No, Mr. Obama, The Crusades and ISIS Are Not The Same Thing

No, Mr. Obama, The Crusades and ISIS Are Not The Same Thing February 5, 2015

Photo credit: Elizabeth Crowmell, Creative Commons

Photo credit: Elizabeth Crowmell, Creative Commons

For the record, here are the audio and the exact words that President Obama said about the Crusades and ISIS at the National Prayer Breakfast:


Humanity’s 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.”

Now, in the most kind and narrow construction you can assign those words, Mr. Obama is not altogether wrong. People have “committed terrible deeds” in the name of Christ. That is true. But.

To say that that is no different than cutting the heads off of babies? To say that that is no different than torching prisoners alive in a caged inferno? No. That is wrong, ignorant, false, and vile. What Mr. Obama is saying is that we have no moral right to call what ISIS does evil. What he is saying is that we cannot fight against them and be entirely just. That is the kind of man who is our Commander in Chief. The man in charge of our military says these kind of things.

So what we need to do, once more, is put the Crusades into historical context. They were not an unjust act of agression against an innocent people. What they were was a much-delayed pushback after 450 full years of Islamic murder and oppression.

But we need to remember too that what Mr. Obama said today is not some new falsehood that has never been uttered before. Myths about the Crusades have a long history, and Obama is only saying what Bill Clinton once did. Back in 2001, Mr. Clinton gave a speech at Georgetown University. This is what he said there.

[W]hen the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem [in 1099], they … proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount. … [T]his story [is] still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it.

“We are still paying for it.” The idea here, in what Mr. Clinton said, is that not only are Christians guilty of atrocity too, but that Islamic violence today can be blamed directly on the Crusades.

But to say things like that is only to confuse the effect with the cause. Radical Islam does not exist because the Crusades did; the Crusades existed because radical Islam did first. Islam had been plundering lands and killing people for hundreds of years before the first Crusade was called. At last we fought back. Maybe we should now.

Mr. Clinton’s speech prompted a reply from Dr. Paul Crawford. It was published in the Intercollegiate Review in the spring of 2011 and reprinted online here. Dr. Crawford, for those who do not know, is a professor of medieval history and expert in the Crusades.

“[E]ven a cursory chronological review,” Dr. Crawford writes, will tell us that the story told by Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama is false. Here are some facts that neither of those two will tell you.

In A.D. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. …

By A.D. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula. Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.

Now, what happened in the hundred years between 632 and 732 was that Muslims invaded and conquered every one of those lands. Only now and then did Christians push back. And it did not end in 732. Let us read more.

In the hundred years between 850 and 950, Benedictine monks were driven out of ancient monasteries, the Papal States were overrun, and Muslim pirate bases were established along the coast of northern Italy and southern France, from which attacks on the deep inland were launched. [Now watch this.] Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them.

The popes were “desperate,” but not to do ill deeds. Their purpose was “to protect victimized Christians.” That’s the history, Mr. Obama. That’s the truth, Mr. Obama. It was not until 1095—more than 450 years after all this Muslim plunder of Christian nations began—that Pope Urban II at last called the First Crusade to drive the enemy out of their lands.

To which I, for one, can only say: About damn time. About damn time. To suggest that that is on a par with what ISIS does only proves that you are ignorant, or insane, or that your political agenda is of more interest to you than the truth.

Dr. Diane Moczar also writes about all this. The title of her book is Seven Lies About Catholic History. Here is some of what she says.

Unprovoked Muslim aggression in the seventh century brought parts of the southern Byzantine Empire, including Syria, the Holy Land, and Egypt under Arab rule. Christians who survived the conquests found themselves subject to a special poll tax and discriminated against as an inferior class known as the dhimmi. Often their churches were destroyed and other harsh conditions imposed. For centuries their complaints had been reaching Rome, but Europe was having its own Dark Age of massive invasion, and nothing could be done to relieve the plight of the eastern Christians.

