Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Battle of Lepanto and the Clash of Civilization by Mohammad Arkoun

The battle of Lepanto – 7 October 1571 – was one of the major episodes in the competition between Islam and Christianity for Mediterranean supremacy. As in many other confrontations between two rival powers, each side invoked ‘the laws of God’ and the revealed Truth, ignored or rejected by the ‘infidels’ opposite.

Religion was fully mobilized to legitimize cynical strategies of political and economic dominance. A commonplace situation, one might say. Wars always take place between what my friend Paul M.G. Levy calls ‘possessors of the true’. Even today, however, it is to be noted that religious thought has still not drawn all the conclusions from these common place situations in which religions played and still play leading roles. Instead of reflecting on the true functions of religion to advance our knowledge of the religious phenomena, the guardians of orthodoxy in each community have tended to interpret victory over the enemy as a sign of God’s approval, and to erase the compromises present in official religion while continuing to exalt the ‘transcendence’ of eternal belief.

What does the Battle of Lepanto tell us about this aspect? If we take the trouble to examine impartially the language, the conduct and ideologies of the two sides, we find that Islam and Christianity performed the same functions of masking reality, twisting the meaning of events and transcendantalizing profane behavior, with the same later results of individual and collective alienation. This last, in will be claimed, is the price to be paid for the survival and temporal growth ( spiritual growth, believers will insist) of each community. If that is an unbreakable boundary in the human condition, it is well worthy a thorough investigation of its causes and consequences with the aid of historical examples such as the Battle of Lepanto.

This exercise will be attempted 1) by describing the protagonists; 2) by defining what was at stake in the battle; and 3) by bringing out the common mode of thought underlying the Christian and Islamic discourses.

Description of the Protagonists

On the Christian side, the Republic of Venice had a firm ally in Pius V who headed the thirteenth crusade against the Muslim infidel. The Pope had no difficulty in recruiting Philip II, King of Spain (1527-1598), by making him a beneficiary of the papal bull that launched the crusade, ensuring him an annual income of 400,000 ducats extracted from Church property. Philip had abandoned his father Charles V’s dream of a universal monarchy and was seeking to rebuild the power of Spain, having lost Preveza in Greece in 1538, Djerba in 1559-60, Malta in 1564 and Tunis in 1570; Granada in Spain itself, was under threat from the Moors. The king hoped, with the help of Venice, to eliminate the Calabrian ‘renegade’ Uludj Ali who held Algiers and Tunis in the name of the Ottoman sultan. This power strategy had aroused Venetian suspicions, the more so when Pius V helped manoeuvre Don Juan of Austria (1545-1578), fresh from his harsh repression of the Moorish revolt (1568-1570), into the supreme command of the allied fleets. Within this command, Marc Antonio Colonna, Constable of the Kingdom of Naples, favored Venice; the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria supported Philip II.

On the Muslim side, the Ottoman Empire, in 1570, covered the Balkan peninsula and the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean; pirates of various origins, operating out of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, maintained (with the help of their Christian competitors) a climate of insecurity, making it possible for example for the Turks to take the Venetian colony of Cyprus in 15670. But, although Turkish power looked threatening from the outside, internally the regime had a number of weaknesses. Sultan Selim II, who had succeeded his father, Suleiman the Magnificent, in September 1566, was seen by Western contemporaries as ‘a sovereign both unworthy and incompetent, odious, squat and obese . . . the first of the indolent sultans.’  Continuity of imperial power was in the hands of the Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokoullou (or Skoklovitch), one of those astonishing individuals characteristic of the whole age.  Sokollou was actually a Bosnian, born in Ragusa (now Known as Dubrovnik) and taken from his family as a child under the devshirme of press-ganging Christian boys to fight for the Ottoman empire. Raised and educated in the seraglio, he had learned how to assert his authority without losing his footing among court intrigues, merciless struggles between foreign clans, demanding Janissaries and over-ambitious Pashas. While accepting sumptuous presents and fabulous sums of money from the vassals of the empire (but also from Venice and the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople), he maintained an attitude of obedience and devotion to the Sultan.

