1400 years is actually a really long time…

Bob asked: I appreciate your blog very much. It’s actually rather amazing that you do this.

I have a friend of the Fox News always on in the living room sort. He knows I am of a totally different political disposition, but sends me items from time to time that he thinks might persuade me to come around some to his views. Recently he sent me a link to “Why We Are Afraid, A 1400 Year Secret, by Dr Bill Warner,” a YouTube video. And he asks me what I think of it.

I found it repugnant and wrote him that I would get back to him. My assumption from my own general knowledge is that Warner is being highly selective in picking facts to embellish with his scornful, incendiary rhetoric even when he is concentrated on the period of expansion across North Africa. (His selectivity shows chiefly, of course, in simply ignoring any European war violence other than the Crusades. Not to mention American. Clearly he would argue that all that ugliness had nothing to do with Christianity, whereas the wars of Muslim nations are driven by their religion.)

In any case, when I took to the internet to find some solid responses to the Warner diatribe, I found practically nothing. Eventually, your blog did show up, but not in response to that particular and particularly ugly and perhaps sadly effective speech of his. I assume he gives it where and whenever he can, and obviously it has made it to my friend’s attention.

I have perused with interest the two blogs I find on Warner here (Crusades and 5 Principles) but they don’t get at the core of his speech, which I take to be a claim that, historically and down to the present, Muslim people are far more given to war and intolerance than Christian people. There is the corollary supporting claim that this is due to religion in the case of Muslim people, but regardless of cause, there is the question of fact about the people.

My question for you, then, is to ask for help in tracking down thinkers who have taken the trouble to respond fully to that disturbing speech. Perhaps some of your readers could help, too.

Okay, I can’t exactly say that I’m happy to do so, and sorry again for the longer-than-anticipated delay in my reply.  It turns out it’s really hard to motivate yourself to do something you know is going to give you an aneurysm.  But I have now gone through Dr. Warner’s talk – I did start out watching it on youtube (for the rest of my readers, it’s 45 minutes long and I refuse to link to it), but I already had a page of notes after the first 10 minutes, so I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work.  In the end, I found a complete transcript, which I annotated and which I may post separately because the whole thing is just so ridiculous.

As you say, it’s repugnant, but it’s also just really bad scholarship.  For those of you who’ve forgotten Dr. Warner, he is a doctor, but of applied physics.  He explains in the opening of his talk that he started studying Islam after 9/11, and that he “likes to read old books,” but stresses to his audience that he’s “not a historian.”  This may be the only thing about which we agree.  Indeed, if I got Dr. Warner’s talk as a final paper from a first year undergraduate, I would be hard-pressed not to fail that student.  His talk fails to engage directly with almost any primary sources; it doesn’t reveal any awareness of the vast corpus of secondary material about the study of Medieval Europe, Byzantine history, or the study of Islam; it suggests a serious misunderstanding about time periods, and finally, it demonstrates almost no capacity for historical or historiographic methodology (i.e. how to read texts critical, how to use material and archaeological evidence, how textual dating works) – in short, not only is his account of Islamic history factually inaccurate, his talk lacks any illustration that he understands even the most basic building blocks of how history is studied in the 21st century.

I’m going to flag some of the big, methodological errors that make this talk – and other works like it – so problematic.  This may or may not sway your FoxNews-happy friend, but it may at least demonstrate that Dr. Warner is playing really fast and loose with his facts. This post is quite long, but there’s just so much to cover, I couldn’t really find any other way to go over it all.

