The Wild, Wild West

By Philip Jenkins

Idealists think that globalization should mean a new and wider human consciousness, which would override petty local feuds and national rivalries. Yet the early experience of what Thomas Friedman famously called a flat world scarcely supports this vision. Rather, events like 9/11 seem to show how globalization takes ancient conflicts -- even clashes between competing civilizations -- and projects them onto a global stage.

Actually, conflicts of that sort are by no means a new phenomenon, and nor is globalization itself. At least from the sixteenth century, the whole of humanity was bound together in common patterns of travel, trade and empire. And even at this early stage, what we see is not so much a leap towards human brotherhood as a vast expansion of some of the world's oldest and most savage confrontations.

This was brought home to me by what initially looked like a piece of historical trivia in the American Southwest. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, New Mexico was home to large numbers of Genízaros, people of mixed Native American heritage who followed aspects of the Hispanic lifestyle. Genízaros, or their parents, had been captured or traded, and they occupied a curious status of semi-slavery. They could rise socially through military careers, joining special militia units to fight Indian tribes. Sometimes they led Spanish colonization of new areas. But who were these people?

Genízaro is an odd word, which is actually borrowed from half way across the planet. It is in fact a straightforward version of the Turkish janissary (yeni-cheri, "new soldiers"), one of the most feared terms in early modern Christian Europe. From the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire levied a tribute of its conquered Christian peoples, who were forced to supply young sons to state service. Those sons were required to convert to Islam, and they received a strict military training. As adults, these janissaries represented the most fanatical and skilled imperial soldiers, who could rise to wealth and fame, although they remained slaves.

The Janissaries led the Ottoman advances against Europe's Christian powers. Between 1500 and 1700, Islam's janissaries represented a constant nightmare for the Habsburg states, of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. They came close to taking Vienna and conquering Central Europe.

But how on earth did "janissaries" get from the Ottoman world to New Mexico? Around 1700, the Spanish found themselves on yet another remote frontier, fighting such ferocious enemies as the Apache and Comanche. Even so, it took no great effort for them to comprehend the situation in familiar terms. Whatever they called themselves, however different their technologies, those enemies were essentially identical to the traditional foe that Christians knew from the Mediterranean world, namely the Turks. Did Turks and Apaches not follow the same religion, which was pagan devil-worship?

To fight the Indian foe, then, the Spaniards resorted to tried and true methods from the European battlefield, which meant using janissary slave-soldiers -- American janissaries, or Genízaros.

At first glance, the idea that Native Americans were somehow parallel to Muslim Turks seems eccentric to the point of demented. Yet without appreciating that parallel -- at least in the minds of the imperial conquerors -- we can scarcely understand the mindset of the Spanish and Portuguese who conquered and settled the New World.

For centuries before 1492, the Christians of the Iberian peninsula had a special devotion to St. James the Apostle, Santiago, who was (and is) depicted as a mounted warrior riding down Muslim foes. Santiago! was the battle-cry of the Christian knights who by 1492 completed the conquest of the whole region. Barely thirty years afterwards, the descendants of those conquerors found themselves fighting new pagan enemies in Mexico, where once again the Conquistadors charged into battle shouting Santiago!

The enemy remained the same -- devil-worshipers, whether called Turks or Aztecs -- and they demanded the same ruthless suppression, or expulsion. It was one world, and one endless war of religions and civilizations.

Whether locked in villages and small baronies, or freely wandering the globe, human beings have a remarkable capacity for using labels to justify slaughtering their enemies. It would be pleasant, but unlikely, to think that this tendency might change any time in the foreseeable future.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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