A Forced Argument on Forced Conversions

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Written by TIME blogger Andrew Sullivan


• A Forced Argument on Forced Conversions
Viewpoint: Kidnapped journalists converting at gunpoint. The Pope quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor. The sudden focus on forced conversions to Islam reflects a fundamental misreading of that religion's history


• Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI's Speech
Given at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006


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Never let anyone tell you that there is no unity in Christianity. Especially regarding its mistrust of its chief rival faith, Islam.

This agreement, reaching across centuries of time and several religious schisms, has been especially evident in the last month, when American Evangelical Christians and the current Roman Catholic Pope (aided by a 14th Century Byzantine emperor and head of the Greek Orthodox Church) spoke up on a single topic: the forced conversions of Christians by Muslims.

My evangelical friends started asking me a couple of weeks ago “when the mainstream press” was going to “look into” the gunpoint conversions of (subsequently released) Fox News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig . The implication seemed to be that we were willfully ignoring a contemporary proof of the old accusation that Islam is a faith spread at the edge of a sword, despite the Koran verse, “Let there be no compulsion of religion.” The forced-conversion theme was enthusiastically taken up by conservative blogs. Then it ebbed somewhat, for reasons that will become evident.

And then it swelled once more. Pope Benedict seemed to revive it last week, with the help of an old -- make that a very old -- friend. He cited Manuel II Paleologus, the emperor of Byzantium from 1391 to 1425, who in a “dialog” with “an educated Persian” said: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict then paraphrased Manuel's complaint using the explicit phrase “forced conversion."

In the hands of either the blogs or Benedict, however, the forced-conversion argument may be a little...forced.

Current events first. The polemical appeal of the converted kidnapee story sank considerably when Canon Andrew White, the Anglican vicar in Baghdad and a long-distance hostage negotiator in the case, told New Zealand’s National Radio that “to be quite honest with you, [the conversion] was our suggestion.” That is, it had not been part of the kidnappers’ program so much as a mechanism, suggested by a Christian cleric, to enable the abductors to save face in giving up their hostages. Now admittedly, they did go for it. But combined with the seemingly unanimous subsequent condemnation of the act by Muslims, it hardly seemed like the latest tool of Jihad. Bernard Haykel, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, notes that although Islamic law allows for the forced conversion of “unbelievers,” it explicitly forbids its use upon Christians and Jews. He says contemporary stories of such conversion are “extremely rare,” and that the Evangelical voices who see it as a trend, he says, are engaged in “a polemic.”

And so, for that matter, was Emperor Manuel. He was the political and religious head of a much-shrunken and highly endangered Byzantine Empire, surrounded by the Ottoman Turks, who would swallow it up 53 years after his death. At a very early age he began a career as the public face of Byzantium in the West. “He was notable for traveling the courts of Europe and arguing the case that Europe needs to come to the aid of the Greeks in the East, to revive, if you will, the crusading spirit," says Charles Barber, an art historian and expert in the Byzantine empire at the University of Notre Dame. "Manuel shows a real familiarity with Islamic texts and Islamic culture, but as seen through the lens of a people who are essentially facing annihilation.” Thus, says Barber, the “dialog” between the emperor and the “educated Persian” (which we have only by the emperor's recounting) would fall into a well-established genre of “controversy literature.”

It's possible that Benedict has misconstrued what Manuel meant about Islam's being spread by the sword. The ancient emperor may have been alluding not to sword's-edge conversion, but merely (if "merely" is the right word) to Islam's early intent to conquer the world, whose inhabitants would eventually come around to the true faith of their own accord. In that case, it’s probably accurate. That was the plan in the first generations after Mohammed, and that may be enough to scare anyone who thinks that it has been sustained since then.

However, Manuel's personal history suggests that might actually have had forced conversion in mind. At around age 40 he was sent to the Ottoman court as a kind of ceremonial hostage; and before he returned to Constantinople to take up the imperial throne, he was forced to participate in a campaign against a Byzantine region in Anatolia. Perhaps during that fighting he witnessed an atypical forced conversion-- a bit like that of the Fox journalists.

That might explain an understandable apprehension about similar conversions on a mass scale, if the Ottomans took Constantinople. But if so, it turned out to be unwarranted. When the city finally fell, says Barber, the Muslims eliminated the political structure but kept the church up and running, using the Eastern Orthodox patriarch as spokesman for the Christian peoples within their own empire.

And this was consistent with what many (though not all) historians understand to be the larger pattern of Islamic conquest. Although treatment of "unbelievers"—notably those on the Indian subcontinent—could be brutal, “People of the Book,” as Christians and Jews were known, often maintained their distinct religious communities. True, they were regarded as second class citizens and had to pay a poll tax and a land tax. It could be a demeaning life, and many converted, but others did not, as is indicated by large Christian minorities in many majority-Muslim states today.

That was not an option that Chrisitianity granted to Islam when the roles were reversed in Southern Europe. The best-known forced conversion of Manuel’s century or any since was not executed by Muslims, but by the Spanish Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who served Spanish Moors (and Jews) a convert-or-leave edict in 1492 and then backed it up with the Spanish Inquisition.

None of this speaks to what appears to be the larger critique implicit in Benedict’s speech, that Islam does not truly honor reason (although at some point he will have to square it with the fact that its adherents developed algebra and kept Aristotle’s works alive for centuries). But it does suggest that forced-conversion narratives, whether made by today's bloggers or 14th century Byzantines, are a pretty weak tool for building an argument for generalized Islamic depravity.