That’s what was reported by an Algerian worker at the gas plant where terrorists had taken hostages; “Don’t worry”, they told him, “As an Algerian Muslim we haven’t come to harm you – we’ve come to exterminate the crusaders!” And that statement says much about the messy situation between Muslims and the West at present. The extremists, and many other Muslims, interpret the western armies currently in their lands as a renewal of the old Crusades, with Christians again attempting to destroy Islam by war.
We westerners don’t see it that way; to us, the western armies, including the Brits, are not Christian Crusaders at all, but the armies of pluralist democracies defending ourselves against terrorists and if anything defending the freedoms of Muslims. But it’s understandable that Muslims misinterpret the situation. Take the UK; we have a national established church whose earthly ‘supreme governor’ – the Queen – is also the head of our state and the effective Commander-in-Chief of our armies. It is all too easy for Muslims to see the Queen as the equivalent of a Muslim ‘Caliph’ – a religious head of a religious state – and therefore see her country’s armies as Christian armies pursuing Christian aims. America may not have an established church, but is nevertheless a largely ‘Christian’ nation, very vocally so among the Republican Right/Moral Majority wing of their politics, so again it can appear in Arab eyes that they are ‘Crusaders’.
So long as this mutual misunderstanding prevails, it’s hard to see how the West can win the various wars; our opponents cannot surrender what they see as Allah’s cause, and we can’t, compatibly with our own principles, just exterminate them. And anyway, killing them tends just to confirm their view of us, and convinces more and more Muslims to join the extremists.
There is another serious consequence of this. Many Muslim lands have Christian minorities. In theory, Muslims should be tolerant of Christians as fellow monotheists, but – quite logically – this doesn’t fully apply during war with Christian states. With Christian armies ‘crusading’ in Muslim lands, those Christian minorities can be seen as allies of the ‘crusaders’; and therefore as fit targets for persecution of all kinds. We occasionally hear of that persecution; including cases where Christians have been forcibly circumcised, and are then in a terrible position – they have not freely chosen Islam, yet if they return to practising Christianity, they will be treated as ‘apostates’ and may be subjected to the Islamic death penalty for apostasy[i].
Many of the Christians involved – those belonging to the various ‘Anabaptist’ groups, for example – would reject the whole idea of ‘crusading/holy war’, and even the idea of a ‘Christian country’; they haven’t the slightest intention of being ‘allies’ of the supposed crusading armies. Yet sadly they will still be persecuted, because the Muslims don’t understand that – Islamic thinking makes it difficult to understand a separation of religion and state. It is also the case that others of these persecuted Christians belong to churches which support the idea of Christian states, or even, as in the case of Anglicanism, are ‘established’ in some way in the western country where their denomination originated. I’m not going to say that such Christians therefore ‘deserve’ persecution – but I will say that it is understandable that Muslims interpret such Christian-country-minded groups as being allied with the ‘Christendom’ with whose ideas they agree.
Ironically, the supposedly ‘crusading’ West is also having trouble understanding the situation. We are so accustomed to our pluralism and democracy, with its freedom of religion, that we don’t easily grasp the idea of a religion and state being effectively one entity, so we can’t see the problem the Muslims have with us.
Disentangling the mess
In disentangling it’s a good start to admit that there is a tangle! Sadly neither politicians nor church people in the west seem to want to make that admission. Many don’t even appreciate the real nature of Islam; they don’t seem to realise that the idea of a unity of religion and state is built into Islam from square one, as is the idea of holy war. In the lifetime of Muhammad he both ordered and personally led military expeditions; exiled from Mecca he returned with an army big enough to scare the Meccans into surrender, to set up a Muslim state with himself as effectively king. It is significant that in Islam the big division is not over creeds and beliefs; Shi’as and Sunnis are divided over who, at a certain time, should have succeeded Muhammad as the ruler of the Muslim state. I will agree that many of the modern extremist Muslims are probably doing things Muhammad would reject; but the key ideas are deeply embedded in Islam and aren’t going to change. Muslims who try to go ‘back to basics’ will find that the totalitarian religious state, and war both to defend and expand that state, are among the fundamentals of their faith. It is a myth of political correctness that there are ‘good Muslims’ who have western values in such matters; such people do exist, but arguably they are not fully faithful Muslims, but Muslims failing to follow the original Islamic teaching. Because this is so, extremist Islam is not going to go away in a hurry.
Christianity is different; in Christianity, the totalitarianism and warfare are an alien graft, not going back to the original but only to over 300 years after Jesus. I once saw Nick Griffin in a party political broadcast for the BNP portraying the idea that Christianity started as a violent and intolerant religion like Islam but we wonderful British had changed it into the more tolerant body we know today; he couldn’t be more wrong! Christians who go ‘back to the Bible’ will not find instructions on setting up a Christian state, but teaching that ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (II Cor 10; 4), that Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18; 36) and instructions to ‘be subject to’ the governments of the various non-Christian states they live in (Rom 13; 1ff, I Pet 2; 13ff). They will find teaching that people become Christians by a spiritual rebirth beyond human power and legislation (John 1; 12-13), not simply by their natural birth in a supposedly Christian state. They will find the Church itself described as “God’s holy nation” – yet not ruling this world but living humbly in exile from their real home in heaven (I Pet 2; 9, 1; 1), and commanded indeed not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi – managers of other people’s affairs’ (I Pet 4; 15).
