There are two extremes when it comes to understanding the Crusades. One is to say that the Christians were completely unjustified to go to war with the peaceful Muslims living in the Middle East and the other is to say that the Crusades were merely a defensive war only waged after years of Muslim aggression. The reality is that horrible atrocities were committed by both sides and neither the Christians or the Muslims involved in the Crusades come out looking like heroes. Christian apologists will emphasize the atrocities committed by Muslims leading up to the Crusades while Muslim apologists will emphasize the atrocities committed by the Crusaders. The end result is that neither side presents an accurate picture of what happened because they are trying to make the other side look as bad as possible while neglecting to mention evidence that makes their side look just as bad.
The Myth of the Peaceful Muslims
It was the Muslims who started the fight between themselves and the Christians following Surah 9 to wage war on those who do not believe in the message of Islam. Muhammad personally executed hundreds of Jewish prisoners of war. His life of violence became the model for Muslims to follow and Islam spread rapidly throughout the Middle East in the seventh century. It was the Muslims who were the initial aggressors in the events leading up to the Crusades and that fact cannot be overstated enough. Islamic armies used mamluks or slave children who were prisoners of war forced to fight in combat against their own people. Non-Muslims had to either convert to Islam, die, or pay the oppressive tax known as the Jizya and live as second-class citizens. While there are many examples of Muslim atrocities committed against Christians, I will only mention one. In the 1268 Siege of Antioch, Sultan Baybars I burned many Christians to death inside the church after capturing the city. Thousands of innocent people were killed and many more were sold into slavery. By the time the Crusades started, almost two-thirds of the Christian world had been conquered by Muslims.
The Myth of the Noble Crusaders
In response to centuries of Muslim aggression, Pope Urban II called upon Christians to fight against the Turks promising plenary indulgences to whoever would answer the call to go to war. But on the way to the Crusades, many of the Crusaders murdered and plundered the Jewish communities of the Rhineland to pay for their Crusade to Jerusalem. When the Crusaders finally entered Jerusalem, they slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
In the Third Crusade, after the siege of Acre, Richard the Lionheart executed over 2,700 Muslim prisoners of war in response to Saladin’s delays. The Fourth Crusade was not even directed at Muslim lands, but resulted in the Christian city of Constantinople being looted by the Crusaders. Other Crusades include the one launched against the Albigensians and other religious minorities. The religious inquisitions of Catholicism are an extension of this crusade mentality designed to convert pagans, Jews, and heretics by force and intimidation to their understanding of Christianity.
The difference between the two groups is that while the Muslims were imitating the example of Muhammad in waging warfare against those who do not believe (Surah 9:29), the Crusaders were not following the example of Jesus when they killed innocent people and prisoners of war.