William Dalrymple: Scribes of the new racism

'The massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica never led to a stream of pieces about the violence of Christianity'

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Seidnaya is a Greek Orthodox convent in Syria, three hours' walk from Damascus. The monastery sits on a great crag of rock overlooking the orchards and olive groves of the Damascene plain, more like a Crusader castle than a place of worship.

According to legend, the monastery was founded in the sixth century after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian chased a stag onto the top of the hill during a hunting expedition. Just as Justinian was about to draw his bow, the stag changed into the Virgin Mary, who commanded him to build a convent on the rock. The abbey quickly become a place of pilgrimage. To this day streams of Christian, Muslim and Druze pilgrims trudge their way to Seidnaya from the mountains of Lebanon and the valleys of the Syrian jebel. A couple of years ago, while on a six-month tramp around the Middle East, I went to spend a night within its walls.

By the time I arrived at the abbey church, it was after eight o'clock on a dark and cold winter night. Two nuns in black veils were chanting from a lectern, while a priest, hidden behind the iconostasis, echoed their chants in a deep, reverberating bass. The only light came from a few flickering lamps suspended on gold chains.

Inside the church I witnessed a small miracle. The congregation in the church consisted not principally of Christians but almost entirely of heavily bearded Muslim men and their shrouded wives. As the priest circled the altar with his thurible, filling the sanctuary with great clouds of incense, the men bobbed up and down on their prayer mats as if in the middle of Friday prayers in a great mosque. Their women mouthed prayers from the shadows. A few, closely watching the Christian women, went up to the icons hanging from the pillars; they kissed them, then lit a candle and placed it in front of the image.

At the end of the service I saw a Muslim couple approach one of the nuns. The woman was veiled; only her nose and mouth were visible through the black wraps. Her husband, a burly man who wore his straggly beard without a moustache, looked remarkably like the wilder sort of Hezbollah commander featured in news bulletins from southern Lebanon. But whatever his politics, he carried in one hand a heavy tin of olive oil and in the other a large plastic basin full of fresh bread loaves, and he gave both to the nun as an offering, bowing his head as shyly as a schoolboy and retreating backwards in blushing embarrassment.

It was an extraordinary sight, yet this was, of course, the old way. The Eastern Christians, the Jews and the Muslims have lived side by side in the Levant for nearly one and a half millennia and have only been able to do so due to a degree of mutual tolerance and shared customs unimaginable in the solidly Christian West. The same broad tolerance that had given homes to the hundreds of thousands of penniless Jews expelled by the bigoted Catholic kings from Spain and Portugal protected the Eastern Christians in their ancient homelands – despite the Crusades and the almost continual hostility of the Christian West.

Every schoolchild knows that the closest medieval Europe ever came to a multicultural or multi-religious society was Islamic Spain and Sicily; but it is perhaps less well known that, as late as the 18th century, European visitors to the Mughul and Ottoman Empires were astounded by the degree of religious tolerance that they found there. As Monsieur de la Motraye, a Huguenot exile escaping religious persecution in Europe, put it, "There is no country on earth where the exercise of all religions is more free and less subject to being troubled than in Turkey." If that coexistence was not always harmonious, it was at least a kind of pluralist equilibrium which simply has no parallel in European history.

I have been thinking of Seidnaya a lot since the atrocity at the World Trade Centre a fortnight ago. Since then we have seen the right-wing "qualities" and the tabloids forming an unholy alliance united in virulent Islamophobia, as a hundred "experts" in Islam have popped up to offer their views on a religion few seem ever to have encountered in person. Conrad Black's Daily Telegraph has been the cheerleader of this tendency – printing a whole series of leaders and comment pieces denouncing Islam, while always being careful to state that the fundamentalists and terrorists do not of course represent the views of "decent Muslims".

So we have seen Patrick Sookhdeo explain to Daily Telegraph readers that Islam is, uniquely, a "religion that sanctions all forms of violence" (which apart from anything else makes one wonder if Mr Sookhdeo has ever read the Old Testament: "I will send my terror in front of you... you shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces," Exodus 23 v23-24, 27). While in The Times Michael Gove has been writing pieces almost every day warning of the danger from those fanatical Muslim hordes: "They are already there in their thousands. And they are not going to respect weakness any more than Lenin did."

The image these writers are projecting of Islam is ludicrously unbalanced, inaccurate and one-sided. Moreover, such prejudices against Muslims – and the spread of idiotic stereotypes of Muslim behaviour and beliefs – have been developing at a frightening rate in the last decade, something the horrific assault on the World Trade Centre can only exacerbate. Anti-Muslim racism now seems in many ways to be replacing anti-Semitism as the principal Western expression of bigotry against "the other".

The horrific massacre of 8,000 Muslims – some unarmed – at Srebrenica in 1995 never led to a stream of pieces about the violence and repressive tendencies of Christianity. Equally the extraordinary size and diversity of the Islamic world should caution against lazy notions of a united, aggressive Islam acting in concert against "the Judeo-Christian West" .

Islam is no more cohesive than Christendom: neither is it a single, rational, antagonistic force. We are different from the Swedes, the Serbs and the fundamentalist evangelicals of the American mid-west; so the Indonesians are totally different from the Mauritanians, and the Hezbollah headbangers of Lebanon. There is no such thing as "the Muslim mind" – anti-democratic, terrorist, primaeval in its behaviour, or however else it is portrayed – versus a rational, peace-loving "Christian mind". The Islamic world, for better or worse, is much like anywhere else in the developing world.

For 1,400 years there has been a debate within Islam between liberal and Orthodox approaches. What is clear, in recent years, is that insensitive and clumsy Western interference in the Islamic world almost always strengthens the hands of the fundamentalists and the conservatives against those who represent more liberal and enlightened interpretations of Islam.

Already we are seeing Pakistan being pushed to the verge of an Islamic revolution as its military government is bullied into helping the Americans against their Afghan kinsmen. Insensitive rhetoric of the kind we have seen in the press, and the use by President Bush of the word "crusade", can only strengthen the hands of the Islamists, fatally weakening the secular states of the region. Most Muslim states would support a precise surgical assault on Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network; they would not put up with a large-scale ground war in Afghanistan or Iraq. We must proceed with the greatest of caution. Such a war is much more likely to destabilise the entire region than to achieve the intended aims.

The writer's most recent book is 'From the Holy Mountain: travels in the shadow of Byzantium' (Flamingo, £8.99)

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