President Obama Compared Radical Islam to the Crusades. Here's Why He's Right.

President Obama Compared Radical Islam to the Crusades. Here's Why He's Right.
Source: AP
Source: AP

"The most offensive [comments] I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime."

It's a day that ends in the letter "Y," which means that President Barack Obama has once again had the temerity to state his opinion on matters of state, policy or religion, an action for which his Republican opponents have declared the pillory too light a punishment. 

In a speech Thursday at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, an annual brunch-and-prayer-a-thon coordinated by the Fellowship Foundation, a secretive Christian organization with Dominionist tendencies, Obama had the nerve to suggest that religious fundamentalism and violence is not solely the legacy of Islam, and that Christianity's past is just as checkered by acts of brutality and inhumanity in the ostensible name of faith.

"Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history," Obama said. "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. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Source: YouTube

Cue the freakout: The president's comments "goes further to the point that [Obama] does not believe in America or the values we all share," former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore told the Washington Post, arguing that Obama "has offended every believing Christian in the United States." His "ignorance is astounding and his comparison is pernicious," the Catholic League declared in a statement. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, deemed the remarks "an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison." Michelle Malkin, conservative commentator was a bit more direct direct: "ISIS chops off heads, incinerates hostages, kills gays, enslaves girls. Obama: Blame the Crusades."

Obama, those critical of the speech are suggesting, is condemning the wrong people. "The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians," Moore told the Washington Post. While Obama's remarks were intended to make sure "he is not heard as saying that all Muslims are terrorists," Moore added, "I think most people know that at this point." 

Too bad that's not true. According to a Gallup poll of Muslims sampled from around the world, more than half stated they believed Muslims in the West are not treated as equal citizens. Even when non-Muslims are asked about Islamophobia in the U.S., about half agree that "in general, most Americans are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans."

Source: Gallup

As for the contents of Obama's speech, they're historically accurate. Although Bill Donohue, the Catholic League president, cites 98-year-old Orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis in declaring that "the Crusades were a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages," the historicity of that statement is suspect. Although Lewis and some other historians see the Crusades as defensive war against jihad, others, such as Thomas Madden, have deemed the conflicts the machinations of a powerful Roman Catholic Church to expand Christendom.

In his seminal workThe New Concise History of the Crusades, Madden writes that the "crusade, first and foremost, was a war against Muslims for the defense of the Christian faith," and that the goal of Pope Urban II, the pontiff who initiated the First Crusade, was that "the Christians of the East must be free from the brutal and humiliating conditions of Muslim rule." In other words, the Crusades were arguably an attempt to use violence to expand the power and influence of the religion in a foreign land.

Does that sound familiar? It should.

The crusaders attack Jerusalem: Godfrey of Bouillon (Goffredo) has been wounded in the leg by an arrow: he breaks off the shaft but the learned Paduan healer Erotimus cannot remove the head. In this print, the angel who has fetched the purple-flowered herb dittany from Mount Ida in Crete descends and squeezes juice from the herb into a jar held by an attendant. Erotimus stands by with his surgical instrument. With the aid of the herb, the arrowhead will come out of its own accord. Right, Christian cavalry. Centre background, the Christian assault on Jerusalem. The image illustrates Episodes in Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso, canto XI, especially stanza 74.
Source: Antonio Tempesta/Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons

Which leads us to the Obama's real message: Not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all terrorists are Muslim. The reaction of the National Prayer Breakfast's attendees plays straight into the modern trope that extremists are only "terrorists" when they're Muslims. 

Despite assertions to the contrary by dimwitted breakfast television hosts, the vast majority of terror attacks in the West are perpetrated not by Islamist religious fanatics but by right-wing nationalists or separatists. What's that "vast majority," exactly? Around 98% in the European Union in the last five years. In fact, an FBI study analyzing acts of terrorism committed on American soil between 1980 and 2005 found more than 90% of terrorist attacks were perpetrated by non-Muslims.

The suggestion that Christians might also be terrorists has been anathema to religious conservatives in the West before. When Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 and wounded 319 in the deadliest peacetime shooting in modern European history, his 1,518-page manifesto made clear that the motivation for his attacks was rooted in anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiment: Norway's leaders "are committing, or planning to commit, cultural destruction, of which deconstruction of the Norwegian ethnic group and deconstruction of Norwegian culture. This is the same as ethnic cleansing."

The suggestion that Breivik was a "Christian terrorist," however, was deemed impossible by American conservatives. Bill O'Reilly called the description "outrageous." One commentator declared that Breivik didn't count as a Christian terrorist because his actions were "in no way prompted by any commonly held understanding of the teachings of Jesus."

If the hypocrisy of violence in the name of religion is enough to discount that person's faith from being considered as a motivational force behind said violence, then there are no such things as Muslim terrorists: There are more than 200 verses calling for compassionate living in the Quran, including for those of other faiths.

Fight in the cause of God those who start fighting you, but do not transgress limits (or start the attack); for God loveth not transgressors. — Quran 2:190

The truth is, Christians should embrace the faith's troubled history. No religion with a history marked in millennia can possibly hold up a pure moral slate under the scrutiny of modern scholars. Just as horrors have been committed in the name of Islam and Christianity, so too have crimes been perpetrated by those who justified their actions in Buddhism, or Hinduism or Judaism. 

But some of Obama's critics may have a point — the comparison between Islamic terrorism and the Christian justification for slavery in the U.S. isn't perfect. After all, the death toll from global terrorism since 2000 is estimated to be around 107,000 people.

The death toll for the Crusades? Three million.