SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
A great many people in the Euro-American world, including political commentators in the mainstream media who should know better, have a penchant for keeping in the back of their minds Rudyard Kipling’s refrain in the Ballad of East and West. With that, they are able explain, in racial vein, Daesh’s (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) intolerance, savagery and regressive ideology.
The first part of the oft-quoted refrain says: “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” For how else, the argument goes, would one look at this group’s excesses — beheading of journalists, ethnic cleansing of minorities and mass executions — except in the context of Islam? The end result is that Islam has become a religion feared in the western world, haunting popular imagination as an extremist faith that promotes authoritarian government, remains unresponsive to democracy, encourages female degradation and represents, in modern-day parlance, “jihadist terror”. In other words, the West, a world made up of stable polities imbued with the rule of law, can pull rank on the East, a world allegedly made up of repressive governments and “uncivilised” societies.
However, there was a time not so long ago when Europe spawned the emergence of terrorist movements (the adjective here is of western coinage) that would make Daesh look like a bunch of boy scouts, indigenous terrorists that would make Osama Bin Laden seem like an avuncular figure, and violent sectarian conflicts that would, by comparison, make the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East today seem like a benign misunderstanding between friends.
Consider this: It did not take long — a mere millennium — after the apostles ventured forth to conquer Rome with the power of love, for European Christians to subvert Christianity, much in the manner that Daesh is now subverting Islam, by launching the Crusades against the “infidels” in the Middle East. The conquest of Jerusalem and the slaughter of virtually its entire population in 1099, an event that resonates with Arabs to this day, was one of the most dreadful massacres of the Medieval age. No one was spared.
The Medieval chronicler and prelate, William of Tyre, wrote of the scene: “So terrible was the shedding of blood that even the victors experienced sensations of horror and loathing. No mercy was shown to anyone and the whole place was flooded with the blood of the victims. Everywhere lay fragments of human bodies.” He goes on to describe how survivors were pulled from alleys, from closets, from cellars and were killed by the sword or hurled from the walls.
The Crusaders’ extremist fervour was not confined to killing Muslim “infidels”, for they also turned against their fellow Christians who opposed them or stood in their way. No less a figure than Anna Comnema, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexius, who had composed a history of her father’s reign, wrote of the Crusaders: “Alexius heard of the approach of innumerable Frankish armies. This he dreaded, for he knew their ferocious aggressiveness, their unstable character.”
Yes, Europe had its own Daesh, as it had its own Bin Laden in the person of Thomas Muntzer, a brute that no modern-day Muslim terrorist leader — not Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, not Abu Bakar Al Baghadadi — could hold the candle to in the diffusion of terror. In the 1520s, Muntzer, who chose to use religious language, the language that ordinary folks would best understand at the time, led a movement of 8,000 peasants that terrorised the continent by its scorched-earth policy and whose goal was to fight “against political and spiritual oppression”.
According to his modern biographer, Hanz-Jurgen Goertz, he exhorted his followers to “put your hope in the name of God, fear not a hundred thousand. Forward, forward, it is time. Let not kind words [uttered by the enemy] arouse you to mercy. Look not upon the suffering of the Godless.
They will entreat you touchingly, begging you like children. Let not mercy seize your soul, as God commanded to Moses. Forward, forward, while the iron is hot. Let your swords be ever warm with blood”. (Muntzer was eventually captured, tortured and, yes, beheaded by the authorities.)
So what is the moral of the story here? The moral lies not in the first part in the refrain of Kipling’s poem, which appears to create a racist, plus-minus dichotomy between the shared humanity of people in the East and West, but in the last part. And that reads: “But there is neither East nor West, neither border, nor breed, nor birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth”.
In short, we may use a different compass to define our geographical locale, but in the end, the geography of our shared human soul is imbued with the same bent for wanton violence as for inexhaustible compassion. Either impulse can, at any time, have a mastering grip on the marrow of our actions, whether we are from the western world or from our own part of the East. So enough Islamophobic drivel, please.