In my previous post I noted that among several causes for radical Islam’s hatred of the west there is the legacy of the crusades, the series of wars fought by Christians against the Muslim Arabs during the middle ages.
It is striking that in the statement issued by ISIS following the recent attacks in Paris the authors claimed to be visiting a kind of revenge on what they called “crusaders.” It is obviously a fantastic stretch of the imagination to equate the average Parisian of the twenty first century with the crusaders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The difference in mentalité could not be greater.
The authors clearly recognized this in part, as their statement associated the so-called crusaders with “pagans.” Were the victims of ISIS the pious religious warriors of medieval legend or the morally debased “pagans” of modern western popular culture? Obviously the fanatical mind of militant Islam is incapable of making a distinction, and there are limits on any rational analysis of it.
Be that as it may, I think the tendency to associate the victims of radical Islam’s most recent atrocity with the crusades deserves reflection. As I noted in closing the last post, it raises the question of the identity of the west today. And when we talk about identity, we are necessarily talking about history. What role do the crusades play in the history of the west? What role do they play in the history of Christendom?
On the one hand, they can be said to play a very significant one. Not only were they important among twelfth and thirteenth century contemporaries, but for centuries the memory of raising armies to fight against the Muslims of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt provided the west with a vision of its place as a civilization among non-Christian civilizations.
An interesting and not irrelevant point of detail in this respect is that the Muslim presence in the Holy Land was a result of military invasion itself, and one motivated by the Islamic doctrine of jihad. The crusaders were fighting an enemy whose predecessors had conquered lands that once belonged to and were populated mainly by Christians. Jerusalem was once a Christian city. Islam eradicated Christian civilization throughout the Middle East. (It is continuing to do so today, but the fate of Syrian and other Christian refugees is another topic). This historical fact is often lost in the discussion of the crusades and their legacy among Muslims in modern times. The history of how the Christian state of Byzantium was peacefully established throughout the Middle East during the fourth century, only to be driven from it by Muslims hundreds of years later, is beyond the scope of this post, but worth remembering.
Nevertheless, the role of the crusades in the history and therefore identity of the west is problematic. This is because the west was, at the moment they began in 1096, experiencing dramatic shifts in its identity and character. The crusades were in a real sense a deviation from the historical course of Christendom. This is only partially visible to the modern eye, hindered as it is by an almost total absence of knowledge about traditional Christianity and the civilization of Christendom prior to the high middle ages. In fact, by the time the crusades were launched Christendom had become divided into two ecclesiastically distinct halves: the Orthodox in the east and the Roman Catholics in the west. It was the latter, and only the latter, that conducted the religious wars that have come to be known as the crusades. Ironically, it was to assist in the defense of Orthodox Byzantium against militant Islam that the First Crusade was launched by Roman Catholic Pope Urban II. And rather than relieve eastern Christendom of the relentless assault of jihad, the crusaders became preoccupied with conquest and the settlement of feudal kingdoms in the Holy Land. They largely forgot all about the peril of Byzantium, and in fact, by conquering the Christian city of Constantinople itself in 1204 contributed significantly to the long-term decline and ultimate fall of that great eastern Christian state to the Muslim Turks in 1453. But again, that is another story!
This one might conclude with the following point: The crusades were in fact not a defining event in the formation of Christendom and even deviated from its history. The fact that they were not launched until one thousand years of that history had passed, and that half of Christendom never even fought in them, indicates this. We can not expect Muslim fanatics to appreciate the inconvenient truths of history, but we at least should be prepared to heed them.