Weekend In Depth: Orcs, Zombies and Mohammed

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C. S. Lewis, in his Narnia series, created a world of more than just talking otters, fauns, and Father Christmas. To the south of Narnia lay a desert, on the other side of which lay the vast Calormene Empire, populated by cruel, dark-skinned, turbaned warriors – who bore a remarkable resemblance to Arab or Turkish Muslims.  The Calormene god was a demon with the body of a four-armed human, and the head of a bird, whose name they invoked when going into battle, “Tash, Tash, the great god Tash. Inexorable Tash.” In the final book of the series The Last Battle, the Calormenes invaded and overran Narnia.

Lewis’ friend and colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, in his own works, depicted an idyllic rural England in The Shire, the home of the Hobbits, set in a relatively safe corner of a far from safe Middle Earth. Again to the South, there lay the kingdom of the Haradrim, a race of cruel, dark skinned, turbaned warriors, who joined forces with Sauron in his attempt to wipe out Gondor.

It is all too easy these days to write off such obvious literary allusions to the Islamic Caliphates as some old racist, colonialist throwback, or a quaint, paranoid fear of the Green Peril. But for Europe of the 1930’s, the time when Islamic empires constituted an existential threat to Christian Europe was still in living memory. This mindset, which seems so foreign to us, speaks to the remarkable success that the West achieved once it surpassed its long militarily-superior nemesis.

4345886486_1eb59eb6ac_Caliphate-mapWithin the “Prophet” Mohammed’s lifetime, much of the Arabian peninsula had been taken by military conquest, and by a little over a century after his death, the Islamic empire stretched from Spain and Morocco to the borders of India. The Caliphate smashed its way into France before it was stopped at Tours in 732. A Muslim army sacked parts of Rome in 846, and it took until 1488 to push it out of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Crusaders were able to retake Jerusalem and the Biblical lands briefly in the 11th and 12th centuries, but then Byzantium, after centuries of assault (during which time its territory had been reduced to a finger of Thracian land), fell to the Turks in 1453.

Europe’s Dark Age is generally attributed to the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the hands of the barbarian Goths. But this ignores the fact that although the Roman Empire was dissolved, the Goths largely integrated into and maintained the system of the old empire. North Africa was still essentially ‘European’ until it was overrun by the Caliphate in the 7th and 8th centuries. This loss of vast stretches of territory, and Islamic naval domination of and piracy in the Mediterranean was the ultimate cause of the dramatic plunge of Europe into poverty, decay, and disease.

Well over a million Europeans were taken as slaves to serve in Muslim empires, captured either in the process of invasion, or by raids on coastal towns. The men were used as forced labour, while the females augmented extensive harems, suffering a life of sexual slavery. The number of slaves the various Caliphates took from Africa and Asia are estimated to dwarf not only the number of Europeans, but also that of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Americas.

Jan sobieski photo
Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, led the largest cavalry charge in history on September 11, 1863, to rout the Ottoman army and save Vienna, and by extension, Europe. Photo by archer10 (Dennis) 83M Views

Even as Europe entered its Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, being stopped twice at the gates of Vienna, most famously in 1683. This event provides one of the best insights into Tolkien’s work. In Return of the King, Tolkien depicts the siege of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, in which a cavalry charge led by the king of Rohan, whose forces come to Gondor’s aid, help to save the city from destruction. Tolkein makes it clear that the fight for Minas Tirith is not just a battle between two empires, but a battle for the survival of the human race, and all good creatures of Middle Earth.

Despite much debate among both Tolkien buffs and history buffs, this is a clear reference to the largest cavalry charge in history, led by the King of Poland, during the 1863 battle of Vienna, in which the massive attacking Ottoman force was defeated and Vienna was saved. Given that Vienna was itself the gateway to the heart of Europe, the role Vienna would play over the following two centuries as one of the fountains of European culture, and that the battle initiated the gradual, fatal decline of the Ottoman Empire, this battle is one of the most important turning points in history. Thus Tolkien not only depicted Muslim-like men fighting for the ultimate form of evil in the world, he effectively depicted these Muslim fighters as orcs.

What we can take from this depiction is that although Europe had been able to surpass, and eventually occupy, much of the land of its once seemingly invincible foe, a scar had been left deep in its collective psyche. Of course, there had been incessant conflict within Europe, just as there had been within the Arab world, and sometimes alliances between Arabs and Europeans against other Arabs and Europeans. Europe only very rarely saw itself as Europe, and much less often and to a lesser extent to which the Muslim/Arab world viewed itself. Pockets of enlightenment and intolerance existed in Christendom and the Caliphate, and atrocities were committed by both sides. But none of this can diminish the significance of the existential threat posed by a civilisation which racked up a worldwide body-count of 270 million in its 1400 year existence. Lewis and Tolkien were merely reflecting the collective cultural memory of their time, an understanding of where Europe had been, and an appreciation of just how significant its pre-eminence was, given how close it had come to destruction.

