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medieval depiction of battle

Charles Martel at Battle of Tours, from the Great Chronicles of France. Photo: Flickr/levanrami

Interpretations of history elaborating and glorifying religious struggle have fed far-right narratives, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

The terrorist who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March no doubt spent some time preparing for the atrocity. Part of these preparations was painting slogans he presumably found inspirational on his guns, including ‘Tours 732’ and ‘Charles Martel’. These may not mean very much to most of us, but in the Islamophobic world of the far right, they are references with which to conjure, signifying the belief that the Islamic and the Christian worlds have been locked in an existential struggle for the whole of Islam’s history.

In the years following the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632, the forces of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate were able to make extensive conquests, establishing themselves as the rulers of North Africa and much of Spain by the end of the century. In the early eighth century they were also able to capture some areas along the southern French coast of the Mediterranean, and raided further into the interior of southern France. In 732, (or possibly 731 or 733, the sources are unclear), one of these raids was repelled somewhere between Tours and Poitiers by the Frankish leader Charles Martel. This was not the last of the Umayyad raids into France, but it was, as far as we know, the furthest north they ever got.

This small piece of Dark Age history has been seen by some historians as a turning point for the Muslim expansion of the seventh and early eighth centuries. Edward Gibbon, writing in the eighteenth century in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, suggested that if it hadn’t been for Charles Martel, ‘perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.’ This is seriously overstating the importance of what may well have been little more than a long drawn out skirmish. The Umayyad forces were probably after booty rather than land. While it sometimes suggested that a period of successful raids might have induced them to make a more concerted attempt at conquest, it is unlikely that France would have been an attractive or possible candidate for long lasting Umayyad rule. The mode of production in which the Umayyad empire operated was one based on large, wealthy cities absorbing the surplus from the countryside around them. This structure was present in most of Spain, where cities had survived the fall of the Roman Empire and conquest by the Visigoths, but not in France. Even in Languedoc, where a similar city-based structure had survived to some degree, Umayyad rule was never very well established and did not survive long.

Gibbon’s view of the importance of the battle of Tours, however, has become the basis of the far-right narrative of the existential threat to Christians turned back by the heroism of Charles Martel. As one current website puts it: ‘Cathedrals were transformed into mosques. With the Muslim forces so close to France, the entirety of Europe faced the threat of being conquered. The Muslim forces seemed unstoppable, and the end of European civilisation was a real possibility.’

It is unlikely that anyone in the eighth century thought that they were participating in an epochal clash of cultures. The Umayyad conquests of North Africa and Spain displaced fractious Vandal and Visigothic regimes which had themselves gained power through violent conquest and which were largely unlamented. In Spain in particular, the Caliphate was in general more tolerant, more comfortable and more prosperous than what had gone before. Small wonder then that the Umayyad forces included some Christians.

The modern far-right narrative about Tours is that the clash of cultures is simply historical fact. It is important enough today to be an inspiration for mass murder because the battles of the eighth century remain forever relevant. A brief consideration of early medieval history shows however that this is disingenuous. The most serious existential threat to the established order in France and Britain in this era was the Vikings, whose raids did far more damage, and who ultimately conquered and held far more territory, than the Umayyads did north of the Pyrenees. Indeed, proponents of the ‘horseshoe nail’ school of history could make the case that if King Alfred had lost to the Danes in the ninth century, the history of Christianity (at the time the Danes were pagan), Wessex, England, Britain and the world would all have been very different. That this history has not given rise to people attacking modern-day Danes under the banner of ‘Edington 878’ shows that with the memorialisation of Tours there is something else going on.

The ideology of an existential clash of cultures between the Islamic and the Christian worlds does not reflect an eighth-century reality, but neither is it a modern invention. It arises not from any historical reality of a cultural threat from Islam to the West, but from the justification of one of the darkest episodes in European medieval history: the crusades.

The crusades were a series of wars called by the Papacy against Muslims, in Spain, where Christian rulers of northern Spain were gradually conquering the Muslim cities of the centre and south, and in Palestine. The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095, although reconquista activity in Spain had begun rather earlier. The justification for the First Crusade was ostensibly aggression by Muslim rulers towards the Byzantine empire and towards Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, but this was a pretext. The function of crusading was to redirect the violence of the European nobility away from the Church (the eleventh century had seen an extensive movement against noble violence and Church efforts to remove itself from secular control) and towards targets mandated by the Church. The Church had much to offer secular rulers, from greater control of the peasantry to legitimacy and special status for royal figures, and the quid pro quo was the minimisation of noble violence against it. The crusades were an outlet for that violence, transforming a threat to ecclesiastical power into an expression of it.

The crusades were ideological conflicts, in which the justification of a Muslim threat to Christians had to be buttressed by an ideological hatred of Muslims and Islam. It is therefore in the propaganda supporting crusading in Palestine and in Spain that the idea of an inherent, existential clash between Christianity and Islam surfaced. The effect was to give credibility to the idea of the crusades as holy wars, in which crusaders could hope for both material wealth and salvation. It also justified and encouraged the appalling massacres of civilians which many of the crusades entailed, such as the pogroms against Jews in Rhineland towns by crusade armies and the slaughter of the civilian population during the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

This was an asymmetrical ideology. There is little evidence that Muslims dealing with invading crusaders felt as they did that they were participating in a culture war. While Muslim armies did sometimes attack Christian symbols (or were reported to have done so by Christian chroniclers, which is not the same thing), as Saladin’s troops were supposed to have done when they captured Jerusalem in 1187, the principle tone from Muslim sources describing Muslim/Christian interactions is of bemused exasperation at Christian boorishness.

The westerners who made their home in Outremer, as the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem was called, between 1099 and 1187 often became rather less bigoted against the Muslim lords with whom they had regular contact, so much so that recent arrivals from Europe stood out because of their extreme Islamophobia. A Syrian lord living in Jerusalem, Usama ibn Munqidh, remembered in his autobiography an incident where a Christian had grabbed him while he was praying and turned him round to face east. Others dragged the man off Usama and apologised, explaining that ‘he is a foreigner who has just arrived today from his homeland in the north and has never seen anyone pray facing any other direction than east’.1

The cultural influence of the Muslim world on Europe in the medieval period was overwhelmingly positive, from the sophisticated cities of Muslim Spain to the cultural and scientific advances of a melting pot like the island of Sicily. It is not the case that some precious European civilisation was under threat in the Middle Ages from Muslim conquerors. What is true is that a particularly violent European ruling class developed an Islamophobic ideology to support the export of their violence to the Muslim world.

When they aren’t claiming inspiration from Charles Martel, violent far right activists would no doubt love to see themselves as the heirs of the crusaders. In many ways, they would be right, as long as we remember that the real image of a crusader is not the fictitious version of Richard Coeur de Lion, noble and brave defender of Christendom. The true crusader is a red-faced, sweating bigot, resorting to violence when confronted with cultures he doesn’t understand. History does not justify far-right figures like the Christchurch terrorist. It holds a mirror up to them.

1Usama ibn Munqidh, ‘Autobiography’, Chronicles of the Crusades. Eyewitness accounts of the wars between Christianity and Islam, ed. Elizabeth Hallam, (Bramley Books, Godalming 1996), p.147.

Tagged under: Spain Islamophobia
Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.