The Conciergerie

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  On the banks of the Seine stands a distinctive long building of rounded turrets and short spires. The white stone building is elegant, even beautiful. This beauty is deceptive however. The long building by the river is one of history’s most infamous prisons hidden behind a pretty facade. Forever linked with the French Revolution the Conciergerie has a much longer story.

The Conciergerie started life as a palace of kings. This central area of Paris was from early times the seat of power for rulers of North-West Europe. Though an earlier palace sat on the site much of this first building was greatly enlarged by the early Medieval French kings including the building’s facade and the famous Sainte-Chapelle church. Relatively little of the Medieval palace remains however. When the kings moved out around the fourteenth century the parliament moved in and the palace became a centre of administration and law courts.

To serve the courts part of the building was converted into a prison, a function it would retain for several centuries. The practice of justice often depends on wealth and so it was in the Conciergerie prison. Wealthy prisoners could have a room of their own and stay in some comfort without too much hardship. On the other hand poor prisoners were kept in unhygienic and dangerous small cells with only hay to sleep on.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Conciergerie’s most famous batch of prisoners came during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Several years after its beginning the Revolution was in danger. Armies gathered across the borders and a number of people were actively against the Revolution inside France. In an atmosphere of increasing danger and paranoia the Revolutionary leadership instigated the Terror. Those believed to be a danger to the Revolution were rounded up with many dying under the guillotine.

Hundreds were held in the Conciergerie before their quick trial or execution. The small cells of this elegant building became the holding area for those on the way to their deaths. Amongst the prisoners two names stand out. Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre both spent their finOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAal days in the Conciergerie. Later the restored French monarchy would attempt to make a shrine out of the cell of Marie-Antoinette as the building became a symbol of monarchist mourning. Robespierre initially directed much of the Terror. The prisons and executions were necessary to defend the Revolution against reaction he argued. The Terror was ended by the downfall of Robespierre who was himself held at the Conciergerie before falling beneath the guillotine.

Long after the end of the Revolution the Conciergerie continued to be used as a prison, though none of the later inmates are remembered as those of the Revolution are. It was not until 1914 that the building stopped serving as a prison. This former palace of kings is still the home of a major law court.

Due to the building’s link to the Terror of the 1790’s the Conciergerie often serves as a symbol of what can go wrong in an attempt to change the world. The lesson however is often misunderstood. The Conciergerie and the Terror are used to say that a revolution will always end in devouring its own children. Rather the message of this building which has been a palace, prison, waiting area for the guillotine and law courts, is that if people aim merely to change who gets to be the tyrant instead of destroying tyranny they will indeed end up becoming the thing they hated.


The Pantheon, Paris

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The grand dome of the Pantheon is one of Paris’ most distinctive landmarks. In a city of beautiful buildings it is one of the stand outs. Visually impressive, the huge dome and impressive facade have stood as a backdrop to the often tumultuous history of Paris. Since its construction in the eighteenth century the history of the Pantheon has been the history of the city itself.

The idea for a new monumental church came about due to an illness of King Louis XV. In the era of monarchy a grand monumental building could be ordered ostensibly on a whim and so as the King was suffering from fever he promised to build a new church if he recovered. When he did so the order was put in for a new church dedicated to St.Genevieve, a patron saint of Paris. A church had stood on the site since the earliest days of the Kings but was most likely in a poor condition by this time. Piety demanded that the King fulfil his vow, power and prestige demanded that he create something spectacular.

The architect Soufflot was given the commission and he looked back in time for his inspiration. The Classical world was looked on with awe and respect at the time and so Soufflot based his building on those styles. The church was to have a ground plan of a Greek cross and a front reminiscent of the Pantheon of Rome. Such a grand project took time and Soufflot died before work was finished. The various financial crises suffered by the French crown further delayed work and by the time the church was finished in 1791 revolution had toppled the monarchy.

