Fanatical, devilish, inclined to terrorism: the Western view of Muslim peoples has scarcely changed for more than a millennium.
The barbarians at the gate, the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy once observed, “were a kind of solution.” Similarly, writes Scottish historian Wheatcroft (English Studies/Univ. of Stirling; The Ottomans, 1994, etc.), “after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, many Christians were convinced that the triumphant advance of Islam could only be part of God’s plan. The Islamic scourge was a means to chasten mankind to a better sense of its faults and flaws.” Christians had been worrying about such things for the better part of eight centuries, ever since Muhammad united the scattered Bedouin tribes of Arabia, “which only a few years before had been at war among themselves,” and which forged a great empire in North Africa, Arabia, Central Asia, and even parts of Europe within generations. As the Other, Muslims provided a supposed foil for everything that Europeans were not, a role that they continue to play today; as the Antichrist, Muslims provided a clear enemy for the forces of good, coming “from the Sinai desert,” as a Byzantine text from a thousand years ago had it, “to destroy the entire world with hunger, the sword, and great terror.” Dipping into the semiotics of Saussure and Lacan, Wheatcroft offers accounts of the various theaters in which these images of Islam were formed, including medieval Spain and the modern Balkans. Some readers will wish that his focus had extended to include Muslim views of the West as well as vice versa (as Bernard Lewis has done in his admirable Middle East Mosaic, 2000), others that he relied just a little less on the language of academic literary criticism.
Still, Wheatcroft’s attention to the long pedigree of anti-Muslim feelings and the survival of medieval attitudes into the present (as when a high-ranking Pentagon officer remarked to a Muslim warlord in Somalia, “I know that my God is real and yours is an idol”) yields enlightening results.