The world’s free peoples “risk losing all to Islamist thuggery,” the pseudonymous Islam scholar Ibn Warraq warns in his latest book, Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies, a collection of essays previously published online. Analyzing past Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, the Muslim apostate Warraq insightfully separates historical fact from popular fiction before defending the freedom necessary to distinguish between the two.
The book’s first half analyzes the Crusades and their perception in light of Sir Walter Scott’s writing. Warraq’s first chapter examines the sympathetic treatment of Jews in Scott’s Ivanhoe, a novel set in Crusader-era England. Ivanhoe shows Scott’s “commitment to religious and racial tolerance, his Enlightenment abhorrence of superstition and fanaticism.”
The subsequent chapter, the book’s longest, compares the presentation of the Crusades in Scott’s novel The Talisman with various historical writings. Contrary to a “characteristically shallow, sneering aside” in Edward Said’s Orientalism, The Talisman’s “overall and overwhelming impression” is of “bickering…barbaric…course…fanatical” Crusaders in a “futile enterprise.” By contrast, the “Muslims were patient, forbearing, and tolerant of other religions, and simply defending their homelands” while Third Crusade Muslim leader Saladin appears “virtuous, calm, refined, and sagacious.” This Saladin is “much given to uttering what Scott must take to be pearls of Eastern wisdom but which read more like those pseudo-Confucian proverbs to be found in Chinese cookies.”
The Talisman reflected that Scott, like other intellectuals, was a “child of the Scottish Enlightenment” with its belief that “non-European civilizations were at least the equal of, and perhaps even superior to, Western civilization.” Yet Islamophile sentiments extended beyond Scott to 20th century Islam scholar Sir Hamilton Gibb and his “biography—or rather hagiography” of Gibb’s “hero” Saladin. For Warraq “startling,” Gibb recommended The Talisman to students as a “book from which they could learn much Middle Eastern history.” Other historians developed a view that “Saladin, in his younger days, was essentially a shy retiring, unambitious youth who preferred a quiet seclusion to court intrigues, politics, and war.”
Yet The Talisman is “wildly inaccurate” as history. The plot’s depiction of Saladin disguised as a doctor treating English king Richard I (“the Lionheart”) is fanciful, given that the two Third Crusade opponents never met. These two commanders pursued “grim warfare” and “politics all the way” such that “neither of them displayed any clemency if it did not suit them.”
Saladin’s historic “characteristic ruthlessness” is far less appealing, such as when his forces slaughtered 50,000 disarmed Sudanese soldiers in Cairo in 1169 in breach of a surrender agreement. “Not bad for a shy retiring scholar who preferred the discourse of pious men,” Warraq scoffs. Saladin likewise had Christian prisoners killed who rejected conversion to Islam, including Crusaders sent in 1183 to Mecca to be “ritually slaughtered by having their throats cut…in the place of goats or sheep.” Templar and Hospitaller Knights met a similar grisly end after the 1187 Battle of Hattin in a “cruel circus watched by a smiling Saladin.” Other actions such as church destructions ordered by Saladin indicate that a “true Muslim is not tolerant” but rather pursues the “totalitarian nature of jihad” in world domination. Yet despite Saladin’s image battling Crusaders, he spent 12 years during his reign as sultan from 1174 to 1193 fighting other Muslims and only five fighting Christians.
Crusaders “are always depicted as barbarians” in histories of the era, Warraq notes. Nonetheless, the “Crusades were a reaction against over three hundred years of jihad when the Eastern Christians were persecuted, and hundreds of churches destroyed.” This jihad, moreover, continued following the Crusades when Muslims went on “occupying far more territory in Europe than the Western settlers had ever held in Syria and Palestine.” Crusades were “never a war of conversion, rather a rightful attempt to recover Christian territory which had been injuriously seized in the past.” Contrary to modern Crusader colonialism theories, “most crusaders would have laughed at the prospect of material gain,” particularly considering the immense subsidies needed to maintain Crusader kingdoms.
