In the days immediately following the events of September 11, the word "crusade" became a lightning rod for raw emotion. President George W. Bush uttered it in an unscripted moment, and you could almost hear the gasps emanating from the Middle East. The word was never again used by the White House, although the godfather of the terrorists, Osama bin Laden, has used it to describe the West's adventures in the Middle East during his tenure. Clearly there's an exposed nerve there.
While we all learned about the European Crusades of the Middle Ages back in high school history, few Americans can understand how events taking place nearly a millennium ago could still cast such a pall on millions of believers. But the Muslim world has never forgotten the Crusades, which started in the late 11th century and went on for centuries -- many Arabs say until the modern era. To understand why they think this way, you can turn to Warriors of God, a new book by James Reston, Jr., that has taken on special significance since the terror of September 11.
"It's often being asked now, of course, why do they hate us so much?" says Reston from his home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. "The history of the Arab peoples, and Palestine in particular, is one invasion after another, and one occupation after another from outside forces. So I think one could argue that it begins with the Crusades."
Reston, the son of the famed New York Times Washington bureau chief, focuses on the Third Crusade. There were five Crusades in all, when Europe sent swarms of what ought to be called religious fanatics to retake the Holy Land in the name of Christianity. Only the First Crusade was actually successful, in that it led to the occupation of Jerusalem for nearly a century. The Third Crusade was the only other effort that came close to what would have been considered victory by the Europeans.
Reston's account has an eerie familiarity in light of recent events and the problems of the past few decades in the Middle East -- in fact, it makes you feel like we're reliving history. For that very reason, Reston's book has taken off, outselling his other 12 books. After first being published in May, Warriors of God is already in its fourth printing; the British edition was released last week, and there are Arabic, German, Spanish and Italian editions in the works. And at a private luncheon at Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Club a few weeks ago, none other than Karl Rove, one of Bush's top advisors, recommended it to the gathering as a means of truly understanding the Muslim world.
After reading Warriors of God, it's not
so hard to understand why the
Crusades continue to loom large in the mindset of Muslims -- to them, what has happened in recent decades must feel like deja vu all over again.
"There were plenty of lessons in the Crusader lore, and the Third Crusade lore in particular, for the situation before September 11," says Reston, "The Third Crusade is really thought by the Arab world to be a kind of metaphor for today."
The central premise of that metaphor is the existence of the state of Israel. Back in 1098, 850 years before the creation of Israel, the success of the First Crusade established the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In both cases, its existence is considered a big, giant stick in the eye of Islam. Modern Muslims, says Reston (who visited Syria and Israel in researching this book), often point to the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem survived only about 80 years and the current state of Israel is now only slightly more than 50 years old. There is comfort in that parallel among even mainstream Muslims; in fact, Reston says the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel is "absolutely central to Arab ideology today."
But there are parallels to be found to the events of September 11, as well. In both cases, a horrific, seemingly unprovoked attack leads to massive mobilization and retaliation. We know all too well what happened on September 11, but the climax of the First Crusade appears to be just as awful. Reston's account of the sack of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, drives it home.
"There [on the Temple Mount] the orgy of slaughter began," he writes. "For two whole days these Christian soldiers massacred every living creature that was not of their own kind. At the Temple Mount alone it was said that ten thousand were killed. According to Fulcher of Chartres, some of these had their bodies ripped open, because it was rumored that Muslims were swallowing gold bezants in desperation. For the whole city the estimate of the slain was forty thousand Muslims -- men, women and children. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest church in Christendom, the site of Calvary, was a pool of blood. They found the Jews of Jerusalem huddled in their synagogue, ready for martyrdom. And they burned the prayer place down, dancing around the burning pyre and singing the Te Deum."
Although it took nearly 80 years to avenge, it was an outrage that Muslims would never forget. And as the recent attacks on United States have united much of the world against terrorism, the First Crusade had the unintended consequence of uniting the Muslim world more than it had ever been before.
When Saladin, the legendary leader of the Muslims during the Third Crusade, retook Jerusalem, he etched his name forever in the collective consciousness of Islam. Today, Saladin's name is code for righteousness and bravery and, above all, the power to drive out the infidels.
