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How Islamists Use the Crusades

Western men and women have wiped the reality of the crusades from their minds. They ignore the important part crusading played in Christian history and they have forgotten how recently it was respectable. Unable to face up to the past, they have reinvented it to suit their notions of what it ought to have been. The irony is that in Islamist jihadi propaganda they are all crusaders themselves. There is hardly a statement of Osama bin Laden which does not include a reference to present-day crusades, which, he is convinced, have been launched by the West in a global war. Jihadis like him identify as one of their most potent enemies a force they call Crusaderism, which they believe to be much more ancient than Marxism, Zionism and Colonialism. It lurks behind and manipulates these surrogates, with the sole purpose of destroying Islam.

We cannot reply to the Islamists, because we do not comprehend or even recognize the sources of the language they use, and we fail to see that, even though they do not recognize this themselves, their point of reference is not the middle ages but the nineteenth century.

Positive ideas and images of the crusades survived in Europe into the very recent past. The rise of imperialism after 1800 was enveloped in clouds of pseudo-crusading rhetoric, portraying adventures in Algeria, Morocco and even Indo-China in crusading terms, although these enterprises had nothing at all to do with the old reality. There were a few para-crusading projects, in which genuine but distorted elements from the old movement were selectively re-used, and there was at least one authentic expression of crusading, the foundation by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1890 of a true military order, L’Institut Religieux et Militaire des Frères Armés du Sahara. The Institut did not last long, but its existence demonstrated how powerful a hold the crusades still had on the European imagination.

Nineteenth-century language and imagery drew on two influential sources. Joseph-François Michaud’s epic Histoire des croisades, published between 1812 and 1822, had been imbued with a passionate  nationalism and with a vision of the crusades as instruments of western civilization. The enthusiasm it generated in France and elsewhere was expressed in the popular association of imperialist ventures with pseudo-crusading. On the other hand, Sir Walter Scott’s four crusade novels, published between 1819 and 1831, had painted a less flattering picture of crusaders who were brave and glamorous, but also vainglorious, avaricious, childish and boorish, facing Muslims who were their cultural superiors.

The romantic imperialistic tradition stemming from Michaud was obviously at odds with the critically romantic one adopted by Scott and his followers. To the romantic imperialists the crusaders had brought enlightenment to a heathen world, whereas in Scott’s critically romantic version, they were barbarous and destructive and compared poorly with civilized and modern-thinking Muslims. But with the decay of imperialism in the twentieth century these contradictory visions fused in the West into a historiographical tradition which still colors popular conceptions and a similar convergence occurred in the Muslim world, although it was expressed in different terms.

In the 1890s the Ottoman Turkish sultan Abdulhamid II, whose empire was under severe pressure from the Russians, Greeks, French and British, asserted that the west had revived the crusades. His announcement aroused the interest of Muslims who had previously been indifferent to crusade history; they believed, after all, that they had comprehensively defeated the medieval European invaders of the Levant. And Abdulhamid’s equation of imperialism with crusading, for which he could hardly be blamed, given all the rhetoric that had washed round western Europe, struck a chord with Arab Nationalism, beginning to emerge in response to the British and French occupation of much of North Africa and the Levant and the settlement of Jews in Palestine. It was easy for the Nationalists to interpret the Michaudist vision of western forces returning to complete a work of enlightenment as evidence that Europe, having lost the first round in the crusades, had embarked on another. The idea of a continuing western assault on the Arab world by the heirs of morally and culturally inferior crusaders featured in Arab writings between the World Wars and was given additional edge in the 1940s by what was seen to be complicity in the creation of the state of Israel on the very ground occupied by the “crusader” kingdom of Jerusalem. Twenty years later the Islamists, who rejected much of the rest of Arab Nationalism, began to take over and globalize this package.

It is notable that the West has not tried to counter their historical vision, in spite of the fact that it is obviously a distortion of reality. As co-heirs of the traditions that originated in the writings of Michaud and Scott, most westerners seem to regard crusading in much the same light, with the difference that they are ashamed of it rather than defiant. And, suffering from collective amnesia with respect to crusading in general and its association with imperialism in particular, they do not know what the Islamist jihadis are talking about.