Should We Fear Revolution in the Islamic World? Lessons from the Crusades

When the United States brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, George W. Bush hoped that a newly democratic Iraq might serve as a model for other Middle Eastern states. Of course, this did not stop the United States from continuing its strategic alliance with decidedly non-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. The United States – and the rest of the world – is dependent on Middle Eastern oil, so the spread of democracy took a back seat to stability and security in the region. The ongoing sectarian conflicts in Iraq did not help matters. And when in January 2006, Hamas won a decisive majority in free elections within Palestine, many began to wonder: is supporting democracy in the Middle East really a good idea?

In the last three months, this question has taken on tremendous importance. Popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt brought thousands into the streets to demand democratic government. Against all odds, they drove out authoritarian leaders who had ruled for decades. Now, the revolutionary fervor has spread to Libya, where a civil war seems to be underway as Gaddafi desperately tries to hold on to power. Large protest movements are under way in Yemen and Bahrain. In Iran, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, where they have been met by police and tear gas. In the West, the reactions to this wave of protest have been mixed. We rejoice at revolution and the brave attempts of these people to gain democracy and civil liberties. At the same time, many worry that democracy will only lead to anti-western extremism. Some have even voiced fears that Islam is by nature extremist and exclusionary, and that regimes that embrace it will always be intolerant.

History tells us that this is not so. My novel Eagle begins in 1148, during the Second Crusade – a time when the Muslim world was much more tolerant than the Christian West. Indeed, the concept of “holy war,” in its classic sense, was brought to the Middle East by the Crusaders. It is true that in the 11th century, the invading Seljuk Turks had plundered and pillaged Christians in the Middle East, but they had done the same to the local Arabs and Jews. Their conquests were driven by the desire for land and money, not by religious fervor. Even under the Seljuk princes, pilgrims from the West were allowed to enter Jerusalem to pray, and thousands of Eastern Christians lived in the Holy City. The Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt employed Christian soldiers in their armies. Jews served as scribes at court and physicians to Muslim rulers. Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike shared a common culture. Muslim leaders built mosques and madrasas, but they allowed people of different faiths a degree of autonomy.

The Crusaders were different. The First Crusade (1096-1099) was called for by Pope Urban II, and it was from the start a religious movement that transcended political divisions. Some of those who took up the cross were no doubt motivated by greed or wanderlust, but many more were motivated by faith. Even before the armies left, religious fervor inspired thousands of peasants and petty nobles to set out for the Holy Land on the doomed People’s Crusade. Thousands more knights and soldiers joined the armies of the crusading princes. The original goal of the First Crusade was to free pilgrims and Eastern Christians from persecution by the Turks. Shortly after joining forces at Constantinople, the four leading princes – Raymond IV of Toulouse, Bohemond of Taranto, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Hugh of Vermandois – added a second goal: the conquest of Jerusalem. It took the Crusader armies two years and several battles before they finally reached Jerusalem on June 6, 1099. After a siege that lasted over a month, they managed to enter the city, using siege towers built with wood taken from the ships of a contingent of Genoese sailors. Once inside the Holy City, the Crusaders slaughtered Muslims and Jews indiscriminately, including several hundred prisoners who had been promised protection in return for their surrender. When the Muslims first took Jerusalem in 638, they had respected the Christian churches. The Crusaders showed no such restraint. They placed a cross atop the Dome of the Rock and christened it the Temple of Solomon. The Al-Aqsa mosque became a royal stable. Jews and Muslims were forbidden to settle in Jerusalem.

The concept of jihad (which can mean both an internal struggle to live a righteous life and an external struggle against the enemies of Islam) had existed before the Crusades, but it was the Crusaders who introduced the Muslim world to a new, more aggressive type of Holy War. The Crusaders were able to conquer the Holy Land because religious fervor motivated their troops and allowed their leaders to overcome significant political differences. The Muslims, by contrast, were divided into half a dozen emirates, none of which could stand alone against the Christian invaders. Time and again, local rulers were happy to make peace with the Franks, or even to ally with them against other Muslims. It was the Muslim leader Nur ad-Din, the Emir of Damascus and Aleppo, who seized on the idea of holy war against the Franks as a justification for expanding his rule over other Muslims and as means of encouraging other rulers to join him in the fight against the Crusaders. Saladin also stressed the religious imperative to drive out the Franks. Together, they helped to transform the concept of jihad into what we think of today as holy war. Yet even under Saladin, medieval Islam was remarkably tolerant for the time, particularly in regard to Jews.

This tolerance was not exceptional. Under Islamic law, non-Muslims were given a degree of communal autonomy and allowed to practice their religion. Their personal safety and property were guaranteed in return for paying tribute and acknowledging Muslim rule. This tolerance helped to produce some of the most diverse, cosmopolitan cultures in history in places like Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo, and Salonika. There were, to be sure, Islamic states that enforced a stricter form of Islam, and there were times when Muslims persecuted Christians. But these were exceptions rather than the rule. This was in sharp contrast to the medieval West, where non-Christians had less protection under law, and periodic pogroms and inquisitions were turned against Jews, Muslims, and “heretical” Christians alike.

