West and East at the beginning of the millennium

Prof. Dr. Tasin Gemil




In the 11th and 13th centuries, the Western-Christian and Eastern-Islamic worlds came into direct and systematic contact on multiple levels. More precisely, the development of complex and long-lasting processes pushed the two worlds towards each other. This had the most significant consequences for the destiny of all mankind. The modern world owes much more to the world at the beginning of the second millennium than is commonly believed. It is no exaggeration to say that without the great human convulsions from the first centuries of the recently ended millennium, the changes and progress of the following centuries would not have been possible, which are now regarded as the foundations of modern civilization.

“The year one thousand, overwhelmed by the millennial fears of the end of the world – wrote R. Fossier – had also seen the dawn of a new era: the awakening, the birth of Europe,” which was accomplished – we add – to the detriment of the Eastern world, having an older and far superior civilization then in comparison to the Western world. However, at that time, Western Europe had just surpassed the age of great population movements and was looking for the path to stability and prosperity. These searches were not free from falls and fear. This is how the idea of the Christian (Western) world unity appeared in what was later called the Res Publica Christiana. It was, in fact, an ideal, which only now, after more than a thousand years, European countries – which are of course also Western – seek to translate into reality, naturally in a form adapted to the situation which arose after another failed historical experience of mankind – that of Communism. Just as now, the idea of ​​Western unity emerged then, a millennium ago, as a reaction to pressure from the Eastern world. But, at the same time, the Western world  was on its way to unleashing an energy, which the whole of the East did not discover until very late, and failed to use it efficiently. This is the great creative power of the free man.

At the beginning of the last millennium, Western Europe underwent multiple socio-economic transformations, which eventually led to the emancipation of the direct producer. The individual freedom of the townsman and the collective law of the city, which the Western states knew how to ensure at that time, represent the “secret” of progress and prosperity of the Western world, along with the great innovative movements of the Renaissance and Reformation.

The same Western world has succeeded – it is true, after many dramatic struggles – in finding the way to limit the prince’s power; at first, through the intervention of the church, then of social states. We believe that the origin of the process, which in more recent times has taken the form of power-opposition dualism, is in the small town of Canossa, in northern Italy, where the Roman-German Emperor Henry IV was forced, in January 1077, to ask for forgiveness with humility from Pope Gregory VII, thus acknowledging the existence of a counterweight to imperial power.

The fundamental achievements of the West, in the first three centuries of the last millennium, were also achieved through the contribution, even if involuntary, of the Orient.

The complex and unprecedented phenomenon of the Crusades triggered at the end of the 11th century, directed outside the Western world the energies that had not yet found a suitable environment for amortization in the process of creation. These energies were deliberately directed out of their own world, in order to calm them down there, through wars and destruction. At the Council of Charroux (989), Bishop Guy d’Anjou had asked all Westerners to become “sons of peace,” and at the Council of Poitiers (1000), Duke Wilhelm the Great had proposed that future disputes should be settled by senior justice and not recourse to arms. The explicit desire formulated for peace to be a normal state, a permanent state was an important conquest for those hard times. It is understood that this desideratum concerned only the Western world, and its wording suggests a state of social satisfaction, at least at a higher level, given that poor societies or societies in crisis are particularly aggressive.

From this “Peace of God,” as the idea was called at the time, the idea of Western Christian unity, mentioned above, came relatively easily, being conceived then and later on as a bloc opposed and hostile to the Eastern world, especially to the Islamic one. The idea of ​​“Peace of God” was not extended beyond the Western Christian world. On the contrary, it was believed that this world had a divine duty to fight against those outside it, even to the point of their destruction. This is how the notions of “just war” and “holy war” appeared, which formed the basis of the crusade initiative. At the Council of Narbonne (1054), wars between Christians (Westerners) were described as “fratricidal wars,” and those who died in “righteous (holy) wars,” that is in battles outside the Western world, were placed in the ranks of martyrs of the Cross. The pacifist idea of ​​European unity, expressed – by Pope Sylvester II (of French origin) and his student the Roman-German Emperor Otto III – in the formula “Res Publica Christiana,” gave birth to one of the most terrible paradoxes of history: the repeated and prolonged assault of the entire Western Christian world against the entire Islamic world, first and foremost, but also against the Eastern Christian world, considered “schismatic,” as well as Jewish communities (the crusades began by massacring Jews in Western countries). The phenomenon has profoundly marked the collective mind of those worlds to this day. The Crusades produced not only the rift between the Christian (Western) and Muslim worlds, but also the rupture between the Roman and Constantinople Christian churches.

