[NB: I wrote this shortly after 9-11. Here it is again, lightly revised, primarily for clarity.]
I reread the Song of Roland with my medieval history class last week, for maybe the tenth time. After 9-11, it had a new resonance. From my first reading in graduate school I had noted the simplistic religiosity it expressed, but had not realized how much a close reading can help us understand the world of religious terrorists.
The Song, one of the earliest poems composed in (Old) French sometime around 1100, recounts the tale [non-fictions in italic] of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew whom 400,000 Muslims (a band of Basques) attacked through the treacherous machinations of his step-father, Ganelon, in the passes of the Pyrenees while he commanded the rear guard (baggage train) of Charlemagne’s withdrawing army. Instead of blowing his horn to warn Charlemagne and the main body of the army to come help him, he preferred to take on the enemy with his band of 20,000 men, among whom were the “twelve peers”, the greatest fighting men in the kingdom. Although he succeeded in routing the enemy, his entire band of lusty Frankish warriors, including the noble archbishop Turpio, all died in the process.
Roland, too great to fall even to a massive barrage of spears and arrows, died from bursting his veins in blowing the horn too loud when he finally realized all was lost. Charlemagne, upon learning of this terrible loss, returned and, with the help of God who stops the sun to enable his pursuit, wiped out the enemy, taking their main city and converting the surviving population to Christianity.
Roland and his men, and the story tellers and their audiences show no interest in their enemies (except perhaps as valiant warriors whose greatness serves to enhance the glory of the Christian victory) and know virtually nothing about them. Muslims worship Apollo and Mohammed and idols. (This, of course, stands in striking contrast with the reality that the Christians faced a culture that was considerably more monotheistic and aniconic than the dominant religiosity in Latin Christendom, with its trinitarian and dualist debates, and its relic-stuffed statues to which both masses and elites bowed down.) The Muslims of Spain, in the composer’s view, had the same primitive political structures as the West, a rural monarchy whose army derived from a system of mini-kings (lords) and their vassals exercising direct control over commoner populations (peasantry). These Franks, apparently had neither knowledge of, nor interest in Muslims: for them this cultural “other” was pure and crude projection, a shadow self – everything bad, degraded, abominable. As a child might put it, they are “stupid and bad.”
But such simple vision works well with a world in which those who fight evil are, by definition good. Roland’s Christianity in the song is prominent and simple. “The pagans are wrong, the Christians are right,” he shouts as they enter battle with Muslims (1015). The archbishop, who kills as lustily as the rest, assures the warriors, “One thing I can act as guarantor: Holy paradise is open to you; you will take your seat amongst the Innocents (1521-3).” When the enemy dies “His soul is carried off by Satan (1268).” Roland and his band die “martyrs” surrounded by the hundreds of corpses of his slain enemies. “Since the apostles had there was never such a prophet [as Roland] for maintaining the faith and winning men over (2255-6).”
How aware is the composer of the irony he presents? Does he show any awareness of the incongruity of Jesus and his disciples, martyred without resistance because they turned the other cheek, alongside this zealot, dead from excess pride and love of glory, surrounded by a final body count that puts Sylvester Stallone to shame? Almost none.
We may see a glimmer of it in the victory scene, when Charlemagne gives the conquered population its choice between conversion or death, and many die and still more convert, “true Christians all.” To this scene of crude power-politics, the composer adds that the major babe of the story, the wife of the conquered king, will be brought to Aachen so that she can convert “out of love.” (Women so often do bring out the anomalies.) One might read this as a highly sarcastic discourse about Christianity, one that despises the crude barbarity of these thick-skulled warriors (they wear helmets) with their ludicrous idea that true Christianity spreads by such violence; that martyrs die drenched in the blood of their victims, dead because they are not “the last man standing.”
But whatever the ironic layers a literate composer might fold into this tale, the audience for this blockbuster action-flick overwhelming saw no problem here. The aristocracy of the 12th century relished this tale, the first full epic text in French. They resonated effortlessly with the world of plundering elites, who annually go to war for booty and dominion, a world where the unquestioned rule of interaction is the dominating imperative: “rule or be ruled.” In their world, might makes right: “Strike barons, do not delay. Charles is in the right against these men… God has allowed us to administer His judgment” (3366-8). Even Ganelon, the evil traitor, can escape if he can prevail in trial by combat.
