Crusades: Legit Response to Muslim Aggression?

Let me start this post by saying that I’m an athiest, so religiously I have no dog in this fight other than being a product of European heritage and western civilization.

In college, I had a professor who argued that the Crusades were really a counter crusade. He argued that it was the Muslims of Arabia who started the original crusade. His point was that the Levant, Anatolia, Eygypt, North Africa, and Spain were all places that in 500 A.D. were predominantly Christian. Over the course of the next few hundred years, Islam conquered those places. They convereted large parts of the local populace and put in place punitive policies against the non-converted population (I realize that these may or may not be equal to Christian countries treatment of non-Christians, I’m not trying to argue whether one side was morally superior).

These days, in many ultra-left circles and among whack-job Islamic fundamentalists its common to hear screeds against the evil western crusaders. Now, I am perfectly willing to grant that the Crusaders weren’t the greatest bunch of guys. For one, they showed their true colors by sacking Constantinople, hurting the very people who they were obsentiallly helping. They also committed some pretty horrible attrocities against Muslims and Jews who they encountered in the Middle East.

In fact, I formerly would have found myself more or less in agreement with those railing against the Crusades. But since hearing the arguement from my professor, I find myself coming around to his perspective. I certainly recognize the odiousness of many of the Crusader’s actions (although I consider them pretty par for the couse for pre-modern times and in that sense no worse than many other conflicts between rival cultures). But putting myself in the shoes of a European Christian circa the 11th century, who could look back on 400 years of Muslim assualt on formerly Christian lands, I can at least sympatize with the general idea behind the Crusades. And I think that it probably is intellectually dishonest to view them outside of the context of the previous 400 year’s history.

I think it’s intellectually dishonest to look back and condemn the Crusades without at least acknowledging that they weren’t all that different from any other type of conquest that had been going on in that region for a couple thousand years. Kings and emperors used to conquer territory all the time. As you point out, the Muslims did it as much as any Christian. Anyone harping about how bad the Crusades were is doing so stricly to advance a political view. They don’t really have much in the way of historical support, unless they are also criticizing pretty much every ruler throughout history.

Your professor has the right of it pretty much. The crusades were a response to growing muslim power in the Iberian peninsula and the eastern kingdoms. But religion did play a big part, both in helping mobilize the whole thing, and to get things going in the first place. England, and France, and other kingdoms, I would imagine didn’t care all that much about Aragorn’s or castille’s troubles, or those of Constantinople. If Pope Urban hadn’t gotten involved I’m not sure that the crusades would have happened as they did, but wars against Muslim incursions would have continued regardless and might have even developed into multinational conflicts in the end anyway.

Yes, the Crusades were (ultimately unsuccessful attempts at) wars of conquest, just as Islam’s original spread was a series of (successful) wars of conquest.

No, that’s not a reason for Western nations not to disavov the Crusades. From today’s more enlightened perspective wars of conquest are inherently wrong.

The difference for modern Western nations being: for a large proportion of history’s wars wars of conquest there’s no need for us to disavov them, because we were at the receiving end (e.g. with Islam’s original spread), or not invested to them at all (e.g. the invasions of Korea by Japan), or because the parties involved reasonably be identified with today’s nations (today’s North Germans have no reasonable grounds, really, for resentment against France for Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony).

Yes, but so what? Why should we “disavow” them? I certainly didn’t participate in the Crusades and no one is alive who did. The Crusaders were doing something that pretty much every person on earth thought was fine at the time (if not the specifics at least in theory). Why should we start disavowing all the things in the past that we now think of as wrong? We’d pretty much have to disavow 95% of the things in the past.

Most of those 95% were not done in the name of our culture, or not previously endorsed by our culture.

Why are wars of conquest inherently wrong? I mean, obviously, they’re wrong if you lose, but if you win, you can always find some way to legitimize the invasion.

It’s a value judgement that the world signed up to in 1945, with the UN Charter.

Actually, they were. Should the people of Italy apologize to the Greeks, the French, the Jews, the Egyptians, et. al., for conquering them? Should the Germans apologize to the Italians for attacking the Roman Empire?

There were many wars of conquest in the name of Western civilization. Why are the Crusades so special?

In order to get to your professor’s perspective, we need to play a lot of games with dates. There was no “400 years” of Muslim aggression against Christianity. The great sweep of Islam across North Africa and into Spain had run out of stream by 730 and the exploratory raid into France, (excessively) celebrated as the great “repulse” of the Muslims at Tours in 732 occurred only 100 years after the death of the Prophet. From that time on, it was mostly the sort of ongoing Empire-struggles-with-empire that we see throughout history with the Greek Christians maintaining a hostile border with the Arab Muslims but with no serious threat of actual conquest involved.
It was not until the early eleventh century that a change in politics within the Muslim world brought about the destruction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre and, not until the late eleventh century that laws were changed that made Jerusalem an actively hostile place for Christians.

