Many of us in the West wonder how Islamist extremists can find virtue in killing. In the East and West, killing an enemy has long been glorified. But when Islamist extremists kill Muslims because, say, they’re Shi’ite not Sunni, or they justify the deaths of innocent bystanders on the principle that, if they’re righteous, their ascent into heaven is expedited, they stretch the definition of the noble warrior beyond the breaking point.
Of course, neither do elements of fundamentalist Christianity have a problem with killing Muslims, who are viewed as heathens standing in the way of history (holding up the apocalypse by failing to cede full ownership of Jerusalem to the Jews). What’s less known is that while Christianity certainly had no monopoly on slaughter — when you consider how much smaller the world’s population was in his day, Genghis Khan was like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong combined — it once attached no virtue to killing in war.
In 2011, Basic Books published Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse, which I’m currently reading, to much acclaim. The author, American medieveal historian Jay Rubenstein, is a natural storyteller who is also wholly credible to other historians. Early in the book, he explains that “a crucial aspect” of the crusade and of the message of Pope Urban II, the driving force behind the crusade, was, ironically (emphasis added)…
… the need for peace. It was, by 1095, a long-standing plea and aspiration among churchmen. For a century they had been trying to impose on warriors a code of conduct, known variously as “the Peace” or “the Truce of God,” to compel them to limit their aggressive impulses. The unarmed — monks, clerics, and women — were to be kept safe from bloodshed at all times, and for four days out of the week, Thursday through Sunday, no one was to strike a blow against anyone at all.
… The creation of peace did not come easily. Simply stated, knights wanted to fight — with one another, with peasants, with all and sundry. … Urban II realized as much. That’s why the call to peace in 1095 came with a proviso: Knights could continue to fright and loot and plunder as long as they did so against a foreign, unbelieving enemy. … In previous wars, to kill an adversary was, at best, a morally neutral act, an unfortunate necessity created by political circumstance. To kill a Muslim, by contrast, increased a warrior’s store of virtue, giving him some security as he contemplated the fearsome stakes of Judgment Day.
In a sense, killing in war — heretofore a necessary evil that bordered on sin for Christians — was transformed into an act of nobility or even piety when the victims became Muslims.