The Crusades Controversy (Paperback)
Are the Crusades to Blame?
I am happy to offer my thoughts on something that is a bit of a rarity in my field of medieval history—a topic of timely interest. But that is precisely what the Crusades have become. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Crusades have been pulled from the pages of history textbooks and spread across the front pages and television screens of America.
In 1999, I wrote one of those textbooks. It was a short introduction to a topic that was taught in only a few university classrooms around the country. Two years later, as Americans struggled to understand why they had been attacked, it left the classroom and began appearing on bookstore shelves nationwide. It remains there still. Because at the time I was the only living American scholar who had written a book on the Crusades, on September 12 I found my email inbox full and my phone ringing with requests for interviews. I was petrified when I did my first one—an NPR segment— but soon after they became routine. In the hundreds of interviews that I have given on the subject since then, the questions have frequently ended up at the same place: Are the Crusades the root cause of the struggle between Islam and the West? In other words, aren’t the Crusades really to blame?
The New Crusade
Osama bin Laden certainly thought so. He and his supporters never failed to describe the American war against terrorism as a new Crusade against Islam, and Americans themselves as crusaders. And this is not an uncommon view in the Middle East. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for example, routinely refers to the United States, Israel, and European nations as “crusader states.” Ironically, this perspective on the medieval Crusades is actually not far from that of most people in the West. That is no coincidence, for, as I will argue, it is Western culture that provided Osama bin Laden and ISIS with a recovered memory of the Crusades.
Offensive Attack or Defensive Reaction?
In popular Western culture today, the Crusades are generally remembered as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-hungry popes and fought by religious fanatics. They were the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins. For variations on this theme one need not look far. See, for example, the 1995 BBC/A&E documentary The Crusades, hosted by Terry Jones, or the 2005 History Channel documentary, or the 2005 epic Ridley Scott film The Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, I can think of no popular media portrayal of the Crusades that does not hold in some measure to this view.
Yet, that is not at all the way that Europeans viewed the Crusades when they were happening. Indeed, far from being an offensive attack on the lands of Islam, Western Christians saw the Crusades as defensive reactions to Muslim aggression.
And they had a point. Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. From the time of Mohammed, the Muslim state had expanded by the sword. Traditional Muslim thought divided the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity, and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion, has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But their states must be destroyed and they must be conquered. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.
With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death in 632. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, Egypt—the most heavily Christian areas in the world—quickly succumbed. By the eighth century Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the days of St. Paul. The old Christian Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.
That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslim armies had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point Christianity as a faith and a culture either defended itself or was subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.