The new revolutionary government now had to decide what to do with this grand church they had inherited. The guiding ideas of the revolution were secular and often hostile to religion and the church. So St.Genevieve and her remains were evicted and the church would become a new kind of temple. The object of worship now was to be the nation and its great men. The church of St.Genevieve became a Pantheon meant to house the remains of men who had honoured and served the French nation. Principally this meant the Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau and leading politicians of the revolution.

These secular heroes fell out of favour with the rise of Napoleon and once again the Pantheon would switch roles. For a time it was handed over to the church and used for Christian worship. As always in nineteenth century Paris a revolution was not long in coming and the building changed roles yet again. As each different regime rose and fell they left their mark on the Pantheon. An inscription would change, a body be removed or put back and the cross on top of the dome would become a tricolour or red flag. With the period of Parisian revolutions coming to an end after 1871, the Pantheon has been dedicated to secular purposes from 1885.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Today the Pantheon stands as one of the most remarkable buildings in Paris. The huge Corinthian columns of its front are imposing and impressive in their decoration. Inside the building still resembles a church. There are shrines, images and an altar. The only difference is the subject being revered. The French nation is the object of worship rather than St.Genevieve as the shrines depict moments from the revolution, the paintings are historical and atop the altar stands Marianne, the personification of the French State. The crypt below is still used as a burial place for those deemed heroes, or in a few cases heroines. Voltaire and Rousseau are buried here alongside writers such as Victor Hugo, Dumas and Zola.

The building designed for a King has gone through many changes in its history but it is still one of the more remarkable and interesting of the city’s major landmarks.

A Short History of Paris


Paris is a city of political power built by kings and continued by presidents. Since the early centuries of its long history the famous city has been a predominant centre of power and population in Western Europe. Sitting as it does somewhat between North and South Europe with easy access to river and sea communications, Paris has for a long time been a, if not the, major urban centre of Europe. Its fortunes have ebbed and flowed at various times during its long history but it has always retained an intimate link with power.

Like many urban centres in Northern and Western Europe the first version of Paris was a prehistoric settlement. The Parisii, a tribe of Gaul, settled along the Seine river around today’s Paris as a small group of islands make this the easiest spot to cross the long river. The Romans arrived with Ceasar’s conquest of Gaul in 52BC and established the town of Lutetia. Though prosperous enough, Lutetia was far removed from the centre of power in Europe at the time, the Mediterranean. However, the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire shifted power North and brought Paris to prominence.

As Rome declined various peoples crossed into Western Europe. The Franks settled around today’s France, Germany, and the low countries. With the Franks becoming a major power in the collapsing Roman world, Paris began to be more than just a provincial town. That being said the centre of Frankish power was still closer to the Rhine and Paris was often left vulnerable to Viking raids during the 8th and 9th centuries. Power shifted toward Paris with the foundation of the Capetan dynasty of kings with its capital in Paris from the 10th century.

With Paris now being the principal seat of the powerful kings the city began to grow in size and importance. Key to the prestige of the place was its link with the Catholic church. Christianity had been present in Paris since around the 3rd century and received a major boost with the martyrdom of St.Denis. A nun, St.Genevieve, said to have played a part in turning Attila the Hun from the city in 451 was another significant religious figure. The foundation of a number of major religious buildings from the 12th century onwards, including St.Denis and Notre-Dame, greatly improved the standing of Paris.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The strong presence of the church brought scholars to Paris and by the start of the 13th century the city hosted a major university. Over time this made Paris into one of the major intellectual centres of Europe, a position it has never really lost. By the 13th century Paris boasted some of the largest religious buildings and palaces, a university, strong city walls and a population of around 200,000. Such a large population put the city way beyond anything in Western Europe. From this high point the city would suffer several centuries of turmoil and relative decline as the power of the French crown weakened.

The 14th-16th centuries saw the power of the French crown sapped by plague, war, and religious strife. The kings in Paris struggled to bring the various regions of their kingdom under control and for a time they effectively ruled only the area around Paris itself. The Black Death tore a path of destruction through the city as it did everywhere it touched and was quickly followed by a series of defeats at the hands of English kings leading to an English occupation of Paris between 1420-36. Even once the English were defeated Paris saw little peace as during the 16th century rival Catholic and Protestant religious fanatics and fundamentalists were tearing each other apart. Events reached a bloody height with the St. Bartholomew’s massacre of 1572 when hundreds of protestants were killed.

