This post is the sixth in a series on the most prevalent modern myths about the Crusades and how to refute them.
The world reacted in horror at the despicable and evil Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. It is natural, in the face of such evil, to ask why. Why did these attacks occur? Why are some Muslims drawn to groups like ISIS, and why are they willing to kill innocent people in the name of religion? Many believe economics, Western foreign policy, or religion is to blame. Some believe that history—or, more specifically, certain historical actions—provide the answer.
ISIS, in a statement issued after the attacks, claimed responsibility for the massacre, indicating that “soldiers of the Caliphate” had targeted the “lead carrier of the cross in Europe” and “cast terror into the hearts of the crusaders in their very own homeland.” The statement also referred to the victims as “pagans” and “crusaders.” Reading the statement at face value might lead one to believe that the Islamic state (and other like-minded Islamic groups) commit terrorism the avenge the wrongs committed by Christian knights during the medieval Crusades.
Indeed, ISIS is not the first Islamic group to make reference to the Crusades after acts of violence. Osama bin Laden stated, shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, “This is a battle of Muslims against the global Crusaders. . . . Our goal is for the nation to unite in the face of the Christian Crusade.” Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate St. John Paul II, indicated that he wanted to “kill Pope John Paul II, [the] supreme commander of the Crusades.”
This Islamic propaganda can lead one to believe the historical events of the Crusades are the primary reason for modern-day terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, many Westerners believe and parrot this propaganda. Former President Bill Clinton, in a speech at Georgetown University in October 2001, opined that the September 11 attacks were the result of the Christian attack on Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade. Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and popular author, has written that the Crusades are “one of the direct causes of the conflict in the Middle East today.”
The historical reality is far removed from the picture painted by Bill Clinton, Karen Armstrong, and others. The Crusades were largely forgotten in the Islamic world until the late nineteenth century and received prominent attention only in the twentieth century.
The Arabic word for the Crusades, harb al-salib, was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1899, the first Arabic history of the Crusades was written by an Egyptian, Ali al-Hariri, when the Ottoman Empire was in a deep crisis. It was a time when the Ottomans were forced to recognize the independence of most of their Eastern European territory. Seeking to find a rationale for the disintegration of the once mighty Ottoman Empire, the Egyptian author placed blame not on the internal failings of the sultans and their policies but rather on the historical bogeyman of the Crusades.
It is easy to understand why Muslims did not remember the Crusades: they were a small and insignificant part of Islamic history. The Holy City of Jerusalem was in Christian hands for only eighty-eight years (1099–1187), and the Crusader States survived for less than two centuries. The goal of the Crusades—the permanent liberation of Jerusalem and recovery of ancient Christian territory—was not achieved. Islamic historians through the centuries therefore neglected the Crusades.
This negligence changed in the twentieth century, when reconstructed Muslim memory of the Crusades began in earnest. After World War I, Britain and France were given mandates to govern Palestine and Syria. Ironically, it was these European colonial powers that shaped the modern Muslim interpretation and memory of the Crusades. Particularly, the French vision of the Crusades at the time focused on the twelfth-century campaigns as proto-colonizing expeditions (which they were not), now resurrected in the twentieth century.
The myth of the Crusades in the Islamic world was created, in part, by European intellectuals influenced by Enlightenment and Romantic interpretations of the Crusading movement. Arab nationalists, utilizing imagery from the British and French colonial authorities, presented the Crusades as the first European colonial efforts and the reason for the poverty, corruption, and violence in the twentieth-century Middle East.
Cultural traditions and propaganda rooted in this false narrative of the Crusades were reinforced through education in Muslim schools. The contrived and artificial memory of the Crusades in the Islamic world, initially used by Arab nationalists, changed in the late twentieth century as jihadist groups, who turned their attention to the West after originally directing their hatred and violence toward secular Muslim regimes, hijacked the Crusades to further their violent goals. Jihadists utilized the reconstructed memory of the medieval Crusades to incite hatred and anger of the West and increase recruitment for their nefarious cause.
ISIS and other groups continue to use “Crusade language” in their statements and recruitment videos, because it provides an effective tool in motivating young Muslim men and women to engage in violent attacks against innocent people. Like all forms of propaganda, the false story presented by the Islamic state relies on ignorance to achieve its objective. The Crusades are not the reason for the current state of affairs between Islamic jihadist groups and the Western world.
Ignorance about the Crusades plays into the hands of the terrorists by perpetuating the false narrative of these historical events. Terrorism and its propaganda must be combated—and the first step is to know the real story of the Crusades.