In a new extract from his brilliant book on Rome, Boris argues that our anxieties about Islam must not jeopardise the reconciliation between East and West
Why are we so afraid of Turkey?
Fragments of plaster are still falling from the ceiling after the Pope made his famous speech about Islam in September 2006.
Hardly anyone had heard of Manuel II Palaeologus, the old codger he quoted with such explosive results. Not many knew that he was the antepenultimate Roman emperor, or that he lived in what is now Istanbul.
But after six centuries of obscurity, Manuel’s views were top of the news.
“Show me what Mohammed brought that was new,” said the Pope in Regensburg, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached.”
That sentence was taken out of context, flashed round the world, and soon there were riots everywhere from Jakarta to Qom.
The doors of churches were stoved in by mobs. Morocco recalled its ambassador to the Holy See.
Most wretchedly of all, Somali gunmen were so stoked up by the anti-Papal imprecations of the local imam that on Sept 16, shortly before lunch, they pulled up outside a Catholic-run hospital in Mogadishu and fired seven shots into the back of a sweet-faced, 62-year-old Italian nun called Sister Leonella.
It was no accident that the head of the Roman Catholic Church should quote the despairing words of the father of the last Roman emperor.
The views of the present Pope about Islam, or at least the views he cited and from which he at no point dissented in his speech, are very old indeed. They are at least partly dictated by deep underlying accretions of phobia and anxiety.
It is these subconscious layers of prejudice that help to explain how we think about everything from Islamic terrorism to Turkish membership of the EU.
To understand how these attitudes came to be formed, we need to look right back to the time of Manuel II Palaeologus, and the role of Islam in the death throes of the Roman Empire.
Manuel was not a “Byzantine”, or at least he would not have understood what you meant by that polemical term, coined in 16th-century Germany.
He was a Roman, a Romaios, and though he spoke in Greek, that was because Greek was a Roman language. His coins still called him “king” and “autocrator”, and he was the direct titular heir of Augustus Caesar, in an unbroken tradition going back 13 centuries.
He was the Vice Gerent of God on Earth, the ruler of the Roman Empire – though the Roman Empire over which he ruled had been sliced down to a tiny rump.
By 1391 the position was so bad that Manuel had to give himself up as a hostage to the sultan, the appalling Beyazit, and to go out and watch the Turks on their dreadful business.
He was made a spectator of the Turkish destruction of what had been the heartland of civilisation, and of the Roman world, and Manuel’s anti-Islamic appeal has a resonance today, because Turkey is again being considered for membership of the EU.
In so far as there is a problem with the Turkish application, it is little to do with economics. Turkish per capita GDP is bigger than some previous EU entrants’.
It’s not about Cyprus, or poverty, or population. It’s not even that the Turks have sallow skin, thick eyebrows, or low foreheads, or whatever other prejudiced stereotype you choose.
No, my friends, the reason the richest nations on earth have havered for so long about admitting Johnny Turk to their club is all about – you know – “values”.
As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, put it breathily on the Today programme: “Surely a European Union has to be more than economic? It has to have common values and so on…”
And as for the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, here is what he said when he was just Cardinal Ratzinger, back in 2004. “Turkey is in permanent contrast to Europe,” he said, and admission to the EU would be a mistake.
What these politicians mean, with their nudge-nudge remarks about “values” and “culture” and “Europeanness”, is that in the course of that thousand years something rather fundamental happened to the Roman Empire and to Constantinople. That something was Islam.
Adolf Hitler was not a noted classical scholar, but he took a professional interest in the rise and fall of Reichs. “I often wonder,” the dictator mused, “why the ancient world collapsed.” It is a very good question, and much depends on what you mean by collapse.
Hitler was too busy conquering Belgium to read the works of its greatest historian, but in 1935 Henri Pirenne had produced an answer to the Führer’s question. It was called Mahomet and Charlemagne, and though hardly anyone is now willing to defend the argument in its entirety, it has proved one of the most influential works of our time.
