Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Another 9/11 anniversary has just passed. It was an especially painful one, considering that those implicated in the attacks that killed more than 3,000 Americans two decades earlier are not only free, but back in power—and armed to the teeth with U.S. weaponry—in Afghanistan, namely, the Taliban.
The gloating from millions of Muslim sympathizers around the world has also never been greater than on this 20th anniversary of 9/11.
But it wasn’t always like this on September 11. Accordingly, and since we apparently cannot look to the present for solace or satisfaction on this date, let us look back. As it happens, a major jihadist terror campaign was defeated before—and celebrated on—September 11: the Ottoman siege of the Mediterranean island of Malta.
Even more ironically, the situation was the exact opposite of today: Those defending the tiny island were immensely weaker and outnumbered in comparison to their Islamic foe; but, through a superhuman effort, they actually prevailed.
After declaring jihad in the spring of 1565, 30,000 Turks, armed to the teeth and with all sorts of heavy artillery, descended on the tiny island of Malta, which was defended by a few thousand shabbily armed Maltese men, under the leadership of the Knights of Saint John (formerly the Knights Hospitallers), the Turks’ bane.
And here is where the difference lay: If the Europeans were vastly outnumbered, they also had much manlier leadership than we are familiar with. Enter Jean Parisot de Valette (1494–1568), the Grand Master of the Knights: “His disposition is rather sad,” wrote a contemporary, but “for his age [seventy-one], he is very robust” and “very devout.” As the Muslim sails approached, he explained to his men what was at stake: “A formidable army composed of audacious barbarians is descending on this island,” he warned; “these persons, my brothers, are the enemies of Jesus Christ. Today it is a question of the defense of our Faith as to whether the book of the Evangelist [the Gospel] is to be superseded by that of the Koran? God on this occasion demands of us our lives, already vowed to His service. Happy will those be who first consummate this sacrifice.”
Once the Turks arrived, they subjected the tiny Mediterranean island to what was then the heaviest nonstop bombardment any locale had been subjected to in history. “With the roar of the artillery and the arquebuses, the hair-raising screams, the smoke and fire and flame,” a chronicler wrote, “it seemed that the whole world was at the point of exploding.” The vastly outnumbered and soon wearied defenders, who were ordered to “fight bravely and sell their lives to the barbarians as dearly as possible,” did just that; and for every Christian killed defending the fort, numerous Muslim besiegers fell.
After reducing to rubble and storming the fort of St. Elmo, the Turks sadistically slaughtered all 1,500 of its defenders: the Knights of Saint John “were hung upside down from iron rings . . . and had their heads split, their chests open, and their hearts torn out.” The Muslim commander, Mustafa, ordered their mutilated corpses (along with one Maltese priest) nailed to wooden crosses and set adrift to deride and demoralize the other onlooking defenders.
The terror tactic failed: The seventy-one-year-old Valette delivered a thundering and defiant speech before the huddled Christians, beheaded all Muslim prisoners, and fired their heads from cannon at the Turkish besiegers.
The Ottomans continued to subject the rest of the island to a sustained bombardment (some 130,000 cannonballs were fired in total). “I don’t know if the image of hell can describe the appalling battle,” wrote a contemporary: “the fire, the heat, the continuous flames from the flamethrowers and fire hoops; the thick smoke, the stench, the disemboweled and mutilated corpses, the clash of arms, the groans, shouts, and cries, the roar of the guns . . . men wounding, killing, scrabbling, throwing one another back, falling and firing.”
Although the rest of the forts were reduced to rubble, much Muslim blood was spilled for each inch gained; for “when they got within arms’ reach the scimitar was no match for the long two-handed sword of the Christians.” Desperate fighting spilled into the streets, where even Maltese women and children participated.
It was now late August and the island was still not taken; that, and mass Muslim casualties led to mass demoralization in the Ottoman camp. Embarrassed talk of lifting the siege had already begun when a Sicilian relief force finally arrived with nearly ten thousand soldiers at St. Paul’s Bay. There, where the apostle was once shipwrecked, the final scene of this Armageddon played out as the fresh newcomers routed the retreating Ottomans.
They finally fled, and Malta was liberated, on September 11, a day which for years thereafter was celebrated.
And that’s the difference between September 11, 1565, and September 11, 2001—or, worse, September 11, 2021. Then, outnumbered and outmatched men fought tooth and nail against the jihad. Now, the most powerful nation in the world remembers September 11 as when insult was added in 2021 to the injury of 2001.
As the historian Alan G. Jamieson once observed, “At a time when the military superiority of the West—meaning chiefly the USA—over the Muslim world has never been greater, Western countries feel insecure in the face of the activities of Islamic terrorists…. In all the long centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict, never has the military imbalance between the two sides been greater, yet the dominant West can apparently derive no comfort from that fact.”
Such is the great “riddle” of our age. Until solved, nothing will change and likely only get worse.
Note: All quotations in the above account were excerpted from and documented in the author’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.