So, while there were acts against Christians that preceded the Crusades by about half a century, there was no 400 year war of continuous attempts to invade Europe or smash the Christian faith. (And had the politics of the Muslim world gone differently, the later oppression of Christians in the Levant and against pilgrims might never have occurred, so it was not a case of “Islam” so much as specific Muslim groups that provoked the European response.)

I think the Crusades get singled our for special treatment because motivated parties get to hold them up as an example that the big, bad, evil western imperialists have always been out to opress everyone. The fact that, on the surface, they seem unprovoked further strenghtens that arguement.

The Crusades were also an early attempt at a “world” war. By the time the First Crusade had been called, the Eastern and Western divisions of Christianity were well along their road to schism, yet the disparate kingdoms in which those religious divisions operated were willing to ignore those rifts long enough to (sort of) band together to attack a perceived “common” enemy, which then formed its own (shaky) alliances to meet the European threat. It was not merely a matter of two neighboring kingdoms ganging up on a third or even two adjacent empires joining forces for a while, but a call to dozens of small kingdoms across an entire continent to join in a single (horribly disorganized) effort to wage war.


Just because the Muslim and Christian world had settled into a low level standoff, it doesn’t mean that either side viewed the conflict as ended. Plus I’m sure it remained fresh in the consciousness of Christian Europe. Look no farther than Al-Quaida constantly refering to the U.S. as the “Crusader” army and the more radical parts of the Arabic world constantly evoking the thereme of the Crusades for proof of how long these things can linger in public memory.

On your larger point, however, I agree with you. In talking about a time period of roughly 650 to 1050 A.D., it is of course, necessary to generalize somewhat.

However, from the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637 until the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (and even for a few years following), Christians continued to live and work in Jerusalem as freely as they had before the conquest* and pilgrimages to Jerusalem from Europe were common. The Christians huddled in Nothern Spain were not happy with their Muslim neighbors to the South (when they were not making alliances with them against other Christian fiefdoms in Spain) and the Byzantine Empire was in constant border conflict, but there was hardly a serious thought at the back of the mind of the typical Germanic or Frankish or English person that “we need to get back those lands” and the Muslims of Persia and the African Sahel were not constantly agitating their neighbors to launch a new campaign against Europe.

*(Yes, I know about dhimmi and jizya, but often those situations were an improvement on the rules and taxes that had previously been levied by the Byzantine Empire. Being less free than one’s Muslim neighbors did not necessarily make one more oppressed than one’s Byzantine-ruled grandparents.)

Arrgggggh. I had an entire post typed up and lost it.

tomndebb, I defer to your knowledge as mideval history is hardly my strong area.

I can imagine, however, that Christians of the time viewed the Holy Land in the same way that extreme Muslims today view it. They accept that someone else presently controls it, but regard it as a temporary situation until they themselves are powerful enough to go take it back.

True, but remember, oppression is relative. Most people are bothered much less by being oppressed than they are by knowing that their neighbors being aren’t oppressed right alongside them, and also, people are bothered more by their current oppression than they were by greater oppression in their grandfather’s time.

Are you seriously asking why it’s wrong to kill people and take their property?

Your chronology is sadly lacking. The Muslims conquered Sicily and southern Italy in the ninth century in a series of campaigns that lasted more than seven decades, and these were not mere raids or skirmishes. In 846 the Muslims conquered and sacked Rome, killing thousands of priests and nuns and razing the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in what was clearly a blow aimed at the heart of Christendom. They weren’t fully driven out of Sicily until almost the end of the eleventh century, only a few years before the first Crusade. By the time of the Norman invasion in the eleventh century, Christianity had been completely exterminated in Sicily; not a single church was standing. For that matter, you seem oblvious to the later Turkish invasions of central Europe.

It is quite clear that Muslims meant to subdue the Christian world. Their grasp exceeded their reach, but the fact remains that Muslims quite clearly regarded Christian nations (and for that matter, all non-Muslim countries) as their lawful prey, and a great many still do today. You are trying to spin the facts to make Islam seem benign. I trust you’ll forgive me if I give more weight to the views of an actual historian who specializes in the subject than to yours.

You are attacking a straw man. He never said that. He just asked if wars of conquest are always wrong.

Regardless of whether the Crusades were justified, it is very petty for some Muslims to (apparently) still nurse a grudge over them, considering the Muslims ultimately won.