Hugh Fitzgerald: A Tribute To Karen Armstrong, Historian

Among the best-known apologists of Islam, the monstrously prolific Karen Armstrong has been spreading her wildly inaccurate versions of Islam and Islamic history for several decades. She‘s preached her Interfaith gospel of why-can’t-we-all-get-alongness, has kept up a steady stream of appearances discussing the “three Abrahamic faiths’” which she believes have so much in common, she’s appeared on several television programs about Muhammad, she’s served as an advisor for the PBS documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (2002), and in 2007 delivered a lecture at the invitation of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

Awarded the $100,000 TED Prize in February 2008, Armstrong called for drawing up a Charter for Compassion, “in the spirit of the Golden Rule, to identify shared moral priorities across religious traditions, in order to foster global understanding and a peaceful world.” This Charter, vague and vacuous as it was, and not much different than the beauty queen who says that in her spare time she “works for world peace,” was solemnly presented to the world at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. in November 2009. Signatories included Queen Noor of Jordan, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Paul Simon. You get the picture: the Good and Great, putting in an appearance and signing up for yet one more jejune attempt at Interfaith harmony. Notice how the four named were chosen to represent Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. But a moment’s thought will reveal an insurmountable problem. What shared “moral priorities” does Islam have with any other faith? In Islam, it is incumbent on all Believers to fulfill the duty of Jihad against all Infidels, until the entire world has been subjugated, and Islam everywhere dominates, and Muslims rule, everywhere. What “shared moral priorities” can there be between Muslims and non-Muslims, given the more than 100 Jihad verses in the Qur’an calling for war against the Infidels, and containing detailed descriptions of ways to sow terror among the non-Muslims. And how does one share “moral priorities” with those who want to conquer you, and who are told, in their holy book, that “non-Muslims are the most vile of creatures” (Quran 98:6)? None of this in mentioned in any of Karen Armstrong’s many attempts to whitewash Islam.

She is particularly eager to liken those with anti-Islamic views today to the Nazis spewing their hatred of Jews in the years leading up to the Final Solution. Criticizing the liberal comedian Bill Maher, Armstrong told Salon “this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.” Maher responded to Armstrong’s comments by telling Vanity Fair, “It’s beyond stupid. Jews weren’t oppressing anybody. There weren’t 5,000 militant Jewish groups. They didn’t do a study of treatment of women around the world and find th`at the Jews were at the bottom of it. There weren’t 10 Jewish countries in the world that were putting gay people to death just for being gay. It’s idiotic.” Armstrong repeated her grotesque and offensive criticism of Maher by telling the New York Times, “My problem with some current critics of Islam is that their criticism is neither accurate, fair, nor well-informed. I am sure they do not intend this, but in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe, we learned how dangerous and ultimately destructive this kind of discourse could be.” Really? What “kind of discourse” is she now objecting to? Does she mean those who attack the misogyny in Islam, the polygamy, the use of sex slaves (as in the Islamic State), the grooming gangs in the United Kingdom, the mass rapes in Cologne? Does she mean those who bring up the story of little Aisha, with whom Muhammad had sexual intercourse when she was nine years old? Does she think those who denounce the killing of Muhammad’s critics — Asma bint Marwan, Abu ‘Afak, Ka’b bin al-Ashraf — are akin to Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg, and other Nazi propagandists? Does she think that Muhammad’s killing of the 600-900 bound prisoners of the Banu Qurayza tribe doesn’t deserve criticism? Does she believe that the torture and murder of Kinana of Khaybar is just the kind of thing the Nazis would criticize? Or aren’t many of those episodes in the life of Muhammad the kind of thing that the Nazis would, and did, do?

And what does this appalling creature, with her Charter for Compassion, and her TED award, and her speeches to Muslim and interfaith groups, and her attempt “in the spirit of the Golden Rule, to identify shared moral priorities across religious traditions, in order to foster global understanding and a peaceful world” think of the more than 30,000 Jihad attacks on non-Muslims since 9/11? Anything? Nothing? Does she think that even to raise such matters is dangerous, because they will make people anti-Muslim and that, of course, would never do, would of course smack of the anti-Jewish prejudice whipped up by the Nazis in the 1930s? We all remember the 30,000 attacks all over the world by Jewish terrorists in the 1930s, don’t we? One can well imagine what such ex-Muslims as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, and Nonie Darwish, risking possible death in order to tell their own experiences of Islam, think of the apologist Karen Armstrong.

