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Anthony Pagden’s book at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West Worlds stands out as an ambitious overview of what is either one of history’s longest-running conflicts (Western view) or a succession of mostly unrelated clashes that occurred in the same unstable neighborhood (Eastern view—if there is such a thing). The fault lines between Europe and Asia have persisted into our day, and while hostilities over the centuries have been more cultural than military, Pagden’s synthesis provides a clear context for understanding the specific wars and a reminder of the power of religion to shape global events.

How should we define “East” and “West”?

That’s a crucial issue. This is a conception of the West, not of the East. No Mughals or Ottomans thought of themselves as belonging to the “East.”

What are the commonalties in these long-running struggles?

Again, this is a Western perception: On the one hand, you have this Grecian legacy of liberty, the rule of law and societies in which the individual is a subject to the king but not his property. On the other hand, you have societies ruled by priests rather than secular leaders, what were called in the 18th century “Oriental despots,” in which the sultan actually owns his subjects.

Did motives differ over time?

Absolutely. One being that from the year 700 onward, the East—in the form of Islam—is on the offensive. So until the late 17th century, the West is on the defensive all the time. That’s part of European identity building. And what is that common identity? It is not being Muslim and standing against the Muslim aggressor.

To what extent did fear of “the other” drive perceptions?

I think there was Western fear of the Eastern “other.” I don’t think so much the other way until much later, toward the end of the 19th century.

Was the East curious about the West?

Not until the early part of the 18th century, and then only in the Ottoman world. They begin to send missions to find out who these strange people are and what social structure allows them to be so successful on the battlefield.

And attitudes in the West?

In Europe you start back in the 12th century, when they’re beginning to translate the Koran, and there are people learning Arabic. Islam penetrated much farther into Europe than the other way.

When did religion become the real driving force?

With the rise of Islam. Christians are very suspicious of wars of conversion. That is what makes the Crusades such an anomaly, because there was a lot of opposition to it from within the church. You can conquer people for a hundred other reasons, but you can’t conquer them because they’re not Christians.

Is it true that Muslims are obligated to convert “infidels”?

This is a subject of great dispute at the moment. People want to say this isn’t in the Koran. It’s ambiguous in Islam, but it is quite true that the jihad is considered one of the obligations. The political rulers of Islam, from the caliphate to the Ottoman sultans, saw the jihad as one of their prime reasons for existing. It also benefited them, because these were tribal-conquest states and very primitive. Voltaire once said that nothing has changed from Xerxes to Mohammad.

So, historically, what was the nature of the Islamic conquests?

They simply plunder the regions that they conquer. Their wealth comes from extracting wealth from conquered regions, which is one of the reasons Ottoman rule was relatively light. Much as Xerxes had done, they set up dependant states and ruled them through provincial governors. They saw themselves as commanders of the faithful, fighting wars of religion. Usually, they’d offer the population a free life under Islam if they convert, and if not, they’ll be hacked to pieces The Muslims are trying to extend their way of life—and in the process to enrich themselves. And the West was trying to defend its way of life from outside aggression.

How do the Crusades square with those ideas?

The Crusades had nothing to do with it. Crusaders went to the East to recover what they saw as lands legitimately belonging to the Christian church. There was no sense that they were going to free the subjects of various despotisms.

Did the Crusades affect Muslim perceptions of the West?

Yes, they continue as an idea of what the West stands for. Until the 18th century there is a sense that there are two empires in the world. This is recognized on both sides. There are two suns shining, with constant struggle between them. Muhammad is supposed to have said, “One day Islam will conquer Constantinople and Rome.” These are the two symbolic cities.

Why was the fall of Constantinople such a watershed event?

It’s a symbolic city because it represents the last Roman capital. Constantinople remains the image of what the Roman Empire in the East was. But it becomes a great symbolic fall, particularly for the Western intelligentsia, because of the idea that Greek culture migrated from Athens to Constantinople, and that once Constantinople goes, it means the whole of Greek culture disappears. That is how Pope Pius II saw it: “This is the end of Greek culture. This is the end of the culture of the West.”

Did the founding of Israel become a Muslim rallying point?

Yes, it was, but I don’t think it was at first, when Jews started buying up land in what was then Palestine. Eventually Israel becomes, and has remained, a rallying point for the Muslim world, where these very disparate societies could come together under a common cause, under the idea of a common Arab unity—something that still eludes the Arab states.

Was the Soviets’ 10-year fight in Afghanistan seen as an instance of the West’s ongoing aggression?

Of course. Liberal democracy and Marxism are both Western ideologies. There is no distinction between them. The mujaheedin are only too happy to accept weapons from the Americans to fight the Russians, then turn around and use them to fight the Americans. As far as they are concerned, they’re all dyes of the same hue.

How was Russia’s support of Muslim states (e.g. Egypt and Syria) seen?

When it fails, it is seen as a betrayal. The present Islamic ideology is to say that all Western intervention has been a terrible mistake, a nightmarish history that starts with the Ottomans, who abandoned the true path. This led to the First World War, which led to the destruction of the whole region. And then these states, instead of turning their backs on the West and pursuing the objectives of the prophet, went whoring after this new Western toy—nationalism—bolstered by either the great Satan in the West or the great Satan in the East. No matter if it was the United States or the Soviet Union.

How does Muslim self-perception factor in to this struggle?

These regions have been under some kind of external control for a long time now. They’re extremely poor and backward compared with other regions of the world. So there is a double failure—political and economic. And with the rise of information technology, it is now possible for isolated people to know this. They are aware that these are politically unsuccessful, backward, impoverished nations.

So the argument goes: What went wrong? We once produced the great culture, while Europeans were so backward. How can we reverse this trend? And a lot claim the answer is some form of Islamic fundamentalism. When nobody is offering you much else, the appeal of that is powerful.

Do you believe this East-West struggle will end anytime soon?

It’s conceivable some kind of political sea change will bring external change to the region. But I don’t see the conflict being brought to an end by warfare. If anything remotely resembling the Marshal Plan had been put into effect, it might have had more success, because I do believe people will abandon certain ways of life if they are given the incentive to live better ones.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.