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Like Most People, President Obama Gets The Crusades Wrong


In light of President Obama’s recent remarks comparing the brutality of the Islamic State to the Crusades, it might be time to take a fresh look at those events. Were they really the one-sided Dark Ages barbarism we have been taught? Were they an early manifestation of Western imperialism and global conquest?

In his landmark book, “God’s Battalions” (HarperOne 2009), Baylor University social sciences professor Rodney Stark suggests otherwise. It is a well-researched chronicle, including 639 footnotes and a bibliography of about 300 other works, yet reads like an adventure story full of military strategy and political intrigue.

What Prompted the Crusades

He begins in the final years of Mohammed and describes how a newly united Arab people swept through (Zoroastrian) Persia and the (Orthodox Christian) Byzantine-  controlled areas of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa. (Byzantine refers to the Greek-speaking eastern remainder of the Roman Empire.) Eventually Arabs took over control of the Mediterranean islands, most of Spain, and the southern part of Italy, and even reached as far as 150 miles outside of Paris before being turned back by the Franks, or early French.

The Muslims were brutal in their conquered territories.

The Muslims were brutal in their conquered territories. They gave pagans a choice of converting to Islam or being killed or enslaved. Jews and Christians (other People of the Book) were usually but not always treated somewhat better, and allowed to retain their beliefs but under conditions of Sharia subjugation.

But the Muslim-held territories were not monolithic. Stark writes:

Perhaps the single most remarkable feature of the Islamic territories was the almost ceaseless internal conflict; the intricate plots, assassinations, and betrayals form a lethal soap opera. North Africa was frequently torn by rebellions and intra-Islamic wars and conquests. Spain was a patchwork of constantly feuding Muslim regimes that often allied themselves with Christians against one another.

Not surprisingly, there was intense Christian resistance and determination to take back lost territories. Especially effective were the Normans and the Franks in Spain and Italy.

The Golden Middle Ages Belonged to Europeans

Western scholars have often characterized this clash of cultures as an Islamic Golden Age versus a European Dark Age, but Stark demolishes this as a myth. He says the best of the Islamic culture was appropriated from the people Muslims conquered—the Greeks, Jews, Persians, Hindus, and even from heretical Christian sects such as the Copts and Nestorians. He quotes E.D. Hunt as writing, “the earliest scientific book in the language of Islam [was a] treatise on medicine by a Syrian Christian priest in Alexandria translated into Arabic by a Persian Jewish physician.” Stark writes that Muslim naval fleets were built by Egyptian shipwrights, manned by Christian crews, and often captained by Italians.  When Baghdad was built, the caliph “entrusted the design of the city to a Zoroastrian and a Jew.” Even the “Arabic” numbering system was Hindu in origin.

And, while it is true that the Arabs embraced the writings of Plato and Aristotle, Stark comments,

However, rather than treat these works as attempts by Greek scholars to answer various questions, Muslin intellectuals quickly read them in the same way they read the Qur’an – as settled truths to be understood without question or contradiction…. Attitudes such as these prevented Islam from taking up where the Greeks had left off in their pursuit of knowledge.

Meanwhile, back in Europe was an explosion of technology that made ordinary people far richer than any people had ever been. It began with the development of collars and harnesses that allowed horses to pull plows and wagons rather than oxen, doubling the speed at which people could till fields. Plows were improved, iron horseshoes invented, wagons given brakes and swivel axels, and larger draft horses were bred. All this along with the new idea of crop rotation led to a massive improvement in agricultural productivity that in turn led to a much healthier, larger, and stronger population.

Technology was also improving warfare with the invention of the crossbow and chain mail. Crossbows were far more accurate and deadly than conventional archery, and could be fired with very little training. Chain mail was almost impervious to the kind of arrows in use throughout the world. Mounted knights were fitted with high-back saddles and stirrups that enabled them to use more force in charging an opponent, and much larger horses were bred as chargers, giving the knights a height advantage over enemies. Better military tactics made European armies much more lethal. Stark writes:

It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed and well-disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them…. When determined infantry hold their ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder to present a wall of shields from which they project a thicket of long spears butted in the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away; the horses often rear out of control and refuse to meet the spears.

In contrast, Muslim warriors were almost exclusively light cavalry, riding faster but lighter horses bareback with little armor, few shields, and using swords and axes. Their biggest advantage was their use of camels, which made them much more mobile than foot soldiers and gave them the ability to swoop in and out of the desert areas to attack poorly defended cities.

Muslims Slaughter, Rape, and Pillage

These differences provided Crusader armies with huge advantages, but what would prompt hundreds of thousand Europeans to leave their homes and travel 2,500 miles to engage an enemy is a desert kingdom—especially after the Muslim conquest of Europe had been turned back?

In 638 Jerusalem surrendered to Muslim invaders, and mass murders of Christian pilgrims and monks became commonplace.

There had been long-festering concern about the fate of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. After his conversion to Christianity in the early 300s, the Roman Emperor Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of what was believed to be Jesus’ tomb, and other churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. These sites prompted a growing number of European pilgrims to visit the Holy Land, including Saint Jerome, who lived in Bethlehem for the last 32 years of his life as he translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. By the late fifth century, Stark reports, more than 300 hostels and monasteries offered lodging to pilgrims in Jerusalem alone.

But in 638 Jerusalem surrendered to Muslim invaders, and mass murders of Christian pilgrims and monks became commonplace. Stark includes a list of select atrocities in the eight and ninth centuries, but none worse than the some 5,000 German Christians slaughtered by Bedouin robbers in the tenth century.

