Friday, July 14, 2006

Are The Crusades To Blame?

Throughout the current struggle between the West and its terrorist opponents, there have been continual references to the roots of the conflict, hearkening back to the Crusades. There is a recurrent "well Christians started it" attitude, as if anything done a thousand years ago somehow justifies atrocities done today, and makes Christian believers of the present (or anyone descended from the believers of old) responsible to atone for the misdeeds of previous generations. Islamists today frequently cite the grievances of a millenia past as the source of their discontent, and the West, so willing to believe the worst about itself, takes on the mantle of responsibility. Americans, especially, buy into the concept of inherited guilt. We feel responsible, on an emotional level, for wrongs done to Native American peoples (native in the sense that they reached this land before our ancestors did), and wrongs done to the people brought here against their will as slaves. It is right that we acknowledge the wrong of these actions, but it is not right that we lay claim to their guilt. I am not responsible for the slave trade. I did not participate in it. Neither did you. Likewise I did not wage war in the Middle East a thousand years ago in order to capture its wealth and subjugate its people. Ironically, if some historians are to be believed, neither did the Crusaders.

In a piece from 2002 titled "The Real History of the Crusades", Thomas F. Madden, associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University, takes close look at the centuries of religious conflict, their origin and progression of battles, victories and losses for both Christians and Muslims. There are surprises for those of us raised to believe that the Crusades were a systematic Christian aggression. According to Madden, a historian specializing in the Crusades, this is far from the case. Rather, he says they were a response to ongoing violent Muslim aggression, taking lands that were once overwhelmingly Christian and converting them by the sword.

Madden discusses how the computer-aided compilation of information, occurring over the past few decades, has led to a clearer picture of how the Crusades came to be. He examines how they progressed as a desperate attempt to stave off Islamic conquest, how they really had their roots in faith, and the defense of brethren under siege, and how, sadly, they led to the schism in Christianity, between the Catholic church of the West and the Orthodox church of the East. Madden says, "It is a terrible irony that the Crusades, which were a direct result of the Catholic desire to rescue the Orthodox people, drove the two further—and perhaps irrevocably—apart." As the highest irony, though blamed for the state of poverty and decay in which much of the Islamic world (the part without oil revenues) exists today, the Crusades were ultimately a victory for Muslims. The Christians, over the long stretch of the centuries, continued to lose ground to Islamic invaders. It was the Renaissance which turned the tables, and halted Islam's march, not by arms, but by economic superiority which eclipsed the previous domination rising from the East. There's so much more to the tale, and Madden synopsises the story in clear, comprehensible prose. It's a fascinating study, loooooong, but full of rich historical meat. Hungry for history? Prepare to dine.

HT: The Pink Flamingo Bar & Grill