Henri Pirenne looked at the barbarian invasions of the western Empire. Where others have seen breakdown and disaster, he was more struck by the continuities.
In spite of their name, the Vandals did not destroy all the Roman villas.
They liked to live in them, and even if there were a few tiles missing, the agricultural system was recognisably Roman. There were still land taxes, and the same latifundia – the big farms – and the same tolls at the markets.
Above all, they benefited from the same great Roman unity – the economic system that was based around Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean.
Plato once came up with a fine metaphor for the Greek cities that ringed the Mediterranean: they were like frogs around a pond, he said; and in many ways that metaphor was still accurate.
The frogs were larger, perhaps, and they were more like Greco-Roman frogs, but they were still all the same species, croaking and communicating across the prosperous inner sea.
And then, says Henri Pirenne, there came the Muslim invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries.
The Persian Empire fell. Egypt was lost. Africa was lost, the breadbasket of the Roman world. The Arabs were completely different in their war aims from the Germanic tribes who had pushed down from the north and sacked Rome.
They didn’t want to integrate. They didn’t want to buy into that gorgeous Roman civilisation. They didn’t aspire to Romanitas, let alone Christianitas. The Germans became Romanised as soon as they entered Romania.
As Pirenne puts it, the Roman became Arabised as soon as he was conquered by Islam.
Onwards and upwards roared the Muslims.
They conquered Spain. They burst through the Pyrenees, capturing Anjou and Arles and what had been Roman Provence.
Thanks to the Muslim embargo on trade with the infidel, and their possession of Spain and North Africa, the western Mediterranean became a Moorish lake from which sea traffic had all but disappeared.
Pirenne quotes the 14th-century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun, who says gloatingly that, except for the bit nearest Constantinople, “the Christians could not float a plank upon the sea”.
The result was the destruction of the Roman Economic Community, and the collapse of trade.
Papyrus disappears, Pirenne points out. Gold becomes far scarcer. Half the frogs around the Mediterranean pond were turned into Muslim frogs.
The vital point is that they croaked in Arabic, and they had nothing to do with the Greco-Roman frogs. It was the end, says Pirenne, of the unity of the Roman system. It marked a steep decline in prosperity.
There are many who now say that this brilliant thesis is a gross oversimplification.
But even if it is only half-true, even if Pirenne’s critics are right to say that these transformations were well on the way before the Muslim invasions, one can hardly doubt the profound psychological and emotional pull of what he says.
Deep in the European subconscious is the memory of a war with the Muslims; how Sicily was lost, how half of Spain was conquered and finally how Constantinople was sacked on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, a date that lives in infamy.
The Turks battered down the doors of churches and enslaved people on the spot.
Women were ravished; girls and boys were raped on the altar tables. Hundreds of severed heads bobbed in the waters, reminding one Venetian of rotten melons in the canals of his native city.
Knowing that the city was lost, Manuel’s son, Constantine XI Dragases, cast off his imperial raiment and charged into the fray. When his savaged body was recovered, it is said that the sultan, Mehmet II, had his head stuck on a pole.
For 900 years, a gilt cross had been seen on the vast dome of Hagia Sophia. Now Mehmet commanded a senior imam to ascend the pulpit, and as the slashing of throats and smashing of pictures continued all around, he announced in the name of Allah the All-Merciful and Compassionate that there was no God but God and Mohammed was his prophet.
It was the end of Rome, in the sense that Constantinople was still the imperial capital.
It was the end of Christianity as the dominant religion of what was to become Istanbul. From that date, Turkey joins Egypt and North Africa and the huge tracts of the former Empire which our Popes and prelates and politicians think are not culturally congruent with modern, western Europe – because they fell to Islam.
The French object to the Turks because of the Armenian massacres, as though France were guiltless herself. Brussels occasionally launches another of its sermons about gender equality, though it should be remembered that Turkey gave women the vote before Belgium.
