Tag Archives: North Africa

Þorsteinn Helgason, The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage: The Turkish Raid in Iceland 1627. (Leiden: Brill, 2018)

Þorsteinn Helgason elaborates some of the materials from his 2013 Ph.D. dissertation in this book published in 2018 by the prestigious publisher Brill, in its ‘History of Warfare’ series. The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage focuses on all aspects of the kidnapping of about 400 people from Icelandic coastal settlements in 1627, one of the most traumatic historical events in Icelandic history. The events of which the so-called Turkish Raid is comprised took place in two separate raids perpetrated by corsairs based in Northern Africa on the southern and eastern coasts of Iceland and the Westman Islands during the summer of 1627. The unusual methodology and the breadth of academic interests the author marshals together is impressive and poignantly discussed. This unusually eclectic book, in fact, grew out of the historical research for a television documentary on the Turkish Raid (Tyrkjaránið in Icelandic, henceforth ‘TR’) by Dr. Þorsteinn Helgason himself, which in turn was sparked by his interest in Third World issues and the ties between Africa and Iceland. If all of these threads sometimes lead the reader in very different directions, the advantage is that the book has the gripping quality of fiction, at times. The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage, in fact, embraces a holistic view of history, seen as a result of all human endeavors and broadly defined political and sociocultural forces, where even the production of art, memory, folktales and their interpretation are brought to bear on past events just as much as chronicles and more traditional historical sources.

The book consists of 9 chapters, as well as an introduction and an epilogue. In the introduction and first chapter, the author assesses existing sources for the TR, and acknowledges the difficulty of analyzing an inherently complex event such as the TR. The events can be seen as the farthest reach of the Islamic expansion into Europe, carried out not through normal warfare, but through a corsairs’ attack. This in turn complicates issues of legality, since corsairs were ‘licensed’ pirates by their countries of origin, in this case the loose weft of city states on the Barbary Coast of Africa, which at times acted on behalf of the Ottoman empire or North African sovereigns, and more often than not, on their own behalf. On the cultural side, it was a clash of worlds: the Protestant and very homogenous Icelandic population coming into violent contact with the diverse population of Muslim Northern Africa. Coastal Europeans at the time were aware that North African ‘pirates’ could abduct them and force them into slavery, but Christians were also known to capture Muslim sailors. There is a curious admiration for Murat Reis, the leader of one of these attacks against Iceland, aka privateer Jan Janzsoon, and his ability to survive and reinvent himself as Muslim after conversion to the point of being in charge of the whole fleet of the city-state of Salé. The unorthodox flourish of imagining Murat Reis in front of the International Court of Justice at the Hague highlights the often subconscious tendency to interpret the past in light of the present, and how misconceived this can be.

Chapters 2-4 focus on Iceland, specifically 2 and 3 on the raid in the East Fjords, and 4 on the Westman Islands and south-western coast, with many detailed maps and an assessment of the trustworthiness of extant sources. It also moves the focus from ‘the “grand narrative” of national history’ (p. 60), highlighting the anonymous and collective (sailors, pirates, corsairs, Icelanders, victims), to the stories of the individuals that were participants in the events or chroniclers thereof. Þorsteinn delves into local folklore and raises the possibility that the exaggerated instances of heroism found in some folktales were meant to counteract the chroniclers such as Björn of Skarðsá that portrayed the Icelanders merely as victims (p. 86-7).

Chapter 5 on ‘Piracy and Defences’ raises another ‘anachronistic’ comparison: that between a defenseless Iceland at the time of the TR and the importance of its lack of a standing army and consequential neutrality in the modern era. The rift between pro/against positions among Icelanders has lasted ‘over the past 500 years’ Þorsteinn recognizes (p. 144). Both terms of the comparison have become an important part of Icelandic identity. Iceland’s defenselessness in 1627 has often been attributed to the Danes, at best absentee landlords, and in any case distracted while engaged in the last stages of the Thirty Years’ War. On the other hand, Iceland’s neutrality played an important role in some momentous historical events of the 20th century, although the ‘rift’ has opened again since the NATO base at Keflavík closed in 2006.

Chapter 6 and 7 take the readers away from modern indignation at the corsairs’ deeds and brings them back to the 17th century in justifying the killing, pillaging and enslavement of Icelanders as warfare and/or commercial enterprise, and the position of the Christian kingdoms (whether Protestant or Catholic) as hypocrisy at best, considering that the almost 200 years of transatlantic slavery were about to begin. Chapter 7 focuses on the efforts to ransom some of the captive Icelanders, whose situation was more akin to that of prisoners of war, and ransoms were an important part of the economy of the Barbary states. Only about 30 people returned to Iceland from Northern Africa in a period of ca. 10 years. From the historical and legal details of ransom, the author delves into the personal stories of some captives, those who came back (Tyrkja-Gudda, for instance, Hallgrímur Pétursson’s wife), as well as those that stayed (Anna Jasparsdóttir, who converted to Islam), as well as the personal history of Murat Reis himself.

Chapter 8 on ‘Cultural Memory’ looks at what the different accounts of the TR, the number of surviving manuscripts, and when they were copied most often, as well as how the subject is dealt with in modern history textbooks. The material history of the sources and the slant they show can tell us about how the Icelanders of different periods interpreted the events and how they fit them into their national identity.

Finally, chapter 9 focuses on several works of art in Iceland and abroad, their symbolism and their interpretation, including an altarpiece from the church at Kross farm that was never previously connected to the TR. Works of art, Þorsteinn argues, conjoin events and emotions and do not claim to be objective as the written chronicles. Art and landscapes give the community that views them the emotional significance necessary to turn the past into an element of collective memory and identity.