This understanding has diminished over the last century of Western domination of world affairs. We have been taught to view our colonial history as one of the greatest injustices inflicted on humankind, rather than simply one civilisation surpassing others. We have been taught to view actual injustices of the past, such as religious intolerance, slavery, and denial of the vote to women as a damning indictment of our own barbarism, rather than admiring the bravery and virtue of our ancestors who strove to overcome these injustices.

4222481294_6d6f9ae750_OrcBut our collective memory is finding a way to re-emerge, like the symbolism of a nightmare, in the literature of our day- television and film. Game Of Thrones has become immensely popular, despite its violence and near nihilism. It depicts a world where tyrants defeat the noble, and threats to human existence lie in every corner. And again, a race of cruel, dark skinned, often turbaned warriors lives to the south, across the narrow sea in a desert-like land.

Zombies have replaced orcs as the threat that dare not speak its name (both for fear of inflaming the threat of Islamists, and incurring the opprobrium of the self-appointed guardians of political correctness). A common theme from Islamist terrorists is that their advantage lies in the fact that they love death as we love life. Stories from the Hadiths talk about how Muslim fighters would throw themselves into battle, seeking death, in order to be rewarded in heaven.

Likewise, zombies are depicted as having no concern for their own well-being – obsessed only with killing and eating humans, and spreading the virus within them. They will bash through glass windows with their heads, throw themselves off buildings, and charge a hail of gunfire en masse just for a bite. It is precisely this disregard for their own life/unlife that gives them an advantage over humans when they have the numbers. It is this disregard which so paralyses and decimates human civilisation, robbing it of the technology and organisation to fight it. Even more terrifying than a kamikaze aeroplane, which you can at least identify, is the idea of a threat that could come from someone who looks just like us, whether it is a zombie, suicide bomber, or just a guy with an axe.

Our society is far safer than it was a century ago, whether it be from disease, predators or foreign powers. Yet that dark scar deep in our psyche remains, and it is telling that when the actual threat has re-emerged, we have made ourselves incapable of even naming it – “this has nothing to do with Islam”.

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David Hiscox
David has studied history and political science at Melbourne University. His thesis was written on how the utilisation of Missile Defence can help to achieve nuclear disarmament. His interest in history was piqued by playing a flight simulator computer game about the Battle of Britain, and he hopes to one day siphon the earnings from his political writings into funding the greatest prog-rock concept album the world has ever seen.
  • Joseph Gunn

    I came to this site expecting to read alternative opinions, but all I have seen so far is fairly puerile and poorly conceived articles, like this one.

    By all means discuss history, but attempting to draw a comparison between zombies, fantasy writers, game of thrones and a perceived “dark-skinned, turbaned menace” you claim is deeply rooted in the white western psyche is absolutely ludicrous, not to mention, sounds suspiciously like a personal opinion piece…oh wait, that’s what this site is, isn’t it?

    Basically, this piece reads as though you smoked some very unusual tobacco, grabbed a piece of butcher’s paper and a copy of “Lord of the Rings” and just started brainstorming, while keeping an eye on the TV set.

    You can’t possibly squeeze all these things into one great “theory of everything” and be credible, linking together different eras, histories, races and popular culture as you see fit and mashing them all together with your word processor.

    For someone with a background in history and political science, this piece reads rather like, how shall I put it…

    Fantasy?

  • Joseph,

    “I came to this site expecting to read alternative opinions.”

    “Alternative” opinions that coincided with your own?

    “Sounds suspiciously like a personal opinion piece.”

    If you go to the XYZ home page on which this article appears, you will see that it appears under the category of “opinion.” The word “opinion” is written in red.

    Lines such as:

    “all I have seen so far is fairly puerile and poorly conceived articles, like this one.”

    “this piece reads as though you smoked some very unusual tobacco, grabbed a piece of butcher’s paper and a copy of “Lord of the Rings” and just started brainstorming, while keeping an eye on the TV set.”

    “mashing them all together with your word processor.”

    Do not constitute an argument.

    Regarding the argument you seem to be making, you have simply listed the “themes” I have covered in my article and said it is crazy. But you ignore that the episodes of history and works of literature I have covered are in fact connected.

