Thomas Asbridge discusses the history of the Crusades

National Public Radio (NPR)
SHOW: Talk of the Nation 3:00 AM EST NPR

Thomas Asbridge discusses the history of the Crusades



This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.

Most Westerners take the word `crusade’ to mean almost any kind of
long, difficult struggle. As we saw from the reaction when President
Bush spoke of a crusade against terrorism three years ago, the word
has a much more specific meaning to most Muslims. Westerners remember
the Crusades as medieval knights riding off on a holy mission to
liberate Jerusalem. Muslims learn about massacre, plunder and
subjugation by Christian invaders. In the West, the Crusades are
dimly remembered history lessons; for many Muslims, they form the
central part of a narrative that describes centuries of warfare and
hatred. In a new book about the First Crusade, historian Thomas
Asbridge tries to explain who the Crusaders were, what inspired them
to mount an enormous expedition to the Middle East, and how they not
only survived but won against tremendous odds. He also talks about
how something that happened 900 years ago can affect events to the
present day.

Later in the program, a moment in baseball history as Barry Bonds
swings for 700, and Friday night football games are back on in Boston
for the first time in almost 50 years.

But first, the Crusades. If you have a question about why the first
one began and how, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is
(800) 989-8255. That’s (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is
[email protected].

We begin in the year 1095 when Pope Urban II issued a call to
liberate the holy land. Thomas Asbridge joins us now from one of the
BBC studios in London. His book is “The First Crusade: The Roots of
Conflict Between Christianity and Islam.”

And it’s good of you to be with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. THOMAS ASBRIDGE (Author, “The First Crusade”): Thank you.

CONAN: It’s critical to remember that the events you describe come
some 400 years after Islamic armies exploded out of Arabia and
established an empire that swept around the Mediterranean from the
gates of Constantinople in what’s now Turkey down through the Middle
East, across North Africa, north into Spain and Portugal. Weren’t
Muslims and Christians enemies before the First Crusade?

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Obviously there’s a prehistory of some forms of
conflict between these two worlds, but I guess one of the most
important things that I try to put across in the book is that I think
before the First Crusade took place, the nature of their relationship
wasn’t particular, wasn’t peculiar in any way. They weren’t, if you
like, enemies from birth. They cooperated sometimes as diplomatic
allies. They fought sometimes as enemies, just like any nations do
who live side by side. In my mind what changes at the time of the
First Crusade is a new element is written into their relationship,
and that’s an element of, if you like, enmity and anger and hatred
based simply on religious difference.

CONAN: So it became what was before a, you know, sort of natural
struggle between different powers became an ideological or religious
struggle afterwards?

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Yes. I think that’s–it’s particular really to, A, how
the idea of the Crusade was launched, and, B, what actually took
place in the Crusade, the really horrific levels of violence that
were carried out by the Crusaders.

CONAN: Well, take us back then to Pope Urban II, a pope, well, in
those days quite different from the pope we see now, and not really
in command of a unified church at all.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Yes. Urban was in a particularly unusual position,
really. He came to power a few years before preaching this Crusade,
and he really was in an incredibly weak position. He didn’t even have
control of Rome. You know, the very capital of the pope’s power, he
didn’t even have that. So the preaching of the Crusade for him really
is–it’s designed to fill lots of different roles. One of his key
ideas, I think, with the Crusade is to reassert the idea that the
papacy, that the pope can command the Christian world, can say what
is right, what is wrong for Christians to do. What he comes up with
is this idea of a new type of war, a war that’s not just gonna be
something that God sort of turns a blind eye to, that says, `OK, it
has to take place. This war is sinful but, you know, it has to be
accepted because it’s necessary.’ This Crusade is a different species
of violence. In this occasion, the pope says basically, `If you go to
this war, God is demanding that you do it, and not only that, he’s
gonna reward you. He’s gonna cleanse your spiritual sin and lead you
to heaven.’

