The Muslim world loves nothing more than to talk of ‘occupation’. Of all the words in the English language, this is one that every Turk, every Arab and every Persian has memorised by heart. There is the ‘occupation’ of Iraq (which ended years ago), the ‘occupation’ of Palestine (which never began) and the occupation of Chechnya (which is arguably the only valid example, but which is nevertheless no excuse for the terrorism it inspires). Occupation, occupation, occupation…. Terrorism, beheadings, wife-beatings, all in the name of occupation.
But there are other occupations, besides those of Muslim lands by Christians. There are also occupations of Christian lands by Muslims. Two examples spring to mind. Firstly, there is the despicable and illegal occupation of northern Cyprus by the Turkish military. This is recognised by every international body as being illegal, and is reason enough (though there is another one) to block the ascension of the occupying state to EU membership.
Then there is a second occupation by the same force. This one is slightly older than that of Northern Cyprus. It began in 1453, the Islamic occupation of Constantinople.
Christianity is not the faith of most Europeans by accident. The setting for its early spread through the Roman empire (then in terminal decline) was the reign of the deeply devout Emperor Constantine. After large swathes of this region had been Christianised, a city West of Anatolia, formerly known as Byzantium, became the de facto Christian HQ – Constantinople.
Constantinople was a city of spectacular beauty; a fusion of Greco-Roman and Jewish creativity. One can still see it today, in those faint outlines of ancient design, unhidden beneath the moss of age. You can still imagine how it must have looked beneath a white-hot sun, with Churches, Roman roads, and huge libraries shining under a spotless, blue sky.
But where is it now? Forgive me if this seems patronising. A lot of people (too many) actually don’t know. The city is now called Istanbul, and it is the economic and tourist capital of the Islamic state of Turkey.
It was seized by violence in 1453. Muslim armies besieged the city and within weeks overran it, killing thousands. Today, Constantinople (Istanbul) serves as a tourist trap with which Turks (ironically) lure Europeans to part with their excess cash. Mosques now dominate the architecture of the landscape and Muezzin calls ring out across the broad city squares.
So why am I bringing this up, you ask. Surely I’m not suggesting that Istanbul is still rightfully European, even after five centuries of Islamic rule?….
Well actually, yes I am.
Constantinople is not like Andalusia was to the Moors, or Konigsberg is to the Germans. The Moors (as Muslims) had Mecca, and could survive the loss of Andalusia. The Germans had Berlin, and could survive the loss of Konigsberg. European Christianity by contrast was historically anchored in the city of Constantinople. This was, along with Rome, the birthplace of the European Church, and the cause behind the unification of what we now call ‘Europe’ through the bindings of a common culture.
No Constantinople, no Christian Europe. No Christian Europe, no Europe.
The birthplace of Europe is in Turkish hands, and for no better reason than historic violence. Still alright by you?
Ok then, Say it was the other way about….
There is, helpfully, an Islamic equivalent of Constantinople, by which I mean a city that is not deemed to be ‘holy’, but that is nevertheless revered as a place of vital importance for the faith as a whole: Baghdad in Iraq.
Baghdad historically was the greatest seat of Islamic learning, and, alongside Mecca, provided the central focus of the Muslim world. Its libraries were widely revered and theologians of the greatest regard tended to reside there. This is partly why Islamic extremists took so unkindly to the American invasion of Iraq. I don’t want to get into a debate about the rights and wrongs of that war, but I’ll say that regardless of the moral questions, it was never intended to be a prolonged occupation, and the locals were informed of this from the outset. But say things had been different, and that America had (as Donald Trump strangely advised) simply annexed Iraq and taken it as a 51st state. Have we reached an equivalence?
Not quite. As you’ll know, Istanbul is not a mere annex of the Islamic state of Turkey, it also has a solidly Muslim population living in it.
Where did the Christians go?
I’ll leave it to the gruesome parts of your imagination to reason how this came steadily, bloodily about over the years, but let’s finally acknowledge that had the same fate befallen Baghdad even five centuries ago, we would still be attacked in the cause of its liberation.