President Obama’s recent remarks about Christianity, the Crusades and ISIS at the National Prayer Breakfast have provoked much criticism by conservative commentators. In the process a number of these pundits, including Herald columnist Helen Aguirre Ferré, have claimed that the Crusades were a belated defensive war against Muslims.
I disagree with many of the characterizations of the president’s remarks, but my concern here, as a historian of the Middle Ages, is with the downplaying of the history of religious violence by Christians. Christianity has had a long history of violence, thankfully now mostly in the past, and it is important to remember it when addressing violence in the name of any religion. Equally important, this history helps us understand modern ideals of religious tolerance and freedom.
Though early Christianity was pacifist and only reluctantly embraced warfare after the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century, by the time Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, holy war was an established concept for Christians. The deeply pious Christian ruler Charlemagne, for instance, conquered and forcibly converted neighboring pagan peoples in the 700s, slaughtering thousands who resisted.
Were the Crusades themselves defensive, as Ferré and others claim? Only if one has a very broad definition of defensive.
The main Muslim conquests of previously Christian territories took place in the 600s and 700s. Alexius Comnenus, the Byzantine ruler who requested help from Western Europe, was fighting a defensive war against a new Muslim invasion. But the crusaders themselves soon abandoned their alliance with him and conquered territories that had been controlled by Muslims for well over 400 years.
By these standards, those who defend the crusades as a defensive war would have to treat the Atocha bombings in Madrid in 2004 as part of a defensive struggle by Muslims, since after all parts of Spain were held by Muslims as recently as 1492, only 523 years ago. In recent centuries, Western, predominantly Christian countries have invaded and conquered almost every Muslim country now in existence, yet Western colonialism does not justify Islamist violence in the 21st century.
Moreover, it’s hard to see how later crusades that conquered the capital of Christian Byzantium, slaughtered heretics in the south of France, or conquered and made serfs of pagans in northeastern Europe can be considered defensive.
The Atocha bombings were brutal acts of terrorism, but as Ferré acknowledges, there were many atrocities in the Crusades as well. Crusade chroniclers reveled in the slaughter of the population of Jerusalem: One wrote of crusaders riding up to their bridle reins in blood at the Dome of the Rock and called the massacre a splendid judgment of God.
Christian religious violence continued well past the Middle Ages, with religious justifications for enslaving Africans and oppressing Native Americans, witch hunts, and a century and a half of religious wars among Christians after the Reformation. As late as 1659-61 the Puritan government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed four Quakers on religious grounds.
The Enlightenment principles of religious freedom and toleration enshrined in the First Amendment had such an important place in the Bill of Rights, and in Western thought more generally, precisely because Western, predominantly Christian societies had long been so intolerant and had inflicted massive suffering on themselves and others.
Enlightenment ideals are a good thing for atheists like me, since they save us from discrimination, torture and other unpleasantness. But they’re good for religious people too, since they protect them against the same.
Why all this “old stuff”? Because it’s important to remember that ideas of religious freedom and toleration are not somehow “natural” to Western or any other society. Instead, they were the result of a long and hard-fought struggle.
Islam, too, has its history of intolerance and religious violence. More important to today’s world, a small number of Muslims have rejected modern Enlightenment ideals and unleashed a brutal and destabilizing new wave of religious violence.
In the long run, I am confident that Islamist violence will shrivel, mainly because the vast majority of Muslims already reject it. Militant atrocities will only increase their revulsion.
In the short run, dealing with Islamist violence will be difficult. But rewriting the history of Western Civilization to suit our own prejudices will not help. We would do better to learn from our own battles for tolerance and religious freedom and consider what lessons they have for dealing with religious warfare in the modern world.
Hugh M. Thomas is a professor of history at the University of Miami.