History, Politics

Muslim Vikings and Abuses of History

Two weeks ago, Swedish researcher Annika Larsson of Upssala University announced that she had discovered a thousand year-old Viking textile with ‘Allah’ inscribed on its hem. Major international media outlets rushed to publish news of Larsson’s supposed discovery. Within a few days, the BBC, The Guardian, and The New York Times had run articles on the subject, all of which raised the possibility that the Viking wearer of this cloth might have been Muslim, or even a Muslim immigrant from the Middle East.

Larsson, and the reporters who echoed her, argued that the Viking culture of medieval Sweden was therefore open to Islamic influence–an idea, they gleefully noted, bound to enrage right-wing opponents of mass immigration from majority-Muslim countries. The New York Times was insistent on the political meaning of the ‘Allah cloth,’ interviewing Swedish activists who try to disassociate their country’s Viking past from its appropriations by right-wing nativist groups.

Archaeologists and historians immediately pointed out problems in Larsson’s interpretation, recalling similarly outlandish claims that she had made in the past. In response, Sigal Samuel at The Atlantic wrote an even-handed piece suggesting that the press was so eager to believe Larsson because her claims dovetailed with a progressive political agenda. The Guardian added a sheepish asterisk to its original article, noting that there was “academic debate about the accuracy of the finding.” Other outlets ignored the protests of specialists, leaving their hastily written, agenda-driven articles unaltered.

Why did a flimsy interpretation of a small artefact from provincial Sweden seem so important to the English-language world’s most powerful news outlets? And why, after falling over themselves to cover the story, did many of them wish to forget it? Part of the answer, as both Samuel and Skolberg suggest, is that it served the needs of local activists desperate to wrest control of narratives about Swedish identity away from the anti-immigration right. With its generous asylum policy, Sweden has become a focal point in debates over immigration throughout the West, with leaders like Donald Trump stirring controversies over the extent of social and economic problems that immigration has caused. Vikings, and Europe’s medieval cultures more generally, are also important figures in contemporary debates about the meaning of European and white identity. As The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, historians of the Middle Ages, aghast at the thought of white nationalists using imagery drawn from their period of study, are frantically trying to convince colleagues of their anti-racist bona fides.

Journalists and scholars alike are eager to point out historical objects, texts, and events that show peaceful relations between the West and Islam—or indeed, that make it difficult to distinguish between the two. One can easily find hundreds of news articles, often based on the latest scholarship, touting “How Islam Created Europe” or insisting “California has always been Islamic.” The drift of such pieces is, almost invariably, to suggest that present-day fears about a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Europe and the Islamic world, or about the possible dangers of immigration to Europe from the Middle East, should be dismissed in light of the long historical record of Euro-Islamic exchange and amity. Episodes like the Arab-Byzantine wars, the crusades, and the Habsburgs’ struggles with the Ottomans, thus, have to be weighed against eras of more peaceful interaction in Andalusia, Norman Sicily, or, perhaps, Uppsala.

In this line of thought, celebrating the successful integration of Muslim communities in the contemporary West doesn’t go far enough. When Sadiq Khan was elected mayor of London last year, historian Juan Cole criticized the media for cheering on the election of a Muslim as mayor of a major European city. Cole insisted that for centuries, Muslims had run many important European cities, from Lisbon to Bucharest: “Sadiq Khan has many illustrious predecessors among European Muslim urban leaders.” This conclusion rather breezes through the crux of the debate: in the eyes of many on the anti-immigration right, a list of Muslim conquerors of European cities speaks not to the inseparability of Islamic and European histories, but to Islam’s long-standing menace.

Activist historians and the journalists who create an audience for their pronouncements seek to counter right-wing views of Islam and the West as essentially distinct entities locked in permanent conflict. Such views, of course, do not survive contact with historical data, which offers a far more nuanced picture, one that, indeed, is precisely too rich and complicated to serve the goals of any contemporary political agenda, or to answer any question about Muslim integration, immigration, or identity in Europe today. Rather than attend to these nuances, however, many journalists and historians irresponsibly exaggerate certain facets that promote their own favored political narratives. In their eagerness to use history against the far-right, they only aggravate tensions and distort the historical record.

Scholars like Cole conflate today’s democratic politics and centuries-old imperial conquests in order to construct a vision of Europe as a continent historically entangled with Islam, rather than a civilization forged largely in conflict with it. Others over-interpret obscure details, ignoring the objections of more dispassionate specialists. Such tactics might give academics the attention, and journalists the page views that they crave, but they ultimately serve the interests of the far-right, justifying its rejection of traditional sources of expertise like academia and the media as irredeemably biased.

