One of the main dangers facing the international community in the modern age is the threat of Islamic extremism and the willingness of its believers to sacrifice their lives to strike at the “infidels” embodied by Western and secular societies. Islamophobia has become more prevalent in the past decade, particularly in America due to the events on September 11, 2001. This completely irrational has struck everywhere in American society, from the heights of government, where former Attorney General John Ashcroft stated that Islam is a religion in which “God requires you to send your son to die for him,” to the everyday people, as highlighted by a 2006 Gallup poll which found that 39% of Americans felt Muslims should be required by the government to carry special identification which marked them as Muslims. If that does not sound familiar, I suggest you look up the early stages of the Holocaust.
Prevalent in many of the Islamophobic remarks by individuals are statements along the lines of Ashcroft’s, decrying the barbarity of Islam and extolling the holiness of Christianity. But to claim such a contrast between the two religions either shows a lack of knowledge concerning the history of Christianity or an effort to whitewash the past into one of completely benevolent Christian actions. A quick glance through time shows what appears to be a trend concerning the age of Abrahamic religions and their tendency towards extremist beliefs.
The first religion which occurred in the lineage of Abraham the patriarch is of course Judaism, as Abraham is credited as the founder of the religion. Judaism is one of the oldest religions which survives to this day and is the oldest such religion which believes in only on God. Interestingly enough, despite its chronology being much longer than Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not have much of an “extremist” phase in its history. While I am by no means a Judaism scholar, from the histories of the Abrahamic religions I have studied, the closest it appears Judaism came to such a period occurred from about 110 BCE to 135 CE. During this time period, the Jewish peoples rose in revolt against their oppressors several times, first under the Maccabees against the Greek dynasty which ruled over Israel. While this revolt was a success, the independence of Israel was short-lived, as Rome soon subjugated the Jewish people once more. While many revolts occurred under the Romans, none were successful in liberating Israel; instead, the Romans forced the Jewish nation out of their ancestral homeland in what is now known as the Jewish diaspora.
I believe that the reason Judaism did not see a period of such clear cut extremism as I will show Christianity and Islam to have experienced is simple. Unlike its younger siblings, Judaism has never been a “conquering” religion; in other words, the Jewish religion does not carry the conversion of non-believers as a central tenant the way Christianity and Islam do. Because of this, for much of its early history Israel did not interact with foreign entities, as it more or less simply wanted to be left alone. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, both have their self-propagation as one of the main pillars for their believers to seek to carry out. Another reason is that since that last failed revolt in 135 CE, the Jewish people have been scattered and oppressed around the world, wherever they were found. For nearly two millennia of its history, Judaism has been found only in small clusters which lacked any semblance of political agency, thoroughly diminishing the ability of the religion to carry out extremist acts.
Christianity is another story, however. The religion grew out of a Jewish sect led by a teacher from northern Israel named Jesus. While many of the initial members were former Jews, the religion saw much of its growth in the form of converted “gentiles,” simply the term used in most Christian texts for non-Jews. While the religion grew fairly quickly in the early parts of the second and third centuries, its followers faced harsh treatment by the Roman emperors, leaving a great deal martyred due to their beliefs. However the religion could withstand the killings of its members due to a reason mentioned earlier: the conversion of new believers. When Emperor Constantine began to promote Christianity, going so far as to order the pillaging of all Roman temples to the mythological deities we know today, its position as a world power was secure.
Established as a presence that would not soon disappear, Christianity ruled over Europe as the religion of the Roman Empire, splitting with the schism between Constantinople and Rome but remaining the dominant religion over the continent. While the treatment of non-Christians by the Catholic Church was not ideal during this period, it would reach a height at the end of the fifteenth century. After one of Europe’s first encounters with Islam, via the Umayyad Caliphate’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula (an invasion stopped at the Battle of Tours in France by forces under Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne), attitudes towards other religions soured extremely.
