Live & Die by the Sword, But Convert by the Sword?
Freddie posted a quotation from Gregg Easterbrook (whose writing I often find refreshingly counter-intuitive) about the success of the recent Indonesian elections. Easterbrook correctly laments the lack of coverage in the US press this event has received. Given that Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, has had peaceful democratic elections and voted down more hardline Islamist elements, you think this would receive praise from all the right-wing pundits always calling out “moderate” Muslims. Well I don’t know about moderate–how about just decent, good people–but here they are. And crickets chirp on the right. (Apparently that’s going around over at those parts lately).
A lesson to be gained from Indonesia is that responsive government that tries (sincerely) to work on anti-corruption and extending development to larger swaths of the society will very likely A)get voted back into office and B)tamp down any retrograde movements. Who wunda thunk it? The reason Islamism is so strong in the Arab world in particular is the total corruption and authoritarian suppression of humanity that is the political norm there: cf, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, to name just a few.
Mounting my hobby camel, it’s a point to remember that religion (particularly Islam) does not exist separate from politics. [This is to project the Western secular interpretation of things onto the Islamic world]. That is the religion is always mixed up in the actual history.
Which is why I have to criticize this portion of a comment (from Br. Roque Nuevo) in the comments to Freddie’s original post (the rest of his comment I’m largely in agreement with).
Indonesia is a great exception in the Arab/Muslim world for its pluralism and tolerance. It’s notable that Islam arrived to Indonesia not by the famous Islamic Sword but through the peaceful efforts of Muslim traders. People in Indonesia accepted Islam because they wanted to not because they were conquered. Could this historical tidbit be a factor in its political culture today?
In particular I’d like to hone in on this symbol of Islam as spread by the sword. Particularly when it is contrasted as in this paragraph with non-violent forms of conversion (traders sharing their faith, people being attracted to that and joining of their own volition). It’s a very powerful rhetorical device and emotional symbol–particularly in current debates about US foreign policy and the state of the world politically–but it needs some unpacking (or perhaps sheathing?).
When discussing this issue it’s really important to make a distinction between the spread of Islam as a religious empire and the spread of the actual religion among the populace of said conquered areas. Of course yes in its early days Arab Muslim warriors went around and were highly successful militarily and conquered a huge empire–arguably the largest in world history–in a very short amount of time. By that measure yes the religion spread through military projection of might.
But the lesson to be drawn from such a piece of information is typically way overblown.
Christian missionaries to India, Japan, the New World, Africa rode on commercial vessels that were imperial (crown-approved politico-economic) projects. So I guess you could say Christianity was spread by the gun and the steel blade. Before that Christianity was spread by its promotion as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Plus, we’re talking about the ancient and the medieval worlds. Everybody was spreading their power through violence.
Moreover, this classic view of Islam as “convert or die by the sword” really doesn’t comport with the history. For those interested I recommend Philip Jenkins’ book The Lost History of Christianity. The subtitle to which is The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–And How it Died. Thousand years in the Middle East goes well past the initial arrival of Islam in the 7th century. Of course the numbers for that period are always hard to gauge, but Jenkins (and others) makes a compelling case that Christianity was for hundreds of years after Arab Islamic elites conquered and ruled the Middle East politically, the mass majority of the population was still Christian.
In fact in one case, the Muslim rulers forbade making converts to Islam as it was costing the state tax revenues–Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were allowed to maintain their religion at the price of a tax.
Of course this was the Middle Ages and its was not enlightened religious pluralism. The rulers were Muslims and they saw their duty as promoting their religion. Same with Christian Europe. Same with pretty much every ruler in that time period. Still were a Jew living in the 15th century you would likely have rather lived under the Ottomans than say the Spanish Catholic monarchs.
But the key point is the strong maintaining of Christianity as a dominant if not possibly the dominant religion of the masses under Muslim rule. Hardly conversion by the sword. What accounts more than anything for the coming extinction of Christianity throughout the Middle East is the religious Reformation going on in Islam since the beginnings of the 20th century. Like the Christian Reformation, it is putting a great deal of emphasis on purity of doctrine and leading to political-religious absolutism. Similarly, as we saw in Iraq, the Islamic Reformation looks to have its own version of the Wars of Religion between its various sects.
If anything the history in the Arab world might make the exact opposite point–that the real problem is that the history of absolutist rule politically in the region convincing itself that it’s interests are the interests of the people as well as of the religion of Islam.
The way in which the masses of places like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, actually came through the conversion efforts of the Sufi orders. Very similar to the trader evangelists of Indonesia. They used persuasion, religious arguments, and so forth to convince people to join their faith.
In Iran arguably Zoroastrianism was more squashed than Christianity throughout the Levant or parts of North Africa. But Zoroastrianism, a native Persian religion, ended up being resurrected from its death, to form Shia Islam. Interesting theological question: did Islam convert Zoroastrianism or did Zoroastrianism convert Islam?
In East Africa, Islam, prior to the beginning of the 20th century, was mostly a religion of the Arab slave traders. It was again spread (p0litically and geographically) by the sword but not vertically down into the society in many places. And even where it did it was often an Islam merged with local animistic indigenous religion. It’s only in the last hundred years where Islam (and Christianity too) have become truly African in nature and flowered/expanded–again not through the sword but through native missionary efforts.
The question of the subcontinent and Central Asia is a much tougher one and far more controversial. Here’s a wiki on the subject that lays out various schools of thought.
If history is only the history of the ‘great men’ then I suppose this theory holds though only up to a point. More is going on even at that elite level I would hold. Nevertheless, a more nuanced take, including more the lives of the large mass of humanity poor and just struggling to make some meager existence (then as now) reveals more light, complementing and illuminating the otherwise one-sided interpretation of human history.