ISIS and the Crusades

Thomas Madden, one of my mentors, has a new piece in the Washington Post on ISIS and the Crusades.

In it, he rehearses the ways in which the memory of the Crusades was carried by Western European people into the colonial era and thus brought the European ideas about the Crusades into the Islamic world. Modern Islamic groups picked up on this western conception of the Crusades and adapted it into a useful past for their own contemporary agendas.

So far, so good. It’s not that the Islamic world “forgot” the Crusades, but that in the grand sweep of North African and West Asian history, they weren’t the cause of centuries of intense nostalgic remembrance (it’s the losers who hold grudges. Winners throw a parade but move on to other things). The Islamic “memory” of the Crusades was as an incursion, a short-lived failure, and a spark that helped leaders like Saladin and, more to the point, Baybars and the Mamluks, to rise. 16th Europeans were extremely involved in the Crusade-memory project. 16th-century Western Asian Muslims had other things on their minds (largely). It’s fascinating to me that modern Islamic states, groups, and cultures, especially under the pan-Arabism of Nasser in the 20th century, adopted the European Colonialist fantasy of the Crusades, then adapted it to their own anti-colonial purposes.

But I do have some concerns with Madden’s piece. He writes:

The Crusades were military campaigns, but they could not have happened were they not also devotional exercises. Centuries before the first Crusader took his vow, Muslim armies had waged vigorous jihads against the Christian world.

These two sentences are, for me, a non-sequitur. They are both more or less true (it’s arguable whether “vigorous jihad against the Christian world” is an accurate way to describe 7th century conquests, but I’ll let someone else write about that). They just have little to with each other except in the imaginations of the western European 11th-century Christians who constructed a relationship with sacred territory in Western Asia, then claimed they had the right to “take it back.” Much of that imaginary relationship emerged in the 12th century, after the First Crusade, but there’s plenty of evidence that these ideas pre-date 1095.

These sentences fall into the debate of: 1) “The Crusades were truly a defensive war” in which the Crusades defended “Christian territory” vs “Islam.” vs 2) “The crusaders imagined it was a defensive war in which they constructed a “Christendom” and “Islam” in perpetual conflict.

I’m a proponent of the latter (2) construct – That the Crusaders indeed typically had genuine belief in these connections, but that these connections were largely imaginary. There’s no reasonable claim that Western Latin/French-speaking European Catholics in the 11th century could make for “real” ownership over land in Western Asia that Arab forces conquered from the Byzantine empire ~500 years previously. History is, however, full of people asserting such connections.

I also believe there’s nothing in world history more dangerous than people who invent ideologies to justify violence. Madden writes:

Crusaders honestly saw themselves as undertaking acts of charity and love for their Christian brothers and sisters in the East.

Again, I think this is true for many Crusaders. The evidence is strong.

And it’s terrifying.

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