Though religious wars inflicted great damage as they became a series of civil wars, Paris continued as the major city of the French kingdom and gained a raft of new impressive buildings. Henri IV and Francis I endowed the city with a series of great Renaissance inspired structures and bridges sprung up to keep it in line with European architectural developments. After several difficult centuries Paris became the centre around which the kings began to build the French state during the 17th century. The period of absolutism, when the kings desired to handle total political control, said to have reached it height under Louis XIV led to further embellishing of Paris as more grand palaces were built. Louis XIV though the most powerful of French kings did not particularly like Paris and so constructed the grand palace of Versailles. For the next hundred years the kings would live close to, but not in Paris, where they gradually lost touch with the people and reality.

The kings had made France as a centralised state structure with themselves at the head resting in Paris and Versailles. With a state structure now in place the question was who would control it? From 1789 onwards Paris became the great battleground where control of the French state was to be determined. With Paris being the largest European city and a centre of wealth and power a great number of poor and disadvantaged were drawn to it. The storming of the Bastille and the Revolution brought the poor of Paris to the centre of the political stage. Between 1789-1871 the streets of Paris would host several revolutions with countless other insurrections and riots along the way.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Parisian poor having created the idea of a politically involved people able to change their world were at the forefront of European politics for decades. A barricade raising in Paris could signal a wave of revolts across the continent. However, the violent crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871 effectively ended the city’s role as lead revolutionary and allowed the middle and wealthy classes to create their nation state. With the revolutionaries largely sidelined the artists moved in. From the end of the 19th century Paris was the artistic centre of the continent as it hosted a number of major movements and personalities. The Paris we see today is largely the product of this period. Baron Haussmann’s redesign of the city created the famous wide avenues and elegant apartments so characteristic of Paris. Further landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur added to the skyline.

Since then Paris has remained firmly at the head of the French State and a major intellectual and artistic city. As the French capital, it played a significant role in both the first and second world wars, suffering some of its darkest moments at these times. It is still a centre of political power in Europe though the focus of events shifted across the Rhine and globally across the Atlantic. Over the 19th and 20th centuries other cities have grown to rival or surpass Paris in terms of population and wealth but the city remains a major world player largely due to its artistic and intellectual heritage. Over its many centuries of existence the famously beautiful city has remained a place to gather, and fight for, political power in Western Europe.


Historical notes on Greek debt

Greece and its debts are once again in the headlines. Most reporting takes a very short term view of the situation and attempts to explain the current crisis within the framework of the Euro. However, the various elements in this story, debt/default, international overseers and domestic instability, are not new to the Greek state. Several times over the course of its roughly two hundred year history the Greek state has faced financial crisis similar to today’s.

It can be said that the Greek state was born into debt. When the populations of the southern Balkans rose up against the Ottoman Empire in 1821 the rebels quickly had a need for money. Throughout the Greek Revolution the rebels fought well but struggled to beat the better organised and equipped Ottoman forces. As well as appealing for military and political help the Greek rebels sought financial aid from Europe. The result was a number of loans principally organised by Britain. While loan agreements were made they were deeply disadvantageous to the Greek side as relatively little of the amount raised actually reached the rebels. In addition some of the funds were already earmarked for purchasing supplies from the European powers.

Given the devastation inflected on the Greek lands by the ten year revolution it was not surprising that these loans were not to be repaid. Having won independence from the Ottoman Empire the new Greek state was given a Bavarian prince as king. This Bavarian administration attempted to build a Western style state on the Greek lands for the first time but was only partly successful. The attempt though was expensive and a debt crisis came to a head in 1843. The European powers wished for the Greek state to repay its loans but fundamentally misunderstood the situation in the country. The Bavarian King, Otto, was unpopular due to the authoritarian nature of his regime and as the European powers pressed on the debt issue the military and people of Athens took to the streets leading to the Revolution of 1843. From this the Greek state gained a constitution and defaulted on its debts.

