The Guardian of Islamic Extremism
By: Robert Spencer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Karen Armstrong scolds the Pope for his Islamophobia.
As the global Muslim reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks on Islam threaten to eclipse last winter’s Cartoon Rage in irrationality and violence, there has been the usual and by now predictable undercurrent of sympathy on the Left for those breathing threats and murder against the Pope and the West. Notable among the spokesmen for appeasement and accommodation of violent Islamic intimidation was Karen Armstrong, author of the popular books Islam: A Short History and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

Armstrong on Monday published a piece in The Guardian entitled “We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam: The Pope’s remarks were dangerous, and will convince many more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic.” It is exquisitely ironic that she would term the Pope’s remarks, rather than the Muslim reaction to them, “dangerous” – particularly after a nun in Somalia and a lay Christian in Iraq were murdered in apparent expressions of anger against the Pope. The Pope’s words didn’t kill these people, violent Muslims did; but that fact, and the inappropriate violence of their reaction, forms no part of Armstrong’s calculus. As far as she is concerned, violent Islamic rage against the West, including the rage against the Pope, is all the fault of the West.


And it is long-standing. “Our Islamophobia,” intones Armstrong, “dates back to the time of the Crusades, and is entwined with our chronic anti-semitism.” Armstrong, like Bill Clinton, who in a similar vein explained 9/11 as part of the debt “we are still paying” to the Islamic world for the Crusades,[1] never mentions that centuries of jihad aggression and imperialism that preceded and provoked the Crusades. After the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 632, Muslim armies swept out of Arabia and, under the banner of jihad, conquered the lands that now form the heart of the Islamic world. In the Holy Land, the conquest of Jerusalem in 638 stood at the beginning of centuries of Muslim aggression; Christians in the Holy Land faced an escalating spiral of persecution. A few examples: early in the eighth century sixty Christian pilgrims from Amorium were crucified; around the same time the Muslim governor of Caesaria seized a group of pilgrims from Iconium and had them all executed as spies — except for a small number who converted to Islam. Muslims demanded money from pilgrims, threatening to ransack the Church of the Resurrection if they didn’t pay. Later in the eighth century, a Muslim ruler banned displays of the cross in Jerusalem. He also increased the special poll tax (jizya) that Christians had to pay (Muslims were exempt) as ordained by Qur’an 9:29, and forbade Christians to engage in religious instruction of their own children and fellow-believers.


Brutal subordination and violence became the rule of the day for Christians in the Holy Land. In 772, the caliph al-Mansur ordered Christians and Jews in Jerusalem to be stamped on their hands with a distinctive symbol. Conversions to Christianity were dealt with particularly harshly. In 789, Muslims beheaded a monk who had converted from Islam and plundered the Bethlehem monastery of St. Theodosius, killing many more monks. Other monasteries in the region suffered the same fate. Early in the ninth century the persecutions grew so severe that large numbers of Christians fled for Constantinople and other Christian cities.  Fresh persecutions in 923 saw more churches destroyed, and in 937, Muslims went on a rampage in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, plundering and destroying the Church of Calvary and the Church of the Resurrection.[2]


After a period of Byzantine resurgence, in 1004, the sixth Fatimid Caliph, Abu ‘Ali al-Mansur al-Hakim (985-1021) turned violently against the faith of his Christian mother and uncles (two of whom were Patriarchs) and ordered the destruction of churches, the burning of crosses, and the seizure of church property. He moved against the Jews with similar ferocity. Over the next ten years thirty thousand churches were destroyed, and untold numbers of Christians converted to Islam simply to save their lives. In 1009, al-Hakim gave his most spectacular anti-Christian order: he commanded that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem be destroyed, along with several other churches (including the Church of the Resurrection). The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, rebuilt by the Byzantines in the seventh century after the Persians burned an earlier version, marks the traditional site of Christ’s burial. Bizarrely, the church had served as the model for the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Caliph al-Hakim commanded that the tomb inside be cut down to the bedrock. He ordered Christians to wear heavy crosses around their necks (and Jews heavy blocks of wood in the shape of a calf). He piled on other humiliating decrees, culminating in the order that they accept Islam or leave his dominions.[3]


The erratic caliph ultimately relaxed his persecution and even returned much of the property he had seized from the Church.[4] Some of al-Hakim’s changed attitude probably came from his increasingly tenuous connection to Islamic orthodoxy. In 1021, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances; some of his followers proclaimed him divine and founded a sect based on this mystery and other esoteric teachings of a Muslim cleric, Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Darazi (after whom the Druze sect is named).[5] Thanks to al-Hakim’s change of policy, which continued after his death, in 1027 the Byzantines were allowed to rebuild the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.[6]


