Sunday, September 9, 2018

Crusades have had a bad rap

In 2015 President Obama invoked the Crusades in mitigation of modern day Islamic terrorism. One can only imagine why he felt the need to say anything that could be seen as a justification of the present day terrorist threat, but the fact that he had to go back to the 12th and 13th Centuries for an equivalent Christian crime speaks volumes about the relative progression of the two religions.

I have just read two books on the subject of the Crusades - or, more precisely, about people who participated in the those historical events. The first, God's Wolf by Jeffrey Lee, is a biography of Reynald de Châtillon, Prince of Antioch and Lord of Transjordan, who was the crusader knight most feared at the time by the Muslims. The second is Dan Jones' The Templars, an excellent history of the religious-military order that was the most effective fighting force to have participated in the Crusades.

I have always thought the Crusades get a bad rap from present day historians. They are cast as colonial aggression with superior Christian forces slaughtering the more honourable, endemic Islamic armies. Nothing could be further from the truth. The popular view ignores the fact that the Levant was Christian long before its was conquered by Islam in the 7th Century and before that it was Roman and Jewish. The Crusades weren't colonial aggression so much as a reconquest. It is true to say the Crusaders were brutal at times - the sacking of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099 was perhaps the worst example - but the Muslims were no better, often slaughtering the civilians of the cities they overran and only sparing the lives of those they could enslave.

The books deal with two particular examples of the merciless battles that were typical of the Crusades. Reynald de Châtillon's great victory at Mont Gisard in 1177 saw the almost total annihilation of Saladin's army, but the sultan got his revenge at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, defeating the army of King Guy of Jerusalem and settling his grudge against Reynald by personally beheading the great knight (and thereby abandoning the chivalric convention of both sides that the captured leaders would be ransomed). Saladin eventually recaptured most of the Levant and despite several more crusades the Middle East remained Muslim, eventually becoming part of the Ottoman Empire until it was occupied by the Allied forces in World War One.

The need to recast all of history as a fight between Western oppressors and everyone else is just another symptom of the post-modernist, Marxist doctrine that dominates so much of scholarship today. We are told that Europeans should feel guilt for slavery, despite the fact that slavery was common to almost every society throughout human history and that it was the British who outlawed the international slave trade and gave effect to the ban with its naval power. Here in New Zealand we are encouraged to believe that colonial oppression and European diseases led to the decimation of the Maori population in the 19th Century, when in fact it was the intertribal warfare known as the Musket Wars that was the biggest factor in Maori population decline. And our children are taught that the Land Wars of the 1860s were a colonialist-Maori fight, despite the fact that more Maori fought on the side of the colonial government than for the rebel Maori tribes.

Winston Churchill reputedly said that history is written by the victors, but in the West we want to undermine our own history and self-flagellate ourselves in guilt at our civilisational success. We are fortunate that there are still historians such as Jeffrey Lee and Dan Jones who write fair and balanced histories of our culture that are as thrilling as they are informative.

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