[Order Shillman Fellow Raymond Ibrahim’s Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam: HERE.]
Mark Tapson is the Shillman Fellow on Popular Culture for the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The following review by Tapson was first published by FrontPage Magazine.
Historiography has been dominated in recent decades almost exclusively by leftists determined to take a wrecking ball to the glorious edifice of Western civilization in the name of social justice and multiculturalism. New York Times propagandist Nikole Hannah-Jones of the widely-debunked but nonetheless influential 1619 Project comes to mind. The coordinated mission of such activists has been to pervert and subvert the grand narrative of our culture into a sordid tale of oppression, exploitation, and white supremacy, and to brand all our flawed heroes as racists and knock them off their pedestals, both figuratively and literally.
This is one reason why the new book Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam, by historian Raymond Ibrahim, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, is such a refreshing, even thrilling read. As if the title alone weren’t guaranteed to inflame Progressive sensibilities, the book is unabashedly dedicated to “all the Past, Present, and Future Defenders of that which is Good, Right, and True.” Standing up for the Good, the Right, and the True (capitalized, no less) in our postmodern, post-Christian era? That’s a bold, increasingly rare position for any historian and publisher (Bombardier Books, in this case) to take today.
Defenders is a sort of follow-up to Ibrahim’s essential 2018 book Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. That book centered on decisive battles in the clash of civilizations, while the newer one zeroes in on the profiles of eight decisive men in that ongoing conflict, between the 11th and 15th centuries, from Spain’s El Cid and England’s Richard Lionheart to lesser-known but no less heroic figures such as France’s Saint Louis and the “Albanian Braveheart” Skanderbeg.
As in Sword and Scimitar, the foreword to Defenders was written by renowned historian Victor Davis Hanson, who actually served as Ibrahim’s Master’s thesis advisor in the late ‘90s. Hanson says of the men in Ibrahim’s latest, “In what now may seem an archaic sensibility, they were fighting for a unique way of life—or often a restoration of it—against a rising challenge completely foreign to everything in their experience, from the aspirations voiced on the Sermon of the Mount to Classical traditions of individual liberty.” Ibrahim himself explains that the book is about “eight men who, driven by something greater than themselves, devoted much of their lives and went to great lengths… to make a militant if not desperate stand against Islamic aggression.”
Ibrahim begins his profiles with a chapter on one of the most notable figures of the Age of Chivalry, Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, descendant of Charlemagne and Charles Martel. Godfrey – “a man totally devoted to war and God,” as one contemporary put it – did not hesitate to answer Pope Urban II’s call in 1096 to undertake the first of the Crusades against the Muslim occupiers of the Holy Land. The Crusades have been demonized, of course, by today’s anti-Western apologists as Christian aggression against Islam, when in fact, as Ibrahim notes,
Duke Godfrey and the other First Crusaders traveled to the Holy Land only because Muslims had been slaughtering and enslaving literally hundreds of thousands of Christians in the region over the preceding years and decades; [and because] Muslims had violently conquered that city most holy to Christians—Jerusalem, repeatedly defiling and torching Christ’s Sepulchre therein—to say nothing of the Islamic conquest of two-thirds of the Christian world in the preceding centuries, all of which gave Europe’s Christians little choice but to fight fire with fire.
One of the very first to set out to liberate the Holy Land, Godfrey led a force of 80,000 crusaders there, beginning years of combating not only Muslim warriors while retaking such cities as Nicaea and Antioch but hunger and thirst as well, in the unforgiving desert region, before finally reaching the gates of Jerusalem in 1099. Ibrahim’s rendering of the Crusaders’ determined siege of the Muslim-held city, and the bloody aftermath, is masterful storytelling. In the end, as historian Edward Gibbon described it, “Godfrey of Bouillon stood victorious on the walls of Jerusalem. His example was followed on every side by the emulation of valour; and about four hundred and sixty years after the conquest of Omar, the holy city was rescued from the Mohammedan yoke.”
In the wake of the siege, a reluctant Godfrey was chosen unanimously to rule the city, but only under his condition that he not be called King of Jerusalem, but Defender of the Holy Sepulchre. “God forbid,” he said, “that I should be crowned with a crown of gold, where my Saviour bore a crown of thorns.”
