Sunday 2 August 2009

Crusades-the History of a Negative Perception

It does not seem to me to be in any sense legitimate to attempt a direct comparison between the Muslim occupation of the Holy Land after the Battle of Yarmouk and the incursion of the Crusaders at the end of the eleventh century.

This cross roads between Africa and Asia has been fought over for centuries; and of all the invasions that of the Muslim armies was, as far as I am aware, far less destructive of human life than the original incursion of the Jewish tribes at the time of the Exodus, or the wholesale massacre carried out when the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, or even the invasion of the Persians earlier in the reign of the Emperor Heraclius. Indeed, far from the land being Christian in any unified sense it had, prior to the Battle of Yarmouk, seen an intense factional dispute between the local Monophysites and the Orthodox authorities in Constantinople. The Monophysites, who rejected the doctrine laid out by the Council of Chalcedon, settled down with very little resistance to Muslim rule, and the Byzantine state made no attempt to recover the lost heretical provinces.

The Crusades, therefore, most assuredly, did not follow from the conquest of Yarmouk, but came almost five hundred years later (a time span which separates contemporary England from the reign of Henry VII), and under very specific historical circumstances.

Under pressure from the Turks in Anatolia-steadily moving westwards ever since the Battle of Manzikert in 1071-the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus appealed to Pope Urban II for military aid. He wanted professional mercenaries; he got something quite different. Urban conjured up a popular movement at the Council of Clermont. Thus the crusades began, and with it began centuries of massacre and atrocity, from the pogrom of the Jews in the Rhineland, moving through the wholesale murder and rape of Christian communities in the Balkans, to the ultimate sack of Jerusalem. And so it continued.

In view of all of this it would hardly be surprising if the word 'crusade' had negative connotations. But it has not; at least not until recently. It was used in positive terms for centuries, long after the atrocities and outrages had been forgotten, as something good, noble and Christian, a myth of purity washed clean of blood.

The negativity now associated with the word comes not with 9/11 but as a consequence of ever closer western military engagement with the Islamic world. From memory, I believe George W Bush actually used the 'c' word in the early days of the Iraq war, until he was reminded of the implications of this for Muslim people, and the history he was bringing to mind. I think it safe to assume that many Islamic people feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are threatened with a new crusade. We have now, it would seem, created Outremer once again; and it remains to be seen if it will be as long lasting, or if, in the end, Baibars will walk over the ghost of Richard the Lionheart

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