CONAN: I thought one of the most interesting parts of your book was
your delving into the issue of how a church with a pacifistic
doctrine–you read the New Testament, it’s hard to come up with the
idea that Jesus will, you know, back you in terms of organized state
violence–and went from that to this idea of, well, you describe it
as an armed pilgrimage.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Mmm. Yes. I mean, I have to say that when I first
became interested in the Crusades many years ago now–I started as a
school boy. I fell in love with this subject when I was just 16 years
old. And even then I started to ask questions about this concept. How
could Christianity have an idea of holy war? Not just war, but holy
war? It’s important to realize, however, that it’s not as if Urban
literally woke up one morning and sort of said, `Eureka! I’ve come up
with this great new idea, suddenly violence is OK.’ He was actually
building on a very slow, gradual process of accumulated thought that
had taken place over six to 800 years, crucially as Christianity was
melded and connected with the Roman Empire, the period of time of the
fall of the Roman Empire.

The ideas of Christianity were changed crucially by somebody who has
a very large imprint on the history of Christian thought, a man
called St. Augustine (pronounced Augusten), or St. Augustine
(pronounced Augusteen), I guess you would say in American form. And
St. Augustine basically recodified the idea of violence. He started
to say that violence could in some way be just. He said that on
certain circumstances it could be acceptable if still sinful. What
Urban then did is take an extra step beyond that and sort of
reclassify this violence as even more acceptable, as actually holy
and sanctified.

CONAN: Hmm. Yet that’s a long way from there to, you know, sending
tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people on an invasion of
the Middle East.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Yes. I mean, we have to look at what techniques Urban
used, and I think there’s many solitary lessons here on how
propaganda really doesn’t change over the centuries. I mean, we’re
talking about something that was 900 years ago, but the same kind of
images, the same kind of ideas are used to mobilize people. What
Urban does is he says basically, `Jerusalem’s been taken, the most
holy site on Earth.’ I mean, if you’re a Christian in the Middle
Ages, the idea of Jerusalem, the place where Christ had lived and
died and been resurrected, there was no holier place on Earth.

Urban basically rewrites the news, if you like. He basically says,
`Jerusalem’s fallen. We’ve got to do something about it.’ And his
problem is that this is not exactly hot-off-the-press news. Jerusalem
had fallen more than 400 years earlier. So he can’t claim that this
is a new injury, that suddenly–you know, it’s not like 9/11 has just
taken place in the 11th century. He can’t suddenly react. So what he
starts to talk about is how inhuman these Muslims are that now have
control of Islam. He starts to describe in really, really gruesome
detail some of the atrocities that they’re carrying out. He accuses
Muslims of dragging people around rooms by their entrails. I mean, it
really gets very, very graphic.

CONAN: Was any of this true?

Mr. ASBRIDGE: No. No. Basically–I mean, the reality on the ground in
Islam in the 11th century is, as I said, there’s some conflict,
there’s some diplomatic negotiation, there’s some–you know, there’s
normalized relationship on the whole. Certainly Islam–I mean, 11th,
10th, even before that, have been–as a religion has been
exceptionally tolerant as comparison to Christianity. They allow
Christians living under their rule to worship. They’re not abusing
Christians or even pilgrims on a wide scale at this time. And so what
Urban’s doing is playing a game of propaganda. He’s trying to ignite
a fire under Europe, and he’s exceptionally successful.

CONAN: We’re talking with Thomas Asbridge about his new history of
the First Crusade. You’re invited to join us, of course, (800)
989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is [email protected].

Let’s talk with Alex, who’s on the phone with us from St. Louis,

ALEX (Caller): Yes.


