- Published on Sunday, 11 April 2010 06:19
- Written by John Draper
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One of the things lost in criticism of Islam is that if you go back in history, Christians were at least as bad. The problem with today's Muslims is that they are not living in today's world - they are living in a world of 300 or more years ago. In a review of two books (Holy Warriors by Jonathan Phillips, and The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge) William Napier lists some of the barbaric behaviour on both sides during the Crusades.
In 1096, inspired both by Muslim attacks into Europe and a desire to "Free the Holy Land", the First Crusade assembled in Europe and proceeded to march to Jerusalem. Along the way many of the Christian soldiers were involved in bloody massacres of the Rhineland's Jewish population and some of them had resorted to cannibalism, slicing flesh from their fallen comrades, or from the bodies of the Saracens, to roast over brushwood fires. All of them endured unbelievable hardships. All in the name of their religion - and their hunger for loot.
Just think about it - where would a medieval marching army get its food? From the people along the way - the knights of the Holy Crusades attacked Jews and others along their entire route, stole food, raped their women and killed many of them.
For both Christians and Muslims, the usual way of fighting in those times was to slaughter all the losing side - women, children, babies included - the only ones spared were "young girls and nuns, whose faces and figures they found pleasing, and beautiful young men". And that's what the Holy Crusaders did - slaughter everyone except when they were enslaving the losers.
The Muslims defended with equal zeal - they unleashed blazing pots filled with 'Greek fire', a kind of medieval napalm made of a cocktail of sulphur, wax and tar. It cannot be extinguished, and inflicts horrendous burns. As this terrible barrage ripped into the Crusader army, hundreds were left screaming in balls of flame.
But in the end the Crusaders' ferocity and fanaticism triumphed - at least for the First Crusade.
"Some of the pagans were beheaded, others pierced by arrows, others tortured for a long time and then burned to death in searing flames. "Piles of heads, hands and feet lay in the streets."
The City of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, was turned into a slaughterhouse.
'There was so much killing that our men waded up to their ankles in enemy blood,' boasted one warrior for Christ. Another observer, less impressed, wrote of 'the very great and cruel slaughter of Saracens.
'They were stabbing - even raping - women, seizing infants by their feet from their mothers' laps or their cradles and dashing them against the walls. 'They spared absolutely no one'.
The massacre was accompanied by voracious looting. Bloodshed, greed, gold and the Christian faith weren't mutually contradictory to the medieval mind.
For many, it was a religion of unfathomable violence and mysticism.
The Fall Of Jerusalem in 1099 is just one of the many terrible yet unforgettable scenes from the Crusades - which lasted centuries - explaining why they still exert such a dark fascination nearly a thousand years on.
There were several Crusades - one was the People's Crusade which was really part of the First. It was inspired by a gaunt, unwashed demagogue called Peter the Hermit. His huge, fanatical and entirely unprepared peasant mob set off before the main body of the First Crusade to liberate the Holy Land, as if by force of will alone: 15,000 men, women and children. Unable to afford even a place on a boat, they walked from Cologne.
And wherever they walked, these peasant pilgrims unleashed pogroms against the Jews. The crusading ideal had stirred up deep-seated racial and religious hatred. Astonishingly, many made it as far as Turkey, looting and ravaging the countryside as they went.
Finally, brutality was met with brutality, as a Turkish army fell on their camp, slaughtering all they found.
According to one contemporary eyewitness, the Turks killed them all, 'the feeble and crippled, monks and aged women, infants at the breast, all were put to the sword.
Despite centuries of conflict and countless Crusades, the Christian armies ultimately failed in their bid to re-conquer the Holy Land and that ideal - in practice, so far from ideal - finally died. But it continues to haunt us, and the Islamic world.
Yet as historians point out, the Crusades are often subject to serious misrepresentation.
Left-liberals have shown themselves peculiarly eager to accept a standard Islamic view of the Crusades as episodes of unprovoked Western aggression against peaceful, tolerant and vastly more civilised Muslim lands.
