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Published The Oldie, November 2019

This is an important book written with an engaging zeal to try to improve our world. It encompasses a deep cultural hinterland, a vast geographical landscape and a narrative of seventeen hundred years. It is a thick volume, and in the hands of a less disciplined writer it could very easily have degenerated into an historical quagmire, a forbidding catalogue of centuries of persecution and massacre. Fortunately O’Grady never picks up a story without establishing an overriding sense of purpose. This is history with a clear mission for our own times, which I have summarised into three conclusions that are consistently threaded into the narrative.

Tolerance is seldom good enough, for time and time again O’Grady shows us how it is but a temporary gift from a powerful majority, who will sooner or later extract some awful price for their temporary condescension. So when we hear how the Hugenouts of France, or the Jews and Moors of Andalucia are to be protected and tolerated by a generous peace settlement, we need to set the alarm clock for the inevitable persecution that is to come. It is just a question of time before these minorities will be massacred or expelled. Intellectual equality is the only goal worth aspiring for in a genuinely multicultural society.

The second consistent drum beat (within O’Grady’s intellectual voyage) is that Intolerance is an extremely useful political tool that has been used for thousands of years. By othering a neighbour, or identifying a despised group within our community, a skilful leader can unite a people and create brand new states and enduring cultures. Arguably our own precious Western civilization was established on the back of the political manoeuvres of Emperor Constantine as enforced by Emperor Theodosius. Donatists, Arians, Pagans and Manicheans got it in the neck but in the process classical culture was conserved, and the Roman Empire absorbed the ethics of Christianity. In a similar way, a genuinely spiritual preacher, Pope Urban, sought to establish peace throughout medieval Christendom by preaching the First Crusade which distracted all the murderous, war-mongering barons off on a foreign adventure. It seems likely that he borrowed the concept of a holy war from the jihad of his Muslim opponents.

The third truth is even more painful to digest. Monotheistic religions appeal to humankind not just because they promise an ultimate reward to all the poor and oppressed but because they also work to create a more compassionate society on earth. Though good in this way, they are also by nature intolerant. A single God comes with a sole truth and a timeless and unique divine revelation. For most of our recorded history, intolerance was often preached by the godly who actively cared for humanity, be they St Augustine or Ibn Hanbal or Ibn Taymiyya. By contrast, tolerance was practiced by selfish rulers interested in getting their tax revenue collected (by self-governing communities), in collecting customs from enterprising merchants (often foreign) and attracting useful intellectuals to their court (by tolerating their beliefs). A state is tolerant because it is the cheapest way to govern. Armies large enough to garrison the land and enforce conformity are ruinously expensive and often end up biting the hand that feeds them.

O’Grady identifies the Thirty Years War as one of the most destructive instances of mutual intolerance. It is certainly one of the best documented. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia at first seemed to usher in a new era of tolerance and peace, but it proved to be no more than a temporary period of exhaustion before an even more savage God was created - the nation state. La Patrie, the adored motherland, can no more tolerate diversity than a jealous God. It will also be served by a most zealous, bloodthirsty and ardent priesthood. The destruction of the Armenian and Assyrian minorities within the embattled Ottoman Empire, is shown to be as inevitable a historical process as the horrors that would later be inflicted on the Jews by Nazi Germany, itself appearing as no more than the most savage articulation of a thousand-year tradition of anti-Semitism.

It is a dark vision of humankind. Even the handful of heroes that do succeed in establishing tolerant societies, be they the Founding Fathers of the United States or such a prophet of the Enlightenment as Voltaire are revealed to be deeply flawed. As the author concludes with her very last sentence, we need to pick a careful way through this treacherous terrain.


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