For many years the Greek state was largely frozen out of international financial markets but was again able to use loans to fund an infrastructure modernization programme from the 1870’s. During this period investments came into the Greek state which was able to secure easy credit. This turned out to be another empty financial boom however and a debt default occurred in 1893. This default led to the Greek state being placed under an international commission which managed finances and dictated economic policy. The state struggled on for the next decades going through serious political turmoil.

Following the 1929 crash on Wall St. the Greek state was one of a number which defaulted on its debts in the subsequent depression. Once again the state would be shut out of financial markets for a number of years. The middle period of the 20th century, 1936-74, were some of the most difficult years politically for the Greek state as it went through periods of war, occupation, civil war and dictatorship. Not long after though the Greek state was able to get access to loans and credit from the European powers, and America, which allowed the state’s rulers and wealthy to paper over the social cracks and allowed the rich to get richer.

The current crisis which began when the financial crash of 2007-8 brought an end to easy credit worldwide has put the Greek state at the risk of default once more. In effect the state is bankrupt but the difference with the historical examples above is that the Greek state is now part of a European currency and so it has been kept out of the official default territory so far. What we can say though is that those who wish to solve the crisis only by reference to the Greek state in the Euro are missing a deeper point. As a small relatively poor territory the Greek lands may not be able to support a state structure along Western lines. It is extremely expensive to build a functioning state to organise and administer any given lands and it requires a wealthy area with a relative stable political character to do so.

To cover its lack of wealth the Greek state has always needed loans or payments from more powerful neighbours to function. Europe’s current leaders, by focusing on the symptoms of the present crisis rather than looking at the larger reality of the Greek state, risk blundering into an accident. A lack of historical perspective runs the risk of repeating the same mistakes over and over and missing the chance to move things along in a progressive direction.


The Peterloo Massacre-1819

If you walk across St.Peter’s Sq in Manchester there is little to remind you of the events that once took place here. There are a few busy roads, a luxury hotel, a monumental central library and in one corner a small red plaque. This small circular plaque is the only official memory to a vicious massacre of protesters by government troops on the 16th August 1819. The massacre of protesters on St.Peter’s field, since referred to as Peterloo in a mock reference to the Battle of Waterloo, was one of the most brutal episodes of British political history. Thousands had assembled peacefully but by the end of the day at least 11 were died and hundreds wounded.

The Peterloo massacre took place in a country undergoing rapid change. During the eighteenth century the Industrial Revolution brought factories, new technology, new cities and large changes to age-old social structures. In the North of England, where much of the new industry was located, political structures had not kept pace with industrial development. Over the last century the North of England had gone from being an unimportant backwater to a major population centre. Places like Manchester had grown several times over from minor market towns to some of the largest cities in the country. Despite this change in population and importance, representation in parliament had not altered. As well as a property qualification for voting, which prevented the majority of people having a vote, the new towns often had the same number of representatives as smaller rural regions.

The lack of access to the political system created a reaction from the largely excluded population. For many amongst the rising middle classes this meant demanding political reform. The middle classes hoped to be brought into the political system through voting and taking part in parliament. The new working class was also becoming politically active. There was a tradition of direct action against industrialism, for instance the Luddite campaign of a few years previous. For its part the ruling class was worried by this agitation from below. Having just overcome Revolutionary France in a series of long wars, the British ruling class was at its most reactionary and afraid of any demands for political change.

To press their demands for political reform a group of radical speakers and thinkers created the Manchester Patriotic Union. As a show of support the union planned a large demonstration to take place in Manchester in the summer of 1819. The plan was for groups to assemble in the various Lancashire towns around Manchester and then march to a meeting at St.Peter’s field in the city. The idea of groups of people assembling and marching under the control of radical speakers worried the state authorities who ordered troops into the area in preparation for the demonstration.