ALEX: Hi. I’m delighted that you guys are having this conversation. I
think it’s a very stimulating topic. I wanted just to comment on the
Crusades. I was thinking of this a week ago in class. I’m a
medievalist, and I was–you know, the Crusade, the First Crusade, and
especially the later one, in the end, what they accomplished in the
few ones that the Europeans actually won, was territory and conquest
of territory for second-born children of noble families in Italy to
exploit. And that was basically all that was conquered and most–you
know, a strong motivation to go into the Crusades was that there was
some territory to exploit, some booty to be acquired at some point.
And I wanted also to say that the violence, imagery that the church
provided, just as you guys were saying, well, was for the majority
just fiction.

CONAN: Yeah.

ALEX: I mean, we just need to look to the Ottoman Empire, if nothing
else, to see that Christians and Jews could live in harmony with
Muslims. Obviously the Ottoman Empire was a Muslim…

CONAN: Well, Thomas Asbridge, let’s go to Alex’s first point. What
was it that motivated the Crusaders? Was it plunder or piety?

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Well, I guess what Alex is getting at has been a very
strong current of thought for historians over the last 50, even 100
years. It’s bee, I guess, one of the great debates: What caused a
hundred thousand people to suddenly decide to leave their homes and
travel 3,000 miles? Now what Alex is presenting is, I guess, one side
of the argument, the idea that plunder, that booty, that greed is the
motivating force.

I think we have to realize that the medieval people had the same
brains inside their head as we do. They had many of the same
emotions. They were complex human beings, and I wouldn’t like to
characterize an 11th century man or woman as a simplistic person, as
someone who has, you know, a very basic, individual set of

Having said that, I think there are elements of greed, but I have to
argue very, very strongly that piety’s an incredibly powerful
motivating force for the Crusaders. We see time and again through the
course of this expedition that what really makes a difference for
them is their belief in what they think is Christian action. We might
think of it as horrific, as something that should be condemned, that
is totally unholy. But for them, what they’re engaged in is a holy
war, and it is cleansing them of sin. It is getting them a place in
heaven, and that, I think, is the most powerful motivator.

CONAN: Alex?

ALEX: Yes. Well, I didn’t want to interrupt. I wasn’t saying that
everybody had that kind of motivation at all. I’m just saying that
was part of it. In fact, if we consider what Europe was in–I mean,
Christian unity unified Europe under Christian religion was not
achieved if we want to really look at it closely until the 13th
century. So obviously these people, you know, had to have some other
kind of motivation. I’m not saying that everybody did, but evidently
there was that kind of element. That’s all I have to say.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Alex.

Thomas Asbridge, you point out in your book that this–the depth of
this belief, not just in the power of the pope to make it possible
for you to expunge your sins, but also in the power of saints and
relics and that sort of thing. This was not confined simply to the
common people. This was something everyone believed.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Yeah, absolutely. We shouldn’t imagine that this was,
you know, the opiate of the masses. This was just, you know, an idea
of religion, common religion for the poor. These ideas about
sanctified violence, about the cleansing of sin, and even as you say,
the power of saints and relics, stretched all the way from pauper
right up to prince and to pope, of course. And so it’s widespread
throughout the armies. You know, as Alex was saying, there are
certainly individuals that we can pick on that we might say had
acquisitive motivations, but even they show elements of extreme piety
from time to time. So I think we have to realize that it’s an ongoing
and very powerful force during this expedition.

CONAN: We’re talking today with Thomas Asbridge, senior lecturer in
medieval history at the University of London. His new book is “The
First Crusade: A New History of the Roots of Conflict Between
Christianity and Islam.” If you’d like to join us, our phone number,
(800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is [email protected].

When we come back from a short break, we’ll talk about the pivotal
military contest in the First Crusade, the siege of Antioch and, of
course, about the repercussions of the First Crusade, which continued
to affect our world today.

I’m Neal Conan. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.
We’re talking with author and medieval scholar Thomas Asbridge about
the First Crusade, a conflict he says started nearly 900 years ago,
still reverberating today. If you have questions about the origins,
the meaning or the echoes of the First Crusade, give us a phone call,
(800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is [email protected].

