The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades
Robert Spencer, author of the controversial blog Jihad Watch, shakes things up in an equally controversial book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, a brutal attack on Islam and apologetic defense of the Christian crusades. I was drawn to reading it after I finished my recent crusades series, curious to see how this prolific author treated the holy wars.
On the bright side, Spencer refutes a lot of myths perpetuated by the PC crowd: that Christianity and Islam are for the most part "equivalent traditions", that jihadists like Saladin were benign sweetie-pies, that crusaders were land-hungry colonizers motivated by greed, and countless other stupidities. I particularly like his bruising of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven film -- about as historical as The DaVinci Code -- which portrays a sentimentally tolerant Islam during the time of the crusades.
On the not-so-bright side, Spencer offers some counter-myths that need correction. I'll focus on three: (1) the crusades were defensive conflicts; (2) Christianity is inherently benign, and Islam nasty; and (3) we should be thankful for the crusades. I actually agree partly with (3), but there's an irony about it which is lost on Spencer.
Robert Spencer Myth #1: The Crusades Were Defensive Conflicts
Spencer's claim is common among apologists, but the First Crusade was not summoned for defensive purposes, even if it was pressed nominally into that service. There was no pan-Islamic threat to Christendom in the 11th century -- Islam was fragmented more than it had ever been, which is exactly why the First Crusade was able to succeed -- and the jihad had been dormant for a long time. The Byzantine-Seljuk conflict was characteristic of most military struggles which flared up in this period; the Seljuks certainly didn't pose a threat warranting the crusade-response.
The crusade was born in the fires of clerical reform, and it was proactive rather than reactive. Christopher Tyerman explains:
"The reforming popes [from the mid-1040s onwards] increasingly claimed authority not just over all churches but over states and laymen as well. Ideologically and politically, this invited opposition, much of it physical. To establish and protect their 'right order' of Christendom, successive popes were forced to chose to fight with temporal weapons. The First Crusade was a direct result of this." (God's War, p 46)It was particularly a result of Urban's conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor and anti-pope:
"In 1084 Henry IV invaded and captured Rome, installed his own anti-pope and forced Pope Gregory VII to find refuge with the Norman conquerors of southern Italy. Over the subsequent decade, Henry's anti-pope held sway in Rome, supported by repeated imperial forays south of the Alps. The background of the First Crusade lay in this conflict, as Urban II sought to use the mobilization of the expedition as a cover to reclaim the pope's position in Italy and demonstrate his practical leadership of Christendom, independent of secular monarchs." (ibid, p 7)Contemporaries even accused him of this. William of Mamesbury, for instance, knew that Urban was trying to gain popularity and create enough upheaval to consolidate his power-base in Rome. The reason the crusade made him so popular is because it solved the dilemma of civil violence in France. Urban was able to export violence and channel knightly aggression outwards, against Islam, and unify Christians in a sacred cause. That in the process he could exploit the Byzantine call for military aid and capitalize on a golden opportunity to take back the holy lands were big plusses, but those goals were subordinate to dealing with anarchy at home and his own "crusade" against the anti-pope. Urban would have let the Byzantines fend for themselves and the holy lands go to hell if the crusade hadn't met his immediate needs.
Robert Spencer Myth #2: Christianity is benign, Islam nasty
Spencer's book is punctuated with "Muhammad vs. Jesus" boxes, in which various teachings of Jesus are contrasted with militant and intolerant teachings of Muhammad. For instance, on p 35, Jesus' "blessed are the persecuted" is contrasted with Muhammad's mandate to kill persecutors, "for persecution is worse than slaughter" (Qur'an 2:191). Or on p 143, Jesus' injunction to be merciful to enemies is contrasted with Muhammad's command to be merciful to fellow Muslims but "ruthless to unbelievers" (Qur'an 48:29).
Listing the Qur'an's incendiary passages is pointless. One can do the same with the New Testament -- and that's precisely what the medievalists did to justify the crusades. There are enough benign teachings in the Qur'an (obviously favored by millions of mainstream Muslims) which could facilitate an evolution out of the jihad. For instance, the injunction to refrain from killing someone -- "for it would be as if you slew all people" (Qur'an 5:32) -- contrasts with Jesus' insistence that he came to bring not peace but a sword (Mt 10:34). Ditto with Islamic command to "repel evil and hatred with what is better" (Qur'an 41:34-35).
