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Seventy years since its publication, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne's Mahomet et Charlemagne still boggles the mind. The thought that the Middle Ages dawned not with the decline of Rome in the fifth century, but with the rise of Islam some 200 years later, bewildered scholars in the late 1930s and would excite some decision-makers in today's EU had they heard about it.
Being the holy-war faith it is, Pirenne argued, Islam is intrinsically opposed to foreign trade. As such, Christianity's archenemy glorified war, belittled trade and - in its quest to cripple Europe - split the Mediterranean down the middle, between crescent and cross, and thus emptied it of its bustling maritime traffic. It was this deliberate design, concluded the great medievalist, that gradually condemned Europe to centuries of economic and mental isolation.
Pirenne's theory was revolutionary by any yardstick. The only problem with it was that it later proved largely unfounded.
As it turned out, the otherwise gifted historian, whose expertise was in Western Europe's post-feudal economics, knew no Arabic and had but a superficial acquaintance with Islam. Thus, for instance, while stereotyping it as a faith of economically primitive nomads, Pirenne ignored Muhammad's professional identity as a tradesman; overlooked the fiercely mercantile character of the Hijaz, where he prophesied; and was oblivious of the rise of an urban, merchant class in the Middle East shortly after the dawn of Islam.
Moreover, Islam allowed infidel traders to pursue trans-Mediterranean trade, provided they paid a very reasonable 10 percent tariff. In fact, the ones who obstructed commerce were Byzantium's Christian emperors, who forbade Muslim maritime traffic along the eastern Mediterranean.
Why is any of this relevant now? Because in today's Europe there still are those, from the Ã‰lysÃ©e to the Vatican, who fear Turkey's admission into the European Union, and there are also their inversions, from Moscow to Rome, who insist on denying the real Islamist problem.
ITALIAN PRIME Minister Romano Prodi's statements this week that "we have to help Hamas develop" because "there will never be peace with the Palestinians divided" is part of a historic European insistence on parting with sobriety once it comes to Muslims.
Prodi's, and any other Westerner's quest to heal the Palestinians stands no better a chance to succeed than George Bush's desire to reinvent Iraq, Napoleon's to reshape Russia or Ariel Sharon's to redraw Lebanon. Never mind that politically, a divided Palestine is not his to stitch back together. Never mind even that diplomatically, Hamas's stated attitudes toward the West and Israel are total non-starters. As a human being, how does Prodi envisage a dialogue with people who have just thrown some of their own brethren off rooftops and shot others dead in their hospital beds? What does one discuss with them: the knavery of their theocracy or their mockery of democracy? What interface can there be here, other than the kind that some Italian leaders conducted in the past with the Sicilian Mafia?
Prodi's moral bankruptcy is but the flip side of Europe's foot-dragging on Turkey.
EUROPE'S ACCELERATED admission in recent years of post-communist Christian countries was plausible. However, in allowing economic weaklings like Bulgaria and democratic toddlers like Slovakia to bypass Turkey, Europe's statesmen have revealed an alarming inability to part with medieval stereotypes and Cold War reflexes.
That is how they have been keeping Turkey on the back burner, that is also why a growing number of Turks have been abandoning Kemal Ataturk's secularist legacy, and that is why last month the religious AK party won a general election by a landslide.
The West never forgave itself Central Europe's abandonment to communist rule. Hence the determination to enlarge NATO even at the expense of provoking Russia, and the urge to push the EU eastward while neglecting Europe's Muslim underbelly. Yet to be practical rather than romantic, Brussels should have spent less energy treating yesteryear's East-West gaps and more on building tomorrow's North-South bridges.
True, Islamism challenges the tolerance, freedom and stability that are the linchpins of the West. But it is this very global war on religious tolerance which demands a strong and respected Turkey, not a marginalized and humiliated one.
Surely, one cannot scoff at Europe's concern with Ankara's record on issues like human rights, Kurdish independence or Cypriot integrity. One can even respect, albeit with greater difficulty, latent European memories of Ottoman visitations to Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna, not to mention Constantinople. Yet in today's world anything to do with Muslim-Western relations must be measured in terms of its threat or promise to current international harmony. In Turkey's case, what matters is that it is a democratic beacon in an otherwise despotic Middle East and the West's only strategic asset in its clash with Islamism.
Under the EU's current mechanism, Turkey's admission will still last at least a generation. To be serious about this, Brussels must offer a clear and imminent deadline, up to a decade, and at the same time make ambitious demands, including a full retreat from Cyprus and recognition of a Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq. This may all prove difficult for the Turks to swallow, but it will also mean to them that Europe means business. Yet Europe won't budge, for when it comes to Islam, European leaders prefer to snub the good guys and ingratiate the bad guys.
Some day, after all this results in yet more strife, agony and bloodshed, perhaps even catastrophe, Europe will also find the historian who will say it was all someone else's fault.