Opinion
Xinhua News Agency / Landov

The enduring influence of the Crusades

How Muslim extremists and American conservatives came to find comfort in Crusade metaphors

July 15, 2014 6:00AM ET

On July 15, 1099 — 915 years ago to the day —Jerusalem fell to the knights of the First Crusade, launching a powerful metaphor for the apparently implacable civilizational conflict between Islam and Christianity.

The abbreviated version of the story goes something like this: A Western army invades a Middle Eastern country, relying on military technology to shock and awe a numerically superior Muslim opponent. After achieving a seemingly decisive victory, the triumphant invaders set out to build a new state based on the prevailing European political model.

The parallel is crude and reductive yet remains popular with both Muslim extremists and American conservatives alike. So instead of rehashing an old narrative 915 years after it happened, let’s consider the odd story of how the Crusades, in all their messy historical detail, became a lasting symbol for Muslim-Christian relations. Rather than look for overly precise political parallels in the 11th, 19th and 21st centuries, we should consider how selectively — and effectively — the language of holy war has been invoked throughout history, often to the mutual benefit of opposite sides in the same conflict. The way we talk about the Crusades tells us a lot more about the world we live in than the Crusades themselves could.

Crusade nostalgia

For the better part of a millennium after they ended, no one in either Western Europe or the Middle East cared much about the Crusades. The Christian world was more wrapped up in its Greek and Roman past, and when Muslim thinkers considered foreign invaders, they were more likely to remember the trauma of the Mongols. Things started to change with the rise of European nationalism in the 19th century, when patriotic historians rediscovered the Crusades as heroic examples of French, British or German chivalry and martial valor. This fascination famously flourished in World War I, when medieval legend offered a romantic alternative to the grim war in the trenches and early aviators became knights of the air with crosses emblazoned on their planes. Maybe it helped that the Crusades were among the few times English and French armies fought with and not against each other.

The most enthusiastic participants in the Crusades started out as dirt-encrusted freeloaders with an enthusiasm for sacking the temples they claimed to protect.

Europe’s interest in its crusader history peaked right around the time of its colonial exploits in the Middle East. That was hardly a coincidence. When T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame) first went to the Middle East at 17, he got a camel, an Arab guide and a gun and set about researching his senior thesis at Oxford. His subject, naturally, was the architecture of crusader castles. And as Europeans wrapped their imperial mission in Crusades rhetoric, colonized people were quick to pick up on it. If Europeans cast themselves as Christian knights finishing the crusaders’ work, it is little surprise their opponents would start to identify with Saladin, the Muslim commander who famously recaptured Jerusalem. Then as now, the Crusades served as an excellent metaphor for enemies to better articulate their enmity.

After World War I, crusader-themed nationalism proved particularly popular with Europe’s fascist right, which is part of the reason that it lost its luster in the West. But among those who still found themselves subject to Western power for the rest of the 20th century, Crusades rhetoric remained popular, especially when it became associated with Israel. There is a particularly sad irony, though, in the contemporary pairing of Zionists and crusaders. The Crusades, as many people know, were an unmitigated disaster for Jews: Vicious pogroms accompanied the crusaders’ progress through Europe and the Middle East. But there is also irony in the relationship between Europe’s embrace of the Crusades and the origins of Zionism. Many early Zionist leaders were ultimately convinced that their people could never truly belong in states like fin-de-siècle France by just the sort of right-wing, anti-Semitic nationalists who enjoyed romanticizing a bunch of medieval knights who killed Jews and Muslims alike.

Europe’s interest in its crusader history peaked right around the time of its colonial exploits in the Middle East. That was hardly a coincidence: when Lawrence of Arabia first went to the Middle East at age 17, he got a camel, an Arab guide and a gun, and set about researching his senior thesis at Oxford. His subject, naturally, was the architecture of Crusader castles. And as Europeans wrapped their imperial mission in crusader rhetoric, colonized people were quick to pick up on it. If Europeans cast themselves as Christian knights finishing the Crusaders’ work, it is little surprise their opponents would start to identify with Saladin, the Muslim commander who famously re-captured Jerusalem. Then, as now, the Crusades served as an excellent metaphor for enemies to better articulate their enmity.

 

After World War One, crusader-themed nationalism proved particularly popular with Europe’s fascist right, which is part of the reason that it lost its luster in the West. But among those who still found themselves subject to Western power for the rest of the 20th century, Crusader rhetoric remained more popular, especially when it became associated with Israel. There is a particularly sad irony, though, in the contemporary pairing of “Zionists” and “Crusaders.” The Crusades, as many people know, were an unmitigated disaster for Jews: Vicious pogroms accompanied the crusaders’ progress through Europe and the Middle East alike. But there is also irony in the relationship between Europe’s embrace of the Crusades and the origins of Zionism itself. Many early Zionist leaders were ultimately convinced their people could never truly belong in states like fin-de-siècle France by just the sort of right-wing, anti-Semitic nationalists who enjoyed romanticizing a bunch of medieval knights that killed Jews and Muslims alike.

Europe’s interest in its crusader history peaked right around the time of its colonial exploits in the Middle East. That was hardly a coincidence: when Lawrence of Arabia first went to the Middle East at age 17, he got a camel, an Arab guide and a gun, and set about researching his senior thesis at Oxford. His subject, naturally, was the architecture of Crusader castles. And as Europeans wrapped their imperial mission in crusader rhetoric, colonized people were quick to pick up on it. If Europeans cast themselves as Christian knights finishing the Crusaders’ work, it is little surprise their opponents would start to identify with Saladin, the Muslim commander who famously re-captured Jerusalem. Then, as now, the Crusades served as an excellent metaphor for enemies to better articulate their enmity.

