Historians Weigh in on Obama's Comparison of ISIS Militants to Medieval Christian Crusaders

PHOTO: An illustration from "Our Island Story" by H.E. Marshall, showing King Richard I, known as Richard the Lionheart. PlayPrint Collector/Getty Images
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After President Obama’s remarks comparing ISIS militants to medieval Christian crusaders ignited a firestorm of criticism on Thursday, ABC News wanted to know: how accurate is that comparison?

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” the president told an audience at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.

Meanwhile, historians have been quick to discourage a link between ISIS and the Crusaders, who fought to reclaim holy lands in the Middle East nearly 900 years ago.

“I don’t think the president knows very much about the crusades,” Thomas Madden, a historian at the University of St. Louis, told ABC News.

“He seems to be casting them as an example of a distortion of Christianity and trying to compare that to what he sees as a distortion of Islam in the actions of ISIS,” Madden said. “The initial goal of the Crusades was to give back lands to Christians that had been conquered, due to Muslim conquests.”

The Crusades, which began in 1095 with the call of Pope Urban II to recover Jerusalem from Muslim rule, were a series of wars that lasted nearly two centuries. Although no reliable estimate of casualties caused by Crusaders exists, the massacre of over 2,700 Muslim prisoners by Richard the Lionheart outside Acre during the Third Crusade has been well documented and is remembered in the Middle East to this day.

Thomas Asbridge, a historian at the University of London, said in a statement to ABC News, “It is true to say, that by modern standards, atrocities were committed by crusaders, as they were by their Muslim opponents, it is however, far less certain that, by medieval standards, crusading violence could be categorized as distinctly extreme in all instances.”

Asbridge said he doesn’t have a problem with the president reminding the world that the Christian Church “advocated violence, and at times even encouraged its adherents to engage in warfare” but to suggest a causal link between ISIS and the distant medieval phenomenon of the Crusades is “grounded in the manipulation and misrepresentation of historical evidence.”