On presidential howlers, omissions and distortions

Christendom today is awash in critical-thinkers and detractors and doubters and exegetes and blasphemers.

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a much ballyhooed National Prayer Breakfast speech last week, US President Barack Obama warned that when it comes to radical Islam, Christians must not be smug about their misplaced claims to the high moral ground.
“Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition” he noted, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Of course, the president isn’t necessarily off mark on that count. However, while the president’s claims regarding Christianity’s evils are not untrue, historically speaking, there was something disturbingly misleading in his moralizing across the millennia. At best, such hackneyed sloganeering, bereft of historical context, was grossly uninformed, perhaps even willfully clueless.
At worst, the president might have been a voluntary victim of inelegant theological apologia that may not belong in the politicians’ ken.
Besides the fact that the Inquisition, the Crusades and other Christian horrors and their perpetrators would have been condemned by modern Christian authorities were they to take place in our time, the president’s analogy was historically and theologically clumsy, and ultimately misleading. But then, little else in America’s behavior on the international stage of late has deviated from this presidency’s trademark incoherence.
Whereas radical Muslims and radical Christians may share many attributes in common, there is much in their respective creeds and behaviors that sets them worlds apart. For one, empirically speaking the conduct of Christians across the centuries meting out violence in the name of religion was in contravention of Christian texts and the teachings of Christ, not in accordance with them. That much may not be said with regard to Islam. Indeed, the violence perpetrated by Muslims through the ages can fairly be said to be in accordance with – not in breach of – the texts of the Koran and the hadith. After all, the Messenger of Allah was at once preacher, apostle, judge, tax-collector, warrior and military commander who both killed and was wounded on the battlefield. The historical Jesus, on the other hand, was a simple preacher who taught and lived a “pacifist” creed. In fact, most scholars are in agreement as to the foundational “pacifism” of Christianity textually speaking, even if it has not always been practiced. Conversely, pacifism can be said to be incomprehensible from a Muslim doctrinal and empirical perspective.
The Crusades, observed leading Medievalist Thomas F. Madden, before having been inaccurately reframed by post-colonial theorists as some early stirrings of modern Western imperialism were Christian “attempts to halt the inevitable expansion of Islam.” Likewise, he claimed, they were until the twentieth century “virtually unknown in the Muslim world.” Indeed, noted Madden, the Crusades were strictly speaking, and from a strictly Christian devotional perspective, legitimate Christian defensive wars waged against conquering Muslim intruders, part of a medieval world that is very different than our world today. Christians saw crusades to the east as acts of love and charity, waged against Muslim conquerors in defense of Christian people and their lands. For their part, medieval Muslims had no understanding or interest in the Crusades.
Preeminent historian of Islam Bernard Lewis concurs, noting that from a Christian perspective the Crusades were just and justified defensive wars, waged by a Christendom under attack by a triumphant Islam. In that sense, Christians took to the East, claimed Lewis, in an – ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to retake by force Christian lands that had once been theirs, and which were wrested from them during the seventh century Muslim conquest. Outside of this axiom, very little – including President Obama’s hokey claim – can be deemed more than literary flourish, anachronism, politically correct platitude and post-colonialist banter that cannot stand the scrutiny of the historical record.
This is not to suggest that the politics of the Crusades were uncomplicated, that the Crusading movement was under divine command, or that the Crusades were hallowed and pure and devoid of corruption, malevolence, expediency and impiety – in other words bereft of “human” failings. This is only to suggest that reflecting on the history and impetus of the Crusades, as President Obama attempted to do, requires nuance and context and thoughtful mining of contemporaneous sources, not restating modern third-worldist post-colonialist tropes, or engaging the exasperating and ultimately condescending language of political correctness that stifles debate and stunts robust critical thinking.
Islam is hurting today. It is also hurting itself and others. But its wounds are in the main self-inflicted; the savagery it is meting out – on itself and others – is of its own hands’ weaving. Thoughtful Muslims are speaking out, in very strong terms, against the evils being done to them, and in their names, by way of their creed’s teachings. They are calling for robust, merciless introspection.
They are advocating for unforgiving exegesis.
They are proposing the abrogation of problematic texts and unsound teachings. President Obama’s prevarications and rhetorical evasions unfortunately contribute to thwarting these reformers’ efforts. His insistence on the politically correct practice of denigrating Christianity, or comparing Christianity of a millennia or more ago to the ailing Islam of today, so as to better – or more equitably – engage a criticism of Islam, is not only political and moral cowardice, it is indeed a condescension toward Islam and Muslims fighting and dying for reform.
The president, his advisors and speech-writers would do well to recognize that Christianity and Christendom are not the creed under scrutiny today; that the genocidal bigots of our times are, in their own words, true Muslims who claim allegiance to a pure, pristine form of Islam, not to Christianity. And so the president’s painful analogies drawn between the Church of a thousand years ago and the Islam of today are false and misleading, both historically and theologically speaking. It bears repeating that the crimes committed by Christians in the name of Christianity contravened the creed’s teachings. With Islam things may be otherwise.
Likewise the Church that produced the Crusades, the Inquisition and anti-Semitism also brought forth vigorous exegesis, self-criticism, introspection, humanism, pacifism, secularism, the Age of Enlightenment and the separation of Church and State – in addition to Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Francis of Assisi, and many others.
Christendom today is awash in critical-thinkers and detractors and doubters and exegetes and blasphemers.
It is high time for President Obama and others endowed with his moral and political authority to lend their voices and their un-coded language to those decent courageous Muslims literally dying to engage the reformation of their faith.
The author is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. He is series editor of Lexington Books’ The Levant and Near East; A Multidisciplinary Book Series, founding editor-in-chief of The Levantine Review, author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The Case for Lebanon (Lexington, 2010), and the forthcoming Charles Corm: Poet, Humanist, Entrepreneur, Patriot; An Intellectual Biography (Lexington 2015).