In their battles in Cyprus, Lepanto and elsewhere, both sides depended on galley-slaves (oarsman) and mercenaries of every origin and provenance. Thus, when the peasants of Crete showed extreme reluctance to assist, Venice was obliged to call upon the Bohemians. But it is also true that when the SAxcred and Perpetual Union against the Turk was proclaimed in May 1571, Italy and Spain were once again swept up by a crusading fervor and every town and city wanted to raise a contingent. The Turks, by combining calls for holy war (jihad) and with the practice of devshirme, managed to assemble a force of 25,000 men and 2,500 Janissaries. Sickness, desertion and treachery spread confusion and uncertainty on both sides in the run-up to the battle, exacerbated by internecine violence, incompetence and squabbling among leaders.

It would be interesting to dwell on the extraordinary characters who figure in the preparations and negotiations before the battle, the battle itself and its aftermath. Popes, kings, ministers, viziers, cardinals, ambassadors and military officers of all ranks, all deserve detailed biographies to map the status of the human individual in Muslim and Christi an settings. How can he importance for each of them of genuinely religious motivation be measured, given the general predominance of ambition, appetites for power and revenge, obsessions and private fantasies? Thus, Don Juan ‘recognized as a royal prince from the age of 16 but known to all as ‘the bastard’ . . .eaten up withy the lust for action, he at last found, with his nomination, an opportunity for revenge on his destiny . . .’ Marc-Antonio Colonna ‘descended from an illustrious Roman family. . . quarreled with Pope Paul IV, stripped of estates, excommunicated . . . remains indebted to the King of Spain. . .’ Veniero ‘whose difficult character was already known . . . not pleased at having to obey an inexperienced young man . . .also scornful of his worldly character, and jealously protective of Venetian prestige . . .’

Uludj Ali (  known as Kilidj Ali or ‘Ali the scimitar’) had even more the characteristic features of the age than those described above.

He was both choleric and melancholy, ostentatiously devoted to the Empire and suspected of treason. Like many other Ottoman dignitaries, he was a Christian renegade. Born into a very poor family in Calabria , he had always been a child of the sea, as fisherman, galley-slave and finally pirate, Captured by the Turks at age 16 and mocked by his fellow galley-slaves when afflicted with scurvy, he killed one of them in a brawl and abjure Christianity to avoid the death penalty. He later amassed a colossal fortune as Beylerbey of Algiers.

Many other such portraits could be quoted but it is already apparent that religion counted for very little in the behavior of the most visible protagonists. And even less among the mercenaries greedy for loot or the press-ganged rowers who cowered under the lash of their guards. There remain the many peasants and humble townspeople who had responded with fervor to appeals from a Pope and a Sultan venerated as spiritual’ leaders. It will be seen that the language of the official discourses employed all the stereotypes most likely to arouse eschatological visions and millenarian aspirations in the popular consciousness.

Notwithstanding all this, can it be claimed that the stakes over which the Battle of Lepanto was fought were as varied as the interests of those individual parties, communities and ethno- cultural groups? Or is it possible to discern amid this tangle of violent appetites, explosive hatreds and deep-seated rivalries certain more universal and permanent aims?

What the Battle was About

Lepanto is an episode in the secular struggle between all the Mediterranean peoples. The geo-historical facts of this competition were admirably described by F. Braudel in his major book on the Mediterranean world in the time of Philip II. The emergence of Islam in the seventh century and its impact first on Byzantium and, from the eleventh century onwards, on the expanding Christian West, came increasingly to be presented as an intolerable challenge to the temporal and spiritual power of the Church. In the minds of both sides, a religious motive was thus substituted for the real reasons which were (and remain to this day) strategic and economic. The wealth of polemical Islamic and Christian literature makes it possible to monitor the construction of what I have called a cultural system of reciprocal exclusion, on which the perceptions that Islam and Christianity have of each other are still based today. For the Muslims, the ‘arguments’ and framework of the polemic were fixed for all time by the Qur’an, which reflects the climate of opposition to the Prophet maintained by the Jews and Christians first in Mecca, and then in Medina. For the Christians, a haunting collection of imagery has been built up in the course of many Crusades against the infidel in the East, in Spain and in the Maghreb.

