Saturday, February 7, 2015

Jim Crow, the Crusades, and the Inquisition

Some are taking umbrage at President Obama's recent Prayer Breakfast statements, in which he condemned the violence of ISIS but then drew something of a line of equivalence between the Islamic terrorism of ISIS and past evidence's of Christian violence:
“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.”
Predictably, lots of conservatives--and lots of Christians--did not take kindly to the president's words.

Two quick thoughts: First, the comparison to the violence of Jim Crow is apt, to a certain degree. Some time ago I excerpted from and linked to Daniel Silliman's horrifying, brutal, and powerful post on "Sam Hose's Christian America." Daniel wrote:
All that talk, however, of that imagined idyllic past when Biblical morality was given due deference and Christians had a respected place in the public square is haunted by the Sunday when churchgoers came back from a place called Old Troutman Field with bits of Sam Hose's chopped-up body. 
Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.
Does this make it religious violence? Not on its own, perhaps, but the name "Christian Knights" didn't come from nowhere, nor, as Ta-Nehisi Coats pointed out on Twitter, is it entirely irrelevant that they burned, you know, crosses. Americans--perhaps especially Christian Americans--should do a better job of coming to terms with the horrific injustice and violence of Jim Crow America. An encouraging point on that front is the Gospel Coalition's recently announced forum on the place of Southern evangelicals in the Jim Crow South. Whether or not Jim Crow violence is attributable to Christianity somehow, it should at least give Christians pause before condemning Islam per se for the violence of ISIS.

My second response, following quickly, was that the Crusades and especially the Inquisition actually provide a less apt comparison for the violence of ISIS. I responded to TNC on Twitter suggesting that the latter comparisons represented bad and "outdated" history, which in turn drew a reply from him:
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the comparison is "outdated" because the Crusades or the Inquisition happened a really long time ago. What I do mean is that such comparisons usually involve oversimplification and Whiggish distortions of history designed, mainly, to make Catholics look really bad in comparison with WASPish uprightness.

I don't want to get into the Crusades. Frankly, I have only a passing familiarity with the period. Here I'll just point to Bernard Lewis' quote comparing jihad to the Crusades in my recent--and very long--post on Lewis' The Crisis of Islam. Put briefly: there's a comparison to be made between the Muslim concept of jihad and the Crusades, but certainly no equivalence. But President Obama was comparing the specific actions of ISIS rather than the concept of jihad to the Crusades. And as Lewis points out, there are stark and even irreconcilable differences between the concept of jihad as understood and practiced through Islamic history and jurisprudence and the violent Islamic terrorism of the half-century. So President Obama's comparison lacks subtlety, to say the least.

As I did some graduate work on Iberian Catholicism and the Spanish Inquisition, I feel more confident to speak on the dramatic dissimilarity between the Spanish Inquisition and ISIS.* In popular imagination we still think of the Inquisition as a court awash in the blood of countless thousands. We think of it as an instrument that struck terror in the hearts of all Spanish people, and as a holdover from benighted Dark Ages religiosity.

Nearly a half-century ago Richard Kamen's landmark book The Spanish Inquisition upended that story. Practically every study since then--even critical ones--have upheld these basic points of Kamen's work:
  1. The Spanish Inquisition was, by contemporary standards, a restrained and relatively bloodless court following the rule of law. Granted, the laws of early modern Spain hardly measure up to liberal democratic ideals, but nevertheless the Inquisition was not bloodthirsty lawlessness run amok.
  2. The Spanish Inquisition was not feared but rather welcomed by the majority of the Spanish people. It generally came to towns not so much as a monarchical (much less ecclesial) imposition from above, but more often at the request of those very towns. 
  3. The Spanish Inquisition was an instrument of royal power exercised by the Spanish monarchs rather than the Roman Catholic Church per se. As such it functioned in many ways more as a tool of nationalist unification and control than of religion--though the two were, of course, deeply entwined under "the Catholic Monarchs" and those who followed. 
  4. As a tool of nationalist control, then, the Inquisition is better understood as an early incarnation of modernism rather than as some kind of residue of medieval religion.**
President Obama's rather pedestrian comparison with ISIS becomes much more interesting from this perspective:
  1. Whereas the Spanish Inquisition was fairly mild by the standards of its day, the violence of ISIS is extraordinary by contemporary standards--even if you aren't thinking of liberal democratic ideals but instead the comparably brutal laws of, say, our allies in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps more significantly, ISIS arose from and continues to operate within the lawlessness of terrorism. As I wrote before, Bernard Lewis makes it very clear that the murderous Islamic terrorism of the past half-century has absolutely no precedence in Islamic history nor support in Islamic jurisprudence. It's also worth pointing out the violence of the Spanish Inquisition was sporadic and occasional, whereas the violence of ISIS is systematic and sustained. 
  2. Is ISIS a movement that has gained power through wide public support or is it feared by the majority of the population? I have no idea, though I suspect it's as much the former as the latter. (Some thoughts about the tyranny of the majority might be relevant here--and of course with the Spanish Inquisition as well.)
  3. Is the violence of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists groups primarily religious in origin or does it come from other sources? ISIS claims that they are motivated by and acting on behalf of Islam. Claims don't always match reality though, and I don't know the movement nearly well enough to ascertain if there are other or greater motivations at work. David Sessions, among others, argues that religion, as such, doesn't really exist, so you can't attribute Islamic terrorism to Islam and should instead look at other structural factors--assimilation versus alienation, social and economic exclusion, etc.--to understand these violent actions. There's something to what he says, though I'm less than convinced by the neo-Marxist line of thought that reduces religion into a mere smokescreen for the real issues. 
  4. Sometimes pundits speak of ISIS or Al Qaeda as "throwbacks" to the Dark Ages. But it's worth repeating that Islamic terrorism is a patently new phenomenon with basically no historical precedent in the Muslim world. So in this sense, there's a rather interesting comparison between ISIS and the Spanish Inquisition to be made. Both are seen as archaic medieval institutions, but both actually serve new and perhaps surprising ends.
I heard Ayan Hirsi Ali speak at a Hillsdale event some time back. A member of the audience asked if Islam could or would undergo an "enlightenment" in the same way that Christianity moved from the Dark Ages of religious violence into a new age of tolerance and pluralism. There are a number of questionable premises built into that question. For one thing, the idea that the wars of religion represented the last gasp of Dark Ages zealotry followed by the wonderful benevolence of the modern nation-state is highly dubious, to say the least. And I rather wish Hirsi Ali would have pointed out that the European "Dark Ages" happened to coincide with the great flourishing of Islamic civilization, but of course that wasn't her response.

Assumptions about the progressive nature of history manipulate us into construing wholly new phenomena as old and reactionary forces. I suppose there's some comfort in thinking of ISIS as outdated, as doomed to the "ash heap" of history. But it's the kind of comfort you only get when you divorce a phenomena from its history.

[*President Obama just said "the Inquisition," which could refer to the Roman Inquisition, as distinct from the Spanish Inquisition. But given the former's comparably mild record and reputation, I'm assuming he meant the latter.]
[**Off the top of my head, I don't recall how or if Kamen unfolds the thread of the argument laid out in #3. So #4 may be more my own gloss on Kamen rather than his specific argument--but I do think #4 is logically embedded in point #3.]