Not two months into his papacy, but more than 500 years after their martyrdom, Pope Francis officially canonized 800 Catholics of Otranto. In 1480, following an invasion of the port in southern Italy by Muslim Turks, these men were beheaded en masse for their refusal to convert to Islam.
No grand papal action like this is undertaken without consideration for its public message. It's therefore reasonable to infer, or at least hope, from Francis' retrieval of this particular event from the postmodern oubliette of Islamic-Christian history that the continuing persecution of Christians in Muslim lands will no longer be diplomatically overlooked or understated in the interests of ecumenical harmony. That despite the Pope's cordial 2013 post-Ramadan message to Muslims calling for "mutual respect" and "dialogue." In taking this decision, Pope Francis clearly drew a salutary lesson from his predecessor's experience with Christian-Islamic "dialogue." When, at a 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, Benedict XVI alluded to a 14th century emperor's remarks about forced conversions (Muhammad's "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached"), it produced unexpectedly vicious blow-back: a fatwa from Pakistan, attacks on churches in the West Bank and Gaza, threats from alQaeda, and the murder of a nun in Somalia. In London, protesters' signs read: "Jesus will rise the sword of Islam"; "May Allah curse the Pope"; and "Trinity of Evil: Pope, go to Hell."
Thrown off balance by the sudden, widespread ambush (and illserved by liberal Catholic intellectuals who, with their public criticisms, further undermined his objectively anodyne remarks), Benedict struggled defensively to right himself. He issued an awkward apology that may well have halted further collateral damage to innocent Christians.
But the apology as well probably encouraged in his flock and other Christians what is rapidly becominga default self-censorship, a clampdown on allusion to facts regarding past Christian-Islamic relations, and a willing suspension of all criticism of Islamic ambitions, past and present (essentially the same in any case).
We saw an excellent example of this reflexive tendency at the annual Oxford Union debate in May, which proposed, "This House believes Islam is a religion of peace." Those arguing against the motion produced a cornucopia of evidence rebutting the religion-of-peace trope. To no avail.
Speaking for the motion, journalist Mehdi Hasan carried the day by referring to the horrors of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, attacks on abortion clinics and Jews killed by Christians in medieval times. All of which was irrelevant to the topic—Islam, not Christianity, and the present, not the past. But he also implied that voting against the motion would foster Islamophobia. Ah! That did it. Offending Muslim sensibilities is simply anathema to the politically correct. The motion passed overwhelmingly.
Academia is the worst offender in its kid-gloves approach to Islam, but the trickle-down effect into mainstream discourse—it's not Islam, it's Islamism that's the problem—is also quite disheartening. Criticism of Islam as a religion that is also a political ideology, or allusion to problematic Koranic teachings that vilify Christians and Jews and encourage literal jihads, is plentiful on the Internet but seems to have been expunged from mainstream media.
It has become the received wisdom in public life that Islamic triumphalism of the alQaeda genre is merely a temporal blip in a long history during which Muslims and Christians enjoyed a long "golden age" of harmony and mutual respect, in general rubbed along together quite well or, at worst, lived parallel civilizational lives. Jihadism, overt or covert? Move along, folks...
The average history-challenged Westerner, then, perceives Islamic-Christian relations through a hazy lens of moral equivalence, certainly not as an existential, ongoing struggle by Christians to defend themselves from theologically endorsed dhimmitude, persecution, forced conversion and even extermination.
Which makes all the more welcome the recent publication of young scholar Andrew Bieszad's new book, Lions of the Faith: Saints, Blesseds, and Heroes of the Catholic Faith in the Struggle with Islam. In inspiration, it is of a piece with Francis' rescue of the Otranto massacre (included in Lions) from political oblivion.
Bieszad was motivated to write Lions because his research uncovered a good deal of scholarship on eastern Orthodox saints who interacted in some way with Islam, but none on Roman Catholics. And so "it was clear that it was time for the history of the Catholic Church's saints with Islam to be told." Lions honours the lives of Catholics who, from the birth of Islam to the present, have been and continue to be persecuted, tortured and executed by Muslims for their faith.
To appreciate the content and wider cultural relevance of the book, it's important to understand something of Bieszad's fascinating personal and academic back story.
A practising Catholic, Bieszad's interest in Islam began when, at 14, he read Malcolm X's autobiography. He told me in an interview that he wondered how Malcolm's conversion to Islam had produced on the one hand effusions on Islam's loving kindness, with (what he would discover were) cherry-picked allusions to positive Koranic teachings, and on the other hand, theological justification for hatred of white people. By the time his official university studies began, Bieszad was already an advanced autodidact in the field.
When Bieszad entered the Hartford Seminary masters program, he was fluent in Arabic (oral, written, classical and vernacular) and at least research-competent in 11 other languages relevant to Islamic history, including Russian, Latin, classical Greek and Turkish. These language skills were necessary for primary-source research into what was to be his specialty: Islam-Catholic relations.
