Anthro Mini-Lecture: Religion and Violence (By way of the Crusades)

The Crusades are one of the most commonly cited examples of religious conflict. Even today, the Crusades still metaphorically stand in for any number of religiously-tinged battles, conversion endeavors, or various other political fall-out (I’m looking at you CNN). They are also often held up as evidence of the latent violence existing within religion itself (and specifically that of Christianity). But this popular use of the Crusades as a polemic device unfortunately both largely ignores the historical context within which the actual Crusades came about and oversimplifies the complex relationships of religion, identity, geography, and violence with somewhat reductionist arguments of ultimate evil, provocation, or manifest destiny. In many cases, such comparisons also seek to characterize Religion itself as inherently prone to violence. But they do so without equally acknowledging that the historical events and cross-cultural interactions that we call “religious violence” are proportionately influenced by numerous other factors.

This is not to say that religion was not involved in the Crusades. Certainly, it was. It is also not to say that the motivations behind the Crusades did not include religious reasoning. Clearly, they did. But the Crusades, much like many other instances of religious brutality, were not purely religious in nature. Instead, in order to further explore the reasons why tolerance and dialogue seem so much more difficult to establish and maintain when a cross-cultural encounter foregrounds religious institutions or beliefs, we must first dispense with the notion that religious violence and secular violence represent a mutually exclusive division.

Motivations for conquest and violence rarely have, at their roots, a single purpose and especially rarely a single purpose of faith alone. To better understand why “religious conflicts” appear far bloodier and far less amenable to peaceful negotiation, I find it best to orient the discussion towards a somewhat different practice; namely, that of attaching religious justifications to any number of material, political, or economic endeavors. In other words, to ask why religion lends itself so well to justifying violence. To that end, what I am actually arguing here is, that it is precisely the irrational, arbitrary, and absolute character of religious ideology that makes it useful for framing serious conflicts. When situations arise wherein neither side can get what they might otherwise reasonably settle for, religion is one method of ensuring that the claims of one side or the other must definitively and utterly end in defeat.

It is important to note that the modern popular conception of the Crusades is that of a series of religious wars over the control of Jerusalem principally fought by armies of regionally indigenous Muslim peoples (read: “innocent”) against invading European Christians (read: “raping and pillaging”). While this conception reveals a lot about our current religious stereotypes and ignores the prior history of Asian and European conquest that preceded it, it also fails to acknowledge that the Crusades were a kind of cultural era in their own right. Conquest-minded excursions to the Holy Land certainly characterize much of the historical literature of this time but we must remember that the time of the Crusades also included multiple anti-heretical military campaigns throughout the European continent as well, such as the persecution of the Albigensians in the 1140s and the Waldensians around 1170, the Medieval Inquisition, and the establishment of the Crusader States. However, I will focus here specifically on the centuries-long Muslim-Christian conflict over Jerusalem given the number of detailed written accounts available from the time and its more explicit status as a distinctly cross-cultural conflict.

In his translation of the Arab Histories of the Crusades, Francesco Gabrieli relays the account of a witness to Saladin’s beheadings of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller during the Third Crusade, saying: “I saw how he killed unbelief to give life to Islam, and destroyed polytheism to build monotheism, and drove decisions through to their conclusion to satisfy the community of the faithful, and cut down enemies in defense of friends!” (2009: 139). While the narrator in this case is referring to the purging of Christian forces following the reconquest of Jerusalem his writings reveal something of the zero-sum nature of religious ideologies in war-time settings. Only a few paragraphs earlier, Gabrieli had also noted that Saladin wished to “purify the land of these two impure races” and that it was better to have them “dead rather than in prison” (2009: 138). This all-or-nothing approach to occupation and subjugation (either truly by Saladin’s strategy or by its interpretation), to the consolidation of secular authority (even if over religious rivals), is not only highly effective in securing victorious outcomes during conflict, it also reflects Saladin’s larger motives; motives which notably did not generally hold out religion at the forefront. Amin Maalouf explains that “Saladin was strongly influenced, especially at the beginning, by the imposing stature of Nûr al-Din, of whom he strove to be a worthy successor, relentlessly pursuing the same objectives: to unify the Arab world, and to mobilize the Muslims, both morally, with the aid of a powerful propaganda apparatus, and militarily, in order to reconquer the occupied territories, above all Jerusalem” (1984: 180). The moral/religious justification for such acts as the beheadings of the Knights Templar served the larger goal of Muslim unification, conquest, and cultural dominion, a dominion here that was founded on notions of cultural solidarity and geographic purity. Interestingly enough, this sense of solidarity and purity is shared equally by Saladin’s Christian adversaries.