Why we’re afraid: Dr. Warner starts off his talk by explaining that after 9/11, he got interested in understanding Islam, and was struck that everyone he talked to seemed afraid of Islam, and so, he set out to discover the root of this fear.  In this way, he essentially argues for a Gestalt construction of history – that Islamophobia is just the current iteration of a shared communal memory about Islam, and that after centuries of warfare, Europeans (Dr. Warner is, I believe, addressing a room of Americans, but his focus lies very clearly on European history) share a communal fear of Islam and Muslims.  This overall historical philosophy reveals one of the running themes of Dr. Warner’s talk – it’s all really out-of-date stuff.  Gestalt theory hasn’t been popular in history since the days of speak-easies and flappers, mostly because it’s really hard to disassociate negative perceptions that are based on reality from negative perceptions that are based on propaganda, prejudice, and fiction.  I might support Gestalt history if it meant we could have immediate legal intervention to ban clowns, but, to put Dr. Warner’s argument in a different light, almost the exact same thesis could be stated for Judaism, which has suffered a negative association in the minds of Christian Europeans for two millennia, a fact that has basically nothing to do with the real actions of actual Jewish communities.

Understanding the Muslim Middle East: Having set out on his quest to explain why we’re afraid without first visiting any sociological or psychological theory from after the advent of television, Dr. Warner does open his talk with what is a very real and interesting historical question, that is, how did the Christian Middle East of the lifetime of Jesus and the Patristic Church become the Muslim Middle East of the Medieval and modern periods.  However, confusingly for me, Dr. Warner presents this question as if he’s the first to ask it – in fact, this is another repeated theme in his talk.  His ignorance about historical methodology is coupled with considerable narcissism about the originality of his work – he talks about the ‘historians’ he’s talked to all being completely ignorant about Islamic history, which makes me think he’s only talked to historians of European history.  It’s a bit like asking 5 ob-gyns about bone cancer, and then claiming medicine isn’t studying bone cancer.  It’s an issue of specialization.  The field Dr. Warner is address is the one I work in, the study of Late Antiquity, which is focused on the Mediterranean, and the transition from the Classical World to the Christian world to the Muslim world.  We’re not a huge field, but there are several hundred of us, and we’ve published thousands of books and journal articles on the subject.  Understanding the transition to the Islamic world has become a particularly fashionable aspect of the field recently, and there are a number of works that are intended to be accessible to a lay audience (i.e. Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests, James Howard-Johnston’s Witnesses to World Crisis,  or Fred Donner’s, Muhammad and the Believers).

Islam caused the fall of the Roman Empire: So this is one of those historical mistakes which is so massive I don’t even know how to address it.  Dr. Warner wants to argue that Islam was responsible for the end of the Classical period and the fall of the Roman Empire.  To start with, again, this is massively outdated history, as plenty of scholars don’t accept that the Roman Empire ‘fell’ – it declined, parts of it splintered into the Byzantine Empire, and then the Western side eventually re-emerged as the Holy Roman Empire (see the Cambridge Ancient History series for more).  More to the point, even if we accept that the fall of the Roman Empire happened, the major periods of instability were in the third and fourth centuries, with the ‘fall’ usually dated to the late 400s.  That’s 150 years before the rise of Islam.  Similarly, the Roman Empire that declined in the 400s bore only a passing resemblance to the empires of the Classical period – Dr. Warner seems to think these periods all blend together, but Rome was founded in roughly the 700s BCE, Alexander the Great lived in the mid-400s BCE, and Julius Caesar ruled from 49-44 BCE.  So for Islam to have brought about the end of Classical society, it would be ending something from 1000-1500 years earlier, roughly equivalent to claiming that the internet brought an end to the Crusades.

Islam caused 500 battles: This is one of the central claims Dr. Warner makes in order to support an argument for Islam as being essentially a violent religion or society.  He even has a cute little graphic showing where these battles were (which focuses almost exclusively on the western border with Europe and North Africa).  When he first said 500, I thought he meant in the Islamic expansion (the period from the 620s to 705 CE, when Islam expanded to roughly the western borders the Muslim world has today).  If we take ‘battle’ to mean any skirmish between two armies of differing allegiances, this seemed a bit high, but not unreasonable.  However, the graphic makes clear that this is 500 battles for the 1400 year period from the rise of Islam until today.  This is both ridiculously underestimating things, and tremendously misrepresentative of these battles, as battles, like arguments, always have two sides.  To start with, again, we’re talking about battles.  If we assume that every war has at least 10 battles (again, which is probably underestimating things), that’s 50 wars in a 1400-year period, or roughly 1 war every 28 years.  That’s really not that much, and also, that’s really not true.  In the Late Antique and Medieval periods, borders were maintained by having near-constant raids in order to demonstrate continued interest in the territory.  According to Muslim sources, the Muslims in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods (700-1000 CE) sent raiding parties against the border with Byzantium twice a year (so there should be at least 600 battles just in Turkey).  These raids never resulted in any serious change in territory and were largely ceremonial and symbolic, but were still going on.

