The Crusades in Context

President Obama’s February 5 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast elicited more than the usual share of rancor. Much of it involved the moral equivalency he appeared to draw between acts of violence carried out in the name of religion. The discordant note he sounded was all the more apparent since he was calling out the millennia-old actions of Christians, at their own breakfast, while still refusing to name radical Islamists or Islamist extremists as the source of the terrorism the West faces today—another word the Obama administration has been at pains to avoid.

His detractors have a point. Recall, for example, the creative verbal gymnastics in labeling the 2009 Fort Hood massacre, “workplace violence,” rather than an act of “violent Islamist extremism.” The White House is even hosting a summit this week on “Combating Violent Extremism,” where it manages to avoid using both words Islam and terrorism—so careful he is not to offend. In a week that began with the Islamic State or ISIS lighting their Jordanian hostage on fire; at an event primarily attended by practicing Christians; it was a strange time and place to engage in false parallelisms.

Mr. Obama explained that we often see religion drive us to do right, but we’ve also seen religion “being twisted and distorted” by those who “professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.” The question, the President asks, is how do we reconcile these two realities? Before attempting an answer, he offered a warning:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.

The problem with such attempts to create a moral equivalency is that it requires a selective focus and revisionist approach that ultimately distorts history. The President has often employed the rhetorical technique of devoting a few sentences to present each side of an issue, before stating his view of the solution required. In such scenarios, however, the need to demonstrate an understanding of one side often overshadows the imperative to differentiate between fact and fiction and place history in its proper context.

In the case of his recent remarks, he amplified the false and grievous claim that the Crusades were unprovoked and constituted a Western imperialistic encroachment into lands that were traditionally Muslim. Yet neither Christians nor Muslims viewed it that way at the time. Far from a predatory aggression or imperial intrusion, the Christians viewed their religious Crusades as an overdue response to Islamic conquests. Its purpose was to reclaim their lost Christian lands, particularly the holy land where Jesus lived and died.

The great Middle East historian, Bernard Lewis noted, “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad—a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.”

Regarding how they were viewed at the time, Lewis explained:

In the Arabic historiography of the period, incomparably richer than that of the Crusaders, the terms Crusade and Crusader do not appear at all, and even the notion that these terms represent appears to be missing… With few exceptions, the Muslim historians show little interest in whence or why they had come and report their arrival and their departure with equal lack of curiosity… In the seesaw of attack and counterattack between Christendom and Islam, this venture began with an inconclusive Christian victory, and ended with a conclusive Christian defeat.

The Advance of Islam

Islam did not advance from its Arabian birthplace into uninhabited lands; their victories came at the expense of the Persian and Byzantium empires that dominated the area at the time. Within 40 years of Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam conquered modern-day Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jerusalem, Persia, Herat, Kabul, and Bokhara. In North Africa, they continued to press westward towards the Atlantic. The war with Byzantium—the heir to the Roman Empire and first Christian nation—continued unabated and they scored their first naval victory over the Christian Empire at the “Battle of the Masts” in 655. With the formation of the Damascus-based Umayyad Dynasty in 661, the Empire turned toward larger objectives.

After conquering Jerusalem in 638, they built the Dome of the Rock on a place sacred to Judeo-Christian tradition, where the Jewish Temples had once stood. Significantly, one of the inscriptions inside the dome is a direct challenge to the principles of the Christian faith: “He is God, He is one, He has no companion, He does not beget, He is not begotten.” The same quote was put on their new gold coins. It was Christendom that stood in the way of the expansion of Islam.

Islam’s obsession with Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople, began shortly after Muhammad’s death and it would eventually fall to a Turkish sultan bearing the name of the Prophet of Islam. In 669, Caliph Mu’awiyya led Islam in the first war for the city. The conquest ultimately failed, as did the Caliphate’s second attempt in 717. In the west, meanwhile, Islamic conquest reached Spain in Europe in 710. This all occurred centuries before the abortive Crusades were launched from Europe, in which the Byzantine Empire did not join. Bernard Lewis explained why Christian Europe pushed back:

The first papal call for a crusade occurred in 846 C.E., when an Arab expedition from Sicily sailed up the Tiber and sacked St. Peter’s in Rome. A synod in France issued an appeal to Christian sovereigns to rally against “the enemies of Christ,” and the Pope, Leo IV, offered a heavenly reward to those who died fighting the Muslims. A century and a half and many battles later, in 1096, the Crusaders actually arrived in the Middle East.

The European Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 but were evicted from the holy city in 1187 and from the region by 1291. The brief Crusader campaign to retake their lost lands in the Middle East failed and was not followed up.

Still, the eastern capital of Christianity, Constantinople remained a goal above all else. The city came under siege again in 1422 and finally fell to Islam’s holy warriors in 1453. The battle waged was a religious one—Islam versus Christianity—and the chroniclers on both sides viewed it in those terms. It also was a war of conquest for the sake of increasing the domain of Islam. During the 42-day siege, Sultan Mehmed II tried to boost the morale of his troops:

These tribulations are for God’s sake. The sword of Islam is in our hands. If we had not chosen to endure these tribulations, we would not be worthy to be called gâzîs [holy warriors]. We would be ashamed to stand in God’s presence on the Day of Judgment.

In a parley with an ambassador from Constantinople at the end of May 1453, Mehmed explained that the only choices left were surrender of the city; death by the sword; or conversion to Islam.

A Clash of Barbarisms?

Much has been made of the ruthless actions of the Crusaders as if it shattered some standard of morality at the time. But this moral judgment was only superimposed nearly a thousand years later. For example, see one of the more vivid eyewitness accounts of the siege and fall of Constantinople—centuries after the Crusades. It came from the diary kept by Nicolo Barbaro:

The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm… [The Turks] sought out the monasteries, and all the nuns were led to the fleet and ravished and abused by the Turks, and then sold at auction for slaves throughout Turkey, and all the young women also were ravished and then sold for whatever they would fetch, although some of them preferred to cast themselves into the wells and drown rather than fall into the hands of the Turks, as did a number of married women also.

