In what follows, John Zmirak, of The Stream, interviews Raymond Ibrahim, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Zmirak: Raymond Ibrahim has written two books about the nearly 1,400-year struggle between the Christian world and Islam, Sword and Scimitar and Defenders of the West. I think that both of them would make terrific Christmas gifts, especially for teenaged boys and young men who need heroes. We begin part 1 of our interview on Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. Please tell us a bit about it.
Ibrahim: The book is framed as a military history, narrated around Islam and the West’s eight most decisive battles (the first in 636, the last in 1683). If truth is stranger than fiction, so were these real-life encounters more dramatic than the make-believe “epics” playing on television screens everywhere. (Of course, since they were also occasioned by Muslims invading and terrorizing the West from every corner and for over a millennium—that is, since they contradict the mainstream narrative of “misunderstood” Muslims and xenophobic Westerners—Hollywood will not touch them with a ten-foot pole.)
But while these dramatic military encounters form the centerpieces of the book’s eight chapters, the bulk of the narrative chronologically traces and tells the general (but much forgotten) story of Islam and the West, and how their perennial conflicts changed the face of the globe. Many will be surprised, for example, that the U.S.’s first wars as a nation, the Barbary Wars, were also with Muslims acting on jihadist impulses.
Zmirak: I first remember hearing about Sword and Scimitar back in 2019, when the U.S. Army War College invited you to lecture on it, but then rescinded its invitation after the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)—an unindicted coconspirator in the largest terrorist funding case in U.S. history—went bonkers, including by accusing the War College of “racism” and “Islamophobia.” What is it about Sword and Scimitar that got the Islamists and their Leftist allies to come out with such force against you?
Ibrahim: Simple, and as George Orwell observed in his 1984 (a dystopian novel that has become increasingly applicable to our times): “Who controls the past controls the future.” As such, the greatest apologia for politically active Islamists—and the first premise for all subsequent apologias for Islam—revolves around history. Recall, for instance, the most popular question to arise after the September 11, 2001 terror strikes: “Why do they hate us?”
By its very nature, this question presupposed and took for granted a historical point of view that had been forged over decades and remains largely unquestioned, even by critics of modern Islam: Because Islam was tolerant and advanced in the past, this entrenched perspective holds, its current problems in the present—authoritarianism, intolerance, violence, radicalization, terrorism, etc.—must be aberrations, products of unfavorable circumstances, politics, economics, “grievances”—anything and everything but Islam itself. Simply put, if they did not “hate us” before—but were rather progressive and tolerant—surely something other than Islam has since “gone wrong.”
From here one can see the importance of safeguarding the dominant narrative of a historically “advanced” and “tolerant” Islam vis-à-vis a historically “backwards” and “intolerant” Europe. Or, in the words of the BBC, “Throughout the Middle Ages, the Muslim world was more advanced and more civilised than Christian Western Europe, which learned a huge amount from its neighbour.”
This is why CAIR and its allies came out with such force—issuing hysterical press releases and petitions, calling and meeting with War College officials, and even accusing me, an ethnic Egyptian, of being a “white supremacist”—in order to cancel my Sword and Scimitar at the War College. (I discussed that entire fiasco, including how they failed in the end, in several articles on my website.)
The bottom line is, with almost 1,000 endnotes and 216 works cited—some of which I translated for the first time—Sword and Scimitar makes crystal clear that from the start, Islam has been ideologically hostile to and violent against the West. Think Islamic State (ISIS) but on an exponential scale. In short, for anyone familiar with the contents of Sword and Scimitar, there is no “why do they hate us?” or “what went wrong?” to explain away. Rather, the obvious becomes painfully clear: the Muslim world’s present is an extension—often a mirror representation—of its past.
Take for example the question of whether Islamic groups such as ISIS are Islamic or not. Those who insist on the latter will be hard pressed to explain why over a millennium of leading Muslims—caliphs, sultans, emirs, ulema and jurists of the highest order—have said to and done in Europe the same exact things ISIS and other “radical” Muslims say and do to “infidels” today. This is a literal point: When ISIS proclaims that “American blood is best and we will taste it soon,” or “We love death as you love life,” or “We will break your crosses and enslave your women,” virtually no one in the West understands that they are quoting the verbatim words of the original Arab conquerors of the ancient Christian world.
Whereas many of the world’s Muslims make the connection and appreciate the deeper meaning behind the words and deeds of their politically active coreligionists, the West remains oblivious of the deliberate continuity. As the late Bernard Lewis once said, “most Muslims, unlike most Americans, have an intense historical awareness and see current events in a much deeper and broader perspective than we normally do.” As such, the book was also written with an eye at bringing Westerners up to speed with Muslims, at least when it comes to the latter’s frequent (and to Western ears, cryptic) referencing of history.
Zmirak: Among the professional historians and scholars of the era to praise your book (scroll to “editorial reviews”)—including Victor Davis Hanson, Thomas Madden, and Darío Fernández-Morera—Crusades professor, Dr. Paul F. Crawford, wrote “Raymond Ibrahim has the humility to take seriously the voices and opinions of history’s Christians and Muslims; the result is a refreshingly honest account of Islamic expansion and Christian reaction that provides useful insights into today’s problems. This is history as it should be done: allowing the past to inform and guide the present, rather than distorting the past to fit contemporary political ideologies.” What does he mean?
Ibrahim: Unlike many secondary histories—books heavy with their authors’ subjective interpretations and light on objective substantiations—I intentionally gave the Muslims and Europeans of the past, including those who fought and bled the ground red, much space to tell their story. Most of the book’s one-thousand endnotes cite primary source quotes, supplemented by the interpretations of authoritative (and unbiased) historians. The result is a story line that strongly contradicts the currently fashionable narratives concerning Islam and the West’s history.
As one example, many academics, especially those entrenched in Middle East Studies departments, have long insisted that, “five centuries of peaceful coexistence [between Islam and Europe] elapsed before political events and an imperial-papal power play led to [a] centuries-long series of so-called holy wars that pitted Christendom against Islam and left an enduring legacy of misunderstanding and distrust,” to quote Georgetown University’s John Esposito. Other academics have gone so far as to pin modern day Islamist terrorism on “grievances” against the Crusades.
Real history tells an antithetical story. During those so-called “five centuries of peaceful coexistence” preceding the Crusades, jihadist armies had invaded, terrorized, and conquered three-quarters of the Christian world (as documented in the first four of the book’s eight chapters). In the years preceding the First Crusade, Turks had overrun Anatolia, slaughtering and enslaving hundreds of thousands of Christians, and prompting the Eastern Roman emperor to implore the West for aid. Such are the rarely cited origins of the crusades.
Zmirak: Thanks, Raymond. I especially like that, for all its scholarship, Sword and Scimitar is a brisk and engaging read. Midwest Book Review got it right when they wrote: “Impressively informative, Sword and Scimitar is an exceptional work of outstanding scholarship that is so well written it reads more like a deftly crafted novel than a non-fiction history.” I think it would make a great Christmas gift. Where can people get it?