread by conquest, which isn’t necessarily as bloody as it seems. Wherever Islam conquered, the old underdogs often rode the elevator of change to high position in the new order. Sometimes they were very helpful in easing the road to conquest.

By a century after Muhammad’s death, much of the Holy Land was in Muslim hands, which did not please the Catholic church. When Tariq ibn Ziyad led his armies across the Straits of Gibraltar and conquered Spain in 711, the Catholic church fought back, but it took seven hundred years to expel the conquerors. In 1492, the Catholic rulers of Spain finally drove out the last Muslims, expelled the Jews, sent Columbus exploring, and began the Spanish Inquisition. Lovely year.

Also during that period, the Catholic church decided to take back the Holy Land, and set the Crusades in motion. Everybody knows that. What is not so well known is that for most of the second millennium, Eastern Europe was a battleground where vast areas were conquered by Muslim leaders, then reconquered by Christian leaders a few decades later, then Muslim, then Christian, for a very long and depressing time.

So we come to today, in a section of the world where two warring sects of Islam are filled with fourteen hundred years of hatred for each other; where religious, ethnic, and dynastic differences abound; and where those who would prefer prosperity at any reasonable cost, clash with those who are entirely dedicated to following the word of Allah, as their particular leaders understand that word. Many would love to kill westerners, but satisfy themselves instead by killing members of the opposite sect who are so near at hand, and such an easy target.

Above all, Islam is a religion which never exploded into a hundred sects. When there are only two sects, victory and the destruction of the other seems possible for both.

In Britain during the War of the Three Kingdoms (see tomorrow’s post) even pious men kept switching sides because they were enmeshed in conflicting loyalties to King or Parliament, to home region, to religion, to friends, and to their own particular bottom line. All of these loyalties were absolute, but as the situations changed, one loyalty would override another and a man would find himself fighting along side the ones he was fighting against only months earlier.

That should sound familiar. Change the names and the dates, and it could be the Middle East today.


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