by Joe Hargrave
One of the memes – the unconscious, uncritical, lazy thoughts that spreads from person to person like a virus – that has been particularly virulent during this ground-zero mosque controversy is that Christians have no standing to criticize the violence of Islam, given a supposedly violent Christian history. And no one event is more often invoked as an example of Christian hypocrisy than the so-called “Crusades” (so-called, because no one who fought in them called them that).
The latest and most appalling example appears in the NY Times, courtesy of a Nicholas D. Kristof. Among the many absurdities one can find in this column, including definitive claims as to the intentions and desires of Osama bin Laden, Kristof writes,
Remember also that historically, some of the most shocking brutality in the region was justified by the Bible, not the Koran. Crusaders massacred so many men, women and children in parts of Jerusalem that a Christian chronicler, Fulcher of Chartres, described an area ankle-deep in blood. While burning Jews alive, the crusaders sang, “Christ, We Adore Thee.”
What could be more logical, more pertinent, more relevant, than to invoke thousand-year old wartime excesses as proof that Christians have no grounds to criticize Islam?
One can go the route of modern liberal Christianity and make statements about how either a) the Crusades were a “mistake” and never should have occurred, or perhaps b) that while they may have been justified at the time, Christianity has undergone sufficient “reforms” to prevent such things from happening again, while Islam has not.
I totally reject the first notion, and I will explain why I don’t really agree with the second either. But let’s start with the first: that the Crusades were an example of unjustifiable religious violence on the part of Christians, moreover one that can be constantly invoked to equivocate Christianity and Islam as religions that are both prone to violence.
First, the historical facts: a long “train of abuses”, to borrow Jefferson’s phrase, preceded the launching of the First Crusade in 1096. Since its very inception, Islam had waged an unremitting war against Christianity. It conquered and subjugated centuries-old Christian societies in the Middle East and North Africa. After sweeping through France, the Muslim advance was finally checked by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. Following this, Muslim aggression against Christians continued in southern Italy, with the conquest of Sicily in 827. Resistance to these repeated acts of aggression was not characterized as a “crusade”, but simply necessary self-defense.
Over the next centuries, the Seljuq Turks, who converted to Islam, waged war against the Eastern Christian Byzantine Empire. At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Turks wiped out the Byzantine army, leaving Emperor Alexius Commenus helpless before a relentless and determined foe. Not long after this, he sent envoys to Pope Urban II pleading for military aid. The Council of Clermont was called by the pope in 1095, in which he addressed the clergy, knights, and commoners who had assembled. To the knights especially his words were both reproving and encouraging:
You, the oppressers of children, plunderers of widows; you, guilty of homicide, of sacrilege, robbers of another’s rights; you who await the pay of thieves for the shedding of Christian blood — as vultures smell fetid corpses, so do you sense battles from afar and rush to them eagerly. Verily, this is the worst way, for it is utterly removed from God! if, forsooth, you wish to be mindful of your souls, either lay down the girdle of such knighthood, or advance boldly, as knights of Christ, and rush as quickly as you can to the defence of the Eastern Church. For she it is from whom the joys of your whole salvation have come forth, who poured into your mouths the milk of divine wisdom, who set before you the holy teachings of the Gospels.
What was at stake was nothing less than the preservation of Christianity, and the civilization which had, even if imperfectly, sought to embody its teachings in the world. This was also evidenced by the increasingly hostility to Christians still living in the Levant (the Holy Land), as well as those who went on pilgrimage; in 1009, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the Chruch of the Holy Sepulcher – in an act the Catholic Encyclopedia rightly calls a “fit of madness” – razed to the ground. This was followed by an even broader campaign against Christianity throughout the Levant, culminating in the destruction of thousands of Christian churches.
Given the scale of the unprovoked and ceaseless attacks, as well as the persecution of Christians within the Holy Land itself, I believe the Crusades were more than justified. When we understand that they were in fact a belated response to centuries of violent Islamic expansion, and not a random and spontaneous act of aggression (like every Muslim assault on Christian territories was), I don’t see how a reasonable person could deny it.
