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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Islamophobia and the Grande Turke

Since the London suicide bombings, there has been much expostulation about militant Islam in the press. The public have eagerly lapped up all the stories of the menace of Islam. There is nothing new in that. In the seventeenth century, the terms 'muslim' and 'turk' were synonymous, and many pamphlets played on the fear of 'The Turke'

Newes From the Great Turke (1645), for example, was purportedly "a blasphemous manifestation of the Grand Seignior of Constantinople against the Christians, of his entrance into Christendom" supposedly a leaked document from Turkey, in which the Grand Seignior wrote "Our will is that this our army shall be the terror not only of Christendom but to the whole world, that by the multitude of our gallies and ships the sun, moon and stars administration thereof shall be changed, the fishes shall hide themselves in the deepest bottom of the sea . . . the beasts of the forests shall be afraid and the very tress rooted out and beaten down. And all Christendom shall by this our great might feel our anger and wrath" . Enough to chill the blood of any timorous Christian

The threat to Europe was very real even then, as Turkey had already invaded the Baltic states and was threatening to swallow the region covered by modern Hungary. The Great Turke's Letter Sent unto the Prince of Transylvania was published in 1645. The Great Turke was supposed to have written to the Prince of Transylvania, "Thou and thy people ought to fear and must expect nothing else but death . . . for I will destroy thee with thine own people without hindrance. I will plunder thee and leave thee a memory of my bloody sword after me.... I will moreover plant my own religion effectively therein and destroy for ever thy crucified God whose wrath I fear not...I will besides this couple thy sacred priests to plows and make dogs and wild beasts to suck the breasts of women ... I will have you all burnt".

Of course, these pamphlets were fictional but were read avidly by a public which thrilled to the idea of a ruthless psychopathic Islam. "Shall we not take pity on our brethren who are Christians? Shall we be so base as to let that Infidel invade the empire of the west as he hath done to that of the east? Shall our hearts be so frozen as not to be kindled with the zeal of avenging the injury done to the divine majesty of God?" wailed the pamphleteer.

Such was the revulsion toward the 'turke' that it was said that the Oriental drink of coffee - "The Mahometan berry" - put the drinker under "the power of the Turkish spell", thereby making him turn 'renegade' (a term originally used to describe Christians that adopted Islam). It was even said that coffee drinking was really part of a secret Turkish plot to destroy Christendom.'.

There may be some truth in this. Sir Thomas Shirley warned that "conversation with infidels doeth mutch corrupte", and that the more time Englishmen spent in the lands of Islam, the closer they moved to adopting the manners of the Muslims. "Many wylde youthes of all nationes", he wrote, "as well Englishe as others in euerye 3 yeere that they staye in Turkye they lose one article of theyre faythe..". The Islamic raiders from the Barbary coast had British renegades in their midst. These renegades, in turn, were sometimes recaptured. Archbishop Laud even devised a special ceremony for their re-conversion. One of the most influential Ottoman eunuchs during the late 16th century, Hasan Aga, turns out to have been a former Samson Rowlie from Great Yarmouth. The "Moorish King's Executioner" in Algeria turned out to be a former butcher from Exeter called "Absalom" (Abd-es-Salaam).

And yet, even as the menace seemed about to sweep across Europe and threaten the very existence of Christendom, the seeds were set for the decline on a religion whose spread was then dependent on the successful prosecution of war. For Europe was about to see a huge advance in military technology, starting with the warship, and soon encompassing the whole spectrum of military activity. The tide was about to turn.


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