Most popular literature about the crusader states alleges that the Latin rulers were “less tolerant” of religious diversity than their Muslim predecessors. It is hard to trace the origins of this myth – other than in an excess of political correctness in today’s world.
It is true that in the four centuries of Muslim rule in the Holy Land preceeding the crusades some Muslim rulers were content to live-and-let-live, but -- as my last entry stressed -- there were also periods of extreme repression. Furthermore, at all times Christians (and other non-Muslims) were taxed extra and treated as second-class citizens, certainly they had no right to positions of power and influence.
This is the standard against which the Christian leaders should be judged. If used it is quickly clear that the Christians were not more oppressive than their Muslims predecessors. To be sure Muslims and Jews were subject to special taxes -- as had been the case under Muslim rulers for non-Muslims. As under the Muslims, all people were allowed to practice their own religion. However, under the Muslims the penalty for trying to preach or convert a Muslim to Christianity was death – as it is to this day in many Muslim countries. (A woman was only recently condemned to death in Sudan, for example, for claiming to be a Christian and marrying a Christian man.) I have never read or heard about a similar law punishing the preaching of Islam with death in the crusader kingdoms.
It is true that the crusaders took the Holy Land by force – as had their Muslim predecessors. It is also true that while the Muslims allowed Christians to live in Jerusalem, the crusaders prohibited Muslims from living there. Nevertheless, they did not tear down the Dome of the Rock or destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque, as the Caliph al-Hakim had leveled the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The crusaders simply converted these buildings to Christian or secular purposes.
Islam's most sacred shrine in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, was not destroyed;
it was converted into a Church instead.
It is also true that Latin clergy was given control of the most sacred places and put into the positions of greatest ecclesiastical power, such as the patriarchies in Jerusalem and Antioch. Whether the Abbaids, the Fatamids, or the Seljuks were in control, however, they too put their own men into positions of power; Sunnis do not tolerate Shiia religious leaders in their mosques and madrassas and vice versa. Conquerors always take the best spoils for themselves.
The fact that hardly any city resisted Saladin’s conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Battle of Hattin is often taken as evidence that he non-Latin population in the kingdom preferred Muslim rule. This is hardly a sustainable argument since the reality was that the kingdom was simply not defensible after the losses sustained at Hattin. Under the circumstances, the civilian population was eager to avoid the destruction and retribution that the rules of war designated for cities that resisted and were taken by storm. The civilian population preferred to trust to Saladin’s reputation for clemency. The situation might have looked very different if the notoriously brutal Zengi had been mopping up – or Baibars or one of the other equally merciless Mamluke sultans had been the opponent in 1187.
Rather, those who assert the “preference” of the subject peoples of the crusader states for Muslim over Latin rule ought to ask why there were no revolts against the Latin leaders? Why was there no “Intifada” against the Christian kings? How could the tiny Latin Christian elite rule for nearly two hundred years, if their subjects were secret allies of their enemies? Why weren’t Christian towns betrayed to the Muslims each time a Muslim army appeared – and not just after the devastation of Hattin but during Saladin's invasions in 1177, 1179, 1181, 1182, and 1183.
It is safe to say the loyalty of the various non-Latin elements in the crusader states varied across regions and time. Initially, the Armenians appear to have been very enthusiastic about crusader rule after decades under the Turks. Later, they became disillusioned, at least in Eddessa, probably due to misrule and greed on the part of the Latin rulers. In Antioch, the Armenians appear to have been considerably more loyal. Yet in both states, the continued presence of an independent Armenian kingdom undoubtedly undermined loyalty to the Latin elite by keeping alive hopes of reincorporation in a greater Armenian state.
In the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Armenians played a much less significant role and the other religious groups were fragmented, so that no one group was in a position to seriously challenge Latin leadership. Furthermore, a Muslim traveler from Spain lamented the passivity of the Muslims under Christian rule. In his religious zeal, he may have forgotten or discounted the fact that even the majority of Muslims in the Holy Land were not ethnically Arab or Turkish. They viewed the Latin rulers as just one more alien invasion in a millennia long history of such invasions. They had indeed become passive, accepting and accommodating of each change of regime. Furthermore, there was a significant amount of intermarriage between males from Western Europe and females native to the Holy Land. This tended to reinforce tolerance on the part of both rulers and ruled.
Last but not least, the prominent role played by sergeants in the armies of the Holy Land suggests that the crusader states commanded considerable loyalty among the native, middle-class population. Some historians speculate that sergeants were drawn from the large population of “half-breed” youth, who – they postulate – did not qualify for knighthood because of native blood. The theory is not convincing, because knighthood could be bestowed on anyone, even full-blooded Arabs, Turks or Kurds. A more logical explanation is that the conditions of fighting in the Holy Land, particularly the fact that the Turks could muster armies with tens of thousands of light horse, made it necessary to have more mounted fighting men than the knightly class could support. The development of light cavalry on the Christian side was a response to the overwhelming number of cavalry on the Muslim side.
Because horses were expensive, however, these sergeants had to be recruited from among the social classes with comparatively high incomes, albeit not rich enough to afford the armor, arms and training of knights. The fact that secular leaders of the crusader kingdoms and the militant orders could recruit such men in such numbers (there was an almost two to one ratio of sergeants to knights at most of the Templar and Hospitaller castles) makes it very clear that the “middle classes” in the crusader states -- whether half-breeds or non-Latin Christians –- stood firmly behind the Christian regime.
That hardly seems reasonable if the Christian rulers were as “intolerant” as many modern books portray them.