In the run-up to the contest over the Federal Marriage Amendment last month, few journalists paid much attention to another bill making its way through the Senate. Drawing attention to a spate of violence directed primarily at Muslims, Sen. Ted Kennedy—one of the bill's sponsors—called for severer penalties against those committing crimes for religious reasons. Kennedy noted such crimes included "murders, beatings, arson, attacks on mosques, shootings, and assaults." The measure, an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2005 Defense authorization bill, passed on June 15 with a vote of 65-33.

Conservatives immediately condemned the legislation. The Republican Study Committee noted that the bill would require prosecutors to inquire into "an offender's overall philosophy or biases." The committee states, "The Kennedy bill makes philosophy, politics, biases, and general viewpoints the subject of almost every violent crime." Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America warned that such measures undermined "the principles of free speech and equal protection under law. Any senator who voted for this is setting up our children and grandchildren for persecution as activist courts rule that biblical morality is 'bigotry.'"

Curiously, a similar bill is making its way through the British Parliament under the direction of Home Secretary David Blunkett. The secretary wants to extend current legislation prosecuting crimes incited by racial prejudice to cover religious prejudice as well. To those worried it will restrict free speech, Blunkett argues, "The issue is not whether you have an argument or discussion or whether you are criticizing someone's religion. It's whether you incite hatred on the basis of it."

Let's hope Blunkett is being ingenuous here. If so, Christians have little to fear—and maybe something to gain—from laws protecting people on the basis of religion. After all, what benefits Muslims applies to Christians as well, doesn't it? But Blunkett's distinction between criticism and hatred may, in some cases, be difficult to draw. Does Franklin Graham's calling Islam an evil religion a couple of years ago constitute a hate crime? What examples can we draw on to differentiate peaceful yet genuine critique from criticism that inspires acts of hate?

A Man of Peace in a Time of War

In 12th-century Europe, the shoe was on the other foot. Islam was a power to be reckoned with, having taken over more than half of the Christian Roman empire only a few centuries before. Muslims ruled not only the relatively remote Middle East and northern Africa but also significant territory on the European continent. Christians tried to resist the military invasion—the most notable success being that of Charles Martel, who stopped the Islamic advance at Tours in 732. Yet Christianity retreated throughout most of the early Middle Ages, as Muslim armies consolidated their gains and threatened the centers of Christian power.

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In 1095, however, the balance of power began to shift. European aristocracy responded to Pope Urban II's call to retake Jerusalem for Christendom, and over the next five years, crusaders carved out kingdoms deep in Islamic territory. For the first time, Muslims found themselves on the defensive. The Church's enthusiasm was palpable—one of its leading authorities, the abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, threw his weight behind a new military monastic order called the Knights Templar, and he wrote a handbook defining and praising this new vocation. These knight-monks would go on to play a critical role in the wars fought by crusaders.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about this militaristic spirit spreading throughout western Europe. Peter of Cluny (also called Peter the Venerable), abbot of a rival monastic order to Bernard's Cistercians, had grave misgivings about the real purpose of these crusaders. In a letter to Bernard, he reminded the abbot that the "Church does not have the sword of a king, but the staff of shepherd," and he insisted that the only way Christians could rightfully wield any sword was through preaching the Gospel—even to Muslims.

The abbot knew that Christian knights, however motivated by the Christian cause, had no intention of endangering their military campaigns by pausing to engage in theological disputations. Peter worried that everything gained by the crusaders in war would be lost if these soldiers did not win the hearts of the people they conquered. In this, his predictions proved to be tragically prophetic.

Wielding a Gentle Sword

Peter knew that if Christians were to even have the opportunity to share the Gospel with their Muslim enemies, they must first understand what Muslims believed. And so in 1142, he traveled to Toledo, Spain—recently "liberated" from Muslim rule—to research vast Islamic libraries confiscated by Christian troops. Knowing no Arabic himself, the abbot commissioned two men fluent in the language to translate four documents into Latin, one of these being the Qu'ran itself. In the interest of accuracy and fairness, Peter even hired a Muslim to aid the men in their work.

