Saturday, June 04, 2011

Rethinking the Crusade environment in the light of the Arab Spring

Anyone who has been paying close attention to recent Arab uprisings against corrupt governments has been getting a crash course in what is unrevealingly called "sectarianism." What this term describes, or obscures, is the fact that the Middle East, which many of us visualize as Muslim, full stop, is actually made up of various religiously-defined communities, some non-Muslim, some generally accepted as Muslim, others claiming to be Muslim but regarded with a great deal of suspicion by other Muslims.   See this article on the Syrian situation.  Without re-reading the post, I can tell you what stuck with me:  Although Syria presents itself as something of a secular state, all Syrians together, and all Arabs too, there is a great fear of other "sects" resulting in a willingness to believe the worst of them.  Many Syrians fervently want to believe that they are and can be all Syrians together, but do they dare lower their defenses?  The well-documented fear of instability is easily justified by reference to what happened in Lebanon and Iraq when a long-standing modus operandi or religious truce broke down, and various parties grabbed for power out of greed or self-righteousness or perhaps mostly insecurity.  And of course that fear of instability comes close to being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 (And the other thing that stuck with me from recent reading about Syria is the fear and loathing that so many have for the idea of an Islamic Republic; as logically follows.)

Well, I knew about many of these internal religious divisions, but hearing people discussing it NOW, and urgently, has made a big impact on my effective understanding of the "Muslim Middle East," to wit, I now think a lot, in the front of my mind about the fact that however important Islam has been in the Middle East since the 7th century, and however sweeping the claims various Muslims have made, and whatever wishes for an Islamic society have been wished, it's always been at least this divided.  The divisions haven't always been active, but like so many fault lines in an earthquake-prone region,  they've been there.

Think about the religious history of the United States, as another instance.  So many people think it can or should be summed up in a phrase.  How wrong they are.

So what does this have to do with the Crusade era, which I will again be teaching in the fall?  I will have to think about something that Christopher Tyerman has said in a couple of places -- that the rulers and political and military actors "on both sides" were immigrants or recent descendants of such.  And if religious justifications for their actions and regimes were important (if not always appealed to), it is just wrong, wrong, wrong to attempt to explain the developments of the era merely by casting it as two religiously homogenous societies battling it out.  Even if that was the way some contemporaries, and influential ones at that, visualized reality.

It will be a challenge to strike the right balance.

Image:  The Assad family, late 20th century -- Syria's most famous Alawis, a term you should look up.


  1. I was struck by this autobiographical passage in "The Black Swan", a book on statisical theory by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who was born in the Lebanese village of Amioun. Taleb describes his homeland before the civil war: "People felt connected to everything that was worth connecting to; the place was exceedingly open to the world, with a vastly sophisticated lifestyle, a prosperous economy, and temperate weather just like California, with snow-covered mountains jutting above the Mediterranean. It attracted a collection of spies (both Soviet and Western), prostitutes (blondes), writers, poets, drug dealers, adventurers, compulsive gamblers, tennis players, apres-skiers, and merchants --- all professions that complement one another. Many people acted as if they were in an old James Bond movie, or the days when playboys smoked, drank, and, instead of going to the gym, cultivated relationships with good taylors." He remarks that most of the exiles during the early days of the civil war kept bags packed to return, as they assumed it could only last a few weeks. He also remarks that few people had considered the possibility of conflict between Muslims and Christians, because the bulk of disputes had always been been between and among different sects of either, rather than between to two religions.

  2. Anonymous6:37 am

    it is just wrong, wrong, wrong to attempt to explain the developments of the era merely by casting it as two religiously homogenous societies battling it out

    I have certainly seen this done and agree with you that it's wrong, but I have also seen (perhaps especially in Jonathan Phillips's work on the Latin East) a portrayal of the wars in the Holy Land as being two relatively religiously homogenous subsections of the Christian and Muslim societies battling it out, which given the marginal rôle of Eastern Christians in the politics of the Crusader States, and the lack of anything other than a reactive rôle for groups like Druze and Shi'a in the Islamic world, Assassins (arguably playing a very long defensive game where attack was a primary form of play) excepted perhaps, has always seemed to me fairer. Especially on the Western side, the weirdest thing about Crusader warfare a while ago started to seem to me to be the very very small number of people involved in it in such a populous and hotching society.