The War Against Islam
“. . . this is exactly what the West did in its war against Islam: We worked hard, and we fought hard, and we spent tons of resources and human life, only to turn a secure historical victory into something that today nearly approaches the defeat of the West. Islam didn’t do it to us. We did it, the Christians in the West, it’s our fault, from beginning to end.“
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Welcome to Episode 33 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about war and fighting a war. More precisely, we will be talking about fighting a strategic, global war, a war that goes beyond physical and military resources, but involves the hearts of men. And even more precisely, we will talk about the smart and the stupid way to fight such a war. We will see how Christendom in the past fought its wars the smart way. And we will see how today the West is fighting them the stupid way; in fact, so stupid, that it may be one of the best and clearest examples in history of global, strategic snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, you heard me well: snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. Because this is exactly what the West – living in the shadow of Christendom – did in its war against Islam: We worked hard, and we fought hard, and we spent tons of resources and human life, only to turn a secure historical victory into something that today nearly approaches the defeat of the West. And Islam didn’t do it to us. We did it, the Christians in the West, it’s our fault, from beginning to end.
In the 1890s, a newspaper in Alexandria, Egypt, owned by a wealthy Muslim merchant, came up with a series of articles titled, “Can Islam Survive?” The newspaper was printed in both English and Arabic, so the articles were written not just for its European readership, which at the time was abundant in Egypt. It was also directed to its Arabic audience, many of whom were Muslims educated in Madrasah schools, where they were taught to master the Muslim religion and specifically the legal system of Islam. (What today is known as Shariah.) Unfortunately, I don’t have the full text of the articles; I only know about them from testimonies of American missionaries to Egypt and the time. From the optimistic tone of the missionaries’ testimonies, I come to the conclusion that the articles were quite pessimistic about the future of Islam. In fact, one of the testimonies I have read directly assumes that Islam would fall to Christianity within the next generation, which would mean in the first half of the twentieth century.
While I don’t know the content of the articles, I can imagine there were a number of good reasons for Muslims at the time to be pessimistic about the future of their religion. The main, as I would suppose, must have been political. In the 1890s, the political mainstay of Islam – the Ottoman Empire, was not the sick man anymore; it was the dying man. Islam has always been a political religion; there has never been an institutional division between church and state. The strongest political leader was the highest religious authority in the land; the Sultan was the Khalif, the religious leader of all Muslims. And his military victories and political expansion were synonymous with the victories and expansion of Islam. The Sultans, however, had been losing wars and territories for over two centuries now, since Lepanto in 1571 and Vienna in 1683. In 1882, the richest and most strategic province of the Ottoman Empire – Egypt – was occupied by the British military. Formally, it remained an autonomous province within the Caliphate; in practice, it was a colony of the British Empire, virtually personally owned by a Christian female ruler, Queen Victoria. Egypt wasn’t the only piece of the Caliphate taken by Christians, however. Between 1828 and 1878, the Empire lost almost all of its European territories to newly formed national states. (The process was finished in the First Balkan War of 1912.) Persia – the second largest Muslim polity at the time – was going through its own set of internecine struggles and weakness. Its government had given up on trying to ban Christian missionaries, and by 1900, Persian Muslims were converting to Christianity at an alarming rate. During the same period, Most of the Muslim principalities in what today is the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, had surrendered to the Dutch. The powerful Kingdom of Sarawak on Borneo was ruled by the White Rajahs, the Brooke family, after it was voluntarily given to them by the Sultan of Brunei. The Muslim Turkic nations of Central Asia were under the rule of the Russian Empire. North and West Africa were European colonies. The Indian Ocean which has been for centuries an inland sea for Muslim merchants and pirates, was now controlled by the English Navy. For a religion that worshiped power – like Islam – these political setbacks were certainly the signs of the last times.
But there was more than just the political and military defeats, and that more was even more disturbing. Islam was losing the war for the hearts and minds of its own people. You see, for centuries, the two religions had pretty much the same view of the nature of the war: it was a military or political conflict. The Crusades were such, the Reconquista in Spain was such, and the wars of the Ottoman Empire were such – all military conflicts concerned with taking territories. As long they were basically military conflicts over territories and resources, Islam had no problem. Yeah, there would be ebb and flows, but strategically, Islam held the upper hand, because it held both the better strategic position (right in the middle of the great continental mass) and the better resources (6 times the territory and 15 times the population of Christendom, approximately).
But some time in the 18th century the nature of the game suddenly changed. Two things changed the game. One was free trade. The other was what I call the Great Missionary Revolution.
