Infidels by Andrew Wheatcroft

In the wake of the latest conflict between faiths, Justin Wintle takes issue with a history of jihad and Crusades
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The Independent Culture

According to the press release, Andrew Wheatcroft spent 17 years researching Infidels. The author himself suggests a more modest 10 years. Either way, expectations are raised. Wheatcroft is a capable historian – conscientious, with well-culled sources, and eschewing simple conclusions. I have benefited from his studies of the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, and he has twice collaborated with that doyen of military historians, John Keegan. Was this to be his defining opus?

According to the press release, Andrew Wheatcroft spent 17 years researching Infidels. The author himself suggests a more modest 10 years. Either way, expectations are raised. Wheatcroft is a capable historian – conscientious, with well-culled sources, and eschewing simple conclusions. I have benefited from his studies of the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, and he has twice collaborated with that doyen of military historians, John Keegan. Was this to be his defining opus?

The field Wheatcroft has chosen is as rich as it is pressing. At odd moments during his odyssey, he seeks to secure his intellectual foundations by invoking such disparate figures as Jacques Lacan and Ivan Pavlov. But the heavyweight who means most to Wheatcroft is the critic Mikhail Bakhtin. In a famous passage, Bakhtin depicts two enemies confronting each other. Although they occupy the same space, what they see is quite different. Each beholds what the other cannot see: all that is behind his opponent's back.

Bakhtin's position is more complex than that, but even so furnishes Wheatcroft with his compass point: "enemies in the mirror", in Bakhtin's own phrase. Christians and Muslims alike are infidels in each other's eyes. Beginning with the Arab seizure of Jerusalem in 638, Wheatcroft plots an unrivalled rivalry. Yet he does so selectively.

Detailed expositions of the Muslim occupation of Spain and the subsequent birth of the Christian Reconquista, of the Ottoman empire and its threat to Europe, and of the bitter inter-communal hatreds of the Balkans in Ottoman and post-Ottoman incarnations, make up the bulk of Infidels. These three loci yield marvellous opportunities for the kind of investigation Wheatcroft excels at. Events and their backgrounds are never as one-sided as older, cruder narratives imply. Quite rightly, we are told that in al-Andalus – literally "land of the Vandals" – an accommodation between faiths, later transmuted into convivencia by Christian rulers, was embedded by its Islamic rulers. Conversely, the concept of the "holy war" as practised by Christian Crusaders was largely learnt from jihad, which re-appeared in Spain once the founding Umayyad compact disintegrated.

Apropos of the Ottomans, one of Wheatcroft's many enlightening elucidations explores the sultans' reluctance to sanction European printing technology – often cited as evidence of the Ottomans' backward conservatism. But there were good reasons why the Ottomans baulked at print, some cultural, some technical. Until the introduction of lithography at the end of the 18th century, Arabic script was inherently print-resistant. As for the Balkans, by re-examining the facts, and reappraising accounts that shaped Western prejudices, Wheatcroft demonstrates that any "blame" for seemingly endless atrocities should be equally apportioned among contending parties.

After 300 pages, however, a sense of cultural relativism run judiciously riot sets in, as though there could be no real difference between Christianity and Islam. Yet while Wheatcroft urges that it is the word, and the vitriolic uses to which the word is put, that matters, he curiously avoids examining it in its most potent form: the scriptures. But for all their apparent synapses, the Bible and the Koran are not the same, just as it is not unfair to say that while Christianity became militant, Islam was militant ab initio.

At points I wondered about Wheatcroft's familiarity with the basics of Islam. Early on he describes the Kabaah as "the great black stone in Mecca", which is simply wrong. Later he speaks of the closing of ijtihad ("independent reasoning") within Islam as occurring around 900 – two centuries prematurely, at least. He also fails to acknowledge the profound alteration that overtook Christendom during the Enlightenment. Winding up, Wheatcroft targets President Bush's "Crusade" gaffe in the wake of 11 September 2001, but misses the real point: how swiftly Bush was forced to recant by the mechanics of non-religious accountability and by a prevailing rationalist ideology in the Western media.

All is not lost. The true inspiration, perhaps, of the mutual malediction that is the theme of Infidels is the eschatology that Christianity and Islam do share. Both the Koran and Revelations sing of eternal torture awaiting the improperly qualified. No earthly ruler would escape the attentions of Amnesty International for proposing anything remotely similar. Among believers, though, God and Allah go uncensured.

While Wheatcroft's survey falls short on overview, it does knock another small nail into the coffin of mainstream monotheism – at any rate on "our" side of the shifting divide. For cultural relativism only makes moral sense if it is espoused by all those involved.

Justin Wintle is the author of 'The Rough Guide History of Islam'

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