by Raymond Ibrahim
I recently taped and am watching a documentary, “The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross,” on the History Channel. While it is more or less historically accurate — names, dates, figures — it suffers from two weaknesses, weaknesses that often take center stage whenever Islam is discussed in the West: 1) biases and apologetics on behalf of Islam, coupled with outright distortions concerning Christians and Christianity; and 2) anachronisms, by projecting the motives and worldview of modern man onto the motives and worldview of pre-modern man, both Muslims and Christians.
Take the first 10 minute segment, dealing with Pope Urban II’s call to the Crusades, including the famous Council of Clermont (1095) where Urban made his case. Urban is repeatedly portrayed as a sly politician wholly indifferent to Christianity and faith, simply interested in aggrandizing his power and authority.
Incidentally, we are never told how Islam “spread” — that Jerusalem (not to mention practically the entire Muslim world today) was ruthlessly conquered — even by the enthusiastic narrator who speaks with somber awe whenever touching upon Muslim prowess. Instead, the narrator informs us that the encroachment of the Turks upon Byzantium was “the perfect opportunity [for Urban] to enhance his political power.” And of course, the “historians” interviewed all agree.
The “British-Pakistani” Muslim historian, Tariq Ali, is repeatedly quoted as something of the final authority on the Crusades in this documentary. Sitting there pompously, he nonchalantly informs us that, if the popes were anything, they were “scheming, manipulating, intriguing” persons, always out to exploit.
So what if it is a historical fact, especially after the battle of Manzikert (1071, a little more than two decades before Urban’s call to the crusades), that the Muslim armies were conquering more Christian land and increasingly terrorizing and persecuting Christians? Or that the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim had recently desecrated and destroyed a number of important churches — such as the Church of St. Mark in Egypt and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — and decreed several, even more oppressive than usual, decrees against Christians and Jews? It is in this backdrop that Pope Urban called for the Crusades:
From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians [i.e., Muslim Turks]…has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion (from the chronicles of Robert the Monk).
Despite the historically accurate nature of Urban’s less than subtle words, the narrator assures us that Urban’s speech was a “cunningly crafted piece of religious spin, spiced with exaggerated tales of Muslim atrocities against Christian pilgrims living in the Holy Land. It demonized the Turks.”
After all, “we” — the educated, modern, transcendent viewers — know better than that. Surely the Muslims and Turks did not behave that way — despite all the textual/eye-witness testimony to the contrary? Surely Pope Urban was simply the Medieval counterpart of the modern “Islamophobe”?
Next, we get a dramatization, supposedly of Urban, who looks more like a homeless, disheveled, madman, rabidly gesticulating and pontificating about the “wicked race of Saracens.” In other words, the modern viewer is supposed to go away with the view that Pope Urban was a closed-mind, intolerant, jingoistic racist — concepts that may make sense in the 21st century, but had no meaning in the 11th.
Again, the narrator, in a puzzled voice, states that thousands of Christians flocked to Urban’s call — but then he quickly explains their motivation: “prestige and honor.” He then goes on to say “But there was another attraction” — and here I thought he was going to mention sincere, though of course, “misplaced,” religious conviction. Not at all; it was the “promise of great riches.”
And just to press the point, Tariq Ali, once again smugly assures us: “They wanted the money [of the Islamic world]. It was as simple as that.” Just in case the viewer doesn’t get the allusion that the crusaders were Western, evil, white imperialists out to seize the Muslims’ Medieval equivalent of oil — gold and treasure.
All of this is anachronistic. Insisting that the pope was out to exploit in order to aggrandize himself, or that the people were motivated by prestige, honor, and riches, and never once mentioning that maybe, just maybe now, both the pope and people were motivated by more sincere convictions (e.g., assisting fellow oppressed Christians) is highly problematic.
Medieval man was not modern man. While all men throughout all time have been prone to hypocrisy, greed, violence, etc., Medieval Christians, as opposed to their 21st century (secularized) counterparts, were, by default, much more guided by faith (whether this faith was misplaced or not is hardly the point).
“Secularism” was never an option; Christians firmly believed in heaven and hell, God and the devil. And these were motives. Thus, for a “history” program to discuss the Crusades without once alluding that the pope and the people may have actually believed that they were fighting for something more than “honor, prestige, and riches” — things that are intelligible within a secular, not religious, paradigm, hence the gross anachronism — is very misleading. One would have expected a channel devoted to “history” to be most on guard against projecting modern views and standards on people who lived a millennium ago.
One need not believe in God and religion; but one should still give them their due when discussing the Medieval world — just as one should give them their due when discussing the Medieval mentality of modern day jihadists.
Raymond Ibrahim is the associate director of the Middle East Forum and the author of The Al Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda