"Western guilt over, and apologies for, the Crusades ignores one crucial fact: The West actually lost."
by Robert Sibley, The Ottawa Citizen
Thousand-year-old events don't usually make headlines. But when U.S. President George W. Bush used the word "crusade" to describe the campaign against Islamist terrorism, suddenly an ancient conflict became a hot-button topic.
The president was accused of being insensitive to Muslim sensibilities, even though the Islamists readily denounce western "crusaders" and their Zionist puppets. Indeed, long before the terrorist strikes on 9/11, al-Qaeda leaders issued a declaration of war against "the Jews and Crusaders." More recently, Pope Benedict XVI was accused of trying to "revive the mentality of the Crusades" after he gave a speech questioning Islam's propensity for violence. Last month, in another live-from-his-hole-in-the-ground video, Osama bin Laden said the republication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad "came in the framework of a new Crusade in which the Pope of the Vatican has played a large, lengthy role."
This is standard fare in the Muslim world. What is perhaps surprising is how many westerners buy into this historical myth.
In January, after John Manley delivered his panel's report on what he thought Canada should do about its military mission in Afghanistan, Green Party leader Elizabeth May issued a press statement saying: "The Manley report fails to consider that the recommendation of more ISAF forces from a Christian/crusader heritage will continue to fuel an insurgency that has been framed as a 'jihad.' This, in turn, may feed the recruitment of suicide bombers and other insurgents."
Like many postmodern westerners, the politician suffers from a peculiar psychic disturbancewestern-guilt syndromethat regards the history of the West as an unmitigated horror show of slaughter, conquest and imperialistic domination. The Crusades are cast as among the darkest of dark episodes in the history of European civilization. Too bad it's wrong.
"The crusades are quite possibly the most misunderstood event in European history," says historian Thomas Madden. "The Crusades were in every way a defensive war. They were a direct response to Muslim aggressionan attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands."
The West may now dominate the Islamic world, but that has only been the case since the late 18th century, when a young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, conquered Egypt and temporarily imposed French rule. This initial European penetration into one of the heartlands of Islam was "a terrible shock" to Muslims, says historian Bernard Lewis. Until then, they had thought of themselves as the victors in the Crusades.
That assumption is understandable. Muslim rulers held the preponderance of power as far as Europe was concerned until the 17th century and had done so, more or less, since the Prophet Muhammad issued Islam's initial declaration of war against other religious faiths in the seventh century. The Prophet wrote the Christian Byzantine emperor and the Sassanid emperor of Persia to suggest they surrender to his rule because, well, their day was done. "I have now brought God's final message," the Prophet declared. "Your time has passed. Your beliefs are superceded. Accept my mission and my faith or resign or submityou are finished."
This claim propelled the armies of Islam to take on the rest of the world. Muslim armies charged out of the Arabian Peninsula to conquer Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egyptall of which, as part of the late Roman Empire, were officially Christian. By the eighth century, Christian North Africa was under Muslim control. Islam soon swept into Europe, grabbing Spain, Portugal and southern Italy. In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks conquered much of Asia Minor, or Turkey.
Christian Europe certainly fought back. In the eighth century, campaigns to recover the Iberian peninsula began, but it wasn't until the end of the 15th century that the Reconquista swept Islam out of Spain and Portugal. Other counterattacks were made, the most famous of which were the war-pilgrimages known as the Crusades.
In 1095, Pope Urban II called for he First Crusade. He urged Europeans to aid fellow Christians who were being slaughtered by Muslims. "They (the Muslim Turks) have invaded the lands of those Christians and have depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; they have lead away a part of the captives into their own country, and a part they have destroyed by cruel tortures."
The Crusader army marched deep into enemy territory to reclaim the ancient Christian cities of Nicaea and Antioch, and on July 15, 1099, Jerusalem. Admittedly it wasn't a pleasant reclamation. As was standard practice when a city resisted, much of population was slaughtered. That, however, doesn't mean the threat to which the Crusades were a response wasn't real. The Crusades, says Madden, were a response "to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam."
