* This article was first published in The Guardian, Wednesday April 6, 2005. Read all articles by Karen Armstrong in The Guardian.
In 1492, the year that is often said to inaugurate the modern era, three very important events happened in Spain. In January, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Europe; later, Muslims were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or exile. In March, the Jews of Spain were also forced to choose between baptism and deportation. Finally, in August, Christopher Columbus, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a protege of Ferdinand and Isabella, crossed the Atlantic and discovered the West Indies. One of his objectives had been to find a new route to India, where Christians could establish a military base for another crusade against Islam. As they sailed into the new world, western people carried a complex burden of prejudice that was central to their identity.
Western Europe found it impossible to live side by side with people of other faiths. Islamic Spain had been the great exception. As was customary in the Muslim world, Jews, Christians and Muslims had coexisted there for centuries in relative harmony. But the Catholic monarchs brought their ingrained anti-semitism to the Iberian peninsula, and the chief targets of their Spanish Inquisition were Jews. Ever since the armies of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Jews and Muslims had become the epitome of everything that western Christians believed they were not.
Almost every time a pope called for a crusade to the Middle East, Jews were attacked at home. Christians seemed to find it psychologically impossible to accept the Jewish roots of their religion. At the same time, Islam was stigmatised as a religion of the sword, addicted to jihad, at a time when Christians were fighting their own brutal holy wars. Christians blamed Muslims for giving too much power to menials and women at a time when the social structure of Europe was deeply hierarchical.
It would be wrong to imagine that we have left these hag-ridden prejudices behind. They may take new forms, but even in the post-Enlightenment era anti-semitism and Islamophobia are alive and well. We recently witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of a government that had proposed legislation outlawing religious hatred comparing Michael Howard to Fagin. We also saw Ken Livingstone comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi guard in a concentration camp.
We have not absorbed the lessons of the past; already – at some level – we seem to have forgotten Auschwitz. Prince Harry found it acceptable to go to a fancy dress party as a Nazi; is this attitude common among the young? After the Fagin debacle, the government added insult to injury by branding Howard a pig and a mongrel, jibes that come straight out of Nazi propaganda, and Howard himself lost the moral high ground by attacking the Gypsies, who were also victims of Nazi persecution.
This is a sinister development. Racial and religious stereotyping became a chronic disease in Europe at the time of the Crusades. We developed the habit of projecting our own fears and anxieties on to other people, who thus became a distorted mirror image of ourselves. This led to some of the most shameful incidents in western history.
September 11 has, perhaps inevitably, stirred up the old Islamophobia. The action of an extremist minority has confirmed the old violent image of Islam. The government is right to be concerned about religious hatred; what is worrying is that it failed to connect this with its own behaviour. These episodes are a reminder that anti-semitism is still so ingrained in our culture that even vote-hungry politicians can fail to see it for what it is. We cannot continue to ignore this deep cultural flaw, which can surface in the most unexpected ways.
So entrenched is our anti-semitism that even support for the Jewish people can be tainted by prejudice. Lord Balfour, who crafted the declaration in favour of a Jewish homeland in 1917, had anti-semitic feelings, which, his daughter recalled, greatly disturbed him.
Christian fundamentalists in the United States, who strongly influence American policy in the Middle East, are also prey to anti-semitic fantasies. They are zealous supporters of Israel, because they believe that unless Jews are living in the Holy Land and fulfilling the ancient prophecies, the second coming of Christ will be delayed. But the Israelis are simply there in a “holding” capacity, because once the last days have begun, the Antichrist will massacre them all.
We cannot ask other nations to dismantle their habits of hatred when we fail to be aware of our own cultural bias. Muslims are well aware of this anti-semitic strain in the Christian Zionism of the US. How can we expect them to abandon their resentment of Israel when our own ideology is so muddled? Why should they be impressed by our liberal culture when we persistently cultivate an inaccurate image of Islam that has its roots in the medieval prejudice of the crusaders? And how can Israelis feel secure enough to make peace when they see that anti-semitism is still rife among the British establishment?
For centuries, Jews and Muslims were the shadow-self of Europe. Sadly, we have passed our anti-semitism to the Muslim world. Until the 20th century, anti-semitism was not part of Islamic culture. The Qur’an speaks respectfully of all the “people of the Book” and honours the Jewish prophets. But now our anti-semitic mythology is one of the few western products that Muslim extremists are happy to import. It is another sad twist in the tragic and convoluted history of the three religions of Abraham.
Karen Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God, A History of Fundamentalism.