Wherever one looks, the historic crusades against Islam are demonized and distorted in ways designed to exonerate jihadi terror. “Unless we get on our high horse,” Barack Obama once chided Americans who were overly critical of Islamic terror, “and think this [beheadings, sex-slavery, crucifixion, roasting humans] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Others, primarily academics and self-professed “experts,” insist that the crusades are one of the main reasons modern day Muslims are still angry. According to Georgetown University’s John Esposito, “[f]ive centuries of peaceful coexistence [between Islam and Christendom] elapsed before political events and an imperial-papal power play led to [a] centuries-long series of so-called holy wars that pitted Christendom against Islam and left an enduring legacy of misunderstanding and distrust.”
Nor is this characterization limited to abstract theorizing; it continues to have a profound impact on the psyche of Westerners everywhere. Thus in 1999 and to mark the 900th anniversary of the crusader conquest of Jerusalem, hundreds of devout Protestants participated in a so-called “reconciliation walk” that began in Germany and ended in the holy city. Along the way, they wore T-shirts bearing the message “I apologize” in Arabic. Their official statement:
Nine hundred years ago, our forefathers carried the name of Jesus Christ in battle across the Middle East. Fueled by fear, greed and hatred … the Crusaders lifted the banner of the Cross above your people … On the anniversary of the first Crusade, we … wish to retrace the footsteps of the Crusaders in apology for their deeds … We deeply regret the atrocities committed in the name of Christ by our predecessors. We renounce greed, hatred and fear, and condemn all violence done in the name of Jesus Christ.
The great irony concerning the mainstream condemnation of the historic crusades is that a closer examination of them — what they meant, what inspired them, how they were justified, who could participate — in comparison to the requisites of jihad not only exonerates the crusades but exonerates the West of any wrongdoing against Islam, past or present. As outrageous as this may sound, consider the following facts.
“Just War” Theory
First, the crusades were a product of “Just War” theory, the fundamental criterion of which is that wars “must be defensive or for the recovery of rightful possession,” to quote Crusades historian Christopher Tyerman. “Christian warriors,” elaborates Reconquista historian Joseph O’Callaghan, “were exhorted to regain land, once theirs, but now wrongfully occupied by Muslim intruders who were charged with oppressing Christianity and despoiling churches.” As such, “the Christians, certain that their cause was just and that God was on their side, faced the enemy.”
So sure of the justness of their cause, premodern Europeans never failed to explain it to their Muslim opponents. Before beginning the siege of Lisbon, Archbishop Joao of Braga invited the Muslims to surrender, since they had “unjustly held our cities and lands already for 358 years,” and “to return to the homeland of the Moors whence you came, leaving to us what is ours.” Fifty years earlier and thousands of miles to the east, Peter the Hermit relied on the same logic to explain to a Muslim commander why it was just for the crusaders — and not for the Muslims — to claim the ancient Christian city of Antioch by force: because it had been Christian for six centuries before Islam invaded.
Indeed, because North Africa and the Middle East were part of Christendom centuries before Islam conquered them, not a few Medieval European thinkers harbored hopes of liberating even these. “The oriental church shone in antiquity, explained Jacques [de Vitry, a Frankish theologian, b. 1160/70], spreading its rays to the West, but ‘from the time of the perfidious Muhammad until our own time’ has been in decline” and thus needed liberation. The “idea of proceeding through Spain to Africa and thence to the Holy Land was put forward in the fourteenth century in several treatises on the recovery of the Holy Land.”
As late as the 20th Century, the prolific Anglo-French historian Hilaire Belloc lamented that if the crusades had not failed, “probably we Europeans would have recovered North Africa and Egypt — we should certainly have saved Constantinople — and Mohammedanism would have only survived as an Oriental religion thrust beyond the ancient boundaries of the Roman Empire.” Even the entire colonial era was a byproduct of Just War. As Bernard Lewis explains:
[T]he whole complex process of European expansion and empire in the last five centuries has its roots in the clash of Islam and Christendom. It began with the long and bitter struggle of the conquered peoples of Europe, in east and west, to restore their homelands to Christendom and expel the Muslim peoples who had invaded and subjugated them. It was hardly to be expected that the triumphant Spaniards and Portuguese would stop at the Straits of Gibraltar, or that the Russians would allow the Tatars to retire in peace and regroup in their bases on the upper and lower Volga — the more so since a new and deadly Muslim attack on Christendom was under way, with the Turkish advance from the Bosporus to the Danube and beyond threatening the heart of Europe. The victorious liberators, having reconquered their own territories, pursued their former masters whence they had come.
Just Plain Old Jihad
Now compare Just War logic — defending one’s lands and its people and defanging one’s enemy — with the jihad. The “Western distinction between just and unjust wars,” writes international relations professor Bassam Tibi, “is unknown in Islam. Any war against unbelievers, whatever its immediate ground, is morally justified. Only in this sense can one distinguish just and unjust wars in Islamic tradition. When Muslims wage war for the dissemination of Islam, it is a just war. … When non-Muslims attack Muslims [including in self-defense], it is an unjust war. The usual Western interpretation of jihad as a ‘just war’ in the Western sense is, therefore, a misreading of this Islamic concept.”