Nevertheless, Christians were in a precarious position and pilgrims remained under threat. In 1056, the Muslims expelled three hundred Christians from Jerusalem and forbade European Christians from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.[7] When the fierce and fanatical Seljuk Turks swept down from Central Asia, they enforced a new Islamic rigor making life increasingly difficult for both native Christians and pilgrims (whose pilgrimages they blocked). After they crushed the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071 and took the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes prisoner, all of Asia Minor was open to them — and their advance was virtually unstoppable. In 1076, they conquered Syria; in 1077, Jerusalem. The Seljuk Emir Atsiz bin Uwaq promised not to harm the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but once his men had entered the city, they murdered 3,000 people.[8] The same year the Seljuks established the sultanate of Rum (Rome, referring to the New Rome, Constantinople) in Nicaea, perilously close to Constantinople itself; from here they continued to threaten the Byzantines and harass the Christians all over their new domains.


The Christian Empire of Byzantium, which before Islam’s wars of conquest had ruled over a vast expanse including southern Italy, North Africa, the Middle East, and Arabia, was reduced to little more than Greece. It looked as if its death at the hands of the Seljuks was imminent. The Church of Constantinople considered the pope a schismatic and had squabbled with him for centuries, but the new Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118), swallowed his pride and appealed for help. And that is how the First Crusade came about: it was a response to the Byzantine Emperor’s call for help. The Crusaders were responding to the emperor dialing 911.


The Crusaders and the Crusades were not perfect, but this brief survey should establish that they were in no sense a gratuitous proto-colonial attack by the Christian West against a hitherto peaceful and benign Islamic world. On the contrary, they were a response to centuries of violence by Muslims against Christians – violence that made it perfectly understandable that the 12th century Abbot Peter the Venerable would reproach Muslims for “bestial cruelty.” Yet in Armstrong’s world Peter’s words were an early manifestation among Christians of an “entrenched loathing of Islam,” a loathing that evidently had no cause or justification beyond xenophobia and sheer prejudice. And, says Armstrong portentously, “this medieval cast of mind is still alive and well….Hatred of Islam is so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in western culture that it brings together people who are usually at daggers drawn.” But this hatred, as far as Armstong is concerned, sprang only from the West’s own actions. Again like Clinton, she invokes the Crusaders’ sack of Jerusalem in 1099, explaining that “it is always difficult to forgive people we know we have wronged. Thenceforth Jews and Muslims became the shadow-self of Christendom, the mirror image of everything that we hoped we were not -- or feared that we were.”


This silly psychologizing ignores the fact that the sack of Jerusalem, while brutal and heinous, was nothing singular. One atrocity does not excuse another. But it does illustrate that the Crusaders’ behavior in Jerusalem was consistent with that of other armies of the period — since all states subscribed to the same notions of siege and resistance. In 1148, Muslim commander Nur ed-Din did not hesitated to order the killing of every Christian in Aleppo. In 1268, when the jihad forces of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars took Antioch from the Crusaders Baybars was annoyed to find that the Crusader ruler, Count Bohemond VI, had already left the city. So he wrote to Bohemond to make sure he knew what his men had done in Antioch: “You would have seen your knights prostrate beneath the horses’ hooves, your houses stormed by pillagers and ransacked by looters, your wealth weighed by the quintal, your women sold four at a time and bought for a dinar of your own money! You would have seen the crosses in your churches smashed, the pages of the false Testaments scattered, the Patriarchs’ tombs overturned.”[9]


Most notorious of all may be the jihadists’ entry into Constantinople on May 29, 1453, when they — like the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099 — finally broke through a prolonged resistance to their siege. Like the Crusaders, who violated the sanctuary of both synagogue and mosque, the jihadists raided monasteries and convents, emptying them of their inhabitants, and plundered private houses. They entered the Hagia Sophia, which for nearly a thousand years had been the grandest church in Christendom, killed the elderly and weak and led the rest off into slavery. The magnificent old church was turned into a mosque; hundreds of other churches in Constantinople and elsewhere suffered the same fate. Millions of Christians joined the wretched ranks of the dhimmis; others were enslaved, and many martyred.[10] 


Yet to Armstrong, acts of Islamic aggression were nothing more than “fearful fantasies created by Europeans.” Among these “fearful fantasies” she also mentions the anti-Semitic blood libel that circulated among Christians during the time of the Crusades – the charge that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make Passover matzo. But she of course makes no mention of the fact that the blood libel is alive and well today, not in the Christian or post-Christian world, but in the House of Islam. Syria in 2003 and Jordan in 2005 aired during Ramadan a viciously anti-Semitic TV series dramatizing the murder of a Christian child by wicked Jews, who then used the child’s blood in baking Passover matzo. The blood libel has also been spread recently on official Iranian TV. Why have Muslims taken up this ancient Christian slander? Armstrong doesn’t say.