    Tolkien did represent the real life Battle of Vienna in the fictional Battle of Minas Tirith. Lewis, Tolkien and Martin all create a Euro/British-centric world, with species and races to the south/south-east, who live in a desert, and appear to be very much like Muslims. Lewis and Tolkien, at the very least, did have an appreciation for a history of Europe dominated by the existential threat of Islam, and reflected this both consciously and unconsciously in their novels.

    That this understanding of history is being forgotten, or at least repressed, is true, as the narrative of Western exploitation of the earth is becoming more and more the dominant narrative in our culture. But this history will not die, because people can read, and people can remember. If it is not able to be presented directly, this history will find other, less direct ways, to be told.

    If you want to mount a serious challenge to my article, you need to challenge the links I have made between history and literature with arguments and examples, rather than listing them in a couple of sentences and calling it ludicrous.

  • Joseph Gunn

    Hi David,
    I apologise for flying off the handle with my first response. You’re correct that there’s no real point raising an objection to something without being specific, so let me try to do so.

    I’m not taking issue with your view of history – you are correct that the narrative of a fearful and savage outsider is one which has existed in our culture (and every other culture) ever since we began interacting with those outside of our immediate sphere of knowledge.

    You are also correct that this narrative continues into the present day, and that the middle east and Islam is very firmly centred in the public eye.

    “Lewis and Tolkien were merely reflecting the collective cultural memory of their time, an understanding of where Europe had been, and an appreciation of just how significant its preeminence was, given how close it had come to destruction.”

    Absolutely, along with both adopting the very biblical notion of good triumphing over evil – black and white – absolutes.

    This is where I take issue with not only your article, but the way these concepts are generally being portrayed in the media, and in political circles.

    This is NOT another religious war – Islam vs Christianity. The vast majority of Islamic people are peaceful and simply go about their business, with no intention of joining an army to stamp out our way of life. There is not some Islamic conspiracy to join a league of evil.

    What we are dealing with is extremist elements.

    Remember the Waco siege, in Texas? They were Christians. Should we therefore conclude that all Christians are suicidal / homicidal zealots?

    It is an extremely dangerous, irresponsible and inflammatory game to portray “muslim-type men” as Orcs, or to draw a fairly obscene parallel between islamic people and zombies.

    I recognise part of your article is looking through an observational and historical lens, but your conclusion really seems to be that we should CONTINUE to adopt the fears and insecurities of our cultural past – in fact I would say that through your choice of examples and imagery you are in fact attempting to continue the narrative.

    Do you think it’s healthy to do so?

    Obviously there are genuinely horrific things going on in the world, but why not focus on understanding them, and de-mystifying them for people through your research and writing, rather than fanning the fires of our past, and simply taking the path of least resistance – adopt the fear, dehumanise an entire people on the basis of extremists, and make it a war of good vs evil.

    I do wish you luck with the site and the platform. I really hope you continue to take a positive approach and stay openminded.

    • Steve B

      Islam = evil, bad, oppressive, stinky, no beer allowed, scary, not spiritually fulfilling, neanderthal, naughty, deceiving, violent, beerless, not nice, not bloody peaceful, treacherous, what am I going to do with 72 virgins, unfunny, bereft of beer, humourless, not compassionate, cruel, vicious, no laughing allowed, perverted and no beer!!!

      • Bikinis not Burkas

        Muslims ARE allowed to drink alcohol, they lie when they say they can’t!
        Quran 4:43
        Here are 2 translations.

        Sahih International
        O
        you who have believed, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated
        until you know what you are saying or in a state of janabah, except
        those passing through [a place of prayer], until you have washed [your
        whole body].

        And if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from
        the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and find no
        water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and your hands
        [with it]. Indeed, Allah is ever Pardoning and Forgiving.
        Pickthall
        O
        ye who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when ye are drunken, till ye
        know that which ye utter, nor when ye are polluted, save when journeying
        upon the road, till yehave bathed.

        And if ye be ill, or on a journey,
        or one of you cometh from the closet, or ye have touched women, and ye
        find not water, then go to high clean soil and rub your faces and your
        hands (therewith). Lo! Allah is Benign, Forgiving.

        Please note the 2nd paragraphs about women being unclean.
        “Clean dirt on your face and hands” Allah AKA Muhammad was a fool!

  • Hi Joseph,

    Thank you for the apology, and my own apologies for taking a week to respond.

    The language you have used to summarise my argument is instructive:

    “(Y)ou are correct that the narrative of a fearful and savage outsider is one which has existed in our culture (and every other culture) ever since we began interacting with those outside of our immediate sphere of knowledge.

