Rooms and Borders

Rooms and Borders

Mini Teaser: Americans and Europeans often do not see eye to eye about matters Muslim. Differing historical experiences help explain why.

by Author(s): Russell Seitz

It takes two to make a border, even a bloody one. Samuel Huntington's
trope about Islam's sanguinary cyclical history of confrontation and
expansion was adduced when hot embers still glowed in the residue of
the Cold War--and when the idea of "the West" still rang true as
intellectual currency.

Today, European borders are dissolving faster than metaphysical or
emotional attachments to the new trans-national polity can form. On
this side of the Atlantic, we too are at sea. As our old European
alliances are being de- and re-natured by Europe's
self-transformation, our conception of the interface of East and West
must shift as well.

Once we considered the Hellespont as the interface of Europe and the
Islamic world, but as Eastern Europe has returned to the fold, and
Russia's cultural center of gravity has shifted westward from the
Urals, America's imaginary interface with Islam is drifting away from
its imagined locus classicus. This is no cause for alarm, for the
West's Islamic frontier, like the earth's wandering magnetic poles,
was never at rest to begin with.

This frontier has meant many things to many different imaginations,
European and American, and our different experiences of this border's
past cartographic meanderings may explain why our attitudes toward
Islam vary so greatly today.

The West's 19th-century frontiers with Islam were less civilizational
than denominational. Continuing the Byzantine status quo, Orthodox
communions stood vigil on the long eastern flank of Islam, from Tomsk
to Tashkent and on to Tatarstan and the Turkish frontier into the
Balkans. Across the top of Africa, Roman Catholics confronted the
inheritors of the imperial victors that had carried Islam to--and
just a tad beyond--the apex of its 8th-century expansion at the
battle of Tours. In the Levant, a complex gerrymander of sects and
territorial relics of the several Crusades simmered under the
unenthusiastic administration of the enfeebled Ottoman Empire.

The Holy Land, meanwhile, was still more an object of pilgrimage than
a polity, and Judaism, like Protestantism, was less a political
presence or demographic force than that even of the Armenian, Coptic,
Chaldean and Maronite churches, or the sectaries of Druze and Alawi
Islam. Zeal was in relatively short supply close to the coast, but
Mahdiism in the Sudan, the Chechen insurgency in the northern
Caucasus and the Wahhabi ascendancy in east-central Arabia provided
it in copious amounts farther inland. These were products of the
local equivalent of the wild American West, as were the Berber and
Uzbek rebellions that followed the Great War and the Russian

The early American experience of Islam was that of Lepanto writ
small--a series of Mediterranean raids and skirmishes that even over
decades never amounted to the sum of one Napoleonic naval battle. The
Barbary pirates, for all their buckle and swash, were far less of an
historical force than their slave-trading co-religionists south of
the Sahara. Far from inspiring fear and loathing, Islam in the
American mind's eye lost much in translation, becoming the substrate
of such Victorian phenomena as the Moorish Corner, the Shriners, the
expurgated works of Richard Burton, Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat and that
nadir of the saccharine, Turkish delight.

This contrasts so sharply with the European experience of collision
and total colonial immersion that the echoes of the disparity
reverberate still today. The French mission civilitrice saw a million
colonists dispatched to put down roots in North Africa, an episode
whose success must have been regarded with interest by everyone from
early Zionists to the younger sons of Calabrian farmers. It was
tempting some decades ago for Europeans to presume that they had a
right to reoccupy the suburbs of abandoned Roman cities. If the Jews
should not forget Jerusalem, why should the Italians forget who won
the Punic War, or the Franks write off Krak des Chevaliers and
centuries of hegemony and a horde of sandy-haired descendants in the

But, of course, the national experiences of different European
countries with the Muslim world have varied enormously. The Venetians
were up to their necks in Islamic gore for a millennium, while
northern Europe scarcely suspected the successive Caliphates'
existence or the Ottoman ascendency. Along the Baltic shore, until a
century before Columbus, the only fit object for a crusade was the
axis of infidels consisting of tree-worshiping Letts, Wends and Sorbs.