Nobody can be sure how things might have worked out if Muhammad had faced a Christianity still operating in that spirit; unfortunately he saw in Arabia only a somewhat heretical group whose ideas on the Trinity seemed pagan to him, and beyond Arabia a mainstream church which had changed drastically from the original after some 300 years of being nationalised into the Roman Empire and operating as the imperial state religion. So he rejected Christianity, while in the end copying the idea of a state faith using military means – well, maybe not exactly copying, just that he never seems to have seen any other model of Christianity to inspire him to act differently from pagan national religions.
Christians let Muhammad down at that time (and let themselves down if you think about it!) They continued to set Islam a bad example as they fought tooth and nail to hinder the advance of the Islamic empire, in Spain for example, and then actually attacked the ‘Holy Land’ in the era of the Crusades, whose atrocities are effectively coming home to roost as Islamic terrorism in the West. More recently the interference of ‘Christian’ states in the Middle East as colonial powers stirred up much resentment, and caused many Muslims to go ‘back to the Quran’ to seek Allah’s favour by being more fundamentalist. In particular arrogant handling of Palestine stirred things up. Essentially Britain promised the land of Palestine to both the Arabs (as led by Lawrence of Arabia) and the Jews in order to gain their support in the First World War (1914-18) and then muddled through till a rather disgraceful abdication of responsibility in the aftermath of World War II as immigration of displaced Jews to Israel grew and friction between Arab and Jew increased. The subsequent tendency for the US and UK to favour Israel stoked things up further. Then we became dependent on Arab oil and the balance changed, leading to a Muslim resurgence.
We – and I mean Christians, rather than the various states we live in – need to set straight the issue of the Crusades; indeed we need to firmly disavow the Crusades. We must also recognise that such disavowal won’t mean much unless we also disavow the ‘Christendom’ set up by Constantine, and all the subsequent variants – from Anglicanism and Lutheranism to Ian Paisley and his fellow Unionists in Ulster – which seek to give Christianity a special place in the state and inevitably lead to the idea that it is proper to set up ‘Christian’ states by force, defend them by force, and even use force to spread the faith. The Roman Catholic Church particularly needs to rethink. It was that church which actually sponsored the Crusades, and I seriously think that supporting the Crusades casts doubt on the fundamental Roman doctrine of papal infallibility; I mean, what real use is ‘infallibility’ which couldn’t recognise the total wrongness of the Crusades and of that warfare in the name of Jesus?? Where indeed supposedly infallible Popes personally promoted the Crusades? The RC version of ‘Christian country/establishment in the state’ is not quite like the Anglican or Orthodox or various other Protestant variants, but all lead to the same kind of position on the use of state power to defend religion. Only a Christianity separated from the state can be an adequate disavowal of the Crusades. And only a disavowal of the Crusades will enable us to counter Islam with a truly Christian alternative message. So actually we, even more than the Islamists, need to ‘exterminate the Crusaders’!
What?!! Are we to get an army together and start a civil war among Christians, killing those we disagree with? No, very much NOT! Our warfare, remember, is not with physical weapons. But we do need to clear that Crusading spirit, and its holy war ethos, from our churches.
Consider this; I don’t know what language was used by the terrorists themselves in Algeria, but that Algerian being interviewed on TV in French used the word ‘exterminer’, in English ‘exterminate’. Ironically this word originated in Christendom. It is derived from the Latin ‘ex terminis’ – literally ‘beyond the borders’. Originally that was what was supposed to happen to heretics – you exiled them beyond the borders, removing them from your ‘Christian’ society. The trouble was that the borders of Christendom were continent-wide, making exile difficult in practice, and gradually ‘extermination’ came to mean sending the heretics ‘ex terminis’ in a more absolute way, by burning at the stake or other forms of death penalty (drowning was particularly favoured to deal with Anabaptists). This was yet another way that Christendom distorts the original teaching, in which the Church was meant to live peaceably among their pagan neighbours, and those who were unacceptable to the church were simply excluded from the fellowship (and even then, with a hope of ultimate restoration); of course those excluded from the church would carry on living in the surrounding society.
And that is the kind of ‘extermination of the Crusaders’ that we need; not to kill them, but to simply exclude them from the church, to clear up the confusion that has existed since Constantine about the place of the church in the state and the association of the church with warfare. It won’t happen overnight, and it needs to be done in a Christian way, by loving persuasion, that recognises the good intentions of those we disagree with.
I’ll leave it there for now; obviously there’s a major discussion to be had about ‘the next step’ … blog readers please contribute ….
[i] Yes, another practice which Islam seems to have shared with ‘Christendom’. Jews or Muslims in Spain had often been coerced into accepting baptism, and then if they continued to practice their original faith, were treated as apostates to be burnt at the stake. Or indeed, having been coerced, they were simply never trusted by the surrounding ‘Christians’.