The political logic that underlies these appeals to history is no less disturbing than their mendacity. Ironically, this logic has much in common with that of the far-Right against which it is ostensibly marshalled. In both views, it is history and not politics that ought to settle debates about the status of Muslims in Europe today. If the Right says that Muslims have always been against Europe, the Left must insist that they have always been a part of it. Rather than arguing that events like Sadiq Khan’s election, Islamist terror attacks, or the Syrian migration crisis can be understood as present-day issues, the keys to which are entirely in our own hands, scholars like Cole and Larsson suggest that they cannot be understood without reference to history, or indeed, to dubious inscriptions on scraps of cloth. This will not liberate us from false historical narratives, authorizing us to apply our own values, identities, and political goals to create solutions in the present. Instead, it is an attempt, at the expense of academic honesty, to project today’s competing political ideologies into the past.

Filed under: History, Politics


Blake Smith is a historian of European interactions with South Asia and a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute. His essays regularly appear on Aeon.co, Scroll.in and other media.


  1. The myth of Andalusian multicultural paradise is that – a myth. There were very brief, short windows when what took place could be called ”multicultura”. But I dislike the imposition of that word on history, they tolerated each other out of need, jizya was a good business after all. There was no confusion who ruled, who ran the thing and who was the undergod in Andalus.

  2. Carl Sageman says

    There are a few points essential to this discussion.

    Is there an anti-western sentiment permeating through the media and academia?


    If there is (and there appears to be solid evidence), what has caused this anti western sentiment in western media? Theories include
    – retaliation to white supremacists. This doesn’t explain falsifying data or the IPA article referenced. Why lie at all?
    – because of Donald Trump? The pervasiveness shown in the IPA article could not have happened since Trump’s election.
    – to counter white majority? This is feasible. The terms patriarchy, white supremacy, and white male privilege are prevalent in media in the last few years. Jordan Peterson (a high profile psychologist) has stated on numerous occasions that people use the term patriarchy as a pejorative when they actually mean western society.

    If we study the media response to James Damore, the media universally ignored expert opinion (including a review of the memo by Jordan Peterson). Five of five relevant experts weighed in with universal support for James. The media universally (about 70 of 70 different outlets) condemned James with ad hominem attacks and ignored all expert opinion. We are seeing parallels here with this piece about an Arabic symbol on Viking garb. We already know the Vikings dealt with the Middle East. Why lie so readily? Why are the lies so universal and so consistent, especially by high profile news outlets?

    Between the war on truth and the war on western society, the media have collectively become a subject of ridicule. It’s worth asking ourselves again if the real source of fake news is Facebook, or the collective media. If the evidence points to every major newspaper in the western world, what does that indicate? The motive? An ideological war based on sex, race and culture. Strong evidence is there when anyone examines the broad and consistent reporting across the media (eg. On James Damore, free speech, safe space culture, riots on university campus, etc).

    This isn’t a war on white supremacists, this is an ideological war on sex, race and culture. Why this is so prevalent in high profile news outlets is still a shock to many, particularly as there are no dissenting voices in the media. However, the evidence left on the Internet is there for all to see. It’s prolific.

    • Fixpir says

      I agree with your text. But concerning “this piece about an Arabic symbol on Viking garb”, there is none. To find “Allah”, the original author had to :
      (1)Select a very small part of a ribbon covered by geometric symbols
      (2) Add more than half the width of this small part with invented pattern (yes, invented by the author)
      (3) Look at it in a mirror
      (4) interpret it with an alphabet that is at least a century posterior.
      (5) And, finally, ignore the fact you read “Illah” and still not “Allah”.

      What credibility can keep the original author?
      And, as there are plenty of proofs of contacts between the Vikings and various people around the Med, why such an incredible lie?
      What credibility does that leave to media who transmitted such a low quality information, even to the most liberal of liberal?

      Read Stephennie Mulder: hyperallergic.com/407746/refuting-viking-allah-textiles-meaning/

    • ga gamba says

      “The media universally (about 70 of 70 different outlets) condemned James with ad hominem attacks and ignored all expert opinion.”

      Not only that, two of the first to obtain his manifesto (termed a ‘screed’ by many of the MSM’s headlines and in the articles too), Motherboard and Gizmodo, published it with the links to the scholarly citations removed. It was from Motherboard and Gozmodo that much of the media based their reports.