Nor should we see this belief in God as “mere ornament.” God’s role, so prominent in both their angel-inspired and divinely-assisted battle, is to chose sides. The Christian invocations in the text are passionate. These men really believe that God is Christian and on our side – “Gott mit uns.” Indeed, the epic makes most sense as the crusader tale told countless times on the way to Jerusalem between 1096-99, a paroxysm of sacred violence, murderous suicide martyrdoms, and religious massacres. Through the Crusade, whose cry was “God wants it!”, a religion of peace had sanctified violence, making crusading at once an act of salvific destruction and love – Destroying the world to save it.
No matter how powerful, if grossly crude, the religion of the text, something else moves these warriors and their audience far more pervasively than even this violent piety – honor. For honor Roland will not blow his horn: “God forbid that any man alive should say that pagans made me blow the horn (1073-5)” And this honor shows the same egotistical orientation as the religion. Oliver speaks of the honor that feels obliged to others – it is not honorable but foolish to fail one’s lord – but he cannot sway Roland whose overwhelming concern is his name.
And behind such narcissistic honor lies an equally powerful fear of shame. Facing impossible odds with reckless abandon Roland cries “My desire becomes all the greater [to enter the fray without calling for help]. May it never please the Lord God and his angels that France should ever lose its fame because of me. I prefer to die than to suffer such shame (1088-91).” As we listen to the conversations these action-heroes have with each other, we listen in on a world where all is shame and honor, where passionate “loves” vie with equally powerful hatreds, where anger and ferocity serve the [divine] cause of vengeance. Wounded fatally, Oliver realizes that “never will he have his fill of vengeance now (1966).” For these warriors, the greatest act – one that will bring you straight to heaven – is taking people down to the grave with you… the more, the better.
As for more “reasoned,” positive-sum sentiments, they carry no weight in the calculus of action. The possibility that Roland will bring calamity on his own men by his pride, carries no weight with him. Everyone and everything exists to bring him and his fellow warriors greater glory. Even in his final death scene, Roland thinks only of glory. He does not for a moment say even a word about his fiancée. She, in turn, dies at the news of his death, claiming “May it not please God or his saints or his angels that I live on after Roland’s death (3718-9).”
This utterly narcissistic obsession with honor, with its accompanying patriarchal beliefs in which women should die for the honor of their men, illuminates the accompanying religiosity. These men live in a world of violent dominion, revenge, and overweening pride; they have hijacked Christianity, whose basic spirituality they cannot even begin to glimpse. As Clovis allegedly said, when hearing of the crucifixion of Jesus: “If me and my men had been there, we’d have avenged his death.”
The obvious parallels to Bin-Laden’s warriors are painful and suggestive:
- The notion that in killing as many enemies as possible before dying one is guaranteed a place in heaven, while the enemies go straight to hell.
- The incapacity to see the cultural “other” in any but the crudest projections of one’s own shadow.
- The accompanying absence of self criticism.
- The utter self-centeredness of the “hero” for whom the lives of his own, much less his enemies, mean little.
- The idea that violence can best serve to spread one’s “true” religion, that an orgy of violence can be salvific.
- The terrible importance of honor, the unbearable nature of shame.
- The total subordination of women to the demands of men’s honor.
To what extent does Bin Laden’s religious fervor distort Islam and the Qur’an as Roland’s did Christianity? That is a question still to be answered by Muslims in the coming generations, but a question to be posed by all non-Muslims as of this moment. Is this fury of a warrior culture committed to violent domination a core quality of Islam. Does Islam’s failure to dominate, indeed its inferiority to an economically and technologically superior West (and still more appallingly, to the weakest and most subject of all peoples, the Jews), constitute an unforgivable humiliation which only ferocious violence can sufficiently can rectify. Or do Muslims, in the name of Islam, have the capacity to define its relations to others in a more sophisticated manner than Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb.
Perhaps these parallels explain why, for the first time this year, my class did not like the Song of Roland, felt it had no Hollywood potential, found Roland and his band of suicide warrior-martyrs unattractive. Good instincts. Roland seethes in a stew of testosteronic “boys-will-be-boys” violence that our culture has wisely chosen to prune back, rather than to encourage. We do not cheer at the sight of our enemies’ people slaughtered by our heroic conquerors; we go out of our way not to demonize another people. Post-modernism, with its tremendous respect for the “other” represents the cutting edge of these pacific sensibilities.
But does that mean that all other cultures feel the same way about their “other”? A sober look at Arab and Muslim culture around the world today reveals a startling condition: testosterone runs wild, violent elites pursue power and money, unrestrained even by the immense suffering it brings to their own people. At the same time, they show a remarkable attraction to scape-goating narratives that blame the “other” for all failures, that not merely accuse, but, with the use of extensive conspiracy theories, demonize the “other,” that even incite genocidal hatreds against that “other.”