But it’s not only her view of Islam, and its critics, that is so skewed. Her history, or reimagined version, of Islamic conquest, and of the wars between Muslims and non-Muslims, is also misleading. Take, for example — and there are so many that might be given — how she attempts to liken the treatment of the Moors in Spain to that of the Jews, which is quite in keeping with her attempt to liken criticism of Muslims nowadays to the criticism of Jews by Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.

Here is how she tells the story of Jews and Moors in Spain at the end of the Reconquista (my comments are interpolated throughout):

“In 1492, the year that is often said to inaugurate the modern era, three very important events happened in Spain. In January, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Europe; later, Muslims were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or exile. In March, the Jews of Spain were also forced to choose between baptism and deportation. Finally, in August, Christopher Columbus, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a protégé of Ferdinand and Isabella, crossed the Atlantic and discovered the West Indies. One of his objectives had been to find a new route to India, where Christians could establish a military base for another crusade against Islam. As they sailed into the new world, western people carried a complex burden of prejudice that was central to their identity.”

In 1492, “the Catholic monarchs conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Europe.”

What then should we call all those lands in southern and eastern Europe that the Ottomans were at that very moment busy conquering and seizing, including Constantinople, the richest, most populous, most important city in all of Christendom for 800 years, taken by the Turks on a Tuesday (May 29, 1453), and the Balkans (including the then-vast Serbian lands)? And what are modern-day Albania, Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria if not part of the “Muslim stronghold in Europe”? The Ottomans continued to press northward and westward, later seizing much of Hungary and threatening Vienna twice. Were these not parts of Europe, and was not part of Europe in the East, including what had been its most important city for a millennium, Constantinople, firmly in Muslim hands both before Granada fell – and also long after? So how could Armstrong describe Granada as “the last Muslim stronghold in Europe”? Could it be that the entire Ottoman Empire simply slipped her mind?

Or was it a case not of simple — albeit massive — forgetting, but of something more subtle going on? Is it that Armstrong believed it would not do to remind readers that while the Muslim invaders and conquerors of Spain lost their last “stronghold” in Granada, other Muslim invaders and conquerors were busy at the other end of Europe, seizing lands and subjugating the native populations, imposing the devshirme (the forced levy of Christian and Jewish children to serve in the Ottoman military) as well as the Jizyah (the capitation tax on non-Muslims, payment of which allowed them to continue to practice their religions) and all the other disabilities that, wherever Muslims conquered, were imposed on non-Muslims, not according to the whim of an individual ruler, but as part of a clearly elaborated theology.

Now having begun with that year 1492, Armstrong has a bit of a problem. It was in that year that Jews were forced to be baptized or to leave Spain. But though Granada had fallen, nothing then happened to the Muslims. In fact, they were treated with the same gentleness that all the Mudejares (Spanish Muslims) who had been defeated, in successive campaigns, were always treated by the Christian victors. Henry Lea, the pioneering historian of the Inquisition, who was hardly looking for ways to exculpate Christianity, describes the generosity with which the defeated Muslims were treated in Granada, and after the prior victories as well:

“It was the Jews against whom was directed the growing intolerance of the fifteenth century and, in the massacres that occurred, there appears to have been no hostility manifested against the Mudéjares. When Alfonso de Borja, Archbishop of Valencia (afterwards Calixtus III), supported by Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, urged their [the Mudejars] expulsion on Juan II of Aragon, although he appointed a term for their exile, he reconsidered the matter and left them undisturbed. So when, in 1480, Isabella ordered the expulsion from Andalusia of all Jews who refused baptism and when, in 1486, Ferdinand did the same in Aragon, they both respected the old capitulations and left the Mudéjares alone. The time-honored policy was followed in the conquest of Granada, and nothing could be more liberal than the terms conceded to the cities and districts that surrendered. The final capitulation of the city of Granada was a solemn agreement, signed November 25, 1491, in which Ferdinand and Isabella, for themselves, for their son the Infante Juan and for all their successors, received the Moors of all places that should come into the agreement as vassals and natural subjects under the royal protection, and as such to be honored and respected. Religion, property, freedom to trade, laws and customs were all guaranteed, and even renegades from Christianity among them were not to be maltreated, while Christian women marrying Moors were free to choose their religion. For three years, those desiring expatriation were to be transported to Barbary at the royal expense, and refugees in Barbary were allowed to return. When, after the execution of this agreement, the Moors, with not unnatural distrust, wanted further guarantees, the sovereigns made a solemn declaration in which they swore by God that all Moors should have full liberty to work on their lands, or to go wherever they desired through the kingdoms, and to maintain their mosques and religious observances as heretofore, while those who desired to emigrate to Barbary could sell their property and depart.”