… By the eleventh century, under the rule of a new Muslim dynasty, conditions worsened. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, site of the Crucifixion, was destroyed, and Christian pilgrims were massacred. In 1067 a group of seven thousand peaceful German pilgrims lost two-thirds of their number to Muslim assaults. By this time the popes, including St. Gregory VII, were actively trying to rally support for relief of the eastern Christians, though without success. It was not until the very end of the century, in 1095, that Pope Urban’s address at Clermont in France met with a response.

Oh, but let us not forget the misdeeds of the Crusaders. They were really a bad, bad bunch. I am sure glad Mr. Obama brought that up, since it is always right to point out how truly evil is the man who fights to free a nation from tyrants and aggressors. I am all broke up about the men who threw the tea off the ships. I am all broke up about the men who stormed the beach and took the cliffs. That kind of thing just should not be stood for.

Dr. Moczar gives us a few more facts to bear in mind here.

The Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem, from inside and on top of the walls, kept pace with the Christian army as it moved slowly around the city, jeering at and mocking the soldiers. They went further: they took crucifixes and profaned them in full view of the troops. Horrified, outraged, and nearly maddened at the sacrileges, the armed groups stormed the city furiously. Lack of coordination among the several units of the army made for a chaotic situation, with commanders losing track (and often control) of their men.

Brutal the fighting was, as no doubt it is in any city in warfare. But were large numbers really slaughtered unmercifully? Did the horses really wade in blood up to their knees and the men up to their ankles? The answer to both questions is, most probably not. … The troops who were left to defend Jerusalem were there to fight, and they did so. …

As it was, the capture of Jerusalem, although a blot on the crusaders’ record, hardly vitiates the whole crusading enterprise. Yes, the siege should have been better organized so that the individual commanders had better control of their men, which would have prevented whatever indiscriminate killing of non-combatants took place and also caused less physical damage to the city. We would like it to have been otherwise, but we were not there and we are certainly not obliged to apologize for it: only the guilty themselves can do that, and both they and those who fought the enemy honorably have long since answered to God for their behavior.

We need to keep in mind what this kind of taunting, blasphemous gesture would have meant to a medieval Catholic who had already had his homeland conquered by Muslims. They were fighting not for their own cause, but for all that the Cross meant to them. Context matters. Nor do we have to answer for what they did. They have already done so.

But keep in mind one more thing. Nothing the crusaders did was out of character for the nature of warfare at the time. That can not be said about ISIS. That cannot be said about the demons and monsters who cut off heads, with a knife, in front of a camera. That cannot be said about the demons and monsters who make a video showing a man being caged and torched. That is the kind of thing the Crusaders were trying to stop. I am not sorry for it and I do not weep.

But what can we say of Muslim attitudes toward the Crusades? Dr. Crawford’s article helps us there too. “Up until quite recently,” he says, “Muslims remembered the crusades [only] as an instance in which they had beaten back a puny western Christian attack.” The Crusaders lost. There was no Arabic word for the Crusades until the nineteenth century. In fact, all the histories before that time were by Christians, and their attitude toward the Crusades was positive. The first Muslim history would not be written until 1899. That is hardly what one would expect if there had been all this violent anger waiting to boil over. Dr. Crawford tells us more. Note this.

What we are paying for is not the First Crusade, but western distortions of the crusades in the nineteenth century which were taught to, and taken up by, an insufficiently critical Muslim world.

Imagine that! The Muslims have been getting all their ideas about the Crusades from anti-Catholics. So if the violence today has anything at all to do with the Crusades, it has to do with myths about them. It does not have to do with anything based in fact. So Mr. Obama, in his words, does not lead. He does not protect the nation, which is his job. He only gives ISIS this one more excuse. It is a very dangerous man who sits in the Oval Office right now. We need a president who takes this evil seriously. We don’t need a peddler of myth.

Islam is an inherently violent and murderous ideology. It has been from the start. And if it is rising up and getting out of control once more, it is the wrong time for a game of false equivalence. Maybe it is time for another Crusade. It would be about damn time. I would be no more sorry now than I would have been then.


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