There was a time when no one paid attention to the National Prayer Breakfast, an event that has been celebrated for more than six decades. It is a forum for political, social and business groups to build relationships. But lately, it has become a center of controversy.
A few years ago, Dr. Ben Carson used the forum to lecture President Obama on the foibles of the Affordable Care Act. This time, it was President Obama who startled the attendees by lecturing on the need for religious tolerance by drawing an awkward and inaccurate parallel between ISIS and the Crusades.
Rather than choose a prayer of unity, Obama chose words of provocation. By associating the Islamist terrorist group to the Christian Crusades of medieval times, the president unwittingly converted ISIS into a religious movement.
“You see, ISIS is a brutal vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism, terrorizing religious minorities like the Yazidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
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“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ,” said Obama.
Get on our high horse? Denouncing terrorism, be it Islamist or not, is being imperious?
White House aides told reporters that the comments were deliberately provocative in an attempt to frame the current terrorist threat in a historical framework.
So let’s take a look at the history. Misconceptions about the Christian Crusades abound. Some think the Crusades, a series of holy wars, were led by war-mongering popes and religious fanatics who attacked peaceful Muslims. The fact is that the Crusades came to be because of Muslim aggression against Christian communities, which were overrun by these warriors.
Here’s the simplified version of events:
Christianity was born in the Middle East and became the faith of the Roman Empire. It is fascinating to think that Palestine, Syria and Egypt were once predominantly Christian. Shortly after Mohammed’s death, Islamist fighters fought and conquered many Christian areas over a span of four centuries. Two-thirds of the old Christian world were taken by Muslim fighters. Fearing total demise, the emperor of Constantinople pleaded with Christian leaders of Western Europe to help them fight them; if they didn’t, they thought, they would be next. Preferring to fight abroad rather than at home, they agreed, and that gave birth to the Crusades.
The wars were brutal and violent; the Crusaders committed crimes as much as in any war, including against Jews, lessons that are always retold. But the root cause of the Crusades is mostly forgotten.
What does this have to do with 21st-century Muslim terrorism? Nothing, unless you believe that Western civilization is responsible for Islamist terrorism. Here is the missed opportunity. The president made the point that Muslims should not be judged by the actions of radical Islamists, which is right, except that he did not leave it there. It is as if he was more concerned about offending Muslims than about offending Christians. This is certainly how more than a few view this presidency. More troubling news was soon to follow.
Just a few days after this speech, the White House confirmed the murder of 26-year-old humanitarian worker Kayla Jean Mueller, who was kidnapped by ISIS in 2013. Obama squandered another good opportunity to focus on the Muslim terrorists who commit terrible crimes in the name of Mohammed; they are terrorists, not religious crusaders. It is important to establish that common ground in going forward; otherwise, the president makes it impossible to follow him on this all-important issue.
The American public is longing for a message that embraces peace, respect, opportunity and redemption — words of encouragement and optimism. It is what National Prayer Breakfast should be about.