PART 3: The End of the Crisis
The Great Siege of Malta ended 450 years ago – to be precise on 11 September 1565. It had been fought with zealous commitment on both sides for three months, three weeks and three days. Invaders and defenders had experienced comparable losses (probably around 10,000 each) from combat and disease. Everyone understood the significance of this clash of civilizations. Sunni Islam, triumphant in the Levant under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent, had launched a massive seaborne assault on the soft underbelly of Christian Europe. The sultan established in Constantinople, the old eastern capital of the Roman Empire, saw himself as the heir of the caesars and had his sights fixed on Rome. The Knights Hospitaller, Malta’s defenders, were conscious that they were fighting another battle in the crusading wars between the soldiers of Christ and the warriors of Allah.
For weeks it had seemed to the inhabitants of this tiny island that they were alone; that none of the mainland princes grasped the importance of their fight to the death. Appeals for aid had produced only token military assistance. The Ottomans attacked several points, trying to overwhelm castles and infiltrate towns. The veteran commander, Jean de Valette, staved off panic by his personal bravery and his refusal to consider negotiation.
At last, on 7 September, the Viceroy of Sicily, arrived with an 8,000–strong relief force. This turned the tide. The Turks, worn down by the long campaign and their debilitating losses, now found themselves outnumbered and fled. Within days they scrambled to their ships and sailed eastwards.
We must always be careful about learning lessons from history but some parallels can be drawn between the failed Sunni offensive of 1565 and today’s IS eruption in Iraq and Syria: 1) Sunni fanaticism has not changed. The war it wages on all other religions and all other brands of Islam is total and its warriors have no fear of death; 2) Its moral, political and cultural values are wholly at odds with those of the West, founded on Judeo-Christian teachings; 3) It can only be halted by a rival culture which is strong in its defence of humanity, respect for all people and commitment to individual freedom.
450 years ago Europe was slow to learn the importance of unity in facing the IS threat. It was double-minded about the use of force. Today’s leaders face the same issues but modern technology renders them more complex. We face IS aggression, not only on the ground in the Middle East, but also in cyberspace. In 2015 it is not the people of Malta who are being called upon to stand up and be counted. It is not even the anti-Sunni forces in Syria, Iraq and their neighbours. We are all in the front line. The difficult problems of how and where to deploy force and how to cope with families fleeing the Sunni butchers have to be addressed. But more important is the need for western nations (and, indeed, for Russia and its acolytes) to find unity of purpose and moral/cultural rigidity. Idealism can only be fought with idealism. De Valette met Sunni fanaticism with a dogged and profound belief of his own: ‘I am seventy-one. How is it possible for a man of my age to die more gloriously than in the midst of my friends and brothers in the service of God?’