Do Christians Need to Apologize for the Crusades?

In university, I took a class on Islamic history and theology. Naturally, the course touched upon the Crusades, but we did not solemnly meditate upon that period of history much longer than it took to go over in class. Sometimes people try apologizing for the Crusades as a diplomatic maneuver when they talk about Jesus, but I have two primary reactions to the idea of making such an apology: 1. I’m not sorry—I didn’t do it! 2. Apologizing for the Crusades is just a rote response—are we just trying to get out of feeling bad? C. Michael Patton over at the blog Parchment and Pen wrote a series of posts in January and February debunking misconceptions about the Crusades and arguing for why they were necessary. I largely agree with what he wrote, but I also want to fill in some things that I believe he left out.

The series is entitled “Four Misconceptions about the Crusades,” but I could not find number four. (Yes, really.) I will quickly deal with the posts in order:

  1. Misconception number one: “The Crusades were not provoked.” In sum, Muslims had been conquering Christian territory for hundreds of years. The Crusades were one response.
  2. Misconception number two: “The Crusaders were greedy opportunists.” In sum, the Crusaders gave up personal fortunes in order to go on the Crusades. Sacking and burning was standard operating procedure for wars of the time, and it helped them recover some of the costs of going.
  3. Misconception number three: “The Fourth Crusade was a Christian-on-Christian fratricidal tragedy.” In sum, the Crusaders were responding to Byzantine treachery when they sacked Constantinople. It was bad, but so is war.

Then he wrote the last post, “Why I Think the Christian Crusades Were Necessary,” describing the Crusades as an appropriate response to Muslim invasions of Christian-held lands. The maps in this post illustrate the spread of Islam compared to the territory controlled by Byzantine and European Christian rulers. In a “kill the chicken to terrify the monkey” moment, Christendom struck back. Europe responded to the Muslim threat and demonstrated that they were not interested in submitting to Muslim rule. According to Patton, even if the Crusades began on a pretext, Europeans had to flex a little muscle to make Islamic rulers think twice about continuing invasions into Europe.

I learned principally two things from Patton’s blog series: 1. there is nothing for us to apologize for on an individual basis in reference to the Crusades, 2. the Crusades were not magnitudes worse than any other war in the whole of human history—not even second or third place to the worst one. In his post on the necessity for the Crusades, Patton links the Crusades with the recent American war in Iraq, basically calling that a demonstration of American power against America’s enemies. Demonstrating American power is a political question (with possible religious connotations), and the connection between politics and religion embodied in the Crusades is definitely one point open to criticism. Nevertheless, even on a purely political dimension, if Europe did not want Islamic rulers, Europeans had to fight.

Pacifists, anti-imperialists, atheist critics of Christianity, and Muslim apologists can all find something to criticize in the Crusades. The Crusades are one set of wars continually remembered without reference to other wars happening at the same time. In that era, Christendom and Islam were roughly equal in terms of military power. It was not a simple case of imperialist Europe practicing on its future colonial subjects. Muslims remember their glory days with pride, days in which their literature, philosophy, science, medicine, and civilization were more advanced than that of Europe. Their recollection is correct. If you must go on with the nonsense about Muslims only lifting civilization from Greece and Rome and contributing nothing of their own, please do it in the other room. The Crusades (1095-1291) probably caught Islam in a period of weakness, but the 1453 Fall of Constantinople and the 1529 Siege of Vienna were yet to come. As for America, as the strongest Western power, it has its own problems in handling the issue of the Crusades.

America presently has to answer for the Crusades because America is the strongest Western power, with the strength to start wars wherever it wants. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the interpretation of Israel as a proxy state? Crusades. American military bases in the Middle East as a legacy of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War? Dens of Crusaders. CIA support for the Shah of Iran? Neo-imperialism. “Crusader” is an easy and halfway appropriate epithet to apply to Americans in the Middle East. There is certainly a grain of truth floating the stereotype that Canadians are more popular abroad than Americans. Nations and nation-states have longer lives than any individual, so naturally their collective memories will reach back hundreds of years. Dealing with individuals in the present is a different matter entirely.

Each new generation uncorks a full bottle of ink, and they learn to write by copying what their parents write at the height of their talent. Parents write with greater skill and sense of context with their own grievances than do their children. Unless their children mature, they only pick up the grievance and go on to write about it with youthful zeal and a full bottle of ink. People generally have an awful sense of history, Christians and Muslims alike. It is harder for children to write well about their parents’ struggles than to write well about their own. Although we have the benefit of hindsight when discussing the Crusades, ink spent passionately denouncing them is ink wasted for solving contemporary evils. Also, if the Crusades are a real sticking point in your relationship with Muslim friends, how likely is it that you are the problem in your relationship with your Muslim friends and not the Crusades?

