The Crusaders Were Right
Christopher Howse argues that the anti-religious tone of the current film “Kingdom of Heaven” is based on very poor understanding of history.
The Crusaders were right after all (London Telegraph | Opinion)
“If we could just take God out of the equation,” says Sir Ridley, like John Lennon in Imagine, “there’d be no f—ing problem.” A more realistic view of history requires less retrospective fantasy and more brain work. It means forcing our heads round to see what motivated men and women centuries ago. Try thinking the unthinkable – that the Crusaders were right, and that we should be grateful to them.
The First Crusade won back Jerusalem (pro sola devotione, “for the sake of devotion alone”, in the idealistic terms in which it was launched) from Muslim control in 1099, not as an isolated incident but as part of a centuries-long effort to roll back the map of territory overrun by warlike Islamic expansionism since the seventh century. The jihad of Mohammed’s followers first won the Arabian peninsula (killing or subjugating Jewish and Christian rulers and tribes) and its programme had no end but the conquest of the whole world under unified Islamic rule. There was no tolerant agnosticism there. In response to this unparalleled strategy of aggression, the main “Crusade” developed not in the Holy Land but in Spain, taking nearly 800 years to expel the Moorish invaders. It was as if the French Resistance struggled for centuries to throw off German rule. Amid the confused warfare even the cultured but short-lived Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1016) was hardly the garden of peaceful co-existence generally supposed.
It takes no great counter-factual leap to see what would have happened if Crusaders had not fought back. Gibbon for once got it right when he imagined a Muslim England where “the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet”.
That, you might think, need not be so bad. But we wouldn’t now be complaining how boring the election is. There would be no election and no free press in which to complain.
Quite right. While there’s little doubt in my mind that religious zeal can be used to motivate the masses in support for a war, wars are fought primarily for political reasons. The Muslims were fighting to spread Islam, to be sure, but they were mostly seeking political empire. As Juan Cole points out, “The fact is that Saladin, no less than his Christian rivals in Jerusalem, was less interested in fighting for a faith than in consolidating power.”
Of course, the idea that church and state are other than one and the same is a relatively modern conception. In Christianity, it took the Thirty Years War to make the separation of the “two swords” a reality. Indeed, the modern international system, based on secular sovereignty at the nation-state level, dates from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that ended that war. There has not been a similar revolution in Islam.