Sunday, February 8, 2015

I'll cherish that old rugged Ross, rugged Ross...

Crusaders meeting Muslims, Jerusalem 1099. I believe an Arab artist, but I can't identify.

According to Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, the history of the Crusades, to which President Obama adverted in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, is "incredibly complicated".

Obama said,
lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.  
The first couple of sentences there sound almost like a Shorter Bill Clinton, with reference to his famous speech at Georgetown University, November 10 2001 and an example of truly terrible Crusader crime:
terror, the killing of noncombatants for economic, political, or religious reasons, has a very long history, as long as organized combat itself, and yet it has never succeeded as a military strategy standing on its own. But it has been around a long time. Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless. Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple Mount, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees. I can tell you that that story is still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it. Here in the United States, we were founded as a nation that practiced slavery and slaves were, quite frequently, killed even though they were innocent. This country once looked the other way when significant numbers of Native Americans were dispossessed and killed to get their land or their mineral rights or because they were thought of as less than fully human and we are still paying the price today. Even in the 20th century in America people were terrorized or killed because of their race...
Except that Clinton is talking about race here, and Obama about religion—careful to include himself among the accused (I also love that hippie dogwhistle of "Ghandiji"—a name, unknown to the right and the journalists, that you'll only give the Mahatma if you want to bill yourself as a bit of a disciple, something Obama may not have earned, but it makes me happy that he aspires to it).

I got to the Clinton text, which I had totally forgotten about, via the Monsignor's link to a review by Thomas Madden in the conservative Catholic journal First Things of Jonathan Riley-Smith's The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (2009), which opens by quoting the bit I've bolded, adding that there are "good reasons to believe" that Clinton was right—"we" are paying for our European ancestors' sins through the way Osama bin Laden and his colleagues interpret U.S. actions in the light of that history. Noise-machine conservatives howled over the "blame-America-first" character of Clinton's remarks at the time, but Madden gives him props; because he may be a conservative, but he knows the subject.

Douthat doesn't actually use anything from Madden's review or even provide a reason for us to believe he's read it, just links it as evidence of the "incredibly complicated" character of the case, like that's a controversial assertion that needs to be defended. But he says something funny:
in political rhetoric it’s hard to escape from oversimplication. You can introduce the Crusades to complicate a lazy “Islam violent, Christianity peaceful” binary, but then a lot of Christians are going to hear an implied equivalence between the Islamic State’s reign of terror and the incredibly complicated multicentury story of medieval Christendom’s conflict with Islam ... and so all you’ve really done is put a pointless fight about Christian history on the table. 
You oversimplify something by trying to show that it's more complicated? And more importantly, speaking of oversimplifications, what is "medieval Christendom's conflict with Islam"? I thought I'd run up a summary account of what led up to that dreadful moment on the Temple Mount in 1099, on the basis of a big interconnected chain of Wikipedia articles (making frequent reference to Riley-Smith), and watch how the schematism of a conflict between Christendom and Islam disappears.

It needs to start all the way back in 135 C.E., following yet another Jewish revolt, when pagan Emperor Hadrian consolidated the Empire's Levantine holdings into a single province, Syria Palaestina, wiping the traditional name of Judaea off the map, and making Jerusalem its capital under the name Aelia Capitolina; Jews were banished from the city, though they could visit once a year, on the fast day Tisha B'Av. The penalty for violating this law was death.

It was almost five centuries before Jews were able to return to Jerusalem, when a group of rebellious Palaestinian Jews allied themselves with Sassanid Persian forces (Zoroastrians, with significant communities of Nestorian and Syriac Christians and of Jews) who conquered the city from the Byzantine rulers in 614. Christians had come to dominate Jerusalem since the Emperor Constantine ordered (in around 335) that the Temple of Venus on top of the conjectural site of Jesus's tomb should be converted into a Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Persian and Jewish attackers are said to have killed them by the tens of thousands, and wrecked the church itself. The Greeks reconquered it and threw the Jews back out in 629, but not for long, because Arabs, with the new religion of Islam, took the territory in 634, and incorporated Jerusalem into the new Caliphate in 638, and the second Caliph, Umar ibn Al-Khattāb, established the system under which the city's holy places would be protected and maintained for the benefit of all three faiths.

