(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this comprehensive study of Christianity and Islam, Andrew Wheatcroft views the split between the two religious philosophies from a Western perspective, emphasizing the Western response to Islam, while charging that the Christians are essentially ignorant of Islamic culture. He deplores the overall brutality of Christianity in the name of religion, as evidenced by the Crusades. His study is extensively documented with forty-nine pages of notes, twenty pages of bibliography, and seventeen pages of cogent illustrations.

The author acknowledges that the scope and breadth of his topic demand limitation. He, therefore, focuses chiefly on Islamic-Christian conflicts in the Mediterranean area. He emphasizes the Crusades, Islamic Spain, the religious struggles within the Ottoman Empire (including the Balkans), and the current war against terrorism being waged in the West, particularly by the United States.

To balance Wheatcroft's sometimes underlying anti-Islamic approach in Infidels (which is evident, for example in his identifying the World Trade Center terrorists as “viruses”), readers might also turn to other sources. Reliable and readable ones include Bernard Lewis's Middle East Mosaic(2000), F. E. Peters's The Monotheists (2003), and Seyyed Hossein Nasr's The Heart of Islam(2002).

Wheatcroft understands well the nuances involved in the ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam. He contends that in the more than four centuries since the battle of Lepanto, the struggle between the two religious camps has moderated little. He cites literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin's contention that vast numbers of contextual meanings underlie human reactions and that every meaning, even if seeming to be lost, will, in critical times, “have its homecoming.”

Wheatcroft focuses on how the United States, following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, has systematically—and, under the George W. Bush administration, officially—set about demonizing the enemy. It has done so with the connivance of jingoists like General William G. Boykin, who, when speaking of an encounter he had with a Somalian warlord, proclaimed publicly that his [Boykin's] God is bigger than their god, which creates an unnecessary dichotomy between two major religions and cultures.

Such demonization is, naturally, a two-way street. Mahathir bin Mohammad, prime minister of Malaysia, publicly identified the West and what he called the “Jewish plot” as the main enemies of Islam. Many children in Arab countries are schooled in climates of hatred, in which they are indoctrinated with the idea that anything Western—especially American—is detestable. In such cases, the whole forgotten history of the concept of the Other is dredged up and reemerges to reinforce prejudices and to make them appear to be a necessary component of patriotism. It is equally true that Western educators promote negative stereotypes of Islam.

At one point, in discussing the impact of words and the weight of their meanings, Wheatcroft asks, “Would ’axis of hatred’ have had the same impact as ’axis of evil’ in January 2002? …Some words are curiously resonant, and ’evil’ is one of them. So too are ’crusade’ and jihad. For much of the history described in this book, ’infidel’ is another. ’Terror,’ ’terrorism,’ and ’terrorist’ have acquired many of the attributes of fear and horror that once attached to Turks and Tartars.” It is this sort of sensitivity to shades of meaning and to inherent connotations that typifies Wheatcroft's unique linguistic insights into his subject.

Despite obvious differences between Christianity and Islam, Wheatcroft points out some of the similarities that mark the two religions. Each believes that there is but one God, and each believes that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were instrumental in revealing the word of God to humanity. A conflict arises, however, because of Christianity's unwillingness to acknowledge that the true word of God in its categorically correct Christian interpretation could possess an authority comparable to that of the Islamic interpretation that Muslims believe resulted from God's alleged direct communication with Muhammad, as reported in the holy book of Islam, the Qurān. Muslims through the ages have been equally convinced that the Islamic...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)