The day of the assembly came, 16th August, and though summer it was unusually warm and sunny for Manchester. Groups of demonstrators gathered and marched towards the city in blocks of hundreds or thousands. Some groups went out of their way to seem well ordered, clean and unarmed so as not to worry the authorities. The organisers of the demonstration wanted a peaceful march believing that the state would have no reason to, nor would dare to, attack a peaceful gathering. By the time the different groups got to the open space of St.Peter’s field on the edge of Manchester the crowd had grown to around 60,000 people. Such a large crowd was almost unknown and was likely a significant proportion of the population at the time.

The size of the crowd only further worried the authorities present who now feared they could have an insurrection or revolution on their hands. And so as the leading radical speaker, Henry Hunt, moved up to address the crowd a warrant was issued for his arrest. To execute the warrant soldiers had to force their way into the densely packed crowd which of course provoked a response from some. As minor clashes between the troops and demonstrators began a force of cavalry stationed nearby was ordered to clear the huge crowd. And so the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry, partly made up of factory and mill owners and their families, drew their swords and pushed their way into the crowd.

Panic spread quickly. But the 60,000 plus crowd had few places to go as troops blocked most of the exits from the area. Soon the cavalry, many reportedly drunk, were hacking and slashing at the panicking crowd. A large number of women had taken part in the demonstration and they too fell beneath the hooves and swords of the troops. After ten minutes of carnage the crowd had been cleared with only the died and wounded scattered across the blood soaked St.Peter’s field. The crowd that had been pushed off the field, having witnessed the massacre, was now enraged. Riots broke out in the streets around and quickly spread to other towns close by. Clashes raged throughout the night and in some cases into the next day.

At least 11, and possibly as many as 15, lay died. Perhaps as many as 600 hundred had been injured. The immediate consequence of the massacre was a crackdown by the British state on reformers and radicals. Henry Hunt and a number of others were arrested, convicted and jailed. Over the next few years most prominent radicals were arrested. The press too was attacked by the government. In response a number of riots and conspiracies took place as the crackdown continued and the state showed no sign of reform. Those pushing for radical reform in Britain had wished to achieve their aims peacefully and to fend off the more violent and far-reaching possibility of insurrection or revolution from below. In the end, whether peaceful or not, the state attacked them all the same and political change was still some way in the future and would be limited when it finally came.

The Peterloo massacre and the subsequent crackdown shocked many. Though many of the upper class sided with the government a number of leading society figures sympathised with the people. One minor legacy of this event was the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper, still in print today as the Guardian. Another well known, artistic, legacy of the government massacre came from the poet Shelley who penned the poem Masque of Anarchy in response to Peterloo. This demonstration of the British state’s willingness to attack its own people for speaking freely and asking for political change lived long in the memory. This no doubt is part of the reason why if you walk in St.Peter’s field today all you will see is a little red plaque.

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few’

Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy(1)



The Luddites- Rebels from a Different Life

These days we use the term Luddite as an insult. A Luddite is a backward looking person afraid of change, we hurl the word at those we believe are against progress, technology, the future, computers. The use, or abuse, of this term comes from the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Northern England when the world was changing at an often frightening pace. Ever since their campaign of protest and machine breaking, the Luddites have been derided by their opponents as mindless vandals against the modern world. The historical Luddites were a popular movement that came out of the huge social changes that were underway in the early nineteenth century and are a reminder that not all change is beneficial.

Between 1811-13 the Luddites ignited a popular protest movement which drew attention to the way the factories and working towns of the Industrial Revolution were fundamentally altering age old social structures and ways of life across England. Most famous for their tactic of smashing factory machinery with sledgehammers, the Luddites took direct action against the worsening living conditions of their time. The campaign spread widely across the North of England and involved sabotage, assassination, riots and protests for a number of years until a harsh wave of repression crushed the movement.

