World History

Posted: July 8, 2011 in analysis

In a column about the validity of questioning Muslims seeking public employment, Joseph Farah of writes:

Given the fact that world history for the last 1,300 years can actually be defined primarily as a conflict between Islam and the West, would it not be reckless in the extreme to accept the politically correct view that there is really no difference between Islam, Christianity and Judaism?

Now, I’m not so very interested in his conclusion, but I am fascinated by his given.  1300 years of world history can be defined as a conflict between Islam and the West.  Really?  This is not a theory I have encountered before, and while I am not a trained historian, I have a solid liberal arts education and feel I have a general idea of what happened in world history.  Please, however, note that the following essay may suffer from more than my usual set of flaws, since I am outside of my field.

So, in order to decide if there is anything to this idea, that we can define world history of the last 1300 years as a conflict between Islam and the West, we need to start making some assumptions about what Joseph Farah meant and how we can come to some conclusions about world history without writing a book.

So, first, I am going to assume that ‘conflict’ is equivalent to ‘war’.  I don’t mean that the words mean the same thing, I mean that any conflict big enough to count for the primary definition of 1300 years of world history must be reflected in a lot of wars.

So, lets consider the most deadly wars of the last 1300 years (courtesy of Wikipedia), sorted by percent population killed.

  1. An Lushan Rebellion, 755 to 763.  Did not involve the West.
  2. Mongol Conquests, 1207 to 1472.  Did not involve the West.
  3. Qing-Ming Dynasty Conquest, 1616 to 1662.  Did not involve the West.
  4. Conquest of Timur, 1369 to 1405.  Did not involve the West.
  5. World War II, 1939 to 1945.  Finally, the West actually gets to participate.  But there’s no way to make the Axis into Muslims.

… and so on.  Heading down the list, we come to several more intra-Asian wars, the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, and many other conflicts.  You can look at the list yourself here.

There are four wars on the list that might possibly be West-Islam conflicts.

  • The Crusades, 1095 to 1291.  This one is precisely a conflict between the West and Islam.
  • Napoleonic Wars and World War I.  Lumping these together because the same comment applies.  While technically, the Ottoman Empire being involved in these wars makes one side somewhat more Muslim than the other, I can’t see a way, or evidence of any historian believing, that these wars were motivated by Western-Islam friction.
  • Iran-Iraq War, 1980 to 1988.  While this was an Intra-Muslim war, Iraq enjoyed moderately more Western support than Iran did, so it may qualify in a small way as evidence of a conflict between the West and (some of) Islam.

But, in a group of wars that killed a minimum of 210 million people, sometimes over 1 in 10 people on the planet at the time, there are only a pitiful handful that represent the Western-Islamic conflict that we are seeking as the primary definition of world history.

The Crusades were a very important war.  They might even reasonably be called a primary definition of parts of history.  But they ended in 1291.  And the next candidate, even a poor one, for a major conflict does not appear until 500 years later.

So, perhaps Mr. Farah was thinking more along the lines of a constant trickle of lower intensity conflicts, which do not have large casualty counts but occupy many resources and dominate the dynamics of history.  Certainly, one could argue that the last ten (or twenty, or sixty) years of history have had a significant presence of multiple smaller scale Western-Muslim conflicts.  There are flaws in such an argument, but at least its premises are plausible.

But it is very difficult to understand how that logic can be applied back further than the post-colonial chaos of the Middle East.  Moorish Spain certainly offered an avenue for some conflict, and later the Ottoman Empire had intermittent friction with other parts of Europe, but these were not epoch defining conflicts that primarily defined world history of their time.  In fact, if one considers Jews to be Western (which I am not clear if Mr. Farah does), Moorish Spain was a place for unprecedented Western-Islam harmony, as the Moors got along with the Jews much better than anyone else in Europe, leading to the “golden age” of Jewish Iberian culture.  If one does not, of course, then much of the Middle Eastern conflict is no longer Westerners vs. Islam, and the chain breaks in another place.

I had hoped not to have to address this, because I don’t wish these essays to become overlong, but as I delved into my assumptions on who was a Westerner above, I see it has become necessary to say that Islam and the West are poorly opposed categories.  One is a large set of common cultural identities, and the other is a religion.  The assumption that Islam and the West are disjoint is profound and tenuous.  But to address that would be an entry into itself, so I will leave it that I used the terms as I believe Mr. Farah meant them, but not without some discomfort.

I do not know what Joseph Farah meant by his statement.  All I can imagine is that he sees the last ten years of world history so defined (and has a reasonable argument for doing so) and allows the narrative that he so firmly believes in to flow backwards in time, filling in the awkward gaps with assumptions, guesses, and re-interpretations to support a thesis he has faith must be true.

Or, just as likely, he put much less thought into writing his editorial than I put into analyzing it.


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