1492 vs 2017 Islam in Western Europe: Assimilation or Expulsion?

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.

Terror in Manchester: many of the victims were children

Several of the terrorists have been second or third generation children of earlier immigrants, their targets being their countrymen.

This sickening threat continues to materialise even 525 years after Islam lost its last political foothold in Western Europe. In 1492, the year Columbus discovered the New World, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon – the sainted Catholic Monarchs – completed the conquest of Granada and united the Iberian Peninsula under a Christian banner.

Ferdinand and Isabella

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.

Art flourished in Al-Andalus, with garden scenes a particular Muslim favourite

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.

The Cross triumphed at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa

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.

The final frontier of the Reconquista – Granada

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.

Boabdil rides out to surrender to the Catholic Monarchs

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.

The methods of the Spanish Inquisition included torture

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:

1) Assimilation

2) Expulsion

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.

Some Muslims advocate Sharia law for the UK

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?

The prolonged battle to deport Abu Hamza showed the barrier human rights can raise against reason

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?

To which vision do you subscribe?

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Paris Exposed to Historic Violence: another War of Religion is nigh

In August 1572 the French Wars of Religion ignited once more as a Catholic mob stormed through Paris indiscriminately murdering Protestant Huguenots, a slaughter sanctioned by King Charles IX. Subsequently known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the violence would eventually spread across France, leading to the deaths of between 5,000 and 30,000 people.

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery
The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was notable for its mob savagery

Religious distrust and hatred erupted in a furious spasm that would haunt France for decades to come, the clash of conflicting belief systems threatening to tear the country apart from the inside.

Today, French President Francois Hollande vowed to ‘destroy’ the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday resulted in the deaths of at least 129 civilians. These two events – separated by almost 450 years – have important differences and similarities that testify to the new war of religion now being fought in the streets of Western Europe.

Firstly, the logistical origins of the two massacres bear no hallmarks to one another. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was initiated by a vengeful monarch and his controlling mother (Catherine de’ Medici) intent on destroying the Huguenot political hierarchy, in particular their military leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The mob violence that developed was an unintended – if not wholly unsatisfying as far as the Catholics were concerned – consequence of the Crown’s directives.

The Paris attacks on Friday were coordinated between a terrorist cell affiliated with ISIL, although the full operational details are still not completely known. This was an atrocity perpetrated by a minority of radicalised individuals sponsored by an overseas terrorist organisation, rather than a state-sanctioned bloodbath supported by the majority of the country’s citizens.

The Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected Source: BBC
The Paris attacks appear to have been well-coordinated, with clearly delineated targets selected
Source: BBC

The second key difference – linked to the first – is that the carefully-constructed and targeted execution of the Paris attacks was in stark contrast to the haphazard and sprawling nature of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Again, this reflects the ‘minority’ nature of the Paris attacks when compared to the ‘majority’ support for the Catholic mob violence in the 16th century.

A striking similarity between the two events, however, is that neither was surprising. Just as the French were fully aware that they were immersed in a civil religious war in 1572, so too do the French people of today know that a sharp religious divide has opened up within their cities. A minority divide it may be but its strain of virulent hatred has for some time been obvious with other, smaller-scale terrorist attacks having been enacted by Muslim fanatics throughout the course of 2015 (see the Charlie Hebdo shooting for instance).

8% of the current French population is Muslim, a proportion that increases significantly in the larger cities. The majority of these people are second or third generation North Africans who arrived in France during the period of de-colonisation. It is amongst the younger generation – those born in France – where rates of radicalisation are higher. The masochistic appeal of ISIL has turned a small but significant number of young French Muslims into potential homegrown terrorists, a phenomenon likely to be repeated across other countries with similar religious minorities.

The porous EU borders have allowed Middle Eastern extremists to cross into Western Europe with alarming ease, giving hardline ISIL supporters access to disillusioned young Muslims. Some of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks are thought to have been French-born, whilst others appear to have travelled overland from Syria and other warzones where the ISIL flag is flying high.

Like the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Paris attacks immediately affected Frenchmen but the long-term repercussions are international. Western Europe is at war; it may not have committed ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria or Iraq but desperate violence has come to our doorsteps. As with its 16th century equivalent, the battle is going to take decades of strain, violence and compromise to finally bring it to a satisfactory end.

The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed. Source: Tundra Tabloids
The extremism of a minority of Muslims will face a fierce backlash in Western Europe, precipitating further bloodshed.
Source: Tundra Tabloids

Chaotic, Disputed, Endangered: enduring trouble in the Sinai Peninsula

Egypt’s military has reportedly killed over 250 Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula during the past ten days. It continues the violent struggle between Cairo and its restive eastern province, which is fast becoming a base for dangerous fundamentalists pledging their allegiance to ISIS.

