Armstrong tries very hard -- and is, I think, often successful -- at being objective and considering all sides of the conflicts in the modern Middle EArmstrong tries very hard -- and is, I think, often successful -- at being objective and considering all sides of the conflicts in the modern Middle East. About the medieval conflict in the Middle East, which amounts to, after all, half the book, she seems much less interested and adopts, in lieu of the coveted "triple vision" she speaks of, an utterly safe and complacent moralism that is often surprisingly hectoring.
This characteristic sentence comes from near the end of the book:
"A cool political look at the Ottoman regime would have shown Christians that it had grave internal flaws: for all its imposing military strength, there was no way it could have conquered the whole of Europe."
The idea that anyone in Europe in the premodern period would have the data, let alone the theoretical framework, to spot the alleged weaknesses of the Ottomans is extremely dubious. The fact that The Empire could not "have conquered the whole of Europe" is cold comfort to the parts of southeastern Europe that it was able to conquer, and hold on to for centuries, not to speak of the whole of Asia Minor.
But this idea appears again and again in Holy Wars. Armstrong looks at a situation with some combination of hindsight and rose-colored glasses and then complains that medieval peasants didn't reach the same conclusions she has. Armstrong insists that ninth-century Frenchmen who just saw Muslim forces roll up all of Spain should have guessed that they would not proceed to conquer France. She appears unconcerned by contemporary events, such the Battle of Manzikert, the Caliph Hakim's destruction of Christian and Jewish places of worship, or the Turkish conquest of Jerusalem, that might offer an alternative explanation or justification for the Crusades.
At times when Islamophobia is rampant -- certainly as true of the years when the different editions of this book were released as it is today -- a book sensitive, even overly sensitive to a Muslim viewpoint can be valuable. At times when a Walter-Scott-tinged romantic view of the Crusades predominates -- this has not been the case for half a century or more now, of course -- a less rosy view of the era would be welcome. Armstrong's uneven, misleading book doesn't quite fill either of these niches. Every time she leaves the modern world, she leaves behind everything valuable or interesting about the book....more