To be sure, a great many Western “experts” on Islam insist that jihad is the Islamic counterpart of Just War, that it is all always defensive and in no way, shape, or form supports offensive warfare. (Most recently, Juan Cole makes this false assertion in his book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires.)
Or consider the words of Islam scholar Clement Huart (b. 1854), writing back at the height of Western power and Muslim weakness: “The [Western] international conventions that have limited the exercise of the right to wage war [to purposes of defense] have no influence over the Muslim soul, to which passivism is and always will be for foreign. The state of peace has been imposed on it by force; the Muslim soul tolerates it but does not recognize it, and cannot recognize it as long as there are unbelievers on earth to convert.”
Sin, Sincerity, and Sex
What constitutes casus bellum is only the first of many differences between crusade and jihad. Because the former developed within a Judeo-Christian paradigm, it was surrounded by moral constraints that no other civilization — especially Islam — imposed on itself.
From the very start, at Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban never offered forgiveness of sins (but rather remission of the penances for sins to which crusaders had already confessed). Those who took the cross were required to be sincerely penitent.
This is a far cry from what Muslims were (and are) taught about fighting and dying in jihad: Every sin they ever committed is instantly forgiven, and the highest level of paradise is theirs. “Lining up for battle in the path of Allah,” Muhammad had decreed in a canonical hadith, “is worthier than 60 years of worship.” Muhammad also said, “I cannot find anything” as meritorious as jihad, which he further likened to “praying ceaselessly and fasting continuously.” As for the “martyr” — the shahid — he “is special to Allah,” announced the prophet. “He is forgiven from the first drop of blood [he sheds]. He sees his throne in paradise. … Fixed atop his head will be a crown of honor, a ruby that is greater than the world and all it contains. And he will copulate with seventy-two Houris.” (The houris are supernatural, celestial women — “wide-eyed” and “big-bosomed,” says the Koran — created by Allah for the express purpose of gratifying his favorites in perpetuity.)
Crusader motives also had to be sincere: “Whoever shall set forth to liberate the church of God at Jerusalem for the sake of devotion alone and not to obtain honor or money will be able to substitute that journey for all penance,” Urban had said. Similarly, Spanish Prince Juan Manuel (d. 1348) explained that “all those who go to war against the Moors in true repentance and with a right intention … and die are without any doubt holy and rightful martyrs, and they have no other punishment than the death they suffer.”
In this, Christian war significantly departed from Islamic jihad. Allah and his prophet never asked for or required sincere hearts from those flocking to the jihad; as long as they proclaimed the shahada — thereby pledging allegiance to Islam — and nominally fought for and obeyed the caliph or sultan, men could invade, plunder, rape and enslave infidels to their hearts’ content.
The cold, businesslike language of the Koran makes this clear. Whoever wages jihad makes a “fine loan to Allah,” which the latter guarantees to pay back “many times over” in booty and bliss either in the here or hereafter (e.g., Koran 2:245, 4:95, 9:111). “I guarantee him [the jihadi] either admission to Paradise,” said Muhammad, “or return to whence he set out with a reward or booty.”
In short, fighting in Islam’s service — with the risk of dying — is all the proof of piety needed. Indeed, sometimes fighting has precedence over piety: Many dispensations, including not upholding prayers and fasting, are granted those who participate in jihad. Ottoman sultans were actually forbidden from going on pilgrimage to Mecca — an otherwise individual obligation for Muslims, especially those who can afford it, such as the sultan — simply because doing so could jeopardize the prosecution of the jihad.
Little wonder that, whereas there was never a shortage of Muslims willing to participate in a jihad, “85-90 percent of the Frankish knights did not respond to the pope’s call to the Crusade,” explains Tony Stark, and “those [10-15 percent] who went were motivated primarily by pious idealism.”
Little wonder that there are still countless jihadis today but no crusaders.
The crusade’s stringent requirements compared to the jihad’s lax requirements are especially evident in the context of sex. Crusaders were forbidden from owning or raping slaves. During the more than eight-month long siege of Antioch, desperate crusaders — whose many deprivations included female companionship — resorted to roaming bands of local prostitutes. These were eventually driven out, “lest they [the crusaders], stained by the defilement of dissipation, displease the Lord.” Contrast this with the Muslim army that came to face them: It contained numerous beautiful women “brought here not to fight, but rather reproduce,” observed one eyewitness.
Inevitable Atrocities vs. Intentional Atrocities
Because Just War demanded the restoration of a particularly important piece of Christian territory, in this case Jerusalem, the crusaders marched for years over thousands of miles deep into hostile territory, suffering hunger, thirst, disease, and a host of other plagues to reach their goal.
