Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Crusades: Myth Vs. Reality

How many times have you read criticism from atheists/agnostics/Islamophiles/anti-Western deconstructionists about the wretched, soul-searing evil of the Crusades--you know, those proto-imperialistic attempts at conquering the noble turbaned savages of Eden. Yes, you've probably read about how Duke George W. I looked across the turbulent Mediterranean and said: "Thou shalt heareth all of us sooneth," or some such grand expression, at which point he and Cheney of Blois, Condi of Lusignan, and papal legate Rumsfeld powwowed about how best to parcel up those oily sands and peaceful townships, for the satiation of God's greed.

The problem is that this depiction is bunk, and anything remotely resembling it is a crock. In fact, if your understanding of the crusades is limited to popular histories and film, you know even less about the Crusades than Osama bin Hiden.

In 632, Muhammed--blessings upon his flea-bitten backside--gave up the ghost and ventured for hotter climes. He had pacifistically conquered a portion of the Arabian Peninsula during his waging of relentless peace. His immediate successor finished that endeavor, saw the rest of the world, and said, "Wow, more kindling for the fire!" And so the warriors of heaven continued in their greatest skill: the art of killing and enslaving for Allah. One hundred years after Muhammed's demise, they had destroyed the Persian Empire, made forays against the Byzantines, taken the Holy Land and Syria, consumed northern Africa (including Egypt), conquered three-fourths of Spain, and invaded France. Charles Martel halted their advance into French lands and sent them fleeing at the battles around Tours and Poitiers. With the exceptions of Arabia and Persia, all of the above lost territories were components of Christendom. The Spaniards--exhibiting Job's own patience--spent the next seven hundred sixty years winning back their stolen country from Muhammed's Peaceniks, in what is known today as the Reconquista.

The Islamic world continued spreading smiles into lands known today as Khazakhstan and Pakistan, as well as Sicily. They also took to beating the peace out of each other, such was their penchant for unity and harmony. The Sunni caliphate of Baghdad began disintegrating, and the Fatimids--Shiites who claimed descent from Muhammed's daughter--ruled over Egypt. A third group of newly-Islamocized nomads, the Seljuk Turks, found Byzantine lands enticing. Even within these three major divisions of Islamic lands, infighting and dynastic struggles ran amok.

During this time period, Western Christendom failed in presenting a united front against expansionist Islam, due to the petty exigencies of surviving swarms of invading Vikings and Magyars. However, the West managed integrating and converting most of these troublemakers by the tenth century's end.

The Seljuks began raiding Byzantine territory--a favorite pasttime of Muslims in the region--and the emperor became worried as these attacks hit close to home. So he reluctantly asked the pope for help. This is an important point: The First Crusade was, in part, a direct response to Byzantine pleas for aid. The pope saw the situation as one in which he could kill several birds with one stone, as it were: He wanted to help fellow Christians in the fight against Muslims, heal the rifts between the Eastern and Western Churches, and even make efforts at winning back Jerusalem, a holy city to Christians. The pope understood the Islamic threat, as north Africa had been utilized already as a launching platform for assaults on western Europe.

Christians didn't call their efforts a "crusade," but an armed pilgrimage. The word "crusade" is a more modern appellation for these events. Christians saw their aid of the Byzantines and subsequent journey to the Holy Land as pleasing to God. The trek to Jerusalem was as much an act of worship as one of warfare. Other crusades to the Holy Land followed from this first endeavor, which began in 1095, and ended in 1099.

Islamic threats in the East and West were tangible, but more immediate in the East at the time of the First Crusade. Virtually since Muhammed's day, Christians had endured numerous onslaughts by Muslims, who violated their boundaries and their women, sacked their towns, and proselytized with their swords. They offered three appealing alternatives: death, de facto or literal enslavement, or conversion to Islam. One cannot make heads or tails of the Crusades outside this critical context: that they were a response to centuries of unprovoked Islamic aggression. Imagine tolerating unrelenting attacks against your friends and neighbors for a period twice as long as America has existed as a nation, then ask yourself: what would I have done?

So we have a history fashioned from myth, a web of lies thicker than that of Tolkien's Shelob.

Lie: Crusaders were the aggressors.

Lie: The Islamic world was peaceful, before the dreaded Christians struck.

Lie: Mesopotamia, Arabia, the Holy Land, and their environs all were united under Islam's banner, just prior to the Crusades.

Lie: Crusaders were imperialists (the Crusades had enormous monetary costs; rich men broke themselves on their behalf, and poor men went bankrupt, losing everything they owned. The absurdity of suggesting that the Crusades were precursors to 18th and 19th century European/white colonialism is demonstrated by the fact that, when a Crusade ended, the vast majority of crusaders returned home).

Were there excesses? Certainly. Undertakings of such magnitude always attract opportunists, ne'er-do-wells, and bloodthirsty hatemongers. But the typical crusader--of high or low station--fit none of these descriptions. His involvement was an act of worship, or penance, or a good work motivated by hope of salvation, however the wrongheadedness of such a works-based outlook.

I think it's pathetic and infuriating that people shriek in outrage about the Crusades, formulating their questions as "How dare those Europeans. . .", or "Why did the Crusaders do. . .", fill-in-the-preferred-atrocity, etc. A sure sign of ignorance is asking the wrong questions within a faulty framework. Often, one's true worldview is found therein. Revealing repugnance toward the West when discussing the Crusades is asinine, when one looks at the actual events, instead of relying upon the works of anti-Western "historians" like Karen Armstrong. It's like condemning Israel for not going belly-up in the course of one of its many wars. Come to think of it, I've heard castigations along those very lines.

My question is: how was Christendom able to stomach so much unmitigated wrecking of its lands and the wholesale murder of its people for so long, before hitting back? That's a far more reasonable question.

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