It was not until 1502, after difficulties ensued between Spanish authorities, including the famous Cardinal Ximenes (he of the Complutensian Polyglot, the 1492 Bible in five languages), and the Muslims (Mudejares) that the latter were given the choice of expulsion or conversion. And a great many of them pretended to convert, and remained in Spain – far more Muslims were capable of engaging in dissimulation of their faith than were the hapless Jews, who were expelled, in 1492, virtually overnight. It was much later, not until the late 16th century, under Philip II, that the last of the Muslims (“Moors”) in Spain were finally expelled, having before that risen in revolt more than once, and been subject to several incomplete expulsions, a treatment nothing like that mass expulsion imposed overnight in 1492 on the Jews.

Armstrong manages to allude to that first, rather ineffective expulsion of 1502: “later [i.e. in a different year altogether] Muslims were given the choice of Christianity or exile.” She does not add, and may not know, as history is clearly not her strong suit, that Muslims in Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492 were not under any immediate danger of expulsion, and it was only when they showed signs of refusing to integrate as asked (and it was assumed that over time they would share the Christian faith, though at first nothing was done to exact such a promise) that they were presented with the choice of expulsion or conversion. She may not know, either, that Muslims in a Spain now everywhere ruled by Christians, asked members of the ulema (a body of Muslim scholars) in North Africa (in present-day Morocco) to determine whether under Islamic law they might continue to live in Spain under non-Muslim rule. They were told that it was not licit, that it was important for them not to be ruled by non-Muslims, and that they must, therefore, return to the Muslim-ruled lands of North Africa. Such details provide a rather different slant on what Karen Armstrong offers – she takes the real tragedy, the overnight expulsion of the hapless and inoffensive Jews, and attempts to make the reader think that the Muslims were equally inoffensive, equally harmless, and also treated with equal ferocity, as the Jews. But they were not equally inoffensive, not equally harmless, and not treated with equal ferocity. The danger of a military uprising by the Mudejares, possibly helped by Muslims from North Africa, or even from the Ottomans, was real, while the Jews in Spain never were militarily powerful enough to pose a similar threat, nor did they have armed coreligionists just across the Strait of Gibraltar..

Let’s read over again, slowly, what Armstrong wrote: “In January, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Europe; later, Muslims were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or exile. In March, the Jews of Spain were also forced to choose between baptism and deportation.” Any unwary reader would think that the Muslims were given that choice of conversion or exile before the expulsion of the Jews: “In March, the Jews of Spain were also forced to choose between baptism and deportation.” Note how that “also” is dropped in, as if the the main event was the nonexistent (in 1492) expulsion of the Moors, which she had taken care to slip into her discussion of the Fall of Granada, so that she could diminish the significance of the expulsion of the Jews with that afterthoughtish “also.” The Jews were “also forced to choose” — just as the Moors supposedly had already been but, in fact, would only be asked to make such a choice a decade later, and even then were not subject to the kind of treatment the Jews had had to endure in 1492.