The medieval prelate and chronicler, William of Tyre, also writing at the time of the Third Crusade, often expounded on the sacrality and purity of geographic places such as the Holy Land. In his account of the capture of Jerusalem he goes on at some length about the direct lineages of Jewish custom to Christian revelation and thus, the legitimacy of Christian claims on the relics and landscapes of Biblical locations. He even goes so far as to claim the land of Jerusalem as the Promised Land (land promised by God to the descendants of Jacob) itself: “This region lies practically in the center of the Land of Promise, according to the description of the boundaries thereof, which reads as follows: From the wilderness and this Lebanon, even unto the great river, the river Euphrates…and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast”” (1943: 346). This conceptualization of Jerusalem as a religious birthright (though one promised to the Jews specifically, and later appropriated by Christians) is ostensibly the driving force behind Balian’s fortification of the city as described in Gabrieli’s work when he states that “the inhabitants of that region, Ascalon and elsewhere, had also gathered in Jerusalem, so there was a great concourse of people there, each one of whom would choose death rather than see the Muslims in power in their city; the sacrifice of life, possessions, and sons was for them a part of their duty to defend the city” (2009: 140).

The duty to defend the city as Gabrieli relates is not simply framed as a duty to hold out against a counter-invading military force but a duty to ensure the purity of resulting power; power coded as Christian or Muslim. This coding of secular political authority through a specifically religious identity then has the effect of once again precluding any possibility of negotiation or power-sharing. In the eyes of these adversaries, one exists only at the expense of the other. While some scholars might argue that Saladin’s forces constituted an inherently religious authority, I tend to disagree on this point. This is mostly because, historically speaking, neither Saladin nor many Muslim rulers before him strove to impose wholesale systematic conversion to Islam globally, opting instead to consolidate power under Muslim character but allowing for the presence of various kinds of religious difference within their purview (a definition of “secular” still common to parts of the Middle East and Asia today). But by re-imagining the Crusades here as a pointedly religious strife, the discord becomes no longer a problem with a solution but a conflict with an outcome.

Since each side has, at its core, a desire for political conquest and economic spread, this kind of absolute religious ideology involving zero-sum control and an appeal to certain kinds of mutually-exclusive identities also acts particularly well to rally soldiers, garner supporter aid, and define victory only in terms of complete annihilation (of oneself or of one’s enemy). This is because that, while Jerusalem was certainly the emotional and spiritual focus of the Third Crusade, there also existed the problem of unified Egyptian and Syrian forces under the command of Saladin now almost literally at the door of a fractious Europe. Following the failure of the Second Crusade, Europe rightly feared eager expansion from the East.

The historiography of the Crusades is precarious in that many historians have viewed the events beginning in 1099 and even into the 1400s and 1500s through the prism of their own religious beliefs and political leanings. Framing the Crusades either as the imposition of Christian ideology on a subjugated people or as a force for good in defense of the Christian faith against Muslim conquerors brings forth much later tensions regarding Colonialism and Imperialism in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. This reframing unfortunately then tends to obscure the contextual and historical effects of the defeat of the Byzantium Empire by Muslim forces in 636, the ebb and flow of Arab and Christian trade all the way up to 1072, the continued expansion of the Ayyubid dynasty, an aggressive and reformist papacy in the West leading to the East-West Schism in 1054, and the growing tensions between monarchical authority and papal authority throughout the early parts of the Middle Ages (Hindley 2003). Each of these events and many more created the backdrop by which religion was employed. In some cases, religious ideology is leveraged as a way to explain the need for peace, cooperation, or separation. But in many other cases, essential religious incompatibility is the method by which political conflicts are sold to the populace; an absolute difference in service to a desire for an absolute victory.

I do not mean to imply here that the application of religious motives to any number of political or economic tensions automatically removes any chance of power-sharing or peaceful co-existence but that the arbitrary boundaries and all-or-nothing characteristics of religious identity, notions of purity, and God-ordained rule are particularly useful to certain groups when two or more opposed sides find themselves at an impasse.

To the reasoned mind, Dallmayr’s notion of multicultural dialogue; an engagement that, instead of opting for radical separation “blends otherness with a non-assimilative dialogical engagement (which grants the other room to “be”)” (1996: 32), might seem to hold out hope that more understanding across religious boundaries could increase tolerance or that “agonal interdependence” (1996: 33) might additionally foster a mutual care for life but these approaches to cross-cultural encounters often take the foregrounding of religious difference as the prime motivation for conflict in-and-of itself. For a number of reasons, I do not.

Instead, I consider that the key to unraveling religious violence lies in understanding the ways in which political, material, and economic tensions give rise to situations by which zero-sum religious ideology becomes attractive. In short, instead of asking how ideology incites violence, I ask at least as much how violence recruits ideology and more specifically, why religion lends itself particularly well to this kind of recruitment irrespective of nonviolent or peaceful doctrines. Finally, while I don’t have the space here to address each way in which religious ideology can and has been applied to historical conflict (but I am thinking of the way Western media talks about ISIS right now), suffice it to say that the Crusades are still very much with us both in terms of cultural continuity and in metaphor. In the end, the tension lies not only in Augustine’s pronouncement of the Just War, the situations by which the peaceable believer must rise up against sin and impurity, but in the idea that what we might truly need to face is really, just war.