It’s not hard for President Obama to stir outrage. Six years into his presidency, all he has to do is speak to make the opposition angry. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes not.
At the National Prayer Breakfast, following his condemnation of ISIS violence, the President had this to say: “Humanity has 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.”
The facts on their face are undeniable. During various Crusades and Inquisitions, some people did indeed do terrible things that no Christian should do, nor should any defend. But they also did great things in the name of Christ, and at the exact same time. Let’s look at one notorious incident and how it played out on both sides.
In 1096, the Jews of Rhineland, afraid of the antisemitic mobs being whipped into a frenzy, pleaded with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Godfrey, Lord of Bouillon for protection.
Henry ordered that no Jew or his property was to be touched. Nonetheless, a large army of Crusaders led by Emicho, Count of Leiningen, entered the Rhineland and began killing Jews, even after accepting large ransoms for their safety. The Bishops of Worms, Speyer, and Mainz attempted to halt the slaughter, and sheltered Jews in their castles and cathedrals to no avail. After Emicho killed at least a thousand in Mainz (with more lost to suicide to prevent forced conversions), he proceeded to the Holy Land; but his army fell apart before he got there and he returned home in disgrace.
The stories of the Rhineland massacres are bloodcurdling and shameful. There are heroes and villains, but also mixed motivations. The Crusaders acted under cover of piety, but in truth they were heavily in debt to the Rhineland Jews, and hungry for their gold. The Church herself remained consistent in ordering protection of Jewish life and property.
That’s history: complex and not easily reduced to simple formulas.
Indeed, religious violence is actually fairly rare in the West. Almost all war and organized violence is about power and money. Religion and ideology are just a veneer to provide justification. Powerful men may use them to convince the population to act in a certain way, but the underlying cause is almost never a theological dispute.
This is the problem with deploying both the Crusades and the Inquisition as shorthand for unjustified acts of blind religious violence by Christians. They simply weren’t. The Crusades were provoked by Muslim aggression, the threat to the Constantinople from the Seljuks, and the desire to liberate Jerusalem, which had fallen into Muslim hands. It was a response by a quarreling and fractious Europe to a massive, ascendant Islam with global imperialistic designs. In realty, the armies of Europe were rather pathetic compared to the might of the Turks.
And it’s crucial to recall a central fact: Europe lost.
The reality of the Crusades was subject to massive amounts of revisionism in subsequent centuries. First, at the hands of chroniclers and bards, it became a subject of lofty Christian ideals and manly virtues, with gleaming heroes in armor and swarthy villains. That wave of sentiment was radically derailed by the Reformation, which recast the Crusades as the actions of perfidious papists swollen with greed and blood lust subjecting the innocent populations of the east to their imperial designs.
As the high-tide of Islamic power ended with the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim world settled into a period of modern history defined by a bitter colonialism that once again reshaped their perceptions of the Crusades. The Middle East became characterized by a strange collision of realities: grotesque excesses fueled with petrodollars, internal strife, widespread antisemitism, constant internal religious strife, wild-eyed religious zealotry, and the exporting of terrorism. In the last century, as as the post-Ottoman Muslim descended into either rule by foreigners and sheiks or chaos, the Crusades and the Jews became convenient bogeymen in the Islamic mind: the Crusades, because Muslims projected their current colonial plight onto the screen of the past even though there was little connection between the two realities; and the Jews, because they’re Jews, and the virus of antisemitism never leaves humanity’s bloodstream for long.
This is why a world leader such as the US President needs to be very careful with the way he deploys history and tries to draw moral analogies from the past. He’s not merely speaking to one audience with a monolithic understanding, but to many audiences with varying and often conflicting understandings. And the bottom of all those different interpretations of the past in the public consciousness lies the truth that is, or should be, the province of the historian.
The problem is this: deploying the Crusades or the Inquisition in modern rhetoric creates a very specific, consistent image in almost all listeners, and that dominant image is always historically inaccurate. Worse, it’s freighted with meaning wholly unrelated to the history from which it seeks to draw a lesson. It exploits an unjust grievance against the West for the Crusades, and perpetuates that image like a festering sore, feeding the justifications for outrageous acts of violence against innocent Westerners. Part of the Islamic culture of grievance has to do with a myth of the Crusades they’ve created. It’s flat-out irresponsible for a Western leader to perpetuate and legitimatize it.
Just why the president did this is not hard to explain. There is the sense on the left that Western civilization is not sufficiently schooled in the evils of our past racism and religious extremism, and that we need to be continually educated by our betters lest some new explosion of violence against minorities erupt. That this eruption is always predicted in the wake of anti-Western violence, yet never occurs, doesn’t seem to matter. In their eyes, we’re children who need to be told that racism is bad and we shouldn’t feel so good about our own history. This was a chastisement, and a typically tone-deaf one at that.
In the course of normal affairs, a teacher or parent or even a leader urging us to come to terms with our own past would not be particularly notable. We shouldn’t sweep our past under the rug. We should continue to examine it, because the purpose of studying history is to better inform our present actions.
The President’s problem is his failure to grasp that this is not the course of normal affairs. An Islamic-supremacist army is burning people alive in cages. Noting that racist whites also burned men alive in the days of Jim Crow is not merely useless: it’s dangerous. There’s no risk in America of a return to Jim Crow, and Europe is not at risk of new Crusades or Inquisitions. Even in the face of real and continued issues with race in our country, there is literally no chance whatsoever that our country would tolerate a return to lynchings.
There’s a great risk, however, of fueling the delusions of an Islamic world that already has an image of the Crusades which does not tally with reality. They’ve recast themselves as innocent victims who have been persecuted for a almost a thousand years by the evil imperialistic west, and forgotten the fact that they themselves were once what they pretend to now hate.
The Islamic world has shown a marked resistance to coming to terms with its own bloody past, and the real causes of their own bloody present. And as long as leaders like President Obama continue to fuel this historical myth, they’re not likely to.
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