In 1453 much of Europe mourned. When the news of Constantinople's fall reached Venice, "a great and excessive crying broke out, weeping, groaning . . . everyone beating their chests with their fists." Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor, wept. Christian I, king of Denmark and Norway, called the Turkish conqueror, Mehmet, the beast described in the book of Revelation. Diplomat Aeneas Sylvias Piccolomini wrote to Pope Nicholas V about the "frightening news . . . these matters press upon and overwhelm my heart, most Holy Father. I see belief and truth wiped out at the same time."
On the winning side, some Middle Eastern crowds celebrated much as their descendants did on 9/11. When Cairo received the news that Constantinople's walls were breached and thousands of its residents killed, one Muslim wrote that "the good news was sounded by the bands each morning . . . people celebrated by decorating shops and houses most extravagantly." Mehmet sent round to leading Muslim cities what he believed was the head of Constantine, the last Byzantine emperor, stuffed with straw. He also sent 1,200 Greek children as slaves to Muslim rulers in Egypt, Tunis, and Spain.
Christian leaders in 1453 immediately began debating how they should respond. Spanish bishop John of Segovia argued that it was futile to confront Islam militarily: He argued that Muslims were good at holy wars and Christians were not. John also said he could not recommend the sending of missionaries, since Muslims would not allow them. The only alternative was for Christian and Muslim leaders to meet and see if what they agreed on was greater than their differences.
German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa also pushed that point; as R.W. Southern writes in Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, "Nicholas of Cusa and John of Segovia stand out as dramatic exceptions to the accepted view that Islam and its prophet were not of God." Nicholas in 1453 wrote De Pace Fidei-The Peace of Faith-which suggests that Christians think about Islam not in terms of conversion or mission, but in terms of merged understanding.
An English translation of De Pace Fidei is available online, so readers themselves can assess the audacity of Nicholas' hope, but here's an example: If Muslims rebel against the doctrine of the Trinity, explain that they represent unity, equality, and connection. Southern's summary is good: "Even this seemingly insoluble difficulty all but vanishes before the deft reductionist wand" of Nicholas and his "humanistic universalism."
As De Pace Fidei continues, Cusa argues that the Quran itself attributes to Jesus supernatural wisdom and miraculous ability, so Islam and Christianity share a faith in Jesus: Muslims "acknowledge that Christ has resuscitated the dead and created birds from clay. . . . On this basis they can very easily be won over, since it cannot be denied that he has done this in the strength of the divine nature." People of all religions "worship the one God" and are in "concord," even though theologians don't realize it.
Nicholas in 1453 suggested that all the world needed were wise leaders to teach their people and finally meet in Jerusalem where all faiths will be unified and peace will be everlasting. He backed away a bit from that optimism in 1461, when he wrote a sequel titled Cribratio Alkorani, or Scrutiny of the Quran-but he continued to emphasize Islam's monotheism and to argue that Muslims should be applauded for having left idolatry. In scholar Nancy Bisaha's summary, Nicholas challenged "dismissive Christian insights. [He] viewed Islam as a monotheistic faith and an instrument of providence."
That same year the diplomat Piccolomini, who had become Pope Pius II, sent a letter to Mehmet suggesting that the Turkish sultan could become ruler of the East without any contest from Christians: Rather than changing his beliefs, he only had to submit to "a few drops of water" within the ceremony of baptism. Historians today wonder whether the pope was serious, but Papal Secretary George of Trebizond apparently believed that Mehmet could "use his imperial might to unite Christianity and Islam in a single faith."
Desperate times bring desperate proposals: Pius II had convened a council in 1459 with the goal of building a unified strategy against Islamic invasion, but no ruler attended and nothing happened. Everyone had an excuse: England had civil war (The War of the Roses), Spaniards were fighting Muslims on their own peninsula, France was recovering from its warfare with England, and so forth. Meanwhile, Muslims advanced in southeastern Europe and European governments (Venice, for example) made their own deals with what seemed like an unstoppable force. Pope Pius may have felt he had no choice in 1461 but to offer a deal.
The shock of 9/11 was similar in many ways to the shock of Constantinople's fall. Many people prayed more, especially at first. Many with a biblical perspective emphasized the importance of knowing the differences between Christianity and Islam. Others emphasized the need for a military response, which came quickly, and still others the need for stronger Christian faith. But some argued, as had John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cusa for a time, that we should deemphasize the differences between Christianity and Islam.
A thoughtful former GOP congressman, Mark Siljander, came out this fall with a new book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman's Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide (HarperOne). But that's not the only reason Siljander has received some press attention: Earlier this year Siljander, who represented a conservative western Michigan district from 1981 to 1987, came under indictment for money laundering, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.