Free trade, of course, was directly related to a technological miracle of which I have spoken before, in another episode of Axe to the Root Podcast: the caravel. Those who remember that episode, probably remember that the superiority of the caravel was expressed practically in the fact that it could be both a profitable merchant vessel, and at the same time, a self-sufficient fighting ship. These two qualities were developed even further in later ship designs based on the caravel. By the 18th century, Christendom had developed ship designs that could carry on global trade with high efficiency and regularity, and at the same time present a formidable show of military force anywhere on the planet. The result of this was that European industrial goods became easily available and affordable to an increasing portion of the world’s population. And, since new technologies always make life easier, this made the lives of many people much easier and more productive.
If we could make a time-active chart of the development of European trade in the world, we would see that within several decades in the early 18th century, between the years 1700 and 1750, European merchants dotted almost the whole known world – which at the time excluded only Australia, for the British government didn’t set out to explore and colonize Australia until it lost its American colonies – with what was known at the time as “factories”: merchant outposts providing defense, warehousing, repair, food supplies, and port facilities for European merchants. At the beginning, these were militarily weak, and therefore vulnerable to attacks and pillage from local rulers and warlords. Local rulers, however, seldom dared attack the factories: The threat of retaliation from European ships in the future was not to be ignored. More important, their own populations – and the rulers themselves – were becoming addicted to the improvements of life brought by European merchants. Sometimes, to our shame as Christians, the addiction was real – like in the opium trade with China, which will remain a dark spot on the history of Christendom. But most of the time, European goods solved economic problems which local cultures were unable to solve on their own. The merchants, thus, while making nice profits, were also serving the needs of the local communities. European free trade assured the leadership of European merchants, for the simple reason that they were capable of serving the nations in ways no one has done before.
Before the Muslim rulers knew it, Islam was surrounded – and besieged, indeed – by hundreds and then thousands of European trading outposts. They made money for Europe. But in this, they also served the Muslim world. Scrap that; they served the individual Muslims and their families. European products changed the way many of these cultures dressed themselves, the way they did farming, the local trades and industries, etc. The need for work force brought more education, which education affected the lowest strata of the local societies. This in turn weakened the power of the local warlords; after all, a poor person with skills and education had more significance in a world dominated by free trade than a local aristocrat whose only skill was to spend the money he stole from others. By serving the local people, this trade was gradually and stealthily shifting their allegiance to Christendom and the Christians. European merchants were taking leadership in the very lands of the enemy, and that without firing shots – and, to add insult to the injury, they were taking leadership while at the same time making profit.
Not that the Muslim world didn’t have trade and didn’t understand trade. Muslims have done trade before and have had developed trade routes. But in the Muslim world, trade was a political activity; it always served the needs of rulers. The Muslim world was a world of closed borders, both for goods and for people. Trade was subject to licenses and permits, serving the agendas, and sometimes the whims, of rulers. Unless it benefited the state, trade was considered out of bounds. It was heavily mercantilist: the purpose of trade was not connecting producers and consumers; it was monetary revenues for the state. Trade for private profit or for serving distant communities with new products made no sense to the Muslim mind. Trade had meaning only as a machine for revenues.
This, of course, limited the scope of Muslim trade. Even if at times some Muslim communities were capable of producing more than they could consume, the process of exchanging it with other communities was too onerous to make it worth. Even as late as 1910, Western missionaries spoke of the system of immigration and travel restrictions, trade regulations, and bureaucratic rules in the Muslim lands as a sign of the barbarity of the Islamic civilization. None of this was helping Muslim trade. And therefore, when Western merchants traded, they always had the upper hand. And took leadership.
But serving through making money wasn’t the only change in the way the West expanded. While such global free trade was something new, there was something even newer: The new type of mission. The merchants served the material needs of the individuals and their families and made money in the process. But the new kind of missionaries the West started sending in the 18th century was an entirely new ballgame altogether.