Armstrong’s other charges are similarly wrongly focused and lacking in substance. She points out that “the Muslims who have objected so vociferously to the Pope’s denigration of Islam have accused him of ‘hypocrisy’, pointing out that the Catholic church is ill-placed to condemn violent jihad when it has itself been guilty of unholy violence in crusades, persecutions and inquisitions and, under Pope Pius XII, tacitly condoned the Nazi Holocaust.” Leaving aside Armstrong’s repetition of the by-now common slander of Pope Pius XII, which has been thoroughly refuted by Rabbi David Dalin in his book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, no one is actually claiming that Muslims have or have ever had a monopoly on religious violence. What Armstrong does not acknowledge is that Islam is unique among the religions of the world in having a doctrine of religious imperialism. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, tells his followers to call people to Islam, and if they refuse, to offer them second-class dhimmi status or war: “Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war…When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action….Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them….If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya [the tax on non-Muslims specified in Qur’an 9:29]. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them (Sahih Muslim 4294).”


Conversion, subjugation, or war: there is not and never has been a theological imperative of this kind in Christianity. Yet Armstrong alleges that “until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity. The Qur’an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword.” It is true that forced conversion is forbidden by Islamic law, although the choice of conversion, subjugation or war contains a level of coercion that Westerners may find incompatible with the notion of free choice. Muslims did not impose conversion to Islam by the sword, but they made life so difficult for non-Muslims in their domains that conversion became their only path to a better life. Armstrong’s observation that “until the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Qur’anic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own” is largely true, but for a reason she does not mention: converts no longer paid the tax, jizya, that was collected from the non-Muslim dhimmis. Too many converts would destroy the tax base.


But Armstrong has never had an overly strong attachment to accuracy. Daniel Pipes has noted about her book Islam: A Short History that “Armstrong goes out of her way to soften every hard edge, explain away every unpleasantness, and hide what she cannot otherwise account for.” An egregious example of this comes in her biography of Muhammad: according to Islamic traditions (hadith) reported by Bukhari, the hadith collection considered most reliable by Muslims, the Prophet of Islam married his favorite wife, Aisha, “when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old.” He was at this time in his early fifties. Embarrassed by this, many Islamic apologists claim – in the teeth of this evidence – that Aisha was actually older. Armstrong obligingly asserts that “Tabari says that she was so young that she stayed in her parents’ home and the marriage was consummated there later when she had reached puberty.”[11] Unfortunately, her readers are unlikely to have volumes of Tabari on hand to check her assertion; contrary to Armstrong’s account, the Muslim historian quotes Aisha thusly: “The Messenger of God married me when I was seven; my marriage was consummated when I was nine.”[12] Did Aisha go through puberty at nine, or was Armstrong covering up one of the more embarrassing aspects of Muhammad’s career?


The time for such disingenuousness is over, as is the time, if there ever were a time, for the unseemly self-recrimination to which Armstrong is calling the West. The Muslim rage against the Pope’s call to eschew religious violence reveals an Islamic world in deep denial, as irrational as it is unable to take responsibility for its own actions. And in this it has Karen Armstrong and other Leftist haters of Western civilization and culture as willing accomplices.



[1] Bill Clinton, “Remarks as delivered by President William Jefferson Clinton, Georgetown University, November 7, 2001.” Georgetown University Office of Protocol and Events, www.georgetown.edu.

[2] Moshe Gil, A History of Palestine 634-1099, Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 473-476. To his credit, Caliph al-Muqtadir did respond to the 923 persecutions by ordering the church rebuilt.

[3] Gil, A History of Palestine 634-1099, p. 376.

[4] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume I, (Cambridge University Press, 1951), pp. 35-6; Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, (Routledge, 2000), pp. 16-17; Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History (Yale University Press, 1987), p. 44.

[5] Bernard Lewis, The Assassins, (Basic Books, 1967), p. 33.

[6] Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume I, p. 36.

[7] Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Volume I, p. 49.

[8] Gil, A History of Palestine 634-1099, p. 412.

[9] Thomas F. Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades by (Rowan & Littlefield, 2005), pp. 181-182.

[10] Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 145ff.

[11] Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, Harper San Francisco, 1992, p. 157.

[12] Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, Volume VII, The Foundation of the Community, M. V. McDonald, translator, State University of New York Press, 1987, p. 7.


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Robert Spencer is a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of eight books, eleven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book, Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs, is available now from Regnery Publishing.