Should Obama have compared ISIS to the Crusades?

February 20, 2015

Over a week ago President Obama mentioned the crusades in his Remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. In his talk he commented that, “…during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” How should one respond to such a statement? Is it valid or not to compare the context of the crusades to the twenty-first century context of ISIS?

A brief history
The best place to start is a simple definition of the crusades, which were wars waged in Christ’s name (usually for Jerusalem) for the remission of sins. The crusades were a combination of just war and holy war theories as they developed in Christian thought from Augustine to the eleventh century. Pope Urban II further refined those ideas in making crusade a redemptive activity. In 1095 he preached this novel idea to the knights of Christendom, and proposed that they might earn their salvation by bearing the cross and going to war against Muslims in the east.

The message struck a chord. Knights gathered by the tens of thousands believing it was the will of God. They fought their way to the Levant and against all odds sacked Jerusalem in 1099. The combination of Urban’s ideas, the knightly interpretation of those ideas, and the very success of the venture in the end gave birth to the subsequent crusading movement that lasted the next several centuries.

In no sense, however, were the crusades a medieval form of colonialism or imperialism as they are understood today. True, they were concerned with real estate. The crusades were aimed at what was deemed the Holy Land. Medieval Christians believed this land belonged to Christ and that Muslims wrongly took it. In other words, a wrong needed avenging.

But there was no attempt to continue the conquest further afield into the Middle East. Once Christian kingdoms were established in the region, great effort and expense was taken to ensure the defense and welfare of Christians in the east, the safety of western pilgrims, protection of the city Jerusalem, the building up of holy sites and relics such as the Holy Sepulchre, and nothing more.

Twenty-first century Christians and the crusades
What then ought twenty-first century Christians do with the crusades? This is a good question, if only because the crusades are resurrected again and again, not only by American presidents but also by radical communities in the Middle East.1

While the crusades can certainly be considered an evil perpetuated in the name of Christ, it is important to recognize that they met the standards of conventional and just war in their own historical context. So, unless we are prepared to repent for every war in human history, there is no need to apologize for the crusades as such, even if we are horrified today by some of what occurred during them (imagine asking the president of Iran to apologize for the Greek deaths at Thermopylae!).

While Christians may want to apologize that the crusades were waged in Christ’s name (as I’ll talk more about below), that evil was waged in the name of Christ does not negate the truth of Christianity or mean that the church has completely lost its prophetic voice. The church still can, and ought to, condemn evil where it is found, including in such groups as ISIS–though, perhaps, with a bit more humility knowing its own checkered past.

The president’s conflation of crusade and ISIS
More disturbing than his simple misunderstanding of the crusades is President Obama’s implicit connection between the medieval crusades and the actions of ISIS today. No one in the medieval era was fundamentally opposed to the crusades. In fact the greatest medieval saints supported them, figures like St Bernard, St Francis, and St Louis.

It is no secret that Muslims and Christians often did not get along in the medieval era, and neither appreciated the violence perpetrated by the other through jihad or crusade. Both, however, recognized and understood declared, conventional war for their day, and knew its cost and nature. Thus neither would have recognized the “terrible deeds” of the president’s sensibilities, even though normal war for the era included massacres, among other things (this offends our modern sensibilities in the same way that wars for nationalism, capitalism, or democracy would have offended medieval sensibilities).

While civilians were definitely harmed and killed during the crusades (as in any war), they were not necessarily targeted like ISIS clearly targets civilians. Its members carry out brutal war through mass murder, beheadings, ethnic cleansing, crucifixions, rape, kidnap, and ultimately selling captured civilians into slavery.

Around the globe Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Americans, Egyptians, Brits, and Jordanians all condemn ISIS as operating fundamentally outside the normal bounds of war and violence for our day. ISIS thus commits “terrible deeds” in a way we just cannot say about the medieval crusaders. In other words, not only are their deeds themselves categorically worse than those of medieval crusaders, they are routinely rejected as evil by all of their contemporaries, Muslim and not.

The nature of religious violence in early Christianity and Islam
The president paints a too simplistic picture when he implicitly suggests that all religious violence is roughly of the same essence, or that violence in the name of Christ in the medieval era is basically the same thing as violence in the name of Islam by ISIS today.

It is no secret that Jesus Christ preached a message of peace, of turning the other cheek, of helping the unlovable neighbor, loving ones enemies, and ultimately that vengeance is his, not the believer’s. In conjunction with this, Jesus’ repeated message was that his kingdom was not of this world, and that his followers should render unto Caesars what was Caesars.

