The Magazine

Fighting the Infidel

The East-West holy wars are not just history.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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By contrast, Muslim holy wars ("jihads"), as taught in the Koran, were first and foremost a personal inner struggle for moral purity and secondarily an external struggle against Jewish and Christian infidels--a distinction and restraint Tyerman finds laudable by comparison with the "oxymoronic" Western holy war, which he calls "the ultimate manifestation of conviction politics." Yet, while Muslims grudgingly tolerated the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, Muslims) within Muslim lands, non-Muslims in lands beyond remained fair game to Islam's holy warriors. It is not clear why "oxymoronic" would not also apply to Muslim holy wars in the East. In the end, the religious war, whether the Western crusade or the eastern jihad, seems then as now to have been something of a free radical within both cultures. As Tyerman himself puts it: "So pervasive were the symbols and habits of crusading that they could be turned to any political conflict that boasted an ideological tinge." One may ask whether that is not also true of the jihad we witness today in the Middle East?

Since the end of the last literal crusade, which occurred in the early 18th century, Tyerman sees the crusade surviving in the West as a potent metaphor for "any vigorous good cause" one might want to pursue against an adversary. As such, it is a word that can still break bones. Now disconnected from its medieval Christian roots in sacramental magic and holy war, it is today a "baleful and intellectually bogus" specter "stalking international politics." Here, Tyerman has in mind both skittish Near Eastern radicals and terrorists, who see Western neocrusaders at every turn, and American neoconservatives, whose eyes are also continuously popping.

In the end, the plea of Fighting for Christendom is to lay the era of the Crusades to rest and to put an end to a "cheap historicism" that invokes their historical memory only to inflame, debase, and confuse. Clearly, Tyerman wants President Bush to stop talking about "axes of evil" and Middle Eastern presidents to forgo visions of "mailed knights fighting for the faith under an alien sun."

Here the reader may think Tyerman protests too much and in vain. He tells us that "the Middle Ages were no more or less a period of faith and skepticism than the 21st century." If that is true, why should the 21st century be any more or less peaceful or warring a period than the Middle Ages?

The problems that drive us to history in search of a resolution are often beyond the cure of words spoken or suppressed. They are the intractable problems Tyerman finds crusading language can only exacerbate. We go to history because we cannot talk such problems away and bask in the end of history. We study the past not to avoid repeating it, even in metaphorical form, but to learn how previous generations survived the same mistakes we make. The answer we find there is blood, sweat, and tears.

Early in Fighting for Christendom, Tyerman raises the question of why the Crusades ended. He tells us that the Reformation first "loosened the grip" of the crusading ideology by challenging the medieval belief system that made it possible. The reformers deemed that system to be spurious and corrupt, along with the papacy and penitential system that empowered it. The result, as history records, was a mighty deconstruction, first with ridicule and scorn, and in the end with torch and sword.

Steven Ozment, the McLean professor of ancient history at Harvard, is the author of A Mighty Fortress: A History of the German People.