If you are not a jerk in the present, there is no real reason for the past to make people hate you now. There is no judge other than God who can hand down a just sentence for what happened in the Crusades. We cannot do enough to satisfy anyone who takes it upon themselves to get justice for the Crusades. The only way short of divine intervention to erase a historical grudge is to become a member of the historically offended party. There are Christian organizations dropping “crusade” from their names so that the name does not distract people from the gospel message, so it is right on the one hand to watch out for historically sensitive issues and right on the other hand to not accidentally look like you want to reenact the Crusades. When the Crusades come up in conversation with real live Muslim friends, let’s learn to do something other than dish out apologies.

When I did drama in high school, I had to learn to fence for a scene from Romeo and Juliet. I learned quickly to use my wrist and not my whole arm: the whole arm is stronger, but I got tired very quickly from heaving the sword about. Apologies can be powerful. Apologies can be clumsy. What do you want from making an apology—to not feel bad about the Crusades? To substitute words for deeds in making friends with Muslim neighbors? Ask questions to find out what people learned about the Crusades when they were growing up. Make no concessions to detractors, but learn how other people view history. The Crusades might just be a muckraking feint preceding the “Christianity is bunk!” lunge for your vital organs. If the Crusades never happened, what else would we be apologizing for? Perhaps silence would be better than answering every attempt to fix us with responsibility for the Crusades. From time to time, it is helpful for institutions to issue statements explaining their past. They can refer back to official explanations and apologies when people ask questions in the future, but it is a waste of time to give a fresh answer to everyone who asks. Fence honestly, but use your wrist.

Abdolreza Haghnejad and Yousef Nadarkhani: Christians in Iran

Yousef Nadarkhani still looks set to become the first Christian executed for apostasy in Iran since 1990. Unfortunately, he may be merely the first in a new wave of Iranian persecutions–yet the media has hardly noticed.

Abdolreza ‘Matthias’ Haghnejad, a pastor in the Evangelical Church of Iran, was arrested August 17 while on a pastoral visit. It is not known where he is being held, or what charges he may face, and he does not have access to a lawyer.

Haghnejad and others were arrested last April, but acquitted in mid May when Mohammed-Ali Dadkhah, a human rights lawyer, took on their case. Despite this high-profile acquittal, other Iranian Christians have also been arrested in recent days:

Last month, a Christian man and woman were detained in Iran. The man was released but the woman, Leila Mohammadi, was arrested and is believed to be behind bars in Evin prison.

CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said: “It is vital that the Republic of Iran ensures due process and ends this practice of incarcerating persons simply on the basis of their faith as this is in clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

“Those who, like the pastor, have been arrested must either be charged and tried in a timely manner or released, and all detainees must be allowed contact with their families and lawyers.”

Stories like this are on the rise in Iran, a fact that has largely been ignored in the media despite having been addressed at the U.S. State Department and by Canadian officials.

Arrests are not the only setbacks Iranian Christians have had to endure:

In August a consignment of 6,500 Bibles was confiscated as it was being transported between the cities of Zanjan and Ahbar in the north-western province of Zanjan. In a comment on the seizure, Dr Majid Abhari, advisor to the social issues committee of the Iranian parliament, declared that Christian missionaries were attempting to deceive people, especially the youth, with an expensive propaganda campaign. He also indicated his belief that all religions are strengthening their power to confront Islam.

This rhetoric is the latest in a stream of condemnations of Christians from members of the Iranian regime, who have attempted to demonise Christians as western-backed conspirators, ‘parasites’ and ‘like the Taliban’.

Christians are not the only religious minorities to be targeted in Iran; Sufis and those in the Baha’i community have also seen an uptick in persecution.

Iran’s treatment of its own legally-protected minorities may prove a harbinger of things to come in its relations with the rest of the world. That’s especially relevant given the nation’s penchant for nuclear weapons development. As Walter Russell Mead observed,

Interestingly, like many stories of Christian persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere, the stories of Iranian Christians and Pastor Nadarkhani have received widespread attention in the US religious press — and are covered much more episodically and lightly if at all by mainstream outlets.  The contrast not only undermines public credibility in the mainstream press as readers take this as evidence of an anti-Christian or anti-western PC bias in the press; it blinds those who rely on mainstream reports to the actual state of US public opinion.

For many Americans, evidence of how Iran treats its Christian minority is an indicator of the kind of uses to which it would put nuclear weapons.

This should concern even those who are uninterested in what happens to Iran’s Christians. Iran persecutes its own people–why should should it treat other nations any better, especially if it gains access to nuclear weapons?

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Dying For Religious Freedom: Yousef Nadarkhani

The Iranian government has not executed anyone on charges of apostasy since 1990, when Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand was sentenced and then hanged by a Sharia court. Twenty-one years later, another Christian pastor may be the next victim of the courts. Western nations are beginning to take note, but the media is not—and, thanks in part to this ignorance, it may be too late to help the next victim of Iran’s continued flouting of international law.

