Editor's Note: The following is a speech written and presented by high school senior and RCH member, Peter Seferian, for his 3rd Period Communications Class. This is a great example of the sort of work we here at RCH hope to provide scholarly support and feedback for those interested in becoming Crusades scholars. Individuals like Peter will be the next generation of historians who will hopefully turn back the tide of modern misunderstanding about the Crusades and the medieval period in general.
How The Crusades Saved Western Civilization
It is evening of November 13th, 2015. 130 people have been killed by Islamic State militants in Paris, 89 of which were gunned down at the Bataclan Theatre, while attending a performance by The Eagles of Death Metal. President Francois Hollande orders a national state of emergency and declares war on the Islamic State. Fast forward three weeks later. Fourteen people are killed at a Christmas party in San Bernadino, California. The perpetrators, a Muslim couple wielding assault rifles, who had just previously left their six-month old daughter at home, to slaughter their coworkers. Shortly after both of these atrocities, President Obama rushed to remind us not to be persuaded into thinking that events such as these “be defined as [part of] a war between America and Islam.” Adding that groups like ISIS are not Islamic and that they are merely just “thugs and killers-part of a cult of death. And account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world”. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of last year, he even told us “not to get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place” and “to remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Obama is not alone in this line of thinking. After every deplorable act of violence committed in the name of Islam, apologists in the West always claim that Islam is incompatible with this kind of behavior and that other religions, specifically Christianity, have done far worse in the past. What is their proof of this? Why, the Crusades of course. After all, the Crusades were nothing more than a series of unprovoked attacks against peaceful Muslims by angry, European bigots, right? Isn’t the reason why the Islamic world is so cross with us because of what our ancestors did hundreds of years ago? Or, is the answer to why the Crusades happened not as simple as that? We need to re-evaluate our understanding of the Crusades. To do this, we need to go back to a particular series of events in history that would eventually lead to what we know today as the Crusades.
So what were the Crusades? Well, contrary to the popular belief that the Crusades were a series of religious conquests motivated by power hungry popes, whose hatred for Muslims was dwarfed only by their desire for wealth, the Crusades were actually defensive in nature. Since it’s inception, Islam was a faith founded on conquest. After the death of the prophet Muhammed, a series of caliphs (a type of warrior king in Islamic though) continued his tradition of jihad (the Islamic concept of holy war) against the unbelievers. Within a century, Muslims had conquered Persia, Egypt, and Syria, formerly ruled by Christians and Polytheists. In the following centuries, Arab Muslims would conquer Spain, invade parts of France, and sack the city of Rome. In 1095, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, ruler of the Byzantine Empire wrote to Pope Urban II for help. The Byzantines were quickly losing their war against the Seljuk Empire and feared for their annihilation. Pope Urban called upon the lords of Europe to come together and help the Byzantines repel the Seljuks and reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem. According to leading Crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith of Oxford University, crusading was seen as “an act of love”. This was because thousands of men, many of whom were wealthy and owned vast swaths of land, risked their lives and possessions to come to the aid of their Christian brethren. This is not to say everyone that went on the Crusades was a saint or that Christians have never committed any atrocities of their own. Of course they have. In fact, on the way to the Holy Land during the First Crusade, a rogue continent of crusaders slaughtered a massive number of Jews living in the Rhineland. However, this was condemned by the Church and had nothing to do with the original intent of the Crusades. Regardless, you can see now that the Crusades were not a series of unprovoked attacks against peaceful Muslims, but rather a delayed response to four centuries of Islamic aggression against the West.
So where does this idea of the Crusades come from? Why is it that when we think of the Crusades, we immediately think of Christian Europe and the Catholic Church calling upon their armies to conquer in the name of God? This narrative has been perpetuated ever since Sir Walter Scott published his novel, The Talisman, in 1825. In The Talisman, Scott portrays the Crusaders, such as Richard The Lionheart, as barbaric, backward, brutes, while the Muslims, specifically Saladin, as nineteenth century liberal gentlemen. Scott’s view of the Crusades was strongly influenced by his upbringing during the Enlightenment. A time in which Europeans looked back on the Crusades as an event manifested in unnecessary barbarism against a superior Eastern civilization. This sentiment was echoed by English writer, Sir Steven Runciman, in his three-volume work, A History of The Crusades, published in the 1950s. The Runciman narrative became the traditional narrative of the Crusades during the 20th century, as it was used as the principle reference for a 1995 BBC documentary series about the Crusades, hosted by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and for the 2005 Hollywood feature film, Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom and directed by Ridley Scott. Both of these films, though wildly inaccurate, reflect the West’s current attitude towards the Crusades. The West feels a sense of immeasurable guilt for the sins of it’s past, such as colonialism and the slave trade, and blames it’s actions for the current problems of the world. While self-criticism can be a healthy endeavor, going so far as to distort history and create a false sense of moral equivalency between the West and the Islamic world, does nothing to solve our current conflict.
While the West certainly has plenty of things to be ashamed of, the Crusades are not one of them. In fact, the Crusades may have saved the West. Before the Crusades, Europe was impoverished and fraught with disunity. Internal squabbles between neighboring kingdoms over land and power were commonplace. It wasn’t until the Crusades began that the lords of Europe put aside their differences in order to combat this external, alien threat. Though the Crusaders were eventually forced out of the Holy Land, it was the idea of crusading that forced the European nations to band together when threatened by the Ottoman Turks during later centuries. Had the Europeans not come together to face this threat, the values that we hold so dear, such as individual rights, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech may have been lost forever.
In conclusion, the legacy of the Crusades should not be looked at as another historical atrocity, but a source of pride in European history. Those of us of European descent owe our ancestors a debt of gratitude for fighting to ensure our future. Those men were no less heroic than the men who fought for the Allies during the World War II. The negative image of the Crusades in our culture prohibits us from recognizing the true nature of the threat we face today. Islamic totalitarian regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to be the two greatest sponsors of global terrorism on the planet. Our ignorance of history causes us to fear correctly identifying the enemy, and leads us to think of ourselves as no better than they are. We need to reject this line of thinking and champion the spirit of those that came before if we are to prevail.
-Peter Seferain will be attending St. Edward's University in Austin, TX, this fall and has plans to continue writing on medieval history and the Crusades.