The history of the Crusades makes for sobering reading. The version told by Karen Armstrong is especially broadminded because, unlike most other histories, it is not told from the European-Christian viewpoint. Her thesis is that the present situation in the Mideast is a direct outgrowth of the Crusades. She bears out her thesis through a retelling of the story in even-handed detail, with emphasis on the leadership of both sides, showing how they came to be leaders and how their respective backgrounds shaped their policies.
Perhaps the most surprising of the many characters that pass through this bloody history is Saladin the Great who is depicted as fair, honest, cautious and smart. In 1187 he attacked Jerusalem, a European Christian outpost since 1099. But he did so with plenty of forewarning and only after a most generous offer: if the city allowed him in, there would be no bloodshed. The city declined the offer, but after a brief skirmish the city’s position was hopeless and it capitulated. Saladin entered the city, but there were no reprisals, and Christians found they could live side by side with Muslims, which they did for the next 800 years.
Saladin (Salad ad-Din means the Righteousness of the Faith) was the nephew of an aged but ferocious Kurdish commander—the Kurds have played a role in the Mid- East for over a thousand years—who became assistant to the vizier, or CEO, of Egypt. Two months later the vizier died of a heart attack. Saladin (he was not called that until much later) was chosen as successor and vested in much pomp and circumstance much against his humble inclinations. Despite the luxuriousness of his palace, he lived frugally, became devout, distributing “massive sums to the poor” and won the support of his people in Egypt and also of most of Syria, including the cities of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.
But Saladin resented the Franks (a synonym for Normans) who at that time held Jerusalem and much of Palestine. And so he raised an army and spent the next six years warring in a most chivalrous manner. Saladin eventually won the day, and when he took Jerusalem, he preserved the lives of all the Christians, taking great pains to protect the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He also made Jerusalem secure for Jews who were allowed to return to their holy city. His generosity was rewarded by successive crusades, none of which achieved their goal, yet planted a lasting animosity and distrust in the Arab world of European Christians.
The Crusades are our legacy. We continue to regard Muslims as inferiors, as potential terrorists, as uncivilized. Our vision is blurred. We little understand history. We suffer from short sightedness. We see a Mid-East in disarray and we want to go in and “fix it.” We have fixed Iraq and Afghanistan and now we want to fix ISIS. We may be the biggest boy on the street, but we are certainly not the world’s most popular fixer.
Recent history shows we tend to leave the place we wanted to fix in worse shape than we found it. If the plumber you called opens the wrong valve and a flood washes away your entire house, you probably won’t call that plumber again.
Uncle Sam, the unlicensed plumber, on call 24/7: we go where others fear to tread.