As a medieval historian, I’m struck by how similar the arguments being levied by U.S. politicians to argue for an assault on the Syrian government are to the arguments Pope Urban II used to justify the First Crusade at the close of the 11th century. And in drawing the parallels through to their conclusion, I’m concerned that if the U.S. continues to push for military action, it will lead to similar unintended consequences – namely, a hastening of the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East.
The marketing for the First Crusade had two components: (1) that it was the moral obligation of European Christians to defend the defenseless (in this case Christians in the Holy Land who were suffering daily on account of their faith); (2) that the Crusaders would prosper financially from their endeavor. Not only was this propaganda campaign based upon a series of deliberate fictions, but the outcomes of the Crusades were the exact opposite of what was promised—the local Christian community suffered mightily and Europe exhausted its financial resources trying to control the region. The current debate about American engagement eerily follows the same talking points.
Indeed, every advocate of Western strikes against the Syrian government predicates their argument on the basis of moral obligation. We must strike the Assad regime, they argue, to send a clear message that particular forms of warfare are not acceptable to the global community. Is the use of chemical weapons truly more “immoral” than what is being practiced by some factions of the Syrian resistance? Given that the situation there is so fluid, I see no reliable way to evaluate which side is pursuing its struggle more ethically. What is more, I fail to understand how a Western-led expansion of the cycle of violence will somehow bring moral justice to the situation. The great hypocrisy of the West’s attempt to play moral policeman for the rest of the world is that its heralded democratic freedoms were historically purchased by and remain sustained by violence on a grand scale. As a rule, Western governments rarely pursue the cause for human rights around the globe evenly. Rather, like the protagonists for the First Crusade, they act only when there is an economic or political objective that can be rhetorically dressed in the clothes of moral justice.
Why Syria or Iraq and not Sudan? Is there any doubt that the connection has something to do with an expectation of economic and political gain? But this, too, is part of the mythmaking that has sustained violence in the region for the better part of the last century. Since John Kerry first indicated that the U.S. was likely to strike the Syrian government a few weeks ago, oil has spiked and the global stock markets have fallen. It is difficult to see how Western military engagement would simplify the situation, stabilize the region, or permanently aid the global economy.
One aspect that has received little attention in the media and has been categorically ignored in the American political debate is the impact that any Western military strike will have on the indigenous Christian population. If there is anything that the disparate Christian communities of the Middle East can agree upon it is that they all suffer whenever Western armies make an appearance. This was as true in the 11th century as it is now. Scholars of the Middle Ages have written for generations about the negative impact that the Crusades had on the indigenous Christian community. The modern depopulation of Christians in the region has also been well documented. In some cases, like that of Turkey, the disappearance of Christians stems from pressure applied by local governments that hope to eradicate minority populations. But more often the root cause is more directly linked to sectarian violence against local Christians who, in the eyes of their neighbors, are linked to Western aggression. During the previous decade, violence against Christians in Iraq surpassed all historical measures—most Christians who survived the violence have since left the country. More recently, supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have disproportionately targeted the Christian minority in that country, in large part because they are falsely perceived by radicals to be in league with Western governments.
The potential extinction of Christianity in Syria is particularly troubling. Not only is Syria the home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world but its history offers an important counter example to the experience of Christianity elsewhere. Unlike its counterparts in the West, the Christian communities of Syria were never connected to imperial power, were never in possession of significant material wealth, and were never a majority population. Instead, they always existed as a minority religion in other cultures and they possessed no expectation of being otherwise. What is more, the history of Christianity in Syria provides some of the earliest surviving evidence of the Christian encounter with Islam, which predates the Crusades by hundreds of years. It was the Western colonization of the Near East that began during the Crusades and continued into the modern era that is largely responsible for the current Christian/Muslim discourse of mutual polemic. That polemic grossly distorts the conceptual possibilities of Christian/Muslim cohabitation. Syrian Christianity offers an alternative example. But what example can it offer in the future if there are no Christians remaining in Syria?
Image courtesy of Jan Smith.