This concept changed with the conflating the kingdom of God with the kingdom of the world in the Constantinian combination of church and state in the fourth century. Christians were confronted with war and violence in a new way. It was at this time Augustine explored notions of just war and holy war. Over the next six centuries the church began to slowly baptize violence and warfare for its own purposes, culminating in the First Crusade.

It is clear that the crusades were waged in the name of Christ, even if there was no historical context to justify such deeds until more than 300 years after Christ. Thoughtful Christians ought to condemn crusade and holy war as abuse of the very essence of Christianity as it was explored and expanded in its first three centuries of its existence. If an apology is in order, it is for this.

Before discussing the early history of Islam,I want to be clear that the majority of Muslims across the globe denounce ISIS as a distortion of their faith. It would be unfair to condemn all Muslims for the atrocities committed by ISIS and other terrorist groups around the globe, just as Christians do not want to be categorically judged for the crusades.

Unlike Christianity, however, Islam was born in a convergence of the temporal and the spiritual. The Islamic calendar begins with Muhammad’s hijrah, or journey from Mecca to Medina, not when he first preached Islam over a decade earlier. As the Prophet took the political reigns of Medina he retained his religious leadership of the Islamic community. Thus from its inception the Islamic community was a religio-political community.

After the formation of this community Muhammad advocated for the use of the sword, for military jihad (in addition to internal, spiritual jihad), and for military expansion throughout Arabia. Upon Muhammad’s death the next four caliphs (the Rashidun, a golden age in the history of Islam) continued the Islamic expansion out of Arabia through jihad. By 720 Islam covered a vast territory from the Pyrenees in the west to the Indus in the east. As a religio-political community, this advance through conquest should come as no surprise.

We can debate how much ISIS adheres or strays from the initial vision of Islam it so clearly seeks to emulate, and whether they are more vicious and violent than their forbearers—but perhaps that debate is better left to the Muslim community at large.2 It is clear, however, in the Qur’an and the Hadith that the sword is present from the beginning of Islam in a way that is not comparable to Christianity—though it is equally clear that in these early sources jihad is often portrayed as something akin to a Muslim equivalent of just war. This is not to say that Islam is inherently violent, and perhaps moderate Muslims today can theologically wrestle with their religious texts and history in the attempt to present a more peaceful Islam.

That said, there is a historical/political context in Islam as a religio-political entity that can be used to justify military jihad. Groups like ISIS, bent on expansion by the sword, can tap into a historical precedent (as interpreted by themselves) to justify slavery, beheadings, and rape and can be consider a historically justifiable interpretation, albeit radical and extreme, of Islam.

This is not the case for Christianity. There is no seed for crusade or holy war in the first three centuries of the church. The seed only appear after the Constantinian combination of church and state, and that seed only begins to flower several hundred years after that. Thus any attempt to advocate for Christian holy war runs counter to Christ’s own teachings about his kingdom and the lived reality of those teachings for the next three hundred years, and as a result can hardly be called Christian.

Dig Deeper

For the best short account of the crusades see Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades 3d ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

For an excellent account of the religious nature of the First Crusade see Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).

For a good attempt to clearly define the crusades see Jonathan Riley-Smith, What Were the Crusades? 3d ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002).

About the Author

  1. For example, see many of the documents in Raymond Ibrahim, ed. and trans., The Al Qaeda Reader (New York: Broadway Books, 2007). 

  2. For a recent article exploring ISIS and its connection to the early centuries of Islam see Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015)(accessed on February 17, 2015)  

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  1. Thank you for this insightful and informative piece, Dr. Cosgrove. While I appreciate the much-needed correction of the popular misunderstanding of the crusades (and the frequent mis-appropriation of them for scoring rhetorical points), as I read the President’s remarks, I do not find it accurate to speak of an “implicit connection between the medieval crusades and the actions of ISIS today.” The President uses the history of slavery in America and the crusades to draw our attention to “a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith,” and especially our need for humility as we make decisions in the face of unfathomable evil. As you point out, however much the crusades are misunderstood, they remain “an evil perpetuated in the name of Christ” and an “abuse of the very essence of Christianity as it was explored and expanded in its first three centuries of its existence.” Thus while I fully agree with you that the crusades are NOT a “Christian equivalent” of ISIS, I do not take the President’s remarks as implying this, nor would I take reminders from Christian history off the table when leaders urge us to resist viewing the current threat in terms of a simplistic binary (we the wholly righteous Christian America and they the wholly evil Islamic State).

    1. Ben,
      I appreciate your thoughtful response to my post. I am sorry for my delayed response, but I have been away from Internet the past couple of days.

