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Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He was previously a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.The tiresome debate over whether Islam is somehow more violent than other religions unfortunately won't go away. Recent spats between outspoken commentator Reza Aslan, TV host Bill Maher and neuroscientist Sam Harris – who said on Maher's show that Islam was "the mother lode of bad ideas" – have launched a thousand blog posts and vitriolic tweets.

Writing recently in The Washington Post's opinion pages, Fareed Zakaria acknowledged the existence of an unpleasant level of intolerance in some Muslim–majority countries, but stressed such societal ills can't be laid at the feet of a whole religion. "So, the strategy to reform Islam," Zakaria asks Maher, Harris and their supporters, "is to tell 1.6 billion Muslims, most of whom are pious and devout, that their religion is evil and they should stop taking it seriously?"

The backdrop to this conversation is the US-led war effort against the extremist militants of the Islamic State, as well as the continued threat of terrorist groups elsewhere that subscribe to certain puritanical forms of Islam. Their streak of fundamentalism is, for the West, the bogeyman of the moment. But many argue it has little to do with Islam, writ large.

In any case, Islam and those who practice it were not always perceived to be such a cultural threat. Just a few decades ago, the US and its allies in the West had no qualms about abetting Islamist militants in their battles with the Soviets in Afghanistan. Look even further, and there was a time when a vocal constituency in the West saw the community of Islam as a direct, ideological counter to a mutual enemy.

Turn back to the 1830s. An influential group of officials in Britain – then the most powerful empire in the West, with a professed belief in liberal values and free trade – was growing increasingly concerned about the expanding might of Russia. From Central Asia to the Black Sea, Russia's newly won domains were casting a shadow over British colonial interests in India and the Middle East. The potential Russian capture of Istanbul, capital of the weakening Ottoman Empire, would mean Russia's navy would have free access to the Mediterranean Sea – an almost unthinkable prospect for Britain and other European powers.

And so, among diplomats and in the press, a Russophobic narrative began to emerge. It was ideological, a clash of civilisations. After all, beginning with the Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, the Russians had framed their own conquests in religious terms: to reclaim Istanbul, once the centre of Orthodox Christianity, and, as one of her favourite court poets put it, "advance through a Crusade" to the Holy Lands and "purify the river Jordan."

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