by Lars Brownworth, author of Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization (Crown, 2009).
There are few words as controversial—or as misunderstood—as ‘crusade’. Those who doubt that need only remember nine years ago when President George W. Bush casually used it to describe the War on Terror. The ensuing firestorm caused frantic verbal backpedaling, and resulted in the President spending the next seven years repeatedly explaining that he was not waging a war against Islam.
Yet for all the disbelief and outrage, most people today know only a few basic ‘facts’ about the Crusades. They are largely regarded as an exercise in hypocrisy, an unprovoked assault into the Middle East by an expansionist West. Goaded on by the Pope, the knights of Europe sewed crosses onto their shirts and smashed their way into Jerusalem, committing horrendous atrocities in the name of a supposedly peaceful religion. The shocking events traumatized the Islamic world, poisoning relations and leading many Muslims to conclude that the West—and Christianity in particular—was out to destroy them. The chance for peaceful co-existence was lost, and it has been war ever since.
Like so many popularly accepted storylines, this one depends on a short view of history. Continue reading