    “You are also correct that this narrative continues into the present day, and that the middle east and Islam is very firmly centred in the public eye.”

    It holds the key to our entire disagreement. I think you are making a mistake which too many people these days make; the assumption that disagreements and conflicts with Islam and the Middle East are based on misunderstandings, on superficial competition over land and resources, rather than fundamental, foundational differences over how the world is ordered and should be ordered. In this respect Islam differs from other religions and cultures, which have more or less been able to find a way to coexist with each other through letting go of “fears and insecurities of the past.”

    You are correct that the majority of Muslims are peaceful- indeed, the majority of victims of Muslim violence are Muslim themselves. But this does not mean that the majority of Muslims don’t support Muslim extremism, or more literally, Muslim literalism. Surveys show that a strong majority of the world’s Muslims share views which overlap with violent jihadis, regarding for example the nature of Israel, treatment of homosexuals, the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy, conspiracy theories about 9/11 and so on.

    The more one learns about Islam, the more one understand how different it is to a Western worldview, whether Christian or post-Christian. Muslims will often use language which to our ears sounds peaceful, and which they will claim is peaceful, but in essence is anything but. For example, we are told that the name of the religion itself, “Islam,” means “peace.” But “peace” in this context actually means “submission,” therefore there can be no “peace” until all the world has submitted. The claim that Islam only permits violence in self-defence, in reality means anything but; to Islam, the existence of a land or a people who have not submitted to Islam is an assault, therefore to attack them simply for being who they are is not considered unprovoked warfare. Islam divides the world into two- Dar al-Islam, the Islamic world, the land of peace, and the Dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world, the land of war. In this respect at least, their language means exactly what it says.

    It is bizarre that you give the example of the Waco siege as an example of violent, extremist Christians, particularly given that it was to all intents and purposes a massacre of said “Christians.” Importantly, the Branch Davidians were clearly a cult, truly distorting the religion to mean something else. Despite all claims to the contrary by Muslim spokespeople and their apologists, the terrorists who commit violence in the name of Islam are doing so according to both the letter and the spirit of Islam. It is actually fundamentalist/ extremist/ supremacist/ violent/ jihadi Muslims who are most adherent to the teachings of the Koran, the Haditha, and Islamic jurisprudence. Those Muslims who are peaceful are the ones going against Islamic teachings to kill the unbelievers wherever they may find them. IS militants will quote chapter and verse from the Koran and Haditha about why their beliefs give them the right to do what they do.

    So, I do not view the War on Terror as a new war. I view it as a continuation of the old one. And this does not make me an extremist as bad as those I purport to oppose. I am acknowledging the worldview of the terrorists, and accepting the fact that to them, the war is not over, the war was never over. The West at the moment is at a weird point in its history. It is like a football team that has gone to the half-time break with a strong lead, but comes back out onto the field assuming the game is won and the opposition will just jog around with them.

    The reason we have assumed we were at peace with the Muslim world is because we have surpassed them, because, for the last couple of hundred years, we have been superior economically, militarily, and culturally. But this does not mean that the Islamic world has given up its intention to dominate the world. This task is built into the very fabric of Islam.

    It is precisely my intention to sound the alarm, to shake out of their denial those who, through fear, refuse to accept that the existential threat to the West is reawakening. You refer to “fears and insecurities of the past” as though everybody, every country, every ideology or religion the world over wants what we do, but the fact is that the world outside the West remains a dark dangerous place, and understanding and de-mystifying at the moment are simply weasel-words for cowardice and appeasement.

    I have expanded a little here, but have written enough for now. I am more than happy to provide excerpts from the Islamic books, and examples of how these teachings are reflected throughout history and today. It is something I intend to carry out regardless in the coming months through my articles, but if you would like to continue this discussion on this thread, I think it could be quite fruitful for both of us.

  • Nathan

    Excellent article David, and really good point on the WACO massacre. It’s amazing how many people don’t make correct connections in the right order around the right way! 🙂 Someone else made the supposed comparison between Islam being a death cult and Christianity being the same, worshipping someone who was put to death thinking they had made a sound solid point. We really lack good teaching in logic in schools today but who would teach it. The teachers all know marxism really well but logic? Hey I’m voting you for half a Billion to run OUR ABC 🙂

  • I constantly find people making comparisons between Christianity and Islam, presuming they are equivalent. The solution is to continue to expose the true nature of Islam.

    And I totally agree with your point on the teaching of logic!