If the Western world of a thousand years ago was marked by the fear that the end of the world would come with the turn of the millennium, then the Eastern world was ravaged by the great movement of Central Asian peoples to the highly civilized areas of Arab-Persian Islam. Not only the historical development of the Eastern world, but also that of the Western world, were strongly influenced by two major phenomena of the same Central Asian origin, namely: the great migration of the Oguz Turks to the Near East and Middle East, starting with the 11th century and the great Mongol invasion of the Eurasian space in the 13th century. The victory at Dandanaqan (1040), obtained by the Seljuk Turks against the Gaznavids, opened the gates of Khorasan and the entire Islamic world to the former. And the victory at Manzikert (Malazgirt), obtained by the same Seljuk Turks, on 26 August 1071, over the Byzantines, guaranteed the success of the process of Turkishization of Anatolia. Practically, in less than a century, the entire Islamic East and most of Byzantine Anatolia had come under the control of the young and vigorous power of the Turks. The reaction of the West, through the Crusades, was directed primarily against the new Turkish power, which was then firmly established in the area of ​​influence of Islam. Western crusaders clashed with the forces of Turkish states, both in Anatolia and the Middle East, and later in Septentrional Africa.

The great migration to the southwest of the Turks (Turkmen) and their mass conversion to Sunni Islamic Islam practically saved Muslim Orthodoxy, which was then under strong Shiite pressure. In essence, the phenomenon of the Islamization of the Turks (the Oguz who became Muslims were called, by the Persians, turkoman or turkemen) resembles, through its effects, that of the Christianization of the Eastern Slavs, at the same time from the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries. If the Eastern Slavs who converted to Christianity became a very important force for the political and ideological support of Orthodox Constantinople in its rivalry with papal Rome, the Turkmen were the much-needed politico-military power of the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad in order to successfully deal with the expansion of the Shiite Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo.

The centuries-old confrontation between the Islamic and Christian (Catholic) worlds was eventually won by Western crusaders, although the Turkish-Ottoman outbreak of the following centuries questioned this great success of the West over the East for some time. The victory of the crusaders is inventoried not so much in the military field (where, in the end, those who wore the cross on their cloak were defeated), but in the political, economic and socio-cultural fields. The Crusades made it clearer to Westerners the road they were walking on. The contact, at first violent, with manifest intentions of destruction, on both sides, eventually became the search for a “modus vivendi”. The principle of tolerance has been accepted as a useful way to develop economic dialogue and cooperation. It is not known what the final result of this process of rapprochement between the two worlds would have been (despite the vehement opposition of the Holy See) had it not been for such a brutal intervention by the great Mongol invasion of the mid-thirteenth century. However, it should be noted that the army of Genghis Khan was composed mostly (2/3) of non-Mongol elements, including Turkish and Iranian Muslims, Slavic and Asian Christians (Nestorians). The Mongol invasion pushed or dragged to the west huge masses of Islamized and non-Islamized Turks, both from Central Asia and the Near East, including Anatolia.

Beyond destruction and massacres, the Mongol invasion had most important consequences, both for the historical evolution of the East and for that of the West. In the East, or rather in the Turkish-Islamic world, the terrible Mongol blow weakened the old Arab-Persian structures, facilitating the penetration and success of elements of Mongol tradition and, in particular, Turkish tradition. In the West, the Mongol impact undermined the feudal structures with centrifugal overtones, favoring the process of centralization of the states and, by extension, the very process of development of Western society. Ultimately, the Mongol blow, combined with the long term effects of the Crusades, contributed to the birth and prosperity of modern Western states. The problem is an extremely complex one and it is being studied very carefully, especially in the West[2]. In this sense, some of the economic consequences of the relations between the West and the East have already been revealed. These links were likely to encourage the development of Italian city-states and the Western financial-commercial system. Their effects also extended on the political and social level, as a result of the weakening of the centrifugal force of the Western feudal lords, trained in the Crusades and in the battles with the Mongol-led armies (including the destruction of the feudal domains by the invaders).

In addition to silks, spices, culinary refinement, manners, universities and more, the Crusaders took from the Orient the spirit of tolerance, along with a wider freedom of thought. It is no coincidence that the movement for spiritual renewal promoted by the Renaissance arose after the start of the Crusades. The influence of the Muslim East and the Christian East marked a real revival in Western thought, in the sense that they stimulated its creative power, raised the quality of intellectual manifestations, and broadened the horizon of the spirit. But unlike the East, the West was able to develop cumulatively, including on the basis of scientific and technical innovations taken from the medieval Islamic world itself.

The fresh breath that engulfed the West in the first centuries of the last millennium was not entirely foreign to the spirit of classical Islam. The original Muslim doctrine does not humiliate man; on the contrary, it defends his dignity and encourages the assertion of his personality. Contrary to what is claimed by primitive anti-Islamic propaganda, Islam promotes the emancipation of the individual through science, it supports man’s natural desire to rise through knowledge, affirming the freedom and equality of all believers. Moreover, herein lies the explanation for the success of classical Islamic civilization. Subsequently, for various reasons, the primary content of Islamic ideology was distorted, which led to a society restricted by rigid and repudiatory norms and dogmas.

