What Did Obama Really Say About the Crusades?

"Muslims truly sympathetic to terrorism break down into two groups. The first are people who know the Islamic political narrative much better than Barack Obama does..."

Crusades art, "Saladin and Guy" by Said Tahsine (1904-1985 Syria)  (Wikimedia)

Last week President Obama spoke about faith, doubt, violence, and extremism, and was roundly criticized by many conservatives for what they saw as the "anti-Christian" tone of his remarks. In an earlier item I explained why I thought Obama was being historically realistic rather than anti-anything in talking about the violence carried out in the name of the Inquisition and the Crusades. In a series of posts, most recently here, Ta-Nehisi Coates has gone into the speech controversy in detail.

Now three reader responses. First, from Joseph Britt in Wisconsin, who argues that in one way the speech was more effective than generally noticed, and less so in another.

Did you notice the reference to India, in the same paragraph as the now-famous invocation of the Crusades?  I wonder if that was not so subtle that its import might be missed by everyone -- which of course would make it not subtle but merely obscure.

[JF note — here is that passage:

"And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation." ]   

One of the most important and dynamic relationships the United States has in the world today is the one with India, and some of that dynamism derives from the still-new Modi government and its policy agenda, thought to promise accelerated economic growth in this enormous country.

I don't think Obama or John Kerry have forgotten the dark stain on Modi's political resume:  the horrifying Hindu assault on Muslims in Gujarat scarcely a decade ago, in which Modi was (at a minimum) an unhelpful figure and very likely complicit.  This could not have been a mere academic point Obama was making -- a Modi government that allowed (or incited) from New Delhi anything like what Modi's government did in Gujarat would create more problems for us than we can even think of right now.

The second note is about the consistency of Obama's musings on the Crusades with past efforts he and his predecessor have made to signal that American opposition to terrorism does not mean opposition to Islam.  The Crusades, of course, are an important part of the Muslim Arab political narrative, and on this point Obama was anything but obscure.  The problem with his signal, I think, is not that it does violence to history but rather that it will almost certainly prove ineffective.

Muslims truly sympathetic to terrorism -- which, practically speaking, means a subset of Arabs, West and East Africans, Pakistanis, Afghans and Central Asians -- break down into two groups.  The first are people who know the Islamic political narrative much better than Barack Obama does, and will not be impressed by one sympathetic reference to one part of it in a speech in Washington unless they can turn it to their advantage.  The other are young Muslims whose ear Obama does not have; they will get their interpretation of historic narratives from people who share their faith....

So the Crusades are all very well, but in the here and now Islam as a religion certainly does have a problem with terrorism.  Obama does no good by fudging this, and allowing (for example) those Pakistanis Husain Haqqani is always writing about or Gulf Arabs who embrace the world economy while slipping money to ISIS under the table to cite the American President's agreement with a historic narrative about "Crusader" crimes against Muslims.

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Second, from a reader in Seattle, responding to a quote from a comment by Jim Gilmore, former Republican governor of Virginia, that Obama “has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

I am always interested when someone (usually a man) claims to be speaking for all Christians.

Mr. Gilmore is entitled to his opinions about his faith, and entitled to his opinions as to what constitutes defamation.

He is simply not entitled to include anyone else in his opinion as to what Christians feel about Mr. Obama's statements, and he's not entitled to include anyone else as to what Christians think about defamation.

I've been a believing Christian for decades. Part of my Christian faith includes knowing about my faith and knowing about the history of my faith.

It has not been uniformly representative of the Kingdom of Heaven as wished for by my Lord Jesus. Where we ask daily for His will to be done and his Kingdom to come, Christians throughout history have done reprehensible things that are more reflective of the great satan himself, from the religious wars in the early centuries down to the Holocaust, slavery, and even homegrown Jim Crow.

Yes, Christians have done good deeds as well. We can acknowledge both--Christians have done good things and have also done evil, both in the name of Jesus.

There is nothing unChristian or defamatory towards Christians and Christianity in admitting our past. It is what it is. It can teach us that people will use anything to justify their evil actions, and the more holy the reasoning, the more likely it will be used.

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Now, from a reader who I think is based in Europe, on how I am missing the point:

I much appreciate your defense of what President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast, as well as your support for leaders who remind us of such truths and complexities, which are of actual and substantial practical value in the real world....

However, I feel you skirt, perhaps by design and intent, a significant aspect of these attacks on President Obama. Is not saying “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States” not really, primarily, of a piece with the never-ending right-whinge effort to cast President Obama as “the other?”

You are a model of measured decorum (I often wonder if this is simply your natural state, a habit acquired through practice, or if you actually have to continuously work at achieving this, because you find it never gets easier.) on subjects I myself am much prone to wax on passionately. I admire, even occasionally envy, you, for that.

But I wonder if there is not, in fact, a time and a place for the ad hominem attack, when it is not only deserved, but also effective, perhaps more so than the measured response?  When even the response of a “leading conservative intellectual” (Who, I’m resigned to conceding, from all evidence, is actually a leading conservative intellectual.) amounts to ... “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”  And I find myself wanting to respond all the more vehemently for its “intellectualism.”

Do you believe that decorum is always the best and most effective form in debate, Mr. Fallows, when debate has consequences in the real world, and perspective dictates actions which have material effect on actual human beings?

That's not a question to be dealt with right now. Or rather, that I've been trying to deal with in 40 years of writing for this magazine. More anon.