Clash of Civilizations

A Review of:  A Thousand Years of Jihad by Thomas J. Fleming and Frank Brownlow

Reading A Thousand Years of Jihad took me back more than 55 years to my freshman year in college.  I had become a rather indifferent student by the time I graduated from high school and went to college only to play football.  However, an outstanding history professor renewed my interest in scholarly pursuits with lectures that not only told great stories but also revealed great truths.  Thomas J. Fleming and Frank Brownlow do the same in this volume, and convey an impression of intimacy as if one is sitting in their classroom.  This is learning at its best.

In “Byron Among the Turks” Brownlow reveals the inspiration for Byron’s famous narrative poem, Childe Harold Pilgrimage, which made him a celebrity upon its publication.   Because of the Napoleonic Wars, Byron’s grand tour as a young man did not take him across the channel to France and other countries of western and northern Europe but first to Portugal and then to countries that bordered the Mediterranean, including ultimately Greece and Turkey.  For what he did a decade later—actually leading a Greek force in a fight for independence from Turkish rule—it’s surprising that in this early trip he found he liked the Ottoman Turks more than the Greeks.  

Brownlow makes it clear Byron was highly flattered by various Ottoman strongmen showering him with gifts, praise, and affection for his noble lineage and refined features.  Byron also impressed himself by swimming the Hellespont.  Only 21 when he began the tour, Byron’s immaturity is evident throughout the journey.  He’s occasionally appalled by Muslim atrocities—drowning of women for minor moral infractions, torture and mutilation of dissidents, and decapitations galore—but mostly he’s absorbed by his own romantic notions of an exotic Eastern civilization.  Geopolitics only occasionally draw his attention and the Barbary pirates, who over the years captured and enslaved more than a million Europeans, are ignored.

Thomas Fleming takes us along with colonial hero John Smith on his pre-Jamestown years in “Cowboys and Muslims.”  A natural warrior, Smith was trained in horsemanship and martial arts by Theodore Paleologus, a descendant of Byzantine royalty who fully understood the Muslim drive to destroy Christendom.  Fleming makes it clear the Muslim threat was not appreciated by the Protestant rulers of England, who thought the Catholics of southern and eastern Europe were getting what they deserved.  Moreover, there were trade benefits to good relations with the Ottomans.  Because of Paleologus’ influence, unlike many others in England, Smith understood the existential threat posed by the Muslims.

Smith worked his way through Europe and eventually found himself in the army of a Croatian count.  For his excellent service in a battle to relieve a Christian fortress besieged by Turks, Smith was made a captain.  He was 21 years old.  More battles followed.  Smith became a rising star but complex political and religious divisions within the European forces weakened their resolve and occasionally left them fighting amongst themselves.  The authoritarian Ottomans were always ready to take advantage of those divisions. 

In a battle for a Turkish occupied town a lull in fighting led to a series of individual duels between Smith and Turks that is the stuff of legend.  It all began when a boastful Turkish captain challenged any Christian to fight him in a horse-mounted duel to the death.  The vanquished foe’s head would go to the victor.  Smith volunteered to do battle.  In an open field and with great pomp and circumstance the Turkish captain paraded about.  Smith arrived with only a page bearing his lance but with trumpets blaring.  “Fair Dames” and armed men watched.

At the first charge, Smith ran the Turk clean through and then dismounted and decapitated the fallen foe.  Smith presented the head to the commander of the Christian forces.  A second Turk then came forth and this time Smith needed several passes before he dispatched the Muslim and took another head.  This had a sobering effect on the Turks and it wasn’t until the next day that a third challenger appeared.  This time the duel sea sawed back and forth until the Turk hit Smith a powerful blow with a battle axe that caused Smith to drop his own battle axe and almost lose his seat.  Turkish spectators now anticipated Smith’s demise but on the next pass Smith got a short sword up and under the Turk’s armor.  Badly wounded, the Turk slipped from his horse and Smith met him on the ground.  A third head for Smith.

The praise for Smith was effusive and he was allowed to adopt a coat of arms featuring depictions of three Turkish heads.  This was not enough for Smith, though, and he remained in the Balkans to fight more battles.  At one point, he was captured and tortured by the Turks but escaped.  He didn’t return to England until 1604 when he was 25.  This is the Captain John Smith who came to America in 1607.  The Indians didn’t have a chance. 

High adventure continues with Frank Brownlow’s two chapters on the Barbary pirates.  Barbarossa made Algiers an Ottoman province in the 16th century and for a time his fleets not only dominated the Western Mediterranean but captured and sold thousands of Europeans into slavery.  The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 saved Italy, southern France, and Spain from Ottoman conquest but didn’t end Barbary piracy.  Moreover, Europeans were still captured in raids and sold into slavery until more than a million of them had suffered such a fate.  

