Karen Armstrong

Anchor Books (Random House), ISBN: 0385721404  PublisherBuy online

coverBritish theologian Karen Armstrong entered a convent at seventeen to become a Catholic nun. She defrocked in 1969 (this caused a great scandal among British Catholics, many have not forgiven her to this day). She has since become a student of the three great monotheistic religions, writing one bestseller on the subject, A History of God

In this book, she recounts the history of the Crusades and how it still shapes the modern-day Middle East. Interestingly, she tries to take a tripartite Christian/Jewish/Muslim view (more accurately, a quadripartite Catholic/Greek Orthodox/Jewish/Muslim view, but she herself writes about a “triple vision”). Most other accounts give short shrift to the Jewish point of view.

Even now, the subject is still fraught with passion and having an entirely unbiased view is difficult, but she does a good job of it in my opinion. Certainly, her assessment is quite critical of the Crusaders, but the only actors to which she is wholly sympathetic are the humanistic Byzantines, who were poorly repaid for their forbearance towards the Crusaders by the sack of Constantinople.

Her central thesis is that the Crusades were the crucible where the modern European identity was forged, and that unfortunately in the process it was alloyed with anti-semitism and a visceral hostility towards Islam. Her second thesis, somewhat less convincing, is that in the current Israeli-Arab conflict, both parties are consciously replaying the Crusades.

The convoluted politics of the Middle East, over seven millennia in the making, have a habit of tripping up overly simplistic analyses. The Lebanese master story-teller Amin Maalouf, in his excellent (but clearly not unbiased) The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, notes that shortly after the first crusade, an army of Christian and Muslim allies fought another such army in Syria.

The Crusades were clearly seen at first as a colonial or purely military venture by Arabs of all faiths, it is only later with the sultans Nasr-ud-din and Salah-ud-din (Saladin) that the war took on a religious significance. While Karen Armstrong does a good job of showing how the conflict progressively acquired the traits of a holy war, she is not as good at identifying the purely secular realpolitik that was pursued then as it is today.

All in all, for all its flaws, specially in the political analysis of the current situation, this is an excellent and thought-provoking book. Highly recommended.