Don't blame the Muslims. Karen Armstrong on why we should never forget that the destruction wreaked by war continues long after the soldiers have gone home
The Far-Farers: a journey from Viking Iceland to Crusader Jerusalem
Victoria Clark Macmillan,
In this second pilgrimage, Victoria Clark seeks insight into our present predicament by exploring the lessons of the past. Her first, widely acclaimed book, Why Angels Fall, was a portrait of Christian Orthodoxy in Cyprus, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This time, she puts the west under the microscope, by tracing the momentous events of the 11th century, a historical watershed in which she discovers the origin of many of our present problems.
It is a sombre journey, but Clark is a skilled raconteuse, and enlivens her narrative with engaging portraits of those she encounters along the way: Waldemar, an enchanting Polish priest, who is much troubled by Vatican policy; Frere Emile, a French monk of the ecumenical com-munity of Taize, who urges her to stop mourning the lost unity of Christendom and to celebrate the spiritual rebirth of Europe; and the Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios, who warns her that it is not greed or hatred but egotism that lies at the heart of all humanity's problems.
However, some of Clark's encounters are more disturbing. Halfway through her trip, she becomes aware of "the great burden of grief borne by so many of eastern Europe's elderly" who lived through the Second World War and seem, in different ways, morose, despairing and heartbroken. It is a malaise that extends to the next generation. Erika, whose parents were survivors of Auschwitz, feels that "all my life I've been hearing about their war- time experience". Tearfully, she explains that she has travelled ceaselessly - from Greece, to France and Israel, and back to ThessalonIki - in order to escape their suffering. Poised as we are on the brink of a potentially catastrophic military misadventure, we should recall that the destruction of war continues long after the soldiers have gone home.
Equally disturbing, in our post-9/11 world, are Clark's encounters with Turks, Syrians and Lebanese, who feel bitterly ignored by the west. "Excuse me! You don't talk to me?" cries a young Turkish carpet-seller. "Why? Why do you come to Turkey if you don't want to talk to Turkish people?" Clark admits that the barb hurt. In a way that is emblematic of an attitude that has led to our current impasse with the Islamic world, she is so preoccupied by the story of the first western crusade that she has little time for its Muslim casualties. When she arrives in Jerusalem, however, she concludes that the Palestinian Arabs have been forced to pay for the anti-Semitism that has been a chronic disease in Europe since the 11th century.
But her account of the 11th century is less successful than her exploration of contemporary reality. She recounts such major events as the humiliation of Henry IV at Canossa by visiting the historical sites, and emphasises the growing militarism of western Christianity. This culminated in the Crusaders' appalling massacre of the Jewish and Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099. Clark begins her pilgrimage in Iceland, where she tells the story of a chieftain who found it impossible to accept the pacifism of the gospel; she then travels through Germany, France and Italy, and finally follows the Crusaders to the Middle East.
Her historical grasp of the period lacks depth, however, and she often fails to explore the implications of the events she has chosen. Her route is also rather arbitrary. At this time most Europeans wanted Christianity to be a more aggressive religion. So why begin in Iceland? Why make the detour to southern Italy? Why not include Sicily or Spain, where Jews, Christians and Muslims were living together in a harmony that would soon become impossible in the rest of Europe?
Clark's travels may seem haphazard, but in a pilgrimage, the journey is itself an educative process, and just as important as the destination. She experiences no grand fulfilment when she arrives finally in Jerusalem, but is certainly changed by her trip. In Why Angels Fall, Clark often betrayed an ingrained western chauvinism and disdain for religion, both of which she has learned to transcend this time around. She is moved and even disturbed by her sojourn at Taize, although she would probably find it difficult to describe her experience there. She is now able to distinguish between good and bad religion, instead of lumping all its manifestations together, as in the earlier book. But in the end, her attempt to link the 11th century with our own is not convincing.
It is no accident that George W Bush initially called his war against terror a "crusade". Militancy has long been a feature of western Christianity; this book is thus a timely reminder that Islam is not the only faith to have a militant and fanatical strain.
Karen Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God: fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (HarperCollins)