Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters

Without the multicultural demographic and ideological context, the holy warriors of the Caliphate would stand out like proverbial sore thumbs in the Western world. Currently, they enjoy a perfect environment. They will not let up until Dar al Islam dominates the world. Or at least they will keep trying. The West should oppose that.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | March 30, 2016


In war, power relationships reflect selflessness and bravery, but also feed on greed and compulsion. The bellicose synergy of the Muslim overlords and their Christian dependents reflected tactical alliances, personal considerations, mercenary motives, and brazen slavery. A typical leftist newsmaker of Indian parentage, the son of a tenured UN bureaucrat and a liberal academic at New York University, Ishaan Tharoor disagrees. According to him, Muslims and Christians killed each other, but most often they killed others jointly. Throughout history Muslims fought in Christian armies and vice versa. To talk about the clash of civilizations or defense of Christendom from Islam is therefore nonsense. This is the essence of Ishaan Tharoor’s belief, or, to be more precise, his enthusiastic endorsement of Ian Almond’s deeply flawed relativist and multiculturalist argument in Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched With Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Relativism vs. traditionalism

The gist of the problem is naturally philosophical. To avoid clear cut conclusions, which tend to be absolutist, liberals tend to prefer obfuscation, which is relativist. The more nebulous their depiction of the past, the better it is for the cause of relativism. However, the exact opposite is true. The brighter a light we can shed on the bygone days, the clearer the contours of history emerge. That, in turn, allows us for increasingly lucid conclusions. In some cases, our findings prompt us toward the Rankean “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” or approximating the truth, even occasionally absolutism. Traditionalist Western historians assume that the truth is obtainable and that we can approximate it, although human failings guarantee that the Ideal Truth is only known to God. That knowledge should not deter one from pursing the ideal, if only because, otherwise, what is the objective of scientific inquiry if not finding out the truth?

Such is also the case with the topic of post-modernist musings of Tharoor. He confuses tactical alliances, family loyalty, personal grudges, mercenary motives, and brazen slavery with morally relativistic brotherhood in arms of equal opportunity killers. It is true that colonial armies of Great Britain and France enlisted Muslims. In fact, they enlisted all natives. For example, India’s Great Mutiny of 1857 was suppressed mostly by local forces under British command. It is a golden rule for imperial powers to divide and conquer precisely by capitalizing on local rivalries, whether religious, ethnic, or tribal. That entails enlisting native collaborators against local opposition. Further, when mother countries are hard pressed, they routinely turn to colonial forces for relief. Hence, Senegal’s Muslim troops, drafted with the encouragement of their Sufi imams, fought for France in both First and Second World War, according to David Robinson. Likewise, as David Fromkin has shown, it was often Muslim soldiers of the India Raj that were deployed against the Ottoman forces in the Middle East from 1914-1918. That should not be a mystery and one should read neither syncretism nor multiculturalism into imperial power politics. That Tharoor props his ideological exhortations on such ahistorical “revelations” shows the journalist is woefully lost in this rather straightforward imperial universe.


Imperial Islam

Much more controversial is the story of the relationship between the Muslim overlords and their Christian underlings, even though it shares some of the imperialist substance with the British, French, Russian, and other experiences. There was a significant difference, however. In addition to personal, vassalage, and alliance ties, the Muslim-Christian relationship was also based on slavery. The former were the masters, and the latter the victims. In fact, in the Muslim imagination, no treaty with unbelievers could be considered as an arrangement between equal parties. That undergirded any diplomatic and political transactions with the Christians and others. When the Muslim side was a weaker party or stood to benefit from the “alliance,” pragmatism justified such moves as expedient for the benefit of the jihad and their true nature was concealed through dissimulation.

Balance of power considerations dictated that certain European powers entered into permanent alliances with the Ottoman Empire, in particular from the 17th century. Specifically, Bourbon France wanted to check the Habsburgs with Turkish assistance. However, a weaker Christian entity concluded a treaty with the Muslims only at its own peril. Many found out belatedly that an alliance on Islamic terms meant subjugation plain and simple, for example Greek and Latin Christian held towns, most notably Galata, which professed neutrality and, thus, refrained from assisting Constantinople during its final siege by the Ottomans in 1453, according to historian Halil Inalcik. Since, according to Turkic and Muslim ways, they yielded peacefully, they were spared rape and pillage, but not slavery. These subjugated polities were customarily obligated to assist the Ottomans against their enemies, including Christians. And so were Bulgarians, Wallachians, Transylvanians, and many others. Each dependency was ordered to furnish troops for the Ottoman jihad. Admittedly, sometimes the enemies of the Ottomans were also the adversaries of their underlings. For example, the Hungarian Protestants of Slovakia and Transylvania, in league with the Bourbons, assisted the Sublime Porte in its final (and failed) offensive against the Catholic Habsburgs in 1683.

Bodyguards and others

Another reason the Christians would find themselves impressed in the Muslim ranks was family ties. Alliances with Muslim powers usually entailed giving hostages to the sultan or caliph. Sometimes the hostages were new Christian wives for the Islamic potentates. And the unwilling spouses would come with an additional bribe in the form of a dowry which sometimes included a bodyguard. In times of war the bodyguard would be reinforced by additional troops as stipulated in the treaty of submission. Thus, for example, at the battle of Ankara in 1402, after his own Muslim troops deserted him, Sultan Bayezid I found himself defended solely by his Christian wife’s Christian contingent. Far from being independent actors, the Christians were obviously fighting for their lives in a war not of their making and their loyalty was to their princess and not her Mohammedan consort.

