Friday, August 27, 2010

Crusades vs. Jihads

Western political and military leaders blanch at the prospect that any of their adventures in the Middle East or Central or South Asia may be described as 'crusades.' Conversely, the Qaeda sympathizers are quick to label all westerners, and particularly all western soldiers, as 'crusaders.'

The Crusades were wars with an ostensibly religious purpose; they were proclaimed by the Pope. Most, but not all, of the wars labeled as 'crusades' were fought in Egypt or the Holy Land. (Or at least they were supposed to have been fought there. The Fourth Crusade wound up capturing and sacking Constantinople, something the Turks would be unable to do for another 250 years.)

We can not sugarcoat the semi-barbaric state of our European forebears in the High and Late Middle Ages, nor can we deny the wretched excesses of the Crusaders (the slaughter following the Siege of Antioch in 1098, for example, or Richard the Lion Heart's slaughter of 2,700 Muslim hostages after the Siege of Acre in 1191). These were not nice people. And if your history teacher told you that one of the main ideas behind the Crusades were to thin the ranks of "noble" thugs by sending them overseas to be killed, or to die from shipwreck, starvation or disease in transit (all the while keeping these creeps from wreaking havoc at home), I don't know that I could disagree.


Let's back up and take a longer view for a moment, can we?

The Arabs came storming out of Mecca and Medina in the 600s, conquering North Africa and the Holy Land -- all formerly Christian territory, much of which was controlled by Rome's eastern remnant, Constantinople. The Arab armies crossed into Europe, gobbling up most of Spain and threatening France until Charles Martel blunted their advance. This was jihad. Conquest. Aggression.

In a broad sense, the Crusades may be seen as a largely defensive reaction to Muslim aggression. There was a real intent to reclaim the Holy Land so that Christian pilgrims could travel safely there and walk where Jesus walked. (Granted, there was a strong treasure motive. While some of the Crusaders may have been genuinely animated by religious passion, however misguided it may seem to our modern eyes, there can be no doubt that a lot of the Crusaders were in it for the potential riches they could find and carry back. Who knows? Maybe some individuals had both motives.)

The point is, the Crusades did not seek to completely destroy Islam (however many forced conversions -- or re-conversions -- were inflicted on populations in their path): There was no attempt to invade Arabia. In that sense, the Crusades were not intended as wars of conquest.

There have been oceans of blood spilled by Christians in the name of religion. But Christians seem to have saved their worst atrocities to inflict on each other. Consider the Fourth Crusade, mentioned above. Of course, even that may be interpreted as a reaction to the Byzantines' "massacre of the Latins" in 1182. The Italian trading cities encouraged the sack of Constantinople in revenge.

And, then, of course, once Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, so-called Christians really turned on each other. More than a century of seemingly unlimited violence broke loose. One of the main reasons why England's Glorious Revolution of 1688 was so "glorious" was that it was accomplished without re-starting the religious wars in the British Isles.

Except in Ireland, of course.

Europe's self-inflicted wounds from their interminable religious wars have never entirely healed over. Modern European secularism may owe its popularity to Europeans' fears that strong religious feelings might yet revive religious bloodshed. (My blogfriend Bee's comment to my post earlier this week illustrated this point beautifully. She wrote, "i cannot tell you how many baptists i have had arguments with that catholics ARE christians. they disagree.") And I can sympathize: Northern Ireland could erupt again at any moment. The wounds of the Spanish Civil War are still fresh. (We can take up Europe's excesses against the Jews some other time.)

We come now to the lesson to be drawn from this very broad survey of European history. I suggest we in the West should stop reflexively apologizing for the Crusades. Neither should we demand apologies from the Arabs for conquering Northern Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land -- or the Turks for finally extinguishing Constantinople. We shouldn't demand apologies for the attempted Muslim conquests of Spain, France or Vienna. (Come to think of it, has anyone really ever demanded apologies from the Muslims for any of this?) Anyway, instead, we should live in the present, and demand that our Muslim cousins do the same (as descendants of our common father Abraham, we're all family, aren't we?).

Respected Muslim scholars have concluded that jihad need not be military adventures, bent on conquest. Jihad can properly refer to man's personal struggle against sin -- temptation -- evil. Let's hope (dare I say, let's pray?) that this idea takes root and becomes universally accepted in the Muslim world. If there can be no more military jihads, there can be no more Crusades.

1 comment:

landgirl said...

I'll second those notions: if we stop dragging our interpretations or misinterpretations of history into current debates it simplifies them --at least a bit.