Dr. Þorsteinn Helgason acknowledges his debt to the theoretical approaches of Macro- and Microhistory, as well as of Memory Studies, which provide a structural connection between the interpretation of traditional historical sources, and the human experience of events. The author concludes that the TR should be considered as an example of warfare justifiable in terms of its historical background. However, the book’s most important contribution is perhaps its weaving of carefully detailed historical sources, artwork, folklore, and the personal stories of those involved in the Tyrkjaránið: its collective memory and trauma, embedded in place names, folktales, and history books, have shaped an important component of Icelandic national identity to this day.

Cyrus Rohani & Behrooz Sabet (eds.), Winds of Change: The Challenge of Modernity in the Middle East and North Africa. (London: Saqi Books, 2019)

From a Western point of view, one of the key challenges facing us is, how the Islamic MENA region can find peace, modernize and contribute positively to human life on Earth. The Arab spring brought hope for positive changes:

“The Arab spring has awakened the world to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims worldwide to democracy – inspired by western values yet infused by Islamic ideals,” writes Dr. Christopher Buck, an independent scholar and attorney from the USA, in one of his essays in Winds of Change (p. 87). Unfortunately, such legitimate aspirations have not yet been met, and the MENA region is as war-torn as ever.

Wind of Change contains 15 essays written by 11 intellectuals with the perspective that Islam’s spiritual ethic and sense of justice has something valuable to offer to the world, as it did during the “Islamic worlds flourishing sociocultural era” (750-1250) (p.8). This period is referred to as the Golden Age.

The editors, management consultant, MBA, Cyrus Rohani and Dr. Behrooz Sabet believe that changes are under way in the Middle East. Rohani writes that dictatorships relegate people “to the level of animals” which “defies the purpose of their creation” (p. 45). At the same time “our planet is suffering owing to our betrayal of the trust bestowed on us as a gift from our Creator” (p. 48). He envisions the “establishment of a planetary civilization based on organic unity of mankind” (p. 49).

Six narratives deal with timely issues such as environmental challenges, press freedom, gender inequality, interfaith dialogue, education and the Arab spring, while the others apply more historical / philosophical perspectives. The latter strive for a common ground on which the Middle East and the West can meet and work together in solving global problems. Generally, the essays are written with a deep appreciation for Islam, a critical view on traditional Middle Eastern leaders, and a taken-for-granted view on the West. The book suggests that there is a need for spirituality, materialism and science to be integrated to create a global society with human dignity, happiness and appreciation of differences.

An interesting example of the search for common ground is Dr. Ian Kluge’s discussion of reason in Islamic and Western philosophy. Kluge, who on websites are presented as Canadian Baha’i scholar, writes:

The re-appropriation of rationalism is the major goal of numerous Muslim thinkers wishing to revive the fortunes of the Islamic world in face of modern challenges. However, they want to find the basis for such changes in Islam itself without having to depend on ideas imported from, among other things, the European Enlightenment.” (p. 155)

Islam has the concept of ijtihad that, according to one Islamic tradition, implies “free debate on matters to everyone” (p. 145). Kluge quotes the Qur’an for saying: “Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason” (p. 146), and he compares the spirit of this text to Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question about enlightenment (p. 150).

Throughout history, Muslims have disagreed on who should be allowed to practice independent spiritual reasoning and search for truth. Some believe that “ijtihad may only be practiced by mujtahids,” while others do not agree with this limitation (p. 151). In Islam there is for example a long tradition for reasoning stemming from the Muʿtazali theology of the eight century, modernized by Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). Originally the philosophers drew on different sources of inspiration, including Greek philosophy such as Aristotle’s logic of deductive reasoning. However, in the 12th century, the limitations of philosophy were exposed in the book The incoherence of Philosophers (p. 161), and the value of ordinary people’s reasoning was questioned by people in power.

Kluge argues that acceptance of individual reasoning and discussions can revitalize Muslim societies. As for international cooperation, he suggests that the “considerable common ground between Kantian understanding of ‘enlightenment’ and what we find primarily in the Qur’an, and secondly, what is offered by Mu’tazalism” (p. 163) can create a shared understanding that will benefit both the MENA region and the West. However, when Muslims use reasoning, they do not necessarily consider Western scientific methods superior, because they do not share the materialistic worldview. When scientists study the material world, their results say obviously little about important spiritual issues.

Buck is the author of three analyses related to norms, ethics and law. One is about good governance, one about the possible development of a shared moral compass for Sunnis and Shi’is, and the third about testing the value of Sharia laws. In each case, the methodology is the same. Buck interprets key Islamic texts and discusses Islamic practices. For example, he interprets basic principles for good governance from a letter written by the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Caliph Ali, who is respected by both Sunnis and Shi’is. This respect is important because his idea is to create a set of shared Islamic guidelines for good governance. He interprets the spirit of each paragraph in the letter and relate it to present-day situations.

In the two other essays the key text is the Qur’an. In one of these essays, he asks: “does Islamic law mirror Islamic ethics”? (p. 169). A Pew Research Center survey cited in his article found that most Muslims in many countries approve of executing apostates. Buck writes: “There is a clear contradiction between the sharia law of apostacy and Islamic claims to ‘freedom of religion” and to a “well-known Qur’anic verse: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion” (p. 176). Buck then discusses this difference and Islamic scholars’ writings about it.

Many of the essays in this volume can best be considered sincere and informed opinion pieces. Not all of them follow a strict academic form. But they bring fresh ideas and perspectives to important debates.