Christian missionaries had defended justice and righteousness against evil and tyranny before the 18th century. Most notable were the efforts of Roman Catholic missionaries in America to protect the local populations from exploitation and slavery to European adventurers. A few protestant missionaries among the Indians in North America did attempt to affect to their societies and change the culture of death to a culture of justice and righteousness. But the 18th century saw a completely new kind of missionary: A missionary who would work to change the local cultures from the bottom, by working among the poorest members of the society, showing kindness and care, and also working to change their very worldview so that the culture is healed from the bottom, until it affects the top. William Carey, of course, was the father of this new kind of mission; his work in India was the template for many other missionaries. Not that he ignored the task of changing the culture; but he decided that the culture is changed not by converting the ruler, but those ruled. In Africa, David Livingstone gave a similar example: He was more concerned about saving poor individuals from the slave traders or from the widespread diseases than about earning the favor of one or another local king or warlord. Carey, Livingstone, and many others like them could be often seen caring for the least in the local societies, people whom no one else cared about. The merchants served the little people for cash. The missionaries added more to it: they served for free. All, however, served the little ones, the ones of whom Jesus spoke in Matt. 25:31-46.
This work continued well into the 19th and the 20th century. In the 1890s, there were several Christian schools along the Nile in Egypt, run by Presbyterian or Baptist missions, free of charge, serving the local communities. Half of them were for girls – something unheard of in the Muslim world. Missionaries of the time report that almost all the parents of these girls confessed to the missionaries to be secret converts to Christ. In Istanbul, the capital of the Empire, Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionaries founded the Robert College – an institution of higher education which provided the best training available in the Empire, at affordable cost, or even free for the most talented students. So successful the college was, that in the 1880s, the majority of the highest rank officials of the Empire were Christians trained in that college. In Persia, Christian schools were setting the stage for a mission explosion in the country. In the first decade of the 20th century, missionaries reported that Persia had many churches of thousands of new converts each who needed volunteer preachers to teach them and train them in the Christian faith. In Indonesia, in Java, whole provinces were converted to Christ by Dutch Reformed missionaries during that same period, all because of the self-sacrificial work of these missionaries in serving the local communities. And such examples were not few, they were replicated in many places, earning the hearts and minds of a whole generation
To this, the Muslim world had nothing to offer. Trade, may be. Unconditional love: now, that was something unheard of. True, one of the five rules of the Muslim faith was giving alms. But the European missionaries were not simply giving handouts; they were actively teaching the poor to break out of their culture of darkness, dependence, and stagnation. And they were doing it by personal example. By the 19th century, it was obvious that true love was shown only by the Christians. And that was not simply love to important people in the society; Christians loved them all. Even those whom no one else loved.
In both free trade and missions, Christendom was applying in practice the Biblical principle laid out in Matt. 23:11; a principle that Dennis Peacocke summarizes as “Whoever serves, leads.” Christians – whether as merchants or as missionaries – served the least of these people out there. And thus, were taking dominion over the Muslim world.
And in 1900, Islam was on its death bed. Not only Christian missionaries expected it to be defeated with in a generation. Muslims themselves – educated, intelligent, active, wealthy, prosperous Muslims – saw no future for Islam. An Egyptian consul at the time confided to his British colleague: “The future age will be an age of love; and I don’t think Islam can reform itself enough to find its place in it.” This was only a little over 100 years ago.
The West abandoned its commitment to freedom of trade and movement in the first two decades of the 20th century. World War I, of course, was the watershed between the civilization that valued individualism and private initiative and freedom, and the new world in which now the state was the only legitimate authority, and all individuals were supposed to serve the needs of the state.
Of course, there had been isolated examples of closed borders for goods and people before in Europe. Germany was such an example, divided into multiple small principalities, where every small ruler was trying to raise his revenues by tariffs and toll taxes on merchants who passed through his territory. Germany’s unification started with a customs union, to remove all these obstacles. Ideologically, in the 19th century, the only proponents of closed borders were the Marxists and the trade unions. Marx believed that open borders and free trade were a capitalist conspiracy against the worker; in many places, trade union leaders advocated for government licensing and permit regimes on commerce and production. They believed that such restrictions would weaken the power of the employers and would diminish competition from non-union workers. By 1920, the West started becoming what Germany was in 1820: burdened by a system of passport control and immigration restrictions, commerce licenses and permits, and crony capitalism. The new mercantilism in the first half of the 20th century saw commerce only as an extension of government policy, not as an independent activity of individuals or companies. Thus, only that trade was permitted which served the needs of the state. Such restrictions may or may not have served the governments, but they certainly hurt the populations of Europe, and especially Germany which was struggling to get back on its economic feet while also paying reparations. Adam Tooze, in his book, The Wages of Destruction, shows how trade restrictions imposed by the Western countries contributed much more to the rise of Hitler than anything else. Had the West remained faithful to its legacy of open borders, Germany would have recovered quickly through mutual trade, and WWII may have not happened.
