Islam's Expansion Across Europe: Not Martin Luther's Fault

Raymond Ibrahim's bizarre version of the blame game.

In one of the stranger manifestations of misguided Catholic piety or repugnance for the Protestant Reformation, being exhibited on the occasion of its 500th anniversary, Raymond Ibrahim reveals a bizarre version of the blame game. In “The Pro-Islamic West: Born 500 Years Ago”, he places the blame for Muslim Turkish expansion across Eastern and Central Europe in the sixteenth century at the doorstep of Martin Luther. If this wayward monk had not nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral on October 31, 1517, and had not launched a rebellion against the Roman Church, the Muslim danger supposedly could have been contained. Not only did Luther and his followers weaken the unity of the Christian West, but also gave support to the Muslim penetration of Europe. While the Turkish army moved from Hungary westward toward Vienna, Luther was urging “passivity” before the hostile invaders and, according to Ibrahim, implicitly and explicitly aiding the Turks by weakening the resolve of Christian Europe. Indeed, had this Protestant pestilence not erupted, European Catholics could have mounted a new crusade and thrown back the Turks before they laid siege to Vienna in 1529.

There are so many holes in this anti-Protestant brief that one hardly knows where to begin one’s criticism. Although Luther called for “prayer and repentance” before the onslaught of the “Devil’s army,” which is the way he referred to the Turkish forces advancing across Europe, he nonetheless urged Protestant princes to rush to the relief of Vienna, when it was under siege. He did not urge “passivity” in the face of this civilizational crisis. Indeed, Luther was willing to join forces with Catholic princes, even though they were killing and expelling his followers, in order to combat the “Devil’s army.”

Moreover, between 1525 and 1530, even while the Turks were moving on Vienna, the Habsburg emperor and Europe’s premier defender of the Catholic faith, Charles V, was fighting against his fellow-Catholics, including Pope Clement VII, the French, the English, and the Republics of Venice and Florence. In 1526, there took shape the anti-Habsburg League of Cognac, which extended across Europe and which aimed at containing Habsburg rule. In 1536, the French king Francis I concluded an alliance against the Habsburg Empire with the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. This was the beginning of a French connection to the Ottoman Empire that lasted down to the nineteenth century. Please note that these European dynastic wars, led on one side by the French Valois and on the other by the Austrian-Spanish Habsburgs, had nothing to do with Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. Catholic rulers were fighting each other while Turkish armies were marching toward the center of Europe.  

Although the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries diverted attention from the Turkish advances into Central Europe, clearly the Protestants were no more responsible for this turmoil than the Catholic side. In the early sixteenth century, the Habsburgs did everything in their power to destroy the Protestant heresy and to dispossess rulers who embraced it. It is hard to see how during Luther’s lifetime the besieged German Protestant princes were more guilty of fomenting war than their far stronger Catholic enemies, who were determined to reconvert their subjects. If the Catholic Habsburgs and their German allies had left the Protestants alone, these wars would not have occurred. Although Protestant princes did expropriate church property, this was hardly an unknown practice among Catholic rulers before, during and after the Reformation. In any case, Ibrahim’s supposed demonstration that the success of Turkish armies in Central Europe was due to Luther’s rebellion against Rome is less than convincing.  

One might finally note that much of the military success of the well-trained Turkish forces came before the Reformation. It began with the fall of Constantinople to the armies of Mohammed II in 1453 and continued with Muslim forays into Southern Italy and the Turkish occupation of Eastern and Central Europe. These advances antedated the Reformation. After Spanish and Venetian naval forces, moreover, defeated a large Turkish fleet at San Lepanto in the Ionian Sea in 1571, driving the Turks out of most of the Mediterranean, it was not Protestants but the French Catholic king who assisted the Turks in regaining a foothold there. This came even while the French were persecuting Protestant Huguenots at home. Reducing the power of the Habsburgs, who ruled Spain and were Holy Roman Emperors in Germany, was clearly more important to his most Christian Majesty in Paris than launching a crusade against the Muslims.

By the way, the last and ninth crusade had been undertaken by Edward I of England in 1271 and ended in dismal failure, without the Christians being able to take back any land in the Middle East. Edward’s rival rulers, although uniformly Catholic, had not run to join.