Interview with Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark,  Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University is a well-known scholar of religious history who has published over two dozen books. In his latest work, God’s Battalions, Professor Stark puts forth a controversial argument that the Crusades were a justified war waged against Muslim terror and aggression.

According to its publisher, “Stark reviews the history of the seven major Crusades from 1095 to 1291, demonstrating that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations, centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West, and sudden attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, Stark argues that this had nothing to do with any elaborate design of the Christian world to convert all Muslims to Christianity by force of arms. Given current tensions in the Middle East and terrorist attacks around the world, Stark’s views are a thought-provoking contribution to our understanding and are sure to spark debate.”

We interviewed Professor Stark by email:

The Crusades is a topic that generates a lot of books each year.  Why did you want to write God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades and what makes this book different from others?

Since my teens I have read a great deal of military history, but until now I had not written any myself. Along the way I read many books about the Crusades and in the past few years I have been greatly impressed by the work of historians such as Jonathan Riley-Smith and others including Thomas Madden. Unfortunately, these wonderful new studies have not reached the intelligent reading public. Nonsense about Crusaders as greedy, colonizing, brutal barbarians still prevails in the public sphere. So, I wrote a chapter on the matter as part of a proposal for a book on anti-Catholic historiography. My publishers responded that they wanted that chapter expanded into a book. So I did it.  What makes my book different is, first, that it pulls together the scholarly literature (all of it carefully acknowledged) in one volume written for the general reader in hopes of setting the record straight. Secondly, my book begins in the seventh not the eleventh century, since I regard the Crusades as part of  many centuries of conflict between Christendom and Islam. Thus far there have been four major book club pre-publication adoptions, so maybe God’s Battalions can have some corrective effects.

In recent years, there has been a lot of changes in the popular view about the Crusades – for example there are movies like Kingdom of Heaven which negatively portray the religious fervor of the Crusaders, and we have also seen various Christian groups ‘apologize’ for the acts done in the Middle Ages.  Meanwhile, in Islamic world, a notion has recently emerged within popular culture that sees the Crusades as a key part of the downfall of classical Islamic civilization and as part of West’s continuing attempts to suppress Muslims in general.  Why do you think that these views about the Crusades have become so prevalent in recent years?

It would take a long essay to explain why Western intellectuals have promulgated so many fraudulent charges against the Crusades and, indeed, against the legitimacy of  Western civilization in general. Anti-Catholicism played a role, having shaped so much false history by British and American historians in past generations. Certainly anti-religion has played an important role too. The false, but plausible seeming, assumption that the Crusades were an instance of colonialism was critical, both as a source of  Western guilt and as an excuse for Muslim “backwardness.”

One of the premises of your book is that the Crusades were a reaction to what you describe as “Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places.”  As a scholar of the Crusades, I disagree with this idea – for the most part Islamic expansion had ended by the middle of the eight century, and for the next three hundred years, warfare between Christian and Muslim states was motivated by political relations and not necessarily religious reasons.  It was not even uncommon for Muslim and Christian kingdoms to be allies and co-exist peacefully with each other.  Moreover, the bulk of the people who took part in the First Crusade seem to have little or no knowledge of who they were actually fighting, and simply saw them as random pagans. With this in mind, I was wondering how you came to your conclusions that somehow the Crusades were “a justified war waged against Muslim terror and aggression”?

The conflict with Islam surely had not ended by the eighth century-although the conquest of the Middle East and North Africa was over by then. Warfare continued in Spain, often quite intensively, until the end of the fifteenth century. A war of reconquest raged in Sicily and Southern Italy until only a few years before the start of the First Crusade. And the initial call from Emperor Comnenus for a Crusade was prompted by an invasion of  Seljuk Turks who had driven to within 100 miles of Constantinople. It is all well and good to say these later wars were motivated by “political relations and not necessarily religious reasons.” No doubt all of the Muslim conquests had political aspects, but wars across the Christian/Muslim divide always had religious implications that usually did not apply to wars within each faith. To say that the bulk of those who took part in the First Crusade “seem to have little or no knowledge of who they were actually fighting” might apply to those who followed Peter the Hermit. But the real Crusaders knew rather a lot about whom they were fighting.  Many had relatives who had suffered or even died at the hands of Muslims while making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and a few had themselves been on a pilgrimage and had encountered Muslims at first hand. In addition, the Normans had recently beaten Muslims in Sicily and, even more recently, Bohemond had fought Muslim mercenaries hired by Byzantium.

The focus of your academic research is the sociology of religion and the rise of Christianity. I was wondering what you perspective might be on the religious revival that seems to have taken hold in Western Europe during the latter half of the eleventh century, which produced the mass movement of people known as the First Crusade, but also led to increased persecution and violence towards Jewish minorties and non-Catholic Christians?

I don’t see a religious revival as having taken hold in the latter half of the eleventh century. I have written at length several times about the many centuries (beginning in about 500 CE) of peaceful relations between Christians and Jews in Europe and the Church’s lack of concern about heresy during this same era. Both ended at the start of the Crusades, and I argue that the outbreak of anti-Semitism and heresy-hunting were a fallout of the conflict with Islam which magnified concerns about religious nonconformity on both sides! There were similar outbursts of attacks on Jews within Muslim societies. See my: One True God (2001).

We thank Professor Stark for answering our questions.

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