The Modern Crusade Against the Crusaders

Prior to last year’s presidential election, I came across a fascinating television documentary about the Crusades produced by a Christian broadcasting network. The host, an evangelical minister, was recounting the horrors perpetuated by Christian knights during that era. He urged his congregation to understand the rage in the Islamic world today in light of these past  Christian acts of aggression. To seek forgiveness from Muslims, he reasoned, would prove instrumental in spreading Christ’s gospel of love and peace.

Later that day, I read an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times written by James Reston Jr., whose splendid book, Warriors of God: Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin in the Third Crusade, has been rumored on its way to the big screen. Mr. Reston lectured former President Bush on his failure to study the Crusades and for his inability to understand why Muslims still consider Saladin a hero for driving back the Christian occupiers.

Given the current prevalence of such hand wringing, I have little doubt which of the two rivals—Saladin or Richard—will be depicted as the hero in the movie.

Crusaders, after all, have become politically incorrect.

Consider just a few of the remarkable events that have occurred in the last decade. During a visit to Syria in 2002, the late Pope John Paul II visited a mosque with the grand mufti and asked Muslims to forgive “Christian offenses and violence of the past.” Two years earlier, on the 900th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem, five hundred Christians claiming to be descendants of crusaders marched around the walls of the Old City in an act of public repentance. In 2001, a Catholic school board in San Juan Capistrano, California, vetoed the team name “Crusaders” because of its offensiveness.

In his propaganda pronouncements, Osama bin Laden has repeatedly attacked what he calls “the new American Crusade against Islam.” One can’t turn on the television or read a newspaper today without encountering some ill-informed pundit decrying the Crusades and their destructive legacy for the Middle East.

Mr. Reston was partially correct in his lament. Not only former President Bush, but all Americans, need a history lesson on the Crusades.

But it’s not the lesson that Mr. Reston intended.

I find it both alarming and dangerous that so many Americans have purchased into this myth of the bloodthirsty medieval Christians invading peaceful Muslims without provocation.

Nearly four hundred years before the First Crusade, Muslim armies conquered Christian communities in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. They then swept across the straits of Gibraltar and invaded Christian Iberia (now Spain and Portugal). Those Christians who survived this onslaught were forced to take refuge in the mountain keeps along the Pyrenees. Most of Europe might well be Muslim today had Charles Martel not defeated the invaders at Tours in France.

By the time Pope Urban IV issued his call for holy war at Clermont in 1095, the Seljuk Turks had already pushed across Asia Minor and were clamoring at the gates of Constantinople, the capitol of Christian Byzantium. The reasons for the Crusades are complex and controversial, but the immediate catalyst was a desperate plea from the Byzantine emperor for assistance against the rapacious Muslim Turks.

The longest occupation of another religion’s territory was enforced not by the Christians in the Holy Land, but by the Muslims in Spain. For 800 years, the militant orders of the Knights Templar, Santiago, and Calatrava fought to regain Spain from the fanatical Almoravids and Almohads.

Yet I’ve never heard of a mullah or mufti apologizing for the Muslim invasion of Spain and for the Christian lives lost during the Reconquista. Muslim fundamentalists choose not to mention this war when they rage against the ruthless Christian armies in Palestine.

No visitor can return from Spain without a deep appreciation of the scars that the Moorish invasion and Reconquista left on that country. Churches at Roncevalles and Burgos still display the chains of Christian prisoners who were herded around the caliph at the Battle of Los Navas de Tolosa. Depictions of Spain’s patron saint, James the Moorslayer, lopping off infidel heads are ubiquitous. Yet our Western sensibilities are such that these icons are often covered over when Muslim dignitaries visit Spain.

Muslim extremists have succeeded in perpetuating the myth that the sacrilege of holy sites is a peculiar Christian perversion. Spaniards, however, have not forgotten the Moorish desecration of the Cathedral of Santiago Compostela, which was plundered and abused by the dictator Almanzor.

I’m no apologist for the crusades, having written two historical novels critical of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but I believe the Western media has failed in its responsibility to expose the error in such revisionist history.

Dr. Jonathan Riley-Smith, a renowned authority on the Crusades, eloquently warned against such a misapprehension in the April 1, 2002, issue of Crisis magazine:

“I am fairly sure that those who are now demanding an apology for the Crusades are themselves, without knowing it or understanding how rapidly the ground is shifting beneath them, sharing in a new consensus which is au fond not very far from the war theology they are condemning. A stance that justifies a “humanitarian” war on moral grounds has placed itself at least in the same field as that once occupied by crusader theorists. The language that demands that our ancestors be posthumously anathematized is not too distant from that of the men who wanted the corpse of Pope Boniface VIII to be exhumed and burnt. We may be entering a period of conceptual uncertainty about the most difficult of all society’s dilemmas—when or when not to use force—and we need not emotion, but cool heads and an objective analysis of the past.”

Both Christianity and Islam have taken up the sword to enforce a belief in a monotheistic god who endures no rivals. Neither faith can claim the high ground in pacifist sanctity.