Western Europe took over the thinking of the Muslim East, being still reasonably unaltered, grafting it on its drive and its ability to liberate the individual through the process of creation. The great Western universities were established or reorganized during the Crusades. “First of all, Latins must pass through this Gate of Science, of the knowledge of ancient languages; in theology, as in philosophy, they have no texts for their learning other than books written in Hebrew, Greek and Arabic,” wrote Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

For example, only the influence of the Islamic spirit can explain the fundamental difference between two philosophical concepts close in time to each other, but separated by their views on Islamic thought. Therefore, if philosophy was religion for Bernard de Clairvaux (1091-1153) – who did not know the Muslim spirit – then for Bernard de Chartres (1114-1191) – who had penetrated the Islamic thought – philosophy was reason based on research. Only under the influence of the pure Islamic spirit – which, in turn, was no stranger to the thinking of Ancient Greece – could Western philosophy turn to the knowledge of man, to a universe comprised of living people. The modern pragmatic conception was just a step away, which Western Europe made relatively easily, while the Eastern world, especially the Islamic world, has failed to do so properly to this day. The two worlds were parting again, this time the East was farther behind the West.

Contact with the then relatively flexible spirit of the Islamic world, as well as the distortion of the original religious character of the Crusades, produced in Europe a certain weakening – at least in some circles –  of faith in the church, in its ability to organize and lead the world. In its efforts to re-establish its undisputed authority, the Roman Church found an unexpected and particularly effective maneuvering tool, first in the great invasion initiated and led by the Mongols of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, then in the Turkish-Ottoman expansion in the European-Christian space in the following centuries. The Holy See knew all too well how to use these phenomena of Asian origin, presenting them as punishments sent by God against those who had strayed from the right faith. The propaganda carried out in this sense in tens of thousands of Catholic churches was fierce, systematic and long-lasting. Its effects were, to a large extent, those expected by the Holy See. But at the same time, this intolerant campaign widened the dividing space between the Christian West and the Muslim East; and its effects have been protracted to the present day.

The demons born out of the Crusades have not yet been exorcised in the West, just as the image of the crusader as a human-faced beast has not yet been erased from the collective memory of Islamic communities and beyond. Unfortunately, in some radical Islamist circles, the relations between the Christian West and the Muslim East, from the beginning of the millennium that has just begun, seem similar to those of a thousand years ago, at least in terms of milestones. Hence the vehemence with which these extremist Islamic groups retaliate against what they consider to be a remake of the Crusades.

There is now the danger that the two worlds will become even more distant from each other, with all the consequences that could follow for the whole of humanity. But, in my opinion, Islam no longer has the capacity to compete with the Western world, not even in asymmetric wars. The isolated but repeated aggressions of Muslim extremists, especially against the civilian population, have resulted not only in the loss of the eugenic force of Islam, but also in the undermining of its internal cohesion. I believe that the objectives of those who planned and implemented such actions have been achieved exactly. In any case, the Muslims now knocking at the gates of Christian Europe are by no means the armed barbaric migrants of the past. But, like them, they were drawn to that place by the radiance of wealth and the light of civilization. However, the new migrants (emigrants) have no other means to open the gates than supplication and obedience. Lately, it has been said that Muslims in the West have become the “new Jews” of the Christian world, that is, they are viewed with suspicion and are subjected to persecution. The peaceful and violent contestation and the organized and sporadic riots are also the effects of these perceptions and actions.

However, the East is not limited to the Islamic world. This is only one part of the Orient, but a less powerful one at the present time. But the Islamic world is and will be increasingly involved in the development of West-East bipolarism, which tends to concentrate all rivalries and bi- or multipolar confrontations, as each side is now represented by comparable and global forces. The leaders of the two great sides of humanity are already visible: the USA and China. The major problem is which side will be the players that are not yet involved choose, especially the Islamic world and the Christian-Orthodox world. I believe that the latter will be reclaimed entirely, sooner or later, by the Western side, while the Islamic world, now numbering over 1.3 billion Muslims, is a major economic and geostrategic objective for both sides,  all the more so as most of the natural gas and oil reserves are in the Islamic countries.

The EU is an exclusively Christian club, predominantly Catholic and Reformed. From this perspective, the EU is not likely to arouse the sympathy of officials from Islamic states; but more and more Muslims see the EU as a promise land. In the short and medium term, I believe that it is very important how the EU will be able to deal not only with Muslim emigrants, but also with their countries of origin.

Let us hope that Humanity will be able to avoid the global confrontation that seems to be taking shape today. I think the current pandemic also has a good side: it could actually be a huge shock, capable of waking up the whole of Humanity and helping all people to find themselves in the same battle against the same enemy. The pandemic is a Global War,  without borders and without fronts! The final victory, which I think is approaching, will be of all people!


[1] The first form of this article was published in Revista Română de Studii Eurasiatice, an. I, nr.1/2005, Ovidius University Press, pp.13-18.

[2] See also the bibliography in Charles Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1987; Marshall G.S.Hodgson, Rethinking World History, University of Chicago Press, 1993; John M.Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, Cambridge University Press, 2004; Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Crown Publishing Group, 2004; Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West. 1221-1410, Harlow, 2005; idem, The Mongols & the Islamic World. From Conquest to Conversion, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2017.

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