A recent op-ed piece in The Daily Star, titled “Crusading children: Fault in our stars... or ourselves?” published on March 31, was a bit intriguing and, perhaps, rather disconcerting. The author's (Dr Imtiaz A Hussain) original premise was charming—that the involvement of children in social movements was laudable and inspiring because of the innocence and idealism they bring to their efforts. But the example he chose to initiate the discussion was decidedly odd.
First, to compare the suffering of the participants in the Children's Crusade in the 13th century to the plight of Rohingya, Yemeni or Syrian refugee children today is rather befuddling.
But second, and more pertinently, to discuss the actions of those “Crusaders” in the same breath as the efforts of kids in Birmingham in 1963 struggling for racial equality, or youthful protesters in Florida pressing for gun control, or the schoolchildren in Dhaka demanding “justice” and safe streets, is more than just puzzling. The moral equivalence implied here is profoundly unfair.
Do contexts, objectives, methods and results not matter? The Crusades represented an arrogant ambition and a thoroughly misbegotten effort to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims through military aggression, and establish Christian control over the city and the Holy Lands surrounding it. Admittedly, the campaign was located within a pre-existing welter of complex encounters between Christians and Muslims for some time, and hostile memories and ugly perceptions were natural on both sides. But this particular assault was lifted to the status of a Holy War when Pope Urban blessed and inspired the engagement in Clermont in 1095, and the European Knights embraced the cause to defend and advance Christianity (even painting little crosses on their shields to protect them in war, and ensure entry into Heaven later).
The means utilised in this project were brutal, and viciously inflicted. When Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, it was laid waste in an orgy of slaughter and decimation directed at Jews and Muslims. More than 1.7 million people (including Crusaders) perished in this and a subsequent set of sporadic and relentless conflicts that engulfed the region. It should be pointed out that Muslims were not particularly gentle in their responses either.
And finally, it should be remembered that the entire exercise was futile; nothing honourable came out of it, and it ended in not just a military and political stalemate but deep and enduring misunderstandings between religions that persist to this day. Jerusalem remains a site of bitter contestation, generating much extremist and exclusivist fervour, even though all the three Abrahamic faiths have legitimate emotional and spiritual claims over it.
Salah-al-Din (Saladin) re-established control of the city in 1187. This was followed by successive waves of crusades that were unleashed to recover it. The most heart-wrenching, and perhaps the most abjectly manipulative, was the Children's Crusade in 1212.
Some kids, living in a heady and vulnerable environment of religious zealotry and over-wrought anxiety, were supposed to have had dreams, or received letters from Jesus Christ, and felt emboldened and provoked to take back Jerusalem (consecrated as the location of Christ's Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection). They had no idea about its history or geography, nor received any kind of military training, relevant advice or appropriate weapons. Most of these children died; many were sold into sexual slavery; and a few were lucky enough to escape and return to their parents. They were hapless victims of those terrible times, and were used by confused or cynical adults as sacrificial lambs to fulfill their own “hegemonic” interests.
How does this sad and sordid history, one of the most awkward moments in the history of Europe and the Catholic Church, compare to the nobility, moral authority and political maturity demonstrated by young people involved in various social causes and struggles later?