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Lion of FaithLion of Faith

Lion of Faith

Barbara Kay reviews Andrew Bieszad's new book on the relationship between Islam and Christianity

Barbara Kay
11 minute read

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.

If Bieszad's adventures in Islamo-correctness during his masters program branded him as a troublemaker at Hartford Seminary, and if his open letter about those adventures made him an academic pariah in Islamic Studies departments everywhere else, his commentaries on the history surrounding the martyrology in Lions may bring Bieszad condemnation from sources even higher up the Islamic political chain.

The value of these historical tutorials lies not in their originality or brilliance but in their succinctness, reader-friendliness and lack of Islamo-correctness. I got a big pedagogical bang for my buck's worth of time spent on Bieszad's coverage of the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the chivalric orders, the Reconquista (of the Iberian Peninsula), the Ottoman Empire and Christian disunity following the Reformation. I wasn't previously aware that some Protestant groups took Islam's side against Catholicism: Liever Turks dan Paaps ("Rather Turkish than Papist") was a popular slogan in the 16th century; Christian disunity nearly lost Europe (see sidebar).

But alongside the book's objective content, Bieszad pulls no punches on Lion's mission, which is to set the historical record straight on multiple levels: to explode the multicultural myth of theological parity between Catholicism and Islam; to cast the blame for most of the human wreckage wrought by the endless confrontations between them squarely on Islam-based and Islam-guided triumphalism; and to make the case that time has not healed or custom staled Islam's revanchist grievances around Christianity, grievances that can only be redressed through jihad to satisfy Koranic justice. What was continues to be.

Lions is bookended by this theme. Bieszad states in his introduction, "...there are no new issues with Islam and the Church that have not been faced before. Times and places have changed, but the basic problems, differences and resolutions have not." The book concludes with: "The reality which the 7th century Church faced is the same as the 21st century."

Why has nothing changed? It is simple. "Islam is unique among world religions because it is the only religion whose theology specifically denounces and calls for the destruction of Christianity as a whole and regardless of form." All Islamic theologians agree, Bieszad affirms, that belief in the Divinity of Christ is "the worst sin a man can commit."

In Islamic realms, Bieszad explains, a pattern was established: Christians had the choice of assimilation where resistance was futile, and resistance where it was possible. The Church's existence was always provisional; in Islamic countries, permission could always be revoked and extermination was a realistic fear. Every once in a while, as at Córdoba in the 9th century, groups of Catholics would be executed for criticizing Islam or for apostasy.

Most Westerners have no idea of the apocalyptic struggle Islam and Catholicism have been engaged in since Islam's beginnings. That is because at present, even though the war is always smouldering in pockets of the globe, both Christianity and Islam are solidly entrenched in their spheres of influence. If anything, Christianity is gaining ground globally: not in the secular West, but in parts of Africa, where it has supplanted Islam, as well as in India, China and wherever else people struggle to be free of oppressive tribal codes and ideologies.

This book gives you the sense of just how existential and widespread the struggle was. And also how vulnerable Christianity is in areas where the faith has been diluted or abandoned. For example, while missionary expansion into European colonies led to mass conversions that long outlived her various empires, the Church in Europe was roiled by revolutionary movements dominated by atheism and socialism. By the end of the Second World War, a turning away from religion allowed Islam to reemerge within mere decades as an internal threat to Europe's cultural and political identity.

Mass immigration from former Muslim colonies was initiated in the spirit of multiculturalism and tolerance, but without a sense of pride in Western civilization's core principles, derived from its Judeo-Christian heritage. And more important, without a collective memory of Islam's frequently iterated pattern in its relations with other cultures, Bieszad warns that "with Islam no longer an active threat, Europe forgot the danger it posed and began to romanticize about the Muslim world and Islam while forgetting history."

And so tomorrow's history of Islam-Christian relations in Islam-dominant places is much like yesterday's. The Arab Spring in Egypt provokes a series of Coptic church burnings. A 17-year-old Coptic boy is gang-murdered for having a cross tattooed on his wrist. A convert to Christianity in Saudi Arabia is repeatedly arrested and beaten for his faith. A Christian Iranian is arrested and tortured for baptizing a Muslim. A church burning in Nigeria kills 10 people.

Lions is an important book, although, by its nature, it is unlikely to attract a wide general readership. But that is often the case with books written out of principle by authors beating against a contemporary cultural current.

Martyrdom comes in many forms. So, too, does dhimmitude. The academy does not decapitate its apostates' actual heads, only their integrity. Still, choosing to reveal the truth of one's academic research, rather than submit to the dhimmitude of Islamo-correctness takes great moral courage and can result in martyrdom of the intellectual kind young Bieszad is experiencing.

In holding the views on Islam-Catholic relations that he does, and insisting on voicing them aloud, Andrew Bieszad has joined a small but elite band of investigative brothers and sisters who have knowingly put their academic or journalistic careers at risk in the service of scholarly integrity.

And therefore, Andrew Bieszad is a member in good standing of the virtual chivalric order, Defenders of Academic Integrity. And he, too, has earned the laurel "lion of the faith."

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