Unfortunately, subsequent Crusades over the next three centuries weren't as successful. By the end of the 13th century, the Christian Crusaders had been chased from the Middle East. From then on the concern was no longer about reclaiming Christian homelands, but about saving Europe. In 1453, Muslims captured the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople (or Istanbul, as it is now known). In the late 15th century, Rome was evacuated when Muslim armies landed at Otranto in an unsuccessful invasion of Italy. By the 16th century, the Ottoman Turk empire stretched from North Africa and Arabia to the Near East and Asia Minor. They penetrated deep into Europe, conquering Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Croatia and Serbia. In 1529, the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna. Luckily for Europe, the siege failed; otherwise the door to Germany would have been open.
It wasn't until 1572, when the Catholic Holy League defeated the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto, that Islam's threat to the West finally ended, at least until the late 20th century when the doors to Europe were once again opened to Muslims.
Islam unquestionably won the Crusades, even though Europe was ultimately able to reassert itself and dominate the world. The reasons for this success are much debated, but it's reasonable to conclude that the West won the war of ideas. Notions of individualism and freedom, capitalism and technology, and most of all, the West's turn from theology to science, carried the day. Religion became in the West an essentially private concern. It is on this "modern" turn that the anti-Crusade attitude developed.
During the Protestant Reformation, when the authority of the Catholic church was under attack, the Crusades began to be regarded as a ploy by power-hungry popes and land-hungry aristocrats. This judgment was extended by the Enlightenment philosophes, who used the Crusades as a cudgel with which to beat the church. The Enlightenment view of the Crusades still holds sway. After the Second World War, with western intellectuals feeling guilty about imperialism and European politicians desperate to abandon colonial responsibilities, the Crusades became intellectually unfashionable.
Historian Steven Runciman reflected this attitude in his three-volume study, A History of the Crusades, published in the early 1950s. He cast the Crusades as "morally repugnant acts of intolerance in the name of God," says Madden. "Almost single-handedly Runciman managed to define the modern popular view of the Crusades."
The western-guilt syndrome was displayed on July 15, 1999, when a group marked the 900th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders by parading around the walls of the city to apologize on behalf of Christianity to the Muslim world. It was an act of ignorance. Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith says, "The apologizers were only showing that they did not comprehend the Muslim view of the crusades (which made their conciliatory gesture empty), and did not understand history (which made their act of contrition pointless)."
This ignorance is so pervasive that many westerners no longer think it necessary for soldiers to stand watch on the frontiers of the West. Even more worrisome, though, is that Muslim leaders recognize the western-guilt syndrome and are only too willing to take advantage of it.
In May 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent an open letter to President Bush. Many interpreted the letter as evidence of Iran's desire for better relations. Only a few noticed the closing paragraphs in which the Iranian leader dismissed liberal securalism as a failed ideal. "Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity," he said. "Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and the fall of the ideology and thoughts of the Liberal democratic systems. We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal pointthat is the Almighty God. Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things."
The New York Sun's editorial board pointed out that the letter concluded with a traditional phrase that Muhammad used in his letters to the Byzantine and Sassanid emperors. The editors translated this phrase (Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda) as "peace only unto those who follow the true path." In other words, the president of Iran, like Muhammad before him, believes only Muslims are deserving of peace.
The Crusades, it seems, are being rejoined. Only this time Islam will have nuclear weapons.
Robert Sibley is senior writer for the Citizen. Sources for this essay include: Bernard Lewis, "The 2007 Irving Kristol Lecture," American Enterprise Institute, March 7, 2007. Thomas Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades, 2005; "Crusades," Encyclopedia Britannica; "The Real History of the Crusades," Crisis Magazine, April, 2002; "Crusade Propaganda," National Review, Nov. 2, 2001. Jonathan Riley-Smith, "Rethinking the Crusades," First Things, March 2000; and, as editor, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, 1995.