Barbaro recorded that, “everyone they found they dispatched at the point of the scimitar, women and men, old and young, of any condition.” According to Kritovoulos, a Greek judge and chronicler from the island of Imbros, the Ottoman soldiers who pressed into the city and met the civilians “attacked them with a great anger and fury.” They killed “to create universal terror.” And according to the Byzantine chronicler, Chalcocondylas “the whole city was filled with men killing or being killed, fleeing or pursuing.”

The Ottoman conquerors sought out the city’s churches and monasteries above all else. The churches of St. George, St. John the Baptist, and the Chora Monastery, were fast plundered and desecrated. Crosses were smashed from the roofs of the churches; the tombs of saints were cracked open and searched for treasures, their contents torn to pieces and thrown into the street. In a few short hours, a thousand years of Christian Constantinople largely disappeared.

If one could pick a single moment when the Byzantine Empire died, it was when the doors to the Church of St. Sophia—built by Justinian in 537, before the birth of Muhammad—cracked open under the repeated blows of Ottoman axes. Once inside the church, Mehmed the Conqueror (as he was known) called for an Imam to ascend the pulpit and recite the idhan—the Muslim call to prayer—before he climbed to the altar.

The work of converting St. Sophia into a mosque began immediately. A wooden minaret was rapidly constructed and the figurative mosaics were whitewashed. A few days later, Friday prayers were heard for the first time in what was now the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) mosque and the Islamic invocation was read in the name of Sultan Mehmed Khan Gâzî. According to an Ottoman chronicler, “the sweet five-times-repeated chant of the Muslim faith was heard in the city,” and in a moment of piety, Mehmed coined the city’s new name: Islambol—a pun on its Turkish name meaning “full of Islam.” The city, also known as Istanbul, became the Ottoman imperial capital and would remain so until the fall of the empire in 1923 at the conclusion of the First World War.

With their new capital bordering the heart of Christendom, the Ottoman Empire sought to expand into Europe over the course of the next few centuries. Their wars of conquest included: Italy; Albania; Croatia; Bosnia; the Hungarian Kingdom; Serbia; Venice; Moldova; Rhodes; Malta; Cyprus; Austria; and Poland, among others. When Europe counterattacked and recovered Russia, the Balkan Peninsula, and pushed further into Islamic lands, it was called, imperialism. When Muslims from Asia and Africa attacked Europe, it was not.

A Revisionist’s History

In its proper historical context, the Crusades were a minor episode in European-Islamic relations. Moreover, unlike the jihad, the Crusades were primarily concerned with the defense and reconquest of threatened or lost Christian territory, not the expansion and spread of faith into new lands under a different religion and rule. The elevation of the Crusades’ implications into the narrative now espoused by many apologists in the West, and those with grievances in the Middle East, is a modern invention based on revisionist history. And history does not begin or end based on the desires of some to inflate their historical narrative at the expense of others.

Such is the issue with Mr. Obama’s attempt to create a moral equivalency between the Crusades and ISIS, which liberal columnist, Eugene Robinson, called “patronizing to the extreme.” The Crusades happened a thousand years ago. The world is a different place and so are the “universal norms, international norms” whose virtues Obama enthusiastically extols. As Robinson points out, “We understand, for example, that deadly epidemics are caused by germs—not by the failure to burn enough witches or slay enough infidels.” At this standpoint in history, who doesn’t know that lighting people on fire is wrong? From today’s moral perspective, who doesn’t understand that death is not the penalty for offending a religion by taking the Lord’s name in vain—or drawing a cartoon? It is more than a little patronizing to suggest that Muslims can only be held to a medieval standard.

Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast played into the hands of those with petty grievances and bestowed it with an air of legitimacy that it does not warrant. Even if such a bloated meaning of the Crusades were to be accurate, it would still be long past time to turn the page. Christians today do not seek Islam’s apology for centuries of attacks before and after the Crusades. While the borders of the modern Arab world may have been fashioned by European powers in the 20th century, the failure of the modern Arab state in the eyes of its inhabitants cannot be solely attributed to the West that occupied their land for a brief span of time. Nor did it cause the advance of radical, political, and extreme Islamism and the terrorist tactics certain groups employ.

The constant grievance based on trumped up versions of history prevents the wider Middle East from moving forward; it promotes the idea that both the cause and solution to the region’s maladies lies without, not within; that the answer can be found in an idealized past, rather than in forging an inclusive future. That is why President Obama’s comments—even if well intended—did not contribute towards a greater understanding or bring us closer toward a solution.

Matthew RJ Brodsky is a Senior Middle East Analyst at Wikistrat and former Director of Policy at the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, DC. He holds a Masters degree in Middle East History from Tel Aviv University and can be followed on Twitter: @RJBrodsky

About the Author
Matthew RJ Brodsky is a Middle East and Jewish affairs analyst and Senior Middle East Analyst at Wikistrat. Previously, he served as the Director of Policy for the Jewish Policy Center and the editor of the JPC's journal, inFOCUS Quarterly. Before joining the JPC, Mr. Brodsky was a Legacy Heritage Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council where he focused on the Levant. He has briefed and advised members of Congress, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, Special Operations Command, and the National Security Council. A specialist in Middle East affairs and Arab politics, he holds a Master of Arts degree from Tel Aviv University in Middle East History. Mr. Brodsky has published numerous scholarly journal articles, national newspaper editorials, and magazine features and has been interviewed as a Middle East subject expert in news outlets internationally. His website can be found at:
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