[To order Robert Spencer's new book, The History of Jihad From Muhammad to ISIS, CLICK HERE.]
It's good to have something you love to do – something that brings zest and joy to your life. For the Prophet Muhammed, as Robert Spencer graphically establishes in the opening pages of his comprehensive yet concise History of Jihad, that something was murder – often followed by beheading, dismemberment, and ostentatious gloating. When he wasn't committing murder, Muhammed was talking about murder or threatening to murder. Nor, to be sure, was it just ordinary murder. It was jihad – murder for the purpose of expanding the reach of Islam, which, by the time he died in 632, had been spread by the sword to the whole Arabian peninsula.
Indeed, the reason why the House of Islam continued to expand so fast after Muhammed's death was that he taught his disciples well. The love of murder proved infectious, especially after he informed them – as Allah had informed him – that anyone who died in the act of jihad would go straight to Paradise. Following his death, as Spencer puts it, they pursued “a series of conquests unparalleled in human history for their rapidity and scope.” They totally eradicated one of the two great powers of the day, the Persian Empire, and took a big bite out of the other, the Eastern Roman Empire.
That was just the beginning. They subdued Spain (al-Andalus). They subjugated India. Everywhere they went, they razed houses of worship and destroyed religious art, and, as their Prophet had taught them, offered their Christian and Jewish victims three choices: convert, die, or live as dhimmis (subordinate peoples) paying a steep jizya (infidel tax). If in some times and places Muslims placed less emphasis on jihad than in others, it was, Spencer notes, not because their doctrine had altered but because of infighting.
In 732, Muslims from al-Andalus moved northward into France and were repelled at Tours by Charles Martel – who thereby likely saved all of Europe from imminent Islamization. But the next few centuries saw an almost unbroken record of Islamic triumph – in response to which, in 1095, Pope Urban II called on Europeans to reclaim formerly Christian parts of the Holy Land. This was the First Crusade. In 1099, the Crusaders won Jerusalem. But the Second Crusade, ordered in 1145, was a bust. In 1187, Jerusalem was lost to Saladin, the most celebrated jihadist of his time. The Third Crusade saw some gains, but the Fourth failed. There were further efforts, also in vain. By the late thirteenth century, the Crusader era was over, its conquests undone.
While admirably frank about the savagery of many of the Crusaders, Spencer leaves no doubt that apologists for Islam such as John Esposito are full of it when they depict the Crusades as ending centuries of “peaceful coexistence” of Christians, Jews, and Muslims under Islamic rule. To buy this lie is, among other things, to wilfully forget how those territories fell under Muslim control in the first place.
In any event, the Holy Land was only one of many fronts in the centuries-long clash between jihadists and infidels. In the east, Tamerlane secured India and Georgia for Islam and, in 1405, perished in present-day Kazakhstan on his way to Islamize China. In Spain, over the centuries, Christians took back Iberia one city at a time – Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1243, Seville in 1248 – until finally, in 1492, the entire peninsula had been reclaimed. (“To this day,” observes Spencer, “Spain remains one of the few places once ruled by Islam but no longer; usually what the jihadis have conquered, they've kept.” A sobering thought, to put it mildly.) In southeastern Europe, the leaders of what was, by then, the Ottoman Empire subdued Greece and the Balkans over the course of the fourteenth century, seized Constantinople in 1453, and, under Suleiman the Magnificent (the most notorious jihadist of his time), took Belgrade and Buda in 1526 and Baghdad in 1534. On September 12, 1683, came another decisive Christian victory when the Ottomans were turned back at the gates of Vienna.
After Vienna, jihad against the West went small-scale. For generations, the Barbary pirates raided coastal cities and enslaved infidels. Then, as Western power advanced, Islam fell into decline. Napoleon conquered Egypt. Britain annexed the subcontinent. The Ottoman Empire crumbled and gave way to a secular-run Turkey under Kemal Ataturk – but not before committing the massive act of jihad that is now known as the Armenian genocide.
But these changes were largely cosmetic. Islam endured. So did the jihadist imperative. In the twentieth century, new jihad-happy powers arose – Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2001 came the biggest act of jihad ever. But this time it was different.
For one thing, the enemy was not a government. For another, this time the West didn't get it – or didn't want to. Six days after 9/11, President George W. Bush went to a mosque and, reciting what would become the West's new mantra, made the stupefying claim that Al-Qaeda had violated the tenets of Islam. Under both Bush and his successor, questioning this preposterous assertion became an act of bigotry. Even as the jihadist massacres multiplied, Western governments continued to welcome Muslim migrants by the million.
The history of jihad is a grisly one, and for inhabitants of the Western world in the early twenty-first century, no story could be more important. For centuries, Europeans might not have known much, but they knew the reality of Islam. It was an ever-present existential peril. They certainly had no romantic illusions about it – the very idea would have seemed a grotesque joke.
Alas, our generation of Westerners is suffering from a perfect storm of afflictions. We're ignorant of our own history, and what we do know of it we've been encouraged to feel guilty about. We've been taught that other civilizations are and always have been our victims. We've been trained to see them as having no agency, so that whatever they do to us must be a reaction to something we've done to them. We also live in a secular society in which most of us – our political leaders and mainstream media in particular – are utterly incapable of imagining anyone taking his religion so seriously as to be willing to kill (or die) for it. Hence, even though jihadists have repeatedly made clear their motives, our elites tell us repeatedly that the real motives lie elsewhere.
And this is why we're in big trouble. If we aren't familiar with the story told in this book, we're screwed. The good news is that Robert Spencer tells it in a way no one else could. He not only knows all this stuff cold – he knows just how to tell it. Chapter by chapter, anecdote by anecdote, he makes the most of this macabre material. He makes it gripping, and he keeps things moving; he's eminently lucid, vivid, economical. By the time you reach the last chapter, which is darkly but not unjustly entitled “The West Loses the Will to Live,” it could not be clearer what a terrible pickle we're all in. Even if you already know a good deal about the history recounted here, and already grasp its import – which, if you're reading this review, is not unlikely – Spencer recounts it in such a way as to make that last chapter hit home with the power of fresh revelation. The question is, how to get this book into the hands of the smug and ignorant fools who need it the most? Perhaps the best advice is this: buy one for yourself – and another for the person in your life who can best use this vital wake-up call.