Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World
By Karen Armstrong
There is a popular postcard on sale everywhere in Israel that never ceases to astonish me. It shows an "artistic" shot of the Shepherds' Field outside Bethlehem and there are real live shepherds, watching their flocks there today, just as they did on the first Christmas night. They look very biblical shepherds, for they are wearing the traditional headdress that all Christians have seen in countless Nativity plays. These keffiyehs hide the men's faces, which is just as well because these are Arab shepherds of the West Bank, posing as first-century Jewish shepherds in the Christian story. There could scarcely be a more ironic and distorted expression of triple vision. It shows the confused and troubled bond that links Jews, Christians and Muslims together and completely ignores the frightening realities of the present conflict. The card is obviously designed for Christian pilgrims to send home to show their friends that everything in the Holy Land is "just the same" as it was in the time of Christ. But, as we know, things are very different. In the first century the Jews were struggling against an unwanted occupation which resulted in a holy war that lost them their land. Today it is the Jews who are the brutal occupiers of Bethlehem and the other towns in the occupied territories, and some of their methods would have shocked even the Romans. But Christian pilgrims do not want to see this and they buy the card as intended. The Holy Land is still a mythical land to many of them, who show a ready willingness to suspend their disbelief as they tour the country in their air-conditioned buses, insulated from the troubling contemporary realities. When they visit Kfar Kana in Galilee they look with reverence at the large water jugs which Jesus is supposed to have used when he worked his first miracle and turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. There is a postcard of these too. If the pilgrims actually notice that Kfar Kana is an Arab town, they probably see the Arabs in their kuffiyehs as merely providing local color and ignore the complexity of their position as Arabs in the Jewish state.
Of course not all pilgrims swallow everything they are told so gullibly but the very fact that in the twentieth century the mythical reality of that small strip of land between Egypt and Syria is more real to thousands of Christian pilgrims than the political reality is an important reminder. The people who make these pilgrimages are educated men and women, who do not believe in Father Christmas but who are prepared to kiss the gold star in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem which marks the spot of Christ's birth. When they go to the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, they want to pray at the slab of stone on which Jesus is said to have been laid after the Crucifixion and at the ornate tomb of Christ, whence Jesus rose from the dead. The physical connection with Jesus makes these places in some way "holy" and people want to believe in their authenticity.
Religious faith is not an obsolete passion. Nor is it a delusion which people cannot help because they lack the brains or the education to disprove the articles of the creed. People choose to believe what cannot be rationally proved one way or the other, because they need this larger mythical dimension in their lives. We are now in a position to see that religion is not something that we can get rid of once we have progressed to a more "enlightened" state. The eighteenth-century Age of Reason gave way to a strong and fundamentalist resurgence of Christianity in the nineteenth century. Similarly, the secularism of the twentieth century has given way to a renewed religious passion. People need to tell themselves stories about the world and their life in it, so that they have a sense of meaning and purpose. It is very hard to live according to the bleak light of the atheistic or agnostic day, which has rationally disposed of religious faith. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which all insist that their myths are historically true, people have a religious geography which gives them a sense of their place in the world and a tangible connection with the unseen. So strong is this desire to believe in the holy place that the political reality under the pilgrim's nose inevitably fades from view.
Throughout this book we have seen that a devotion to the holy place can make people act in a violent and irrational way. I am reminded of an occasion on which I filmed in the Holy Sepulchre Church during the production of a television series. It was a dark, gusty evening and while the electricians and the cameramen were setting up the lights around the tomb of Christ, I was standing outside the church with some members of the Israeli crew. Opposite us was the small mosque which was built to commemorate the spot on which the Caliph Omar prayed when he conquered Jerusalem for Islam in 637. It will be remembered that he had been invited by the Greek Patriarch to pray inside the Holy Sepulchre, but he declined so that the Christian holy place could be preserved intact. The mosque was lit brightly and in the surrounding darkness it looked far more dramatic than it does during the day. The only other lights were in the Holy Sepulchre: Christianity and Islam faced each other. Suddenly the conversation I was enjoying with the crew was shattered by the earsplitting call of the muezzin, summoning the faithful to prayer. The call to prayer is a long and passionate-sounding chant and I found it particularly exhilarating that night. In the dark, with no modern buildings visible, we could have been back in Jerusalem at the time of Saladin.
But my Israeli colleagues had a very different reaction. My rational and kindly companions of a few minutes ago were transformed into crude boors, who made obscene gestures at the mosque, gave exaggerated imitations of the muezzin with distorted, angry faces, and jeered at the Arabic sounds. I had seen this before during the filming. Sometimes we had had to stop shooting and wait for several minutes until the call to prayer was over, and this seemed to reduce the Israeli crew to particular fury. As I watched them I could not but be reminded of the medieval decrees that forbade the muezzin to give the call to prayer in Europe because this strident reminder of the presence of Islam was too (disturbing to be permitted. My Israeli friends seemed to be afflicted by the "dread" that we have seen impelling people to irrational violence throughout our long story. I could see why it was disturbing for them. The muezzin in Israel today is far louder than he was in medieval times, because his voice is recorded and amplified to great-sometimes excessive-volume. It sometimes seems deliberately aggressive: a reminder to the Israelis that Islam and the Arabs are still a strong presence in their Jewish state and that they will not go away. When Israelis are awakened at dawn by the muezzin, have their conversations interrupted, or are forced to suspend their activities until the sometimes deafening call to prayer is over, they are being regularly reminded of a fact which many would prefer to forget. It is right that they have this incessant reminder. Problems will not disappear just because we choose to forget about them. The muezzin pierces the Holy Sepulchre too and I watched a passing Franciscan friar shaking his head impatiently at the sound as he left the church. It is important that Christians and Jews should be reminded of the Muslim presence in a land where Arabs are treated as second-class citizens. But it is saddening if the muezzin had in fact issued a war cry. All three of the traditions of historical monotheism are dedicated to peace and benevolence; all three have, at different times of their history, been committed to the ideal of toleration. But it is particularly sad that the Mosque of Omar, which was built in memory of Omar's courteous act and his vision of the continued coexistence of the three religions in Jerusalem, should now make the call to prayer a defiant reminder. It is a symbol of the bad relations that have existed between the three religions ever since the Crusades.