Even though the case probably won't hit the courtrooms until next year or perhaps even 2010, the press verdict wasn't hard to predict: Another Republican gone wrong. Siljander was working with a Muslim organization that had attempted to disguise its "misuse of taxpayer money that the government had provided for humanitarian purposes." Some thought the worst: Jihad Watch quoted Debbie Schlussel, who worked in Siljander's congressional office, saying, "I think this was about money. . . . Desperation and money do bad things."
Siljander's side of the story is radically different. He argues rightly that ecumenical talk by the religious left in the United States has not built spiritual bridges to Islam. He notes that military action by itself merely blows up material bridges. His proposal: Sow the seeds that can yield "an organic movement within Islam that can work in the Muslim context [and] strengthen moderates rather than militants."
Siljander says those seeds are present in the Quran, which 90 times cites a name that both Christians and Muslims revere-Isa, which is Arabic for Jesus. The Quran refers to Isa performing miracles, healing the sick, breathing life into clay, and raising the dead-all things that suggest He is God. Siljander acknowledges that Muslims traditionally have interpreted the Quran as saying that Jesus was not begotten by God, but he says that's because they want to separate Jesus' conception from a physical act: He argues that Muslims can buy into the conception as spiritual generation, similar to God saying, "Let there be light."
Siljander points out that the Quran 11 times refers to Jesus as the Messiah. He acknowledges that Islam does not have the concept of original sin and, logically, does not see the need for a Savior-Muslims abhor the whole concept of a suffering servant and substitutionary atonement-but says it's not surprising that the concept of the Messiah in Islam is that of a great military leader, because that's what Jews 2,000 years ago also thought.
That part of Siljander's analysis is helpfully provocative: Many evangelicals have found that they can speak of "Jesus" in Muslim lands where mention of "Christianity" is anathema. But Siljander goes on to claim that the New Testament emphasis is "Submit to God. Be at peace"-and that's like the Quranic emphasis, because "Islam" means submission. The Arabic word shalem means "surrender" and "Muslim" comes from mu-shalem, which means "one who has surrendered." Thus Siljander believes it's fine for a Christian, one who has surrendered to God, to call himself a Muslim.
That skips over the sharp differences between Christianity and Islam. And more astounding: Siljander notes that the Hebrew word sh'ma means "to hear" but also "to proclaim, witness, or testify." The famous verse that begins sh'ma yisroel reads, "Hear O Israel, the Lord [is] our God, the Lord is One." Jesus cited that as part of the first commandment: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength." Siljander says the Muslim proclamation of shahada-There is no God but Allah . . ."-is essentially the same as the sh'ma.
Siljander asserts that Christians and Jews could say the shahada-he skips by the second part of it, "and Muhammad is his prophet"-and could thus be considered Muslims. The shahada is the first of the "five pillars of Islam," and Siljander says that the other four in principle could also be upheld by Christians and Jews: praying five times a day, fasting during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, giving 2.5 percent of material wealth to charity, and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. That's a startling notion, especially since the apostle Paul emphasized the need to change from an acts-oriented Phariseeism to an understanding of grace.
Siljander defended his exegesis by telling WORLD that he's trying to start among evangelicals "not a theological discussion but a strategic one. . . . Facing massive cultural differences, how do you present Jesus in a way that will open minds and hearts?" He argues that the primary goal of evangelicals should not be to convert Muslims to Christianity, but to awaken in them the desire to follow Jesus that Siljander says is embedded in Islam.
Siljander has thus followed the path of Nicholas of Cusa, but then gone further: He told WORLD last year that Sudanese dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, culpable for the killing of hundreds of thousands of Christians in southern Sudan, truly wants peace without tyranny. (Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, calls Bashir the mastermind of genocide in Darfur.) That would be like Nicholas visiting Ottoman tyrant Mehmet in 1459 and claiming him as an ally rather than an adversary.
Siljander says he understands Bashir because he has discussed with him the bridges between Islam and Christianity during frequent trips to Khartoum that included numerous dinners: "They can only con you so long," Siljander said. Others, though, wonder if the former congressmen has been conned. Even Adolf Hitler, who had left a long paper trail, conned some church leaders during the 1930s, and terrified others into speechlessness, as Joe Loconte notes in his The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.
It turned out that European Christians following the disaster of 1453 did not surrender to Islam. Constantinople's fall came in the same decade in which Gutenberg and his colleagues began using printing presses with movable type-and soon printed materials worrying about Turkish aggression began flowing throughout Europe. As Roger Crowley reports in 1453, short pieces that described "the damnable menace of the Grand Turk" flooded Europe, along with occasional books: French publishers put out 80 books about the Ottomans between 1480 and 1609, compared to 40 on the Americas.
