Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month, President Obama addressed the challenges we face at a time where terrible acts of violence are, as he put it, “so often perpetrated in the name of religion”. His audience included lawmakers asked to authorize military action against ISIS, which has used the Internet to broadcast its now all to familiar acts of atrocity. The challenge of militant Islam hung over the room, and with good reason. In that context and in the spirit of Mathew 7:1 — Judge not, that ye be not judged — the president expressed these cautionary words, “Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Predictably, Republicans jumped on the president’s remarks culminating this past week in a venomous attack by former mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Leaving aside his (debunked by fact) code-tinged questioning of Obama’s love for America, Giuliani made this assertion: “Now we know there’s something wrong with the guy. I thought that one [the comment about the Crusades] sort of went off the cliff. What I don’t find with Obama…is a really deep knowledge of history. I think it’s a dilettante’s knowledge of history.” Really? Are we now to add Crusades denier, to evolution denier and climate change denier in the Republican songbook? “Dilettante’s knowledge of history”, wow!
Well here is what the late historian Edgar F. Johnson wrote in his two volume Introduction to The History of the Western Tradition. Johnson, a Christian, quotes a contemporaneous 11th Century source (page 490):
The amount of blood that they shed on that day is incredible…Some of our men cut off the heads of their enemies, others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers, others tortured them longer by casting them into flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city….Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.
This was the work of warriors sent forth by no less than Pope Urban II in the name of Christianity. Even so, we don’t assume that it represented the essence of Christian teachings and faith. Indeed, Jesus would likely have been appalled. For sure it doesn’t represent Christianity as we know it today or necessarily all Christians at the time. That said, it is eerily and shockingly similar in both deed and detail to what’s proudly claimed by ISIS. Hence, the reminder and a word of caution delivered at a prayer breakfast by a president who actually does have a sense of history. Speaking truth, however unpleasant and disturbing.
I am sure that people with Rudy Giuliani’s deep knowledge of history are likewise “scholars” of Islam and the Quran. From their careful and comprehensive study they know that ISIS and other militant fundamentalist are following the obvious intent, the only proper reading, of Islam’s teachings. Right. Does that make any more sense than to say those Crusaders, sanctioned by none other than the pope, were following the only logical read of Christianity? The Crusades are a dark chapter in Christian and world history. It is one that many Christians would like to forget, and understandably so. Is it credible to think that the violence done today in name of Allah is any more reflective of Islam and its traditions than were the Crusades of Christianity and its teachings? I don’t think so. Now this is not to suggest the religious fringe, across many faiths, cannot find textual justification for their deeds. Indeed many of the most brutal chapters of history relate to religious wars justified by selective reading of Scripture, but more importantly by a claim of possessing absolute truth. They act in the name of God, an assertion that I characterized in my book, as “the arrogance of attribution”. Claiming the one and only truth is always dangerous, and in fact can apply to atheists as well as those who profess a god-belief.
President Obama is being criticized in some quarters for not characterizing our battle against violent extremists as a war against Islam. Not only would it be a mistake to make such a blanket assertion, and an inaccurate one, but it should be noted that those who advocate it are not in office. Even George W Bush avoided depicting Islam as the enemy, if for no other reason than that we rely on alliances with Muslim countries in combatting extremism. The fallacy of tarring one religion with a broad and indiscriminate brush perhaps is no better illustrated than in the brutal murder of three young and very promising American Muslims — Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — just a short distance from my home here in Chapel Hill.
In this case, the killer who turned himself in is an avowed atheist. Whether it was a hate crime, as many of us fear it was, is yet to be determined. What we do know is that blanket hate for Muslims and their religion is in the air, heightened by conflicts in the Middle East and wide coverage in both traditional and social media of brutality carried out in God’s name. People like Giuliani, despite all their protestations to the contrary, add flame to that fire. His comments about Obama are not racist, he laughably claims, because the president had a white mother. That surely proves it. In the same vein, how could one possibly hate Muslims when they were born in America and speak such perfect English? Did Craig Hicks target these young people, as opposed to his other neighbors with whom he had similar “parking” disputes, because Yusor and Razan wore traditional hijabs? Time will tell, but you may remember that in the aftermath of 911, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turban wearing Sikh, was killed in front of his Arizona gas station because he was erroneously thought to be a Muslim. Blanket and misguided hatred does that. As a Jew, I can attest to what it has done to my people, including during those Crusades referenced by the president at the prayer meeting.
We are living in troubling and dangerous times. And, yes, as Obama’s caution suggested, we all live in “glass houses”. A medieval pope unleashed religious warfare and horrendous barbarism in sending forth a murderous mobs clad as soldiers. In this century, we have a pope who speaks of serving the poor and calls for humility. A violent but, relative to the many millions who follow Islam, small Muslim fanatical fringe group are proving once more how monstrous humans can be. They claim to be doing their evil in Allah’s name, But concurrently a young Muslim dental student living the peaceful university town of Chapel Hill spends his spare hours providing help to the disadvantaged here and in far flung lands. A gentile life driven by his faith, snuffed out by, at best, irrational misplaced hatred. ISIS and Deah Shaddy Barakat; does one speak for Islam and not the other? How we view the two and what we attribute to them and their religious beliefs says everything about who we are. It also says a lot about history, the kind Barack Obama knows and that the Rudy Giuliani’s of this world can only distort with their ignorance or self imposed blindness — sitting on their high horses.