Throughout this period, control of Palestine was contested by several conflicting Muslim groups. Stark writes, “In 878 a new dynasty was established in Egypt and seized control of the Holy Land from the caliph in Baghdad.” One hundred years later, Tariqu al-Hakim became the sixth caliph of Egypt and initiated an unprecedented reign of terror, not just against Christians but against his own people as well. He burned or pillaged some 30,000 churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the tomb beneath it.

Soon enough, newly converted Turkish tribes came out of the north to seize Persia and Baghdad (by 1045) and press on to Armenia, overrunning the city of Ardzen in 1048, where they murdered all the men, raped the women, and enslaved the children. Next they attacked the Egyptians, in part because the Turks were Orthodox Sunnis and the Egyptians were heretical Shiites. While the Turks did not succeed in overthrowing the Egyptians, they did conquer Palestine, entering Jerusalem in 1071. The Turks promised safety to the residents of Jerusalem if they surrendered the city, but broke this promise and slaughtered the population. They did the same in Ramla, Gaza, Tyre, and Jaffa.

Emperor Alexius Pleads for Help

Finally, they threatened Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Alexius Comnenus wrote to Pope Urban II in 1095, begging for help to turn back the Turks. This was remarkable given the intense hostility between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Perhaps the pope saw an opportunity to unite or at least reduce tensions between the two Christian churches, but he responded with a call to create an army that would go to the Middle East.

Without ongoing support from Europe, the Crusaders could not survive constant attacks from the Muslims.

I am not going to regurgitate all the battles of the Crusades themselves. It is a fascinating history well worth studying in part for its parallels and lessons for today. Let’s just say that the Crusaders were extremely effective militarily, often defeating far larger Muslim armies, despite having traveled some 2,500 miles into an alien desert climate. Their biggest enemies were disease, starvation, and political betrayal. Plus, the Crusades were expensive and home countries grew weary of paying the taxes needed to support them (sound familiar?)

The Crusaders ended up establishing their own kingdoms in the Holy Land, which lasted for about 200 years or, as Stark notes, almost as long as the United States has existed; but without ongoing support from Europe they could not survive constant attacks from the Muslims.

How the Crusades Were Different from Military Action of the Day

So, what to make of all this?

The current idea that Jews in Israel are usurping the rights of indigenous people is nonsense. This has always been a hotly contested area. In the Old Testament, the Jews wrested control from the Canaanites, then were overrun by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. The Romans of Jesus’ time were displaced by the Greek Byzantine Empire, then replaced by the Arabs, then the Egyptians, then the Turks, and finally by the British. For most of human history the wealth of a society was created by conquest and plunder. It is hardly unique to Christians, and certainly not to Jews.

The Crusaders were unique in that they did not seek to plunder or enslave.

Actually, the Crusaders were unique in that they did not seek to plunder or enslave. They didn’t even try to forcibly convert anyone to Christianity. Their sole interest was to protect the pilgrims and Christian holy sites. They sometimes sacked cities that refused to provide food to a hungry army, but they didn’t take riches back to Europe. There were few riches to be found. Rather than exploiting indigenous resources to benefit Europe, Europe sent money and resources to the Middle East. Pilgrims were quite lucrative for host countries, just as tourism is today.

War was a nasty and brutal business at the time, and had been for all of recorded history. Cities fortified themselves as protection against invading armies. A siege of a city meant surrounding the area and cutting off supplies until the population surrendered, often by starving. In the Bible, II Kings 6:24-33 relates the story of the siege of Samaria, in which two starving women agree to kill and eat their sons.

The rule of war at the time was that, if a city surrendered, the population would be spared, but if it resisted and the invading army had to take it by force all the inhabitants would be killed or enslaved. But Stark notes that Muslim armies often violated even this rule—promising sanctuary, then slaughtering the population that surrendered. (Before we get too smug and condescending about the savagery of these ancients, let’s not forget the rocket bombing of London, the firebombing of Dresden, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a mere 70 years ago.)

Muslim armies often promised sanctuary, then slaughtered the population that surrendered.

One way in which Muslim fighters today have advanced over their forebears is that during the Crusades they did not adopt new tactics to counter the technological advantage of the Europeans. They never used crossbows or shielded infantry, even after several hundred years of fighting. Today, Muslim warriors quickly evolve to make the most of Western technology, although they still never seem to develop anything of their own.

An Enduring Clash Between Inquiry and Submission

One final thought on this. As Stark indicates above, there is in too many Muslim countries a sense of obedience that precludes robust debate or new ideas, let alone technological innovation. In his classic, “The World is Flat,” Thomas Friedman quotes Osama bin Laden as saying,

It is enough to know that the economy of all Arab countries is weaker than the economy of one country that had been part of our (Islamic) world when we used to truly adhere to Islam. That country is the lost Andalusia. Spain is an infidel country, but its economy is stronger that our economy because the ruler there is accountable. In our countries, there is no accountability or punishment, but there is only obedience to the rulers and prayers of long life for them. (pp. 400-401)

Friedman confirms that this is based on a 2002 report, the first Arab Human Development Report. This report, written by Arabs, found that Spain had a larger gross domestic product than all 22 Arab states combined!

I think Stark is closer to the mark than bin Laden. The problem is a cultural way of thinking that starts with the Qur’an and the Prophet and emphasizes unquestioning obedience. The very name of the religion, Islam, means “submission.” The thinking of bin Laden that emphasizes punishing poor rulers is a complete misunderstanding how progress is made. European cultures place a high value on questioning everything, even the divinity of Jesus Christ. Certainly there have been exceptions to this, but in the sweep of history it is an unmistakable trait.

So we have perhaps the starkest conflict of worldviews imaginable: on one hand, a robust and virtually unlimited spirit of inquiry, and on the other a fervent dedication to universal obedience and submission. How this plays out is the story of our times.