Remember when FIFA banned England football fans from wearing Christian crusader-style costumes ahead of the World Cup in Qatar because it could be considered "offensive against Muslims"?
Turns out the reason is more complex than you might think — at least according to Raymond Ibrahim, an author and expert on Islamic history and doctrine, who says the most misunderstood aspect of the Crusades is the notion that they were offensive wars of aggression.
Ibrahim's latest book, Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam, takes a second look at the historical revisionism surrounding the Crusades when the Roman Catholic Church and European powers fought religious wars for more than 200 years between 1095 and 1291 to regain control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land under Islamic rule.
“We are not told that four centuries earlier Islam erupted out of Arabia and violently conquered three-quarters of what was once the Christian world, including all of the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and most of the Mediterranean islands,” Ibrahim told The Christian Post via email Tuesday.
Many historians, said Ibrahim, neglect to mention that in the decades before the First Crusade, the Turks — whom the author said were “the latest standard bearers of the jihad” at the time — had launched renewed invasions into Christian land, including by conquering Asia Minor, an ancient Christian region where many of Saint Paul’s epistles were addressed.
It was during this time, around the mid to late 11th century, that Ibrahim says “tens of thousands of Christians” were slaughtered or enslaved, including in Ani, the medieval capital of Armenia, where roughly 1,000 churches were burned down by invading Muslim hordes.
According to Ibrahim, it was this wave of anti-Christian violence and bloodshed that moved Alexius, the Eastern Roman emperor, to ask for help from the West in what is known today as the First Crusade.
“Many churches in Jerusalem — including the Church of the Resurrection — were being desecrated and destroyed, and even Western pilgrims were being attacked and killed,” said Ibrahim, who pointed to one particularly graphic attack in which multiple Islamic invaders sexually assaulted a German nun who was on pilgrimage.
“Something had to be done, and so the First Crusade was born,” he added.
Much of this history, the author said, has been subject to “modern revisionist retellings” in which historians portray the Crusades as an unprovoked assault in which “the West just decided to attack and terrorize the Middle East.”
He pointed to the teachings of Georgetown professor John Esposito, who was quoted as saying, “Five centuries of peaceful coexistence [between Islam and Christendom] elapsed before political events and an imperial-papal power play led to centuries-long series of so-called holy wars that pitted Christendom against Islam and left an enduring legacy of misunderstanding and distrust.”
Another falsehood surrounding the Crusades, said Ibrahim, is espoused by former nun and self-described “freelance monotheist,” Karen Armstrong, who claims the “idea that Islam imposed itself by the sword is a Western fiction, fabricated during the time of the Crusades when, in fact, it was Western Christians who were fighting brutal holy wars against Islam.”
In fact, Ibrahim said from the very dawn of Islam, Christians knew and recorded that this new religion — which is translated “submission” in Arabic — spread by the sword.
“No word, of course, that it was Muslims who first launched these ‘brutal holy wars’ against Christians and were the ones who for centuries had been ‘exterminating’ Christians,” he added.
However historical and crucial to the history of Christianity, Ibrahim acknowledged that such a depiction of Christ's followers bearing the Cross and the sword is far removed from Evangelicalism and other contemporary Christian streams.
The author pointed to the tendency of many 21st century Christians “particularly of the ‘liberal’ variety” who subscribe to what Ibrahim coined “doormat Christianity,” one which “begins and ends with their ‘turning the other cheek,’ showing ‘tolerance’ and never judging.”
On the contrary, said Ibrahim, the biblical mandate underpinning the Crusades was the foundation for what is today called Just War theory.
“For most of Christian history, Just War was an uncontested fact,” he said. “It meant that lawbreakers and aggressors were to be fought and punished, including through capital punishment and warfare.
“It’s often forgotten that Christianity was a very muscular religion for most of history, especially during the Medieval era in question. Certainly, Christians exhibited love for others … though wrongdoers — in this case, Muslims severely persecuting fellow Christians — had to be punished.”
Citing the work of Christopher Tyerman, professor of history of the Crusades at the University of Oxford, Ibrahim said the very earliest Christian theologians had concluded that “the so-called charity texts of the New Testament that preached passivism and forgiveness, not retaliation, were firmly defined as applying to the beliefs and behavior of the private person [and not the state].”
Ibrahim continued, “This is because there is ‘no intrinsic contradiction,’ Tyerman says, ‘in a doctrine of personal, individual forgiveness condoning certain forms of necessary public violence to ensure the security in which, in St. Paul’s phrase, Christians ‘may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty’ (1 Tim. 2:2).”
The author’s review of the history of the Crusades stands in stark contrast to other contemporary works on the topic which have compared the Crusades to “white supremacists” in the United States and Europe.
Dan Jones, author of Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands, once compared the religious wars to radical Islamic terror groups like ISIS or al Qaeda.
“I certainly feel that the name of crusading is uncommonly popular among extremist groups in the context of my lifetime,” Jones told CP in a 2019 interview. “This call from the First Crusade has become a call, sort of a rallying cry for white supremacists, both in the United States and in Europe.
"By the same token, the adoption of the binary 'crusading worldview' by al Qaeda offshoots, most notably including ISIS, has been a remarkably popular, remarkably effective propaganda tool on that side. It certainly feels to me like it's on the rise."
Former President Barack Obama was criticized in 2015 by a number of Christian leaders for comparing the actions of the Islamic State terrorist group to the Crusades at that year’s National Prayer Breakfast, where Obama used the Crusades as an example of Christians doing "terrible acts" in the name of Christ.
"Unless 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,” Obama said in his speech.
In response, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas megachurch in Texas, said Jesus would be incensed at Obama's comparison.
"I would imagine that Jesus would be outraged that the president would willfully mischaracterize a movement like Christianity that bears Christ's name," Jeffress asserted. "I believe that Jesus, who said that it would be better to be cast into the sea than to harm a child, would be incensed that Obama would dare link Christianity to ISIS, an organization that tortures children, buries them alive and crucifies them. I think he'd be outraged by it."