Bernard Lewis gave a speech at the gala of the American Enterprise Institute on March 7. (He received the Irving Kristol Award on the same occasion.) In it, he borrowed almost verbatim from an article he’d published over five years ago in the Wall Street Journal, where he’d written the following:
“Crusade” still touches a raw nerve in the Middle East, where the Crusades are seen and presented as early medieval precursors of European imperialism—aggressive, expansionist and predatory. I have no wish to defend or excuse the often atrocious behavior of the crusaders, both in their countries of origin and in the countries they invaded, but the imperialist parallel is highly misleading. The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual response to the jihad—a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.
The day after the AEI speech, Neil King, Jr., in a blog at the Wall Street Journal, wrote an item entitled “Bernard Lewis Applauds the Crusades.” Lewis had done no such thing, and King ended up running a correction: Lewis, wrote King, “made the point that the Crusades, as atrocious as they were, were nonetheless an understandable response to the Islamic onslaught of the preceding centuries, and that it was ridiculous [for Pope John Paul II] to apologize for them.” That should have been the end of the story.
What did surprise me was Lewis’ denunciation of Pope John Paul II’s 2000 apology for the Crusades as political correctness run amok. This drew applause. Lewis’ view is that the Muslims started it by invading Europe in the eighth century. The Crusades were merely a failed imitation of Muslim jihad in an endless see-saw of conquest and re-conquest.
Were you to start counting the ironies here, where would you stop? Here was a Jewish scholar criticizing the pope for apologizing to Muslims for a holy war against Muslims, which was also a massacre of the Jews. Here were the theorists of the invasion of Iraq, many of them also Jewish, applauding the notion that the Crusades were not so terrible and embracing a time horizon that makes it impossible to judge them wrong.
The piece was accompanied by a less-than-flattering photo of Lewis. And in a gossipy audio “interview ” with Slate, Weisberg added this further spin: “What a bizarre turn of events, that the Jewish neoconservatives are now applauding a British Jewish intellectual, sort of minimizing the awfulness of the medieval Crusades.”
I suppose Weisberg hasn’t read any of Lewis’ works. If he had, he’d know exactly how Lewis has interpreted the Crusades. And given the nonsense that Weisberg has spread, it’s definitely the moment to reread Lewis on the subject.
Lewis certainly does understand the Crusades as part of a counter-attack or counter-offensive: a Christian attempt to retake those lands that had been lost to Christendom in the waves of Islamic conquest that began in the seventh (not eighth) century. This isn’t a new theme in his writings, but he articulated it best in his Tanner Lectures on “Europe and Islam” (here), delivered in Oxford in 1990:
In recent years it has become the practice, in both western Europe and the Middle East, to see and present the Crusades as an early exercise in Western imperialism—as a wanton and predatory aggression by the European powers of the time against the Muslim or, as some would now say, against the Arab lands.
They were not seen in that light at the time, either by Christians or by Muslims. For contemporary Christians, the Crusades were religious wars, the purpose of which was to recover the lost lands of Christendom and particularly the holy land where Christ had lived, taught, and died. In this connection, it may be recalled that when the Crusaders arrived in the Levant not much more than four centuries had passed since the Arab Muslim conquerors had wrested these lands from Christendom—less than half the time from the Crusades to the present day—and that a substantial proportion of the population of these lands, perhaps even a majority, was still Christian.
Lewis isn’t really interested in whether the Crusaders were more or less “awful” or “terrible” or “wrong” than other conquerors, ancient, medieval or modern. Any hack propagandist, movie maker, or Slate journalist can do that, for people who enjoy moralizing across millennia. Lewis instead seeks to instruct us, from the sources, as to how the Crusades were viewed by their contemporaries. Christians at the time saw them as a reconquest of their own lands, not as an imperialist intrusion into Islam’s privileged domain. (And Lewis goes on to note that Muslims didn’t see the Crusaders as much more than a nuisance, until they began to raid closer to their truly privileged domain, Mecca and Medina.)
