Michael Novak explains how Lepanto (1571) and Vienna (1683) finally reversed the aggressive Muslim tide of conquest that had begun in 622.
In a.d. 622, Mohammed set out from Medina to conquer the whole Christian world for Allah by force of arms. Within a hundred years, his successors had occupied and pillaged every Christian capital of the Middle East, from Antioch through North Africa (home of Saint Augustine) and Spain. All that remained outside Allah’s reign was the northern arc from Southern France to Constantinople.
What we are seeing in 2014 has a history of more than 1,300 years — a very bloody, terror-ridden history. Except that today the struggle is far, far more secular than religious — a war over political institutions and systems of law, with almost no public argument over religious doctrine.
Edward Gibbon, in TheDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-78), describes how tall Islamic minarets could have been seen in Oxford before his birth, and the accents in its markets would have been Arabic: “The interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.”
Gibbon was writing about the decisive battle of Poitiers in a.d. 732, when at last a Christian leader, Charles Martel (“Charles the Hammer”), drove back the Muslims from their high-water mark in Western Europe with such force that they went reeling backwards into Spain. From there, it took Spain another 750 years — until 1492 — to drive Islamic armies back into North Africa, whence they had invaded. Even so, the Islamic terror bombers who just a few years ago killed more than a hundred commuters in Madrid did so (they announced) to avenge the Spanish “Reconquista” of 1492. For Islam, to lose a territory once Muslim is to incur a religious obligation to wrest it back.
It had been a marvel in 732 that just over 100 years earlier, Mohammed had launched his army from Medina, to conquer in rapid-fire succession so many of the most glorious capital cities of Christianity — Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Hippo, Tunis, Carthage, and then all of Spain. More amazingly still, Muslims very quickly went farther into the Far East than Alexander the Great ever had.
Even today, in the eyes of political Islamists, the expansion of Islam is far from finished. The dynamic obligation at the heart of their Islam is to conquer the world for Allah, and to incorporate it all into the great Islamic Umma. Only then will the world be at peace. Submission to Allah is the reason the world was created.
For more than a thousand years after 622, southern Europe had to give active military resistance to the “Saracens” (as the Islamists came to be known in the West). For 600 of those thousand years, a huge sea war ensued for control of the Mediterranean, but war by land was not called off. The Turks who took over the Arab world expanded their empire in all four directions on the map. For more than a century they made attempt after attempt to take down the largest and richest of the Christian capitals, Constantinople, whose walls they finally breached in 1453. There followed great plunder, huge fires of destruction, the desecration of Christian basilicas and churches, murder, and torture. Thousands of Christian men, women, and children were marched off toward slavery in the East.
A long line of great warrior sultans sponsored Turkish advances in shipbuilding, gunnery, military organization, and training. By the mid 1550s they had slowly conceived of a long-term offensive, a pincers movement first by sea and then by land, to conquer the whole northern shore of the Mediterranean. Their ultimate aim was to take all Italy; then all Europe. …
Each new caliph of the Islamic empire was expected to expand the existing Muslim territories, in order to fulfill Islam’s mission and gain for the leader the necessary popularity and legitimacy. So it was that in the pleasant springtime of 1571, an entire Muslim fleet under Ali Pasha was ordered by the sultan to seek out and destroy Christian dominance of the Mediterranean Sea, all the way up to Venice. During the summer, Ali Pasha raided fort after fort along the Adriatic shore, picked up thousands of hostages as slaves, and sent at least a small squadron to blockade for two or three days the approaches to St. Mark’s Square in Venice, not least to plant a seed of terror about worse things to come. …
For more than three years, Pope Pius V had labored mightily to sound alarms about the deadly Muslim buildup in the shipyards of Istanbul. The sultan had been stung by the surprising defeat of his overwhelming invasion force in Malta in 1565. The savagery of Muslim attacks on the coastal villages of Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece was ratcheted upwards. Three or four Muslim galleys would offload hundreds of marines, who would sweep through a village, tie all its healthy men together for shipment out to become galley slaves, march away many of its women and young boys and girls for shipment to Eastern harems, and then gather all the elderly into the village church, where the helpless victims would be beheaded, and sometimes cut up into little pieces, to strike terror into other villages. The Muslims believed that future victims would lose heart and swiftly surrender when Muslim raiders arrived. Over three centuries, the number of European captives kidnapped from villages and beaches by these pirates climbed into the hundreds of thousands.
The reason for this kidnapping was that the naval appetite for fresh backs and muscles was insatiable. Most galley slaves lived little more than five years. They were chained to hard benches in the burning Mediterranean sun, slippery in their own excrement, urine, and intermittent vomiting, often never lying down to sleep. The dark vision that troubled the pope during the late 1560s was of even more horrible calamities to befall the whole Christian world, bit by bit. But unity in Europe was hard to find, and even more scarce was the will to fight for survival.
Having seen Muslim ferocity firsthand, however, the Venetian public was determined to contribute a fleet to the task. Their support was crucial, for Venice was in those days the shipbuilding and gunnery capital of the world, producers (for a profit) of the most innovative, most versatile, stoutest, and most seaworthy armed vessels in the world. The best sea captains of Venice were the most eager to avenge their friends and fellow citizens.
For years, Venice had preferred peace with the Muslim East, in order to carry on their lucrative international trade. Now there was a cause that took precedence over the traditions of commerce. Genoa, too, contributed a fleet under their famous but now elderly Admiral Andrea Doria, these days a less-bold warrior despite the glory of his earlier exploits. The Knights of Malta, the premier sea warriors of the time, offered their small but highly skilled fleet in support of the pope’s appeal and agreed to work cooperatively with Don Juan.
Don Juan, whom his contemporaries described as a modest and humble man, characteristically set aside his own ego for the sake of the cause that engaged him. He pledged to the armada a large contingent supplied by Spain and Portugal. By the end of September 1571, eager to get their job done before winter turned the seas choppy and unfit for battle, the four distinct parts of the Christian fleet sailed past Italy, hugging the coasts, sending teams of observers to land to pick up the latest intelligence on the Muslim force. Finally, they learned that an enormous Muslim fleet, nearly 100 ships larger than their own, was sailing near to land toward the Gulf of Lepanto. No more talking, Don Juan told his leading admirals; now, “Battle.”