‘The Sultan and the Saint’ premiers tonight on PBS

‘The Sultan and the Saint’ premiers tonight on PBS December 26, 2017


After more than a century of fighting, the crusades reached their height in the year 1220 A.D. The crusaders were now trapped and dying on a field in Egypt and the Muslim army blocking their escape. In order for the crusaders to reach Jerusalem they would have to take the port city of Dalmietta located at the mouth of the Nile River.

The conflict between European Christians and Muslims seemed to be unending. Was there any way to resolve the situation? This film shows us, as have others on the same subject, that two men tried to begin a process of understanding that could still work today.

In 2013 I reviewed a film about the same historical figures, “In the Footprints of Francis and the Sultan: A Model for Peacemaking.”  It was a documentary aimed to encourage interreligious dialogue and offered many resources to teach peacemaking while telling the story of Francis’ encounter with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt so long ago.

This new docudrama does something very different in addition to dramatizing the history of the crusades with key figures (such as Oliver of Paderborn, a priest who designed weapons for the crusaders to use) and the backstories of Francis and al-Kamil and what led up to their encounter. Here, in the early part of the film, various experts talk about how armies are taught to dehumanize “the other” in order to go out and kill them. Their research results are chillingly relevant.

According to social and cognitive scientist Dr. Emile Bruneau, “Children have empathy and behave altruistically and these things help a society stay together, and if you have these qualities how to you motivate people to fight others?” It was not only whipping up religious fervor by popes and others who preached the crusades but modern research shows that complex processes in the reptilian brain “respond to fear conditioning and fear learning.” So “if you call others heretics and satanic, why not start killing them?”

The most common way, the film says, is by dehumanization.

Moral disengagement from harming others through dehumanization seems to have been a major route through which you can get one group of humans to actually harm and kill another group of humans. Pope Innocent’s letter: Instruction to Crusaders states: “…those who would follow Christ to the crown let them also follow him to battle!”

Writer and director Alex Kronemer on set of “The Sultan and the Saint.” Photo courtesy of Unity Productions Foundation
Writer and director Alex Kronemer on set of “The Sultan and the Saint.” Photo courtesy of Unity Productions Foundation

As the crusaders traveled across Europe to the Holy land they did not distinguish between Muslims who had captured holy sites and the Jews who lived among them in Europe. Indeed, even schismatic Christians became a target since they wire strange clothes. They look different so they must be our enemies, seems to have been the reasoning.

Jeremy Irons narrates the film that combines expert input from both Christians and Muslim scholars, dramatization and historic fact about St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan. It is directed by Alex Kronemer.

I hope you will watch or DVR this new film (it is also available to order on Amazon and from the film’s website) and consider how much humanity has changed, yes, but how much we are still in need of authentic witness and behavior from all people of faith and good will to create a just and peaceful world for all of us to share.



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