And, Thomas Asbridge, you write a great deal, and justly so, about
the pivotal struggle in this–military struggle in this conflict, the
sieges, I guess is the best way to put it, of the city of Antioch.
Going back to this idea that the Crusaders’ idea of what they were
fighting about, talk to us a minute. They were stuck in this city of
Antioch, under siege, during an awful winter in I guess–What?–1096.
The number of their army dwindled–What?–from 30,000 to about
10,000. How did they cope with that?

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Well, I think there are a number of factors going on at
this point, and we’ve got to admit that some of them didn’t cope with
it. Some of them literally ran away. There was even–they even got
the nickname at one point, known as the rope danglers because so many
of them were hanging ropes off the walls and climbing down and then
running off.

The key moment, I guess, that you’re alluding to is a rather strange
period in the history of the Crusades. What happens is the first
Crusaders spend almost a year trying to break into this massive city
of Antioch. They manage to do it after, you know, sort of pretty
hard-fought assault. But then they’re trapped themselves. They’re
actually then surrounded by an advancing Iraqi army, and that this is
when they actually reach their lowest point. I think no one can argue
really when looking at the Crusade that this is the turning point.
This is the moment when they could have been completely obliterated
or they’re gonna find their way to eventual victory.

Now one of the most complex aspects of the book, and I guess one of
the most controversial aspects of it in many ways is that I’ve tried
to re-examine what took place in these crucial weeks, this four weeks
when they’re basically being absolutely bludgeoned by this Iraqi
army. And they’re terrified. There’s no question about the fact that
they’re terrified. Traditionally, historians have always argued that
one thing alone got them out of this hole, and that was the discovery
of an incredibly powerful relic, something actually that had touched
the flesh of Christ himself. Now this was what’s known as the holy
lance, something that was discovered by a peasant who’d claimed to
have a series of visions of St. Andrew and was shown where this holy
lance was buried.

Now the traditional story has been that upon the discovery of this,
literally the Crusaders were filled with a kind of renewed and
overpowering sense of God’s belief in them, God’s sanction, and
almost literally–you know, you’re left reading some of the sources,
left with the image of them sort of sprinting from the discovery of
this lance straight out of the gates and into battle.

What I’ve tried to do in the book in, as I say, a quite convoluted
and, I think, perhaps quite controversial discussion is to re-examine
this and say, in fact, what happens is that two weeks take
place–after the discovery of this lance, there’s an interim period.
What I’m arguing is, in fact, we’ve misjudged the sources. What we
see from Arabic sources is that the Crusaders actually tried to
surrender in this period. Only when the surrounding Iraqi force
refused the surrender, only then with their backs absolutely against
the wall, did these Crusaders decide that they had to fight.

Now what happened subsequently is that they decided to march out
against an army that outnumbered them perhaps 6:1, and in their minds
miraculously they won this extraordinary victory. Because of that,
later memory recodified what took place, if you’d like. We’re now
talking about an imagined history of these events. And the idea of
this lance as the all-powerful totem that won this victory becomes
engrained in history. I think the reality is that, yes, there’s very
strong piety, but they’re also real human beings. It’s very important
to me as a historian to touch these people’s minds, to try to
understand them. Not as just two-dimensional characters, but as real
people, and I think they’ve got a mixture of emotions. They’re filled
with fear and they’re filled with piety.

CONAN: And it’s interesting. The way you describe it as terribly
violent as it was, and Antioch was hardly the worst of it, much worse
was yet to come in the siege of Jerusalem and when the Christians
finally went over the walls there, but it was the sort of revised
history after the First Crusade that really led to this idea of
enmity between these two peoples.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Yes. I mean, if there’s one fact that makes the First
Crusade more important than anything else, it’s trite to say it, it
sounds so basic, but it’s the fact that it succeeded. If the First
Crusade had failed, I am absolutely convinced that the idea of
crusading would have petered out, that it would have died, that it
would have had very little impact upon history. The fact that this
expedition against all the odds succeeded sends a very dramatic
message back to the Christians in the West. It says God really was
behind this, the pope really was right. I mean, God wanted this to
work. For the next 200 years there are a succession of Crusades
preached and launched, and none of them succeed. Basically for the
next 200 years it’s a complete catalog of failure.

