Selective Memory

Found this essay by Arabist Richard Bulliet on this other WordPress blog. I don’t know the publication date of the essay or where it originally appeared. Here’s how it starts:

Distorted by today’s political lenses, European historical memory selectively focuses on past violence perpetrated by Muslims and either forgets Europe’s cultural borrowings from Muslim societies, or regards them as unimportant remnants of a closed chapter in European-Muslim relations.

Fourteen European countries have been wholly or partly under Muslim rule for at least one of the last 14 centuries. With the exception of Spain, national memory in all of these lands either minimizes this experience or portrays the era of Muslim dominion as one of unrelieved oppression and barbarity.

Violence is the dominant motif of Western histories on Islamic relations. Everyone is reminded on a regular basis that a Muslim army penetrated deep into northern France in 732 before being heroically stopped by Charles Martel at Tours, and another Muslim army laid siege to Vienna in 1529 before being turned back by bad weather and heroic defenders.

And they are similarly reminded that their own Crusader ancestors seized Jerusalem from the Saracen unbelievers and held it for almost a century. That Crusader conquest and rule might have involved oppression and barbarity is generally omitted from the story.

From episodes like this, today’s ideologues concoct a myth of unending and merciless hostility between Islam and the West.

But even the military tale is selectively told. Who recalls that France’s Renaissance monarch Francis I allied with the Muslim Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent to fight against his Christian rival Charles V of Spain? Who remembers that many generations of Muslim Tatars fought for Christian Polish kings against their Christian foreign enemies?

Closer to the present, Europeans are slow to recall the tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers from West Africa and India who fought and died on the Western Front in World War I against what the French and the British then thought of as the “barbaric Huns”? And who chooses to remember the reliance the United States placed on Afghanistan’s Muslim warriors in their struggle against the “godless atheists” of the Soviet Union in the 1980s?

Muslims who have fought on behalf of Western political interests have been forgotten. Muslims who have confronted the West militarily are remembered. Not only remembered, but taken as examples of an imaginary eternal opposition between Islam and the West.


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Filed under arab, arabist, Islamic relations, religious conflict

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