As for the absurdity of the papal apology for the Crusades, the view arises quite logically from Lewis’ interpretation of the first millennium of Islamic-Christian relations:
For almost a thousand years, from the first Moorish landing in Spain to the second Turkish siege of Vienna, Europe was under constant threat from Islam. In the early centuries it was a double threat—not only of invasion and conquest, but also of conversion and assimilation. All but the easternmost provinces of the Islamic realm had been taken from Christian rulers, and the vast majority of the first Muslims west of Iran and Arabia were converts from Christianity. North Africa, Egypt, Syria, even Persian-ruled Iraq, had been Christian countries, in which Christianity was older and more deeply rooted than in most of Europe. Their loss was sorely felt and heightened the fear that a similar fate was in store for Europe.
The Crusades, Lewis notes, were “no more than an episode…. In the seesaw of attack and counterattack between Christendom and Islam, this venture began with an inconclusive Christian victory and ended with a conclusive Christian defeat.”
Given this context of repeated Muslim expansion, and the futile attempt of the Crusades to reverse it, Pope John Paul II’s apology does indeed appear ridiculous. (By the way, Lewis knew the pope, with whom he’s pictured on right.) If such apologies are in order, the Muslims owe them to Christendom for every Islamic conquest, beginning with the conquest of Christian Jerusalem in 637 and culminating in the conquest of the great Christian capital of Constantinople in 1453. And why shouldn’t Christians also apologize for the religious wars that ended the 700-year Muslim occupation of Spain and the 500-year Muslim occupation of the Balkans? Of course, such apologies would be absurd, but then so is the papal apology for the Crusades.
Lewis says so as the world’s preeminent historian of Islam, not as a “Jewish intellectual” or a “Jewish scholar,” somehow duty-bound to represent a “Jewish” perspective. It’s Weisberg who turns Lewis’ great virtue as a historian—that he views the sweep of history without parochialism—into a moral fault. Lewis, he seems to be arguing, should properly take a Jewish view. This is the sort of thing that people expect in Cairo and Tehran, but it’s a bizarre turn of events to see it echoed in America. If one is going to begin to pillory Jewish scholars for reaching conclusions that contradict some journalistic notion of the Jewish interest, it really would be impossible to count the ironies. Take, for example, Joel Beinin and Norman Finkelstein…
The bottom line here is that apologies for the Crusades are ridiculous, but Jacob Weisberg owes Bernard Lewis an apology. It’s owed not over his criticism of Lewis’ role in the gestation of the Iraq war (which Weisberg exaggerates, I think). All’s fair in politics. But beyond the vapid assumption that the Crusades were “awful,” Weisberg knows zip about their history. Lewis had mastered this subject long before Weisberg was born, and if Weisberg is incapable of acknowledging it, then he’s even more ignorant than he’s made himself appear to be.
And he owes Lewis a second apology for pigeonholing him as a “Jewish scholar” and “Jewish intellectual” in this particular context. I wonder how Weisberg would feel if his critics labeled him a “Jewish journalist” in every discussion of his professional work, and judged him by whether or not he had reached a “Jewish” conclusion. (Any perceived deviation would be marked as “ironic.”) I imagine he wouldn’t like it one bit. Is Weisberg clever enough to see that irony?
And for the record: Lewis is not a “British Jewish intellectual.” He became a naturalized American twenty-five years ago.
Update, March 21: The American Enterprise Institute has published Lewis’ full remarks. Here’s what he said about the Crusades—exactly in line with what he’s always said:
We have seen in our own day the extraordinary spectacle of a pope apologizing to the Muslims for the Crusades. I would not wish to defend the behavior of the Crusaders, which was in many respects atrocious. But let us have a little sense of proportion. We are now expected to believe that the Crusades were an unwarranted act of aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. Hardly. The first papal call for a crusade occurred in 846 C.E., when an Arab expedition from Sicily sailed up the Tiber and sacked St. Peter’s in Rome. A synod in France issued an appeal to Christian sovereigns to rally against “the enemies of Christ,” and the Pope, Leo IV, offered a heavenly reward to those who died fighting the Muslims. A century and a half and many battles later, in 1096, the Crusaders actually arrived in the Middle East. The Crusades were a late, limited, and unsuccessful imitation of the jihad—an attempt to recover by holy war what had been lost by holy war. It failed, and it was not followed up.