There were English sea captains who for riches and titles sold their services to the Ottomans, changed their names, and professed Islam.  Their superior seamanship enabled Barbary pirate fleets to emerge from the Mediterranean and raid English and Irish, and even Icelandic, coastal villages, and return to North Africa with thousands of captives to be sold as slaves. 

The European powers were often too busy fighting with each other or trying to strike their own deals with the Barbary pirates to organize a fleet to put an end to the Muslim depredations.  Christian disunity in the face of Muslim attacks is a theme that runs throughout A Thousand Years of Jihad and the depths and constancy of that disunity augurs ill for a West that is again faced with Muslim aggression.

The Royal Navy gained the upper hand over the Barbary pirates during the 18th century but, nonetheless, England and other European countries found it cheaper most of the time to simply pay tribute to different Barbary states in return for protection for merchant shipping.  “Barbary piracy,” says Brownlow, “was nothing less than a gigantic European welfare tax, paid to support the Muslims, and extracted by violence.”

By the early 19th century the new nation of the United States was sending warships to the Mediterranean to battle the Barbary pirates.  Brownlow correctly notes the less than stellar performance of our early commanders, who evidently got their assignments through political and family connections rather than naval brilliance.  This was soon remedied and the U.S. racked up victories on land and sea.  However, instead of taking advantage of these victories, President Jefferson vacillated and was far too eager to conclude a peace with the Barbary states and pull our ships home.  Nonetheless, the war did reduce Barbary piracy and could be called an American victory.  It certainly created American heroes and made dozens of junior naval officers highly experienced combat veterans.  The competence and courage of those same officers would later stun the Royal Navy in the War of 1812.    

In The Song of Roland, Brownlow puts France’s great epic poem in historical context—and that context is the French efforts to stop the northward advance of Muslim armies, which overran Spain during the early 8th century.  The Muslim advance seemed unstoppable until the Duke of Aquitaine crushed an Arab army at the Battle of Toulouse in 721.  The victory gave Charles Martel more than a decade to build a professional army and when the Muslims again began a northward advance, he crushed them in battle somewhere between Poitiers and Tours.  Europe—at least Europe north of the Pyrenees—was saved.

There were other Muslim incursions but Charles Martel stopped each one and his son, Pepin the Short, finally dislodged the Arabs from Narbonne, their final stronghold in the south of France.  It was Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, who then crossed the Pyrenees began pushing the Muslims southward through Spain.  It was in this campaign that Roland commanded an element of Charlemagne army and distinguished himself in battles that were nothing less than a life and death struggle between Christian and Muslim civilizations.  As Brownlow emphasizes, though, The Song of Roland, is also about the treachery, jealousies, and factional strife that plagued the Christian forces.

Until reading “Italy—the Muslim Conquest that Failed,” the final chapter of A Thousand Years of Jihad, I had never appreciated how Balkanized Italy was during the Middle Ages.  As Thomas Fleming quotes Metternich, at that time Italy was only “a geographical expression.”  There were principalities and cities states, Norman Sicily, and the Papacy—and each was out for itself.  Moreover, there were several factions and characters in each of those polities contending for power and Norman adventurers all over the southern half of the peninsula intent on carving out their own kingdoms.  Fleming somehow sorts all this out and tells a good story in doing so.  The common theme throughout is again centuries of disunited Christian states waging wars of survival against a relentless and aggressive Muslim foe.

Fleming's conclusions for the chapter are really conclusions for the book.  Christian states were typically weakened by discord and disunity and a naïve belief they could use Muslim invaders to weaken or destroy rivals without themselves being consumed.  Muslims played on these divisions with great success.  The Muslims may have had their own divisions but they found unity in Jihad.  They were commanded to destroy the infidel and that took precedence over all other religious considerations.  President George W. Bush told us Islam is a religion of peace but history tells a different story.   

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Roger McGrath

Roger McGrath

5 Responses

  1. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    It is good to read this review, with its excellent conclusions, which I neglected to make. Things like this are much appreciated as they chip away at the wall to knowledge of the past built by the Great universal protection racket created by the however recently developed zeitgeist which celebrates the illusory convenience and comfort of low grade entertainment. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but i cant think of a better way of saying it at the moment.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks a lot, Mr. Johnson.

  3. Avatar George Gaudio says:

    was boy george ignorant or lying?

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    My own view is that for the power-seeking toady, ignorance is truly bliss, while knowledge is dangerous, because suck knowledge gets in the way of well-laid plans. Suppose a big city mayor like Big Bill Thompson had knowledge that importing domestic help from the Deep South would some day lead to the Chicago of today. He would have qui key suppressed such dangerous knowledge.

  5. Avatar Patrick Kinnell says:

    Thanks Roger for a great review. I believe you went to SMCC, do you mind mentioning the name of the professor who got you turned around academically with his great lectures?