I had always recognised Voltaire as a philosopher and an important cog of Western liberal thinking but I recently came across a play written by him: Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete, literally Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet.
Voltaire, and his admirers, have tried to interpret this play as a general criticism of religion and, by a stretch, a criticism of Christianity. Voltaire himself said “I tried to show in it into what horrible excesses fanaticism, led by an impostor, can plunge weak minds.”
Voltaire considered himself ‘virtuous’ and it does not become a virtuous man to demean the character of a historic figure in fiction. Historical truth is not just a modern sensibility, as the Emperor Napoleon said about the play:
“Mahomet was the subject of deep criticism. ‘Voltaire,’ said the Emperor, ‘in the character and conduct of his hero, has departed both from nature and history. He has degraded Mahomet, by making him descend to the lowest intrigues. He has represented a great man, who changed the face of the world, acting like a scoundrel, worthy of the gallows. He has no less absurdly travestied the character of Omar, which he has drawn like that of a cut-throat in a melo-drama.'”
The play itself is an enjoyable, light read. Ruthven’s preface and the translator’s introduction, which focuses on the reception that the play received among contemporaries and how it was viewed by later critics, illuminate some of the background to the way Islam is understood in the West.
Indeed. Islamophobia is nothing new. It was dormant during the European World Wars and the Cold War to enable strategic alliances with Muslim states.