Indeed, when a person relates matters concerning the Franks [Western Europeans]…he will see them to be mere beasts possessing no other virtues but courage and fighting….
Usama Ibn Munqidh (c. 1183)
Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors.
Samuel P. Huntington (1996)
Sometimes the most serious errors pose as mere common sense. This is particularly true in common perceptions of the Middle East. The sheer complexity of politics and regional conflict in the modern period quite naturally tempts any observer of the region to adopt simplistic narratives about the region in order to avoid mental and moral exhaustion. But the intertangled and international nature of these conflicts require a particularly exact understanding of the region, precisely because the human costs of these conflicts are so high.
The most persistent example of these interpretive errors is called “the ancient hatreds thesis.” This is the claim that “groups of people fight each other because they have always despised one another due to differences of identity and culture.” This claim is akin to the equally dubious “clash of civilizations” argument, popularized by Samuel P. Huntington in the 1990s [see his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order], that human populations comprise discrete and tightly-bounded civilizations, some of which are destined for war with one another (“Islam” and “the West,” most notably).
There are two main problems with these arguments. First, they make use of an interpretive double standard. Civilizations, ethnicities, religions, or cultures that are perceived as inherently other than one’s own are reduced to simplistic generalizations. Conflict in other cultures is readily attributed to those cultures’ inherent identity or essence: they fight because that is who they are. At the same time, one would hardly think to apply such a simplistic standard to one’s own cultural history.
Consider the following example. One might erroneously attempt to summarize the history of Western and Northern Europe as simply a “never-ending series of wars between Germanic peoples that culminated in the largest war in human history in the 1940s.” Such a claim is clearly and grossly inaccurate—not because these events did not happen, but because this claim implies that all of Western and Northern European history is exclusively defined by them, leaving out the inestimable importance of these societies’ artistic, scientific, religious, and myriad other achievements, and the general human complexity therein.
The same goes for Middle Eastern history.
In other words, at the core of these fallacies is the confusion of incidental history with immutable identity. This is their second and most serious interpretive mistake. Attributing the Second World War, possibly the most destructive in all of human history, solely to the fact that the primary belligerents were Westerners is a reductive and prejudicial reading of Western identity. The same cultures that produced the Holocaust also produced some of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities the world has ever seen. The same cultures that produced the atom bomb also produced the technology to eradicate disease. In other words, no level of violence in Western history (despite its horrifying extremity) can efface Western human complexity and achievement.
Again, the same is true of the Middle East. No matter how severe the conflicts in the region are today, that does not mean that violence and instability characterizes the whole, or even the majority, of Middle Eastern history.
The authors quoted above, Usama Ibn Munqidh and Samuel P. Huntington, wrote respectively during the time of the Crusades and contemporary Middle East instability,. But Ibn Munqidh and Huntington made the very same interpretive mistake. They reduced the identity of the West and the Muslim world to the violence and instability they were witnessing at that current moment in history. They ignored both the complexity and humanity of those societies, and as a result they gravely underestimated both their past experiences and future potential.
Finally, it is important to note that debunking the ancient hatreds thesis is a particularly relevant task for Orthodox Christians. As the linked articles above demonstrate, observers often use this reductive framework to understand Orthodox societies in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. While there is a clear moral imperative to intellectually account for explosions of mass violence anywhere in the world, it is equally imperative to understand the causes of this violence accurately. Misdiagnosing the cause endangers remedying the condition.
The severity of these conflicts demands an extremely precise and judicious accounting of them.
Phil Dorroll is a professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg SC and an Orthodox Christian. He holds a PhD in Religion from Emory University, and specializes in the history of Islamic theology in classical Arabic and modern Turkish. His work focuses partly on historical interactions between Orthodoxy and Islam. He has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue on these topics.