Hilaire Belloc’s study of the Crusades provides a unique and fascinating look at the relation of military and spiritual forces. To read him today is almost like reading current history.
"Of course this (attack on World Trade Center) is 'about Islam.' The question is, what exactly does that mean? For a vast number of 'believing' Muslim men, 'Islam' stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God, but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include ... a more particularized loathing and fear of the prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken over — 'Westoxicated' — by the liberal Western-style way of life.... The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries' freedom will remain a distant dream."
— Salman Rushdie, The New York Times.
"Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline (as in the West); and in the contrast between the religious certitudes still strong throughout the Mohammedan world, as lively in India as in Morocco, active throughout North Africa and Egypt, even inflamed through contrast and the feeling of repression in Syria — more particularly in Palestine — lies our peril....
"These lines are written in the month of January, 1937; perhaps before they appear in print the rapidly developing situation in the Near East will have marked some notable change. Perhaps that change will be deferred, but change there will be, continuous and great. Nor does it seem probable that at the end of such a change, especially if the process be prolonged, Islam will be the loser"
— Hilaire Belloc, The Crusades.(1)
"Islam is the most dynamic force today because, unlike other major religions, it hasn't succumbed to secularism. It doesn't divide human life between the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the totality of human existence. Only Islam is the route to victory."
— Mahmoud Ahmad Ghazi.(2)
On Thanksgiving, 2001, a Vatican security advisor fretted about a potential assassination attempt on the life of the Holy Father. The Pope was said to be "the symbolic head of the crusaders and a natural target." Corriere della Sera has reported at least three attempts on the Pope's life in the past five years, one of which involved a suicide bomber, trained in United States flight schools, who tried to crash a plane into the Pope's car in Manila. (3) Thus far, of course, such predictions have not materialized though they must be taken seriously.
We do not know whether the reason for no further attack on American or Western targets after September 11 (this is written December 19) is that the swift response of the West has immobilized hostile forces or whether it is just a question of waiting for a more opportune moment, perhaps some of both. In any case, I know at least one man in Rome who thinks, the way things are going, that St. Peter's someday, like Santa Sofia, will be a Muslim mosque. Italians, Germans, French are disappearing by their own choice to depopulate themselves. Muslims from various sources from the South and East are rapidly replacing them in Europe, with a considerable presence already in the United States, this with no war at all. Indeed, the worst thing the Muslim terrorists may have done to their own cause was to have alerted such European peoples who will listen to their present decline. The Western secularist response is to "modernize" Islam, that is, teach it birth control and abortion, that is, kill any new Muslim life before it gets started.
Another alternative may well be that of the Holy Father's teaching of authentic family life, even to Muslims and uncomprehending secularists. "The spiritual roots of the crisis which the Western democracies are experiencing (is) a crisis characterized by the advance of a materialistic, utilitarian and ultimately dehumanized world view which is tragically detached from the moral foundations of Western civilization," John Paul II remarked.
Economic and political structures must be guided by a vision whose core is the God-given dignity and inalienable rights of every human being, from the moment of conception until natural death. When some lives, including those of the unborn, are subjected to the personal choices of others, no other value or right will long be guaranteed.... Never has it been more urgent to reinvigorate the moral vision and resolve essential to maintaining a just and a free society. (4)
Such lines suggest that there is really a three-fold struggle going on in some complex fashion — Islam, the Christianity, and modern secularism are each involved in different ways.
The First Crusade (1095-99) was indeed called by a pope, Urban II. At the time, it was not seen as an act of aggression against a peaceful foreign power, but as a belated, much too poorly organized attempt to save Europe from falling under the complete control of Islamic forces that had been on the attack for centuries. These Muslim forces had captured most of the once Christian lands south and east of the Mediterranean. They would threaten Spain and France, the Balkans, and the heart of Europe. Islamic civilization was strong and complete. Understanding its force and success was, and is, one of the great intellectual, cultural, and, yes, theological mysteries. Today Islam controls about one fifth of the population of the globe with some twenty-five nations stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan and south to Indonesia and much of northern and central Africa. Some ten years after the fall of communism, when we expected to have no further "world-historical" problems, we find a remarkably vigorous and often militant Islam at our very doorsteps.