When he came to write Lions, Bieszad included in his book only the lives of figures whose stories he had validated through primary sources in multiple languages and texts going back as far as a 1,000 years, an extraordinary level of academic scrupulousness.
The depth and breadth of Bieszad's scholarship would normally set his academic value extraordinarily high in any other field of research. But in Western Islamic Studies programs, most of which are funded by Saudi Arabia or other supporters of Islamic orthodoxy (a 2003 Freedom House report puts the figure at 70 per cent), critical scholars such as Bieszad are personae non gratae.
Bieszad came to public attention in 2011 through an open letter he published on the Internet, "Islamo-Correctness at Hartford Seminary," chronicling his adventures at Hartford. He began, as the saying goes, as he meant to go on. Early in the first session, Bieszad writes, in a class on interfaith dialogue no less, he stated (not out of naïveté; from previous experience with interfaith "dialogue," he knew what was in store), "I am a Catholic and do not believe in Islam."
According to Bieszad, a female Muslim student responded, "You are an infidel because you do not accept Islam." It went downhill from there. Bieszad quoted one student, "According to Islam, you do not deserve to live." Another, that as a Christian, he was "dirty." An American male convert to Islam reportedly told him in class, "You deserve to die on account of your disagreement with Islam." None of his accusers, Bieszad says, were censured by professors or other nonMuslims, and notably not by fellow Christians.
Bieszad writes that conversion to Islam was peddled through promotional materials, talks and video lectures by prominent converts from Christianity such as Suhaib Webb or Zaid Shakir. Christians were forbidden even to leave pamphlets on their faith in common areas, as it would be "offensive to Muslims."
As a result, Bieszad concludes that "for Muslim students, it emboldened them to speak about Islam, and particularly against Christianity, which only solidified their unexamined beliefs. For non-Muslims, and in particular for Christian students, this tended to cause them to question their own beliefs...and to put aside questioning Islamic beliefs for fear of ‘offending' Muslims."
According to Bieszad, when he brought his concerns to the administration, he was told that he was "intolerant" of Islam and "a better understanding of Islam" was the solution to his problems. To add to his troubles, a private email in which he factually alluded to one professor's ties to a terrorism-linked organization was made public, almost costing him his masters degree.
And so Bieszad is probably a marked man throughout the Islamic Studies domain. Thus far, applications to work towards a PhD in numerous U.S. Islamic Studies departments have been turned down. Married, with two young children, Bieszad is currently employed in a Connecticut grocery store.
Lions offers two distinct reading experiences, both complete unto themselves: the many short biographies, comprising most of the book's pages, and the succinct historical tutorials that are interspersed among or preface the various sections, divided by era.
Many of the stories will be of objective interest to non-Catholics. For example, we learn of Frenchman Peter the Venerable of Montboissier, 1092-1156, who became a Benedictine monk at 17. Having established a School of Translators in Toledo in order to identify and translate Arabic manuscripts into Latin for study, he may be regarded as a founder of Islamic Studies avant la lettre. Peter's school produced the first full translation of the Koran from Arabic into Latin, as well as the "first known European Catholic intellectual writings criticizing Islam." Another beguiling portrait is that of the Begum Sumru, 1753-1838, born Farzana Khan, a Muslim girl forced by circumstances into child prostitution, who married a client—a European mercenary—and, after his death, took control of his territories, continuing his patronage of Catholic missions in India. Converting to Catholicism in 1781, she became known as a warrior princess who led fierce battles against British, Muslim and Sikh armies. She is regarded as the founder of the Church in northern India, one of her great projects the building of the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces in Uttar Pradesh province.
Apart from familiar figures like Richard I (the Lionheart, 1157-1199), arguably the most historically consequential lion of the faith, was Poland's King John Sobieski III, 1629-1696. He was the "Last Crusader," as his victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's decline. The Battle of Vienna was a horrible, months-long ordeal. On September 11, 1683, King John Sobieski led the largest cavalry charge in military history—3,000 heavily armed horsemen—to drive the Ottomans from Vienna and therefore Europe.
Without King John Sobieski, Islam might have ruled Europe these past hundreds of years, and silly debates such as the one at the Oxford Union—indeed, any debates on religion—would be unthinkable. No wonder the Vienna rout still sticks in Islamic craws. No wonder the Trade Tower attacks fell on September 11. (This year marks the 330th anniversary of the watershed Islamic defeat.)
These and other such narratives make for absorbing reading. On the other hand, the effect on the reader of mounting numbers of beheadings, maimings (many loppings-off of opposite hands and feet according to Koranic prescription), disembowelments, starvings to death, and boilings in lead of saints and other martyrs of the faith is what you might expect: nauseating.