The Twisted Myth of the Crusades

burning manSoaked in petrol and trapped in a cage, the captured Jordanian pilot watched as the ISIS Islamo-fascist thugs prepared to burn him alive. What were his thoughts in those final moments as they conducted their despicable ceremony and he confronted the horrific fate that was about to engulf him?

Don’t ask President Barack Obama. He didn’t appear particularly concerned at the images of the pilot’s appalling death agony – complete with close-ups – that climax the long, professionally produced video posted on YouTube by ISIS to promote their cause. Indeed, when Obama chose to speak publicly about this abhorrent act, he brushed it aside. Speaking at a National Prayer Breakfast, he indulged in a characteristic exercise of moral relativism, insisting that “lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades … people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ”.

As the Commander-in-Chief of the international left, Obama exemplifies three of its core characteristics: (1) a presumption of moral superiority that enables them to see beyond the benighted ignorance of others; (2), a tenuous grasp of history that rarely rises above the clichéd but which they nevertheless aggressively promote; and (3), the insistence that it is only Christians and the West that initiate and exemplify hideous violence. For Obama, barricaded behind the new thought crime of ‘Islamophobia’, ‘Muslim evil-doers’ is an oxymoron and therefore the ISIS monsters are redefined (despite their own fanatical declarations) as non-Muslims.

Nothing better illustrates this tendency to ideological blindness than the widespread Islamist and leftist assertion that the Crusades, which began 900 years ago, were a disreputable imperialist attack on peaceful and blameless Muslims — an assault now being repeated by American-led ‘Crusaders’, that coalition of Western powers and their client states in the Middle East.  For example, the Australian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir denounces the “new crusader alliance against Islam” comprised of Western forces and “the traitor rulers in Muslim countries”, and insists that “this is not the first alliance that is spiteful against Islam and Muslims, it was preceded by the alliance of the old Crusaders”, and like them it will crushed.

In fact there is no historical support for this view of the Crusades, as contemporary historians of the period never tire of emphasizing. As Christopher Tyerman observes in The Crusades (2004):

No aspect of Christian medieval history enjoys clearer modern recognition … nor has been more subject to egregious distortion. Most of what passes in public as knowledge of the Crusades is either misleading or false. The Crusades were not solely wars against Islam in Palestine … nor were they part of some early attempt to impose Western economic hegemony on the world.

The Crusades, historians like Tyerman insist, must be understood in their own terms and not seen anachronistically as medieval precursors of Western imperialism. To imagine otherwise goes beyond fraudulence. It plays on a cheap historicism that at once inflames, debases, and confuses current conflicts. The Crusades reflected central human concerns of belief and identity that can only be understood on their own terms, in their own time.

When this is done the Crusades are revealed to be a pre-eminently religious phenomenon that bears no resemblance whatsoever to contemporary military and political efforts to contain the eruption of Islamo-fascism in the Middle-East.

The Crusades were a defensive effort by Christians seeking to halt the onslaught on Islam through previously Christian lands. In only a few decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammed, Muslim forces had seized much of Christendom. As Diarmaid MacCulloch observes in A History of Christianity (2010): “Muslims now occupied much of the world that over the previous six centuries had become Christian, including its earliest historic centres”. Islam continued to expand at an amazing rate, confirming in the minds of Muslims that they were on a Divine mission. They soon encircled the Mediterranean and occupied large portions of the Iberian Peninsula, only being halted in the West by the armies of Charles Martel at the epoch-defining Battle of Tours in 732.  Nevertheless, Western Christendom had been driven back into a small enclave by the apparently irresistible might of Islam.