"There are many Arab leaders over the centuries who have tried to adopt the mantle of Saladin," says Reston, "including in recent times Saddam Hussein [who was actually born in the same town as Saladin]. And back in the 1950s there was Nasser in Egypt, and even Yassir Arafat and the Palestinians are often invoking Saladin. So they're always kind of waiting for the new Saladin who will consolidate Arab peoples and liquidate the state of Israel.
"No doubt in his delusions of grandeur, Osama bin Laden would like to be thought of as Saladin," Reston continues, "but I think the real parallel to Osama bin Laden is to be found in the chapter called 'The Dagger on the Pillow' in my book, with the Assassins."
If you think suicide bombers are unique to the modern era, you would be wrong. At the time of the Crusades, there was a wild card leader of a cult of religious fanatics, Sinan.
"Sinan had under his spell a cadre of young novitiates, known as fidai, whose allegiance to him personally was absolute," Reston writes in that chapter. "Only through the wisdom of the dai himself [Sinan] lay the path to Purification and Enlightenment and Paradise. As an expression of their devotion only to their messiah, these fidai were prepared for any suicide mission."
At a crucial moment in the Third Crusade, two of Sinan's devotees murdered the man who would be king of Jerusalem (if the Christians could retake it), Conrad of Montferrat. This upset the delicate balance of power within the crusader ranks. Sinan even later took credit for the act in a letter to a European monarch.
"I think you have to talk about the Assassins and Osama bin Laden as a cult, as an aberration," says Reston. "And certainly the Assassins were an aberration from established Islam, and so is Osama bin Laden. In no way did the Assassins represent what Islam was all about, any more than Osama bin Laden represents what Islam is about today. In both cases, they are perversions and cults that have taken to violence, which is very anti-Islamic."
While the discussion of the Assassins is a side trip in Warriors of God, it is chilling -- but it also offers hope. Ultimately, Sinan became a heretic to Islam, something that seems to be happening to bin Laden across the Muslim world -- gangs of young, male demonstrators notwithstanding.
Perhaps the most obvious of many ironies in Warriors of
God is that in the struggle between Saladin and Richard
the Lionheart, the King of England and leader of the Third Crusade, the reader ultimately sympathizes with Saladin. This is not to say that Reston forces us down that path -- the facts, gleaned from a surprisingly rich body of source material, speak for themselves. In fact, the accomplishment of Reston's book is that it may be one of the few objective accounts of the Crusades. There has been much written about these events, but it generally comes from either the Christian or Muslim perspective.
"It was very clear to me when I started this that there were two very clear bodies of work on the Crusades," says Reston. "Nobody had punctured the myths on both sides and tried to make [Richard and Saladin] real."
Still, history seems to judge Saladin as righteous. He was trying to retake land that was historically his people's, and after victory he proved quite fair to his Christian opponents. Even in battle he was gracious, welcoming Richard to the theater of war with baskets of plums and pears; later, when Richard was dismounted in the heat of battle, Saladin sent him a new horse.
"We get into these stereotypes that all Arabs are like wild-eyed Islamic fundamentalists who've got bombs, but if there's any chivalry in the Third Crusade, it's on the Arab side," says Reston. "And it's in the generosity and sentimentality of Saladin."
That's a point, however, that few Muslim fanatics of today want to consider when they invoke the name of Saladin.
"I think among real students and real scholars, the generous side of Saladin is very much appreciated," Reston adds. "It's just how historic figures are used and misused."
The book is also interesting for its scattered references to the now much-discussed but little-understood Koran, the Bible of Islam. Saladin's reliance on the Koran for direction gives Western readers a glimpse of the true Koran. For example: " 'If the enemy inclines toward peace,' it is written in the Koran 8:61, 'do thou also incline toward peace and trust in Allah. For he is the one that heareth and knoweth all things.' "
Meanwhile, the crusaders are not so sympathetic -- even their Pope, Clementine III, had no illusions about their true motivation, once saying that "It was certainly not the fear of God nor any stirring penitence that inspired them, but pride and vainglory directed all their enterprise."
On the way to the Holy Land, the crusaders often sacked the countryside, frequently massacring Jewish populations of European cities as they moved eastward. Once installed in the Holy Land, the settlers, by many accounts, slipped into lives of debauchery and frivolous intrigue.
