September 11 and the “Eastern Question”


In 1957 an Egyptian historian was appointed to the prestigious Patten lectureship at Indiana University. He used the occasion to give a series of lectures on a subject that had occupied him for more than 30 years. In 1961 the lectures were assembled into a slim book, just 280 pages including the indexes. The book would have been much larger, but the historiography and bibliography were assembled into a separate volume, nearly 200 pages long. This blogger is the current custodian of the author’s own first copy of both volumes and can attest that the historiography is far more thumbed than the main volume.The author had a life-long habit of stating his ambitious, even radical intellectual plans, in an understated preface. Perhaps it was his village upbringing that left him with the conviction that modesty and humility are life’s best insurance against the caprice of fortune or the disapproval of God. Of the subject matter knowledge he accumulated over the course of three decades on three continents he says “I never had the courage to attempt a general treatise on this vast and variegated sphere of historical knowledge … until the time of the invitation to the Patten Lectures. Since a major condition was the delivery of the text of the lectures for publication … I had no choice but to succumb to the temptation which I had been able to resist for many years”. This was the preface of Aziz Atiya’s “Crusade, Commerce and Culture”, a remarkable and now prescient book. Of the subject he notes “I have attempted a distinction between the Crusade, a movement with roots deep in the Greco-Persian-Arabic past, and the Crusades as a series of military ventures limited to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. With that sweeping and radical statement, it comes as no surprise that the author describes the Crusades as one attempted solution for a historical problem that continues to our day, the “Eastern Question”. The Crusades were merely a phase, a “Frankish Solution” to that question, and neither the first nor the last. The author explicitly states that the “Eastern Question” is narrowly understood to be the definition of the European powers’ concern over what would become of the lands governed by the declining Ottoman Empire, but he notes that the concern is yet another episode of a larger cultural struggle between two worlds, and one that finds it nexus in the Levant.

The book opens with a summary of the various attempted solutions to the Eastern Question, from Alexander the Great, to the Roman occupation of the East, to the Byzantine dominance, the rise of the Arabs and Islam, the Carolingian solution and finally to the Crusades themselves. He gives one of the most concise and brief definition of a then not-yet fashionable term in the West, “Jihad”, before dropping it altogether in favor of a more neutral term, “Counter Crusades”. The author is rather comfortable with many concepts that we now try to avoid in Western intellectual discourse. There is the essential cultural difference between “East” and “West”, on which he finds no side to favor. The author started his intellectual life as an Easterner with a Western education and completed it as a Westerner with Eastern roots. That arc left him with appreciation for both and no fear of delineating differences while noting the larger human commonalities, which materialized in the exchange of goods and ideas; commerce and culture, in that order. He notes that both the Crusades and Counter-Crusades (Jihad) were holy wars indeed, which makes them not the opposite of peace, but the opposite of secular wars. He experienced several such wars in his lifetime, and all of them were crueler and more destructive than the skirmishes he chronicles. He gives in a single page a radical and alternative history of the Islamic conquests, not as a result of Islam, but as a continuation of earlier infiltration of Arab irregulars into the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. This view of early Islam (later expanded and endorsed by such scholars as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook and Glen Bowersock) was likely the result of his copious research in early non Islamic sources in the crucial seventh century C.E. He notes that the continuous competition between West and East co-existed with a great of mutual attraction between the two worlds. Of Alexander the Great he says “Curiously, Alexander who Hellenized wide areas in Asia and who married his soldiers to the daughters of Iran in order to create a uniform Greco-Iranian nation, became himself in the end an Oriental potentate”.  The author’s take on the Jewish revolt of 117 C.E. is also a radical one, defining it as “first instance on record of what might justly be described as wars of religion”. A single and jealous God left no room for the compromises of multiple deities, and would endow those who had faith in him with resolve, a sense of divine law and justice, and on occasions wanton cruelty in defense of uncompromising belief. The Jewish wars, the growth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam mark a fateful junction in human history. “Hitherto, the Eastern Question had been one of race and culture. At this juncture, it became a religious problem”. The impressive research and  rich historical details in the book, especially in the discussion of commerce and culture, make it difficult to take sides in what amounts to a “clash of civilization”. The author remains a detached referee, handing out yellow cards to one side or the other without fear or favor. It is clear that he views the differences in world views as nearly insurmountable, but wishes them to return to an earlier form, that of culture rather than religion. The book had a valedictory air to it, as he never went back to a similar systematic study. The remaining 30 years of his life were spent in the collection of books and the study of Eastern Christianity. He was also fascinated by the burgeoning phenomena of Western Islam, transmitted to him by many Muslim friends who took up residence in the West.

Almost exactly 32 years after the publication of the book, Samuel Huntington took up the same thesis, but with less historical sweep, in the “Clash of Civilizations”. Huntington accepted the alignment of Western values with Christianity, and formulated the regrettable notion of “Islam’s bloody borders”. The borders had been bloody before Islam, and although we can never prove it, would have likely remained bloody absent the rise of Islam. The identification of Christianity with Western values left the Eastern Christians behind front lines they did not intend to create, nor were willing to cross. Atiya, a Copt by baptism, was keenly aware of the rapid Islamization of Egypt and the Levant after the Crusades. The alignment of Western and Christian values was the choice of the West, not the Christians. The West set about purging its perceived domain of Islam, and any domain that was not amenable to such a purge was declared non-Western.

In the author’s view the fundamental dichotomy between West and East was not alleviated by religious commonality. He blames Byzantium’s suppression of Eastern Christians for the ease with which the Arab armies seized the Levant and Egypt, and notes that “The growth of peace, justice and security in the countries of the Levant was accompanied by the steady development of a new superior Arab civilization to which the Eastern Christians contributed no mean share”. The subsequent 300 years of mutual diplomacy and peace between West and East, the Carolingian solution, ended with the age of the Crusades. The author notes “Strictly speaking, Muslim terrorism as the order of the day in the Near East must be identified with the predominance of the Turks, who were new to Islam and had no comprehension of the language of the Qur’an”. This view, which must seem odd today, was in fact a not uncommon discourse among nationalist Egyptian intellectuals during that time, who prefered to champion racial cohesion over religious differences. The author demonstrates how during the “Carolingian solution” the West accepted the essentially Eastern nature of their Christian faith as demonstrated by the great effort and expense that went into promoting pilgrimages and visits to the East. The notion of Christianity as a “Western religion”, was not a cause of the Crusades but a result of them. The Crusades were raised by a French Pope, and represented the “Frankish solution” of the Eastern question. Although in territorial terms they failed to secure any foothold for the West in the Levant, they were to launch the rise of the warlike West, fatally injure Eastern Christianity, and initiate a long term decline of Arab and Muslim culture.

On every September 11 since 2001, the themes of that book come to mind. For a moment after the attack President George Bush slipped and described the response as a “crusade” before quickly walking back his comment. The terrorists had no compunction about describing their crimes in religious terms. The question that comes to mind, 17 years after that event, is whether we must continue to relive the “Eastern Question”, or whether a fundamentally different outlook must prevail, for the sake of every newborn on all sides of the divide.

— Maged Atiya


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