Ian Almond

 

On his book Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched with Christians across Europe’s Battlegrounds

Cover Interview of April 28, 2009

The wide angle

At the moment, we Europeans live in a “Fortress Europe.”  We’re convinced that our continent – which is really nothing more than the westernmost ridge of Eurasia, and Britain nothing more than an archipelago off the edge of that ridge – is completely separate from Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East.

Historically, nothing could be further from the truth.  Although for most people today, Islam seems to come from the planet Mars, the reality is that many parts of Europe (including Spain, Sicily and the Ukraine) were Muslim before they were Catholic or Orthodox.  Arabs were meeting Vikings as early as the tenth century on the Volga, and we have records of Muslim merchants visiting Prague in 965 AD.  Some of the first English (Anglo-Saxon) coins had the stamp of the Caliphate on them.

I started writing this book because of a TV debate I once saw.  I lived in Turkey for six years.  One afternoon, in my apartment in Istanbul, watching the BBC channel on satellite TV, I saw a discussion about whether Turkey should be allowed to enter the European Union.  One particularly well-fed German, a member of the European Parliament, in the middle of the debate, casually threw out the remark: “Well, of course Turkey has never been a part of Europe.”

I felt so angry I got up and switched the TV off.  Turkey not a part of Europe?  Istanbul – Constantinople! – not a part of Europe?  Where the early Church was established, where Aristotle taught, where Rome found its second capital, where Mozart set his Seraglio, where Greeks, Turks, Armenians and Italians lived together for centuries?  Turkey not a part of Europe?  It was then that I tried to think of a way I could empirically prove that Muslims did not belong to an “other” civilization but had always been involved in the heart of Europe.  And suddenly a military history of Muslim-Christian alliances sprang to mind: why not try to find a selection of moments in the history of Europe where soldiers from both religions actually fought in the same army?

Before I started researching, I thought I would have to dig to for “exceptional” moments.  I imagined I would probably find a half-dozen cases, which I would then dramatically unfold to fill a book of 90,000 words.  It soon became clear that the opposite was true – European history was full of such cross-faith alliances.  I would have needed ten books to fully document the material I found: Arab troops helping German emperors in Italian wars, Hungarian Calvinists supporting the Sultan in his march on Vienna, Catalans helping Muslims attack Castilians, Greek-Turkish alliances against their fellow Greeks.

The strangest thing was that all of this information was not necessarily “hidden.”  On an academic level, the use of Christian troops in the Turkish armies of the Ottomans was common knowledge.  But all of this knowledge had completely failed to enter the mainstream consciousness.  The poly-faith history of Europe was widely acknowledged in the universities.  But somehow this awareness had failed to trickle down into everyday public debate.