But on the other side of the fence in Islam, a very, very deep-seated
memory is ingrained and utilized. Again, it’s utilized in the Islamic
world as a propaganda tool. The idea that what the Crusaders did when
they took Jerusalem was to unleash an unholy wave of violence. Right
at the start of the hour you talked about the levels of violence in
Jerusalem. Some of the eyewitness sources describe people wading
ankle-deep in Muslim blood. They’re talking about babies being
slaughtered, their heads smashed against walls. I mean, it’s the most
gruesome stuff. When I’m teaching this to students, I can hardly
bring myself to describe these things, they’re so abhorrent. And this
left a very, very deep scar in the collective consciousness of Islam,
and it’s proved to be, I think, a lasting and very powerful image in
the Muslim world.

CONAN: Let’s get some more callers on the line. And we’ll talk with
Ara. Ara’s with us from Athens, Ohio.

ARA (Caller): Yeah, I just have a question about the Christians that
were living in the Holy Land and Syria and Lebanon at the time of the
Crusades. And I believe they were living under something called
dhimmitude–basically, second-class citizens. They were people of the
book, according to Muslims. But they weren’t infidels because they
believed in God. What was their role in this and how did they receive
the Crusaders who essentially, I believe, were also liberating them.
I personally kind of am a little emotionally involved in this whole
discussion because I’m Armenian and my ancestors come from the Middle
East, and I never really grew up thinking that, you know, the Middle
East was a tolerant haven for Christians because, you know, there was
the Armenian genocide during World War I and–you know? So I’d just
like your opinion on that.

CONAN: Thomas Asbridge?

ARA: I’ll take it off the air.

CONAN: Thank you. Thanks for the call, Ara.

ARA: Thank…

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Sure. I mean, there seem to be two strands, I guess, to
Ara’s question. One is, what was the status of Christians–indigenous
Christians, I guess you could call them–living in the Middle East?
Certainly they were, in some sense, living under a situation where
they were second-class citizens. Many Christians had to pay what we
would call a poll tax. They had to pay a sort of particular rate just
for living, just for existing. And they weren’t allowed to achieve,
you know, the highest roles in administration, to climb the ladder,
if you like, in their lives and in their careers. But they did have
rights to worship. And if we compare levels of tolerance, what’s
happened before with Islam and what happens in the future with
Christians, Christian attitudes toward Muslims, I think Islam still
comes out as the more tolerant of the two societies over a 3- to
400-year period.

The second strand of the question, I guess, of what did these
Christians–and there were many of them living in these areas, in
these cities, in these lands that the Crusaders came to–is quite
interesting, because initially they saw them literally as the
saviors, if you like, you know the saving nation, the saving grace
that would come and release them from Muslim servitude. But what
actually happens in reality is, within sometimes in the case of only
a few months, certainly within a few years, Eastern Christians,
Armenians start to realize that these Western Christian rulers are no
better–in many cases, actually much worse–than the Muslims. And
they start to rebel against them; they start to try and seek
alliances with Muslim powers nearby. And so really their lot has not
been massively improved. But initially at least, they do show signs
of being quite cooperative and quite strong allies to the Crusaders
when they first arrive.

CONAN: E-mail question from Linda Blazev(ph)–I hope I’m not
mispronouncing that too badly. `Could you ask your guest about the
distinctions between the Western church and the Easter Orthodox
Church? The Eastern Church, I understand, was appalled to see the
monk soldiers, and this idea of holy war was a product of the Western
Church, not the East. Also, the Western armies plundered the churches
of the East and removed many precious icons and relics from Eastern
churches. Am I correct in this understanding?’