Non-Western populations were hurt even more. Once the focus of economic activity shifted from the private business and the individual to the needs of the state, the non-Western cultures were now seen not as trading partners but as cows to be milked. Profits through service – the motto of capitalism – was replaced by “revenues through exploitation.” We only now begin to understand the genocides committed by some Western governments in places like Africa and Asia, all for state revenues – a good example is the Belgian genocide in Kongo under the rule of King Leopold II. Throughout the 20th century, such policies only increased in intensity. European colonists in the 19th century were fighting local tyrannies and piracy to protect their trade. Thus, they served the local populations. European states in the 20th century became tyrannies and pirates. And they continue being such today as well. And to this, add the tyrannical practices they introduce at home as an excuse.
They wouldn’t be such if they weren’t supported by their populations. And such support, predictably enough, came from the churches. The change in government policies from freedom to statism came with the change in the worldview of the churches in the West. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the postmillennial optimism of Western Christianity was replaced by the historical pessimism of the amillennial and – especially – premillennial eschatologies. The expectations of victory were replaced with a focus on resisting the growing evil in the world – not that evil was growing or becoming stronger, it’s just Christians retreated from conquering.
This shift to pessimism affected the Western cultures themselves, but it affected missions even more. And this can be clearly seen in the testimonies and vision statements by missionaries themselves. In 1910, missionaries testified of the retreat of pagan religions and the growth of Christianity; the expectations were that the world would be evangelized within a generation or two. Just 50 years later, in 1960, most of the mission statements by missionary organizations now spoke of the last days and the inevitable coming destruction. And their focus had shifted from conquering cultures for the Gospel to snatching a few souls out of the fire.
But there’s a worse. Not only Christians gave up on evangelizing the world with the Gospel; they also actively supported the unjust policies of their governments – especially concerning the Muslim world. With the expectations now being of growing evil in the world, the courage of conquering Islam with the Gospel was now replaced by fear of its growth. Now, that growth may be real, or may be fictitious; numbers rather show that Islam’s growth is moderate, compared to the demographic growth of the world’s population; and also, that Islam fails in terms of proselytizing compared to Christianity. As Phillip Jenkins showed in his book, The Next Christendom, the factual numbers speak rather in favor of Christianity around the world. But fear always sees all dangers – real or imaginary – as bigger than they really are. So in their fear, Western churches now wholeheartedly support the murderous wars and exploitation of their governments in Muslim lands, as well as socialist and tyrannical practices at home. A perfect example of such turnabout in modern Christianity is the recent political activism of Franklin Graham. The man has control of over $120 million a year. Only a portion of it was enough for missionaries in the 19th century to bring Islam to its knees. And yet, what Graham calls for is more unjust wars in the Middle East by the US government, more tyrannical policies at home by the US government – while he claims that his main concern is the Gospel. And Graham is only one of a multitude. Very few of the churchian celebrities in the US oppose the policies of the US government, and even fewer call for a return of the old policies of service through free trade and evangelism.
In the final account, within the last 100 years, the West has become its own worst enemy. It used to oppose its freedom of trade and movement to Islam’s tyranny, immigration restrictions, and commerce licensing; it has now surpassed it in such restrictions and licensing. It used to oppose its love and care for the least of the people to Islam’s lack of love and compassion and to its indiscriminate murder of innocents; it has surpassed Islam in indifference, hatred, and indiscriminate murder. Exchanging optimism for pessimism, the West exchanged courage for fear, and in the final account, became a worse enemy to itself than all of its enemies together. It quit serving the world and the little ones of the world; and therefore it lost their hearts and minds. And it is this failure that made Islam strong and vibrant again.
The book I will assign for reading this week was written long time ago, but it must be revived today, and replace our modern reliance on the secular state to fight our enemies. The author is William Carey. I don’t have to – or I hope I don’t – tell you who William Carey is. Every Reformed Christian is under obligation to learn about the life of this giant of the Christian faith and what he did for the Kingdom of God. The book is not easy to read, it was written in an 18th century English, but you have to read it. The title is, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians.
This is also the philosophy of missions I have been following in Bulgaria, whether among the general population or among the minorities, like the Gypsies. The instincts of the ethnic majority are pretty much the same as the instincts of American church-goers about Islam: Let the government deal with it, send the troops. Our mission in Bulgaria has had the opposite approach: the government is the worst solution of all. Service through the Gospel only can do the work. And the books we have been translating have played a major part of it. Help mne continue this work. Visit Bulgarian Reformation.com. Subscribe to the newsletter, and donate. God bless you all.