Should We Apoligize for the Crusades?

by Rev. Bassam M. Madany


Of late, there has been a resurgence of interest in the Crusades. For example, the June/July 2005 issue of FIRST THINGS had an article by Thomas F. Madden, “Crusades and Historians.” The author, who holds the Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University, reviewed three books that appeared lately dealing with this subject. “The Crusades have been a topic of intense scholarly investigation for the last forty years. … In thousands of journal articles and scholarly monographs Christianity’s holy wars have been probed, analyzed, and debated. … We now know much more than ever before about the Crusades.” P. 26

One of the books I have read on the subject was by Jonathan Riley-Smith, “What Were the Crusades?” The third edition was published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, in 2002. Professor Riley-Smith of Cambridge University deals with this important subject in 114 pages!

The Crusades are being treated not only as an historical subject for academic purposes, but discussions about them have also attracted the attention of the popular media. This has happened due to the demands that have been made recently by Muslims who claim that an apology for the Crusades by the West is long overdue.

Muslims have mastered the art of propaganda. They exploit the free-speech tradition in the West, and go on the attack painting themselves as peace-lovers. According to their propagandists, it is always the Others, i.e., Christians, Jews, and Hindus, who are and have been the true aggressors. This mantra becomes very shrill with respect to the Crusader Wars. What is surprising though is that some Christians feel that apology for the Crusades, is in order.

For example, in a front page article of The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 19, 2005) under the title of “Soul Searching, Islam’s Global Gains Pressure Catholics To Rethink Strategy” the writers described the return of Muslims to Granada, Spain, after about 500 years absence. It was in 1492, that the Spanish Reconquista succeeded in ending the Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula. “Two years ago, a mosque, the first to stand here in five centuries, was built on the site of a former Catholic church.”

The authors highlighted the imbalance in the Christian-Muslim relations, contrasting the freedom for building mosques all over Europe, including a very large one near the Vatican, with the inhospitable atmosphere that surrounds Christian minorities living in the Household of Islam. Near the end of the article, they reported that the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue “has established relationships with organizations such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Its most recent session with Al-Azhar, in February, concluded with a request from the Muslim side that the Vatican issue an official apology for the Crusades, Christian invasions of the Middle East more than 800 years ago that still stir strong emotions among Muslims. The Vatican agreed to appoint a joint panel of experts to study the Crusades.”

From the report in the WSJ, I turn to an interview with Warren Larson, a professor at Columbia International University, in Columbia, South Carolina. It was published in the June 5 issue of Christianity Today, under the title of “Waging Peace on Islam.

The interview began with a discussion of the movie “Kingdom of Heaven,” which led to the subject of the Crusades and their impact on the present Christian-Muslim relations.

When asked, “How should local Christians and missionaries respond to these historically negative associations with the Crusades in the minds of Muslims?” Professor Larson responded:

I think an apology is in order. [Emphasis is mine, BMM] But having said that, I think we have to hold Muslims accountable, too. They might forget or not be aware that, starting in 1915, Turks killed more than a million and a half Armenian Christians. There have been unsuccessful encounters between Muslims and Christians for nearly the last 1,500 years, but [this history is] not all the fault of the West and Christians. Muslims have also done wrong.”

I find myself in disagreement with the Vatican’s attitude to Al-Azhar’s request, and with the opening statement of Warren Larson.

These are my reasons.

The basic Muslim motif for requesting an apology from Western Christians is to strengthen their own strongly-held belief that they have a divine right of conquest. Throughout their history, they have always glorified their “futuhat” i.e., conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. Once Muslims occupy a land, it becomes theirs -- in perpetuity. Jews, Christians, and Hindus, have no right to re-conquer what they had lost to Islam.

Soon after the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., the Arab armies conquered Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. These were lands that were populated by Christian and Jewish people. Churches were made into mosques. In Damascus, the Church of Saint John the Baptist became the Umayyad Mosque. The second wave of Islamic conquests took place within the heartland of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks who had converted to Islam in previous centuries, took over Constantinople, and changed its name to Istanbul. The great Byzantine Church Aya Sophia was transformed into a mosque. Eventually, all of Eastern Europe, and most of Central Europe came within the orbit of the Ottoman rule. In 1529, only twelve years after Martin Luther launched the Reformation, the Turkish Islamic armies laid siege to Vienna, but failed to conquer it. In the eyes of Muslims, all those conquests were legitimate. Allah had given them the green light to conquer and occupy, including the sacred places of Jews, Christians, and Hindus.

Admittedly, the Crusaders were not saints. They did many terrible things. The Fourth Crusade that ended in the sack of Constantinople was inexcusable. To use some modern jargon, there was a great deal of “collateral” damage in all of the Crusades. But the idea that those wars were imperialistic in nature is ridiculous. Several historians dealing with the Crusades, such as Bernard Lewis, regard them as a delayed Christian reaction to the Muslim occupation of the Holy Land in the seventh century.

If the Vatican is to apologize for the Crusades, I am sure that another request will be forthcoming for an apology from Spain. Muslims would be very happy if Spain is returned to the descendents of the Moors, and its name changed back to “Al-Andalus!”

Of course, the West did engage in empire building. When I was growing up in the Middle East, most of the Muslim world was under British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Russian rule. But all that is now a thing of the past. On the other hand, Islamic empire building has been, quite often, final. Only some nations have managed to free themselves from centuries of Islamic imperialism. But due to the prevalence of political correctness in the West, only a few voices have been heard about the lasting effects of Islamic imperialism. One of them is V. S. Naipaul, whose parents had emigrated during the nineteenth-century from India to Trinidad. He dealt with this subject in his book, “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples.” (Random House: New York, 1998)

I quote a paragraph from the Prologue:

“Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil.” P. xi

To accede to the request for an apology for the Crusades would be a very dangerous precedent. As mentioned before, it re-enforces the Islamic belief in their right to conquer the world, whether by force, or through legal and illegal immigration. We may ignore the clear lessons of history at our own peril.


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