The Catholic Church launched several inquisitions in an attempt to purge all non-Christians from the continent. The most infamous of these, the Spanish Inquisition, resulted in the execution of thousands of Jews and Muslims along with untold numbers of torture victims unlucky enough to not die at the hands of their torturers and people who lost their property and livelihoods. These inquisitions are the most vibrant form of extremism that the world likely has ever seen. While the modern day extremism of Islam may claim a higher death and casualty toll, the numbers would likely tilt in favor of the inquisitions should population inflation be taken into account. Additionally, these were acts directly sanctioned by the central leadership of the Church itself as well as by the states themselves who carried out the tortures and murders.
While the historiography of Islam is complicated by the fact that some Muslims believe that Muhammad simply restored the originally intended religion of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and many other prophets, for our purposes here we will state that the Islamic religion first appeared with Muhammad in the late sixth, early seventh century. It spread through the Arab world through conquest and conversion, assisted by the withdrawal of the Eastern Roman Empire from Asia Minor. In contrast to what many evangelical Christians would like to believe, the Islamic kingdoms which arose from the eighth century, after the death of Muhammad, treated Christians and Jews rather well. Given the Islamic term “dhimmi,” also known as “people of the book,” Christians and Jews were granted citizenship in many of these Islamic kingdoms in exchange for the payment of taxes, as opposed to followers of other religions, who largely were unable to earn citizenship rights.
Relations between Islamic kingdoms, and later nations, and the Christian-dominated European nations were fairly cordial from the Renaissance on, as Muslim merchants played a large role in the Silk Route, the only trade route between Europe and the eastern reaches of Asia. While Europe’s eagerness to free themselves from reliance on Muslim shippers led to Portugal’s funding of exploratory voyages around what now is the Cape of Good Hope, there was little violence between the two regions at the time. Indeed in the period of colonialism from 1500 to 1700, the Islamic kingdoms, largely centralized under the Ottoman Empire by that time, were shown respect by European powers in the form of not claiming their land. While the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese had no qualms about subjugating native peoples for their own purposes in the Americas and Oceania, for the most part Islamic areas, with the exception of a substantial Muslim population in India, were left alone.
I believe, however, that the initial roots of Islamic extremism can be found in the aftermath of World War One. It was after this conflict that the Ottoman Empire, which held dominion over nearly the entirety of the current day Middle-East, collapsed and was partitioned by the victorious European powers of Britain and France. For the first time in their millennia and a half existence, many Muslims found themselves under the rule of Christians. Further complicating issues was the reestablishment of Israel as a homeland for Jewish peoples, depriving many Palestinians who had been living on the land of their homes, as well as the discovery of oil. This oil would become the lifeblood of the Western world and, while found in many global regions, was virtually untapped and was found under vast, expansive swathes of land. Western nations, particularly the United States, lusted after these huge oil reserves and began to seek to wield their influence in the region to a degree never experienced before.
As Western-backed dictators came to power in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as America’s continued and relentless support for Israel, popular resentment of the West grew amongst the citizens of the Middle-East, regardless of religion. It was during this period of high anxiety that many proponents of extreme Islam came onto the scene. The Iranian Revolution, which saw a United States backed Shah get overthrown and the Ayatollahs come into power, was a key moment, as well as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. People from all over the Middle-East smuggled themselves into Afghanistan to prevent the Soviet Union from taking the nation over, including a man from a wealthy and influential Saudi family named Osama Bin Laden. The United States provided these fighters with the arms they needed to repel the invasion, and while many of these arms would be used against American soldiers a few decades later, the mujahedeen obtained something far more valuable during the struggle. Contacts were made and reputations were established which would lay the seeds for what is now a global network of Islamic-extremist terrorism.
The claim that the Muslim religion is one dominated by hate or fueled by violence is simply incorrect. Outside factors and the maturity of the religion play a substantial role in the emergence of extremism in any form. One interesting note it this: Christianity was essentially founded as a true religion in roughly the year 100 CE. The inquisitions which form the touchstone of Christian extremism began somewhere between 1300 and 1400 CE. That’s about a 1200-1300 year maturation process before the arrival of extremism. If one assigns the very reasonable date of 600 CE as the foundation date of Islam and treats the twentieth century as the emergence of Islamic extremism, one gets a similar 1300 year maturation process to extremism for Islam as one does for Christianity.