It sometimes seems as if Baghdad is the most lamented city on earth. The sectarian violence, the terrorism, the ruined infrastructure and uncertain future; in short, encompassing insecurity for all its inhabitants, both domestic and foreign.
How can one reconcile this devastated capital with the city that embodied the greatness of the Abbasid Caliphate, that unsurpassed centre of learning and commerce that held together an empire stretching from Andalusia to Central Asia?
In the 760s the second Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mansur, built the Madinat al-Salam on the banks of the Tigris, the fabled ’round city’ that would become what we know as Baghdad. His astute, economical and, when necessary, ruthless rule firmly entrenched the Abbasids as the successors of the Umayyads, in the process etching Baghdad onto the world map.
Al-Mansur’s successors prospered thanks to his tightfisted ways, the imperial treasury overflowing by the late 8th century, ushering in a period of territorial expansion and bold cultural expression. The Abbasids would soon reach their zenith under the rule of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), a formidable ruler whose life directly inspired many of the tales spun in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
This rapid period of Abbasid consolidation and growth soon made Baghdad one of the preeminent cities of the Middle East, an equal to Aleppo and Damascus as a place of religious, cultural and educational authority. The cities of western Europe could barely compete with the splendour of the Abbasid capital or its all-seeing Caliph.
Very little, if anything, remains of the original ’round city’. Like so many of Iraq’s archaeological treasures, centuries of warfare have caused them to be obliterated, the rise of ISIS and its complete contempt for anything of historical importance a continual threat to this magical legacy.
Of course, anyone that sees ISIS as an unusually barbaric incarnation of terror would do well to remember the intermittent horrors of Iraqi history, from the Abbasids up to the rule of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent US occupation.
A particular episode in this bloody narrative that creates pause for thought occurred in the early 15th century and is related below:
In 1401, the Turkic warlord Tamerlane, the Conqueror of the World, stormed the city [Baghdad] and ordered every soldier in his army to bring him a Baghdadi head – or two. And they did: 90,000 severed heads were piled into 120 towers – Tamerlane’s terrifying battlefield signature. (Marozzi, p.30)
Even ISIS has not been able to recreate such staggering atrocities, though that has not diminished the fear the terrorist group is capable of provoking in ordinary citizens and politicians alike.
What the people of Baghdad have proven throughout their history, however, whether in times of prosperity or destitution, is an uncompromising resilience. A city that was the envy of the world has been taken to the brink of destruction on more than one occasion, only to rebound. Its people are the reason why, their proud sense of history overcoming the humiliation of foreign invasion, the scourge of insecurity and the devastating personal losses to rebuild, to resurrect the rubble of the past and create the vision of a future.
The glory days of the Abbasid Caliphate may seem unattainable but the prospect of peace is enough to make people fight on and despite the pessimism of many in the international community, Iraq and Baghdad will continue to fight.
“Who will change old lamps for new ones?… new lamps for old ones?” (Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights)
Marozzi, Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood (2014)
The prelude, campaign and results of the 2017 general election mirror those of 1974. Tory overconfidence against a seemingly disunited opposition, a lacklustre campaign compounded by policy errors and weak manifestos, and ultimately a hung parliament (although it is worth noting that Heath’s Conservatives were not even the largest party, losing by 4 seats to Harold Wilson’s Labour).
As in 1974, also, the immediate future is unclear. May has vowed to soldier on as Prime Minister, even though her minority government is now reliant on an unlikely kingmaker to pass its desired legislation: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP sits even further to the right than the Tories on the political spectrum, its Eurosceptic, socially conservative views at odds with those of much of the British populace.
Even were May to win a loose alignment with the DUP – necessarily giving the Northern Irish party influence way beyond its 10 seats – she would still need to maintain the loyalty of Tory backbenchers, certainly not guaranteed.
The alternatives, however, are hardly appealing. May’s resignation would trigger a Tory leadership contest and probably another general election, something the British electorate is unlikely to have energy for.
Alternatively, there is the prospect of a minority Labour government under the stewardship of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has proved himself a competent campaigner, his skills honed by years of futile protesting against almost every policy any government has ever advocated. The chances of him being an effective PM, however, are slim, with Labour’s wild campaign promises surely not capable of being fulfilled in government.
Mrs May will know that Heath’s attempts to form a coalition government in 1974 failed, prompting his resignation. Wilson’s minority Labour government hung on until a second election of the year (held in October) delivered him a narrow majority.
With Brexit negotiations yet to begin in earnest, threats to Britain’s security seemingly increasing by the day, and economic recovery still ponderous, all we know for certain is that the country is in for an uncertain few months.
How Mrs May must regret not taking heed of history and allowing her majority, albeit narrow, to steer Britain ahead through the choppiest of waters.
The recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester have reinforced the idea that the greatest security threat in Western Europe today is ‘Islam from within’, homegrown Muslims perpetrating atrocities against their neighbours. It follows on from similarly harrowing events in France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany in the last couple of years.
Several of the terrorists have been second or third generation children of earlier immigrants, their targets being their countrymen.
This momentous event marked the end of Al-Andalus – or Islamic Iberia -which had begun in the 8th century with the Ummayad conquest of the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania and the subsequent establishment of the Caliphate of Cordoba.