      I could concede partially to your criticism, namely that the president did not intend an implicit connection between the two. I assumed motive/intention to his comments, which is impossible (and wrong) for me to do. That said, I do think my reading of his speech is a viable reading, and thus I think my comments are still relevant even if it is to clarify the difference between medieval crusades and ISIS for others who may read his speech in that light.

      I agree with you that we ought to avoid simplistic binaries, but even so, I think that we cannot be afraid to call out horrific evil when we see it. ISIS is evil, even al Qaeda kicked them out for being too extreme. So yes, America is a sinful place, an argument could be made that our government perpetrates evil across the globe, and no doubt our ties to consumerism also cause evil in places we do not even see. Regardless, ISIS is evil and should be labelled as such.

      I also agree with you regarding the importance of using Christian history when thinking about issues in the present, and I think we should continue to do so. I do have a couple of cautions about using church history. First, I think we too often we cherry pick bad examples from the past, especially the medieval past, as if we have moved on from those evils and hopefully will never return to them (Yes, we as Christians went “slumming” in fanatical religion in the medieval era with the crusades, but we have since mature and moved past all of that). I think it important that we also let positive, good examples from the past, and yes even the medieval past, to shine the light on our own errors, foibles, and even evils. Second, and more directly connected to the president’s comments, I think our medieval past is too easy for American Protestants conjure up for negative examples, without hitting too close to home and really feeling bad about our past. If we are serious about reminding ourselves that we are not without spot or blemish, I think more recent examples are in order, and I applaud the president’s use of slavery and Jim Crow from our own national history.

      One final point, and one that I did not have sufficient space to discuss in the post, is the specific use of the crusades when discussing issues in the Middle East. While throughout most of Middle Eastern history the crusades hardly registered as a blip on their radar, by the mid-nineteenth century they were being remembered in a very different way, namely, as early forms of colonialism and imperialism (thanks to contemporary European misinterpretations of the crusades). From the 1960s to this day radical groups like al Qaeda and ISIS refer to American ventures in the Middle East as “crusades,” and much of Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric against America referred to us as crusaders. So to mention the crusades at all in this context is tricky because for us they belong to a bygone era, but some in the Middle East it is as if they happened yesterday.

      Thanks again Ben for conversation,

  2. All very helpful responses, thank you Walker! Your comments regarding the crusades and the Middle East in recent history are particularly informative, and I think you make a crucial point in worrying about the comfortable distance we can keep between ourselves and our medieval past. I might also suggest that for many American Christians, even slavery and Jim Crow can be conjured up cheaply, and we do well to listen carefully for the prophetic voices that critique and energize the church today. Thanks again for the great post and response.

  3. Ben,
    Agreed, I do think particularly slavery is a bit too distant now, and too easy. I think there are parts of the south in which Jim Crow is recent enough, but probably not for the majority of Americans. We could bring up internment camps during the second world war, but we are fairly removed from that. All those examples, however, are closer to home than the crusades or inquisition.

    I do not have a good idea about what the president should have said instead. Perhaps something about consumerism and where I goods come from? I do not know. And again, I am not against using more distant-in-time examples, but I think we need to be more thoughtful about how we think about them, engage with that past, and even own them as our past, without quickly moving beyond them to make a rhetorical point.
    Thanks for the dialog,

    1. I don’t know about that… Violent racism seems to be having a comeback in the US, and it’s never been just a “southern” issue. What about South African apartheid? The treatment of European Jews by Christians, and the general complicity of European churches with Hitler? Americans don’t often know much about those histories, or how they connect to their own ethnic and theological past.

      Have you read Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church? I have been meaning to since running across this excellent review in Books & Culture. It is recommended as “Lenten reading” — Apparently he suggests “the church” (and every church) through its failure at unity betrays Christ and tends to be complicit with great evils though passivity, indirection, and feebleness if not direct complicity.

      1. Anthony.
        Fair enough, I never meant to suggest that racism is not a problem in America today (or everywhere else on the globe). I also agree with you that in general people do not know their histories very well, particularly the rough aspects of their histories. I think my point still stands, namely that if we are going to use those types of historical examples (even the ones you provide) then we need to be very purposeful, thoughtful, and intentional to help people not simply sidestep them as in the past and not relevant. Thinking theologically about the past is not something that comes naturally, and we need to help people do just that, serious theological reflection on our past as the church.

        1. Sure, in this case I think US state-sponsored terrorism would make a better analogy than crusades, witch trials, and other western religious violence. ISIS is to Islam what Jim Jones or David Koresh were to Christianity — extremely marginal, extremist figures.

