Ibrahim's work on Christian heroes is as much a redefinition of the concept of heroism as it is a retelling of mostly medieval accounts of Christians resisting Muslim attacks around the Mediterranean basin. To both ends, Ibrahim, a fellow at both the Middle East Forum and David Horowitz Freedom Center, has selected eight historical figures—Godfrey of Bouillon (Crusader Defender of the Holy Sepulcher), El Cid, Richard the Lionhearted, Fernando III of Castile, St. Louis IX of France, John Hunyadi, Skanderbeg of Albania, and Vlad Dracula of Wallachia.
This list is worth considering, as Ibrahim apparently chose his selection carefully: each figure represents a different geographical area, and the list appears to cover as many present-day European countries as possible (although no figure from present-day Italy is featured). Ibrahim focuses on two basic historical periods: the Crusading/Reconquista period (1097-1270), and the Ottoman conquest of southeastern Europe (1378-1683). North African and Ottoman attacks on Western Europe after the Reconquista are outside his focus.
Ibrahim's Christian heroes make up a mixed bag. All of the Crusading era figures aggressively pushed back against prior Muslim aggression, reconquering land once controlled by Christians. Of the initial five, only Fernando III's victory—at Los Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the importance of which Ibrahim rightly emphasizes—had lasting results, right to the present. All of the final three heroes against the Ottomans were tragic figures with Skanderbeg, the Albanian hero, eventually having his people convert to Islam and both Hunyadi and Dracula fighting long-term, losing battles as well.
The title raises the question of what constitutes a Christian hero: Is it someone who is militarily successful or a magnificent failure? How Christian must one be in order to be a defender of the West? The answer is not obvious.
For some of the Crusading figures, such as Godfrey, the Christian aspect of his short rule is prominent. Otherwise, his brother Baldwin I (d. 1118), who succeeded him and was the acknowledged founder of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, would have been the more obvious choice as a hero. Certainly, the Muslims were more in awe of Baldwin. St. Louis IX during his own lifetime was recognized for his Christian faith as well.
The more questionable heroes, El Cid and Richard, were adept military commanders, but neither was really much of a Christian hero. This reviewer is not sure about Ibrahim's pronouncement that Jerusalem would have fallen to the combined armies of the Third Crusade had Barbarossa lived and Philip II not abandoned the Crusade abruptly. Most of Richard's most brilliant military accomplishments happened when he did not have any equals with him in the field. It seems more likely that there would have been irresolvable personality clashes had these three rulers actually joined together as occurred during the Second Crusade, and Richard most likely would have been overshadowed by the more experienced Barbarossa. In any case, the difficulty with conquering Jerusalem during the Third Crusade was not in the actual taking of the city but in the Frankish ability to hold it as their manpower had been destroyed at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187.
Ibrahim reclaims El Cid from the "naysayers and scoffers," adducing Muslim historians' dislike of him. However, merely because Muslims cursed El Cid does not automatically make him a Christian hero.
The book suffers in that Ibrahim never really tells us what binds all of these figures together other than they were Europeans, fought Muslims at some point in their lives—although occasionally, at other times, participated in more dubious engagements—and are mostly either vilified or ignored by today's academics. The pervasive influence of those "naysayers and scoffers" makes it extremely important to be careful concerning definitions of heroes and heroism when writing such a book. Are those definitions best served by defending a figure such as El Cid when the more pertinent issue is the defense of European history in the face of present, craven apologetics?
Ibrahim's wish reclaiming Vlad Dracula as a Christian hero defending the West is a lost cause that better suits a private academic discussion than as ammunition against scoffing academics. Perhaps the chapter spent trying to rehabilitate Vlad the Impaler would have been more usefully given over to another defender of Europe.
Indeed, many more obvious candidates come to mind than those the author selected: Charles Martel, Byzantine emperors such as Leo III or Nikephoras Phokas, Robert Guiscard, Alfonso VI of Castile, Don Juan of Austria, Sebastian I of Portugal, or Jan Sobieski of Poland, for example. For a future work, perhaps Ibrahim might also consider the non-military figures who acted in a heroic manner—St. Francis comes to mind—but are largely forgotten today.
The book is an easy read with a great deal of narrative prior and supplemental supplied. Each chapter is named for a given figure in order to tell a larger contextual story connected to that personality's exploits.
Defenders highlights historical figures usually forgotten in today's presentation of European history. Well-documented, it contains copious original sources. The material cited and the author's perspective are both sorely lacking in the present discussions of pre-modern Europe.