The Crusades are, in general, vilified, an example of Eurocentric, Anglo-Saxon and, worst of all, Christian imperialism turned fanatical, bloodthirsty, imposing their view of God and civilization on peaceful Arabians, who just wanted to build up their own civilization based on the tenets of their own religion, Islam, whose main premise is peace and submission to God’s will.
A distorted view, to be sure, but with some truth: Of the seven or so Crusades (they are difficult to number, for they often flowed one into the other), some went gravely awry. One need only witness the fourth in 1204, wherein the Latin crusaders ransacked, pillaged and looted their fellow Christians in Constantinople, still today a source of bitterness between East and West. Not to ameliorate the whole business, but the Latins were in some sense revenging a massacre of their own people in Constantinople in 1182, a couple of decades before, and still within the memory of the knights themselves.
But to the present: What we witness in Syrian, Iraq, Libya and beyond is the self-professed founding of a new caliphate, a rebuilding of what Islam, at least in their eyes, originally was and will be again, an empire governed by the strict interpretation of the Qur’an and the original example of the ‘Prophet’.
There are, of course, other more moderate ‘interpretations’ of Islam, but the Wahabi strain, the most distilled and strict, is the one that tends to dominate all the others. For an argument can be made that this is the version that Muhammad himself lived and preached, and movements, especially religions, always tend back towards their founder, their original impulse, their very essence and raison d’etre.
Reading an article recently on the tragic plight of the residents of the banlieus on the outskirts of Paris, those vast swathes of multi-storey concrete apartments where many Muslim immigrants live, and where the police dare not travel, there was this description of the author’s visit to a make-shift mosque in an old trailer, and note the quotation from his young ‘Muslim’ friend, a troubled young man named J.P.
At least two hundred men were kneeling, heads bowed to the carpet. On the coming Sunday, a few miles away, the magnificent, cavernous churches of Paris would be nearly empty. The imam, an elderly Tunisian who spoke little French, gave the closing prayer. J.-P. kept his earphones in.
Afterward, in the crush at the exit—old North African men, young blacks in street clothes, fundamentalists with long beards in ankle-length skirts—J.-P. introduced me to some of his friends. “Allahu akbar! ” they exclaimed in surprised welcome, but they seemed even more surprised to see J.-P. He said to me, “Not everyone has to be a Muslim in the same way. There are sixty-two approaches to Islam.”
I mentioned a few I knew about, including Sufism and Salafism.
“We’re all Salafists,” J.-P. said. “We all want to live like the companions of the Prophet in the seventh century.”
I put ‘Muslim’ in scare quotation marks since J.P. does not really live like a Muslim. The author goes on to say that J.P. enjoys his ‘glass of wine’ (to put it mildly), is clearly not interested in the sermon nor the theological doctrine of Islam; he has been charged with assault and battery, and fornicates. Looking at the conduct of the supposedly ‘strict’ Islamic members of ISIS, one could argue that in their eyes perhaps J.P is a good Mulsim, so long as he says his prayers five times a day, follows Ramadan, and makes a pilgrimage to Mecca at some point.
But note J.P.’s final words:
We all want to live like the companions of the Prophet in the seventh century
That, dear reader, is the nub. J.P and untold thousands, perhaps millions, more unemployed, disaffected young men like him, are seeking an identity, and the image of swaggering around, sword in hand, enjoying the prestige inspired by fear. Even a cursory glance at history tells one that many of the ‘companions of the Prophet’ did not live what we would consider morally upright lives: Pillage, warfare, forced conversion, the forced concubinage (i.e., rape) of the wives and daughters of their captors, executions, often gruesome, all in the name of their religion.
In other words, many of the ‘companions of the Prophet’ could and did live like the current civilization-destroyers of ISIS.
It was activities such as these that in large part inspired the Crusades of the 11th century, which motivated the Christian knights to take vows, to lead warriors into battle, and leaving all behind, reclaim the Holy Land.
There are now calls for a new ‘Crusade’, of course not using that loaded term, and not motivated by recapturing the ‘Holy Land’, now occupied by Israel and Palestine (with many of its own issues, to be sure), but there is growing consensus that some kind of military mission is required, already instantiated by arms-length aerial and drone strikes
These are both of quite limited effectiveness, and as the crisis intensifies, here are some questions we may want to ask ourselves: Do we have a moral obligation to protect those in slavery in the clutches of ISIS, in particular the sex-slaves, Christian (and non-Christian) women captured and divided up into harems?
What of the Christians, those of other non-Islamic faiths, or even (in ISIS’s view) the non-observant Muslims, forced to ‘convert’ at gunpoint? (If they are even given that opportunity).
How far, geographically, are we to permit the ISIS ‘caliphate’ to grow? Should we help protect those lands outside ISIS borders, and to reclaim the land they have already taken?
What happens when the ISIS ideology enters our own land, as it already has? Can we do anything to pre-empt this, and to root out the radical ideology it breeds?
I will have more to say on these issues, but for now let it be said that I doubt this battle can be won militarily, for it is primarily a war of ideologies, of religions, of metaphysical outlook, of moral principles, of conviction. Islam is filling up the moral void of the West, of our own crumbling Christian civilization. Hilaire Belloc prophesied, before Arabia became oil-rich, and not many in Europe had even heard or met a Muslim, that the ultimate battle in the coming century would be between Christianity and Islam, which he saw in largely spiritual terms, and Christianity, from all appearances, is currently on the losing side.
Sometimes, however, even, and perhaps especially, if the case is desperate, one must respond militarily, especially when the weak and vulnerable are being gravely exploited and harmed.
At the very least, people are seeing that the idea of the Crusades was perhaps not such a bad one after all.