This situation held as the Umayyad Caliphs replaced the Rashidun, and the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads, and even when the Fatimids, an Ismaili Shi'ite dynasty, replaced the Abbasids in the 10th century; the Fatimids were especially noted for the breadth of their religious tolerance, which included not only Jews and Christians but Sunni Muslims as well.

But when the Seljuk Turkmen arrived (a clan from the distant Kazakh plain, they had converted to Islam around 985, conquered Persia, and moved on from there, taking Damascus from the Fatimids in 1075 and Jerusalem in 1078), things were different: a period of turmoil and anarchy ensued, in which the local Jews in particular suffered as the Seljuks and Fatimids battled for decades over the territory, while in the meantime to the north in present-day Turkey, Seljuks were gradually conquering the Byzantine lands of Anatolia, and by the 1090s they seemed to be threatening Constantinople itself.

In March 1095 the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Comnenos wrote a letter to Pope Urban II appealing for help from Western Christians against the march of the Turkmen. The Eastern and Western churches had undergone their catastrophic split just 40 years earlier, in 1054, and Urban may have hoped to engineer a reconciliation (in which Rome, of course, would be the superior partner), and in November (unlike his predecessor Gregory VII, who was never able to grant a similar request from Emperor Michael VII in 1074) he held a conference to call on Christians rich and poor throughout Western Europe to support the Greeks, in return for remission of sins: the war was to be a holy war, part battle and part pilgrimage, with paradise promised as the participants' reward.

However when the first wave of pilgrim-warriors arrived in Constantinople in the summer of 1096, some 20,000 peasants and impoverished knights under the leadership of the donkey-mounted monk Peter the Hermit, after murdering somewhere between 2,000 and 12,000 Jews on their way down the Rhine, Alexios did not really want them (as they fed themselves by looting his countryside), and sent them off to be massacred by the Seljuks. Then when the four more properly outfitted armies of the Frankish and Lombard princes showed up between November and the following April, Alexios didn't want them very much either any more, and they didn't want him, and by mutual agreement Alexios stayed in Constantinople while the Westerners sailed off to reconquer not Anatolia but the Holy Land, where they succeeded in taking Jerusalem in July 1099—ironically not from the Seljuks but the Fatimids, who had reconquered the city only a few months before.

Some say the reports of the massacre of Muslims and Jews are exaggerated:
Many Muslims sought shelter in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and the Temple Mount area generally. According to the Gesta Francorum, speaking only of the Temple Mount area, "...[our men] were killing and slaying even to the Temple of Solomon, where the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles..." According to Raymond of Aguilers, also writing solely of the Temple Mount area, " in the Temple and porch of Solomon men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins." However, this imagery should not be taken literally; it was taken directly from biblical passage Revelation 14:20.
Well, hm, but Revelation ("And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs") doesn't say anything about ankles, and the Gesta Francorum was composed by an eyewitness.

Some Muslims, though, definitely survived, to carry the corpses out of the city, and there is some indirect evidence that the Jews were not in the synagogue when it was burned down. No Eastern Orthodox were massacred, though that is probably only because the Fatimid rulers had expelled them all, except most likely for some priests and monastics, before the siege was broken. It remains true that it was an extremely bloody and one-sided conquest all the same, killing nearly as many people as the contemporary account said it did, and a conquest for the Roman church, in what they called a "Latin kingdom", not for "Christendom" in general. And if not all the Jews were slaughtered in Jerusalem, they certainly were banished from the city once again, until the Kurdish hero Saladin retook it for the Fatimids in 1187 (pushing the Frankish kingdom back up to Acre) and allowed them to return.