Correspondingly, we find a paralyzed capacity for self-criticism among too many Muslims. The classic tribal warrior ethic cannot admit fault for fear of losing face. Their motto: sooner die (or fail) than admit error publicly, preferably taking as many people down with you as possible. Thus “secular” and religious leaders in the Muslim world both liberally disseminate among a population of frightened and miserable commoners, their narrative predilection for conspiracist scape-goating.
Thus, they also rouse up a “street” culture that vents these cultivated hatreds of “others” and rejoices in doing damage to its enemies’ civilians. It reflects a massively self-centered world in which the “other” is a projection of their own dreams of conquest and dominion. The “other” in their vision seeks the submission (islam) of all [i.e., Muslims] to its diabolic rule. In such a world “we” Muslims can do no wrong (except for lack of violent zeal) as long as we seek “their” destruction. And in this, it closely resembles that crusading Christianity of almost a millennium ago, wading in the blood of its enemies as it enters Jerusalem, singing “This is the Day that the Lord made, we will rejoice and glory in it.”
Of course, there are also important differences. Bin-Laden, however primitive and uneducated some of his admirers, is not nearly as crude a warrior as Roland who comes across as the country bumpkin in this comparison. Bin Laden’s religious hatreds are vintage, nourished by decades of theological teachings that articulate complex and compelling scenarios of evil plots and remorseless, cosmic enmities. Roland and his peers hijacked Christianity with an active cataclysmic apocalyptic scenario aimed at a creedal eschatology, including religio-cidal rages where they slaughtered all who refused to convert, in order to save souls before the Last Judgment (Christian=saved).
Bin Laden and his fellow Jihadis, on the other hand, while also adopting an active cataclysmic apocalyptic scenario in which they are Allah’s instruments in punishing the creedal evil-doers (i.e., non-Muslims, the apostates and infidels), looks forward a hierarchical millennium where Muslims rule over the Dhimmi in this world — global Dar al Islam. In order for that millennium of Peace and Justice to occur, the “old” and evil “order” must be destroyed. Projective narratives of an implacably hostile West create a paranoid imperative: exterminate or be exterminated.
Thus killing the enemy’s civilians becomes a central weapon of war. While for the Franks (and so many others, including Jihadis, throughout history), civilian massacres were permissible (and apparently enjoyable), they are not really honorable for a great warrior; alone killing a worthy enemy brings real honor. With 9-11, however, honor was restored by maximizing civilian casualties.
In addition to these specific contrasts, the larger situation differs, indeed, one might argue, the modern world has both amplified and inverted conditions. Thanks to almost a millennium of compound technological advances, the violent zealot has far more power. Roland could only do damage with a sword and his tale is told only by the bards; Bin Laden’s horizon is limited only by what he can steal from our own factories of mega-death, and his ability to preach his word, globally and intensively. Images of his stupendous deeds on 9-11 traveled the entire world. The stakes involved in these narrative fantasies are, therefore, far greater.
At the same time, since modernity arose from the West, relations between Christianity (now, and significantly, post-Christianity) and Islam have been reversed since Roland’s day. Then Europe was the “third world,” the retarded and primitive economy in comparison with the “first world” Islam. Then, Christian frustration at their perceived impotence at the hands of a more powerful foe drove the appetite for holy war. Understanding this historical reversal can give us insights into the religious rage of Islam a millennium later, as it now struggles against a technologically and culturally dominant West, as it reacts to a particularly intrusive wave of Western driven globalization.
And beyond these insights, the comparison may also offer a way out. Understanding those elements that led the West eventually (and erratically, and imperfectly) to renounce such violent religious megalomania, may help us identify similar qualities in Islam and the societies in which it has hegemony. These traits, if encouraged, might help us all enter into a civic relationship between non-believers and over a billion Muslims the world over.
Any serious religious tradition – Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, you name it – understands that while the demands of honor may serve well the world of domination and power, any spiritual development demands the renunciation of honor concerns. “Shame and fame are all the same.”
Who are the practitioners of such renunciations in Islam, the analogues to the immensely influential and creative apostolic Christians of the last Western millennium?
How can we help them articulate an Islam that does not need to project evil onto scapegoated enemies in order to breath?
How do we acknowledge the pain of Muslims at the humiliations of modernity, without submitting to their totalizing and demonizing discourse of victimization?
All good questions. But in order to answer them, we will have to learn more about our “Middle Ages”, and more about Islam.
And in the last ten years, we seem to have learned too little of either.
Department of History