Yousef Nadarkhani was arrested in 2009 when he publically opposed an illegal Iranian practice that required children of all faiths to receive Islamic instruction. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran signed in 1976, both supports Nadarkhani’s objections and forbids just the sort of persecution he has suffered.   Article 18 states,

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Of course, Iran has a long history of similar international infractions, and Nadarkhani will hardly be the last man targeted. Many have noted a rise in persecution not only of Christians, but also of Iran’s Baha’i and Suffi communities. Some believe this may indicate a rift within Iran’s leadership:

Some sources told Compass the comments of Islamic leaders may indicate a power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This bodes ill for Christians and minorities in general, they said.

“When there is conflict in the government and division, then all the minorities will have a hard time,” said another Christian Iranian who requested anonymity.

Yousef Nadarkhani is still alive, but he may not be so for long; rumors last week of an annulment of his sentence have since been refuted by Iranian Christians on the ground.

Last week both Canada and the U.S. responded to Nadarkhani’s plight with a call for Iran to “uphold its international commitments” to its citizens. Some believe the dramatic uptick in public persecution may backfire on the Iranian leadership:

“The Iranian public basically doesn’t trust the government anymore,” Ghaffari said, “and they don’t trust the Muslim clergy anymore, because they have seen a lot of double standards and hypocrisy.”

Converts in smaller communities still risk persecution from their own families, but tolerance is growing in urban areas and among the younger generation. “In fact,” said Dibaj, “in places like Tehran and more educated communities, if you say, ‘I have become a Christian,’ they will respect you because of your courage and your independent thinking.”

If anything, government persecution has made Christianity much more attractive, said Yegh-nazar. “When government officials are on television telling people not to read the Scriptures, that generates more interest in the Scriptures.”

Let’s hope this is true. Martyrs are powerful figures, as the Arab Spring has so poignantly illustrated. If Yousef Nadarkhani is executed, a sufficiently outraged public might have a chance to spark such a “backfire” and help ensure that his martyrdom was not in vain.

Unfortunately, as Mollie Hemingway points out this morning at the Get Religion blog, the public has largely ignored this story, despite its having been addressed by the State Department:

The Christian and human rights press is all over it. But the only mainstream treatment I saw was from Agence France Press.

Here’s their headline:

Iran ‘annuls death term’ for Christian pastor

So if a court told someone who was facing certain death that he only faced certain death if he refused to recant his faith, would you say that’s an “annulment” of the death sentence? I wouldn’t.

Things don’t look good for Pastor Nadarkhani.

image via Anglicans Ablaze






An Open Letter To Mohamed Abdel Moniem El-Sawy

An open letter to Mohamed Abdel Moniem El-Sawy:

I must admit, I don’t understand everything about the different segments of your Islamic faith—anymore than I understand everything about all the different denominations of Christianity. But they say actions speak louder than words, and I do understand that you and thousands of other Muslims in Egypt were willing to put aside differences in creed to unite for the sake of peace in your nation.

Thank you for being willing to protect the Coptic Christians in Egypt who were afraid for their lives this Christmas. You put yourselves in very real danger when you offered yourselves as “human shields.” Fortunately, the deadly New Years’ Eve attack was not repeated, and no one was hurt.  Thank you, all the same, for being willing to sacrifice yourselves for my Christian brothers and sisters.

I admire the theme emerging from your actions: “We either live together, or we die together” for indeed, these were no mere words. You were willing to literally put your life on the line in support of your fellow Egyptians, despite the religious differences which can so easily separate neighbors.

Just as we Americans learned from Abraham Lincoln that a house divided against itself cannot stand, the world can learn much the same from your actions last Thursday. We do not have to be threatened by all of our differences, and it’s good to be reminded that, for the sake of a nation, people will act on the courage of their convictions. There is much here to be admired.

Thank you.

Editors note: We offer our sincere condolences for the families of those who were shot on an Egyptian train today.

Image credit

On Malaysia’s Moderate Muslims and why you should care

A few months ago I decided to take a break from regular blogging to work on finding  a more specialized niche in which to fit my naturally charming yet gruffly journalistic self.

It’s gone well, and I’m learning a lot.  A lot about Malaysia, where apparently I’m sort of famous, thanks to posts like this. And this.  That’s not what I expected–I had hoped an employer with scads of highly-paid job openings would notice my mad research skillz and beg for a piece of my brilliance (still hoping for that, by the way)–but hey. Beggars (and moms in need of the sort of serious intellectual fodder that life with a preschooler doesn’t normally include ) can’t always be choosers.