The world of the Luddites’ was a rapidly changing one. Since the mid-eighteenth century new machines, the building of canals and the creation of factories was turning the North of England into a major industrial centre. Large factories employing hundreds of people were slowly replacing the traditional way of production as small scale production by skilled artisans lost out to machinery which could produce quicker and at lower cost. Aside from the economic concerns about being under cut and falling wages, there were also social concerns surrounding the new factory model. The old independence of small scale production and work were being replaced by the enforced schedules, subordination and dangerous working conditions of factory life.

The opposite side to the industrial coin was a rise in political radicalism. With the factory system starting to create a working class, the people of this new social group began to resist the deterioration in their lives that the new working conditions were creating. Riots in the growing urban centres were frequent and the events of the French Revolution put the ruling class on edge after 1789. Whilst fighting revolutionary France in Europe the British government kept a close eye on its own population fearful that the ideas of liberty and equality would spread. The Luddite movement was born out of this world of industrialism and radicalism.

The Luddite movement began as a protest against a new series of machines which were further industrialising production and undermining small scale artisans. Their aim was to force factory owners to stop using the new machines and so protect their own means of living. In late 1811 a wave of machine breaking began across the North. Since Luddite actions were illegal the groups formed in great secrecy, a practice which protected the participants both from the authorities and later historians. It is uncertain where the name comes from but some sources say that the Luddite name comes from a man named Ned Ludd who smashed a machine in a dispute with his boss. The Luddites would send a letter to a factory or mill owner demanding that they stop using the new machines and sign it under the name General Ludd, or King Ludd. If the letter was ignored the people acting under the Luddite name would move to direct action.

There doesn’t appear to have been a central organisation behind the Luddites. Instead they were a spontaneous and defuse series of groups acting toward the same goal. This allowed Luddite ideas and practices to spread widely and also hindered the authorities attempts to stop them as there was not one leader to arrest. From 1811 onwards the Luddite campaign went into full swing as groups of masked men smashed factory machinery in night time raids. Factories and mills were the target of arson attacks and at least one assassination took place. Not all actions were clandestine as large daytime protests also took place.

In some areas the Luddite cause linked up with other similar grievances. Such was the case close to Manchester in 1812. A large group of protesters gathered in the centre of Oldham town and first of all forced a lowering of food prices. The area, and the country as a whole, had seen frequent food riots and so this was a long standing issue. The protesters than marched to the town of Middleton, now a part of Manchester, and aimed at the Burton factory. With the protesters trying to get into the factory the owner brought up the local militia who fired into the crowd, killing five people. The next day the factory owner’s house was burnt down.

The Middleton riots of 1812 were not the only fatal incident in the Luddite movement and so worried did the government become that a series of repressive actions were carried out. A large number of troops were moved into the area to try and quell the Luddites. At one point the government had more troops active in the North of England than it did fighting the French in the on going wars. The act of machine breaking was also made a capital offence, though famously the poet Lord Byron spoke against the measure. These measures meet with little success at first due to the diffuse nature of the Luddite movement and the popular support for their cause. However, when a number of people were put on trial leading to executions and sentences of exile the movement began to wane with few acts recorded after 1813.

And so the Luddite movement, a brief but lively series of events, gradually came to an end. For a brief time there seems to have been a decline in the use of the new labour saving machines, though quickly industrialisation gathered pace once more. What the Luddites feared, the destruction of small scale production with its more skilled and independent way of life, came to pass as the towns of Northern England grew into huge cities dedicated to building and manning the factories. As so often with such popular movements when looked at from a material point of view they were a failure. When viewed within the context of their time we can see that the Luddites were one part of a growing radicalism which went hand in hand with industrialisation. After the Luddites’ defeat industry marched on to create the modern world we live in but so too did the radical tradition the Luddites stood at the start of.


Europe and Islam: A view from History

Current tragic events in France risk further inflaming inter-communal tensions in Europe. Some will wish to see the recent brutal attack in the centre of Paris as another incident in a clash between the European and Islamic civilisations. At such tense moments it is important to remember that these two civilisations are not two monolithic opposed entities. For many centuries Islam has played a part, albeit a minority part, in European civilisation. The peoples of Europe too have affected the course of Islamic civilisation.

