Since President Obama’s controversial speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 5th, during which he compared the medieval crusades (as a form of religious extremism) with the religious extremism of modern terrorist groups like the ISIS, crusades historians have been busy writing a number of pieces that address the issue. Medieval historian Dan Franke has given a comprehensive overview (with links) of the various debates that have taken place. I’d suggest that those unfamiliar with these arguments and discussions start by reading his overview provided here.
Although a bit late to the party, I have also offered my two-cents on the issue in an guest column published by the Florida Times-Union. See Guest Column: Crusades were a Reaction to Islamic Militarism– Florida Times-Union.
A selection from that column is provided below.
“Significantly, it was in large part because of a period of heightened threat to Christians in the East during the late 11th Century that the First Crusade was called, as Muslim armies had recently conquered much of once Christian Anatolia.
For more than 20 years, Byzantine emperors had been requesting (and sometimes pleading for) military aid from Western Christians until they finally received it in the form of the First Crusade as called by Pope Urban II in 1095.
As retired Cambridge University historian Jonathan Riley-Smith once noted, “The denigrators of the crusades stress their brutality and savagery, which cannot be denied; but they offer no explanation other than the stupidity, barbarism and intolerance of the crusaders, on whom it has become conventional to lay most blame. Yet the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression…”
This brings us back to Obama’s comments. I found them problematic for reasons cited by Riley-Smith.
The president told critics of modern Islamic violence to get off their “high horse” by citing the crusades as an example of similar Christian violence. Paradoxically the crusades were largely the product of medieval Islamic violence.”
Edit: Dan Franke continues to keep us updated on the current debate taking place online and in print. Here he links to the most recent articles, including my own, and even an online discussion I had the other night with two medieval historians, David Perry and Paul Halsall, about some of these issues. See Dan’s addendum here and my exchange (on David Perry’s website) with David and Paul here.