Of course, this is not to say that we should long for a return to states based on the model of medieval Islamic regimes. These societies were undemocratic and extremely patriarchal. And some of their issues remain with us. For centuries, Sharia actually afforded women more protection than western law – for instance, married women were allowed to own property in their own right – but this is no longer true. And while Islamic law offers non-Muslim minorities protection and autonomy, it also excludes them from politics and too often fails to provide the protection it promises. This is why states such as Turkey have rejected the government imposition of Sharia as undemocratic.

However, the failure of regimes like that of Saladin to live up to modern standards should not obscure the fact that, compared with the West at the time, the medieval Islam world was tolerant and culturally progressive. Far from tolerance and Islam being antithetical, tolerance of other faiths is in fact a fundamental part of Islam. This does not mean that Islamic regimes will always be tolerant, any more than Christian regimes have always been so. Extremism is dangerous, whether Christian or Muslim. But extremism is not inherent to Islam. It is a response to specific economic and political issues. It is misguided to picture all devout Muslims as fundamentalist jihadists, just as it is wrong to picture all Christians as bloodthirsty Crusaders (whether on horseback or in tanks). Such essentialist arguments ignore very real issues such as the status of Israel and Palestine, and western support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Dismissing Islam as fundamentally intolerant and anti-democratic is thus problematic on a number of levels: it ignores historical reality; it compromises western ideals; and it angers the people who have fought bravely for their freedom. Worst of all, such a dismissal has repeatedly been used as an excuse for ignoring real grievances and for supporting regimes that repress and impoverish their people. This in turn perpetuates the conditions that produce the extremism which critics of Islam point to as the justification for supporting authoritarian regimes in the first place.

The current wave of revolutions in the Middle East present an opportunity to break this cycle, but only if the West is willing to engage the governments that emerge from revolution on the very real political issues that concern them, starting with the Israel-Palestine conflict. If Richard the Lionheart and Saladin could reach a compromise that allowed Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike to live in the Holy Land and worship in Jerusalem, then surely we can do the same.




3 responses to “Should We Fear Revolution in the Islamic World? Lessons from the Crusades”

  1. Mark Avatar

    Interesting article Jack. I agree with a lot of but I think it is very important not to forget how Islam was spread in the beginning – by the sword. Prior to the spread of Islam, the areas underlying the region we now collectively call ‘The Middle East’ were full of Pagans, Zoroastrians and native Christians – all three had been in this area for centuries and centuries before ‘Islam’ ever took hold. The point I am trying to make is that, while it -is- correct to say the Crusader movement was largely barbaric and indeed warmongering, we must not forget how Islam itself was spread and what its spread meant for the non-Muslim inhabitants of the Middle East. I would appreciate a response from you, Jack.

    Thanks and keep up the writing!

  2. Jack Avatar

    Of course war played a key role in the spread of Islam. That said, the initial Muslim conquests probably bear more in common with the spread of the Roman Empire than with the Crusades. Lands might have been conquered by the sword, but they were not converted by the sword. To quote historian Ira Lapidus’s A History of Islamic Societies:

    “The question of why people convert to Islam has always generated intense feeling. Earlier generations of European scholars believed that conversions to Islam were made at the point of the sword, and that conquered peoples were given the choice of conversion or death. It is now apparent that conversion by force, while not unknown in Muslim countries, was, in fact, rare. Muslim conquerors ordinarily wished to dominate rather than convert, and most conversions to Islam were voluntary. (…) In most cases worldly and spiritual motives for conversion blended together. Moreover, conversion to Islam did not necessarily imply a complete turning from an old to a totally new life. While it entailed the acceptance of new religious beliefs and membership in a new religious community, most converts retained a deep attachment to the cultures and communities from which they came” (p. 198).

    For the most part, local inhabitants were left alone to practice their religion as they had in the past, so much so that most of the newly “Muslim” Middle East — including Egypt, Northern Syria, and Iran — retained its Christian majority for hundreds of years after the initial Muslim conquest. Over the centuries, the laws of the land did increasingly come to discriminate against non-Muslims, who were excluded from government and paid extra taxes. But there was very little outright persecution.

    In this regard, early Islam actually compares quite favorably to early Christianity. Starting with Emperor Gratian, and particularly after the rule of Theodosius I, the Roman Empire treated pagans harshly, forbidding visits to temples, destroying holy sites and holy objects, and killing pagan priests. It is often forgotten that early Christianity owed its spread in large part to the oppressive apparatus of the Roman state. And, of course, in later years, the Christian church would continue to zealously persecute heretics. The Crusades are in many ways the culmination of this tendency.

    I don’t want to make it sound like Christians have historically been particularly prone to violence and oppression — there is enough of that to go around in history — but it does bear mentioning that their record in this regard is certainly no better than that of Islam. And Christianity has not (lately) been a major impediment to the rise of democracy. I think the same will prove to be true of Islam. What is holding the Middle East back is not religion, but rather a mixture of economics, geo-politics, and cultural history — the same factors which for so long held back democracy in the west.

  3. Mark Avatar

    Thanks Jack for your response – you are a well of historical knowledge. I cannot say I agree with all you have written, but I thank you for your response.

    I look forward to your next novel!

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