By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho ( )

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On May 4, 1493, at the urging of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Pope Alexander VI confirmed their right of possession of all newly discovered lands in the Americas. Even at this point in time, 515 years ago this month, the Christian conquest of the world was well under way.

Alexander's papal bull was a continuation of what is now called the Doctrine of Discovery. (The irony of "discovering" native people in their own land is a sad and tragic one.) In 1455 Pope Nicholas V exhorted Catholic rulers to conquer, even those "in the remotest parts unknown to us," all who were enemies of Christ. The Pope gave them permission "to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans," take their possessions, and "reduce their persons to perpetual slavery."

Although Pope Nicholas acknowledged that native Americans were innocent, peace loving people, he neglected to mention that the new Christian rulers had mistreated the natives in the most inhumane ways. Several priests disputed Spain's right of possession and defended the Indians as full human persons. They also provided detailed accounts of acts of wanton brutality. Infants were disemboweled with pikes and their parents were hung upside down and burned alive. In his famous 1542 account Father Bartoleme de Las Casas estimated that 15 million natives had been killed in the Caribbean and Mexico. More reliable numbers are about 50 million people living in the pre-Columbian Americas, and up to 15 million killed by Europeans in all areas.

To settle a feud between Spain and Portugal, the papal bull of 1493 divided the world between them, leaving most the Americas to Spain and giving Portugal what is now Brazil and all lands in Africa and Asia. When Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama landed in India in 1498, he was surprised to find that there were Christians living there. They claimed to have been converted by the Apostle Thomas and their priests were married. On their next voyage to India, the Portuguese made sure that they had an Inquisitor on board, and he made Indian Christians pay allegiance to Rome or die, and, in a delicious irony, made their priests divorce their wives. Thousands of recalcitrant Hindus were also killed.

There were also Jews in India, who had, for hundreds of years before the Christians came, been embraced with open arms by Hindu kings. The Jews were given land and they set up prosperous cities on India's southwest coast. By the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, there may have been 40,000 Jews living peacefully with their Hindu and Indian Christian neighbors. In a matter of decades Portuguese and Dutch warships had destroyed the Jewish settlements. Today, only 20 Indian Jews worship in Asia's oldest Synagogue in the beautiful state of Kerala.

The Dutch also wanted a part of the lucrative trade in Asia East, and, in lieu of a papal decree, their famous jurist Hugo Grotius wrote legal arguments stating that the Dutch had the same right of possession and conquest as the Portuguese. The Doctrine of Discovery also legalized piracy, and European ships hunted each other on the open sea and seized ships and cargo.

Dutch and Portuguese traders made their way around the tip of India to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, and Japan. In Sri Lanka, where Hindus and Buddhists had lived in relative peace for a thousand years, Dutch Calvinists were perceived as violent, dishonorable, treacherous, and having a "gluttonous rapacity, generated by the rapid acquisition of riches."

While Sufi missionaries had elicited voluntary conversions to Islam from most Indonesian royalty and their subjects, Portuguese and Dutch traders used less voluntary means. For example, in 1904, 4,000 natives, who dared to dispute the authority of their Dutch colonial masters, were massacred on the Indonesian island of Bali.

The U.S.'s native population also came under the Doctrine of Discovery. In 1823 Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that the U.S. had derived its right of "dominion" from Great Britain as the nation who "discovered" and settled "unoccupied" land. In his book 1491 Charles Mann argues that America was far more cultivated than ever imagined and that it seemed unoccupied primarily because diseases had raced ahead and done their deadly work before Europeans arrived. Justice Marshall concluded that America's "heathen" natives had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty" and must now live as dependent nations within the U.S. The sad story of their oppression and broken treaties is well known and need not be retold here.

Returning to Ferdinand and Isabella, we must be reminded that they were feeling very confident after taking Grenada, the last remaining Muslim stronghold in Spain. For almost 800 years Muslims, Christians, and Jews had lived in relative peace and prosperity. But in 1492 Spanish authorities declared that all Jews and Muslims would have to convert, emigrate, or be put to death.

We should not be surprised that Osama bin Laden calls American soldiers "Crusaders" and has made the liberation of Spain one of his top priorities. But just because Islamic militants are behaving badly and do pose a real threat to our security does not justify treating them as subhumans. Even less so does it justify labeling all Muslims suspicious and not worthy of our respect.