 

After World War One, crusader-themed nationalism proved particularly popular with Europe’s fascist right, which is part of the reason that it lost its luster in the West. But among those who still found themselves subject to Western power for the rest of the 20th century, Crusader rhetoric remained more popular, especially when it became associated with Israel. There is a particularly sad irony, though, in the contemporary pairing of “Zionists” and “Crusaders.” The Crusades, as many people know, were an unmitigated disaster for Jews: Vicious pogroms accompanied the crusaders’ progress through Europe and the Middle East alike. But there is also irony in the relationship between Europe’s embrace of the Crusades and the origins of Zionism itself. Many early Zionist leaders were ultimately convinced their people could never truly belong in states like fin-de-siècle France by just the sort of right-wing, anti-Semitic nationalists who enjoyed romanticizing a bunch of medieval knights that killed Jews and Muslims alike.

Greater ironies

An even greater irony goes back a thousand years to the Crusades themselves. The main protagonists on both sides of this archetypal religious war were barbarians from the edges of the Christian and Muslim worlds, respectively, who belatedly embraced their faiths with excessive zeal in order to fit into the civilizations they had only recently conquered. Seen as a conflict between Seljuqs and Normans rather than Muslims and Christians, the Crusades become a much more versatile parable for our era.

The Normans, a medieval civilization now known mostly to scale-model war-game enthusiasts, owe their relative anonymity to the fact that, despite their historical importance, no present-day nation has quite claimed them as ancestors. The Swedes have the Vikings, and the Irish have the Celtics, but no one has a sports franchise named after the Normans. The Normans were more or less Vikings who settled in northern France (Normandy) in the 10th century, learned French and converted to Christianity before conquering England, Ireland and Sicily, then setting off for the Middle East. As a result, they’re too Scandinavian for the French, too French for the Scandinavians and way too French for the English. But their conquests explain a good deal about the modern world — why southern Italians are Catholic and not Muslim or Greek Orthodox, why lazy English-speaking high school students prefer French to German (German is linguistically more closely related, but a huge number of French words entered our language with the Norman conquest) and why Fitzgerald is an Irish name (it’s a corruption of the French “fils,” or “son,” of Gerald, signifying descent from one of the island’s first Anglo-Norman conquerors).

The Normans also helped inspire many of our modern images of the Middle Ages, giving us much of the medieval pastiche that show up in places like “Game of Thrones.” That said, names from the Norman era were often even better than the imitations they inspired. Just a few: Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut, Swein Forkbeard, Charles the Simple, Hrolf (known as Rollo), William Longsword, William of the Iron Arm, Flodoard, Dudo of St. Quentin, the Dux Pyratorum (or Duke of Pirates) and Robert the Weasel, Terror of the World.

Self-promotional piety

As some of these names suggest, for all the clichés about chivalry, the Normans’ image among contemporaries often had more to do with their Viking ancestry than their religiosity. In the words of one abbot, they were men “more apt to destroy than to build the temples of the Lord.” The abovementioned Robert, as the most prominent Norman leader in Italy, was excommunicated three times. It is telling that one of his most pious moments occurred when, after crushing the pope’s army in battle, he kissed the pontiff’s feet and begged forgiveness for the victory. Though not a cliché they can claim credit for inspiring, the Norman conquerors were certainly capable of embodying the one about religion, like patriotism, being the refugee of a scoundrel.

On the other side of the Crusades were the Seljuqs, a dynasty that entered the Islamic world as mounted warriors who rode in from the Central Asian steppes. In 1055, a decade before the Norman conquest of England, they seized control of Baghdad, becoming rulers of the Abbassid Caliphate and the greater Middle East about half a century before the Crusaders headed for Jerusalem. Like the Normans, they did not always enjoy the best of reputations among their co-religionists. Consider the words of caliphal envoy Ahmad ibn Fadlan. He included among the Seljuqs’ vices “the shamelessness of their women, who were always unveiled, and their brazenly exposing their pudenda,” their “general aversion to water and washing” and the fact that the men “never took off their garments, which became encrusted with dirt, until they frayed away and disintegrated.”

As it happened, the Normans and the Seljuqs were both eager to compensate for their lack of pious credentials, which helps explain how they ended up as protagonists in an epic religious war. For the Normans, accepting Christianity, nominally at first, was a stipulation for their being allowed to settle in northern France. Subsequently, patronizing churches and monasteries became a crucial method to gain acceptance as a respectable part of their new society. Likewise, when the Seljuqs found themselves trying to rule the Abbassid Caliphate without any claim whatsoever to descent from the Prophet Muhammad, they reinvented themselves as defenders of the Sunni faith, sponsoring conservative religious schools to bolster their image.

Some of the warriors who fought in the Crusades were undoubtedly simple hypocrites, while others were almost certainly completely convinced by their own religious rhetoric. But in either case, exploiting the rhetorical possibilities of a holy war fit nicely with each side’s tradition of self-promotional piety.

So if we insist on making the Crusades, in all their strange, messy historical complexity, a simplistic lesson about anything, it might as well be for that truism that the most enthusiastic participants in any mission often started out as dirt-encrusted freeloaders with an enthusiasm for sacking the temples they claimed to protect. Like all historical metaphors, it’s hardly perfect, but given what’s going on across the Middle East right now, it’s not entirely inaccurate either.

Nick Danforth is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle East maps, history and politics at Midafternoon Map.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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