The First Crusade: Aggression Or Liberation?

In the beginning was the patriotic view of the Crusades. As recently as the works of Chesterton we find complete certainty that the Christians were right to march to Jerusalem, take it and rule it, either in self-defence, as a superior culture, or simply because Deus vult. There was some awareness that the Muslims were a great civilisation, but the figure of Saladin, from his own lifetime onwards regarded as the prototype of the chivalrous ruler, paradoxically worked against this realisation; for he was so admired that he was thought to be a kind of Christian. He was so good that he had to be One of Us, for We are naturally Good. This naturally obscured who he really was. At the end of the twentieth century, however, there were heard many voices attempting to show us what the Crusades looked like from the other side: such as Gabrieli and his best-selling populariser Amin Maalouf, Karin Armstrong and above all Terry Jones.

The blockbuster movie Kingdom of Heaven, for all its absurd plot devices, made a serious try at recounting Armstrong’s master narrative of intelligent coexisters and ignorant brute militarists in the kingdom of Jerusalem, with Reynald of Châtillon as the principal villain. Unfortunately its central premise, that peaceful co-existence was not only desirable but also possible, was plain wrong, because it ignored the political dynamics on the Muslim side.

In consequence of a generation of revisionism, the popular mind now thinks it knows several things: that medieval Islam was incomparably more advanced than medieval Christianity; and that the First Crusade was an unprovoked irruption of barbarian aggressors into a settled, peaceful and cultured Oriental world. With the first perception one might fruitfully niggle, but the second is plain wrong in several ways at once. Accordingly, it may be time for some counter-counter-revisionism.

First, Syria-Palestine was by no means a settled and peaceful world. Arab civilisation was in the process of being overrun by Turks, a warrior people from the fringes of the Muslim world, burning with the orthodox zeal of the new convert. Urban populations everywhere regarded them as barbarians. Political authority was everywhere falling into the hands of these Turkish warlords, and the schism between Sunni and Shi’a was inflamed. The Seljuk sultanate was under attack by a sophisticated transnational terrorist network, and northern Syria was devastated by a civil war within the last Arab dynasty in the region, the Mirdasids of Aleppo. Jerusalem changed hands several times, between the Fatimids of Egypt and Turkish adventurers. And indeed, the success of the First Crusade was made possible only by this Muslim disunity; the Crusaders appeared as just one more element in the game of Syrian politics, a rats’ nest at the best of times. As for the Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this was now hazardous, and Christendom resounded with horror stories of pillage, rape and massacre. The word “crusade” was not invented until much later; the expedition of 1095 thought of itself as an armed pilgrimage, intended to re-open the pilgrimage route. We must imagine modern tourists setting off for some troubled tropical location as large parties with substantial military escorts, prepared to fight their way through all comers to the golden beaches and the umbrella drinks.

Second, the princes involved certainly had ideas of territorial acquisition. For the Byzantine Emperor, who had started this avalanche, that was the whole point. He wanted the eastern half of his empire back, and did not have the manpower to get it. Byzantium had employed Frankish mercenaries before, and the Muslims expected no less of it now. From that perspective, the First Crusade was a Byzantine campaign that spun out of control; the Emperor was only aiming at Antioch, and the Frankish princes would probably have been content with that too, had not the rank and file of the Frankish army insisted on pushing on to Jerusalem. What the revisionists who portray the First Crusade as an unprovoked war of aggression do not seem to know, however, is that Byzantium had never renounced its claim on the whole of Syria and Palestine. Seen from Constantinople, they were occupied territory. It is true that they had been occupied for a very long time, but the Byzantines were entirely capable of thinking in millennia. When a piece of land changes hands twice, we may call the second acquisition either a conquest or a reconquest, and the usage is always tendentious. Obviously the first owners will want to call it a reconquest, a regaining of what is theirs, and equally obviously the new owners will want to bemoan it as a conquest, and will probably call it unprovoked aggression into the bargain. When, therefore, the revisionists call the Christian acquisition of parts of Syria and Palestine a conquest and not a reconquest, they are taking the position that the original Arab conquest of these regions from the Byzantine Empire was somehow righteous, or at least so long ago as to make the possession legitimate, while denying the Christians the right to try to take them back.

If the argument turns entirely on length of deprivation, and it is held that the passage of the 500 years since the Byzantines had last held Jerusalem invalidates their claim, what then shall we say of Antioch, which is what Byzantium thought it was using the Franks to secure? Antioch had been in Muslim hands for a mere ten years. Shall we then say that a millennium on the Christian side is not enough to establish legitimacy, whereas ten years on the Muslim side is sufficient? In their zeal to retell the story through Muslim eyes, the revisionists thus commit themselves very fundamentally to the Islamic doctrine of the Dar al-Islam, which is that any territory once Muslim-ruled is claimed for all eternity. It would be worth asking them whether Andalusia must then be returned to Morocco.

Similarly, the revisionists talk about the Crusaders invading the Muslim East and so forth. And yet some of these regions were Muslim only in the sense that 19th-century India was Anglican, or France between 1940 and 1945 was German. Antioch, for example, was an entirely Christian city that happened to be under the military occupation of Turkish warlords. Much the same goes for the rest of Syria and Palestine, which were most imperfectly Islamised; particularly the mountainous parts of Syria were dominated by Christians. Overall the region was probably half and half. That these Christian populations welcomed their co-religionists as liberators from the barbarous Turks is a fact not invalidated by their subsequent strained relations with their new Frankish and Norman masters. Regarding the region as intrinsically Muslim is at best a back-projection from the present day, leavened by ignorance of even the present-day Christian population, and at worst propaganda serving the interests of the new-caliphate movement and Da’esh.

Posted on September 5, 2010 at 09:45 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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