by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times May 11, 2012
As spooky ideas go, this was a pearler. In a Q+A television interview last month, former Republican Party presidential contender Jon Huntsman said one of his party’s priorities should be “cleaning up the Middle East”. Huntsman came across as personable and moderate. He is a former Governor of Utah, ambassador to China and, like party front-runner Mitt Romney, a Mormon. But if “cleaning up the Middle East” is part of current thinking among senior American politicians, the world should tremble.
Then last week (May 2) President Barack Obama visited Afghanistan, one of the countries the United States and partners have been busy “cleaning up”, and gave an unwitting glimpse of what that could mean. Harking back to the military’s assassination of al Qaeda’s top man, he crowed: “A year ago we were able to finally bring Osama bin Laden to justice.” Justice? Since when did summary execution without any semblance of due process become justice? Is this the way to “clean up the Middle East”?
The phrase carries echoes of President Bush’s resolve in 2003 to invade Iraq – a “crusade”, he called it – and rid the country of its weapons of mass destruction. Which proved not to exist. Signalling a crusade was appallingly insensitive, and the term was quickly abandoned. But not before Middle Eastern countries objected to the region being subjected to any kind of crusade, which means a “campaign of the Cross”.
Bush’s gaffe was all the more startling for coming only two years after Pope Paul II travelled to Athens and Damascus to seek forgiveness for the seven crusades which Catholic Europe unleashed on the Levant between 1096 and 1291. The goal was to restore Christian dominance in the Holy Land and assert Rome’s supremacy over the eastern Orthodox Church. The victims were Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
Those crusades rank among the most shameful episodes in the church's history. Fuelled by a toxic blend of religious zeal and greed, the crusaders found inspiration in the cry “Deus vult” (God wills it). A popular slogan was “We shall slay for God's love.” In that frame of mind, it is hardly surprising that the first crusade, launched ostensibly to defend the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople from the approaching Turks and to free the Christian holy places from Muslim rule, began irrelevantly with the massacre of 8000 Jews in the Rhineland. Or that the crusaders celebrated the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 by slaughtering 70,000 men, women and children. Jews who took refuge in their synagogue were burnt alive. The Middle East was “cleaned up”.
And 90 years later Jerusalem was back in Muslim hands. So in 1202, with the papacy at the peak of its temporal power, the fourth crusade was launched. But the merchants of Venice diverted it to Constantinople, where the crusaders obliged their sponsors by massacring their fellow-Christians and plundering the city. The loot adorns St Mark's Basilica in Venice to this day. Pope Innocent III roundly denounced the crusaders: “Nothing has been sacred to you. You have violated married women, widows, even nuns . . . The Greek church sees in you the works of the devil.”
Thus in 2001 there was a lot for John Paul II to apologise for. He was taking an essential step towards a reconciling future, and there was huge symbolism in a pope taking off his shoes in the custom of his Muslim hosts before entering a mosque in Damascus. Pious fanaticism fanned the crusades, just as today it fans religious Zionism and the suicide bombers of Islam. In that regard, the God of the fanatics is part of the problem rather than the solution, and hope lies in moving beyond their distorted understandings of God.
Intentionally or not, John Paul pointed to that in Damascus. Urging both sides in the Arab-Israeli impasse to seek peace, he invoked not the Bible or the Qur'an, but “the principles of international legality, the banning of acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions”.
All these have emerged as people increasingly realise that in the modern world humanity is responsible for its own destiny, and that what unites people around the world has a potential for good far beyond what divides them.
In other words, there is a human potential for Godness. A frail old pope's cleansing acts in Athens and Damascus gave a glimpse of it, just as the action of former popes in launching the crusades emphatically did not.