“Two wrongs do not make a right,” Warraq adds concerning excuses for Islamic atrocities referencing crimes committed in Christianity’s name such as during the Crusades. Moreover, “Islamic intolerance is presently a far more immediate danger to all, whereas Christian intolerance is a thing of the past.” This real danger contrasts with a Muslim “false idea of a continuing western assault” since the Crusades. In actuality, the “Crusades had almost passed out of mind” of Muslims, the Crusades’ “outright winners,” by the fourteenth century. They “only began to take in an interest in the Crusades again in the 1890s” due to “Western imperialist rhetoric.”
After dealing with the Crusader fiction of Scott and others, Warraq turns his attention to the plight of Jews in the Crusader era. Warraq counterbalances an analysis of the ravages visited upon European Jews by marauding Crusaders traveling to the Holy Land with discussion of Islamic anti-Semitism preceding the Crusades. “All the persecutions of both Christians and Jews stem directly from the precepts and principles enshrined in the canonical texts of Islam,” Warraq qualifies. A short book review of Paul Fenton and David Littman’s La Exile au Maghreb: La Condition Juive sous l’Islam 1148-1912 indicates how this Islamic persecution of Jews continued after the Crusades.
Warraq’s penultimate chapter analyzes British Zionism while rebutting anti-Zionist accusation of European Jews displacing the Holy Land’s Arab population. Said’s mischaracterizations of Zionism to this effect demonstrate how he as a “nominal, secular Christian…loved parading his internationalism, and yet endorsed an Arab nationalism which, in the end, never managed to break free from Islam.” Warraq, in contrast, records how both European and Middle Eastern Jews sought security and self-determination in a neglected, largely uninhabited territory.
Distinguishing fact and fiction among Abrahamic faiths demands freedom, and with this Warraq’s fertile intellect concludes in an analysis of Islam and censorship. Warraq begins his examination with the acquiescence to violent demands not to depict Islam’s prophet Muhammad by the cartoon comedy show South Park. This submission occurred even though “Islam is not monolithic” with respect to the propriety of human images such as those of Muhammad or other matters. “At the very least” Warraq identifies an “Islam 1” in the Quran and an “Islam 2” in “Islamic law and the teachings developed by theologians from the deeds and sayings” of Muhammad. “Islam 3,” however, namely the “actual behavior of believing Muslims, the things that are actually said and done across Islamic civilization…has behaved quite differently than…prescribed by Islam 1 and Islam 2.”
Long before South Park, though, the Egyptian, Indonesian, and Pakistani ambassadors to the United States protested in 1955 to the State Department a Muhammad figure on New York state appeals court building in Manhattan. The court complied with the removal of the Muhammad figure from among the ten historic lawgivers gracing the building despite the resulting architectural awkwardness. “Muslims living even here temporarily had the temerity to dictate their values on a non-Islamic nation,” Warraq marveled. They succeeded “despite the small number of Muslims in the USA” and a “minimum of effort or lobbying.”
The “West, in its unwillingness to pass judgments on other cultures,” Warraq laments, “is far too ready to accept as legitimate spokesmen for the entire world-wide Muslim community the most shrill and public-savvy on matters on Islamic doctrine.” Concerning Islam and Western censorship today, despite individual “acts of courage, the overall picture remains bleak as institution after institution crumbles in the face of Islamic terrorism, real or implied.” Furthermore, rather than “encouraging the liberals in the Islamic world,” this Western weakness causes them to “look with dismay at us each time we sacrifice one principle after another, in an orgy of self-doubt, cultural masochism, and self-censorship.”
In contrast, some “Muslims are ever ready to take offense, and in fact, Muslims seem to have invented a new right, the right not to be offended.” As a result, among other things, “modern day Islam is singularly devoid of humor,” befitting the Ayatollah Khomeini’s pronouncement that “there are no jokes in Islam.” Yet “[c]omedy is an indispensable ingredient in every culture,” particularly as a “form of self-criticism, a defining virtue of the West.”
Amidst such pusillanimity, Warraq sounds a clarion call. While Islam’s “principles are from clear” concerning Muhammad images, “even if human representation were unequivocally forbidden in Islam, we should still as unequivocally defend our right to freedom of speech.” “[W]e should unabashedly defend, and if necessary fight for our values without apologies.”
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