Islamic hegemony over the Holy Lands created great problems not only for the Christian communities who were forced to live in the region as ‘dhimmis’, subordinated people subject to special taxes and with few rights, but also for the immense numbers of Christians who wished to make the traditional pilgrimage to Jerusalem and in particular to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was Christendom’s most holy site, venerated as Calvary where Jesus was crucified and where the Stations of the Cross, representing the final episodes of Jesus’ Passion, are located. In 1009 the Church was largely destroyed upon the orders of the reigning Caliph as part of a more general campaign against Christian places of worship in Palestine and Egypt. This further traumatized Christian Europe and, in 1095, after the Muslims had occupied the land for some 460 years, Pope Urban II issued a call for Christian knights to undertake an armed pilgrimage to reclaim Jerusalem. The term ‘Crusade’ itself was derived from cruce signati, meaning “those signed with the Cross”, and this referred to those men who had taken the vow to make the journey. As a leading historian of the Crusades, Thomas Madden, has observed:

The Crusades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world … The entire history of the Crusades is one on Western reaction to Muslim advances. The crusades were no more offensive than was the American invasion of Normandy.

Consequently, the conception of the Crusades as an imperialist assault on a helpless and peace-loving Islam is an outrageous historical fabrication. Moreover, it is derived from Western sources, like much of the rest of the Islamo-fascist ideology. Historically, Muslims themselves had largely forgotten about the Crusades and their own hero of the period, Saladin, until the 19th century, when the Arabic term for the Crusades, harb al-salib, was first introduced into the Arabic language. And this new awareness was largely informed by several Western influences. Firstly, there was Sir Walter Scott’s famous novel The Talisman (1825). This romantic tale is set during the Third Crusade and depicts the encounter of Richard the Lionheart with Saladin. Scott portrays the Crusaders as brash, ignorant, childish, and rather thuggish, while the Muslims, exemplified by Saladin, appear as sophisticated and chivalrous bearers of an advanced civilization affronted by these brutish interlopers. The contrast is exemplified by the moment when Richard seeks to demonstrate his military prowess by severing an iron bar with his sword, to which Saladin responds by throwing a silk handkerchief into the air where he neatly slices it in two with a swift stroke of his brilliantly sharp scimitar: the brute force of the West is confounded by the subtle arts of the East.

This dichotomous view of cretinous Crusaders versus magnanimous Muslims came to dominate the popular view of the Crusades when it was enshrined by Sir Steven Runciman in his three-volume History of the Crusades (1951-4), as Thomas Madden observes in The Concise History of the Crusades (2013):

Throughout his history Runciman portrayed the Crusaders as simpletons or barbarians seeking salvation through the destruction of the sophisticated cultures of the East.

Indeed, Runciman was so incensed that he felt driven to pontificate that the Crusades were a “sin against the Holy Ghost”. Unfortunately, this view proved invulnerable to scholarly criticism:

Hundreds of scholarly books and thousands of scholarly articles written during the past half century have thus far failed to move popular perceptions of the Crusades much beyond Runciman.

Consequently, television documentaries like Terry Jones’ The Crusades (1995), books like Karen Armstrong’s Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (2001), and films like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) perpetuate the dichotomous myth of barbarous Crusaders/chivalrous Muslims. The latter work particularly outraged scholars, who saw it as a missed opportunity to overcome the myth, condemning it as “Osama bin Laden’s version of history [that] will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists”. And in fact this is the case in the Middle-East, as Madden points out:

Generations of Arab school children have been taught that the Crusades were a clear case of good versus evil. Rapacious and zealous Crusaders swept into a peaceful and sophisticated Muslim world leaving carnage and destruction in their wake.

Amazingly, it was only after the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II visited Damascus in 1898 that the Muslims began to idolize Saladin. Wilhelm, inspired by the romantic image concocted by Scott and other Western writers, had arrived with a satin flag and a wreath, inscribed to “The hero Sultan Saladin”, only to find Saladin’s tomb dilapidated and ignored. Outraged, Wilhelm had it reconstructed as an imposing mausoleum adorned with a bronze wreath inscribed “From One Great Emperor to Another”. At the subsequent banquet he declared Saladin to be “one of the most chivalrous rulers in history” and “a knight without fear or blame [who taught] his adversaries the true nature of chivalry”. As Jonathan Riley-Smith observes in The Crusades (2005): “In this bombastic echo of The Talisman Saladin was reintroduced to the Muslims”.