Far more important is the Turkish record on human rights, and this is very far from perfect.
But then neither was the Greek human rights record when she was admitted to the EEC; and it is one of the most important reasons for keeping the Turks on the tram-tracks to EU membership, surely, that we thereby help the progressive forces in Turkey, and stop the country drifting backwards.
There is no doubt that the present west European snootiness – all this blather about “values” from the Popes and the priests and the politicians – is beginning to turn the Turks off. The more pro-Islamic mood in Turkish politics is starting to impress other countries in the Middle East, and Turkish influence is spreading in the area for the first time since the dissolution of the Islamic caliphate in 1924. The number of flights from Istanbul to Damascus has doubled since 2000. Arab visitors to Turkey have trebled between 2001 and 2005, and in that year one million Iranians flew for their hols to the Turkish Riviera.
Now: what would be better for the long-term health of the planet – a Turkey increasingly apathetic about Europe, and interested in forging links with Iran? Or one firmly entrenched in the European Union, reaching out to provide a stabilising influence in what will remain, in our lifetimes, the most dangerous region of the world? I know what I want. So why does everyone hesitate? As the Pope indicated, the problem is religious, or “cultural”. It won’t do.
We need reconciliation, not repulsion. We need reciprocity, not rejection. Instead of intensifying the differences, by burbling on about alien “values”, we should see that we are coming to a critical moment in our discussions with Turkey. We either shore up the Ataturk achievement, and reinforce Turkey’s huge success in becoming a secular democracy with a Muslim population. Or we wrinkle up our noses at the Turks because of their religion.
And if we do, what are we saying to moderate Muslims all over the world? What are we saying to those who believe it is possible to make an accommodation between Islam and democracy? What are we saying to the millions of Muslims who have made their homes and lives in western Europe, including Britain? Are they a kind of geographical error?
Should they be barred, by their alien “culture”, from living here? We would be crazy to reject Turkey, which is not only the former heartland of the Roman empire but also, I see, one of the leading suppliers of British fridges. One Turkish company alone has 15 per cent of the UK fridge market.
Think of all those Turkish fridges, thundering through the passes of the Balkans to Germany and Britain. Think of the intimate interdependency it sets up between the workers of Turkey and the kitchens of Britain.
Think of the colossal numbers of Britons now buying property in Turkey.
I am not saying that a lively trade in fridges or timeshares means political union. Nor am I saying that this process should happen quickly, or that we should soon allow unlimited migration from Turkey to the UK. Absolutely not.
But what do we gain by continually asserting some “cultural” gulf between us and this “alien” people?
One day, if we get it right with Turkey, we could rebuild the whole ancient harmonious union around the Mediterranean, the rich and free dissemination of produce described by Henri Pirenne, from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Bosphorus; from Tunis to Lyons.
We could heal the rupture created by the Muslim invasions. We could create, once again, the Roman Economic Community built around Mare Nostrum.
Over time, we need to develop a new and deeper relationship between the EU and the Maghreb countries of North Africa, based on the old Roman idea of tolerance.
It is time we all grew up and recognised that there is not a cat’s chance in hell that Islam will build a new caliphate in western Europe; and it is time the Muslims got with the programme, and recognised the irreversibility of female emancipation, and also that there is no disgrace in being altogether apathetic on the question of whether or not Mohammed is the sole Prophet of God, and that if a religion is truly great it does not matter a damn whether people draw pictures of its prophet.
That will never happen as long as Muslims feel demonised, as long as their very sense of identity and belonging is created by a sense of rejection and inferiority.
One of the reasons the Roman system worked so well for so long was that different religions and races were a matter of curiosity and respect, not paranoia.
That is a dream worth reviving – and not just because it holds out the hope of reuniting the two halves of the Roman empire around the shores of the Mediterranean.
If we can achieve a reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, I suppose we might also save the lives of innocent people like Sister Leonella.
The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson (HarperCollins) is available for £8.99 + 99p p&p. To order please call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112