Comparisons between modern Muslim-Christian tensions and the crusades of 1099 are a ‘distortion’, announces Tom Asbridge at the Hay festival
Christian and Muslim attempts to draw parallels between the tensions of today and the crusades of almost 1,000 years ago are a distortion and manipulation of history, according to historian Tom Asbridge.
Speaking at the Guardian Hay festival today, Asbridge, author of two books on the crusades, argued that the modern belief that the Christian and Muslim worlds have been “inevitably predicated towards conflict” since the crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 is not based on historical realities.
“This is a manipulation of history, not a reality. I believe there is no division linking the medieval past and the conflict of the crusades with the modern world,” he said. “[It’s a] misunderstanding which goes back to the 19th century and western triumphalism in emerging colonialism, and the tendency of western historians to start to glorify the crusades as a proto-colonial enterprise, an [obsession] with Richard the Lionheart and a burgeoning interest in [Muslim leader] Saladin as almost the noble savage.”
Parts of the Muslim world, meanwhile, seized upon George Bush’s comment after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that “this crusade … this war on terror is going to take a while” to show that they almost expected there would come a reignition of a holy war.
“If you look at some Muslim groups and the likes of Osama bin Laden, you see repeated references to western powers as a crusader alliance. That is at the core of their message,” said Asbridge. “Saddam Hussein was utterly obsessed with Saladin in many ways. You see repeated images of him next to Saladin on bank notes and stamps; he even commissioned children’s school books talking about him as the second Saladin. Saladin was not an Arab though, he was actually a Kurd, which shows how details can become swept under the carpet.”
The feeling “that crusader history is repeating itself, that an element of conflict is still burning today” started to emerge following the creation of Israel after the second world war, he said. According to Asbridge, though, after 1291 the crusades became very insignificant in Muslim writing. “Islam had achieved a victory and that’s it, it’s done. There was no constant reference back to the crusades as a form of antagonism,” he said.
He believes modern historians have presented distorted views of both Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, lauded for taking Jerusalem largely without bloodshed. “Historians tell us this is what Saladin wanted, that it was to his advantage to show how clement and peaceful Islam could be. I think this is a really profound misunderstanding of the realities of the situation,” said Asbridge. “Reading 70 or so letters, it becomes apparent that Saladin was really embarrassed he hadn’t butchered the Christians. He needed to show he was dedicated to jihad; he built his empire on a promise he would bring jihad to western Christians – to defeat them, to avenge their crimes. He only held back from the battle when the garrisons within threatened to desecrate shrines in the city.”
Richard I, meanwhile, “has been given too gentle a press by modern historians”, according to Asbridge. “He may have been a great general but he knew how to fight wars in western Europe. He hadn’t appreciated that crusading warfare was different, that it has a mercurial character, a devotional element, that allowed crusaders to do [dreadful] things,” he said. “Richard never managed to harness that force and that’s one of the reasons he failed to take the holy city.”
There has been “distortion and simplification” of the truth about the crusades, and, concluded Asbridge, “both sides [today] need to acknowledge the crusades for what they were … [they] belong in one place and one place alone – and that is the past.”