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Yes. I mean, on the second part, it’s certainly true to
say that many relics were taken. I mean, harking back to an earlier
point that we were already talking about–plunder and motivation of
Crusaders. The reality or an interesting statistic or an interesting
detail to bring about the Crusaders is we have no record of anyone
coming back from the Crusade laden down with riches, literally with
gold or silver or any kind of precious goods. All we have are records
of people coming back with relics–lots and lots of relics. So there
is no question, I think, that they took many precious spiritual items
with them. Many of them were discovered not even in churches but in
other areas. And perhaps Linda’s referring also forward to another
Crusade. When she’s talking specifically about the Eastern Orthodox
Church, she’s perhaps talking about the Fourth Crusade, which led to
the sack of Constantinople, the head of the Byzantine Empire.

But in terms of differences, in terms of different approaches to the
idea of religious violence–yes, I think we have to acknowledge that
the idea of a Crusade was, at this point at least, a distinctly
Western Christian or what we might call technically a Latin or a
Roman approach to the justification of violence and its
sanctification. But it would be misleading, I think, to say that
right from the start the Eastern Church or the Byzantines looked at
it and were appalled. In many ways, in truth, the First Crusade began
as an alliance between the Byzantine world and the Western world. And
the Byzantine emperor was very pleased, in many ways–at least
initially–to see these Crusaders and to be able to use them to his
own ends. So, you know, I don’t think we should support the idea that
the Eastern Church was horrified by the concept.

CONAN: What about–obviously, as the Crusaders approach Jerusalem and
Antioch, the other cities–there were many battles along the
way–what did the Muslims think, what was going on?

Mr. ASBRIDGE: In many ways, I think they’re shocked. I think–it’s
not, surprisingly, by the violence, but they’re also shocked and kind
of bewildered by what’s taking place. Their recent contacts, in terms
of contacts with a neighboring power, have been with the Byzantines,
been with this Eastern Orthodox Church; have been very much based on,
yes, interaction in terms of some intermittent fighting but also, as
I said before, in terms of negotiation and sort of equilibrium, if
you like. Suddenly there’s this invading force.

And we see in the written records on the Arabic side that initially
there’s misunderstanding. Is this just some Byzantine advance force
that’s going to sort of come and go very quickly? Can you deal with
these people? Can we negotiate with them? And to start off with, they
really don’t know what to do. And one of the main, if not the main
reason why the First Crusade succeeds so spectacularly is because
Islam doesn’t get its act together. It doesn’t unite; it doesn’t
present a unified force or reaction to the First Crusade. They just
literally don’t realize what’s happening quick enough to resist them.

CONAN: And therefore their armies come at them piecemeal; they are
defeated, as military writers like to say, in detail, as opposed to
presenting a unified front.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Precisely. Yeah. And that’s absolutely essential for
the success of the First Crusade. If Islam had been united, I really
have no doubt that the Crusade would not have got anywhere near as
far as it did.

CONAN: Let’s get another caller on the line. This is Doug. Jug’s
calling from–Doug is calling, rather, from Sacramento, California.

DOUG (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. Very quickly,
bringing this to the modern day, are Muslims taught about the
Crusades from the other side, from their side? And if so, what are
they being taught? And the other part of it would be, is there any
correlation in their minds between the Crusades and the modern
concept of jihad?

CONAN: I love Doug’s question. Nine hundred years went by! Go ahead.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Well, on the question of how much do people in the
Muslim world know about the Crusades, what do they learn about
it–yes, I mean, it plays a part in the education system, but I also
think we have to recognize the very, very strong, powerful
propagandistic message that the Crusade carries with it. The Crusades
are used and the period of the Crusades are used over and over again
by Muslim rulers in the 20th century and into the 21st century–and
from quite different backgrounds, ideological backgrounds. People
like Assad, who was a ruler of Syria, was very, very keen to equate
himself with one of the great Muslim heroes of the crusading era, a
man called Saladin.

