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Pressures that led to an empire-wide movement

The Nine Crusades, which took place in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, were a counteroffensive by Christians against Muslims occupying the Holy Land.

Was the Islamic threat real? “You betcha,” said Professor Paul E. Chevedden. “Islamic conquest had taken from Christendom its choicest provinces -- Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Iberia [Spain and Portugal].”

Islam pushed its way north into Italy until it captured Monte Cassino, St. Benedict’s monastery, then moved into eastern Switzerland. On the Great St. Bernard Pass, Muslims even captured the abbot of Cluny, France.

The Crusades, in response, were applications of Roman Catholicism’s “just war” tradition, said Chevedden of UCLA’s Gustav E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies. Islam had the Holy Land, and the pope wanted it back.

A grave pitfall for today, insists Chevedden, would be to view the Crusades in isolation from the world-transforming events in the Mediterranean and in western Asia at the turn of the second millennium. Those events included pressures from expanding populations, rapidly developing urbanism, intellectual and technological inquiries and advances, plus rising commerce pushing into new areas.

The clash between Christendom and Islam was a 1,000-year struggle, the most protracted conflict in human history. What should not be overlooked, Chevedden said, is that, for the most part, Islam, rather than Christianity, was in the ascendancy.

Scott Bartchy, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion, though well aware of what Islam gave to the West during those 1,000 years, looks at the early heritage of both Christianity and Islam from the perspective of violence/nonviolence.

During the first 250 to 300 years of Christianity, it was initially persecuted, then scapegoated through four more tense periods, as it became an empire-wide movement. “Never,” emphasized Bartchy, “never once during this period is anybody killed in the name of Jesus. The Christians are not a guerrilla band, they are not social bandits. They stay in the urban environment, gain a reputation not only for helping their own widows and orphans, but others’ as well. Not only burying their own dead but -- a major deal at that time -- other people’s as well. They never become violent.”

Bartchy called it “remarkable” that Jesus’ nonviolence had taken “such a hold” across those early centuries. It was Emperor Constantine’s adopting Christianity as the Roman Empire’s religion in the fourth century that “wrecked things. He never got it,” said Bartchy. “He puts the Chi-Rho symbol on Roman shields, and for the first time Christians start killing people in the name of Jesus.”

Bartchy contrasts that Jesus with Islam’s Muhammad who, in the early seventh century, “goes into Medina and in effect becomes the civil authority. Functionally he’s an innovator, a Jesus of Nazareth and a Constantine, all rolled into one.” Bartchy said Muhammad “never ever renounces violence, and for all the fine things in the Islamic tradition, there’s never been any serious commitment to nonviolence. In a war, if you follow the prophet, you shouldn’t hurt women or children. Or trees. Quite charming that. And the violence should be defensive.”

Bartchy said that after the Crusades the Near Eastern Islamic world felt itself transgressed upon, “and there’s a certain victim mentality.” Culturally, he said, Muslims saved much from the Greek philosophers that the West later appropriated. Technologically Islam held its own, even into the 16th and 17th centuries. “But then the West got the technological edge in military stuff and began pushing,” said Bartchy, “and the Muslims again get into the mentality of being victims.”

Consequently, Bartchy summarized, today “some of the more extreme people have given themselves permission to do almost anything in the name of defense. And that’s what we see.”

The Crusades were religious, political and economic. The First Millennium had just ended, the 11th century was the setting of an enormous spiritual revival. For centuries, with the Holy Land under benign Islamic rule, pilgrims traveled together to Jerusalem under arms to protect themselves from robbers. Confessors in that era regularly gave pilgrimages as a penance, so ensuring the safety of pilgrims was one element of the Crusades.

Other elements included merchants in Italian cities wanting Eastern trading outlets and the ambitions of chivalrous knights -- high-born youths looking for action and conquest.

There also was a shift within Islam precipitating the Crusades. The more restrictive Turkish Muslims had taken over the Holy Land, and the pope, disenchanted with the warring European nobles’ inability to form a coalition to battle Islam, brought his own unifying authority to bear.

The scene was set, and all the elements combined in the urge to free the Holy Land from Islam. Thus the Nine Crusades, each generally less successful than the one before it.

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001