At its peak Al-Andalus encompassed almost the entire Iberian Peninsula and part of southern France. During the Middle Ages, Islamic commercial power stretched beyond Iberia into central Europe, connected by the Mediterranean and the North African trade routes to the great cities of the Middle East like Damascus and Baghdad.
Hopes of a Christian reconquista developed almost as soon as the Islamic crescent landed in Western Europe. But the Muslim powers were too strong, with the victory of the Almoravid forces at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086 proving decisive. Islam was here to stay.
Christian dreams now rested on the constant upheavals in the Berber world, with invaders regularly moving into North Africa from the Sahel and then on to Al-Andalus, prompting dynastic change.
This ultimately hampered the stability of the Islamic chokehold on Iberia, and the turning point would come during the Almohad Caliphate. In 1212 an alliance of Christian princes defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. The momentum gained proved unstoppable, Cordoba and Seville falling to the cross in 1236 and 1248 respectively.
Only the Emirate of Granada (the Nasrid Kingdom) held on for another 250 years, a southern outpost that could be easily supplied and reinforced from Muslim North Africa. By the late 15th century, however, the Emirate was crumbling, with a united Spanish kingdom under Isabella and Ferdinand taking advantage of the political chaos within the Nasrid dynasty, hampered as it was by succession crises and political intrigue.
In 1492 the city of Granada fell, its leader Boabdil fled and the Iberian Peninsula was once again Christian. There has been no dominant Islamic polity in Western Europe since this point.
This is not to say that Islamic strongholds don’t exist in Western Europe today. From Paris to London, Birmingham to Berlin, Muslim enclaves have developed as a result of prolonged and intensive immigration, precipitated both by the end of colonialism and war in the Middle East. It is such ‘hotbeds’ that have tended to produce the homegrown terrorists now so feared by the public in European countries.
So what to do?
In 1492, the majority of the defeated Muslims were expelled from Spain. Their flight was not a long one, however, for most could peacefully settle in the Berber territories of North Africa.
At the same time, however, an equally important development occurred in Spanish, indeed European, history. Isabella and Ferdinand issued an edict expelling the Jews from their lands.
Jewish people had been an important part of Al-Andalus culture for centuries, providing a commercial zeal and pragmatism valued by both Muslim and Christian princes. Their expulsion was tempered – or so the Catholic Monarchs saw it – by the fact that they could remain in Spain should they apostatise. Indeed, the edict may have been a ploy to encourage this.
Many Jews had, in fact, already renounced their faith, perhaps sensing that the imminent Christian unification of the peninsula would unleash a wave of religious fervour from which they would not escape.
These converts – or ‘conversos’ as they were derogatively known – encouraged the spread and intensity of the notorious Spanish Inquisition, whose leaders distrusted the genuineness of the Jewish (and in fewer cases Muslim) conversions.
Despite the fear provoked by the Inquisition, the majority of Spanish Jews took their chances in 1492 and publicly declared their faith in the Catholic God and his divinely-appointed monarchs. It was a more appealing future than risking life in Muslim North Africa, hardly a bastion of tolerance, then or now.
The gradual assimilation of the Jews would prove to be of great benefit to the nascent Spanish state, their commercial enterprise and financial sophistication way beyond what the Christians could initially offer.
Today, as in 1492, there seem to be two choices regarding how to deal with the Muslims of Western Europe:
The former option has been the one favoured since mass immigration began after WWII. Indeed, many of the initial immigrants were successfully integrated into their European societies, becoming a pioneering force in modern multicultural life.
Unfortunately, this peaceful assimilation has in many cases been overlooked and dismissed by later generations of Muslims, who have come to feel isolated within a culture that they do not perceive as their own. Recent immigrants from the Middle East and Africa – whilst on the whole respectful of their host country – have in larger numbers perpetuated radical views and acts.
Should we, therefore, launch our own inquisition? Wiretapping mosques, increasing police presence in radical areas, and carrying out random interrogations of all ages of Muslims might seem unsavoury. Yet coupled with the influential input of peaceful Muslim leaders it might encourage a greater degree of cultural assimilation.
If this is a futile or unconscionable endeavour then expulsion surely has to be considered. Muslims guilty of, or even suspected of, supporting terrorism – and this is obviously a problematic definition in itself – must be forcibly removed, deported to a country willing to take them; asylum seeking in reverse if you like.
Most of the recent attacks have been carried out by people ‘known to the security services’. This begs the question: why were they allowed to stay and commit these atrocities?
The fear of infringing human rights and the desire not to radicalise other Muslims by seemingly victimising their brethren seem to be overwhelming factors. But do these considerations offset the bitter regret and genuine sadness of the ruling elite when dozens of innocent, law-abiding citizens get wiped out?
These questions have been forced to the forefront of the general election debate in the UK, with people due to go to the polls on Thursday. Which party is going to be able to stand up to the terrorist threat, without further alienating an already disconcerted Muslim populace?
Forget Brexit, security is what is dominating the concerns of the average Briton today. Looking back to 1492 one revisits the question: Expulsion or Assimilation? Embrace diversity and reap the benefits of different worldviews? Or accept division and wait for the inevitable horror?