Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Case Against the Case Against the Crusades -

The Case Against the Case Against the Crusades -

The existence of this debate is clearly very strange to many liberal and secular writers, and no doubt seems strange to the president himself; I suspect he thought that a Crusades reference would have been the most uncontroversial of his historical analogies. And in fairness to Obama, stripped of context his specific words should be uncontroversial: “During the Crusades,” he said, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” and there is no question that such terrible deeds were committed, in many places and with many innocent victims (Jewish especially as well as Muslim and Orthodox Christian), across the four or five or six centuries (depending on whether you include the later Holy Leagues) in which crusades were officially undertaken or attempted.

But the context matters, and his juxtaposition of the Crusades with institutions that are regarded as comprehensively evil in our culture prompted a wave of writing from Christians justifying those campaigns as essentially “defensive” in intent and therefore justified conflicts. And that, in turn, prompted a lot “you must be joking” responses from liberal journalists — like this one from Will Saletan, which I’ll quote:
“All the Crusades met the criteria of just wars,” says a quote circulated by the Catholic League, conservative news sites, and Tea Party forums. Bill Donohue, the league’s president, asserts: “The Crusades were a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen.” Giuliani, Jonah Goldberg, and Joe Scarborough agree. E.W. Jackson, the 2013 Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia, defends the Crusades as “a response to Islamic aggression.” Erick Erickson, the editor-in-chief of, says they were merely “a response to Islamic invasion.”

As for the awkward gap between the Muslim aggression and the so-called defensive reaction—about four centuries—today’s apologists plead that the Crusades were a “delayed response.” Donohue blames the whole thing on Muslims: “They’re the ones who created the war.” In fact, according to the apologists, the Crusaders were liberators. They were trying “to free the holy places of Christendom.”
Clearly lot of the people Saletan is quoting are being apologists, sometimes with a side of bigotry, rather than historians. But the reality is that many of their apologias are still closer to the historical reality than his snideness about the alleged “awkward gap” between Islamic aggression and Christian crusading. Like all complicated historical events, the Crusades were hardly monocausal, and historians will be arguing about the whys and wherefores in the same way that they’ll always argue about the causes of the last century’s global conflicts. But the first Crusade was not summoned, as Saletan implies, in a world where the Islamic empires and Christian Europe had been enjoying a comfortable four-hundred year peace after the original fall of Jerusalem to Muslim armies. Instead the actual context included 1) the gradual rolling back of prior Muslim conquests in Spain and Southern Italy (Saracen raiders had threatened Rome in the 10th century, and the Emirate of Sicily only fell to the Normans five years before Pope Urban II called the First Crusade), 2) the disastrous Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071, at the hands of the Seljuk Turks, which ended with the emperor in chains and prompted Constantinople to call for military assistance from the West, and 3) the Seljuk occupation of Palestine (displacing the Fatimid Caliphate), which visited persecution and pillage on the Holy Land’s remaining Christians and made pilgrimage much more difficult than it had been under some (though not all) of the Fatimid rulers.

The context also included many other factors internal to Western Christendom, which is why historians have wrangled endlessly over the motivations of Urban and others, and over how much explanatory weight to give to geopolitical issues related to Islam versus other goals (increasing papal power, channeling intra-Christian violence elsewhere, forcing a reunion with Orthodoxy, etc.). But the broad story of the era and the movement can’t be explained without a recognition that the context of the crusades, from the 11th century beginning to the echoes at Lepanto and Vienna centuries later, always included 1) ongoing conflict between Islamic and Christian forces in territory that had been Christian before an earlier wave of Muslim conquest and 2) the emergence of new Islamic powers, first Seljuk and then Ottoman, whose advances threatened first Byzantium and then, after its fall, the Balkans, the Christian Mediterranean and eventually Central Europe. One can argue back and forth over whether this or that crusade met “just war” criteria, but none of them sprang de novo from a world of stable borders and religious peace, and all of them were part of a longer story of attack and counterattack in which both sides were playing for potentially-existential stakes.

Which makes a comparison between the Crusades as a historical phenomenon and various specific institutions — the sort of comparison in which “Crusaders” get casually likened to “slave owners”, for instance — seem, well, not even wrong: It’s just a category error, like putting “Franco-British conflict from the 14th through the 19th century” on the same list of great historical wrongs as South African apartheid, and then when challenged invoking Henry V at Rouen and the Vendee to “prove” your point.

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