Clash of Civilizations or Nuisance? Medieval Crusading and the War on Terror

As the never-ending war on terror enters its second decade, commentators and opinion continue to seek insight from the medieval crusades, when European Christian armies marched to the Middle East to make war against Muslim adversaries. To the casual observer, the crusades would seem to be the origin of all today's problems. Simply put, they look too much alike to be a coincidence. To the cautious historian, these medieval wars have nothing to do with modern jihad or with the Western response to it and their opinions have tended to shape the broader discussion.

But maybe my colleagues are too cautious. Let us consider, for example, the question of whether the crusades were a clash of civilizations, if not the beginning of "The Clash of Civilizations" -- a massive war for survival between East and West -- or were they merely a series of minor military imbroglios of no real consequence in the grand narrative of world history? When we put these medieval wars into context, the "Clash of Civilizations" model appears disconcertingly accurate.

To start at the beginning: In 1095 Pope Urban II proclaimed a Christian military campaign to conquer Jerusalem. In 1099, improbably, European armies achieved his goal. On July 15 they broke through Jerusalem's walls, massacred the city's inhabitants and marched with bloody feet to pray before Christ's tomb.

And the story did not end there. For nearly two centuries, European Christians settled in the Middle East, their last stronghold at Acre (modern Akko in Israel) falling in 1291. Popes and princes after that date dreamed of retaking the Holy Land, but the crusading adventure had effectively come to an end.

Muslims at the time of the Crusades took only occasional notice of these wars. For them it was definitely not a clash of civilizations. When the crusaders marched into the Middle East, they would have seemed little more than poorly organized mercenaries, probably in the employ of the Greek Empire. Crusader victories would have done little to change these perceptions. By the time Europeans had settled in places like Antioch, Edessa and Jerusalem, they were essentially petty warlords on the fringes of what was a frontier society, contested by Sunni Muslims from Baghdad, Shi'i Muslims from Cairo and Greek Christians from Constantinople, among others.
When Muslim armies did begin a concerted effort to drive the crusaders from the Middle East, it was simply one small theater of war in the midst of other, larger conflicts around the Holy Land -- wars between various Islamic factions and eventually between Muslims and Mongols. Against this backdrop the crusades were a sideshow.

But European warriors saw things differently. They believed not only that they were engaged in a clash of civilizations, but also that they were fighting the most important battle in history. Jerusalem, as the Bible and geography had taught them, was the center of the earth. Christianity was the religion that ought to be practiced there. Yet for inexplicable reasons, unbelievers ruled Jerusalem. These "Saracens" (for most of the crusaders had never heard the words "Muslim" or "Islam") had to be driven out. Far from being an ordinary war, it was a clash between those who worshipped Christ and those who worshipped a god named, according to rumor, Matmos, or maybe Mohamet, a clash between "Christendom and Pagandom."

Obviously, this is not the vocabulary of our current war on terror. Crusaders, however, did use other words that have a troublingly familiar sound. The war for Jerusalem, in their words, was one of West vs. East. When the crusaders successfully conquered Jerusalem, observers at home marveled over what they, as Westerners (in Latin, Occidentales), had accomplished. Christianity had been born in the East, European writers crowed, but it had been perfected in the West. And in conquering Jerusalem in 1099, the West had established itself as master of the East.
In Western eyes, the crusaders' occupation of the moral high ground was an inevitable fact of nature, specifically of climate. The colder, heavier airs in Europe inspired Christians there toward a more masculine and coolly rational mindset, whereas the hotter, lighter airs in the East made its inhabitants fickle, unstable, more prone to surrender to the pleasures of the flesh than to the dictates of reason. Such stereotypes applied equally to Muslims and to Eastern Christians: effeminate, treacherous, capricious -- something had gone wrong with the peoples of the East, regardless of faith. For the West, it was all but a duty to correct them, to tame them, or at least to drive them out of Christ's inheritance.

And there was something especially troubling about Muslims. It wasn't just that they practiced a foreign religion. Rather, they practiced a religion that was inherently anti-Christian. Its followers, Westerners believed, worshipped idols and were limbs of the devil, just as Christians were limbs of Christ. The Muslims' leader was, or else one day would be, not just anti-Christian, but Antichrist. One crusade leader, upon breaking into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, proclaimed himself forever opposed to Mohamet, the first Antichrist, and announced himself ready to stomp with his own feet Mohamet's successor, the second Antichrist.

As a set of bad ideas goes, this mixture of faith, science and chauvinism has proved remarkably durable. Today it does not just permeate the language of Jihadists. The American General William Boykin, who explained that, post-9/11, the United States was at war against "the principalities of darkness," is only one example. Another is the Los Angeles heckler who shouted at our exotically, Islamically named President, "You are the Antichrist!" It is tempting and comforting to laugh off such incidents. But they are too prevalent among America's angrier fundamentalists to dismiss them completely -- as a quick Google search for "Obama Antichrist" reveals.

Were the crusades a clash of civilizations? In brief, yes. That at least is the answer that the crusaders would have given. And the idea didn't die with them. In the centuries following, historians, whether celebrating or condemning the crusades, whether seeing them born of faith or colonial greed, nonetheless discussed them in terms of Islam vs. Christianity and East vs. West.

Arab historians, on the contrary, didn't take up crusade language until the nineteenth century, when it became an effective rhetorical weapon against Western colonialists -- the new crusaders. Many would argue from this point that Muslims have no claim to crusade rhetoric. We don't need to take the laments of jihadists seriously because their ancestors did not, in fact, lament the crusades for 900 years.

But that argument misses a larger truth. Ideas once widely pronounced and believed don't just disappear. Long after the West had ceased to celebrate the crusades, the basic vocabulary of crusading still percolated on both sides of the cultural divide. Protestant millenarians and Catholic apologists, Arab nationalists and radical jihadists can and have taken up this language and reinvented it for their own purposes.

The world would undoubtedly be a better place if Western Civilization could forget the crusade. But forgetting does not erase. Even if no one in "the East" took the crusades seriously for 700 years, the idea was always there for the taking, the Clash of Civilizations waiting to be reborn in guises secular and spiritual, an intellectual demon whose exorcism cannot begin until its priests learn to call it by name.

Thanks to Philippe Buc of the University of Vienna for his assistance with suggestions for this article and to Meredith McGroarty for her applying her keen editorial eye to it.