The second Western source for the modern Muslim view of the Crusades was Joseph Francois Michaud’s very influential six-volume Histoire des croisades (1812-22). Its publication corresponded to the French occupation of Algeria and Tunisia, which Michaud’s work justified as the resumption of a civilizing mission begun 700 years earlier. This theme was taken up by other European nations that laid claim to a Crusader heritage and now entertained imperial aspirations. These included not only Germany but Belgium, Spain, and Britain, which resurrected the heroic image of Richard. The European determination to bring civilization to the Muslim world were strengthened by the atrocities committed by Ottoman forces in the Balkans in the 1870s, and eventually the Middle-Eastern campaigns during the Great War came to be portrayed as a crusade, capped off by the granting of the British and French mandates in the region. When the imperialist ideal was discredited in the interwar years this vision was inverted – ‘Islamized’, as Riley-Smith puts it – and Europe’s civilizing mission came to be depicted as imperialist rapacity. Michaud’s account was then turned against the West as evidence not of its intention to draw the Muslim world into the emerging liberal democratic global order (an aspiration that was still current under George W Bush), but to debauch, pillage, and oppress Muslim societies.

This conviction drew upon Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism, the third main source of the contemporary myth of the Crusades and a major source of Islamist ideology. Ridiculing any suggestion that the Crusades had a religious basis , this ‘materialist analysis’ anachronistically portrays the Crusades as the first great wave of Western colonialism, and this came to be a central component of the Islamist and leftist view of the Crusades embraced by the presidential buffoon, Obama. And this is the case, Riley-Smith laments, even though “specialists on the crusades had played no part in its development and no one has even half-proved it by research”. In fact, the Crusades had been undertaken at immense personal and financial cost to most participants and the overall affect had been to bleed vast amounts of wealth and manpower out of Western and Northern Europe. Moreover, the Crusades had been a failure; the Muslims had triumphed, the Ottoman Empire became one of the greatest empires in history, and Muslims went on to occupy and hold for centuries far more territory in the Balkans than the Europeans had ever held in the Levant. As Madden points out:

At its peak in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire encompassed all of North Africa, the Near East, Arabia, and Asia Minor and had plunged deep into Europe, claiming Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. Under Suleiman the Magnificent the Turks came within a hair’s breadth of capturing Vienna, which would have left all of Germany at their mercy.

Indeed, it was because of their marginal impact upon a flourishing Islam that the Crusades had faded from Muslim memory. As Madden observes, “although the Crusades were of monumental importance to Europeans, they were a very minor, largely insignificant thing to the Muslim world … In the grand sweep of Islamic history the Crusades simply did not matter”.

Despite this historical reality, these Western ideas about the Crusades began to converge in the Islamic mind in 1899, after Wilhelm’s visit to Saladin’s decaying tomb, when Muslims themselves began to write histories of the Crusades. The Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II, mortified by the disintegration of his empire, adopted the pan-Islamic ideology and set out to mobilize the world’s Muslims behind the ideal of one great Caliphate.  Consequently, he denounced the ‘crusade’ allegedly then being undertaken by the West and this accusation was accordingly supported by the conclusion of the first Muslim history that, “our most glorious sultan, Abdulhamid II has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a crusade against us in the form of a political campaign”. Saladin was resurrected to be the champion of Muslim resistance to Western imperialism, while Israel came to be depicted as a Crusader outpost, despite it being a Jewish state. By the mid-century, prominent Arab dictators, including Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, were all presenting themselves as contemporary versions of Saladin, as they set about oppressing their people as they enriched themselves.

