Islam and The Crusades

The Third Way: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (Deror books, 2010) 
by Mark Durie

God's Battalions: the case for the Crusades (Harper, 2009)
by Rodney Stark

Mark Durie is a first-rate scholar. Formerly head of linguistics at Melbourne University and Australia's leading expert on the Islamic culture of Aceh, Durie is now focussed on the growing discussion around "Dhimmitude'. 

The third way of Durie's title refers to the Islamic law that calls on Muslim rulers to offer Christians and Jews one of three options: death, conversion or to submit to life as a "Dhimmi' "”  effectively a second-class citizen subject to endless humiliations.

The strength of this book is the painstaking way Durie details the array of unequal treatment suffered by Christian communities under Muslim rule, thoroughly exposing the Islamic doctrines that underpin these injustices. That said, Durie is no literary stylist and the forensic way he pieces together evidence from the Islamic texts reads like a solicitor's brief.

The term "Dhimmitude' was coined by the historian Bat Ye'or to explain the plight of Christian and Jewish communities that came under Islamic rule from the 9th century. What this concept aptly communicates is the thorough state of subservience experienced by these peoples, which really can only be compared to the sense of inferiority fostered among African slaves in the Americas.

In Durie's words: "Like sexism and racism, dhimmitude is not only manifested in legal and social structures but in a psychology of inferiority, a will to serve, which the dominated community adopts in self-preservation."  
A plus of Durie's scholarly approach is that he carefully avoids the polar opposite pitfalls that bedevil writers in this field: either assuming that Islam is a "religion of peace' or inherently dangerous.
Durie's work provides a neat bookend to historian Rodney Stark's recently released revision of the Crusades titled God's Battalions. For Christians queasy at demands they apologise for the Crusades, Stark delivers a powerful antidote. It should be remembered that the popular picture of the Crusades has largely been painted by two centuries of atheist writings using the conflict for polemics against the Church.

The conventional view of professional medievalists is that Islamic military expansion finished by the 9th century and the Crusades were the product of religious revival in Western Europe. Stark convincingly argues that the Crusades were "a justified war waged against Muslim terror and aggression".

However, the force of this argument is somewhat weakened by telling the whole story entirely from a Western perspective. Stark does not claim to be a Christian and this book is not an apology for Christ. The West "” even in the period of Christendom "” should not be confused with the Kingdom of God. So be warned: this book moves perilously close to constructing a defence for more recent Western imperialism.

In this light Stark would have benefited from an understanding of dhimmitude and a deeper analysis of the indigenous Christian population of the Levant. Did these Dhimmis feel liberated by the Crusaders? It's a question Stark touches on with regard to Antioch but should have investigated more thoroughly.

In contrast, The Third Choice is far from triumphalist. Durie ends with a forlorn plea: that through "truth applied with love" Muslims of goodwill will recognise the full humanity of other peoples. But there is no doubt Durie is right on one key point. Dhimmitude remains a force in global affairs today. The ongoing persecution of the 8 million strong Christian community in Egypt (see page 10) is but one example. Despite protests around the world, their plight is invisible to most Westerners.

So, is Durie also right when he claims there is a spreading "Dhimmitude of the West', especially in Europe where elite opinion appears to bow to Islamic civilisation?

It seems unfair for Durie to quote leaders speaking in the wake of catastrophic terrorist attacks. These statements are also linked to a fear that anything less than an irenic tone will seed the kind of riot we saw explode on Cronulla Beach.

We are walking a tightrope at this point. There is a danger that Westerners will fall into a different kind of self-denial: blinded to our own responsibility in recent turmoils.

Bat Ye'or, in the book's forward, presents the best articulation of the situation: "Too few Westerners grasp that… dhimmitude is crucial to understanding the relationship between Islam and non-Islam. As Durie argues, through a conspiracy of silence the heads of state, church and community leaders, universities and media smother its reality under a blanket of ignorance."

The Third Choice deserves to be read by every thinking Christian.

Jeremy Halcrow is a veteran Christian journalist, a former media relations consultant and former editor of Southern Cross Newspaper. He is now Director, Communications and Strategic Partnerships for Anglicare Canberra and Goulburn

Comments (9)

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  • Matthew Payne
    June 1, 10 - 12:49pm
    should thinking Christians read Stark's book too?
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    June 1, 10 - 11:58pm
    Good question Matthew.

    I have trouble recommending Stark's book.

    It does counter some of the silliest myths about the crusades - in particular that it was motivated by a Papal grab for power/land or by knights seeking loot. (Crusading was most likely to bankrupt the Crusader's families and yet they kept going back)

    It is worth reading criticisms of Stark's book.

    On balance, Stark strays into unhelpful polemics in order to present a case for western cultural superiority.

    Due to the reasons I mention above, I wasn't as impressed with the Stark book as some others have been - eg Peter Bolt at the Sola Panel.

    As Bolt says, it is a helpful correction to some of the simplistic criticisms you get of the crusades on a popular level.

    However it is interesting that the Christian reviews have been so glowing. Not many of my peers seem to ask the obvious questions.

