There’s no denying that violence has an unfortunate place in Muslim and Christian history, but too often our historical narratives are laden with denial. Common presumptions position Islam as the antagonistic force versus Christianity as vivid examples of violence (of which there are many) committed by Muslims against Christians are strung together to construct grand stories about a one-way flow of oppression. However, such reductionist thinking features a glaring blind spot: Christianity has a sobering history of violence against Muslims.
History is a battlefield for minds and hearts. Honest reckoning with our religious pasts is essential for faithfully engaging religious “others” today. In the context of Christian-Muslim relations, this means rethinking Christian assumptions about the historical victims and perpetuators of religious conflicts. It’s never pleasant to recount acts of Christian violence, but it is illuminating.
The following are three examples of overt Christian aggression against Muslims to consider.
- In Eastern Europe during the early 20th century, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire unleashed a wave of atrocities, and the Balkans became a spectacularly bloody theater. Muslim populations long embedded in homelands were rendered victims of dispossession, displacement, and death as nationalisms rooted in Christian identity surged in places like Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. War raged between Ottoman and nationalist forces and hyper-Christianized Balkan nation-states were forged. New political landscapes left no room for Islam as ethnic cleansing by Christian forces drove hundreds of thousands of local Muslims to depart their homes. Villages were destroyed, massacres were committed, and the worst acts of inhumanity were inflicted. It was a terrible moment of Christian carnage against Muslims, but it wasn’t without precedent.
- Earlier in the 19th century the Christian Russian Empire systematically purged Muslim Circassians from its domain in a widely-overlooked genocide. Tensions and direct conflict had long brewed within the multi-religious and multi-ethnic empire, and hostilities came to a head in the 1860s when Circassians were ordered by government decree to leave Circassia, a homeland bearing their name and rooting their identity. Upwards of a million lives were swept up in death and displacement resulting in a harrowing 90% reduction of the region’s Circassian population. Nearly an entire Muslim people group was uprooted by brute Christian force, and many victims would not survive long enough to attempt new lives in new locations.
- Looking further back in the historical timeline (and westward on the map), we see Christianized Spain persecuting its Muslim populations during the 16th and 17th centuries. Islam had been part of the Iberian Peninsula for 700 years when Christian kingdoms completed the Reconquista in 1492 and took full control of the territory. Religious intolerance soon took force in historic ways: Islam was outlawed and conversions to Catholicism were coerced—though many did maintain Muslim belief and practices in secret. The aggressive exclusion targeted Sephardic Jews as well, reminding us that Iberia’s Jewish population fared significantly better under Islamic rule than it ever did under the Christian rule. Religious fanaticism escalated to the point that simply descending from the historic Muslim population became grounds for removal. Native Moriscos (whether Christian or Muslim) were expelled from Spain by official decree between 1609-1614 in a crusade to eradicate all human traces of Islamic heritage.
These cases are admittedly dated, but more recent history gives us plenty to despair as well. In our lifetimes we have seen Christian militant zeal commit atrocities against innocent Muslims in numerous instances.
As Christians, we might be tempted to respond to this history lesson with some rebuttals: Christians committing violence do not represent true Christian teaching; their actions cannot indict an entire religion. Also, Muslims have done terrible things to Christians; persecution against Christians is a major problem today.
My response is this: I agree. Cases of Christian violence against Muslims are always entangled in knots of identity politics and ideologies; religion is not simply the sole driver of actions (and we need thoughtful historians to help us unravel the complexities). History must be seen in context, and we cannot let the past dictate our understandings of the present. There’s no doubt that oppressive Christianity is antithetical to Christian teaching, nor can we overlook how Christians enjoy a rich heritage of sharing the world peacefully with Islam. Finally, no evil in Christianity can ever minimize the deplorable wrongs suffered by Christians and other groups at the hands of Islamic violence. Concern for the oppressed should never waver.
Even so, we cannot simply whitewash parts of Christian history stained with Muslim blood.
Christians today must grapple with shameful things done by Christianity. This is what we expect from Muslims, isn’t it? Muslims are rightly challenged to confront their own bloody histories and take account of Islam’s record of religious violence. Why not let this be a shared exercise of wrestling together with ugly history?
I believe Christians do care about history and are very willing to connect events from the past to analysis of the present, but I suspect our chronic shortcoming is that we do not care to know our unsettling histories. I’m concerned by our tendency to resist critical examination of the Muslim-Christian past while insisting on settling into historical narratives crafted to make us feel good about ourselves and our religion. It’s a problem less about ignorance and more about denial, and denial is indeed a vicious form of violence.
There are better ways to deal with history, and they require searching our hearts and putting religion in its place.
If we study both history and the Bible, then important truths become clear: religion is a tragically flawed human endeavor. Personal conviction and pious sentiment can never change the fact that no religion is righteous—not even one. Any Christian inclination towards religious moralizing need only glance at history to see our painful record of frequent moral bankruptcy.
Perhaps reckoning with the past is more than an academic exercise but a type of spiritual discipline. A reverent remembering of Christianity’s transgressions with the spirit of Psalm 78 can help us turn “it wasn’t me, I wasn’t there” into “how can it never be us, how can we never experience that again?” I don’t believe the solution is a world without religion, but we certainly would do well to nurture more sincere and self-reflective religion.
Humble honesty about historical Christian violence against Muslims is liberating when we acknowledge that religion has never been the author and perfector of our faith. This is the work of Jesus Christ, and Christ can inspire us to work towards redemptive historical narratives that stir healthy sorrow and kindle gracious hope. The past is within us today, and remembering history well is part of loving the Lord with all our minds—perhaps our hearts and souls as well. Amid a sorrowful history of Christian-Muslim violence, let’s use the moment now to embrace histories that provoke contemplation, make peace with the past, and deepen our love for Muslim neighbors. We may even discover creative ways that God is writing a new history with us!