Politics & Policy

Jihad Crusaders

What an Osama bin Laden means by "crusade."

When Osama bin Laden and his followers refer, as they often do, to crusades and crusaders, they are not using language loosely. They are expressing a historical vision, an article of faith that has helped to provide moral justification for the actions of both Arab nationalists and radical Islamists.

It originated over a century ago, when the Turkish sultan and Sunni caliph, Abdulhamid II, publicized his conviction that the European powers, who had seized much of his territory and had engineered the “liberation” of other parts of his empire, had embarked on a new “crusade.” In using this term, he was echoing romantic nonsense that had been washing around Europe, where many writers compared contemporary colonialism to crusading. But his language was taken up by the pan-Islamic press; the first Muslim history of the crusading movement, published in 1899, drew attention to the fact that “our most glorious sultan, Abdulhamid II, has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a crusade against us in the form of a political campaign.”

Up to this point, Muslims had looked back on the crusades with indifference and complacency. They felt that they had beaten the crusaders comprehensively, driving them from the Levant and occupying far more territory in the Balkans than the Westerners had ever held in Palestine and Syria. But as they began to take an interest in the historical parallels between contemporary and medieval Christian-Muslim interaction, they were confronted with Western rhetoric portraying contemporary empire builders as quasi-crusaders returning to complete the work their ancestors had begun. It was easy to gloss this with the view that Europe, having lost the first round in the crusades, had embarked on another. This struck a chord in Arab nationalism, which was beginning to emerge in response to the British and French occupations of much of North Africa and the Levant, and the settlement of Jews in Palestine.

Even before the First World War an Arab author, warning against the threat posed by Zionist settlement, had taken as a nom de plume the name of Saladin, who was being adopted as a model counter-crusader. A university named after Saladin was opened in Jerusalem in 1915, and as early as 1920 he was praised for thwarting the first European attempt to subdue the East. In 1934 a writer maintained that “the west is still waging crusading wars against Islam under the guise of political and economic imperialism.” By the 1950s the creation of the state of Israel, established on the very ground occupied by the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, was being portrayed as an act of vengeful malice. The Lebanese novelist Mahmoud Darwish, referring to the invasion of Lebanon by the Israelis in 1982, described them as “leftover crusaders” and their siege of Beirut as “revenge for all medieval history.”

Since the 1970s Arab nationalism has been challenged by pan-Islamism, an ideology enshrining the unity of all Muslims dedicated to the worship of one God. Islamists anathematize the nationalists, but they have adopted their view of crusading, even though the Islamists recognize its ideological base, and have globalized it. Nationalists, on the other hand, see crusading as colonialist avarice masked by religion, and their vision underwrites an Arab struggle for freedom from colonial oppression. The Islamists maintain that the term “crusading” can be applied to any offensive–including a drive for economic or political hegemony–against Islam anywhere by Christians, and to any aggressive action by their surrogates, like Zionists (which is why the terms “European Crusading” and “Jewish Crusading” are interchangeable), or even Marxists. Indeed, “international Zionism” and “international Communism” are ideologies employed by the imperialism of the outside world to mask its “crusaderism.” This explains why Mehmet Ali Agha, the Turk who tried to assassinate the Pope in 1981, could refer to John Paul II as “the supreme commander of the crusades.”

Osama bin Laden’s militant wing of Islamism is also inspired by a theory of jihad that demands turning inwards to purge Islam of infidels and heretics, renewing individual spirituality and creating a united, triumphant society dedicated to God. This is why Osama appears to be so emotional about infidel penetration, which, he believes, defiles Islam and particularly its holy places:

Our lord, the people of the cross had come with their horses (soldiers) and occupied the land of the two Holy Places (Mecca and Medina) and the Zionist Jews fiddle as they wish with the al-Aqsa mosque.

The Arabian Peninsula has never–since Allah made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas–been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies, spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations…. For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

To be found fighting under the sign of the cross are not only Christians, but also their surrogates, Jews, Marxists and secularists. And Afghanistan has been for decades a theatre of crusading warfare in a world-wide conflict.

This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders….God, who provided us with his support and kept us steadfast until the Soviet Union was defeated, is able to provide us once more with his support to defeat America on the same

land and with the same people.

In a war of civilizations, our goal is for our nation to unite in the face of the Christian crusade…This is a recurring war. The original crusade brought Richard (Lionheart) from Britain, Louis from France and Barbarossa from Germany. Today the crusading countries rushed as soon as Bush raised the cross. They accepted the rule of the cross.

It is this radical vision of crusade history which has suddenly and spectacularly forced itself on the outside world. Although merely a fantasy to the West, it finds expression in many Muslim societies. It is said that in mosques in Egypt, the word “crusader” has become a synonym for “Christian.” In Indonesia last year, local preachers were referring to the dead at Bali in the same terms.

We are therefore confronted by a dangerous view of the past and of the present, moral as well as historical, shared by both Arab nationalists and Islamists. It has been spreading for a century and nothing has been done to counter it. Indeed, over and over again, in words and deeds, Westerners have thoughtlessly reinforced many Muslims’ belief in it.

Jonathan Riley-Smith is the author of many books on the crusades, including What Were the CrusadesandThe Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades.

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