    In what real sense were the crusades part of an ongoing conflict that began in the 8th century with the Arab-Islamic invasions of Christian North Africa? And does this justify an 11th century Christian counter-attack?

    In summary: an interesting historical question but Stark's apparent contemporary agenda troubles me greatly
  • David Palmer
    June 2, 10 - 3:42am
    In summary: an interesting historical question but Stark's apparent contemporary agenda troubles me greatly

    What troubles you?
  • Peter Smith
    June 2, 10 - 4:23am
    Stark, like many thinking secularists is looking for a narrative to rescue the west from decline. Stark's narrative of the Crusades is helpful because it presents the other side of the story. Islam infliced atrocities upon her enemies just as much as the Crusaders (and the Monghols etc). There is just as much triumphalism embedded in the Islamic historical narrative (Saladin etc) becuase Islam too is fighting for survival-like the West. The 'Crusades' debate will be played out by the historians over the next few decades but whatever the course we still have to provide an answer to the 'Crusades' apologetic question. Our Christian response will be different to Stark's - even if his history turns out to be 'on the money'. We triumph through suffering, like our saviour. How we present the narrative is as important as what we present.
  • Ian Crook
    June 2, 10 - 12:18pm
    Jeremy, Even before I scanned the review at ARMARIUM MAGNUM I had noted that you seemed to be reading to much Sociology and Political Science. Your comments seeemed to me to come from more of a Marxist base and well into the de-construction of our Western Civilisation based as it is on the Judeo/Christian ethic. I was hoping to read something akin to an Introduction to the Crusades in Stark's book and I found the book to be excellent in meeting that need. Your comment in Southern Cross recently that the book was "triumphalist" made me scratch my head in disbelief. Certainly the book lacks maps, sketches and pics of historical and archeological sites and it does lack footnotes to complement the often brief references to significant characters mentioned. Stark attempts to set the Crusades, however briefly in the cultural context of the time. The Crusaders were a warrior class and that is a very foreign concept to our modern minds. They were motivated partly by the need to repent of their sins and thus do Church directed penance as well as to protect Pilgrims on their treks to The Holy Land. We aptly find great fault with aspects of the pre-reformation theology on which they built their world view and motivation. But the defeats the Knights Templars suffered were horrendous. I find the links to so-called "modern western imperialism" tenuous at best. I share the concerns of many about the recent wars in the Middle East but find little, if any, evidence of any correlation.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    June 2, 10 - 10:58pm
    Fair go, Ian. You shouldn't throw around terms like 'Marxist' so easily. Its a ridiculous allegation to make, especially when I specifically said I disagreed with a Marxist interpretation in the previous comment. (Marxists would have a materialist explanation for the Crusades ie that it was a Papal land grab)

    In all fairness I don't think you can call Stark's book an introduction to Crusader history. Stark himself says he is arguing for a revisionist agenda: that the Crusades were a defensive war against Muslim aggression.

    There may be truth in that suggestion, but there is also counter evidence that should nuance such a blunt thesis.

    In my view Stark is too dismissive of the Crusaders theological/ spiritual motivations. That's my central objection.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    June 2, 10 - 11:31pm
    Thanks for all the comments/questions.

    Before I get accused of having some kind of 'white blindfold' view of Islam, can I knock that one right on the head. I think my position should be clear given the positive things I've said about Durie's book on dhimmitude.

    However, Stark's book is another matter entirely.

    What troubles me?

    That Reformed Protestants are getting sucked into justifying Crusader theology.

    To justify the Crusades you would need to endorse:
    1. pilgrimages
    2. indulgences
    3. a mystical view of the city of Jerusalem.
    4. Christendom's role in defending Jerusalem.

    Stark's book does not make that clear enough because he as dismissive of the 'religious revival' theory motivating the Crusades as leftish Secularists.

    While most conservative evangelicals would see the problem with point 2 (indulgences), I am somewhat troubled by the revival of #1,3&4 in contemporary protestant Christianity and what that means for international relations.
  • David Palmer
    June 3, 10 - 12:57am
    Gollywogs Jeremy,

    What does this mean?

    While most conservative evangelicals would see the problem with point 2 (indulgences), I am somewhat troubled by the revival of (pilgrimages, a mystoical view of the city of Jerusalem and Christendom's role in defending Jerusalem - OK I
    may understand this one) in contemporary protestant Christianity and what that means for international relations.

    I simply can't imagine any reformed Protestants getting into Crusader theology whatever that is, and I am known to trawl a number of the confessional Presbyterian websites with nary a whiff of Crusader theology. OK I might be missing it, but I'm very doubtful of that.

    I have all of Stark, Riley and Durie to read on the Crusades but am taking a sabbatical from all things Islamnic. Thank goodness! What was a good read, realing with a somewhat later period of history was Niccolo Capponi's "Victory of the West" which deals with the historic battle of Lepanto.
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    June 3, 10 - 4:11am
    1. American Christian Zionism.

    2. pilgrimaging to Jerusalem is becoming popular amongst African Christians... I think it may be influenced by the cultural influence of African Islam and the Hajj.