Thursday, December 23, 2004

Whitewashing Islam? 
I got a lot of email on my recent post noting that Muslims (and Jews) were still a little sore about the Crusades.

My favorite:

I don't know where you got your 'facts' concerning the crusades, but they are a bit askew. Everytime I read someone who brings up the 'evil crusades', I know I'm reading someones stuff, who just wants to rail against Christianity.

Uh oh. They're on to me. :-)

Actually, I'm a huge fan of Christianity. I'm a Christian myself. I'm not always a huge fan of Christians. Particularly ones who torch shtetls. I guess I'm weak in my faith.

Here's an educator, though, with the most lucid and useful response among them:

I think you go too far with “they remember and tremble” especially for Muslims. Yes, the pogroms against Jews in Europe that were integral parts of the Crusades were indeed absolutely wretched affairs and discredit much of the enterprise, but that is only part of the story. The Seljuk Turks that had moved into Palestine/the Middle East in the 10th-11th century were much more intolerant and were upping the ante of persecution of Christians in the Middle East as well as putting pressure on Byzantium. (And it is worth recalling that the Jihads that put much of the Middle East, North Africa and most of Spain into Muslim hands were at times incredibly brutal and destructive affairs). Pope Urban in his call for a Crusade specifically cites this increased persecution as a reason for the Crusades. Muslim rule over the Christians of the Middle East included its share of persecution and restrictions that were a kind of religious apartheid (Christians had to wear distinctive clothes and badges, could not give testimony in Muslim courts but could be tried according to Islamic law, etc) – and this was an expansionist apartheid which Muslims worked very hard to spread.

I teach Balkan history regularly and though the fashion is to talk about Pax Ottomanica the hatred that Islamic rule inspired among all of the peoples of the Balkans suggests that the Pax Ottomanica school is part of the romanticization of Islam that plays up every Muslim achievement (of which there are certainly many) and relativizes every crime and cruelty. Islam was waging Jihad against the Medieval West long before the West responded with Crusades, which many Medieval scholars are now arguing were ultimately defensive. So much of the current Muslim kvetching about the Crusades is part of the effort to portray themselves as victims of centuries of Western oppression, which allows many Muslims to neatly sidestep the fact that they conquered and crushed much of the Christian Middle East and North Africa, engaged in vast butcheries in Anatolia (which was once one of the most heavily urbanized and advanced regions in Europe-Western Asia) and ruled over large areas of Southern Russia and the Balkans with a great deal of cruelty in ways that retarded these regions development for centuries. The Crusades were nasty in the way that Jihad or any religious-ideological war will tend to be nasty. To say that they were uniquely cruel seems questionable. Simply because Muslims today have integrated 19th century anti-clerical and anti-Medieval narratives of the Crusades into their own mytho-history doesn’t make it gospel truth – Jonathan Riley-Smith in the Oxofrd History of the Crusades has a very good discussion of this.

Moral to the story – first, try to avoid waging religious-ideological war/crusades, and secondly if you are going to wage such a war – don’t lose.



The Crusades certainly attracted a lot of un-knightly scoundrels, but
we should really consider the background.

"... Suddenly, in 1009, Hakem, the Fatimite Caliph of Egypt, in a
fit of madness ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre and all
the Christian establishments in Jerusalem. For years thereafter
Christians were cruelly persecuted."

Up till then, for hundreds of years, Europeans made pilgrimages to
Jerusalem, but evenutally, from about 800 on, pilgrims were badly
treated and massacred.

The Seljuk Turks started taking over in that part of the world. The
battle of Manzikert is probably one studied in war colleges.

In degree of barbarity, I doubt the Crusades come anywhere near the
ferocity of Genghis Khan (for starters).

It's depressingly true, though, that whenever you mix war and God, man
is always the loser.

On the other hand, the West's last crusade was in 1270 - about 730 years
ago. We gave up that particular form of barbarity, and have been
waiting paitently ever since for Islam to leave their barbarity behind.

And more:

The point of your correspondent (and, hopefully, the students in question) is
not that the text is uncomfortable--it's that the text is entirely _too_
comfortable, presenting Islam as a happy-slappy-Wonder-Pup feelgood religion
that didn't have some pretty serious calls toward violence and intolerance in
its doctrine. To take your Crusades example, it would be like a book about
Christianity that didn't discuss the Crusades or the Inquisition (or The Future
Punishment Of The Wicked And Intolerable).

That said, it may well be that these things (the present violence of Islam and
the past violence of Christianity) would indeed be better left to a separate
discussion, sort of a "stupid things people have done because they convinced
themselves that God wanted it" class.

This being my blog,

I get the last word.

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