      Here’s what Motherboard had to say on Tues 8 Aug. “Saturday morning [5 Aug], we reported the existence of an anti-diversity memo written by a Google software engineer that was shared widely within the company. […] [Note: Gizmodo obtained the 10-page document and published it minus the citations later Saturday afternoon.] These sources agreed to speak to Motherboard on the condition of anonymity, because Google has a notoriously strict confidentiality agreement.[…] Motherboard emailed Damore for comment five times over the weekend and before publication (of the full document) on Monday.”

      So, Motherboard reported portions of it without seeing its entirety. It contacted Damore, who presumably is subject to the same notoriously strict confidentiality agreement, which leaves him between a rock and a hard place. The document sans sources lives on Saturday, Sunday, and into Monday, and is used as a source for dozens of reports and punditry, before one with sources is published. By that time the narrative had been framed, and so too was Mr Damore.

      That’s journalism.

  3. yandoodan says

    This article’s a bit soggy, I’m afraid.

    In the popular mind at least, there are two ways in which European Christian cultures and the Middle Eastern Muslim cultures entangle. First, there’s the movement into Europe of a wide range of knowledge — Aristotle, Algebra, zero-based number systems, even chess. Notice that Europe comes out the better here. Then there’s the mutual exchange of invading armies: Normans into the Middle East, Muslims into Iberia, Christians back into Iberia, Muslims into Anatolia, Muslims into Greece, Christians back into Greece . . .

    It should be obvious that this viewpoint, nearly universal in our half of the world, gives succor to one of the political sides only by them ignoring half of it — when everyone knows the other half.

    Mind you, this world view could be hopeless simplification or outright wrong for all I know, but it’s what we’re taught in public school. Any attempt to correct or expand this widely held view can’t fuss around with “Allah” sewn into a seam or waste time pointing out the Muslims once conquered Portugal. Tell us what’s new here.

    • Ah, yes, the exchange of invasions. It actually went something like muslims into Syria, into Persia, muslims into Anatolia, muslims into Egypt, muslims into Libya, muslims into Tunisia, muslims into Algeria, muslims into Morocco, muslims into Iberia, muslims into France………then finally a bit of pushback from the Christians.

  4. transilvana says

    the enlightened Muslim rulers of Bucharest?????? FFS. Romanians had to hire a German prince to come and undo some of the damage done by “enlightened” muslim rulers. Romanians had been kicking muslim butt for about 1000 years already, thankfully the Hohenzollern finally set about a serious war and gained independence from the “enlightened” muslims. This is why Bucharest currently has stone buildings and streets (as shabby as they are, they’ve been built under the German guy not the muslim leeches).

    what a mess.

  5. NickG says

    they ultimately serve the interests of the far-right, justifying its rejection of traditional sources of expertise like academia and the media as irredeemably biased.

    You don’t have to be ‘far-right’ to have learned to take the narrative leaden diatribes of ‘academia’ and the bulk of the ‘media’ as irredeemably compromised by narrative serving biases.

  6. “scholars like Cole and Larsson suggest that they cannot be understood without reference to history, or indeed, to dubious inscriptions on scraps of cloth.”

    This is not Professor Cole’s views. You are quite clearly misrepresenting the points he makes. Anyone interested,, just look up Cole’s article.

  7. ga gamba says

    Years ago I saw a film about a Muslim joining the Vikings to defeat the Neanderthals. I thought it was widely known the Vikings and the Muslims collaborated to defeat mankind’s enemies and share clothing.

    More seriously, a few years ago a ring with Arabic Kufic writing interpreted as reading “il-la-lah” (for/to Allah) was found in a 9th century Viking burial site in Sweden. By the 8th century the Vikings had invaded today’s Baltic states and Russia repeated and were navigating the Volga. The Volga trade route met Sunni Muslim Khazar controlled lands; there is a vast reach that goes deep into Muslim lands. There were many settlements along this route as trade was conducted on a regular basis. Of course the ring could have been picked up in trade or pillage via non-Muslim people too, but that’s not a sexed-up story, is it?

    On further reflection, the battling Neanderthals together seems more plausible. Let’s continue this wonderful tradition of coexisting blissfully and resume our war against the Neanderthals by destroying their descendants.

    • Lo there do I see my father
      Lo there do I see my mother, sisters and brothers
      Lo there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning
      Lo they do call to me and bid me take my place among them
      In the halls of Valhalla, where the brave may live forever

  8. nicky says

    Of course the Vikings were Muslim, after death they’d go to Valh-Allah!

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