Thursday, October 7, 2021


450 years ago today, on October 7, 1571, the Holy League for the Defense of Christendom, under the leadership of Don John of Austria (son of Emperor Charles V) with a formidable fleet, finally and decisively defeated the Turks at the Gulf of Lepanto, effectively ending the long-term Ottoman naval threat to Europe. (There would be one more decisive military encounter between Western Christendom and the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1687, after which Ottoman power would be in continuous decline until the 20th century.)

Pope Saint Pius V attributed the Christian victory at Lepanto to the intercession of the Mother of God, whom the faithful had invoked by praying the rosary, and October 7 is still celebrated as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Even Protestants celebrated the Christian victory over their common enemy, and the Protestant King of Scots James VI (the future King James I of England) composed an epic poem celebrating Don John's victory.

Actually, the Ottoman threat to Europe did not disappear immediately. According to historian Diarmaid MacCulloch (The Reformation, Viking, 2004, p. 55), "Islamic raiders enslaved around a million western Christian Europeans between 1530 and 1640; this dwarfs the contemporary slave traffic in the other direction, and is about equivalent to the number of West Africans  taken by Christian Europeans across the Atlantic at the same time." MacCulloch considers the fear engendered in Europe by this aggression "an essential background to the Reformation, convincing many on both sides that God's anger was poised to strike down the Christian world, and so making it all the more essential to please God by affirming the right form of Christian belief against other Christians. It is impossible to understand the mood of sixteenth-century Europe without bearing in mind the deep anxiety inspired by the Ottoman Empire."

It has been suggested by some that one of the defining features of the post-Cold War world has been the rise of a more militant Islam and "the deep anxiety" that this has inspired throughout the Western world. The two situations are not the same, and the differences between the sixteenth century and now are major. Christendom no longer exists, and opposition by Europeans and Americans to certain Muslim states and non-state actors, whether militant or immigrant, is motivated much more by secular factors than by religious ones. Islam itself is divided along sectarian and national lines. It is impossible to speak univocally about Muslims, just as it is impossible to speak univocally about Christians or secular Westerners. 

The one constant, however, is that "deep anxiety," which undoubtedly exists on both sides. The post-9/11 "War on Terror" partakes of some of the same apocalyptic anxiety, such as Europe experienced during the Reformation period and the post-Reformation wars of religion. In the 1960s and 1970s, with the notable exception of the PLO, terrorism had been more a left-wing Western phenomenon (the IRA, the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen, etc.). At present, probably the greatest terrorist threat to the United States may now be from domestic right-wing, white supremacists. Even so, the end of the conflict in Afghanistan has heightened anxiety about that country possibly once again becoming a safe haven for terrorist activity.

For Europe, on the other hand, Islam is now a domestic reality in a way in which it never really was before. When Charles de Gaulle visited Moscow in December 1944 to seek Russian support against any revival of Germany, he is supposed to have said: “I deal with Stalin as Fran├žois I dealt with Suleiman—with this difference, that in sixteenth-century France there was no Muslim party.” (He was referring, obviously, to the French Communist party.) Now, however, France has a significant Muslim minority. How European states, with much less of a tradition of immigration and assimilation than the United States, can successfully integrate immigrants from non-Western countries is a major challenge for those societies.

Hopefully, Europe's remaining Christians and its many former Christians and the new immigrants continuously coming to Europe's shores will figure this out more peacefully than their sixteenth-century ancestors were able to do, and will successfully set out on a new path toward a realistic accommodation of different traditions in an inevitably more multi-cultural, globalized Europe.

(Photo: The Battle of Lepanto, painted by Paolo Veronese, 1528-1588).

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