Monday, November 16, 2009

BBC radio series examines the medieval history of Christianity and Islam

BBC World Service has started a new radio series called Crescent and the Cross, which examines the history of Christianity and Islam. Hosted by Owen Bennett Jones, this four part series will be aired each week on the BBC World Service, and will be posted online on the BBC website. We have embedded the first two episodes here:

Part One: al-Andalus

Part 2 Two: The Third Crusade

The show's synopsis states: "Perhaps Samuel Huntington was right. 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan all suggest a clash between two great civilisations. But the more one studies the history of Christianity and Islam the more complicated it seems.

"Some believe Islam and Christianity – two missionary faiths — can never live side by side. Yet there have been times of peaceful coexistence. The Muslim rulers of Spain and the Ottoman Empire ran cities in which many Christians and Jews could practice their faiths in peace.

"Today, some mainstream politicians and moderate clerics go on to argue that the current conflict between Western governments and radical Islamists is an aberration. But that overlooks the plentiful historical examples of inter communal strife.

"An era of relative religious tolerance in Muslim Spain in the 9th and 10th centuries, for example, was followed by ferocious, religiously-inspired violence. First radical Islamists from North Africa fought Spain’s liberal Muslim leaders. Later the Spanish Catholics’ Inquisition brutally suppressed both Muslims and Jews.

"Today it is not unusual for advocates of inter-faith dialogue to talk of individuals finding different routes to heaven. But for most of the past 1400 years, Muslims and Christians, even when they managed to live side by side were convinced of each others’ certain path to hell.

"And by today’s standards, both sides have always practiced discrimination. Even in the most peaceful periods of Muslim rule in Spain, for example, Jews and Christians had to pay extra taxes and wear distinctive clothing.

The newspapers today are filled with accounts of radical Islamist fanatics who are prepared to kill themselves in suicide bomb attacks. And the news articles sometimes point out that these jihadis follow a long tradition. The followers of the Mahdi in 19th century Sudan, for example, marched towards British machine guns oblivious of certain death.

"But such articles tend not to refer to the many examples of fanatical Christians who hoped to reach heaven by dying at the hands of Muslims in, for example, the Crusades or as part of the Knights of Malta’s dogged defence of their Island in 1565.

"Many Westerners now believe they are the Islamists’ primary target. The history, however, suggests Christians have often been attacked as a consequence of internal Muslim struggles.

"The, still unresolved, conflict between radical and moderate Islamists has repeatedly unleashed such powerful forces that in 11th century Spain, 19th century Sudan and arguably today too, Christians and others have been caught in the cross fire.

"The historical experience of Jews further confuses the picture. The contemporary alignment of Israel and the West might seem to be set in stone but history suggests otherwise.

"There have been many periods in which the Jews have had more cordial relations with Muslims than Christians. During the Spanish Inquisition many Jews found refuge in predominantly Muslim lands. Earlier, in the long struggle for control of Jerusalem, some Muslim leaders such as Saladin treated the Jews more humanely than many Christian crusaders.

"The history of Christianity and Islam can be used to justify just about anything. Both sides have experienced defeats and both can cite grievances: neither has a monopoly on virtue, victimhood or indeed, moderation.

"It is always complicated than it seems."