Posts Tagged ‘Crusades’

Do Devotion and Brutality Go Together?

September 17, 2008

First, let me quote a passage. Then you try and guess what it refers to. And then we will talk about it together.

A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of the Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts. And they cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them as they lie prone on the ground with all their entrails out. What shall I say of the appalling violation of women, of which it is more evil to speak then to keep silent?

On whom, therefore, does the task lie of avenging this, of redeeming this situation, if not on you, upon whom above all nations God has bestowed outstanding glory in arms, magnitude of heart, litheness of body and strength to humble anyone who resists you.

Let me pause here while you reflect on what this is all about.

Is this for real?  Is this some madman frothing at the mouth?

Hold your breath. The year is 1095; the place is Clermont, France; the speaker is Pope Urban II.

This was the speech that launched the First Crusade as Pope Urban “called upon Catholic Europe to take up arms and prosecute a vengeful campaign of reconquest, a holy war that would cleanse its participants of sin” with the promise “that those fighting as ‘soldiers of Christ’ would be purified by the fire of battle.”

Pope Urban’s impassioned description of the barbarity of savage Muslims propelled “some 100,000 men and women, from knight to pauper, to take up the call – the largest mobilization of manpower since the fall of the Roman Empire” – and march 3,000 kilometers to Jerusalem “leaving the air afire with their battle cry: God’s will! God’s will.”

This is the quote that begins the remarkable and highly acclaimed account of the First Crusade by Thomas Asbridge (The First Crusade: A New History, Oxford, 2004).

And here is Thomas Asbridge’s punch line on page 3 based on his meticulous research:

The image of Muslims as brutal oppressors conjured by Pope Urban was pure propaganda – if anything, Islam had proved over the preceding centuries to be more tolerant of other religions than Catholic Christendom.

And here is the psychological puzzle:

How could the crusaders demonstrate a capacity for “intense religious devotion” as well as “appalling brutality” at the same time?

Why are these things relevant for us today?

Because nothing much has changed except the geography. In an earlier post (How Far Behind is South Asia?) we had estimated that South Asia was about 150 years behind Europe as measured by material development indicators. But when we look at it from the perspective of mental attitudes could we say that the gap is as much as a thousand years.

Here we are almost 1,000 years after 1095 and we have Osama bin Laden telling the same types of exaggerated untruths about Christians and Jews and an army of believers willing to blow themselves up for the cause – intense religious devotion mixed with appalling brutality.

And what about the amazing happenings of the 1947 partition of British India? Neighbors who had coexisted for decades suddenly decided to demonstrate devotion to their faith by massacring those belonging to a different one. Is that how one shows devotion to the truth? (See the excerpt from Urvashi Butalia’s book in the post Ghalib- 8 and read Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.)

There is always someone inciting people to a holy jihad and there are always followers available to answer the call mixing intense religious devotion with appalling brutality.

Why are people so ready to be conned so easily? How come people see devotion in brutality? Any answers?

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