Sinai-peninsula-map

At the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, Sinai has always been a geopolitically vital area and its ownership has long been contested. Inhabited since prehistoric times, its northern coastline was a major trade route between Egypt and Palestine and in the first century AD the Roman Empire took control of the Peninsula.

The territory was wrestled back and forth between various Muslim successor states to the Romans before coming under Ottoman control in the 16th century. As Ottoman power declined in the 19th century, so did its grip on Sinai. A nascent Egyptian state was established by Muhammad Ali in 1805 which, whilst nominally a tributary of the Ottomans, was all but independent until the arrival of the British in 1882.

The entirety of Egypt (including Sinai) was effectively a British colony until 1936 when the Kingdom of Egypt was recognised as an independent state by London. Even then, the British maintained a military presence until 1952 before withdrawing as part of a general colonial retrenchment across the globe.

This is when the history of the Sinai Peninsula becomes even more contested and problematic. In 1948, the Arab-Israeli War saw Egypt send troops through Sinai in support of Arab forces in the former British Mandate of Palestine, which was being threatened by the new Israeli state. A reversal in fortunes saw the Israelis occupy part of Sinai for the first time before an armistice was signed in early 1949.

The 1956 Suez Crisis – when an attempted invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by British, French and Israeli forces in a bid to take control of the nationalised Suez Canal ended in a humiliating withdrawal – solidified the Egyptian-Israeli enmity that would continually boil over into war.

British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal Source: IWM
British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal
Source: IWM

In 1967 the Israelis finally captured Sinai during the Six-Day War, which was followed by a three-year War of Attrition orchestrated by the Egyptians in a failed attempt to recapture their lost territory. Further conflict broke out in 1973 after Cairo launched Operation Badr, initiating the Yom Kippur War. Again, the Egyptians could not recapture the Peninsula.

It would take the US-brokered Camp David Accords of 1978 and the subsequent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty for the Israelis to concede the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt.

Whilst the Israeli-Egyptian peace has largely held, Sinai has remained unstable. Impoverished Bedouin Arabs – resentful of Cairo’s apparent disregard for their needs – and hardline Islamists have frequently staged attacks on foreign tourist resorts and government checkpoints.

Additionally, Sinai has become the main route through which Hamas has smuggled weapons into the Gaza Strip as part of its ongoing struggle against Israeli supremacy. A sophisticated network of tunnels – partially created and monitored by Hamas sympathisers on the Egyptian side of the border – have invited assaults from both the Israelis and the government in Cairo. It is now thought that Hamas and the Sinai insurgents are working together.

ISIS supporters certainly appear to be taking advantage of the inherent chaos in Sinai to establish a base close to Egypt and the other troubled states of North Africa, whilst also being within striking distance of the hated Israel.

Battle rages in Sheikh Zuweid, Sinai. Fighters loyal to ISIS have joined an existing Islamist insurgency by attacking checkpoints and killing civilians Source: Daily Telegraph

Complicating matters is the religious significance of the region. Mount Sinai, in the southern-central part of the Peninsula, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments during the Jewish exodus. It is therefore a revered place for all followers of the Abrahamic religions.

St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims Source: Berthold Werner
St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims
Source: Berthold Werner

Attempts to counter the violence in Sinai have tended to be military in nature, which has only perpetuated the various troubles. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has increased military action in Sinai to flush out militants and destroy their support networks, in addition to Hamas’ intricate tunnel system. Whilst this is necessarily part of any solution, more diplomatic, multilateral efforts should be made.

An agreement between Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians – in addition to their regional and international partners – on a coordinated approach to securitising Sinai is the preferable course. Such an outcome, however, is unlikely. Whilst Hamas remains in charge of the Gaza Strip, Sinai will be destabilised by attempts to smuggle in weapons, supplies and fighters. The Egyptians, too, appear reluctant to allow other states to interfere in their sovereign territory, particularly given how troublesome it has been to hold on to.

Without an agreed approach, though, there is no prospect for peace. An area with economic and multicultural potential is more likely to become a land bridge and sanctuary for terror, connecting the theatres of war between the Middle East and Africa. This may ultimately lead to a scenario that has always seemed inevitable: that the Sinai Peninsula will be beyond the control of every sovereign state, destined for perpetual conflict, the repercussions of which could spread far and wide.