Not too long ago I had a conversation with a millennial who criticized the Crusades carried out by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, arguing that they were both unprovoked and immoral. He sustained, without any convincing evidence, that they were launched by the popes against innocent Muslims for the sole means of imposing papal hegemony. There is quite a bit of misunderstanding, especially from revisionist historians and people who willfully choose not to inform themselves, as to the reality of the Crusades and how close the then-civilized world was almost conquered by Muslims.
Raymond Ibrahim in his article Just War vs Plain-Old Jihad states that “[w]herever one looks, the historic crusades against Islam are demonized and distorted in ways designed to exonerate jihadi terror. Unless we get on our high horse,” Barak Obama once chided Americans who were overly critical of Islamic terror, “and think this [beheadings, sex-slavery, crucifixion, roasting humans] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Islamic scholars and activists who insist that Islam is a religion of peace go so far to say, if not equate, the Crusades to the jihad carried out by ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Islamic terrorist gourps.
There is, however, a clear and substantial difference between the Crusades and jihad. A jihad is based upon an Islamic political doctrine justifying looting, killing, and conquest of non-Muslims with the aim of imposing the sharia as the rule of law. The Crusades were a collective response to the ongoing conquest that began with the taking of the Holy Land (Jerusalem) by Muslims in 638 and other Christian territories. Even if some of them were unjust, such as the sack of Constantinople of 1215 (which was condemned by Pope Innocent III, not to mention that he also excommunicated the Venetians who carried out the raid), they were not doctrinal in the literal sense, as jihad is to Islam. Also, contrary to popular opinion, when Pope John Paul II made an apology on March 12, 2000, for the sins and crimes committed by those who represented the church in its history, he never offered one to the Muslims for the Crusades.
Ibrahim goes onto say that “[t]he great irony concerning the mainstream condemnation of the historic crusades is that a closer examination of them — what they meant, what inspired them, how they were justified, who could participate — in comparison to the requisites of jihad, not only exonerates the crusades but exonerates the West of any wrongdoing against Islam, past or present.”
The First Crusade, which was called by Pope Urban II in 1095 (457 years after Jerusalem was overrun by Muslim armies), came at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. He had asked the pope in Rome for assistance to turn back the Muslim Turks, who were invading what is now Turkey; they took property as they went, turned churches into mosques, and forced Christians to convert to Islam. Approximately two-thirds of the ancient Christian world had been already conquered by Muslims by the end of the 11th century, including the important regions of Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia. It was also that time that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place traditionally held where Jesus Christ was buried, was destroyed by Abu ‘Ali Mansur. Soon thereafter all Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land were cut off by Muslims. While Mansur did not attack Christendom directly, he demonstrated scorn for the religion, in addition to destroying 30,000 churches in the Middle East.
The goal of the Crusades, as already mentioned, was to retake and ensure that Christianity could continue to be practiced without any type of Islamic imposition. Attempting to check this advance, they initially enjoyed success, founding a Christian state in Palestine and Syria, but the continued growth of Islamic states ultimately reversed those gains. By the 14th century the Ottoman Turks had established themselves in the Balkans and would penetrate deeper into Europe despite repeated efforts to repulse them. By the mid 1550s they had slowly conceived of a long-term offensive, a pincers movement first by sea and then by land, to conquer the whole northern shore of the Mediterranean. Their ultimate aim was to take all Italy; then all Europe. It was not until the victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 that, under the coalition of Pope Pius V, the Islamic onslaught began to be turned back as Western civilization was saved — the Crusades were formally over by the 16th century, though the spirit of defending Christendom against Islamic jihad was still in place.
The Crusaders, for their part, kept their military operations within lands that were Christian, for their goal was never to overthrow the Turkish Empire, which is why they never attacked Saudi Arabia, specifically Mecca, unlike what the Muslims had done to Constantinople in 1453. That being said, in order to appreciate the necessity of the Crusades, one has to understand how comprehend the 1,400-year-old Islamic threat of jihad subjugate humanity
Islamic jihad or holy war was initiated on what we today define as terrorism carried out by the Prophet Muhammad. He used terror tactics by ensuring discipline among his followers by making public examples of traitors and backsliders. In Muhammad’s day the penalty for apostasy in Islam was death. He also ordered some of his political enemies assassinated, including poets and singers who had publicly ridiculed him. After Muhammad’s famous victory at the Battle of Badr in 624, the Jewish clan Bani Qainuqa were stripped of their goods and expelled from Medina. In 626, the other two remaining Hebrew tribes, the Bani Nadir and the Bani Quraiza, were besieged. After their unconditional surrender, the Jews were slaughtered, had their riches confiscated, and their women and children enslaved. In 628, surmising that his forces were still not strong enough to overcome the rival and once-native Quraysh tribes, Muhammad agreed to the Hudaybiyya Accord, named after the place in which the ten-year treaty was signed; he reneged on this pact less than two years later, after consolidating his power. The Prophet eventually ordered all the tribe’s adult males, some nine hundred, beheaded in the city square, the women and children sold into slavery, and their property distributed among his Muslim followers.
History demonstrates that as Muslims grew in power, their use of violence changed from skirmishes to outright warfare. We see this during the last nine to ten years of Muhammad’s life, when he personally participated or deputized eighty-six battles: an average of nine-plus battles a year, and they culminated in intensity until he died. According to Patricia Crone, the renowned Islamic historian, after the capture of Mecca in 630, “Muhammad’s God endorsed a policy of conquest, instructing his believers to fight against unbelievers wherever they might be found; and if we accept the testimony of non-Muslim sources, he specifically told them to fight the unbelievers in Syria [the Caravan raids], Syria being the land to which Jews and Arabs had a joint right by virtue of their common Abrahamic descent. In short, Muhammad had to conquer, his followers liked to conquer, and his deity told him to conquer.”
The first legitimate jihad after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, according to various Islamic scholars, occurred when Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, suppressed the many Arab tribes who rejected his authority. Bakr’s intransigent and belligerent response towards those who refused his governance, historically known as the ridda (apostasy) wars (632-33), paved the way for the Arabs to attack and conquer most of the areas bordering the Arabian Peninsula: Iraq, Syria, Egypt, etc. These jihadist conquests (from 634 to ca. 740) transmuted the Middle East by causing a linguistic shift from Aramaic and Greek to Arabic and transforming Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism to Islam (over a period of centuries), thereby creating an Islamic empire that would last until the fall of the Ottoman dynasty in 1924.
We know from history that the once powerful Roman and Christian North Africa, the land that gave birth to a number of great Catholic heroes and heroines, such as saints Cyprian, Augustine, Felicity, and Perpetua, vanished under Muslim assaults. Except for their moral and intellectual accomplishments, those great figures might as well never have existed in present-day North Africa. Those who still criticize the Crusades should be reminded that discussing peace in the Middle Ages with the Muslim jihadists — as the United States is doing with the Taliban — would have been as effective as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler in 1938; a peace treaty the latter reneged just as the Prophet Muhammad did with the aforementioned Hudaybiyya Accord. What followed afterwards on both Islamic and Nazi fronts were onslaughts to “purify” society. Just as it was necessary for America to enter World War II to stop Hitler, had it not been for the Crusades, unsuccessful as many of them were, perhaps Islam would have already taken over the rest of the world since there would have been no opposition to the Muslims’ ambitions of Islamizing society.
N. B. Quotations and sources can be found in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up, unless otherwise noted.