As reported by the NeoConservative Christian Right website, Bill Warner is on the road, speaking in Nashville on the new Crusade against Islam that ‘the West’ apparently needs to get on with. Because of the danger of Islam (that, and because it’s already June, and most good television shows have ended for another season).
I’ve talked before about why I doubt Bill Warner’s credentials as an Islamicist, and again, I think his speech demonstrates that while he may have spent a lot of his life studying Islam and religious history, there are a lot of salient features that he has overlooked. Most of his talk recycles elements of his blog that I addressed before, but I find it interesting that the NeoCon piece about his lecture focuses primarily (and I think, fairly) on a call to Crusade.
The Crusades as a topic has been on my mind a lot recently, not least because I’m teaching them again this term. It’s always a bit strange for me to teach the Crusades, because as an Islamicist, they’re a fairly minor event. Muslim sources and Muslim writers do not generally treat the Crusades at length, nor do they treat them as a continuous event from the 109os to the mid-thirteenth century, the way they are presented in most European histories (both contemporary chronicles and modern scholarship). That’s because, in many ways, “the Crusades” is not a concept from the Islamic perspective – or, at least, “the Crusades” wasn’t a concept until the Muslim world was reintroduced to the idea in the colonial period.
Because I’m an Islamicist, and because I love historiography way, way too much, one of the questions I ask my students when teaching the Crusades is: is the concept of ‘the Crusades’ methodologically useful? By which I mean, is it useful to talk about ‘the Crusades’ as a unified series of events, in the same way we talk about ‘the Reformation’ or ‘the Renaissance’ or ‘the Islamic expansion’. The problem with these terms is that they imply some amount of similarity or continuity between all of the events they include.
In the case of the Crusades, modern scholarship has generally argued that there are seven or eight Crusades – that is, numbered attempts on the Holy Land, based on papal decree, with the intention of conquering, securing or retaking the city of Jerusalem. Even among these (at most) eight events, there is a great deal of variation – the second Crusade was a raid on Damascus, the fourth Crusade was actually an attack on the Byzantine empire, and no one can quite agree on what the fifth and sixth were.
But even beyond these discrepencies between these eight events, there were also a plethora of events during the hundred and fifty year period of ‘the Crusades’ which were called ‘Crusades’. They include (but are in no way limited to):
– The Lay Crusade: a commoner holy man called Peter the Hermit attempted to lead a group of Christians against a Turkish force in Byzantium
– The Cathar Crusade: against Christian heretics in France
– The Children’s Crusade: a group of French children followed a boy who had a vision telling him to go on Crusade – they made it all they way to Italy, at which point, depending on which chronicle you believe, they either turned back or were sold into slavery by Italian traders
All of these things are Crusades – the people on these Crusades understood themselves as undertaking the same religious obligation as the knights who traveled to the Holy Land – and yet none of them are what we, in the modern world, mean when we talk about ‘the Crusades’. If we are at war with Islam, I don’t think Bill Warner is suggesting that we send a bunch of children against them to purify them through their near-sinless state, although this was a common twelfth-century idea.
There is also the larger problem that the Crusades aren’t entirely Christian. Or religious. Or secular. Or political. Or military. Or anything, really. They’re massively complex historical events, and, as I am made aware every time I have to lecture about them, it is nearly impossibly to strike a fair balance between the religious fervor that was undoubtedly felt by those who participated, the political intrigue that surrounded them, and the military victories (and more often failures) that characterized them.
Which brings me to my final point, of which I was just reminded in my last class, and the one I think is the most important for those among the American Right who think the Crusades are a good model for the modern relationship with Islam – aside from all of the theological, ethical and historical complexity that goes along with the concept of Crusades, if we, as Americans, are meant to identify with the Crusaders – we lost. We lost over and over again. The first Crusade was a raging success, mostly because the Muslims didn’t notice, and didn’t have the resources or any good reason to care. A few cities managed to stage decent resistance to the Crusaders, but for the most part, there were no battles in the first Crusade. After that, the Holy Land Crusades become an endless story of the Europeans spectacular failures. For every gain they managed, they lost something new, and the European states in the Holy Land and Egypt were eaten away, bit by bit, by a strongly-resistive local population that had no interest in seeing them survive.
If that is the model we are seeking, then we should just accept failure now, and go see if any of the mid-summer filler is any good.
 This is actually the same event as I discussed last time, but now someone has nicely uploaded a video of his talk to youtube. O youtube, how I love you. And not just because you have songs about Star Wars.