Upon his untimely death a year later at the age of 40 (likely having been poisoned by Muslim enemies), King Godfrey’s fame immediately spread far and wide; Ibrahim notes that “he was seen as the chivalrous hero” of the First Crusade. Visiting the Holy Sepulchre in 1867, no less a luminary than Mark Twain observed, upon seeing the relic of Godfrey’s sword there,
No blade in Christendom wields such enchantment as this—no blade of all that rust in the ancestral halls of Europe is able to invoke such visions of romance in the brain of him who looks upon it— none that can prate of such chivalric deeds or tell such brave tales of the warrior days of old…. This very sword has cloven hundreds of Saracen Knights from crown to chin in those old times when Godfrey wielded it.
In subsequent but no less fascinating chapters, Ibrahim paints portraits of seven more inspirational heroes of the West:
- the 11th-century Castilian knight Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, Spain’s undefeated national hero El Cid, who showed to his countrymen that Islam’s most fanatical hordes were not invincible, and whom even one of his Muslim enemies admitted was “a miracle among the great miracles of the Almighty”;
- King Richard Lionheart, “the archetypal medieval warrior-king and chivalrous knight par excellence,” as Ibrahim writes, who “went against the odds… cowed the forces of Islam, retook several cities and castles, and gave the Christians the much-needed breathing space to regroup and refortify”;
- the 13th-century warrior-king and saint Ferdinand, who spearheaded the Reconquista of Islamic Spain and was dubbed a “special athlete for Christ” by the Pope at the time;
- France’s pious Crusader King Louis IX who, upon hearing of the jihadist sacking of Jerusalem in 1244 while he lay dying from dysentery, literally rose up from his deathbed and vowed to “wrest the land from the Saracens”;
- John Hunyadi, the “warlord of Transylvania” who defended Central and Southeastern Europe against Ottoman plunderers in the mid-15th century and is still revered today as a national hero and savior in Hungary and beyond;
- Albania’s Skanderbeg, of whom one historian wrote, “Only the legendary feats of King Arthur and his knights…suggest a parallel of wondrous achievement,” who spent nearly twenty-five years of nonstop war in the mid-15th century in the successful defense of his tiny homeland against the world’s most powerful empire, the Ottomans;
- and last but not least, Vlad Dracul “the Lord Impaler,” the dreaded Romanian leader who turned the terror tactics of the Turks against them so successfully that his fearsome legend became the model (albeit an historically ignorant one) for Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty literary creation.
None of the brief recaps above comes close to capturing the epic narratives of the lives and exploits of Ibrahim’s subjects. Defenders of the West includes a wealth of detail about these men and their historical context, grounded in more than 1200 endnotes, mostly from both Christian and Arabic primary sources, without ever losing narrative momentum. Victor Davis Hanson rightly concludes in his foreword that the book “is engaging storytelling of fascinating people and forgotten events at its best. Although anchored in arcane or archaic texts, it reads and flows like an adroitly crafted novel, buttressed by a scholarship that allows those of the past to speak for the past.” As a reader with a special passion for medieval history and chivalric exploits both fictional and historical, I can attest that Raymond Ibrahim’s new book is as essential and compelling, if not more so, as his previous one.
And relevant as well, despite being centered on centuries-old warriors. As Hanson notes, “Ibrahim argues that these men’s careers can still offer some guidance in a far more dangerous modern world.” In the book’s conclusion, Ibrahim explains why the men in this book are among yesterday’s heroes who have become today’s villains:
For starters, they defended the lands and cause of Christendom and actually stood against the conquering armies of Islam. This is a big no-no for that overwhelming force—generically known as “the Left” that currently dominates mainstream thought and discourse, particularly through those two institutions that have had a profound impact on shaping Western society’s epistemology: media (social and otherwise—news, films, comedies, documentaries, and, of course, Hollywood) and academia (from kindergarten to postgraduate studies).
Not to mention the fact that, as Ibrahim writes, “every one of them was the living embodiment of what is today condemned as ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘the patriarchy.’ Worse, not only were they all white, male, and Christian, but—far from being ashamed or apologetic over these now ‘troubling’ attributes—two of these identity markers, their masculinity and religious faith, are precisely what animated them to act.” Ibrahim is careful not to argue that the heroes of his book were moral exemplars in every way, only that “[w]ithout them and so many more Defenders like them over the centuries, there would not have been a West to speak of today.”
And for the West to survive its current enemies, both foreign and domestic, it needs new Defenders like them. Toward that end, Defenders of the West: The Christian Heroes Who Stood Against Islam serves as much-needed edification and inspiration.