What I learn from Madden is that my own typical later 20th-century crypto-Marxist beliefs are at least partly wrong: the First Crusade can't be considered as a strictly economic event, important though it was in reopening the East-West trade that had been almost destroyed during the Western Dark Ages and resupplying the West with everything from Aristotelian philosophy (Avicenna) through lute music and lyric poetry to decent soap, because the main actors, the Frankish and Lombard warriors, had literally no idea what they were doing or whom they were fighting with. By the same token, it wasn't a world war between Islam and Christianity either, but rather a war between a small and insane group of Roman Catholics and the rest of a world embroiled in a host of mostly nonreligious conflicts of its own, and most consistently against the Jews. Douthat's understanding of this history is really weak.

They were absolutely acting from religious inspiration, in the hope of an immediate translation to Heaven if they died in battle, just like the jihadi Muslim martyrs of our own time, and they were really crazy and ignorant, with a faith not in love and mercy but the sword and xenophobia. They were also certain that murdering Jews would be points in their favor with God—to be fair, the church and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV alike opposed the pogroms of 1095-96 by Peter the Hermit's troops, sometimes called the First Holocaust, but not very effectively; and Godfrey of Bouillon himself, that paragon of chivalry and hero of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, founder of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, took an oath
to go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name 'Jew,' thus assuaging his own burning wrath.
In that way President Obama's remarks, trying to show how any religion from his own Christianity to Gandhi's Hinduism could be turned to a horrible misuse, oversimplify nothing, though they don't make it as vivid as Clinton did either. There is an equivalence of sorts between the Frankish terrorists of 1099 and the Salafi terrorists of 2014, including the fact that neither truly represented their respective faith: bishops all over France and Germany denounced the murders of Jews in the People's Crusade, Muslims all over the Ummah denounce the violence of Da'esh. The only people who don't understand that are those who really believe there is a war going on between Islam and Christianity—i.e., the Da'esh themselves and US conservatives, who have so much intellectually in common, from views on sexuality to views on science. Douthat could easily understand it, he's smart enough, if he'd bother to read the article he links to, but he's too busy spreading the hate.
The second problem is that self-criticism doesn’t necessarily serve the cause of foreign policy outreach quite as well as Obama once seemed to believe it would. Early in his administration, especially around his 2009 speech in Cairo, there was a sense that showing Muslims that an American president understood their grievances would help expand our country’s options in the Middle East. But no obvious foreign policy benefit emerged...
It may not be obvious to Douthat, but if he were paying attention to Muslims instead of to Senator McCain he might notice things going on there in the developing situation in Iraq (the huge and—I'm not going to lie—very scary test is whether the just-starting Iraqi army anti-Da'esh operations in western Iraq manage to make the local Sunnis feel included) and Syria, in Jordan, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Mali, certainly in India (whose Muslims just got a great big kiss from that reference to their suffering when Prime Minister Modi was chief minister of Gujarat), in Palestine, in Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't like it very much, but that's proof that it's going the right way; he's got a Crusader mentality.
A third problem is that Obama is not just a Niebuhrian; he’s also a partisan and a progressive, which means that he too invests causes with sanctity, talks about history having “sides,” and (like any politician) regards his opponents as much more imperfect and fallen than his own ideological camp. This can leave the impression that his public wrestling with history’s tragic side is somewhat cynical, mostly highlighting crimes that he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in (how much theological guilt does our liberal Protestant president really feel about the Inquisition?) and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).
Hahahaha, Ross, I think your feelings are a bit hurt. Why indeed does he focus his attention on Catholic reactionaries and Southern Baptist racists and Hindutva fascists and all those rightwingers? Why doesn't he call out the crimes of liberals and liberal Protestants? Just tell me which crimes you have in mind, and I'll see if I can figure it out.

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