It is vital to understand that, before the Crusades were ever dreamed of, Islamic armies had struck many times at the heart of Europe. Jerusalem itself was never 'conquered' initially by Christianity or the West, of course: Christianity simply grew there, spread by preaching.
But it was conquered by the armies of Islam in 638, erupting out of the Arabian peninsula armed with scimitar, shield and, above all, a fanatical new faith that urged them to perpetual jihad with all unbelievers.
By 715 they had conquered most of Spain, and soon they had got as far as Northern France, only stopping with their defeat at Tours by Charles Martel.
Shortly afterwards, the Caliphate of Jerusalem ordered all Jews and Christians to bear a special symbol on their hands - the first instance in history of such a measure.
Another Muslim army ravaged France in 848 two years after they had attacked Rome, sacked St Peter's itself and extorted promises of tribute from the Pope.
In 850, Caliph al-Mutwakkil forced all Christians and Jews in his territory to affix wooden images of devils to their houses, and to wear only yellow garments to mark them out.
And a century later, Muslims went on a rampage through Jerusalem, plundering and destroying both the Church of Calvary and the Church of the Resurrection.
Some scholars even argue the very idea of 'holy war' was learned from the example of Islam on the march. In this same century before the Crusades, Muslim armies captured Crete, Cyprus and Sicily.
Under Caliph al-Hakim in the early 11th century, thousands of churches were destroyed throughout the ancient Christian heartland of the Middle East, and when the Seljuk Turks captured Jerusalem in 1077, just 22 years before it fell to the Crusaders, they too massacred some three thousand inhabitants.
All these Islamic attacks on the West occurred before the First Crusade. Some scholars even argue that the very idea of 'holy war' was learned from the example of Islam on the march. Of course, nothing justifies the hellish atrocities of 1099.
And once the Crusades were raging, atrocities were common to both sides without distinction. Indeed, the great Muslim leader Saladin still enjoys a reputation for chivalry, in contrast to the brutish Europeans - yet this wasn't always the case.
After his great victory at Hattin in 1187, he followed to the letter the instructions of the Koran.
'When you meet the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads.' Saladin himself beheaded Reynald de Chatillon, kneeling unarmed before him. He went further with some other knights, handing them over not to professional executioners but to some attendant scholars and Sufi ascetics.
They were extremely grisly and drawn-out executions indeed. As one Arab source records, 'each of these begged to be allowed to kill one of the unbelievers, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin sat upon his dais watching, his face joyful'.
As for the carnage that accompanied the fall of Jerusalem in 1099, it was, in fact, a good deal smaller in scale than others of the period.
The fall of the Crusader kingdom of Antioch to Sultan Baibars in 1268, for instance, was followed by the slaughter of some 17,000 civilians, and the enslavement of perhaps 100,000 more.
Baibars subsequently boasted in letters to the remaining Crusader princes of the massacre and of how 'the pulpits and crosses were overturned, the leaves of the Gospel torn and cast to the wind, the dead devoured by the fire of this world'.
Even greater slaughter of innocent civilians followed the Islamic capture of Christian Constantinople in 1453, a date which arguably brought the Middle Ages to an end.
Whether we like it or not, the Crusades and their legacy remain with us, in all their heroism and cruelty, grandeur and lunacy, and their terrible, profitless bloodshed.
Given the 15 centuries of bloody clashes between Islam and Christendom, it is hardly surprising that tensions should exist today between these two great civilisations, and tragically, that these tensions should still erupt in spasmodic, fanatical violence.
In the western world, there are many Muslims who have moved into the 21st century like Christians did before them. We can only hope that improved communication amongst people will speed their change to a moderate outlook. This requires that they adopt western culture and assimilate - multi-culturalism will only perpetuate their outdated culture.
Several passages of this article are long quotes from the original by William Napier