What are we to make of this surprising confrontation with Islam? One could maintain that no one saw its coming so far in advance better than the English historian and writer Hilaire Belloc who understood the global interests and ambitions of an Islam never content to be confined within its own historic borders. In today's world, however, we are accustomed to distinguish between a certain minority of Islamic "terrorists" and the vast majority of Muslims who are said to be "peaceful," these latter themselves often, as in Afghanistan, subject to these same terrorists. Whether this analysis is adequate, however politically correct it is, remains to be seen. Belloc certainly thought the potential problem of Islam is not confined to a small minority of "terrorists" or "militants" who stand wholly outside its own system. It is difficult to see why such terrorists are not arising within the system. This is, at least, what they believe of themselves.
For the moment, the swift success of the combined American, allied, and Northern Alliance conquest of Afghanistan has silenced many of the current theories that Islam was a unified whole, at one, ready to rise forcefully to overturn a decadent West. The success of a relatively small number of highly sophisticated weapons and troops may again serve to remind modern Islam of its relative impotence, something that bin Laden had tried to counteract by the use of terrorism against the unwillingness of the United States prior to President Bush and the WTC attack to do anything about a long series of lesser attacks on American interests. These attacks in Clinton's administration apparently proved to bin Laden and others that America, in addition to being a "Satan," was also a "paper tiger." A "holy war" waged against it might just succeed if this terrorist analysis of Western lack of will and decadence were proved to be correct.
Why Belloc's reflections on Islam are worthwhile recalling today, however, is because he asked a question that is seldom brought up today, namely, what is Islam? What is its theology? What is its common core? Of all the world religions, it has proved to be the most closed to outside influence. Converts from Islam to Christianity or to any other religion almost never happen. It appears as a completely closed system enforced by both custom, law, and, not to be underestimated, coercion. It has grown largely through conquest or, in recent times, by relative population growth against a West bent on depopulating itself.
In modern times, Islam has been divided into many differing states, often at odds with each other, though in all there is, in practice, a union of Mosque and state, however defined in each one. We find no single religious authority to define must what Islam holds in the light of its many differing interpretations of itself. Certainly a case can be made that the "terrorist" version is legitimate, as it claims to be. There is, however, no credible large scale Islamic army with sophisticated technology. What weapons Islamic armies have were purchased from the West or East, usually with oil money. Even this military capacity is generally considered to be second-class, at best.
It was not always so. In much of the middle ages, Islamic forces were the best armed and organized in the world. But since the Victory at the Battle of Vienna — a date that Belloc gives as September 11, 1683 (5) Islamic forces have not been united or able to resist better organized military power.
Since then the armed power of Mohammedanism has declined," Belloc wrote,
But neither its numbers nor the convictions of its followers have appreciably declined; and as in the territory annexed by it, though it has lost places in which it ruled over subject Christian majorities, it has gained new adherents — to some extent in Asia, and largely in Africa.. Indeed, in Africa it is still expanding among the Negroid populations, and that expansion provides an important future problem fort the European Governments who have divided Africa between them. (6)
Since these words were written, of course, no European colonial powers are in control in Africa or in Asia, while the Muslim states along the southern Russian border have gained their own independence.
Belloc wrote a good deal about Islam. He had a grudging admiration for its persistence, for its historic military prowess, especially for its inconvertibility. In essence, he considered it a Christian heresy, with some similarities to Calvinism. Mohammed preached and insisted upon a whole group of ideas which were peculiar to the Catholic Church and distinguished it from the paganism which it had conquered in the Greek and Roman civilization. Thus the very foundation of his teaching was that prime Catholic doctrine, the unity and omnipotence of god. The attributes of God he also took over in the main from Catholic doctrine: the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, the providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things and the sustenance of all things by His power alone. (7)
Mohammed also maintained the existence of good and evil spirits, especially of Satan; he maintained the immortality of the soul "with the consequent doctrines of punishment and reward after death." (8) What began as a heresy became by practice and interpretation a separate religion, though still based on these original ideas.
