The Crusades are a poorly understood historical event. They are dragged out and used by anti-Christian bigots as an example of how corrupt Christianity is. Muslims point to the Crusades as an example of Christian persecution of innocent Muslims. Let me explain a few things about the Crusades so you can get a better understanding of what they really were all about.
Shortly after Islam was established, Muslim armies grew in numbers, and broke out of Arabia to conquer vast tracts of land that generally were Christian. Islam spread in North Africa, Spain and Portugal, and the Middle East by military conquest, not by peaceful missionaries building hospitals and orphanages.
The Western Roman Empire had collapsed and former parts of it in North Africa fell like dominoes before the Islamic armies. The Byzantine Empire (the eastern portion of the Roman Empire) was weakening, and had lost much of its territory to the Islamic armies. Although conquering Muslims at first allowed Christians to practice their religion, they became more repressive as time went on. After the conquest of mostly Christian lands, they gradually restricted non-Muslim religious observances and humiliated non-Muslims. They made non-Muslims pay a poll tax and wear a special symbol on their clothes or they had to wear distinctive clothes (similar to Nazi Germany with the Jews).
Unfortunately, Christianity had been weakened by heresies, division between East and West, politics, and other problems. Because Christianity was weak, most Christians in the conquered lands eventually converted to Islam rather than deal with the repression. After the Crusades, Turks continued to spread Islam into Asia Minor (now Turkey) and The Balkans (former Yugoslavia) by military conquest. The Turks eventually made it into Eastern Europe before being defeated in a decisive battle called the Battle of Vienna. The siege itself began in July 14, 1683, and the decisive battle took place on September 12, 1683. The battle marked the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the forces of the Central European kingdoms, and the Ottoman Empire. The legacy of the Turkish conquest of the Balkans is the Muslim population still living in that part of Europe. Eventually Muslims (“The Moors”) were driven out of Spain and Portugal, leaving behind some beautiful architecture.
Aside from the founding of Islam by the Prophet, the defining moment for Islam seems to be the Crusades. Apparently in the Middle East, stories of the Crusades are still told as if they had just happened (according to TV program I saw on the History Channel). The Crusades have had a tremendous impact on Islam, even though they occurred 900 years ago. The Islamic view of the Crusades is that the barbarian Europeans invaded peaceful Islamic lands for no good reason except religious imperialism.
A Geo-Political War
We learned in school that the Crusades were launched to take back the Holy Land from the Muslims, who conquered Jerusalem in 638. That’s not the whole story. There were really four reasons Europeans conducted the Crusades, with the most important reason being Geo-Political.
In 1095, Byzantine Emperor Alexius asked Pope Urban II for help in stopping Islamic expansion. Many Christian lands had been conquered by Muslims over the centuries, and the Byzantine Empire was continuing to lose territory to the Islamic armies (especially to the Turks). The Byzantine Empire (the eastern remnant of the Roman Empire) had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory, and was still losing ground to the Turks. The Europeans believed that if Constantinople fell, the door would be open for the Islamic armies to conquer Europe. In fact, these fears were realized when Constantinople finally fell to the Turks in 1453. The Muslim armies did invade Eastern Europe and made it all the way to the gates of Vienna.
Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire were barriers to the expansionist Turks, so it was in Europe’s best interests to keep them from falling into Turkish hands. The Pope, at that time the most powerful ruler in Europe and very much involved in politics, agreed to help the Byzantine Emperor beat back the Turks. The plan was for the Crusaders to not only stop the Turks, but to retake much of the land the Byzantine Empire had lost to them.
An additional benefit is that the Crusaders would take back lands that were sacred to Christians, especially Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. In addition to protecting Europe and taking back the Holy Land, the Pope hoped to exert more influence on Eastern Christianity, which had split from Western Christianity. So to summarize, below are the four major reasons for launching the Crusades:
1. Maintain Constantinople and what remained of the Byzantine Empire as a barrier to a Turkish invasion of Europe. This was the geo-political reason – protect Europe.
2. Take back some strategic cities and other lands that had been taken by force by the Turks. This was the strategic reason.
3. Take back Jerusalem and other places sacred to Christians. This was the religious reason.
4. Provide an opportunity for the Pope to exert influence in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It had separated itself from western (Roman Catholic) Christianity over theological differences and the pope’s attempt to exert authority over all Christendom. This was the political reason for the Crusades.
