Even at the height of the Crusades, Frederick II promoted religious tolerance.
U.S. President Donald Trump has emphasized that a central focus of his administration will be to wipe the so-called Islamic State “from the face of the Earth.” Key presidential advisers like Steve Bannon have spoken of Islam as the enemy of the United States and the West. And now Trump has signed a second Muslim-focused travel ban involving six nations ― a list that could expand ― following his campaign pledge to ban all Muslims from the United States, at least temporarily. He desperately needs to reassess his mindset if he wants to be successful.
The president is aware, as he said in his address to Congress, of the need to work with “allies in the Muslim world” in order to genuinely combat the problem of global terrorism. Yet this will be impossible if Trump continues to antagonize the world’s Muslims, including American allies. Demonizing Islam and issuing bans on citizens from Muslim-majority countries are not only ineffective ways to fight terrorism, but they also alienate valuable partners who find such Islamophobic rhetoric and actions humiliating and counter to many of their cherished cultural and tribal codes of honor, dignity and hospitality.
Instead, Trump and his administration should pursue a different tactic ― one that looks to win the hearts and minds of the larger Muslim community. Only then will he have the diverse scope to take on the threat posed by ISIS and groups like it. To do this, President Trump should draw from a relevant portion of history some eight centuries ago ― the acquisition of Jerusalem by the legendary Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II at the height of the Crusades through peaceful and diplomatic means.
It is hard to believe today when extremist groups like ISIS openly declare war on Christians, that there was a time when the ancestors of the same Muslims in the region in which the group originated handed over one of the world’s prized cities and a key objective of the Crusades without violence. Why and how this occurred has important implications for American policy today.
Frederick II, one of the most powerful rulers of Europe in his time who lived from 1194 to 1250, was a remarkable medieval monarch. Raised in Sicily, which had a significant Muslim population, he spoke numerous languages including Arabic, had a Muslim bodyguard and his coronation mantle, which bears Arabic inscriptions, became the coronation mantle for every Holy Roman Emperor until the 18th century.
The emperor showed respect for religious minorities like Jews and Muslims, promoted the work of the great Andalusian Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, and was known to celebrate festivals associated with the prophet of Islam. He was fascinated by and committed to the pursuit of knowledge and greatly respected Islamic learning, often writing to the greatest rulers in the Muslim world to seek their responses to important philosophical questions. The unusualness of a Christian king seeking these kinds of relationships during the Crusades was not lost on the Muslim rulers. They answered Frederick in good faith and bonds grew between Europe and the Muslim world in spite of the tension and bloodshed of the clashes.
Frederick’s greatest triumph ― which should be taught in schools of strategy and diplomacy today ― was to use these tactics of cultural understanding and respect to successfully take Jerusalem for Christianity. In doing so, Frederick accomplished the dream of every Christian ruler of Europe since Saladin, one of the more prominent Muslim political leaders of the time, had recaptured the city from the Christians decades earlier, in 1187, ending nearly 90 years of Christian rule.
As word reached Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt, the nephew of Saladin, that a new Crusade was heading his way, he heard rumors about the emperor who was leading it. Al-Kamil sent his vizier, the Egyptian Emir Fakhr ad-Din, to visit Frederick and assess the situation. A close friendship developed between Fakhr ad-Din and Frederick that was enriched by the exchange of ideas and gifts. Frederick even knighted Fakhr ad-Din.
While these friendships developed, negotiations over Jerusalem seemed to remain at a stalemate. But Frederick focused on building relationships with the Muslim leaders, and as the American historian Thomas Curtis Van Cleve, citing the accounts of medieval Muslim historians, wrote, “This scholarly exchange appear[ed] to have succeeded where other methods failed.”
Through the exchanges with Fakhr ad-Din, Frederick and al-Kamil negotiated a deal, known as the Treaty of Jaffa (1229), whereby Frederick would obtain Jerusalem but the Muslims would control Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock on the site of Solomon’s Temple, which Christians could access to pray. Jews would be permitted entrance to the city to pray at the Western Wall on the Temple Mount, Muslims would retain a qadi, or judge, in Jerusalem and non-resident Muslim pilgrims in Jerusalem were to be protected. Muslims were also to be allowed access to Bethlehem, which passed to Frederick’s control. Nazareth, Sidon, Tibnin (Turon), Jaffa and Acre were also handed over to Frederick.