If there is such agreement with the central core of Christian doctrine, what was the problem? Islam was an effort to simplify religion. What it rejected was the "complications" of Christian revelation. Mohammed "advanced a clear affirmation, full and complete, against the whole doctrine of an incarnate God. He taught that Our Lord was the greatest of all prophets, but still only a prophet: a man like other men. He eliminated the Trinity altogether." (9)The Trinity and the Incarnation are, of course, the two basic Christian doctrines about the nature of God and His dwelling amongst us.
What followed from the denial of the Incarnation and the notion of "otherness" in the Godhead? The whole sacramental structure was gone — Mass, priesthood, and all that implied. This "simplification" is why Belloc found a similarity between Calvinism and Mohammedanism. "Simplicity was the note of the whole affair; and since all heresies draw their strength from some true doctrine, Mohammedanism drew its strength form the true Catholic doctrines which is retained: the equality of men before God — 'All true believers are brothers.' It zealously preached and throve on the paramount claims of justice, social and economic." (10) It might be noticed in retrospect that the reason the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan gave for refusing to turn over bin Laden when first demanded by the United States was the appeal to Muslim brotherhood.
In the current confrontation with Islam, not a few writers have stressed this "simplicity" theme to explain its relative attractiveness. Belloc's friend G. K. Chesterton had touched on what is at issue here in several places. (11) "A few centuries (after the Arian heresy) ... the Church had to maintain the same Trinity, which is simply the logical side of love, against another appearance of the isolated and simplified deity in the religion of Islam," Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man.
Yet there are some who cannot see what the Crusaders were fighting for; and some even who talk as if Christianity had never been anything but a form of what they called Hebraism coming in with the decay of Hellenism [Matthew Arnold]. Those people must certainly be very much puzzled by the war between the Crescent and the Cross. If Christianity had never been anything but a simple morality sweeping away polytheism, there is no reason why Christendom should not have been swept into Islam. The truth is that Islam itself was a barbaric reaction against that very humane complexity that is really a Christian character; that idea of balance in the deity, as of balance in the family, that makes that creed a sort of sanity, and that sanity the soul of civilization. (12)
What is at stake here is something much larger than might at first appear. For it is precisely this defense of "complexity" that makes the understanding of and use of the world possible. As Stanley Jaki has often written, it is this notion of complexity, of creation and stable secondary causes that has made modern science possible and has, in its lack, caused Islam to fail to produce this same science. (13) Again one of the interesting aspects of the current war is the difference between sophisticated scientific warfare and terrorism carried on by relatively simple means.
In addition to the theological side of Islam, which Belloc took with great seriousness, there was its military and cultural side. The First Chapter of his book, still a most exciting and, yes, sad book to read, begins: "Human affairs are decided through conflict of ideas, which often resolve themselves by conflict under arms." (14) Belloc understood where ultimate issues began and ended. Even though there were some four crusades launched against Islam in the Middle Ages, in Belloc's view, the only one that counted was the First (1095-99), though the most famous was probably the Third. (1187-92). Belloc is quite clear that the Crusades were a defensive effort, a response to centuries of Islamic conquests at the expense of Christian lands and peoples.
The Crusades were aimed at recapturing Jerusalem and breaking the land connection between the Eastern and Western sectors of Islamic conquest. They almost succeeded but did not, in Belloc's view, because the Crusaders did not succeed in controlling all the land between the desert and the sea on the Eastern End of the Mediterranean. The final defeat by Saladin, a brilliant military genius, was at Hattin in Syria in 1187. The subsequent rise of the Ottoman Turks and their incursions into Europe are of interest to Belloc as a witness to the perennial nature of Islam to continue on what it calls its mission to conquer the world for Mohammed. The initial successes of Crusading armies in established a feudal kingdom in Jerusalem. But it was the failure of the First Crusade, with its revelation of a lack of sufficient support from the European powers, that inaugurated it — France, the Empire, England — that spelled ultimate Islamic victory.
