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Perspectives and Religion in the Crusades

View of the Crusades from Today


The meaning of the Crusades for politics and society today cannot be understood simply by looking at the violence, the persecutions, or the economic changes they wrought. However important those things may have been at the time, the meaning of the Crusades for people today is determined not so much by what actually happened as it is by what people believe happened and the stories they tell each other about the past.

Both Christian and Muslim communities continue to look back upon the Crusades as a time when devout believers went to war in order to defend their faith. Muslims are seen as defenders of a religion that relied upon force and violence to propagate itself, and Turks even today are viewed through the lens of the threat the Ottomans posed to Europe. Christians are seen as defenders of both a crusading religion and imperialism, and thus any western incursion into the Middle East is regarded as simply a continuation of the medieval crusading spirit.

If Muslims were to be concerned solely with conflicts they lost, they would be looking at the record of European colonialism throughout the Middle East and beyond. There is certainly a great deal there to complain about and there are good arguments that problems today are in part a legacy of European colonial borders and practices.

European colonialism completely reversed a legacy of self-rule and conquest which had existed since the time of Muhammad. Instead of being the equals of, if not superior to, the Christian West, they came to be ruled and dominated by the Christian West. This was a significant blow to Muslims' sense of autonomy and identity, a blow which they are continuing to deal with.

Colonialism is not alone, though, as a target of Muslims' anger - the Crusades are treated as the defining paradigm for relations between Islam and Christianity. European colonialism is almost always treated not as a separate event from the Crusades but instead a continuation of them in a new form - just as is the creation of the state of Israel.

How else can one comprehend the fact that today the Crusades are used as a rallying cry among Muslims in the Middle East? Any privations or oppression currently experienced by Muslims are depicted as simply a continuation of the invasions originally launched to conquer the region. It is curious that this would be the case because, after all, the Crusades were a spectacular failure. The land conquered was relatively small and not held for very long, and the only permanent losses suffered was the Iberian peninsula, a region originally European and Christian anyway.

Today, though, the Crusades continue to be a sensitive issue as though Islam had lost, and sometimes current problems are actually attributed to the effects of the Crusades. Yet Muslims suffered no long-term effects from the Crusades, and in fact Muslim forces rebounded to capture Constantinople and move further into Europe than Christians moved into the Middle East. The Crusades were not simply a Muslim victory but, over time, proved Muslim superiority in terms of tactics, numbers, and the ability to unify against an external threat.

Although the Crusades generally tend to be viewed through the lens of humiliation, one bright spot in the whole affair is the figure of Saladin: the dashing military leader who united the Muslims into an effective fighting force that essentially drove out the Christian invaders. Even today Arab Muslims revere Saladin and say that another Saladin is needed to get rid of the current invaders — in Israel. Jews today are regarded by many as modern-day Crusaders, Europeans or descendants of Europeans holding much of the same land that made up the original Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is hoped that their “kingdom” will soon be eliminated as well.

When promoting the war against terrorism, President George W. Bush originally described it as a "crusade," something he was forced to back off from immediately because it only reinforced Muslims' perception that the "war on terrorism" was merely a mask for a new Western "war on Islam." Any attempt by western powers to interfere with Arab or Muslim affairs is viewed through the twin lenses of Christian Crusades and European colonialism. That, more than anything, is the contemporary legacy of the Crusades and one which will continue to afflict relations between Islam and Christianity for a long time to come.

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