Likewise, Saddam Hussein in Iraq was absolutely obsessed with
Saladin, this figure who nearly a hundred years, 90 or so years after
the First Crusade, avenged the assault on Jerusalem, retook the city.
And he’s been held up in the 20th century as the great hero of Islam.
Saddam Hussein even went so far as to, you know, have himself, his
head, pictured next to Saladin’s on postage stamps in Iraq, on
banknotes, and all of this while sort of conveniently forgetting the
fact that Saladin was actually a Kurd. He kind of, you know, put that
to one side and embraced the idea of this great crusading or
anti-crusading hero.

So I think it does a play a prominent part in the collective memory
of the past that’s current in the Muslim world. And I’ve certainly
felt that anecdotally when I’ve traveled throughout the Middle East.
You talk to people on the street–this is a current subject for them.
This is something that they still feel and they still feel quite
emotional about.

CONAN: Let me just interrupt for a moment to say that you’re
listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Thomas Asbridge, go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Sure. I guess leading on, though, into this question of
jihad, how is it linked–the idea of jihad, the idea of an Islamic
holy war, does predate the idea of crusading. We can’t twist the
facts here in any way. We have to accept the reality that from its
birth, Islam was a religion that had some form of violence encoded
into it. Mohammed, the prophet of the Muslim religion, did prosecute
wars to retake Mecca. This is part of the Muslim way, if you like, to
some extent. But the idea that Islam was, you know, a fantastically
violent and aggressive religion across the centuries before the
Crusades just doesn’t hold water.

What’s really happened is the idea of jihad has gone to sleep, and
crusading brings it back to life, reinvigorates it and gives it a
much greater prominence in the Muslim world. Now the way it links to
the modern world is that the people who are issuing calls to jihad,
people like Osama bin Laden, even people like Saddam Hussein, as I
was just mentioning, are very keen to present the idea that there’s a
direct line linking what took place 900 years ago and what is taking
place now. They want to present the West as being engaged in an
ongoing crusade. And as you mentioned right at the start of the
program, the fact that President Bush used the word `crusade’ just
after 9/11 was a very unfortunate circumstance. It just reinforced
everything that propagandists have been saying in the Muslim world.
So the idea that jihad can be pushed on by the idea of crusading and
the link of history is very prominent.

CONAN: Doug, thanks for the phone call.

DOUG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We just have a little bit of time left with you, but I did
want to extend that idea. As you look at the two concepts of crusade
and jihad, the idea of fighting for a celestial reward seems central
to both.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Yes, I do, I agree. I think it is significant that
there’s a linkage between these two things. I would emphasize,
however, that I think the Christian creed of crusading has a slightly
different balance to it, if you like. It’s much more predicated
around the idea of sin. Everyone who’s taking part in this Crusade in
the 11th century, this First Crusade, is weighed down with the idea
that they are completely and utterly besmirched with sin, that they
are going to go to hell because of all the things they’re doing in
their life, things that are completely unavoidable. Particularly if
you’re a knight, you’re going to be carrying out acts of violence in
your day-to-day just being a knight, carrying out your knightly

Because of that, they’re looking for a way out. And the Christian
version of this idea of holy war is all about balancing out that sin,
of cleansing that sin, and then finding your way to heaven. The
Islamic version is a little bit more distanced from this idea of sin
and reward of sin. It is more a direct journey, if you like, to the
gates of heaven.

CONAN: Thomas Asbridge, thank you very much for being with us today.
We appreciate it.

Mr. ASBRIDGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Thomas Asbridge is a senior lecturer in medieval history at
the University of London. His book is “The First Crusade: A New
History the Roots of Conflict between Christianity and Islam.”

When we come back from a short break, Barry Bonds and baseball
history. He’s swinging for 700. And why the Friday-night lights are
back on in Boston after almost 50 years. It’s TALK OF THE NATION from
NPR News.