Belloc was clear that it made a difference who lost and who won wars. If this is classical realism, he was indeed a realist. "The military character of the opposing forces in these great duels of history means much more than the nature of their armament and of the personnel which waged the war on either side." (15) Belloc is aware of the geography, the character of the military commanders. He knows about chance, about incompetence. The Crusades sought to recover the old Roman Eastern and Southern conquests, but they failed. If there is one thing that overwhelms the reader of Belloc, it is the sense of a glorious effort that failed. This failure changed the very face of the modern world, which has very little understood the spiritual forces at work within it.
Today, Belloc's words of 1937 almost ring in our ears:
That story (of Islamic victory) must not be neglected by any modern, who may think, in error, that the East has finally fallen before the West, that Islam is now enslaved — to our political and economic power at any rate if not to our philosophy. It is not so. Islam essentially survives, and Islam would not have survived had the Crusade made good its hold upon the essential point of Damascus. Islam survives. Its religion is in tact; therefore its material strength may return. Our religion is in peril and who can be confident in the continued skill, let alone the continued obedience, of those who make and work our machines? (16)
We have, here, in a nutshell the essence of Belloc's thesis, one that occasions a further reflection on what this current war is about.
The secularism of the West is, no doubt, much more prevalent than in Belloc's time. The general view of this war is not one between "Christendom" and "Islam," but between "terrorists" and the secularized democracies. The solution of this problem, from the "terrorist" view point, is to conquer a decadent West. The alternate view is to get rid of the "terrorists" and allow to exist a form of rule in Islamic lands that conforms to modern notions of democracy, tolerance, and culture.
This position can easily be looked upon as a new form of "colonialism" or even "imperialism" in which the solution to the military problem is to refashion the governments that are seen to be responsible for the problem in the first place. There is a sense in which the current war can be seen as a struggle of secularist democracy against both a "fanatic" Islam and an equally "fanatic" Christianity, or at least its what remains of it. All forms of religion, in this view, are seen to be "fanatical." It should not pass without note that, in the immediate aftermath of the WTC bombing, the initial response of the American people was in fact, in addition to being shocked, religious.
Belloc was quite conscious that the spiritual force of Islam has remained in tact. He is amazed at its persistence and the sources of this strength. But he does not underplay it. He is quite clear that he thinks Islam will rise again. When it does, it will not find in the West a spiritual strength sufficient to counteract it. We might say, thus far, that since we still have men to "work the machines," that Islam must remain relatively contained. And not all citizens in the West are in fact secularists. If, however, modern secularist ideas could be imposed on Islam, especially those that deal with its population so that there would not be such a surplus of young men, then we could undermine its present attractiveness. Likewise, if we could invent something that would replace oil, say, a practical hydrogen fueled motor, we could undermine the financial strength that had financed Islam's current power and ability to expand.
"There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine where religious doctrine is still held, and even in that part of the European population where the united doctrine and definitions of Catholicism survives, it survives as something to which the individual is attached rather than the community," Belloc concluded. "As nations we worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice. Those who direct us, and from whom the tone of our policy is taken, have no major spiritual interest."
Belloc's comment on "social justice" is itself extremely perceptive as many of those who blame America for all this wish to see the problems of Islamic aggressiveness to be one of its internal hurt feeling that it was being treated unjustly. Therefore, in this view, the problem was not Islam's but of the West. This sort of flawed analysis is quite prevalent in many modern religious analyses of ideological aggressiveness. It continually underestimates the vigor of spiritual forces. Islam, because of what it is, would be a problem without economics, without Israel, and without the modern world.
"Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline (found in the West)," Belloc affirms. Its spiritual power is seen everywhere within its own realms. "We are divided in the face of a Mohammedan world, divided by separate independent national rivalries, by the warring interests of possessors and dispossessed — and that division cannot be remedied because the cement which once held our civilisation together, the Christian cement, has crumbled." (18) Belloc is definitely not on the side of the "secularist" solution to the current problem of Islam. He sees the spiritual unity of the West has, in its absence, political consequences of the utmost importance.
One last note is worth making. It is often said that the current Mideast problem is largely caused by the presence of the Jews back on their ancient homeland, but a homeland that Islam now claims exclusively its own. This Jewish presence is supported by Western and currently American power. Belloc did not think that the problem of Islam was caused by the presence of a Jewish homeland under English sponsorship. He thought that the problem would be present even if no Jewish homeland ever existed. However, he did think that the presence of Jews in Palestine (he writes of course before the formation of an independent Jewish state) was an irritant.
Of all the forms of foreign disturbance suffered by Syria in these new days of change, Zionism is the most violent and the most detested by the native population. That hatred may be called ineffective; the Jewish advance is bound to continue so long as there is peace and so long as the English are in undisputed possession. The Jews bring with them a much higher material civilisation, trained scientific experts, a largely increased exploitation of the land, and of all natural resources. (19)
But Belloc did not see the Jewish presence as merely a higher standard of living. The Jews too had their spiritual roots. They are "inspired by as strong a motive as can move men to action."
Yet, even with Jewish numbers, increasing at the time, and standard of life, Belloc did not think it would ultimately be sufficient "against the fierce hostility of the Moslem world which surrounds them. That hostility is another moral force with which the future cannot but be filed. We in the West do not appreciate it because we do not hear its expression, we are not witnesses of the gestures nor partners in the conversations which fill the Near East; but if we ignore it we are ignoring something which may change our fate." (20) It is difficult to read these lines today without a sense of awe at their perceptiveness.
Belloc's study of the Crusades, then, provides a unique and fascinating look at the relation of military and spiritual forces. To read him today is almost like reading current history, granted that he could not possibly have foreseen all the nuances of the present. Belloc was able to see "what might have been." He is left with the perplexity of Islam, what is it? Why does it remain? He makes us aware that, while we must study the side of Islam, and other religions, that we have something in common with, the fact remains that there is much that we do not have in common. This is recognized more clearly by Islam than by ourselves. Moreover, ideas, especially religious ideas, do have consequences. The answer to these ideas is not, as the secularists think, to get rid of any religion as a potential source of "fanaticism."
Rather some forum must be found in which the truth of the religions can be faced. This requires a politics and a military capable of making the conversations possible. Islam, Israel, and Christianity, the three religions of the book, must recognize the dynamic consequences of their own relationship to one another. War may be necessary to make conversation possible, as Chesterton once remarked. What seems obvious in the aftermath of the "terrorist" attacks is that God will not let the great religions leave the question of truth unresolved. Wars do not solve this prior problem. But the prior problem must be faced at its own level, that transcendent level wherein what counts, ultimately, is the truth of things.
Hilaire Belloc, The Crusades (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1937), 320-21.
Cited by Robin Wright, "The Chilling Goal of Islam's New Warriors," The Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2000.
John Paul II, Vatican Information Service, September 13, 2001.
Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1936), 123. This date seems to have been September 12, but the battle took three days to be organized and completed.
Ibid., 78. It is to be noted that the immortality of the soul and reward and punishment after death are Greek philosophical doctrines found in agreement with Christian revelation.
See my "Introduction" to G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 25-27.
G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man in G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), II, 360-361.
Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 35-37.
Hilaire Belloc, The Crusades (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1937), 3.
Hilaire Belloc, The Battle Ground: Syria and Palestine (London: Lippencot, 1936), 326-327.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of numerous books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Another Sort of Learning, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.