Exclusive - 'Tyranny of Clichés' Excerpt: The Truth About the Crusades

Ed. Note: This is the second part of a four-part series of exclusive excerpts from Jonah Goldberg's new book, "THE TYRANNY OF CLICHÉS: HOW LIBERALS CHEAT IN THE WAR OF IDEAS," with an introduction from the author.

The word "crusader" has been completely captured by the forces political correctness. Whatever their sins, the Crusaders weren't conquerors or the first invading shock troops of Western imperialism. They were warriors sent to reclaim lands taken by Islamic invaders. The great irony is that both Western progressives and Islamic fundamentalists have unwittingly bought into the same propaganda. -- J.G.

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 The Crusades

The great irony is that the zealot-reformers who want to return to a “pure” Islam have been irredeemably corrupted by Western ideas. Osama bin Laden had the idea that he was fighting the “new crusaders.” When George W. Bush once, inadvertently, used the word “crusade,” jihadists and liberal intellectuals alike erupted with rage. It was either a damning slip of the tongue whereby Bush accidentally admitted his real crusader agenda, or it was a sign of his stunning ignorance about the Crusades. Doesn’t he know what a sensitive issue the Crusades are? Doesn’t he know that the Crusades belong alongside the slaughter of the Indians, slavery, and disco in the long line of Western sins?

After all, it’s been in the papers for a while. In 1999, Muslim leaders demanded that Pope John Paul II apologize for the Crusades. “He has asked forgiveness from the Jews [for the Church’s passivity in the face of the Holocaust], so he should ask forgiveness from the Muslims,” Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, told the New York Times.3 Across the country sports teams have been dropping their crusader mas­cots because they’re offensive to . . . someone. Wheaton College changed their seventy-year-old team name from the Crusaders to the Thunder (no word from Thor worshippers yet as to whether they are off ended). Even Campus Crusade for Christ opted to change its name to Cru partly be­cause the word crusade has become too radioactive. “It’s become a fl ash word for a lot of people. It harkens back to other periods of time and has a negative connotation for lots of people across the world, especially in the Middle East,” Steve Sellers, the organization’s vice president told Christianity Today. “In the ’50s, crusade was the evangelistic term in the United States. Over time, different words take on different meanings to diff erent groups.”4

I’ll say. Until fairly recently, historically speaking, Muslims used to brag about being the winners of the Crusades, not the victims of it. That is if they talked about them at all. “The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineff ectual re­sponse to the jihad—a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war,” writes Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of Islam in the English language (and perhaps any language).5 Historian Thomas Madden puts it more directly, “Now put this down in your notebook, because it will be on the test: The cru­sades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world.”6

At first the larger Muslim world didn’t much care about the Christian reclamation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The jihad to repel the cru­saders didn’t start in earnest until the European forces pressed on into the Muslim Holy Lands approaching Mecca and Medina. Even then the Muslim world considered the fight to reclaim Jerusalem a sideshow. The real fight was in the East, where caliphs were rolling up victory after victory in the old Byzantine Empire. In 1291, the Muslims expelled the last of the crusaders, and all remaining Christians and Jews in the Islamic world lived as second-class citizens (though often better than Muslims or Jews might have in many parts of Christendom). By the sixteenth century, Islam’s empire covered all of North Africa, Asia Minor, Arabia, and much of southern Europe. Had Islamic forces not been turned back outside the Gates of Vienna, Christianity itself may not have survived. (The battle ended in victory for the Christians on September 12, but it was the day before, marking the apex of Muslim rule, that would stick in the minds of many Muslims for the next 318 years.)

By that point the Crusades period was several centuries in the rear­view mirror, and most Muslims considered them one of their many, if minor, victories.

“In the vast Arabic historiography of the Crusades period,” writes Lewis, “there is frequent reference to these invaders, who are always called ‘Franks’ or ‘infidels.’ The words ‘Crusade’ and ‘crusader’ simply do not occur.” Lewis notes that the word only starts to gain wide currency in the Middle East in the nineteenth century, when Western notions of imperialism seep into the Muslim mind. And that’s the irony. In the nineteenth century Europeans (and Americans) invoked the Crusades to justify their imperialist agenda. When imperialism fell into disrepute in the twentieth century, the Crusades fell with it. But the idea that twelfth-century Muslims—or even eighteenth-century Muslims—saw the Crusades as European imperial aggression is nonsense.7 “In other words,” Madden explains (writing back when bin Laden wasn’t fi sh food), “Muslims in the Middle East—including bin Laden and his creatures— know as little about the real crusades as Americans do. Both view them in the context of the modern, rather than the medieval world. The truth is that the crusades had nothing to do with colonialism or unprovoked aggression. They were a desperate and largely unsuccessful attempt to defend against a powerful enemy.”8

Lost in much of this discussion is that Christianity is not a Western faith imposed on the Middle East by the West. It was a faith born in the East that spread to the West. The Holy Lands were Christian for centu­ries before Muhammed was even born. The Crusades were launched not as a war of conquest but as a war to save Christians from Muslim perse­cution and conquest. Atrocities in the name of Christ were undoubtedly committed, as were atrocities in the name of Islam. One need not condone all of that. Indeed, one can single out Christianity for its hypocrisy, since the crusaders at times violated their ideals of love, forgiveness, and char­ity, while Islam was under no such restraint.

Regardless, to this day the Crusades myth saturates policy and aca­demic debates as if everyone knows what they were really about. Leading textbooks continue to describe the Crusades as the dawn of Western co­lonialism and imperialism rather than an effort to beat back Eastern colonialism and imperialism. According to the authors of Western Civili­zations: Their History and Their Culture: “the Crusades opened the fi rst chapter in the history of western colonialism. . . . Western colonialism in the Holy Land was only the beginning of a long history of colonialism that has continued until modern times.”9 The often in error but never in doubt New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in 2003 that Bush’s foreign policy had backfired because the “neocons . . . have created new terrorist-breeding swamps full of angry young Arabs who see America the same way Muslims saw Westerners in the Crusades: as Christian expansionist imperialists motivated by piety and greed.”10

It’s a bizarre turn. Robert Frost defined a liberal as someone too broad-minded to take his own side in a fight. In their desperation not to take their own side, today’s anti-imperialists take at face value the fl awed arguments of nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialists just so they can condemn their own country for its imperialism. And, in their conde­scension, liberal commentators assume the West was always in the position of the aggressor, the hegemon, the empire builder, and that we have noth­ing to offer to the rest of the world but apologies. They lecture the rest of us about the burning need to understand and empathize with the frustra­tion of the Arab street, and for Westerners to see things through their eyes so we don’t breed even more terrorists (see Chapter 23, Understanding).

Meanwhile, the Muslim fanatics we are hectored to understand are recognizable to liberals precisely because they’ve been colonized by the same Western clichés.  

Excerpted from THE TYRANNY OF CLICHÉS: HOW LIBERALS CHEAT IN THE WAR OF IDEAS by Jonah Goldberg by arrangement with Sentinel, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © Jonah Goldberg, 2012.


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