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Saladin. A man for our times?

This text is the introduction to The Saladin Anthology. Highlights from the International Saladin Days at the House of Literature, Oslo, 2009-2015

A Man for Our Times?

Introduction to the Saladin anthology, published in the autumn of 2015.

By Andreas Liebe Delsett, program coordinator for the Saladin Days

In the spring of 2015, not long before the violence, elections and escalation of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK, I visited Diyarbakir, the Kurdish capital in Turkey. Seated around a table were a group of scholars – humanists and political scientists from local Universities. I explained that I had come to Diyarbakir to learn about Kurdish history, language and literature, as part of some research for an annual program called the Saladin days, at the House of Literature in Oslo. Suddenly, I was interrupted in the middle of a sentence, by a simple question: Why Saladin? “You know that he is not very highly regarded amongst the Kurds? He was religious and he chose to fight for Islam, rather than the liberation of the Kurds”, explained the youngest of the group.

This was not the first time I had heard criticism against Saladin, or objections to the name chosen for our program in Oslo. Hence, my answer was yes, I know full well that Saladin was first and foremost a Muslim leader. And yes, he was certainly not a Kurdish activist. And with this, we were placed immediately at the core motivation for founding the Saladin days in 2009. 

If you walk around in Oslo for a day, asking a random selection of people who Saladin was, the majority would answer “Sala who?” Most Norwegians do not have a clue who Saladin was. That is, only if you exclude the increasing numbers of Norwegians with a background from the Middle East, for whom the large part, have newly arrived in Oslo.  But amongst the majority population, the knowledge gap is striking. How can it be that one of the most influential characters of history, the man that ended the Fatimide caliphate in Cairo, united Shiites and Sunnis, and reconquered Jerusalem from the crusaders, is not better known in Norway? In my opinion, this knowledge gap is representative of a broader lack of understanding about both the Islamic world, as well as the Arabic world, not only in Norway, but also in large parts of Europe. Moreover, it is also important to note that in many European countries at this time, including Norway, the Islamic world and Arabic world are often erroneously perceived as the same thing. On the one hand, this lack of knowledge is an important underlying cause of the increasing polarization between majority population and religious/ethnic minorities in Europe, and on the other hand, between Europe and the Arab world.

It was this increasing polarization and its underlying lack of knowledge that led the House of Literature to establish the international Saladin days in 2009. It was named after Saladin, not as an attempt to make him a saint, or to apologize or explain his actions, but to understand and evaluate this man in light of the times and the situation he lived.  His biographer Anne-Marie Eddé, demonstrates this point wonderfully in the biography Saladin (Éditions Flammarion, 2008). Assessing the actions of a person who lived almost a thousand years ago based on our own moral standards is not interesting. But it is interesting to linger at the importance of what he did within the context he lived in. And it can be rewarding to consider it in light of our own times – but only then as a thought experiment, not to make hasty moral verdicts. 

In this context, one incident stands out in particular, in the days of Saladin as well as today: The reconquering of Jerusalem in 1187, when Saladin did excaclty the opposite of what was expected, as he gave the Christians free passage out of the city, protected the holy sites of all faiths and allowed everyone to practice their faith in the holy city. This incident was the focus of author Thorvald Steen’s lecture at the conference, Poet and Activist in 2008, commemorating the bi-centennial of Norway’s national poet Henrik Wergeland, which gathered more than twenty authors, intellectuals and religious leaders from the Middle East. It was here that the idea of installing the Saladin Days was conceived, later to take the form of a question, as formulated by the first director of the House of Literature, Aslak Sira Myhre, at the opening of the Saladin Days in 2010:

What if? What if is one of the most interesting questions you can ask. What if I was rich? What if men gave birth to babies? What if I did kiss that girl in high school? What if someone, perhaps an Israeli Prime Minister, an American President or someone else in power, would state that he or she wanted Jerusalem to be an open city free for Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists alike, to come and practice their religion or secularity as they thought best? What if someone with an army should ask their enemies to be protected by these armies when they were celebrating their religious festivals in their holy city. What if someone was to suggest this in 2010? That would indeed be a radical thought. And something just as unlikely as Martians invading Norway tomorrow.

Through the program, the Saladin Days has successfully demonstrated that it can be invaluable to answering such questions, in order to challenge the deadlocked ways of thinking in our own times and minds. This has developed to become the core of our approach in the following years, as we have focused on topics such as Islamophobia, Israeli and Palestinian history writing, the rhetoric of Crusades in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the 22nd of July 2011, the Arab spring in Syria and Egypt, the history of Islam in medieval Spain and contemporary Europe, and the Jews in the Islamic world. The approach to these topics have varied from knowledge raising – filling in the gaps in our own formation – to historiographical discussions and stage conversations comprising of artistic and literary starting points.

In this anthology we have made a selection of outstanding contributions given throughout the first seven years of Saladin Days –  a difficult task, as there are so many more that could have been included. The contributions and contributors speak best for themselves. On behalf of The House of Literature I would like to thank the contributors for bravely addressing some of the most contentious issues of our times. They have done so in the most knowledgeable and honest way, and with, if I may add, a solid commitment to the belief that a different, more constructive and peaceful way of living together in this world is possible.

We hope that this can be an inspiration for others.

Oslo, September 2015
Andreas Liebe Delsett