Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rewriting the history of Britain and Islam

The head of the UK’s Commission for Equalities and Human Rights – a new, vast and largely unaccountable bureaucracy concerned with tackling the oppression of minorities, real or imagined – has called for British history to be rewritten to reflect the roles played by other races and religions – singling out, not surprisingly, Muslims for a bit of positive PR.

Trevor Phillips told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth that the revisionism should start with the story of how Muslims helped the English fleet, led by Sir Francis Drake, to fight off the Spanish Armada in 1588. Phillips said forces of the Ottoman Empire delayed the sailing of the Spanish fleet so the English navy was better prepared, but claimed the story had been ‘airbrushed’ out of historical accounts.

Phillips' point is, of course, that we all got along then, so we should all get along now. He said the story could provide "an ideal that brings us together, so that it can bind us together in stormy times ahead in the next century." Unfortunately for Phillips’ theory, the suggestion that the British and the Ottoman empire were allies in the conventional sense, and that as a result Britons and Muslims have some kind of shared heritage, is absurd.

Around the time of the Armada the Ottomans were battling Spanish and other Catholic forces in the Mediterranean; in 1571 the Ottoman navy suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Lepanto. Historians are divided over what, if any, bearing Ottoman activity had on the plans of the Armada, but any alliance between the Ottomans and Protestant England would have been one purely of convenience against the common Catholic enemy.

However, although he may not realise it, Phillips is at least in the ballpark, both historically and geographically, if he’s looking for an account of interaction between Muslims and Britons that doesn't tend to be taught in British schools – albeit one that might not serve his purposes particularly well.

As Ottoman influence in the Eastern Mediterranean declined in the late 1500s, successive emperors sponsored the Barbary pirates of North Africa, who had already been plundering the coasts of Europe for 100 years. Between the beginning of the 16th Century and the early 1800s between one and two million Europeans were captured and sold into slavery by these Muslim raiders, including several thousand Britons; clearly the Ottomans forgot to tell their proxies that we were their allies.

The pirates, or corsairs, were eventually defeated largely due to the efforts of the fledgling US Navy and Marine Corps, as recounted in Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror 1801-1805 by Joseph Whelan. Two other books that deal with this little-known episode are Giles Milton's White Gold and Robert C. Davis's Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. Here's John Derbyshire at NRO writing about Davis’s book:

The slave trade really got going after 1492, the year the last Muslims were expelled from Spain — what Osama bin Laden calls “the tragedy of Andalusia.” Says the author: “In Barbary, those who hunted and traded slaves certainly hoped to make a profit, but in their traffic in Christians there was also always an element of revenge, almost of jihad — for the wrongs of 1492, for the centuries of crusading violence that had preceded them, and for the ongoing religious struggle between Christian and Muslim that has continued to roil the Mediterranean world well into modern times.”

It's perhaps not the best story to "bind us together in stormy times ahead in the next century", but if Phillips wants Britons to have a better understanding of our historical relationships with the Muslim world, then they should be given the full story, warts and all.

Phillips, who as head of the now-defunct Commission for Racial Equality did much to reverse that organisation's self-defeating policy of promoting multiculturalism, has understandable reasons for wanting to talk up the positive influence of Muslims on British history. But selectively re-writing the past is not the best way to confront the problems of the present.

2 comments:

All Rounder said...

What an interesting angle for Phillips to take.

I visited the UK last year for an extended stay and hope to return soon. I went there with open eyes due to mixed reports from both sides of the fence about what the UK is like to live in for people of different cultures (Anglo and non-Anglo).

For example, in the UK "British Asian" is used to describe the immigrants from the Indian sub-continent (and their descendants). Some of these families have been in Britain for 3 or 4 generations.

Due to economic and social pressures, many British Asians exist in their own communities for a large part (Southall, Bradford, Dudley etc). The ordinary Anglo British know they exist and they have some understanding of the food they eat; maybe the type of music they enjoy; and might be able to name a couple of festivals ... but as far as a deeper understanding of the other cultures in their own society, I don't believe it exists.

Even if ordinary Britons are informed of Battles such as Plassey, where British and Indians fought together against the French, or the joint contribution of colonial forces in more recent times, I don't think that this will change the majority view.

I do believe education is the key to help us all to get along better ... will Mr Phillips be providing such lectures to isolated Muslim groups to enable them to better understand that ordinary Britons don't really want them to feel "oppressed" ?

Lydia McGrew said...

Came from LGF. I bet you're getting a lot of traffic from there.