How Does Mediaeval History Relate to Today's Terrorism?

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Straits Times (Singapore) June 21 2004:

The battle of ideas is a major front in the war on terrorism. Images on Arab satellite television vie with sound-bites on United States cable news. But at a deeper level, the battle is also over history.

Addressing US Air Force graduates on June 2, US President George W. Bush recalled a historic message received by Allied soldiers during World War II. US General Dwight Eisenhower's Great Crusade speech had rallied Allied forces to the liberation of Europe. Although President Bush quoted General Eisenhower's D-Day address, he diplomatically omitted his phrase 'Great Crusade'. These words would only have played into the hands of militant Islamists. After all, Osama bin Laden's preferred title for Al-Qaeda is the 'World Islamic Front for holy war against Jews and Crusaders'.

How and why has an episode in mediaeval history become so important in today's war on terrorism? For elements of the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims, Europe's Crusades in the Middle East over 900 years ago remain an open wound. Launched by Pope Urban II in a speech in 1095, the Crusades marked the West's first invasion of the Islamic heartlands. Stretching over two centuries, the Crusades shaped relations between Islam and the West. And they continue to do so, far beyond their original boundaries.

Soon after Sept 11, Osama extended the term Crusaders to include Australians in East Timor. His rhetoric distorted history and geography. But it struck a chord with South-east Asian Islamists. Imam Samudra, the operational chief of the October 2002 Bali bombings, screamed out 'Crusaders!' when confronted by his victims' relatives.


IRONICALLY, modern Muslim perceptions of the Crusades were shaped by Western history books. The 19th century Syrian Christian intellectuals translated these books and produced the Arabic terms 'al-hurub al-salibiyya' (Crusader wars) or 'al-salibiyyun' (Crusaders).

Another pivotal moment in the process was when the 19th century Ottoman Sultan and Sunni Caliph Abdulhamid II called his territory's seizure by Western powers a 'new Crusade'. The Ottoman Empire's collapse and the subsequent carve-up of the Middle East fuelled Muslim fears of total Western domination.

The rise of political Islam and the establishment of Israel stoked the historical analogies. Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb reinforced the modern militant view of the Crusades. Writing of 'the Crusader spirit that runs in the blood of all Occidentals', he tied it to the 'financial influence of the Jews of the United States', 'English ambition' and 'Anglo-Saxon guile'.

After his execution by Egyptian authorities, his equally radical brother Muhammad Qutb fleshed out this radical application of crusading history. Exiled from his native Egypt, he worked as a university professor in Jeddah, counting Osama as one of his students.

Even relatively moderate writers and historians recognised the polemical value of the Crusades for mobilising Muslim consciousness.

During the first Gulf War, an Egyptian hero of the 1973 war with Israel wrote a best-seller calling the conflict the 'Eighth Christian Crusade'. And during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, Orthodox Christian Serbs announced a crusade against Islam in Europe. Predictably, this played into the hands of radical Islamists. But it did not hurt the militant cause that mainstream Saudi schoolbooks had described a new sulubbiya (crusaderism) a generation before Osama used the term....

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