By considering historical turning points such as Las Navas de Tolosa, Granada, Oran, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Alexandria, Lepanto, Constantinople and the Palestinian tragedy today, I am trying to establish the nature of the major concern at stake in our own time. Since religious imagery has been attached to the struggles for political and economic hegemony in order to give them ‘divine’ legitimacy, and since such imagery has for centuries fixed a priori the forms of sensitivity and intelligibility in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, it is reasonable to suggest that the history and anthropology of the Mediterranean area needs to be given a cognitive basis that is radically different from the one established by mediaeval theologies and continued by positivist, colonial, Eurocentric historiography until at least the 1950s. Academic research hardly bothers with this purifying function although it is of great importance currently, especially in the Mediterranean world, where serious conflicts have built up, not over territorial issues but more essentially in what I will call the metaphysical structure of the three great religious universes. Thus, for example, although Michel Lesure reveals to the reader many valuable texts redolent of the mentality of the age, he takers no interest in the common structure of thought that produced these utterances; so he does not help the unprepared reader to understand that, although couched in obsolete sixteenth-century linguistic forms, their underlying thought still prevails to this day in the three communities. The whole literature of the Israel-Arab conflict broadly confirms the currently status of the legitimization discourses used during all the Crusades and, notably, at Lepanto. Although Christian discourse appears to be more ‘modern’ since Vatican II, it should be recognized that the hard core of traditional theological thought successfully resists all attempts at reform.

To better outline the cognitive background to the debates launched in the Mediterranean world by the successive emergence of the there monotheists religions, it is worth analyzing some significant texts.

Observations on Historical Psychology

The defeat of the Turks at Lepanto was greeted by all the Christian peoples as ‘Christ’s victory. A durable imagery was crystallized in the popular consciousness during the widespread celebrations that followed, encapsulated in songs such as this one:

Did you think, booby, you could confront
Italy and Spain with your rabble
And did you believe Mahomet would vanquish Christ?
O my Selim, what’s become of you? And Mahomet,
What a lot of help he gave you!
Your pashas have all gone up in smoke.

The text of the Holy League signed in Rome on 19 May, 1571 includes the following:
After first invoking the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost . . . in the presence of our Holy Father and the Most Reverend Cardinals. . . ha been published this Sacred League.
. . .They ( the Confederate members ) wish and agree, through the grace and favor of God, that to destroy and ruin the Turk, this league be perpetual, and not only to defend the kingdoms and principalities of the Confederate members of the League against the Turk, but also to go and cause him damage and invade his territories, both by land and by sea, and in these enterprises are included Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli in Barbary . . .

Christian convicts serving life sentences were ‘permanently set free and encouraged to fight for Jesus Christ through whose grace they have been delivered from servitude. . .’

Pius V, who had ‘received from Heaven on 7 October the revelation of victory’, wrote to the king of Spain:

My very dear son in Jesus Christ . . .since receiving the happy news of the most glorious victory won by the army of the Sacred League over the army of the arrogant tyrant and enemy of the Cristian name, we have not ceased giving thanks to the Lord God who, in his mercy and infinite bounty, did not fail to fulfil the hopes He had given to that effect. . .

The Turkish texts are just as thickly sprinkled with propitiatory formulae, invocations to God and the Prophet to ensure victory. The enemy is referred to as ‘the fleet of the vile Infidels’, the ‘boats of the miserable Christians”. ‘War is uncertain in its results,’ wrote Selim to Pertev Pashia. ‘Judgment belongs to God, the High, the Great, the Master and the Benefactor. We hope that Almighty God will soon make possible all sorts of humiliations and the crushing of the enemies of the Religion and the Empire. . .

In his instructions to the Kapudan Pasha, Seyit-Ali, Sokoullou wrote:

. . . with the help of Almighty God and placing your absolute trust and resignation in the ultimate assistance of the All-Highest, relying on the abundant blessings of the Prince of Prophets, and seeking the aid of the Prophet’s four Companions – God’s grace be upon them –and all the holy spirits, you will come down from the direction of Corfu . . .

 When villagers all over Europe celebrate ‘Christ’s victory’, when Catholic kings confer with the Holy Father to found a Sacred League, when Sokoullou discovers ‘at random’ a Qur’anic verse predicting the later restoration of the true order and values, we see living examples of the exercise of a single mode of semiotic organization. On both sides, the theme of True Religion is evoked in the same fashion by direct and constant references to God, rather than to signs, symbols, myths, rituals and narratives that, over time and with effort, gradually form the specific consciousness of a community. In victory as in defeat, the Scriptures are given confirmation of their transcendent nature.