This comes out clearly in the writings of participants and contemporaries of the First Crusade. “So, for the love of God,” explained Fulcher of Chartres, “we suffered … hunger, cold, and excessive rains. Some wanting food ate even horses, asses, and camels. Also, we were very often racked by excessive cold and frequent rainstorms … I saw many, without tents, die from the coldness of the rainstorms. … Often some were killed by Saracens lying in ambush around the narrow passages, or were abducted by them when they were seeking victuals … [But] it is evident that no one can achieve anything great without tremendous effort. [Thus] it was a great event when we came to Jerusalem.” Pregnant women, adds Albert of Aix (b. 1060) “their throats dried up, their wombs withered, all the veins of the body drained by the indescribable heat of the sun and that parched region, gave birth and abandoned their own [probably stillborn] young in the middle of the highway in the view of everyone.”
Unsurprisingly, when they finally breached the walls of those who had initiated the need for them to march (and suffer) in the first place — Muslims — the by-then emaciated and half-maddened Europeans often responded with unbridled fury. “As they recalled the sufferings they had endured during the siege” of Antioch, wrote a contemporary, “they thought that the blows that they were giving could not match the starvations, more bitter than death, that they had endured.” Likewise, during the siege of Barra, the crusaders were so “harassed by the madness of excessive hunger” that they devoured the flesh of already dead Muslims; when they finally took the city, “[t]heir [deranged] appearance … terrified the Muslims,” who were ruthlessly massacred.
Conversely, Muslims never had a specific goal that required them to march thousands of miles deep into hostile territory; rather the jihad took place wherever Muslim territories conveniently abutted against infidels (the ribats or border fortresses). Thus jihadis rarely suffered hardships or deprivations and were always a short march away from Muslim territories, whence supplies, recruits, and refreshments of all sorts were easily attainable. Even so, according to the popular view (voiced by academics, politicians, and especially media) the atrocities committed during the crusader sack of Jerusalem — not the countless Muslim atrocities committed in the centuries before and after it that were neither justified nor exacerbated by undue hardships but rather fueled by sadistic hate for “infidels” — is the worst atrocity ever committed in the many centuries of war between Christians and Muslims, and the only one that should be talked about.
Religious Freedom vs. Religious Coercion
Finally, because Just War is exclusively concerned with matters of justice (recovering land or repulsing enemies) and, unlike the jihad, is not ideologically driven, so too did it not institutionalize any mechanisms to pressure Muslims into converting to Christianity. (With notable exceptions as when the Spanish crown found conversion to Christianity the only realistic way for half a million Muslims to abandon their ongoing hostilities and subversions; even this failed as the overwhelming majority of Muslims feigned conversion while internalizing the antagonism in keeping with the doctrine of taqiyya, as documented in Sword and Scimitar, pp. 199-203).
As Constantine the Great had explained three centuries before the coming of Islam, “Let those [pagans] who delight in error alike with those who believe [Christians] partake of the advantages of peace and quiet. … Let no one disturb another, let each man hold fast to that which his soul wishes, let him make full use of this … What each man has adopted as his persuasion, let him do no harm with this to another.”
A millennium after Constantine, Spanish prince Juan Manuel (d.1348) agreed: “There is war between Christians and Moors and there will be until the Christians have recovered the lands that the Moors have taken from them by force. There would not be war between them on account of religion or sect, because Jesus Christ never ordered that anyone should be killed or forced to accept his religion.”
“In other words,” concludes crusades professor Riley-Smith, “the Crusades, like all Christian wars, had to be reactive; they could never, for example, be wars of conversion.” Accordingly, whether during the crusades or the colonial era, European (re)conquerors did not behave like their Muslim counterparts and institutionalize discriminatory or humiliating measures designed to pressure the conquered to convert. A Ninth Century letter from Constantinople to the caliphate argues that, “since … the Arab prisoners could pray in a mosque in Constantinople without anyone obliging them to embrace Christianity, the Caliph should also cease to persecute Christians.”
That Just War is morally superior to just jihad can even be seen in the aftermath of both. Whereas successful jihads almost always culminated in slavery, depopulation, and devastation, Muslims “live in great comfort under the Franks,” wrote Ibn Jubayr around 1180, while passing through the crusader kingdoms on pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims “are masters of their dwellings,” he added, “and govern themselves as they wish. This is the case in all the territory occupied by the Franks.”
Distinctions Even a Child Understands
Be that as it may; whatever else can be taken from this excursus on the differences between crusade and jihad, between just and unjust wars, the most fundamental point cannot be overstated: Because Islam initiated hostilities against the premodern Christian world — invading and conquering the majority of its historic territory without provocation and in the name of jihad, not justice — everything the West did in response was justified. If this assertion strikes some as outrageous, so too does it accord with the most universally held notions of justice, apparent from birth. For when two school boys are chastised for fighting and one indignantly cries out “but he started it!”, what else does he do but appeal to the innate human conviction that whoever starts, not responds to, violence is the guilty party?
(Note: See Ibrahim’s new book Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West for many examples of just and unjust war.)