Deconstructing Historical Prejudice

Modern-day expressions of Islamophobia have deep roots in Christian history and have been remarkably consistent, in spite of various social, ideological and structural permutations, even when our vocabulary of prejudice has undergone euphemistic modifications. While some work has been done on Luther’s writings about the Jews because of Hitler’s use of Martin Luther’s execrable texts, his writings on the Turks have been largely ignored. Luther’s sophistry against Islam is, in many respects, no different than some of our contemporary expressions, especially since September 11, 2001. Luther’s vicious tirade against Judaism was continuously used by the Church for its ever present reprehensible anti-Semitic practices and rhetoric, reaching its most evil, efficient, and devastating expression in the Shoah some 400 years later. This leads one to logically fear that the rhetoric of the crusades and Luther’s own many writings against the Muslims (Turks), used incessantly against Islam by the Church over the last five centuries, may fuel modern Islamophobia (against the Turks and the Muslim immigrants) with potentially devastating consequences.

Deconstructing Some Fundamental “Truths”
There is a common assumption that until recently the West has been exclusively Christian and that its current religious pluralism is both unique and causes many of its current consternations, especially in relationship to Islam. This view ignores the fact that in the centuries prior to the Reformation, Europe already had a religiously and culturally pluralistic experience. Its westernmost region, the Iberian Peninsula, was largely under Muslim rule from 711 until the Reconquista in 1492. This was arguably the most robust experience of pluralism within the three Abrahamic religions (the convivencia), influencing each other philosophically, scientifically, and culturally. After 1492 the Spanish Jews and Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity and/or expelled. Further, large portions of central and Eastern Europe were under Ottoman control, starting with the battle of Kosovo (1389), followed by the fall of Constantinople (1453), and then Greece (1460). This status remained largely unchanged until World War I, a period of over five hundred years. These multi-religious experiences belie the mono-religious Christian claim of Europe, and demand a critical demythologization of this taken-for-granted universe.

Ottoman expansion into Europe was the immediate context for Luther and helps explain the character of his writings and sophistry against the Turks. The Turkish threat had generated many responses: Catholics wanted a new crusade, Protestants wanted defensive strategies, both wanted to study Islam, some hoped to convert the Turks through missionary enterprise, Anabaptists emphasized pacifism, and a few of them even hoped for Turkish victory. While critical of all these existing positions, Luther used them to develop his own approach, never having directly engaged with a Muslim or with Islamic culture. Though he often wrote as if he was in a mono-religious Christian milieu, he actually dealt with Judaism and Islam quite comprehensively, if negatively, and did his theology with these other faiths in mind. Unfortunately, most scholars and theologians still maintain the mono-religious Christian exclusivity when writing about the Reformation.

In dealing with Luther, the Reformation, and Islam, we must seriously address the issues of centuries-old misunderstandings, malice, and contrived vilification of the Muslims, their Prophet, scriptures, religion, and culture, and overcome ignorance about Islam as a whole. For the last three centuries, the Western sense of superiority in every sphere of human endeavor has scarcely been challenged, both in its imperial colonial and postcolonial expressions. It has become part of our overall heritage, most painful to adjust to and seemingly impossible to abandon.

With a sleight of hand, the West emphasizes its enduring and unmediated continuity with the Mediterranean Greco-Roman civilizations and sees itself as the successor of the Roman Empire and Greek philosophy and ethics, with little or no contribution from Africa and Asia. Ironically, this chimera has its origins in Constantinian Christendom, whose capital on the Bosporus was in Asia. This Christendom had little if any contribution from what the Greco-Romans referred to as the European “barbarians” (Goths, Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, Franks, Angles, among others) who had threatened the Roman Empire and forced the move of its capital from Rome to Constantinople (“the New Rome”), coinciding with the “conversion” of Constantine (c. 337). Christianity only then became the religion of imperial Rome. Constantinople is therefore the original location of what came to be called “Christendom.” At the beginning of this period there is only one Roman Empire (no such aberrations as the Western and Eastern Roman Empires) that moved its capital from Rome to Constantinople.

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun’s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article, or click here to read a PDF version of the full article.

Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 3:39-43

CHARLES AMJAD-ALI was the inaugural Martin Luther King Jr., Professor of Justice and Christian Community, and the Director of Islamic Studies (Emeritus) at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He was also the first Archbishop Desmond Tutu Professor of Ecumenical Theology and Social Transformation in Africa at the University of Western Cape in South Africa in 2013. Amjad-Ali has a PhD in Theology and Political Philosophy from Princeton Theological Seminary, a post-doctoral certificate in Islamic Law and History from Columbia University, and received an honorary doctorate in Theology from the University of Uppsala, Sweden.
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