  • Dave Green

    The barbarian horde theme in Western literature predates the rise of Islam – the attempted Persian invasions of Greece in the sixth century BC, for example.

    You’ve also brushed over the role that the Mongol invasions played in the idea – the Khans likely killed more people than the Nazis, and they did it by hand.

    I think you’re correct in asserting that this fear of an existential outside threat is part of Western identity. Where you’ve gone a bit astray is in arguing that the only source of that is Islam. Tolkien, for example, had recently fought on the Western front in WW1 when he began writing. His direct experience of scarred, blasted and gassed battlefields of the early 20th century are a much more likely source of inspiration for Mordor than the rise of the Caliphate 1200 years earlier.

    • Journey

      The issue with Islam is that it is major world religion that has open-ended requirements for men to engage in jihad and for women to support them, with the only assured salvation in dying in jihad. The Nazis didn’t follow such a religion, which is precisely why they only lasted about a decade. Islam and its sanctified killings has been going on for 1400 years. You can rehabilitate a Nazi, but how can you rehabilitate a jihadist who would have to reject a major part of his religion?

      • Trog

        Two decades surely. I wonder though where we would all be today if Japan had attacked Vladivistok instead of Pearl Harbour and “shared” Russia with the Nazis. Still be goose-stepping perhaps? Who knows?

  • Journey

    I recently re-read CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, and was surprised at how insightful he was about our current situation: almost prophetic. In this section, Lewis pinpoints the problem of ‘migrants’ as well as the problem of equating Allah with the Christian God, as well meaning ‘interfaith’ advocates do. Here Lewis suggests that in order for interfaith to work, we have to ‘reduce’ the Christian God:

    (the Ape to the lamb) “…Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”
    ….
    It was a ginger cat—a great big Tom in the prime of life—who sat bolt upright with his tail curled round his toes, in the very front row of all the Beasts. He had been staring hard at the Ape and the Calormene captain all the time and had never once blinked his eyes.
    “Excuse me,” said the Cat very politely, “but this interests me. Does your friend from Calormen say the same?”
    “Assuredly,” said the Calormene. “The enlightened Ape—Man, I mean—is in the right. Aslan means neither less nor more than Tash.”
    “Especially, Aslan means no more than Tash?” suggested the Cat.
    “No more at all,” said the Calormene, looking the Cat straight in the face.
    “Is that good enough for you, Ginger?” said the Ape.
    “Oh certainly,” said Ginger coolly. “Thank you very much. I only wanted to be quite clear. I think I am beginning to understand.”
    ……….
    “What made it hopeless, even apart from the numbers of the enemy, was the spears. The Calormenes who had been with the Ape almost from the beginning had had no spears: that was because they had come into Narnia by ones and twos, pretending to be peaceful merchants, and of course they had carried no spears for a spear is not a thing you can hide. The new ones must have come in later, after the Ape was already strong and they could march openly.”

    • Karen Dwyer

      Yes, such a good book on so many levels.

      Also Puzzle the donkey who aids the Ape by being “nice” and self-deprecating, and extremely foolish.

      Not to mention the dwarves, who are heart-breakingly treacherous and in the end can’t recognise anything good.

      Part of the reason that the Narnians were so easily fooled and forced into slavery was that they had FORGOTTEN what Aslan had told them and it all seemed such a long time ago that he had been there. And anyway, wasn’t everything peaceful now. They forgot their own history and previous battles.

  • Journey

    “We have been taught to view our colonial history ……. as a damning indictment of our own barbarism, rather than admiring the bravery and virtue of our ancestors who strove to overcome these injustices.”

    This describes the Australian National Curriculum as it currently is. This badly needs to change.

  • Karen Dwyer

    A gem of an article, David.

    The Chronicles of Narnia are despised by The Guardian due to “overt Christian themes” (their words, not mine).

    I find it very interesting that you write about Christian history and related themes with such clarity; particularly as you describe yourself as an atheist.

    It is a little like a vegetarian or vegan who writes really good cookbooks for omnivores. Intriguing!

    Particularly as there are Christians who haven’t made the connections you have, or are indeed quite hostile to these ideas.

    Anyway, you do not, of course, need to explain yourself to me. I just have never experienced being an atheist. I would have expected you would view Christians as like Linus (from the Peanuts cartoons) sitting in the pumpkin patch waiting for the “Great Pumpkin”. That is, a little bit ludicrous, somewhat futile, and a little bit sad.

    Or maybe Linus is just a better prospect as a neighbour than Lucy, his sister? :-)))))))))

  • FredNerx

    Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise expands on this theme.