We call this ‘religious’ to the extent that historical events are integrated (as in the case of Lepanto) into the setting and with the aid of religious symbolism; we call it ‘national’ when the system of legitimation is secular ( territory circumscribed by a political frontier, mother country, historic individual etc.) The passage from one system of legitimation to another takes place with very different frequency in different social-cultural environments. Apart from that, these occurrences are becoming ever more important in the present phase of history, as the political monoliths of ‘modern’ regimes restore to the traditional religions their function of ultimate refuge for the marginalized or silenced social groups. I refer, of course, to the rapid proliferation of ‘sects’ of different kinds in the Western societies and the role of Islam in the expression of political opposition. That is why those of ostensibly modern and secular consciousness should not be to quick to dismiss the texts quoted above as cliches and and ritual formula from another age.

While Christian theology is starting to embark upon a serious investigation into the changing content and functions of faith, beliefs and spirituality under various determining factors, the same cannot be said of Muslim or Jewish thought which continue to fulfil dialectical, polemical and self-establishing functions in the context of the Israel-Arab conflict and more generally the structural violence exerted in international economic and cultural relations.

Still, the guardians of Christian  orthodoxy and the transcendent will certainly object to the reductive side of this analysis [as exemplified by conservative reactions to President Obama’s recent speech at a Congressional ‘Prayer Breakfast in which he simply referred to the brutality of the Crusades]. This objection has two meanings. It confirms that contemporary consciousness  , despite all the positive achievements of modern rationality, continue to acquiesce in the spontaneous operations of transcendentalization; this  signals the philosophical  quest that ought to accompany ‘the new scientific spirit,’ illustrated by the explorations of human and social sciences. This is what I am pursuing personally by attempting a re-reading of the Scriptures, not through the axioms of traditional theologies, but by using all the instruments of a greatly expanded historical sciences.

Seen from the historical trajectory of Islam, Europe/the West is a hostile, hegemonic geopolitical sphere, unavoidable since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and broadly responsible for a historical decline which began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As a geocultural, intellectual and spiritual sphere, Europe, before the emergence of the economic, technological and powerful monetary sphere called the West, is in many ways an extension and expansion of the thought and scientific knowledge accumulated in the  Islamicized area of the Mediterranean during the classical age of the Arab-Islamic civilization (750-1300). The change in direction in intellectual, scientific and cultural exchanges between the Muslim Mediterranean and Europe can be dated from the year 1492 AD when Catholic Spain drove the Muslims and Jews out of Andalusia and Europe discovered the American continent and opened the Atlantic route, which resulted in supplanting the Mediterranean route with the growth of United States power, especially after 1945.

This is not the place for a detailed account of all the stages and conditions of these developments, which include notably the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the colonialization of all the Muslim countries, the liberation wars of the 1950s and the ideological peregrinations of the so-called national states since the achievement of political ‘liberation.’ What interests us here is the accumulation of unthinkables and unthoughts during the four centuries from the sixteenth to the present, during which Europe/the West was constructing intellectual, political;, legislative and cultural modernity in Western Europe. Not only did Islamic thought play no part at all in this development; it cut itself off from its own classical heritage by eliminating the practice of philosophy and even theology, which so enriched religious thought in the past and has yet to be reinstated.

That is why the historical summary I have provided is strictly unthinkable in the historical and cognitive contexts in which Islamic thought has been imprisoned since the political triumph of nationalist ideologies in the struggle for liberation, and the ensuing construction of single-party states either on the apparently claimed liberal European model or ,until 1989, that of the ‘people’s democratic republics’ of Communist Europe. From 1950 to 2000, two determining factors substituted a sociologically dominant populist ideology for a liberal culture, itself restricted to circumscribed and fragile urban elites. Education systems, manipulated by one-party states universally promoted a nationalistic, militantly ethnic vision, sometimes openly xenophobic, in the guise of vigilance- not entirely unjustified – against imperialist exploitation by the ‘West’: and the social settings of knowledge were thrown into confusion by a demographic growth rate unprecedented in the history of human society. In all Islamic contexts, the situations crated in this way will never be superseded as long as the military and police-states endure, with their total hostility to the most unarguable values of democratic development in modern societies.

