I've been reading The New Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham: Roman and Littlefield, 2006) by modern, secular mediaeval expert Thomas F. Madden. It's a very readable, popular-level book, drawing on his expertise in this area.
His final chapter and conclusion are fascinating, how the remembering and retelling of history changes over time… and in the process distorts history.
For a long time the Western world saw the Crusades as a good thing
Until the last 70 years or so, much of the reflection of the Crusades was positive. It was a noble and glorious cause. As a result, 'crusade' had the overtones of a “grand and glorious campaign for a morally just goal” (215).
Bringing civilisation through the process of colonialisation and the Great War were both portrayed as glorious Crusades. In fact the the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after Wolrd War I was seen as the final chapter of the Crusades.
The Western, anti-religious and anti-colonial revisions of the Crusades
From the Enlightenment into the 19th Century, the Crusades began to be seen by some intellectuals as a horrible example of senseless, intolerant religious war. Saladin was portrayed as a wonderfully chivalrous leader whose sophisticated civilisation was brutalised by the crusaders.
Marxism likewise provided a new lense through which to examine the Crusades: they were simply an early, imperialistic land-grab.
The historical evidence, as weighed by Madden, do not justify either of these secularist readings of the motivations of the crusaders or the cultural realities of the Crusades. They are more anachronistic re-readings than accurate, contextual explanations.
The Crusades were not an important thing for the Muslim world until the 19th and 20th centuries
The simple fact is that the crusades were virtually unknown in the Muslim world even a century ago…. Westerners may be surprised to learn that Muslims in the Middle East have only recently learned of the crusades…. It must be remembered that although the crusades were of momumental important to Europeans, they were a very minor, largely insignificant thing to the Muslim world. (217–218)
It seems that knowledge of the Crusades was introduced to the Middle East by colonialism, to show how Western imperialism was a good thing for the Middle East… and that kind of backfired 😛
Once the Western world began to critique colonialism and revise and critique the history of the Crusades in the second half of the 20th Century:
Arab nationalists and Islamists agreed fully with this interpretation of the crusades. Poverty, corruption and violence in the Middle East were said to be the lingering effects of the crusades and subsequent European imperialism. The Muslim world had failed to keep up with the West because it had been dealt a debilitating blow by the crusaders, a blow that was repeated by their European descendents in the nineteenth century. (220)
The reality of the Crusades vs the modern re-tellings
But Madden asserts that this just does not reflect the historical reality:
Scholars have long argued that the crusades had no beneficial effect on Europe's economy. Indeed, they constituted a massive drain on resources. The rise of population and wealth in Europe predated the crusades, indeed allowed them to happen at all. Rather than decadent or 'assaulted on all sides' the Muslim world was growing to ever new heights of power and prosperity after the destruction of the crusader states in 1291. It was the Muslim world, under the rule of the Ottoman sultans, that would invade western Europe, seriously threatening the survival of the last remnant of Christendom. The crusades contributed nothing to the decline of the Muslim world. Indeed, they are evidence of the decline of the Christian West, which was forced to mount these desparate expeditions to defend against ever expanding Muslim empires. (221–222)
And in reflection on the use of the Crusades in some modern Muslim rhetoric:
It is not the crusades, then, that led to the attacked of September 11, but the artificial memory of the crusades constructed by modern colonial powers and passed down by Arab nationalists and Islamists. They stripped the medieval expeditions of every aspect of their age and dressed them up instead in the tattered rags of nineteenth-century imperialism. As such, they have become an icon for modern agendas that medieval Christians and Muslims could scarcely have understood, let alone condoned. (222)