- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004


By Andrew Wheatcroft

Random House, $24.95, 419 pages, illus.


When the tribes of Arabia united under the banner of Islam in the seventh century, they were able to cut through the rotted shreds of the Byzantine and Persian empires to forge a new and dynamic power.

They saw their duty as bringing the true faith of Islam to the infidels surrounding them, and felt that military conquest was the best, the most rapid, and the surest way of doing this. If they managed to enrich themselves in the process, surely it was but a just reward for accomplishing what was divinely ordered.

Not surprisingly, those being subdued — and impoverished — resented the process and resisted. Battles were fought, emnity and hatred were fostered. Andrew Wheatcroft, who teaches in the department of English Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, attempts to chronicle this fraught relationship in his new book “Infidels.”

Mr. Wheatcroft is a skilled writer and obviously a man of erudition, who knows a number of foreign languages. But his book is oddly disjointed. For example, he begins with an account of the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the largest naval battle since antiquity, occuring at the apogee of Turkish military supremacy.

He describes the battle and the ultimate Christian victory well, but does not give the reader an idea as to why this tremendous conflict ever took place. In truth, the Turks had turned the Mediterranean into a virtual Turkish lake. Their ships raided European coasts regularly for slaves and loot, so much so that the pope felt his papal lands were in danger.

Venice and Genoa saw their naval power being eroded, and everyone looked to Spain, the one Mediterranean power with sufficient strength, to help stop the Turkish advance.

Lepanto was a great battle. It broke the myth of Turkish omnipotence, and was widely celebrated throughout Europe.

The author’s account of this event is interesting; however, just what he is attempting to tell the reader by recalling it in his opening pages is unclear.

Mr. Wheatcroft then turns to Spain, a country he knows well. He describes its conquest in the early eighth century, which went so rapidly that the Muslim advance continued into France where it was finally halted at Poitiers by Charles Martel. In the Iberian peninsula itself, only in the far north and west did a few small Christian principalities cotinue to exist.

Islam reigned supreme in the rest of the country. Conversion to Islam was not compulsory, but clearly advantageous in the matters of taxation, commerce, and administration. As the Muslim kingdoms of Spain prospered they grew increasingly tolerant.

The author speaks of the Spanish accomodation called “convivencia,” or bringing together, which enabled the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities to live not necessarily in loving harmony, but at least in peace with each other. In time , Muslim Spain, or Andalusia, became famous for its wealth, learning and aesthetic achievement.

The reconquest of Spain by its Christian elements (culminating in the Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella’s seizing of Granada in 1492) was in its own way a remarkable achievement, but reversed the tolerance of the past. Muslims, Jews, and heretics were either forced to emigrate, leaving their possessions behind, or were burned at the stake.

Unfortunately, the author’s erudition wears thin when he leaves Spain. He states, without any supporting evidence, that the Arab capture of Jerusalem was more greatly resented than the earlier Persian conquest.

In fact, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610-641) spent a good part of his adult life raising money and reorganizing his army to enable it to recapture the lost city. His strikes into Persia weakened both the country and its Zoroastrian religion, in addition to regaining Jerusalem. Ironically, his military victories, which exhausted his treasury and ruined Persia, made the Arab conquest all the more easy.

Moving to the Balkans, Mr. Wheatcroft describes many of the great battles between the Ottoman Empire and its Christian victims, but not with great insight. He attempts a psychological study of the language of the combatants in Kosovo, using the term “mirror image” to describe how similar the factions’ language was when used against each other, even quoting a few non sequiturs from the French deconstructionists.

Arianna Huffington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt are quoted approvingly in this book, and Mr. Wheatcroft ends with some carping criticism of an article in Newsweek magazine, and of neoconservatives in general. His conclusion that ferocity is found in both Christianity and Islam is not particularly novel.

It is disappointing that what begins as an intelligent, mature appreciation of medieval Spain deteriorates into a melange of politically-correct cliches. Is that what happens, one wonders, when a university English department becomes a department of English Studies?

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes on international affairs.

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