If ‘Defenders of the West’ is our new, Christian ‘Plutarch’s Lives’, then let us recognize the truth of our ancestors’ greatness, and piety and let us validate their sacrifices and imitate them. The Crusades were good and right. The myths have been rewritten with our people as the villains because the powers of the air fear a Christendom with muscle. At some point, we must all decide if we will believe the stories about our ancestors from people who hate us and our King, Jesus, or if we will believe what our ancestors said about themselves.
Western Christians have forgotten the meaning of the word persecution. They have also forgotten that once upon a time Christians, when they had the power, prestige and wealth to put a stop to persecution, resisted persecution with violent, military force. Raymond Ibrahim is on a quest to remind us of both of these forgotten truths.
In his book Defenders of the West, Ibrahim continues the work he started in his previous book, Sword and Scimitar. In Sword and Scimitar, Ibrahim chose to focus on events, specifically on battles that shaped the Crusades and the conflict that he believes must be continuous between Muslims and Christians. In Defenders of the West, he has chosen to go a different route by focusing on the men themselves. Each chapter is a succinct biography of one of the heroes of the Crusades.
After a very good forward by Victor Davis Hanson (whom Ibrahim studied under), Ibrahim gets into his introduction to set the stage for his work. His introduction takes a militant stance right away and sets out to right the wrong of intentionally misrepresenting the Crusades, Crusaders and their Islamic counterparts. Ibrahim has already established himself as a historical and contemporary expert on Islam. In Defenders, he lays out the true historical account of the misdeeds of the Muslims of the era in order to clarify the stakes and motivations of the Crusaders. He also has a secondary goal of clarifying actual Islamic beliefs about how non-Muslims are to be treated according to their writings. The misunderstandings of the modern media regarding Islamic doctrine are so ubiquitous that even some self-professing Muslims believe they are a “religion of peace,” clearly in opposition to their history and teachings.
Ibrahim has a strong desire to get a complete picture of each man he is highlighting in his book and so he considers sources both friendly to and opposed to each subject. This pays dividends later on when seemingly outlandish historical claims are made about the appearance, piety or fighting prowess of one of the Crusaders, only to then have those hyperbolic claims be confirmed begrudgingly by their enemies in private communiques or official records.
The Great Men
Ibrahim’s work is like a medieval, Christian version of Plutarch’s Lives. A book in which Plutarch set out to strengthen the Roman ethos by linking the heroes of Rome to a heroic Greek counterpart. Americans understand this in a way because of the hackneyed trope in politics of appealing to the founders. Sometimes this is warranted and accurate and sometimes it is absolutely false. A reversal of this is to accuse enemies of being “nazis” or “literally hitlooor.” These things are nearly universal in the way they are regarded. Most Americans give at least lip service to agreeing with the Founders or regarding Hitler as a villain. To connect a cause with them is to have instant ethos. This is the way many of the Romans viewed their Greek predecessors. Plutarch set out to write the definitive biographies of these men and show why Romans were equal to and surpassed their exploits.
Ibrahim doesn’t seek to pair each Crusader to another or to a predecessor in such a direct way. But many comparisons are easy to make within the book among the men he has chosen to write about and in some cases their Islamic adversaries. They are able to be grouped by region and temporal proximity for the useful purpose of comparing and contrasting and offering a wide range of personalities and physical types. If Ibrahim set out to present the men in the book as figures worthy of imitation, he has succeeded brilliantly. If he did not set out with that goal in mind, then these larger-than-life figures have overshadowed whatever other goals he had. Unlike the Romans who appealed to the greatness of their civilizational forebears the Hellenists, when the Crusaders walked the Earth, they considered all the great men of their day to have already bowed the knee to the Cross of Christ. They were of one Kingdom. They sought to imitate biblical warrior kings, pious ancestors, and Christ Himself.
After telling my 5-year-old son a few anecdotes about Richard the Lionheart, he laid siege to our sofa and started ordering his stuffed animals to convert to Christianity. (Ongoing discussions of Soteriology are clearly necessary.) It is very difficult for a man to read this book and not find himself inspired by the men within. He wants to have a Crusader birthday party. He found a snapping turtle shell near the creek and was hoping I could make him a shield out of it with a lion on it.
Ibrahim knows that the study of the lives of great men is recalling a former way of studying history that has been neglected. Classically trained and educated people are generally more aware of the historiography of the individual because of exposure to older historical works (like Plutarch) which are focused on people’s lives, not merely a series of events. A dry history of mere events can be interesting enough if you find the period compelling, but there is a reason why our best stories have characters in them. To enter history, you must do so through the life of a character who lived it. In that way, even boring periods of history have proved quite captivating to readers.
Surveying the Field
Each chapter, except the introduction and the conclusion, covers a specific Crusader. Ibrahim chooses to highlight Crusaders from each of the major fronts of war with Islam in the Middle Ages and they are presented in chronological order, some overlap each other. The Holy Land in the war with the Saracens and Egyptians, Spain and the war with the Moroccan Moors, and the Balkans in the war with the Ottoman Empire. The crusaders featured are Godfrey of Boullion (French/Frankish), Rodrigo “El Cid” de Vivar (Spanish), Richard the Lionheart (English), Ferdinand III (Spanish), Louis IX (French), John Hunyadi (Hungarian), George “Skanderbeg” Castrioti (Albanian), and Vlad Dracula (Yes, that one. Romanian).
The chapters have a formula that does not get old even though it is routine. First, the situation is explained. In virtually all cases, Muslims have achieved the upper hand politically and are using their power to extort Christians, enslave them, steal their children and murder them. This is a dark part of each chapter. The atrocities committed by the Muslims against their Christian subjects are nearly too heinous to mention. Mass murder, enslavement, brainwashing, forced conversion and forced circumcision, mass pedophilic rape, routine covenant breaking, destruction of churches and holy sites, and forcing captives to fight against their own people. This is an important chronology to understand. The Christian Crusaders always set out to recapture Christian lands and put a stop to the abuse and persecution of other Christians, or to actively defend lands under threat of Muslim invasion. The Crusaders did not invade Muslim lands unprovoked.
As an aside here, this realization is probably a revolution to some people on its own. All of us, even friends of mine who were homeschooled by based parents and myself (private Christian school educated), believe that, at best, the Crusades were a conventional land war meant to expand the control of Islam or the Roman Church. They believe that the Pope dispatched troops to the Holy Lands to expand his personal influence and if the Christians didn’t go then they got excommunicated or deposed. While there is no doubt some questionable doctrines being bandied about at this time in history, such as indulgences for Crusaders, that is not the reality. The Pope requested Christian kings to help in response to outrages beyond count.