To give an incentive for people to join, the Pope declared the Crusades to be a Holy War, and anybody who participated in it would go to heaven, guaranteed (sounds a lot like jihad). While the Crusades did seem to have valid geopolitical purposes, Muslims and others don’t see it that way. Moreover, any valid reasons for the Crusades are overshadowed by the atrocities committed by the Crusaders. There were atrocities on both sides, but the Crusaders had launched the invasion in the name of God and should not have harmed civilians.
Today many feel it was inappropriate for a major leader of a religion that preaches “peace on earth and goodwill towards men” and “turn the other cheek” to launch an invasion of sovereign lands. We have to remember, however, that at that time the pope was not only a religious leader but a political leader. As such, he was involved in secular affairs. He controlled much of Italy via the Papal States.
The Crusades are viewed by Muslims as a religious conflict between Christianity and Islam. Today, Muslims still view Christianity as its enemy, which has a Crusader mentality by wanting to overrun Muslim lands if given the opportunity. The most severe persecution against Christians, even indigenous Christians, takes place in Islamic lands. Free practice of any non-Muslim religion is forbidden in many Islamic countries, and there are ongoing atrocities against Christians in such countries as Indonesia and Sudan.
While Westerners might view any struggles with the Islamic world in terms of clash of cultures, Muslims don’t make any such distinction. State, culture, and religion and all mixed together to them: there is no separation. So to the Muslims, this is a war of religions, even if the West doesn’t see it that way. Europe is in the post-Christian era, but the Muslims still see Europe as fundamentally Christian (in heritage, if not practice).
As we continue to export our culture, which many Muslims find offensive, the Muslims see that as an invasion no less frightening than the physical invasion by the Crusaders. They see our culture as a corrupting influence on young Muslims.
Now that we have troops in the Middle East, many Muslims see that as an invasion of their sovereign territory by armed force not unlike the Crusades. They believe that once the camel gets his nose into the tent, the whole animal is sure to follow. They also view corrupt regimes in Islamic countries as an affront (especially those who are friendly to the West – traitors to Islam). The extremists are fighting to overthrow those governments and establish Islamic caliphates in their place.
Finally, most Muslims (at least in the Middle East) view the establishment of Israel as an outrage, but that is relatively minor compared to the other factors I just mentioned. The West could do away with Israel tomorrow, and nothing would change, so certain experts have claimed. The terrorists are fanatics not following the more peaceful commands of their religion. The Qur’an calls for moderation in war, following certain rules of engagement and to not harm civilians. The terrorists ignore those commands, and focus on the more violent Qur’anic verses. We must never abandon Israel, and must never appease the terrorists.
Even if it means violating some of the moral commands in the Qur’an, they believe they are beating back the modern-day Crusaders and protecting Islam from the corrupting influence of “infidel” religions and cultures. To them, the ends justify the means if it will result in the defeat of the evil Western societies, the fall of corrupt regimes in Muslim countries, and the establishment of Islamic caliphates throughout the world.
Often the terrorists are mislabeled as “fundamentalists.” From what I’ve read, the terrorists are not fundamentalists in the sense of being devout followers of Islam, following a more conservative theology. I believe, rather, that the terrorists are cultural and religious imperialists, not because of any theological reasons, but because they feel their way is superior (religion, culture, law) to Christianity and Judaism, and to forms of Islam different from theirs. The terrorists who hijacked the airplanes in 9/11 are said to have broken many of the rules of Islam during their stay in the US. That doesn’t sound like fundamentalism to me.
It is important to know your enemy. Sad to say, the radical Muslims view us (the West) as the enemy, and will settle for nothing less than Islamic control over Western nations. Typically Westerners are naïve when it comes to enemies they don’t know or understand. “If we just dialog with them…” or “if we just give them what they want…” (like offering up Israel to placate them) Chamberlain took an appeasement approach with Hitler, and it led to the conquest of most of Europe by the Nazis. Appeasement doesn’t work, especially when you are dealing with fanatics whose sole reason for being is terrorism, conquest, violence, and power. Simplistic and naïve solutions won’t work because you are dealing with fanatics:
-whose lives are devoted to destruction of the western way of life,
-who are coming from a position that God is on their side,
-who keep looking back to history to justify their aggression, and
-who are convinced their way is far superior.
That is a dangerous combination. Hopefully this overview helped you gain some kind of understanding of the Crusades and why they were fought. I hope this brief overview gives you some insight as to where Muslims are coming from. If they are viewing this as a religious struggle, then doesn’t it make sense for us in the West to repent and turn to God for help? 2 Chronicles 7:14 tells us:
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” NRSV