Next, certain Christians sought refuge with Muslim forces for personal reasons. This was rather frequent at certain stages of the conflict over Spain and Portugal, according to Hugh Kennedy, Joseph F. O’Callaghan, and Dario Fernandez-Morera. In fact, the initial Islamic invasion of Iberia occurred because a Visigothic king raped a noblewoman whose father, myopically, requested Muslim assistance to redress the outrage. Then, there were the mercenaries. They fought for whoever paid, for example the infamous Catalan Company who slaughtered the Turks for the Byzantines and vice versa in the 14th century. Two hundred years earlier, Reverta de La Guardia, a former viscount of Barcelona fell afoul of his Portuguese sovereign, turned mercenary, and fought on the Almoravid side against the Almohads. Further, Christian dissidents and renegades periodically defected to the Muslims, embraced Islam, and fought against other Christians, sometimes ascending to high positions in the Ottoman, Umayyad, Almovarid, or Almohad caliphates, including land and naval forces. They also fought against Muslim enemies of their Islamic overlord. Moreover, Christians could appear in Muslim ranks for a combination of the aforementioned reasons. There were a number of tactical alliances between the Berbers backed by Iberian Christians against the Umayyads during the Taifa kingdoms period in the 11th century in Spain, for example, during the struggle for Cordoba in 1010 and 1013. Similar tactical alliances reappeared in the 13th century with the Christian side covering the retreat of the Almohads in 1228, or accepting Ibn al-Ahmar’s soldier’s assistance during the Spanish assault on Muslim-controlled Seville in 1248. This practice continued into the 14th century, including the relationship between Mohammed IV and his superior, Christian King Pedro the Cruel of Castille (1350-1369).

Slaves and “racism”

Lastly, there were the ubiquitous slave soldiers. A practice of enslaving non-Muslim children and training them for war, although of ancient pedigree, continued under Islamic regimes with gusto. Central Asian boys were its first victims. But soon the inhuman practice extended to others, including Slavs, Franks, and Iberians (so-called saqualiba (Slavs), most of them castrated by their masters), who constituted the mainstay of the Umayyad armies in Al-Andalus. The Berbers also kidnapped, trained, and armed black animist Africans. The Serbs and other Balkan children were subject to the hated blood tax (devşirme – “collection”). Cyclically, as described by Peter S. Sugar, Douglas E. Streusand, Tamim Ansary, and others, the Ottoman officials descended on their villages and “collected” boys to be enrolled as the fearsome Janissaries, the Sultan’s Praetorian Guard. Sometimes the slave soldiers rebelled and seized power, reducing the Muslim ruler himself to a figure head and establishing their own states, most notably the “mounted slaves,” the Mamluks of Egypt. Should we count the ubiquitous Christian galley slaves in the Ottoman navies as a part of “the long history of Muslims and Christians killing people together”? According to relativist “logic,” had the Muslim admiral wanted to compete in a waterskiing contest, the galley slaves would have shared in the trophy. Let’s take it further: By extension, the saqualiba must have enjoyed the castration, and the Balkan Orthodox Christian boys being torn from their families. But such talk is obviously ahistorical. It is indeed absurd.

Incidentally, Islam is inexorably connected to the question of slavery. Generally, slavery is not haram. As research of Ira Lapidus, Albert Hourani, and others shows, for at least 1,300 years some, if not most, Muslims have condoned and practiced slavery largely as a continuity of previous pre-Islamic systems. They refined it, though. Mohammed’s followers embraced this “peculiar institution” with gusto. The chief source of slaves has been Sub-Saharan Africa. Early forays from Arabia in the 7th century were a harbinger of a permanent slaving system that entrapped millions. Anywhere Islam appeared, slavery found a solid religious justification. Since Muslims could not be enslaved, Christians, animists, and others were snatched and sold. For instance, while they appeared in southern France as putative allies of the Bourbons in the 16th century, the Ottomans took to stealing people around Marseille, creating widespread panic among the “allied” Christians, according to Fernand Braudel. Howard M. Federspiel admits that the Islamic Iranum people consistently raided and stole droves of Christian Visayans in central Philippines well into the 19th century. The victims were “distributed across the Muslim Zone.”

It was the same in Europe: the Mediterranean basin suffered the most: Italy, Spain, and, to a lesser extent, France. The Ottomans enslaved whom they pleased in the Balkans for half a millennium. Further, between the 16th and 18th centuries, practically year in and year out, Tatars and Turks kidnapped and enslaved people from the southern lands of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania and its environs: millions of individuals over more than 250 years, including women of course with attendant rape and other abominations. This horrific experience, meshing with the nightmares of Nazi and Communist persecutions, generated a lasting trauma – like any memory of slavery – in Poland and elsewhere, and has now manifested itself in a vigorous defense of Western Civilization, which Ishaan Tharoor predictably brands as “racism.” Reductio ad Hitlerum once again substitutes for a serious discussion of an extremist threat, where the perpetrators are coddled by liberals, and victims excoriated as alleged “racists.”

Perhaps we should not pay too much attention to Tharoor. After all, he is a fellow who embraces a dubious study purporting to show that “there is no real link between migration and terrorism.”  He should read Mao on the guerrilla as fish swimming in an ocean of people. Without the multicultural demographic and ideological context, the holy warriors of the Caliphate would stand out like proverbial sore thumbs in the Western world. Currently, they enjoy a perfect environment. They will not let up until Dar al Islam dominates the world. Or at least they will keep trying. The West should oppose that.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.