Bartholomew Georgevich wrote what today we might call a graphic novel, the illustrated Miseries and Tribulations of the Christians held in Tribute and Slavery by the Turk: It showed Turks beheading prisoners, Turks spitting babies on their lances, Turks leading into slavery captured women and children. In England, books with titles such as True News of a Notable Victory obtained against the Turk, The Estate of Christians living under the Subjection of the Turk, and A Discourse on the Bloody and Cruel Battle lost by Sultan Selim appeared.
During the century after 1453 Ottomans came to control much of southeastern Europe, including Romania and Hungary, and much of the Mediterranean Sea. But western European powers, aware of the danger, improved their navies and subsidized voyages of discovery. European military innovations undercut Ottoman supremacy. Culturally, Ottoman society began to stagnate: Some clerics denounced the printing press as a work of the devil.
Providentially, the military advances of Ottomans early in the 16th century-they nearly captured Vienna, Austria, in 1529-occupied the attention of Catholic powers that otherwise might have strangled the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther inaugurated in 1517. Later, the Protestant surge (and the need of the Roman Catholic Church to respond with the Counter-Reformation) gave many Europeans lively faiths to fight for. The forecasts of inevitable Muslim triumph proved wrong. Bible-based cultures held on, without giving up the farm.
Is there a lesson in this for our own days, when pundits predict that Europe will become Eurabia and the best a weakening America can hope for is peace in our time?
A case against Siljander?
The indictment of former Rep. Mark Siljander came as a surprise to supporters in Washington and his home district in Michigan, where the three-term Republican has been an outspoken social conservative, visible at National Prayer Breakfasts, but was less known for his globetrotting and ties to Muslim figures, outlined more in his new book.
Siljander is the seventh defendant in a case against five officers and their Islamic American Relief Agency stemming from consultation work he did for the charity, which closed in 2004 after the Treasury Department designated it a terrorist group. In a 42-count indictment, Siljander is named in three counts, all involving conspiracy to engage in money laundering. Charges against the other defendants, including two naturalized Sudanese and an Iraqi, are more serious, including funneling money to terrorist groups.
Siljander through his attorney "vehemently denies" the charges (he would not comment on them in an email interview on the advice of his attorney), as do the other defendants. Abdel Azim el-Siddiq, a Sudanese defendant who has lived in the United States for 24 years, said in an interview with me this summer that he believes most if not all the charges will be dropped once the paperwork is sorted out. "As Muslims in America we are caught between two fires," he said. "If I go into the mosque with an American friend, I am suspected of being CIA. And if I work with an Islamic charity, I am suspected of being a terrorist."
Sorting out the paperwork is proving difficult for federal prosecutors, who have now delayed proceedings twice. Don Ledford, spokesman for the U.S. district court in Kansas City, where the case will be heard, said it is not scheduled for trial until November 2009. -Mindy Belz
Another recent attempt to improve the relations of Americans with the Muslim world came by way of a new document, "Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations With the Muslim World," signed by 33 American leaders who met at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund conference center with financial support from that foundation and others.
Eleven of the 33 were Muslim-Americans, with most of them employed by Muslim interest groups. Non-Muslim leaders included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, former U.S. representatives Steve Bartlett and Vin Weber, author Stephen Covey, psychiatry guru Robert Jay Lifton, American Petroleum Institute president Red Cavaney, and assorted professors. The one participant employed by an evangelical group was Richard Land, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The report emphasizes diplomacy as "the primary tool" for bringing peace. It also supports "efforts to improve governance and promote civic participation in Muslim countries," and to "build the capacity of government institutions to deliver, and of citizens to participate in governance." It calls for adoption by April 20 of "a major and sustained [U.S.] diplomatic effort to resolve regional conflicts and promote security cooperation in the Middle East, giving top priority to engagement with Iran and permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
The report also gives useful country-by-country goals. For example, 'the primary institutional goal the U.S. should pursue in Egypt is the opening of opportunities for political participation and good governance at the local and national level. Those opportunities can come not only through elections, but also through increasing the transparency, accountability and effectiveness of police, municipal services, and the judiciary. The U.S. should also help NGOs and the press organize to hold local and national government agencies more accountable.
Furthermore, the report calls for the rapid convening of "a business-government summit on economic reform, growth and job creation in the Middle East to accelerate current reform and investment," and "a global initiative for teaching, learning and exchange among citizens in the U.S. and Muslim countries." That sounds good, but the report skips questions of religious liberty-and without that fundamental freedom, "democracy" will merely mask tyranny.