Why the Crusades Still Matter

The Christian holy wars happened nearly 1,000 years ago, but religious distortion is still alive and well today.
Photographs: Emile Signol/Getty Images Prestige

In response to President Obama’s highly criticized remarks at Thursday’s prayer breakfast, Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist, offered a defense of the Crusades—atrocities were committed, but they also accomplished some good.

“Christianity, even in its most terrible days, even under the most corrupt popes, even during the most unjustifiable wars, was indisputably a force for the improvement of man,” Goldberg wrote. 

Depending on who you ask, the Crusades were either bad but well-intentioned, or just bad. In recent years historians have warmed to the idea that the Crusades were motivated by religious, not just political or economic, goals. As The New Yorker reported in 2004:

Many of today’s young historians in Britain and America [...] perhaps not unaffected by the spectacle of people in the Middle East blowing themselves up for Allah, are returning to the study of ideology as the wheel of history. That, in any case, is what one gathers from recent writings on the Crusades. As Jonathan Riley-Smith, another expert on the movement, sees it, the disasters of twentieth-century history so poisoned ideological warfare in the minds of historians that they could not imagine its being waged even by people who lived eight centuries earlier. They had to believe that the Crusaders were after property, pillage. They could not understand, though the evidence was there, “how intellectually respectable the Christian theory of positive violence was” to the medieval mind. Positive violence—what is that? Just what it says: the idea that killing is virtuous. According to Riley-Smith, a number of historians now accept this belief as key to the Crusades. 

But if you’d asked Europeans, American Muslims, and several professors what they thought of the Crusades a few days after the September 11 attack—when President Bush said “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile”—their response would have less generous. “It’s what the terrorists use to recruit people—saying that Christians are on a crusade against Islam,” Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam at Georgetown University in Washington, told the Associated Press in 2001. “It’s as bad to their ears as it is when we hear ‘jihad.’”

The reaction to Bush serves as an example of why U.S. policy leans towards choosing words carefully—specifically, why Obama won’t say “radical Islam.” As Eli Lake at Bloomberg View recently explained, Obama, and President Bush before him, have attempted not to offend the radical Islamic groups that aren’t terrorists, but American allies. “The long war against radical Islamic terrorists requires at least the tacit support of many radical Muslims,” Lake wrote. 

But beyond foreign policy arguments, there is a moral argument against condemning an entire religion for the acts of extremists. A September 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 50 percent of Americans think Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions. That’s up from 25 percent in 2002. A recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa poll found that 39 percent of likely Republican caucus goers think Islam is inherently violent. 

That is probably the trend Obama was attempting to address. “So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities—the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?” he asked. How do we reconcile the good acts done in the name of religion with the evil? How do we reconcile how “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ” (to quote Obama) with the fact that “it was ultimately the ideals of Christianity itself that dealt the fatal blow to those institutions” (to quote Goldberg)? How do we reconcile the fact that terrorists attacked a grocery store in the name of Islam with the fact that many of the individuals in the grocery store were saved by Lassana Bathily, a Muslim man

And how do we reconcile “thou shalt not kill” with the Crusades? There are two options. The first is to acknowledge that the violent wars of the Crusades, like slavery, go against the basic teachings of Christianity, but people—popes, even—used Christianity to justify those actions. Violence is the exception, not the rule in Christianity, and the same is true for Islam. 

The second train of thought rejects the idea that violence isn’t the rule in Islam, and is summed up in Goldberg’s essay. “I see no problem judging the behavior of the Islamic State and its apologists from the vantage point of the West’s high horse, because we’ve earned the right to sit in that saddle,” he wrote. 

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