The Crusades and the Modern World 4 January 2015

Daniel Rey argues there are modern parallels to historic wars.

The Crusades of the Medieval Age are the pre-eminent conflict with intense geopolitical and religious significance. But over nine hundred years on, many of the same factors and motivators play an integral role in the violent religious extremism of the modern era. An examination of these complex issues within specific regional context is essential to understanding the contemporary world.

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem – the city’s capture was the goal of the medieval crusades.

In 1095 Pope Urban II promulgated the idea of a Crusade in the Levant to recapture the holiest sites of Christianity from Islam. In so doing, he sanctioned the use of violence and terror in the name of a higher, sacred cause. At the Council of Clermont, the cry of the people, “Deus vult” (“God wills it”), was justification enough for the faithful. Put in today’s terms, this was a wholesale incitement to violence and religious hatred.

Fifty years later, in the Second Crusade of the 1140s, it was an abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, who was most responsible for agitating Western Europe into further crusading zeal. In a sermon from around 1146 he preached:

“Christian warriors, He who gave His life for you, today demands yours in return. These are combats worthy of you, combats in which it is glorious to conquer and advantageous to die. Illustrious kni

ghts, generous defenders of the Cross, remember the example of your fathers who conquered Jerusalem, and whose names are inscribed in Heaven; abandon then the things that perish, to gather unfading palms, and conquer a Kingdom which has no end.”

Bernard of Clairvaux was an influential radical cleric of the 12th century. Comparisons could certainly be drawn to our own time and the names of Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza.

Taking the comparison further, the motivations for holy war or jihad are the same now as they were in the Middle Ages: the promise of redemption and eternal salvation. And just as there are pious believers who were led astray in the past, a contemporary call to arms in the name of religion enables the violent to reconcile faith with ferocity.

In Iraq, the rise of Isis has re-alerted the world to the prevailing violent power of religion suffused with politics and identity. The Isis massacres of Shia civilians are little different from aspects of the religious wars of post-Reformation Western Europe, most notably the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris on 24 August 1572.

As ever, religious violence begets religious violence. Turning once again to the Crusades, the sack of Jerusalem by the European knights and their slaughter of infidels in 1099 led to the vengeful Islamic jihad that culminated in their re-conquest of the Holy City.  

The history of the Crusades provides other useful lessons for understanding today’s complex religious and geopolitical context. Just as during the First Crusade Islam was ethnically and religiously divided, it remains so in the 21st century Middle East. Regarding Islam as a homogenous “other” has always been a mistake.

However, as is to be expected, there are also subtle differences with the present, brought about through technology and globalisation. Ease of movement and the cross-insemination of cultures mean that Britons can enrol in Isis or on one side of the Syrian conflict without much difficulty. Medieval Christendom meanwhile was homogenous, and religious diversity was scant.

Analysis of the history of the regions and the critical issues involved is so important to geopolitical research and policy-making because aggressive non-state actors invariably tie their existence to their reading of the past. In Nicaragua, to take one example, the religiously-motivated Sandinistas, who seized power in 1979, took their name from a guerrilla leader of their anti-imperialist struggle in late 1920s and early 1930s.

Despite the tide of secularism in Western Europe, elsewhere religion is thriving; a trend that needs recognising within geopolitical and foreign policy-making. Appreciating contrasting readings of the past and present is a crucial step to understand and mitigate contemporary geopolitical risks. Nearly a millennium on, and the paradigms have hardly shifted from the age of Crusades.

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About Daniel Rey

Daniel Rey has a BA in Theology from the University of Oxford, and an MPhil in Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge.

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