Anniversary of the Crusades: a guilt-trip to Jerusalem

November 30, 1995|By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON -- Exactly 900 years ago this month Pope Urban II summoned Christendom to go conquer the Holy Land in the name of the Cross. Would now be a good time for the West to apologize?

Does anybody care? Well, they certainly care in the Muslim Middle East, where the Crusades are still seen as clear proof of the innately aggressive nature of the Christian West. Now that Europe and the Middle East have to get along, that attitude is a big problem.

And there are many in the West who would like to apologize. For the past generation most Western intellectuals have seen the Crusades as an early example of European imperialism, a suitable topic for groveling apologies to the victims.

Wicked Christians, noble Muslims

If you doubt that, check out a dreadful British TV series called ''The Crusades'' that is now making the rounds of English-language broadcasting services around the planet. The style is jokey and ''irreverent,'' but the message is the familiar sanctimonious whine about wicked Christians and noble Muslims.

There have always been lots of wicked Christians and many noble Muslims, but this is an arrogant, Eurocentric view of history masquerading as penitence. Muslims are reduced to helpless bystanders who got mashed by the steamroller of European imperialism, which is hardly true to history or compatible with Muslim dignity.

So here, as an antidote, is what Bernard Lewis thinks about the Crusades. I confess that he is an old friend, but he is also the doyen of Western historians of Islam. I saw him recently at Princeton University, where he is emeritus professor of Near Eastern History, and this is what he said about the Crusades.

''Nowadays it's fashionable to denounce the Crusades as an early venture in aggressive imperialism. But after all, the Crusades were an attempt to recover by Holy War what had been lost by Holy War. And it wasn't all that long since Christian Palestine and Syria had been conquered by the Muslims. You cannot logically condemn the crusade without also condemning the jihad.

''In the 7th century, when the Muslims first came out of the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa were all Christian countries. Virtually all the early converts to Islam west of Iran were converts from Christianity. And what really divided the Christians and the Muslims were not their differences but their resemblances.

God's final revelation

''Here you had two religions of similar origin, the same Judeo-Hellenistic-Roman heritage, and with the same basic conviction: 'We are the fortunate possessors of God's final revelation to mankind, and it is our duty to bring it to the rest of the world and not selfishly keep it to ourselves'.

''Where you have two religions claiming exclusive universality and finality, they have to clash. So you have many, many centuries of conflict. The Muslims invade Palestine, Syria, Egypt, North Africa. The Christians counter-attack in the Crusades. The Muslims conquered Spain: the Spaniards slowly reconquered Spain in an 800-year battle to decide who would be masters of the Iberian peninsula. The Turks conquer the Balkan peninsula, and then there is a long-drawn-out retreat.

''For the first thousand years of so, despite some Christian counter-attacks, the Muslims had the upper hand. The threat was a Muslim threat to Europe, and as late as the 17th century this continued: The second Turkish siege of Vienna was in 1683. Then came the second and greatest Christian counter-attack.''

At that point it ceased to be a Christian-Muslim thing, really: In only 200 years, the Europeans suddenly overran the whole world. The last region to fall under European rule was the Muslim Middle East, precisely because it was the closest to Europe in both technology and political skills. But nowhere else did European conquest have such a great psychological impact.

Nobody likes being conquered, but for Asians and Africans it was like being struck by lightning. The Europeans appeared out of nowhere with unbeatable weapons, and simply took over; they might as well have been space aliens. Thus the burden of quilt and self-loathing among the conquered was relatively light. There's lots of anti-colonial resentment in Africa and Asia, but it's usually not crippling. In the Muslim Middle East, it is.

The old enemy

In the Middle East, it was the old, well-known enemy, the despised Christian Europeans who suddenly overturned the natural order. The culturally inferior became technologically superior, and imposed unjust foreign rule on good Muslims.

So almost all Muslims now see the Crusades as the first episode in a long series of unprovoked attacks on Islam. The Muslim conquest of Christian countries was part of God's plan; attempts to reverse such conquests were not.

But what are we to make of the sackcloth-and-ashes brigade who urge the West to lament and repent not the whole long shared history of Muslim-Christian intolerance and aggression, but only the West's unprovoked assault on Islam?

We must conclude that they are historical ignoramuses, of course. But much worse, they are unconscious ethnic and cultural supremacists, unable to imagine that the Crusades were merely a major incident in a long struggle that the West might have lost.

Muslim culture is not a has-been, victim culture deserving only pity. Most Muslim countries have been through a couple of humiliating centuries, and a lot of Muslims have succumbed to self-pity at the moment, but this is not the end of the story.

Meanwhile, Western pundits should refrain from patronizing Muslims with fulsome apologies for the Crusades. During the period in question, Muslims were never less than equal to Christians in power, in courage, or in blame.

Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on world affairs.

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