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Q & A
Q&A: Making a case for the Crusades Robin Russell, Oct 9, 2009
Rodney Stark is an author, sociologist and distinguished professor at Baylor University, where he is a co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion.
His new book, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (HarperOne), gives historic and sociological evidence for a fresh assessment of the Crusades. Among other things, he says the Crusades did not result in centuries of Muslim bitterness.
Dr. Stark spoke recently with managing editor Robin Russell.
For many Christians today, the Crusades are considered an embarrassment and a shameful period in our history. Are we wrong to feel that way? Many Christians are embarrassed by the Crusades and ashamed that they took place only because they have been told a bundle of falsehoods about them: that the pope drummed up support for the Crusades because he wanted to expand his power and wealth by converting millions of Muslims; that the individual nobles and knights took part because they expected immense gains in land and loot; that the Muslims were peaceful and tolerant, while the Christians were brutal bigots who committed a series of incredible atrocities. But none of this is true.
Muslims within the territories taken by the Crusaders continued to practice their religion without any hindrance. The Crusaders went at immense personal expense—some knowingly bankrupting themselves to go—and had no illusions of about any pots of gold awaiting them in the barren Holy Land. The “peaceful” Muslims had been attacking and invading the West for centuries and had recently been murdering and torturing Christian pilgrims—meanwhile they had all but destroyed some of the most sacred Christian sites in Jerusalem. As for atrocities, neither side observed the Geneva Convention, but the Crusaders usually were far less brutal than were their opponents.
Your book refutes the popular notion that the Crusades were the product of a corrupt and power-hungry church, Western greed and a desire to convert Muslims at all costs. So what actually did prompt the battles for control of the Holy Land? The Crusaders had two primary motives. First was to protect Jerusalem, its churches and sacred sites, and Christian pilgrims. Europeans had been deeply shocked when in 1009 the Caliph of Egypt ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre (Christ’s tomb) in Jerusalem, as well as about 30,000 Christian churches in the Middle East. And attacks on bands of Christian pilgrims had become chronic.
Second was to gain the complete forgiveness for their sins that was promised to all who took part in a Crusade in good faith. The latter may be difficult for many modern Christians to grasp, but the knights of Europe were very violent, very sinful and very religious. Hence, they feared for their souls.
I was surprised to read that the pre-Crusade Muslim world was not more advanced than the West, as is commonly held. Why do we believe that the Arabic culture was so superior? The belief that Muslim culture was very superior to that of medieval Europe was promulgated by the same folks who sponsored the myth of the Dark Ages: Voltaire, Gibbon, Rousseau and the rest. And just as it now is widely agreed, even in the encyclopedias, that the Dark Ages never happened, many historians now recognize that “Sophisticated Muslim Culture” was a similar myth. Indeed, what long was called Arab or Muslim culture is now recognized to have been the cultures of their Christian and Jewish subjects.
Recent films, such as Kingdom of Heaven, depict Christian crusaders as more brutal than their enemies, with Muslim leaders like Saladin shown as more chivalrous than their Western counterparts. Is that accurate? The “heroic” and “chivalrous” Saladin is a Western invention. The real Saladin loved to help kill prisoners of war.
How and why have we veered away from the historical record regarding the Crusades? As to how and why have we have embraced a falsified historical record about the Crusades, much of it was initiated and then repeated by those, such as Voltaire, who were antagonistic to religion and seeking any means to discredit it. They were greatly assisted in this task by Protestant writers who were dedicated to attacking the Catholic Church. As a result, the belief that the Crusades are a blot on Christian history has become so firmly established that it has been impervious to a large, distinguished and recent historical literature to the contrary. My reason for writing God’s Battalions was to make the work of these historians accessible to the general reader.
Many people today don’t realize the Crusades lasted for 200 years. What kept them going for so long? Partly because of Byzantine weakness and treachery, and partly because of the immensity of the undertaking—no lasting victory was possible. European knights faced a 2,500-mile march from central France to Jerusalem. When Europeans set out on the First Crusade, they expected that when they reached Constantinople, the Byzantine Emperor would take command and lead a combined force to liberate Jerusalem. Instead, the Emperor ducked out on his responsibilities, left the Crusaders to go it alone without any Byzantine forces, frequently failed to deliver promised supplies and even engaged in secret bargaining with the Muslims. This pattern continued through all the Crusades.
Why did they ultimately fail? The proximate cause was the unwillingness of non-Crusading Europeans (and especially bishops and the monasteries) to continue paying the taxes to support the needed efforts. But the more basic cause was that in the face of united and relentless Muslim opposition, the Holy Land was simply too far away for Europeans to sustain their control without immense expenditures of lives and money.
If Muslims have not been harboring resentment for centuries over the Crusades, as you suggest, what do you believe is the source of Muslim anger toward the West? Muslims paid almost no attention to the Crusades until modern times, when they began seeking all manner of excuses for the weakness and backwardness of their cultures when compared with the West. Now they claim the Crusades were the opening episode of the long history of misdeeds by which the West has exploited and misused Islam and prevented its development.
But it wasn’t Crusaders who destroyed the great Muslim library in Cairo; it was the “heroic” Saladin who did so. No Christians were involved in the prohibition of the printing press from Muslim societies, which went on for several centuries. And Christians have not prevented Muslim societies from becoming democracies.
How do you view the tension today between Muslim and Christian nations? Is it provoked by religious or sociological reasons—or both? The primary sources of tension between Christian and Muslim nations are, as these two designations make clear, religious and cultural. The most central of these are differences concerning individual rights and freedom. After all, it remains a capital crime in most Islamic nations for a Muslim to convert to any other religion.
Any hopes for lasting peace in the Holy Land? Of course, I hope for peace in the Middle East, but I do not expect it any time soon. The “innovative” two-nation policy [in Israel] recently given so much media play is nothing new. When the British created Israel, they did so by dividing Palestine. The Arabs have never accepted such a division nor the existence of the state of Israel in the more than 60 years since. I detect no softening of their refusal.