As you suggest, if we were going to expand the graphic, there would be at least as many battles taking place in Europe – anyone who’s taken European history probably has vague memories of nonstop wars of succession in Europe for pretty much the whole of the Medieval period and the Renaissance, and then the nonstop religious wars during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  Similarly, many of the battles in the Middle East were the result of European aggression – aside from the fact that Byzantium and the Western Mediterranean continued to fight back against the Muslims to try to reclaim territory, the dots from the late eleventh to early thirteenth centuries are the Crusades, and those in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are European imperialist invasions.  There’s even a pause in the slide for all of the dots in the 1910s – that’s World War I!  I’m pretty sure international jihad did not cause World War I – just ask Franz Ferdinand.

Islam caused the Dark Ages: Again, this is evidence that while Dr. Warner might enjoy reading old books, he definitely hasn’t read any new ones.  Not only is Islam not responsible for the European Dark Ages, most historians no longer believe in the existence of ‘the Dark Ages.’  Chris Wickham’s excellent works Illuminating the Dark Ages and Framing the Early Middle Ages are the go-to references for pretty much anyone talking about the ‘Dark Ages’ nowadays.  Putting it simply, many historians would now argue that the idea of a ‘Dark Age’ where everyone was ignorant and superstitious was largely Protestant propaganda, meant to frame Catholicism as a backwards church that was hindering progress in Europe.  Protestant histories were accepted in a very noncritical way by nineteenth and early twentieth scholars who accepted, for some reason, that Protestantism rendered people incapable of lying or exaggerating.  Even if Dr. Warner wanted to argue for a pre-Wickhamian construction of the Dark Ages (and part of me now wants to email that sentence fragment to Dr. Wickham just to hear his reaction…), it’s also been broadly accepted that the Muslim world played an important and positive role when it came to preserving Classical thought during the Middle Ages, and that transmission of Classical works through Arabic was part of their preservation to the modern day (perhaps most famously in the works of Aristotle; see Perry et al, Western Civilization and Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage of Islam).

All told, sitting down and actually examining Dr. Warner’s writing in detail makes me wondering how much of his work really is intentionally misleading (which, to be honest, I’d always assumed it was), and how much it’s just that he’s really that uninformed about the subject.  The dating issues are really unforgivable, but the larger theory that Islam caused the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages strikes me as the kind of theories young scholars often come up with – in my experience, a lot of scholars, myself included, start out seeing big connections everywhere because we start out seeing religions, cultures, or societies as monolithic, and only start to see the complexities within them after a great deal of study.  That being said, Dr. Warner clearly is presenting himself as an expert – his website even offers (what it claims is) the world’s first self-study course on ‘Political Islam,’ in addition to his published works and international lectures.  There’s no way someone, somewhere, hasn’t pointed out to him, “um, but the Fall of Rome happened 150 years before Islam.  And maybe didn’t really happen at all.”

I suspect, actually, that this has happened repeatedly, and that’s why he repeats so often that there are no historians working on anything to do with Islamic history or the emergence of the Muslim Middle East.  As long as he’s claiming to work in a vacuum, it seems less sketchy that he has no source material or citations.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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9 Responses to 1400 years is actually a really long time…

  1. “Islam caused the Dark Ages” – I’m laughing but I’m also crying.

    • I know!!!

      I admit, an early version of this post was just going to be “Islam caused the Dark Ages?”