Since Islam emerged in Arabia and spread quickly across the Middle East and North Africa we should not be surprised that since the 7th century AD there has been much interaction between the European and Muslim worlds. These heartlands of the Muslim tradition are of course just across the Mediterranean Sea. This famous sea has never been a barrier between peoples, instead those living on or close to its shores have been linked to various extents. Muslim populations found their way into Europe just as predominantly Muslim lands were often also peopled by Christians.

If we think in terms of religion there is also a shared heritage. The dominant religious tradition of Europe, Christianity, grew out of Judaism in the Middle East. Islam too evolved from the same source and contains a number of the same stories and moral views. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all on the same theological family tree, though they have of course gone in their separate ways. All three major religions have over the course of history had their own splits, heresies and divisions so much so that none of the three religions is a unified theological block.

If we look to some historical examples we can see that Muslim populations have been part of vibrant civilisations on the territory of today’s Europe. The most famous example is Al-Andalus, a mix of kingdoms founded in Spain and Portugal from the 8th century onwards. For several hundred years Iberia was ruled by Muslims. The area contained a large number of Christians and Jews and while there were persistent differences and problems between the groups, Al-Andalus was more tolerant than elsewhere. The result of this was a lively civilisation which created beautiful buildings and led the way in terms of learning, science and philosophy. As this kingdom went into decline in the 12th century another Kingdom in Sicily took the spotlight. Roger II’s Sicily was a rare bright spot in the dark European Middle Ages. This kingdom was populated by Normans, Greeks and Arabs. Further North, Russia has had much interaction with Muslim peoples. The Mongols who dominated territory later to become Russia converted to Islam and Muslim populations can still be found in Russia today.

Muslim communities in Europe are not just an historic phenomenon. From the 14th century onwards, Muslim populations have been present, particularly in the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire, headed by the Muslim Turks, spread across the Balkan peninsula for several centuries. The Ottomans themselves were something of a fusion between Christian and Islamic civilisations. For example the beautiful Ottoman architecture which brightens up much of South-East Europe is a development on earlier, Christian, Byzantine modes.

Whilst the Ottoman Empire collapsed and was broken up in the early twentieth century, Muslim populations have remained in Europe. Bosnia and Albania were examples of largely Muslim countries. Both Greece and Bulgaria continue to have Muslim minority populations. Depending on where you wish to draw the borders of Europe you could include Turkey and Azerbaijan, both Muslim majority countries. Historically then Europe has contained a number of Muslim peoples who have contributed to the history of Europe.

Relations between the various Christian European and Muslim peoples have not always been good. Several centuries ago when Muslim lands were wealthy, culturally lively, confident and secure, European lands were often backwards and poor. This imbalance between the civilisations and the Christian perception that they were under attack created the Crusades, a brutal and bloody holy war launched by the Christian world. Some readings of the current world see this situation now reversed. Muslim civilisations have suffered a decline in power to the extent that European and Western Imperial powers have been tearing apart and conquering large parts of the Muslim world from the twentieth century onwards. It is to the Muslim world’s credit that in this reversed situation only a few isolated groups have take up its own holy war.

The real danger in the current Paris events is not what the actions of a few isolated armed people will do. Such people can inflect terrible hurt and do much damage but they are not in any way an existential danger to a society. The danger is the reactions they provoke. In a Europe already becoming more xenophobic, as is shown by the on going rise of various Far-Right movements across the continent, these events will only further poison the atmosphere. Political rhetoric which sets the current events within a narrative of Us vs Them or talks about the need to defend Civilisation will only polarize the situation. Neither the European nor the Muslim civilisations are monolithic unified blocks. Both have, and do, interact and co-exist in various ways.

Religious fundamentalism can not survive on its own. Being a strict, unnatural and negative view of the world its appeal generally doesn’t extend beyond force and fear. Only by creating and exploiting a world divided into Us and Them can they ever gain ground. Those seeking to create such divisions, whether through weapons or laws, can succeed only if people fail to understand the world they live in.