In all seriousness, as one of the world’s few truly moderate Muslim-majority nations, Malaysia is well worth a look.  While Democracy and Islam do not usually go hand in hand, in Malaysia they co-exist with a surprising degree of harmony.  Malaysia’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society is remarkable in that it mostly works in a way that hardly any other nation has managed to emulate–and, as you’ll see below, both the democratic and the Islamic worlds can benefit from a lot of what Malaysia has to offer.  Here are a few excerpts from some of my most recent work:

From the Daily Caller, Sept. 24, 2010:

Out of Many, 1Malaysia

Today, President Barack Obama addresses the US-ASEAN summit taking place in New York City, concurrent with the United Nations General Assembly. Among the heads of state he will speak with is a familiar acquaintance — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom the president last saw at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., this past April. Though he’s not a flashy newsmaker on par with some of the other ASEAN figures, Najib is no less newsworthy — and in some ways, the country he represents is one of the most important to the United States in an era where the meeting of Islam and democracy seems less a union, and more a collision.

In Najib’s Malaysia, despite some real challenges, the future of majority-Muslim, multiethnic democracy is slowly taking shape.  This past Sunday Najib joined with his country’s minister for unity, minister for religious affairs, and others in endorsing the work of Malaysia’s Inter-faith Relations Working Committee.  The committee, which is composed of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists and Sikhs, was formed in February in response to the widely publicized racial and religious tensions that plagued Malaysia in early 2010.  In endorsing the committee, Najib is affirming his commitment to Malaysia’s unity and diversity, and he’s doing so at the expense of his own political standing.

If there’s one thing Najib wants, it’s national unity — and that’s not something he’s going to get easily, especially if his political opponents get their way.  Fifty-three years after declaring independence, Malaysians are still unsure of what it means to be Malaysian.  With countless political parties and coalitions, dozens of cultural barriers, and the geographical imposition that is the Java Sea, it’s difficult to discern what sort of unifier will serve to carry the country forward.  To further complicate matters, only the nation’s Muslims are subject to Sharia law; the 40% of citizens who hold different beliefs are all served by a separate court system.  Far from asking his countrymen to adopt a homogenous national identity, however, Najib has set for himself the harder task of fostering and encouraging Malaysia’s differing societies while simultaneously working toward a concrete sense of national unity.

It’s not an easy task.

Read more here.

On Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s call for a “global movement of moderation”, from the Daily Caller, October 1, 2010:

It’s Always the Quiet Ones: Malaysia’s Moderate Muslims

Last week’s US-ASEAN summit was significant in ways that much of the mainstream media failed to report — and that’s a shame, given that Southeast Asia is home to some of our most important global partners.  Though China and Indonesia dominated most of the summit’s news coverage, their relatively low profile at the actual event provided an opportunity for ASEAN’s quieter voices to prevail.

Malaysia’s overtures to the United States deserve particular illumination here.  You’re not likely to read much about them elsewhere, though they are no less important for not having been highlighted in western media outlets.  The relative media silence regarding Malaysia has nothing to do with lack of newsworthy content, but is rather owing to the nation’s peaceful national home life. While other nations are busy dominating the news with tales of violence, poverty, and aggression, Malaysia is taking advantage of its own stability to carefully and strategically set itself up as the United States’ next best Southeast Asian partner — and, given the difficulties the United States has had in combining Islam and democracy, we better pay attention.

When I interviewed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in New York on Sunday, he was careful to elucidate some specific areas in which Malaysia can benefit both the United States and the rest of the world.  He mentioned one especially unique commodity that not many other nations can match: progressive, well-educated, female Muslim professionals.  Women make up 62% of Malaysia’s undergraduate population, and that number will only grow as the nation aims to eventually staff at least 30% of its policy and decision-making positions with women.  In addition, Najib told the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday that Malaysia plans to assist in Afghanistan by sending female Muslim doctors to the region — a valuable offer, given that an overwhelming number of conservative Muslim women prefer to be treated by doctors of their own sex.

Though Malaysian democracy isn’t yet fully consonant with the U.S. model, it is making tremendous strides in the right direction at an astonishing pace — and it’s not about to slow down.  While it’s always good news when a democracy liberalizes, Malaysia’s efforts are especially relevant because it is one of the world’s few moderate Muslim-majority nations, and it has the potential to be a positive and effective example to other Muslim nations.

Najib is well aware of this potential, and he has good reason to take advantage of it for both political and religious reasons. At his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, he called for a “global movement of the moderates” among people of all faiths in an attempt to “reclaim the centre and moral high ground that has been usurped from us.”  In his meeting with President Obama on Friday he offered Malaysia’s help in combating the dangers of Islamophobia, stating that the US needed help in educating its people about the reality of Islam.  When 26% of America’s populace believes its own president is Muslim, he pointed out, it’s a sign that the people are woefully uneducated.

Read more here.

Image credit Nazir Amin