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The expedition was a success, and Peter desired that the material be put to use at once. Writing to Bernard of Clairvaux, he challenged the abbot to read the translations and construct a defense of Christianity for all of Christendom. "I have made known all these things to you especially . . . that I may animate that magnificent learning of yours, which God has so singularly granted to you in our days, to write against so pernicious an error [as Islam]."

But Bernard, intent on preaching a second crusade, neglected to take up the challenge. So Peter wrote two tracts of his own, the Summa Totius Haeresis Saracenorum, which laid out for Christians the central beliefs of Muslims and where they deviated from Christian doctrine, and the Liber contra sectam sive haeresim Saracenorum, a refutation in the form of a letter to the Islamic community. In the prologue of this letter Peter wrote, "The reason for my writing these things was precisely the reason for which the many great Fathers had. They could not suffer any or the slightest rejection of the Christian faith, nor did they tolerate the insane raving of all manner of heretics against sound doctrine. . . . It is the same for me. Nor must I, though by far inferior and unequal to them, be less zealous for the Church of God, the Spouse of Christ, than they."

It may come as a surprise to many Christians today that Peter understood Islam not as a distinct religion but as a heresy of the Christian faith—with a little paganism thrown in. In his Summa, he notes that Muhammad "denies the Trinity with Sabellius, rejects the divinity of Christ with Nestorius, and he disavows the death of the Lord with Mani, although he does not deny his return to the heavens." He goes on: "With pagans however, he rejects baptism, does not accept the Christian sacrifice of the Mass, and he derides penance and all the rest of the sacraments of the Church."

An Approach for the 21st Century

So what does Peter have to say to us today? And would his criticisms be lumped with the "hate crimes" that western Muslims are intent on having prosecuted and dealt with severely? Peter would most assuredly write forcefully against Islam, pointing out inconsistencies and errors as he saw them, all the while making a case for the deity of Christ. And it is likely he would join the chorus of Christians and other conservatives worried that laws prosecuting hate crimes on the basis of religion would squelch any real criticism of the Muslim faith. After all, Peter wrote his polemical tracts with the protection of an extensive network of monasteries and Christian princes ready to defend the land from Muslim invasions.

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But Peter would also urge his fellow Christians to abstain from any form of violence against Muslims, as that only serves to generate animosity. Could he have witnessed not only the failure of the Crusades, but perhaps more importantly, the bitterness and hatred that plagues Christian-Muslim relations even today because of those wars, he might have taken a direct stand against the militarism of Bernard and other crusaders. Peter would remind us that we should not approach Muslims "as our people often do, by arms, but by words; not by force, but by reason; not in hatred, but in love."

Now that's a message worth taking to Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Blunkett, and our Muslim friends and neighbors.

Steven Gertz is assistant editor for Christian History and Biography. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Related Elsewhere:

Christian History Corner, a weekly column from the editors and writers of Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

The Amish Come Knocking | UPN's Amish In the City shows us our modern selves in a mirror that is positively medieval (July 30, 2004)
All of Christian History in 6 Hours | This audio tour de force is strong meat for a mature Christian audience. (July 23, 2004)
The Prohibition of Gay Marriage | We can learn from the defeat of American Christian activism's greatest legislative victory. (July 16, 2004)
Hey, John Kerry, WWFFD? | "What Would the Founding Fathers Do" about the application of Christian principles to American politics? A few cautionary words. (July 09, 2004)
Testify! | A glimpse inside the world of "holiness testimony," through the story of an ex-slave woman evangelist. (July 02, 2004)
To Spank or Not to Spank? | A 6th-century abbot and a group of 17th-century Calvinist "divines" weigh in on the issue (June 24, 2004)
Should We Fight for "Under God"? | The right approach to these two little words may not be obvious. (June 04, 2004)
I Was in Prison and You Abused Me | What would Jesus do at Abu Ghraib? (May 28, 2004)
Do Nigerian Miracle Ministries Discredit the Faith? | The spiritual dynamism of West African Christianity is now well known even in the West. Do credulity-stretching, highly publicized miracles discredit what God is doing in that region? (May 21, 2004)
Holy America, Phoebe! | It swept across church lines, transforming America's urban landscape with its rescue missions and storefront churches. Yet today, the "holiness movement" and its charismatic woman leader are all but forgotten. (May 14, 2004)