Richard the Lionheart did not share this decadence; he was certainly heroic and a shrewd military strategist. But he was also erratic and could be quite brutal, a quality that was highlighted by Saladin's comparative enlightenment. An enduring historical mystery comes at the end of the Third Crusade, when Richard finally had his army united at Jerusalem's gate.
"Suddenly, inexplicably, disgracefully," writes Reston, "the Lionheart became fainthearted."
Richard turned away, finally made peace with Saladin and returned to set his affairs in Europe in order (although it took awhile, as he was subsequently captured and held by a competing German monarch). Reston postulates that perhaps finally seeing Jerusalem drove home the enormity -- and futility -- of what was ahead. Even if he took the city, then he'd be the one inside the walls fighting off wave after wave of attackers. He had already been away from home for years, and going forward at that time could have meant countless more years without any clear success. Still, it still seems a colossal case of cold feet.
As strange as it may sound to those of us in the West,
one can come away from Reston's book with the
sense that, if history indeed has lessons for us, we should seek wisdom from Saladin, not the crusaders. And in fact there is evidence that the Bush administration is doing just that, with offerings of food and medicine to besieged Afghans and words of accommodation on the bitter issue of Palestine. Meanwhile, the precedent for the kind of terror we all witnessed -- and felt -- on September 11 is from the Christian side. And bin Laden and his kind seem to be missing that lesson, as the religious fanatics who took to violence in the 11th century had one brief moment of success followed by defeat after defeat.
Reston seems to have sensed this point was an important one: "It is an irony of history that today the word 'jihad' strikes fear in the hearts of many Westerners and Western governments who associate it with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. But there is nothing in Islamic history that rivals the terror of the Crusades or Christian fanaticism of the twelfth century."
So what lesson does Reston take from this history he has so richly recreated? He can't help but end up not in New York City or Afghanistan, but in that place called sacred by not one but three of the world's great religions. Jerusalem contains the third holiest shrine in all Islam, it is the heart of the Jewish faith and it is the home of the holiest church in all Christendom. It is almost as if God, in whose name much blood has been spilled, orchestrated this accident of history as a spiritual riddle for his children on Earth to solve.
"There's no doubt that the whole situation in Israel leads to great anger among Arab peoples and anger against the United States for its support of the state of Israel," says Reston. "If this all leads to an accommodation in the Israel-Palestine situation, then there will be a silver lining."
Reston points to some recent history, too, as pieces of the puzzle that will become more important when the history of this time is written. The visit to the Temple Mount by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last October seems to have kindled Arab anger at a time when it seemed to be subsiding. And when Pope John Paul II visited Palestine in the spring of 2000, he did not specifically apologize for the Crusades. This ommission came soon after he specifically apologized for the Catholic Church's complicity of silence in the Holocaust. That oversight (though the church had previously apologized for the Crusades in a written edict) was taken by leading Muslim clerics as an unnecessary slight.
Even in the 11th century, the sense that Jerusalem represented the soul of a people -- a sense shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews -- was strong. Of course that feeling has only deepened over the ensuing centuries, leading Reston to see the solution of the Jerusalem question as central to creating a lasting peace after September 11.
Saladin, too, was faced with the issue of what to do with Jerusalem, but he did not regard proper postwar policy as winner-take-all. His sense of respect for his enemy guided him, as did the Koran, which told him to honor the holy sites of even the infidels. The central lesson of the Third Crusade may well be found in how Saladin behaved after the crusaders were driven back to the coastal cities. Once he made peace with the Christians, Saladin kept the holy shrines open to all people, even allowing Europeans to install their own priests to oversee the Church of the Holy Sepulcher -- a tradition of sharing the Holy Land that is still in use, albeit tenuously. Saladin even once told Richard that Jerusalem was "as much ours as yours."
Saladin knew war his entire life, but at the end, when he crowned his son sultan, he said: "Beware of bloodshed. Trust not in that, for spilt blood never sleeps. Do the will of God, for that is the way of peace."
If we are willing to listen, a Muslim warrior king dead 800 years offers us valuable advice on how to achieve peace.