What about the atrocities brought up by Kristof? Here again, we can point to some substantive differences between Islam and Christianity. Violence against, and persecution of Jews was never encouraged, tolerated, or condoned by the Papacy. Christianity did not need a thousand years to “clean up its act” with regard to Jews; in response to the atrocities carried out by soldiers in the crusading armies, Pope Calixtus II issued the bull “Sicut Judaeis” in 1120, which declares, among other things that
[The Jews] ought to suffer no prejudice. We, out of the meekness of Christian piety, and in keeping in the footprints or Our predecessors of happy memory, the Roman Pontiffs Calixtus, Eugene, Alexander, Clement, admit their petition, and We grant them the buckler of Our protection.
In other words, when Christians carried out acts of violence against Jews, they were doing so in disobedience to their religion, and their spiritual leaders. This was also the case during the unfortunate sack of Constantinople in 1203, in which Christian turned upon Christian during the Fourth Crusade.
However in the Islamic hadith, which are narrations considered “supplements” to the Koran, we read,
The [final] Hour will not start, until after the Muslims fight the Jews and the Muslims kill them. The Jew will hide behind a stone or tree, and the tree will say, `O Muslim! O servant of Allah! This is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’
Could the contrast be more clear? Even the supposedly backwards thoughts of medieval popes are progressive and enlightened compared to what a significant number of Muslims believe today.
As for the bloodletting at Jerusalem, while such individual incidents are certainly regrettable, it was rather common at the time for savagery to follow a long and protracted siege of a city. This doesn’t excuse it, of course, and especially if the men carrying it out are purporting to act in the name of Christ. But we shouldn’t react as if it were some great deviation from the standards of the time, which in themselves greatly deviate from our own.
What about the very idea of the Crusades, specific incidents aside, in light of modern sensibilities? When I consider the great sacrifices made by the kings, knights, clergy and peasants of Christendom to undergo this pilgrimage, thousands of miles away, in the service of Christ and his Church, I could never bring myself to condemn it or shy away from it. Great risks were undertaken, and losses suffered, for no assurances of material compensation or reward. To “leave all behind” and take up the cross is the noblest thing a human being can do, whether they bear arms in defense of their Christian brothers, or they live a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, or, as in the case of the Knights Templar, they do both.
Even if in today’s circumstances many have replaced the full, robust faith of Christianity with a shallow sort of secular humanism, behind every Westerner’s desire to “Free Tibet” or to end genocide in Darfur is the same basic spirit that motivated the original crusaders. It was a desire to bring justice and comfort to those suffering under the yoke of tyrants, and to resist a foe that made clear their intent to conquer through centuries of aggression.
Since Mr. Kristof wants us to “remember” things, let us remember a few more. First, let us remember that the goals of the Crusades did not include the conversion of Muslims to Christianity, and that the few conversion attempts made were largely unsuccessful. Not only that, but Arab travelers living at the time, such as Ibn Jubayr, noted that Muslims lived better under their Frankish rulers than they did other Muslims!
It is also worth remembering that the Crusades failed, and that the Islamo-Turks did overrun Southeastern Europe, and would have taken over all of the rest of it as well had they not been checked twice at Vienna, in 1529 and 1683.
It may also be worth remembering that it was not until the so-called Age of Enlightenment that Europeans actually did conquer and colonize the Middle East and North Africa. Evidently all of the supposed wisdom gained from the rejection of “medieval religions” and the embrace of secularism, skepticism, humanism, and the rest didn’t preclude unprovoked wars and imperialist conquests out of Europe against the rest of the world. Of course I’m sure the counter to that will be, “we just hadn’t gotten far enough away from religion yet.”
And it is finally worth remembering that even in the first decade of the 19th century, Thomas Jefferson launched a little “crusade” of his own against the Islamic Barbary pirates in North Africa who, again justifying their criminality and aggression through the Koran, had been capturing and pillaging the vessels of “infidels” for centuries.
It isn’t so far-fetched to use the word “crusade” to describe the First Barbary War or Jefferson’s intent: he didn’t have to fight them, and many American statesmen would have rather paid them the tribute they insolently demanded. But Jefferson was determined to end the extortion, and so he did. In 1805 an American force, along with local mercenaries, captured the city of Tripoli and brought the raids to an end – until the Second Barbary War.
In any event, Christians, and especially Catholics, must be forearmed with the historical knowledge and moral fortitude required to defend their own traditions and their own legacy in the world. What we genuinely have to regret, let us regret. But let us also resist and expose the historical falsifiers, and the fallacies they employ.