          The best US/western comparison for Obama to make with ISIS might be the US military and intelligence services’ Phoenix Program, which during the US occupation of Viet Nam was used as a “counter terror” program against the civilian political leadership of the NLF/Viet Cong. Of course this sort of thing persists today, so no president is going to say anything about it, especially one who said he’d shut down secret CIA prisons and then decided to change his mind. The lack of Christian outcry on these issues nowadays — less so in the 1960s-70s — might illustrate where we are most complicit in torture and murder done in our names and on our behalf.

  4. Anthony,
    Now you are getting beyond my area of expertise, though I certainly think we need conversations like these.
    Thanks for the thoughts and comments,

  5. As a History Dordt grad, it appears you under estimated how terrible crusades were. Obama was very justified in his comparisons. Many citizens want to forget the past. When we support war, it should become very personal: we should be willing to be personally involved, encourage our children to be involved in the armed forces, etc. WW II is a good example of this. This does not often happy anymore: most of my friends supported Vietnam War, for example, but fought to keep deferments forever.

    And, to agree with Anthony above that racism has never been just a ‘Southern’ issue, Dordt teachers (in Northwest Iowa) were supposedly against Jim Crow laws, but said and did nothing when stinging racial slurs were shouted by students are basketball games. Political dissent resulted in threats of expulsion. The one black student at Dordt was constantly harassed until he left.

    1. Thanks to both Roger and Paul for your comments.

      I do not much to reply to Paul regarding his comments, except to confirm that I am fairly apolitical. For me this has nothing to do with how I feel about the president and his policies, or even politics in general. My attitude toward any president leans apathetic, and generally it does not matter to me who is the sitting president. A Republican could have said much the same thing and I would have been equally critical. I am not Republican and I am not Democrat. So my post should be read in that light.

      Regarding Roger’s comments, while ultimately we can disagree in our opinions regarding the crusades, I have given a substantial amount of time to examining them in my doctoral work and after, so I feel pretty secure in mine thoughts and believe them to be correct. I do think warfare in general is terrible, and so I agree that the crusades were terrible in that sense. But the crusades were also seen as conventional warfare for their time period, which in my mind is one thing that sets them apart from what ISIS is doing at the moment (and which I think I clearly state in the post). I think that the average soldier’s experience in the trenches of WWI–dealing with machine guns, mustard gas, barbed wire, and bombings–was pretty terrible too, but I also think we can both agree that WWI was fundamentally different than ISIS in that it was a conventional, declared war between recognized states. I also think I have majority of medieval historians on my side on this thought, including Thomas Asbridge (who Paul quotes) who is one of the foremost experts on the First Crusade. Other than what Paul quoted, Asbridge also said, “…we have to be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current standards,” and I couldn’t agree more.

      If you are getting your information/knowledge of the crusades from Sir Steven Runciman, or something equally as dated, then I strongly suggest you take a look at the “Dig Deeper” section of my post for a couple of books that synthesize the current, updated research on the crusades from the past forty years or so.

  6. Insightful analysis highlighting the dangers (and inaccuracies) of linking ISIS and the Crusades in the public mindset. Cosgrove, who earned his PhD studying under perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the Crusades, has a firm grasp of the historical context. Cosgrove’s observations on such linkages (and similar interpretations of the Crusades) is in line with the reaction reaction of other well-respected historians of the Crusades around the world. As the NY Times cited, “Thomas Asbridge, a medieval historian and director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London. ‘Any use of the word ‘Crusade’ has to be made with great caution. It is the most highly charged word you can use in the context of the Middle East.’” Without much greater contextualization, comparing anything to the Crusades in the Middle East causes more harm than good in seeking to clarify issues—both in the West and the Middle East.

    This fair historical analysis importantly avoids conservative/liberal analysis that dominates many Christian responses to the world today. On both sides of the political spectrum, people cannot see valid historical criticisms of comments by Obama (or Bush or Clinton) apart from the political blinders that increasingly dominate their worldview. We either want to defend Obama or attack Obama; defend Bush or attack Bush. People get their information from slanted contemporary media outlets on the right and the left. Sadly, even Reformed Christians on the right and the left seek out opportunities to attack those who disagree with them out of their own narrow personal experiences. Rarely do we seemingly want to really gain wider perspective–we merely want confirmation of our existing political and social biases that make us feel better.

    Thankfully, Cosgrove masterfully demonstrates how a Reformed, historical perspective rooted in years of study (while not impervious to such blinders, of course) can provide an important corrective to our Christian community that increasingly depends upon liberal or conservative perspectives to interpret the world.