Escorted by his Muslim bodyguard and accompanied by his tutor in Arab scholarly thinking, a Sicilian Muslim, Frederick arrived in Jerusalem soon after to be received with honor by Shams ad-Din, the eminent qadi of Nablus, who the sultan assigned to host Frederick. In his enthusiasm to honor his guest and not to disturb his rest, Shams ad-Din asked the local muezzins not to make the call to prayer. But the next day Frederick was not pleased and complained to the qadi, “O qadi, why did the muezzins not give the call to prayer in the normal way last night?” Shams ad-Din replied, “This humble slave prevented them, out of regard and respect for Your Majesty.” That, however, did not please Frederick: “My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem was to hear the call to prayer given by the muezzins, and their cries of praise to God during the night.” Frederick then reprimanded the qadi: “you have done wrong; why do you deprive yourself because of me of your normal obligation, of your law, of your religion?”
Shams ad-Din later accompanied Frederick to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the emperor expressed his delight at its beauty, especially the magnificence of the mihrab, or arch that points toward Mecca. Affectionately holding Shams ad-Din’s hand, the emperor stepped out of the mosque only to be confronted by a priest holding the gospels and others attempting to force entry into the mosque. Frederick was furious and shouted, “What’s that you have brought here? By God, if one of you tries to get in here without my leave, I will have his eyes out. We are the vassals and slaves of this Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. He has granted these churches to me and to you as an act of grace. Do not any of you step out of line.” The abashed priest made a hasty retreat.
Frederick had accomplished the seemingly impossible in retaking Jerusalem for Christianity peacefully. In a letter to King Henry III of England, the emperor stressed the significance of his success: “In these few days, by a miracle, rather than by valor, that undertaking has been achieved which for a long time numerous princes and various rulers of the world … have not been able to accomplish by force.”
After Frederick returned from the Middle East he continued to speak effusively of the Egyptian sultan, telling distinguished visitors that his friend was dearer to him than any person alive save for his own son. When the sultan died in 1238, Frederick mourned. In a letter to the King of England, Frederick lamented the sultan’s passing, writing that “many things would have been very different in the Holy Land if only my friend al-Kamil had been still alive.”
While the 21st century is very different from the 12th, this episode from history is a lesson for President Trump, the United States and other Western governments that are interacting with the Muslim world and Muslims living in their own societies. Frederick had every reason to think like other Europeans of his time about Islam and Muslims. Yet by taking a drastically different route, he was one of the few, if not the only European ruler who was able to succeed where so many had failed, and to do so without a battle.
To be sure, Frederick had a powerful army and often did not hesitate to use it. But in this case he saw something that military might alone could not achieve. He established a rapport with the other side, laid out his own objectives and listened to theirs with respect. It was on the basis of this approach that the other side responded and both were able to speak with cordiality and arrive at a solution.
Frederick’s strategy underscores the importance of those features that define the greatness of a civilization: knowledge, wisdom, respect and compassion for other human beings. In fact, the significance he placed on reason and on understanding people directly rather than through hearsay is a lesson that could not be more relevant in today’s age of “fake news” and xenophobia.
Such values should guide not only America’s relationship with the Muslim world, but also with the world at large. After all, these are the very ideals of America’s Founding Fathers, and it is well to remember their wisdom: Thomas Jefferson said, “Knowledge is power … knowledge is safety … knowledge is happiness”; George Washington wished for “peace with all the world”; and Benjamin Franklin believed that “to relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity; ’tis godlike.”
The task of defeating ISIS and eradicating terrorism is not an easy one. And the battlefields before us are far more complex than during Frederick’s days. It would be naive to believe that his tactics of friendship and cultural understanding could work with terrorists who seek dehumanization over humanization. But it’s not too late to reach out to real Muslims ― and not those who use the religion as a cover for a radical and violent ideology. These Muslims around the world have been victimized by terror, too, and they want to defeat ISIS just as much as any American (American Muslims included). It’s time to listen to them and take in their point of view as we create our own.
President Trump must decide if he is going to use smart tactics to strengthen relationships with friends and allies, win the respect and favor of the Muslim world and thereby destroy ISIS, or demonize Islam, ban Muslims and exacerbate the already rising tides of hatred and violence around the world. He cannot do both.
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the author of the forthcoming book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity, from which this article is adapted.
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