By the final decades of the 20th century, as the crisis of Muslim world deepened, the pan-Islamic goal had been adopted by Islamist ideologues like Sayyid Qutb and Islamo-fascist movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Profoundly ignorant of the real nature of the Crusades, they now use the terms ‘crusade’ and ‘crusaders’ to refer to any event or initiative (including defensive military responses to terrorist outrages) that could be portrayed as contrary to the pan-Islamic conception of a global Caliphate. As Osama bin Laden announced, “this is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders”, resisting “the crusader armies, spreading [through Muslim countries] like locusts, eating its riches”:

Our goal is … to unite in the face of the Christian crusade. This is a recurring war. The original crusade brought Richard from Britain, Louis from France and Barbarossa from Germany. Today the crusading countries rushed as soon as Bush raised the cross. They accepted the rule of the cross.

In this fashion, the 9/11 attacks were portrayed as part of a jihad against the Western Crusaders, now seen as led by America. Consequently, any action undertaken by the West is denounced as anti-Muslim ‘Crusaderism’, and any action taken against the West is celebrated as a defensive jihad. This paranoid approach also depicts the perennial favourites of Muslim and leftist conspiracy theorists, ‘International Zionism’ and the ‘Jewish World Conspiracy’ as part of this ‘crusade’. All of these, as Riley-Smith points out, are seen as disguises “employed by the imperialism of the outside world to mask its Crusaderism: the ambition of the old Christian enemy to subvert Islam and destroy believers”.

“This radical Islamist version of neo-imperialist crusade history” now provides “the historical and moral justification for acts of extreme violence”, Riley-Smith concludes. Tragically, and despite its non-historical and mythic nature, this pastiche of romantic fiction, antiquated Marxism-Leninism, and Muslim rage and resentment has been embraced by Obama and his fawning acolytes on the left. Full of misplaced moral certitude and historical ignorance, they serve as apologists for ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and the other Islamo-fascist forces that are desperately seeking to drive the world into a new dark age of barbarism.

Mervyn F. Bendle is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online

4 thoughts on “The Twisted Myth of the Crusades

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    The salient part of this article is the final paragraph. Islam would be most unlikely to represent an existential threat to the West if it were not ever more clearly supported by Obama and his fellow travelers. We seem to be ever nearer the point where Obama explicitly accepts all the claims and aspirations of militant Islam and announces that the United States is ready to submit to the tenets of the Muslim scriptures and will henceforth operate under Sharia law. In major European countries Islam might eventually triumph demographically but then the US, sans Obamaism, could still be a powerful backstop. Otherwise what hope is there? Sure, the Sunni/Shia rivalry is likely to curtail the power of Islam indefinitely, but as they gain more and more territory, they simply expand the arena of the never-ending conflict so that we will become part of the miserable masses living under pepetual holy war.

  • Jody says:

    I have been travelling all over Europe and Scandinavia and witnessing first hand the ‘virtues’ of Muslim immigration and the multicultural dream!!! Almost all the major cities I’ve visited now have no-go zones – ghettos occupied by African immigrants and their fellow ‘refugees’. Munich station was one of these no-go zones with screaming, drinking, pissing, spitting, prostituting and fighting going on all through the night. When you exit the station you are surrounded by groups of men hustling for drugs, money, anything. Exclusively black, we made our exit from Munich as quickly as we could and determined never to return. Same thing at Gotenburg, Oslo, Copenhagen and most major centres. Then there are the Romanians and their organized crime syndicates of beggars, pick-pockets and assorted scammers – who regularly scream at each other and fight publicly. No police anywhere – I say ANYWHERE – to be seen.

    So, we have reached the state of propagandized acceptance of the “rights” of these individuals not just to assail us with their needs and wants, but to accept that it is their personal prerogative. That worldview can only arise as a consequence of propaganda from the left-dominated so-called ‘liberal’ media and politicians like Obama who want to be all things to all people. As an aside, I laugh about the word ‘liberal’ because those who bandy it about are not remotely interested in the idea that increasing the freedoms and rights of others significantly decreases it for everybody else.

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