Islam has always been to a degree autochonous, and hence of a mixed
mind about the emigration of its faithful. Despite the relative
proximity of Morocco to the shores of the New World, the first wave
of modern emigration to America from Islamic lands was in large
measure one of Ottoman subjects mostly Christian and Jewish. The
diaspora of Lebanese and Armenian traders carried them throughout
Latin America as well. So while America is richly leavened with
cultural threads intertwined with Islam, there is little here of its
whole cloth. The first mosque was not built on American soil until
1934 (in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, of all places).

Where Islam has excelled best in its modern expansion is the
Indo-Pacific. It proceeded directly from Arabia, whose Omani and
Yemeni sea traders are both Sinbad's descendants and ancient
forebears. Their seamanship made possible that Hellenistic precursor
of Bowditch, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Their entrepots
along monsoonal trading routes were already doing business when word
of Islam arrived from the home offices in the 8th century. Trade then
carried the Green Banner before it, soon producing thriving clones of
the mother culture from East Africa and Mughal India to the Straits
of Sumatra and the Sulu Sea. Colonies and sultanates with blood
relatives back in Arabia Felix flourished and wed Arabian brides, and
still do so to this day. It is no coincidence that conflict has
manifested itself, as in the Bali bombing of October 2002, where
extra-peninsular Islam finds itself face to face with the descendants
of an earlier Hindu diaspora hosting hedonistic Europeans with a
thirst for disco music and cold beer.

While the violence in such triple junctions is hardly surprising, the
internal confrontations of Islam in Central Asia and North Africa are
harder to understand--harder, at least, for Western outsiders. There
are islands of Ismaili enlightenment scattered across an arc of
mountains from the Himalaya to the high Caucasus, where the clash
among Islamic cultures can be as desperate as any intercivilizational
ones. On late Victorian maps tracking Czarist expansion, this area is
either minutely subdivided or glossed over as a pale green swath
legended "The Independent Khanates of Chinese Turkestan." There today
a single range of high peaks can divide a statelet committed to
universal female literacy from a valley where the Taliban are viewed
as dangerous radicals who are soft on adultery. These divides may not
exactly be borders, but they are there, and they hemorrhage
disproportionately. These divisions exist in the heart of the Atlas
as well as in deep Asia, and the sum of internecine violence in Asian
and Algerian Islamic communities thus far dwarfs the death toll of
the first and second intifadas and Al-Qaeda combined.

Past differences in Western experiences of Islam clearly do shape
present attitudes. While America and the old states of western Europe
may share a cultural home, when it comes to matters Arab and Muslim
they inhabit different rooms. Thus nations relatively innocent of
colonial confrontation, or with a past history of mere skirmishing
with the Ottomans, have soldiered on to the gates of Baghdad. Others
who have experienced the recessional trauma of resorbing millions of
citizens did not volunteer to repeat the experience of a clash of
civilizations. To them the paramount fact is that in living memory
even Islam divided has expelled an infidel power. Jacques Chirac may
not play in the same league as Charles "the Hammer" Martel, but
another Charles comes to mind who was not exactly the beau idéal of a
surrender monkey--and even Charles de Gaulle did not long hesitate to
leave Algeria to itself.

During de Gaulle's presidency, a foreign office wall in the Quai
D'Orsay bore a map of one of France's African possessions with an
annotation defining its major strategic divisions, rather along lines
that seem eerily relevant to how Iraq breaks down today (and may
break up tomorrow). From south to north its three parts were Tchad
Utile, Tchad Inutile and Tchad Futile. But it is futile to look for
this laconic marvel today. It was taken down when Elf started finding
oil in Chad in quantities that even Libya might find useful.

Cynicism is not a Gallic monopoly. Our relationship with France is so
old, and so special, that we have a positive duty to refresh her
historical memory whenever she forgets herself. There is no
imprudence in reminding M. Chirac that the language of diplomacy
might read from right to left had Charles Martel foresworn the sword
and waved Abd Ar-Rahman's Saracens on to the White Cliffs of Dover.
Today, France's main borders with Islam may be in the less
fashionable arrondissements of Paris. But however much the Quai
D'Orsay may hector Secretary Powell about America's imagined dreams
of empire, from Guyana to New Caledonia, the sun never sets on the
French Foreign Legion.

Essay Types: Essay