      • Joseph says:

        Do you share your blog posts with him? If not, you should! 🙂

        Somebody should transcribe your posts as YouTube video responses to his viral popaganda.

        Forge on, Sister.

      • Yeah no, that’s not going to end well! I feel like I get trolled enough, I should resist being a troll!

        Actually, Bill Warner apparently does have a posse who do occasionally visit my blog and yell at me for ‘misrepresenting’ him, so I’m sort of waiting for their visit. They’re never terribly rude or anything (I’ve definitely gotten worse), but I am still surprised they find me. Since my blog doesn’t have the biggest readership, all I can think is they spend all their time googling his name and scrolling through the results.

  2. Michael Mock says:

    I have a competing hypothesis for Mr. Warner to consider: the reason he was “struck” by the fact that everyone he talked to was afraid of Islam was because he was mostly talking to white, American Protestants, and Islam had been obscure to the point of near-invisibility to that particular demographic right up until then; and their first real introduction to the religion was that it was a descriptor for the group that had just caused the most successful (in the sense of “actually creating terror to influence political actions”) terrorist attack in American history. Combine fear of the unknown with fear of something horrible that just happened, make no attempt to establish a broader sense of perspective, and off you go.

    …And if we’re defining a “Dark Age” as an era in which people lived in fear and superstition, I’d say that 9/11 kicked off at least a Dark Decade.

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  4. bobk35 says:

    Thanks so much, Jessica, for this incisive and broadly instructive analysis. I also searched out a transcript — the prospect of listening to that tirade again was likewise bringing aneurysm to my mind/head. I couldn’t bring myself to read beyond about 15 minutes, but by then it was clear that this man is hopelessly self-deceived (as you appear to suggest) or dangerously deceiving, which is where I conclude. It was really extraordinarily generous of you to do this, and I am more than grateful.
    I prepared an extensive answer to my friend John of the Fox News Always On variety, using your material and some thinking of my own. I don’t expect that to have any impact on him, but it’s about all that reason alone can do. Should he experience some sudden lurch towards the rational, I’ll leave another post here. No breath-holding. bob

    • Hi Bob,

      Sorry for the delayed response – I did get your email, but have just been snowed under at work and not able to focus on anything else. I did dig around this weekend for the annotated transcript I put together, but couldn’t track it down. Unfortunately I have changed jobs and computers since I posted this originally, so it may have been lost in the shuffle. I will keep looking, though, and pass it along if I find it.

      As for your Fox News friend, yes, I would agree that it’s not worth holding your breath. I have had any number of ‘discussions’ with people who want me to ‘educate’ them about Islam, and the reality is that it probably won’t ever work. I think, as humans, we want to believe that we’re open-minded and that we recognize correct and well-reasoned arguments when we hear them, but actually, confirmation bias is an incredibly powerful thing, and our brains are really good at auto-sorting everything as ‘things that sound right’ and ‘things that sound bogus’ without really processing them in any serious way.

      If you do find a way to convince your friend, however, I would love to hear about it, as we definitely need to patent whatever you did! 🙂

      • Thanks again for such a thoughtful, extensive reply, Jessica. (I wanted to say that here in case anyone else gets around to reading this really fine page of thinking.) I have sent my friend to your reply and gotten only a “She writes well” grunt back. It is so sad that there seems to be no hope for overcoming confirmation bias, as you say. And where does that bias come from? From Bill Warner in some part, and from our respective governments in very large part.
        For what it’s worth, like you I’ve given this matter a good deal of time and thought, more than even makes sense I suppose, in light of the unlikelihood of persuading anyone. That thought includes annotating a transcript of the Warner diatribe until I give up on him with this language: “He is deliberately deceptive. This is ugly, rabble-rousing hate speech.” My notes to the friend and on Warner start here: http://bobnotes.org/page5.html.
        I hope you can continue this stand for reason and light for a long time, Jessica. Some folks out here sincerely appreciate what you do.

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