I'm not denying the Qur'an condones plenty of violence while the New Testament leans heavily in the opposite direction. But scriptures are eternally malleable. The reason why Muslims haven't been able to shed the jihad is not because their scriptures won't allow them to -- people can and do ignore and distort their sacred traditions to justify whatever they want -- but because real-world dynamics haven't facilitated such a move. The crusades, on the other hand, were selected out of existence. Robert Wright explains:
"The predominately Christian nations have become more economically advanced, more globalized, which naturally leads to a more cosmopolitan outlook. It's impossible to do business with people while slaughtering them, and it's pretty hard to do business with them while telling them that they'll burn in hell forever. Modern global capitalism has its faults, but religious intolerance isn't one of them."That's one thing we can thank the Protestant Reformation for: a revolting chaos which yielded accelerated evolution. The crusades were discarded because they were incompatible with competing political structures. Wright again:
"Because Europe was politically fragmented, there were lots of polities experimenting with forms of political and economic organization that would let them best their neighbors. The more experiments there are, the more likely you are to find a winning formula -- such as the combination of political and economic liberty that was proving its power in the Netherlands by the late 16th century and in Britain by the late 17th. The success of this formula gave nearby Christian nations little choice but to adopt it, and their Christianity evolved accordingly."The crusades went extinct because they impeded good business, not because they were suddenly seen as morally inferior or conflicting with the peaceful passages of the New Testament. Islamic nations, on the other hand, have yet to evolve in a cosmopolitan direction. That's why the jihad remains a modern phenomenon, while the crusade doesn't. It has very little to do with the "x" number of violent passages one can point to in the Qur'an.
Robert Spencer Myth #3: "Thank God for the Crusades!"
Spencer, arch-enemy of the jihad and apologist for the crusades, is oblivious to a glaring irony: it was the crusades which were (at least partly) responsible for the jihad, not vice-versa. That's not to say the crusades accomplished nothing positive. On the contrary, I agree they did Europe a lot of good and concluded accordingly -- but while also underscoring the downside:
"On the positive side, the crusades helped pull Europe out of a backwater anarchy, channeled aggression outwards instead of inwards, and reformed a class of knights who had been taught their profession was evil. They also put Europe in touch with more advanced civilization, which would lead directly to the Renaissance. Hospices flourished, with increased care for the poor and diseased. The downside is that they fed xenophobia against Islam, reignited the fires of the jihad -- the effects of which are felt to this day -- and led to perversions of crusading against Jews and eastern Christians."That's the irony about the jihad. Though it had been formulated and prosecuted during the Golden Age of Islam (in the 7th-9th centuries), it soon went largely dormant until the 12th-century revival under the Zengids and Ayyubids. It took a fragmented and feuding Islam, and then invading crusaders, to call forth the sort of jihad we associate with Islamic fundamentalism. Europe benefited from the crusades in many ways, something the PC crowd doesn't like to hear, but we can't ignore the Catch-22, namely, that the crusades were largely responsible for the jihad as we know it today.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades is not all bad, and Spencer is right that a lot of PC myths are dangerous and impede honest examinations of Islamic fundamentalism. Pandering to Muslim sensitivities -- or anyone's sensitivities -- gets in the way of addressing problems far more urgent than profiling. For all my liberalism, I despise political correctness and disingenuous sweet talk, and thus find Spencer's blunt approach to be refreshing in itself.
But his correctives call for an equal measure of counter-scrutiny. The problem with Islam lies not in its scriptures, and the crusades, while accomplishing positive things, fed the fires of the jihad in the process -- and were indeed as offensive as the jihad itself. Though I can recommend this book as a superficial antidote to the PC slop we're too often served up with these days -- it's a wake-up call to the exceptionally ignorant -- it's certainly not for serious students of either Islamic fundamentalism or the crusades.
UPDATE: Robert Spencer responded to my review in email, which I paste below with his permission.
Thanks. A few statements you make on which we strongly disagree:
"There was no pan-Islamic threat to Christendom in the 11th century"
-- this is established by the earliest Islamic sources. There was an
ongoing threat, which Muslims at various times had means to press
forward, and at other times they didn't.
"Listing the Qur'an's incendiary passages is pointless. One can do
the same with the New Testament" -- true, but the texts are not
"eternally malleable" in fact -- which is why there has been no
constant tradition of Christian warfare, while there has been and is
a constant or near-constant tradition of Islamic warfare. The NT
texts the Crusaders adduced were nothing like Qur'an 9:5 or 9:29, or
a host of others. And more importantly, Christian and Islamic
scriptures cannot be divorced from their attendant traditions.
Islamic tradition teaches warfare against unbelievers. Christian
tradition does not.
"Spencer, arch-enemy of the jihad and apologist for the crusades, is
oblivious to a glaring irony: it was the crusades which were (at
least partly) responsible for the jihad, not vice-versa." -- This
ignores 450 years of jihad warfare that preceded the Crusades, and
utterly torpedoes an otherwise sound review.
UPDATE (II): See my reply to Spencer here.