David M. Perry: Crusades shouldn't be so painful a topic

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David M. Perry is a visiting assistant professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul.]

When did the "war on terror" get medieval? Osama bin Laden refers to George W. Bush as the "chief Crusader" and the U.S. military forces in the Middle East as "Crusaders." In 2001, a week after 9/11, Bush referred to the war on terrorism as a Crusade. The president of Iran frequently labels "Zionists and Crusaders" as his nation's chief enemies. Recently, when Pope Benedict quoted a medieval passage that criticized Islam, many Muslim figures were enraged and accused the pope of calling for a new Crusade. Commentators use the contemporary invocation of the Crusades to demonstrate that the Muslim world has, collectively, a long memory. Based on their understanding of this memory, some pundits suggest that the problems, being so old, are intractable, and that modern Westerners can do nothing to change this historical grudge. Others argue that we must at least come to understand how medieval Christians have made modern Muslims so angry and find a way to apologize. Locally, students sign up for my medieval history classes wanting to learn about the terrible deeds of medieval knights that have engendered such hatred and anger in today's Muslims. All of these statements assume that Muslims have generally cared about the Crusades ever since the Middle Ages. In fact, Muslims got over the Crusades in the easiest way -- by winning! Winners may write the histories, but it's the losers who hold grudges. In our country, it's not the New Yorkers who obsess about the Civil War. In Tennessee, where I grew up, many Southerners have not forgotten the "War of Northern Aggression." They're not about to rebel to get even, but they have not gotten over it.
From 1095 to 1291, medieval western Christians carved out small kingdoms along the eastern Mediterranean shore. They were weak, constantly endangered and eventually doomed. Once they were gone, the Muslim world focused on the expanding Islamic states in Egypt, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and later India. The Ottomans, in particular, kept right on winning against the Christian West, twice reaching the walls of Vienna with massive armies. They did not forget their history, but the Crusades receded to the status of a brief blot on the record of Muslim expansion, a blot that had created both heroes and villains, but not anything to get worked up about.

It's the Christian Europeans, the losers, who preserved the memory and emotions of the Crusades. For hundreds of years afterwards, they constantly invoked the Crusades, not only when fighting "infidels" (Muslims, Protestants and heretics, not to mention political rivals), but also while exploring and colonizing America, Africa and Asia.

Christopher Columbus, for example, promised to dedicate a healthy percentage of his profits toward the "liberation" of Jerusalem. In the 19th century, Emperor Louis Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm I compared their nation's colonial endeavors to the deeds of medieval figures such as Richard the Lion-Hearted, Philip Augustus and even Saladin. In 1898 the kaiser, dressed in a costume that he imagined medieval, had a hole knocked in the walls of Jerusalem so he could enter in just the same spot as a German medieval emperor, Frederick II, did more than 600 years previously.

The reemergence of the language of "anti-Crusade" in the Muslim world appears only during the modern era. It is a postcolonial phenomenon now being accelerated by a new breed of jihadists who believe they are fighting a holy war. But holy war requires two religious armies, a clash of two civilizations, not just one. The idea of Crusaders vs. jihadis fighting from 1095 to 2006 galvanizes the forces of extremism and hatred. This invocation of the Crusades is a tool, a tactic for propaganda, and it seems to be working.

One of my goals as a medieval historian is to provide a context within which to understand the modern moment, and distinguish that moment from the period that I study. There are many connections, but do not mistake the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden, other modern jihadists, the accusers of Pope Benedict, or Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as medieval. We are facing modern problems; we need modern solutions.
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