The Islamic State, the Inquisition, and the Wars of Religion

Ever since the Islamic State burst onto the world stage with its violent seizure of territory in Iraq and Syria, the imposition of a harsh and medieval form of Islam, and, most recently, the beheading of James Foley, we have been watching the modern version of extreme religious intolerance.

But this is not new in world history. And Christians have no reason to be righteous when we condemn the violence and intolerance. In fact, we might cite our own history in Europe as an example of what not to do. 

When I read about the Islamic State, I often recall an earlier time in world history when Catholics and Protestants were at each other's throats -- i.e., at war -- for more than 100 years. States were assumed to have "established" religions, usually determined by the religion of the reigning monarch, and other traditions were barely tolerated, if at all. Historians sometimes call this period the Wars of Religion and generally cite the dates 1524 to 1648.

And of course there was the infamous Spanish Inquisition from 1478 to 1834, when Jews were expelled from Spain and when Catholic monarchs imposed their faith as well as their secular rule on their subjects.

Both periods featured times when each side, in control of different territory, demanded forced conversions.  It was not uncommon for people to be beheaded or burned at the stake because they refused to convert. Both Catholics and Protestants celebrate their martyrs.

These earlier centuries, like the rule of the Islamic State" today, were laced with strong anti-Semitism. Jews were expelled from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, and I doubt that Jews would be tolerated in territory controlled by the Islamic State today.

So yes, Christians have a history of doing what some radical Muslims are doing today. And just as Christians had political motives in these earlier centuries, even if they laced them with religious arguments, so do the Islamic radicals today who want to establish a "caliphate."

So it's well to remember that our own tradition is far from pure and very far from having a history of tolerance.

But all this is surely why a Muslim friend of mine, born in Pakistan but now a U.S. citizen, once told me: "The greatest gift of the Founding Fathers to the United Sates is separation of religion and state."  

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here