It is in terms of these weighty and complex factors that we should interpret the militant ‘argument’ proclaiming the radical and definitive incompatibility of ‘Western’ science and thought with that of ‘Islam’; in which ‘Islam’ has its own conceptual apparatus and horizons of meaning which admit absolutely no theoretical or pragmatic validity in the intellectual and spiritual ‘wanderings’ of Western positive science. This position is defended in the education systems and religious rhetoric of Islamicist militants issuing from the sacred enclaves of the mosques, and also by official media compelled to take part in a mimetic escalation concerning the ‘validity’ of ‘Islam’ as a source and foundation of all religious, ethical, political and economic legitimacy. All discursive utterances in contemporary Islamic contexts are inspired to a greater or lesser degree by this ideological perception of the ‘Western’ protagonist of contemporary history, just as in that ‘West’ constructed by the political-religious imaginary, the world of ‘Islam’ is generally perceived as radically incompatible with, and therefore threatening to, the superior ‘values’ of the West. This is the highly successful ‘clash of civilizations’ theory that has haunted the Western political imagination since the end of the Cold War. There is certainly a clash, but it is between collective imaginaries constructed and maintained on both sides through unthinkables and unthoughts cultivated by the education systems, the discourse of political and academic establishments, and the media that feed on this rhetoric and seek to increase their following by outdoing each other with anticipations of interpretations from the leading minds.

But there are very few works in which the boundaries of specialization- sociology, psychology, ethnography, anthropology, theology and philosophy- are truly merged in order to completely change representations and interpretations of belief and the teaching offered to the believer. On the contrary, macro-theories on the clash of cultures presented by political scientists are currently overwhelmingly successful allover the world, despite the fact that they spread a dangerous, ideological polarization of backward, obscurantist, anti-humanist cultures and religions that threaten enlightened, advanced, humanist values.

Islam: To Reform or To Subvert by Mohammad Arkoun, Saqi Essentials, London, 2002, 2006.
M. Arkoun is Emeritus Professor at the Sorbonne.


  1. In recent anthropological discussion, the moral (an aesthetic) aspects of a given culture, the evaluative elements, have commonly been summed up in the term ‘ethos’, while the cognitive, existential aspects have been designated by the term ‘world view’. A people’s ethos is the tone, character and quality of life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood; it is the underlying attitude towards themselves and their world that life reflects. Their world view contains their most comprehensive ideas of order,.- Clifford Geertz.

    La personne est l’antinomie incarnee de l’’individuel et du sacral, de la forme et de la matiere, de l’infini et du fini, de la liberte et du destin. - Niciolas Berdiaev

    What gives birth to religious extremism and religious wars is not dogma, but men who transform dogmas into specific cultures and national identities. For if all the faithful limited themselves to the effort to seek God and to adore Him, the search for God and his adoration could not be the causes of wars, hatreds or discrimination. – Monsignor Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, 1995

    History is the most dangerous product ever concocted by the chemistry of the intellect. Its properties are well-known. It makes people dream, intoxicates them, gives them false memories, exaggerates their reflexes, keeps their old wounds open, disturbs their rest and drives them to heights of greatness or the depths of persecution, rendering nations bitter, unbearable and vain. – Paul Valery

    I want to know how long we can go on doing this stuff in defense of western society without ceasing to be the sort of society that is worth defending. That’s all. And what stuff maddening with thin pots Third world countries, bullying them, smashing their economies, rigging their elections, assassinating their leaders, buying their politicians like pop corn, ignoring that they are starving, uneducated, kicking their peasants from the land, arming their oppressors to the teeth, turning their children into tomorrow’s terrorists, manipulating the media, lying constantly. – John Le Carre at Johns Hopkins University, 1986

    From the depths of time, the cortege of saints, heroes and ordinary men who have steadfastly upheld human dignity rises up from the cemeteries of the world and asks: ‘What have you decided to sacrifice, and to what? [Charles De Gaulle]

  2. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.