There was, let’s not forget (though Armstrong wants you to forget) that the Muslims were invaders and conquerors in Spain, who had been resisted during the 780 years of the Reconquista, and when expelled, and not all at once, as were the Jews, they simply went across the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa, from whence they had originally come, to live again among fellow Muslims, under Muslim rule. Armstrong never tells us how different was the expulsion of the Moors. Nor does she point out, as she would if she were trying to compare the quite different treatments of Jews and Muslims, that the Jews of Spain, unlike the Muslims, never invaded, never conquered, never represented a threat to the political or social or religious order of Christian Spain. And when the Jews were expelled, they were not to find refuge, like the Muslims, in lands ruled by well-armed coreligionists, but again, to be scattered, both to Ottoman domains and to Christian ones, such as Salonika or Amsterdam, to rebuild their uprooted lives as best they could.

Under Muslim rule in Spain, despite their sometimes horrendous treatment, as recorded by Maimonides in his “Epistle to the Yemen” (Maimonides fled Islamic Spain and sent the “Epistle” to his coreligionists in the Yemen), the Jews managed to make important cultural contributions as translators (along with Christians), as physicians, and as poets (the name Judah Halevi comes to mind). They were perfectly willing to live in Spain under Christian rule. They posed no military or political threat, in contradistinction to the Muslims. They did nothing to deserve their expulsion. But Karen Armstrong has sympathy for the Jews in Spain only insofar as that sympathy can be transferred to the real objects of her pity, the Muslims, and she will do nothing to help readers to recognize the difference in the two cases, that of the Jews being one of undeserved mistreatment, that of the Muslims a matter of geopolitical prudence. It took a full decade for the Spanish rulers and clerics to realize that the Muslims, though conquered, were not, as had been hoped, eventually going to convert to the Christian faith, and the signs they gave of continued insubmission could only disturb the Christian monarchs. It had taken 780 years for the Reconquista. Why should the Spanish Christians, now that they had been militarily victorious everywhere on the Iberian Peninsula, need to worry that the Muslims might rise in revolt (which, given the proximity of Muslim allies just across the Straits of Gibraltar, was a distinct possibility) when they could remove the problem once and for all?

And such local Muslim revolts did take place in Spain in the sixteenth century, among those Muslims who had only pretended to convert to Christianity. But it was not until the Morisco revolt of the Alpujarras in Granada in 1568 that official attitudes in Spain hardened. That war lasted until 1570; at the end of it, Grenadan Moriscos were not expelled but, instead, relocated to the interior, and scattered among “Old Christians,” that is, those Christians who were not descended from Jewish or Muslim converts, and, it was assumed, were likely to be the most trustworthy Christians of them all.

But still there were worries about the failure of hundreds of thousands of Moriscos to assimilate. The fear, too, that they might be in contact with Barbary pirates or the Ottomans (or even Protestants!) led the Spanish monarch in 1609 to order the expulsion of the last remaining Moriscos.

Both Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain, but not on the same date, and not at all in the same way. However determined Armstrong may be to convince us that these were identical historical events, both prompted in her modish view by the demonization of “the Other” (a phenomenon which apparently results from the peculiar psychic deficiency of Christian Europe), they were far from identical. The Moors were treated by Spanish officials much more leniently than the Jews, even though they were a greater geopolitical threat, with powerful coreligionists just across the Strait of Gibraltar in North Africa, than were the Jews, who posed no threat whatsoever. The phrase Armstrong uses about “the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors in 1492” does violence to the truth, but the misleading same-dating furthers Armstrong’s desire to win sympathy for Muslims.

Armstrong has been repeatedly retelling, in her inimitable fashion, the story of European Christendom’s relations with Islam and with Muslims. In her retelling, the Muslims are innocent victims, and as innocent victims, likened misleadingly to the Jews. They are also the people who provided, in Armstrong’s view, that bright shining moment of European history known as Islamic Spain, which offers the only example of real tolerance and humanity to be found anywhere in Europe before the modern era, a veritable paradise of convivencia. One wants to ask the obvious: if Islamic Spain was really so wonderful, why did the Christians fight for 780 years to free themselves from that veritable paradise of tolerance and humanity? It is a tough job to avoid answering that question, but Karen Armstrong has proven equal to the task. And her real theme is not history, not what happened in Spain in 1492, or 1502, or 1568,or 1609, but to make Europeans feel ashamed of themselves for showing any signs of wariness or suspicion about the millions of Muslims who now live in Europe, having come among the indigenous Infidels to settle, but not, pace Armstrong, to settle down.