Middle East and the Crusades

The “crusades” has remained one of the important subjects of heated discourse throughout its history. According to the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume’s thought the crusades were “the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation” as they “engrossed the attention of Europe and have ever since engrossed the curiosity of mankind”. 

David Hume’s thesis well resonates when we examine and nuance the Israel-Palestine conflict and the recent attacks of September 11, 2001, which sparked a renewed interest in the Crusades particularly in Western countries, still not even less in the Middle East.  What is happening in the Arab world today has been attributed as a continuation of the medieval Crusades albeit in a protean yet subtle form of neo-crusades. Since the Arab-Israel conflict began Arab scholars see the Crusaders as the West’s first colonial and imperialistic ventures and the Zionists as either new crusaders or as new tools of Western imperialism.

However, some contemporary Western Crusade scholars like Thomas F. Madden, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and Christopher Tyerman have rejected the view that Crusades have led to modern conflict between the west and the Middle East, the Christians and the Muslims. They argue that Crusades were exclusively medieval phenomenon and have nothing to do with the contemporary socio-political landscape of Middle East or elsewhere in the world. Moreover, what they depict is the dominant narrative of Crusades that showcased it a triumphal story coupled with values of nobility, faith, bravery, and ingenuity taking on the indolent, corrupt, and barbarous medieval East.

It is this glamorous association that we frequently encounter the word “crusade” in a positive context in the western discourses vis-à-vis crusade against poverty, injustice, corruption so on and so forth, and thus the concept of crusade has found a strong acceptance both in the West and the East. 

Nevertheless, the ideological aspect of the crusades—holy war against Muslims—has continuously shaped the West’s perception of the Muslims. An example of this reflection was illustrated in September 2009, when the English Defence League (EDL) released a video on YouTube showing pictures of sword-wielding crusaders, the red crosses on their shields that forms the EDL logo which reads “The English lion has awoken”, referring to the medieval crusade leader Richard I, “to defend our land from 1400 years of Jihad”.

Consequently, Scholars and analysts have sought to explain present-day tensions against a context of earlier conflicts between the West and Islam. This is manifested in recent spate of documentaries and films illustrate prevalent fascination in the history of the crusades and its perceived relevance today. What I want to illuminate here is that, intriguingly, there is a strong link between the medieval Crusades in Palestine and the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East today. 

When Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in the Council of Clermont in France in 1095, he called upon the Christians (crusaders) to march and help the Christians in the East and to capture Jerusalem from Muslims. When crusaders set for the expedition and while moving through Europe they first slaughtered Jews in Germany; for Jews were seen as the enemies of Jesus (peace be upon him). Whenever a Crusade (1095-1291) was summoned against the Muslims there was a new outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe, which became an indelible Western habit. Jews were continued to be harassed and discriminated by the Christians in Europe. The anti-Semitism wave attained its climax and hideous expression in the Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler orchestrated genocide of at least 5.5 million Jews. 

It suggests that without Western anti-Semitism, there would not have been the Israeli occupation in the Middle East today. When the last great Muslim Ottoman caliphate was brought to an end by the Western powers aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations gave control of Palestine and Syria to Britain and France respectively. Thus, after taking command in Syria, the French General Henri Gouraud when visited the tomb of Salah al-Din Ayyubi, he remarked “Behold, Saladin, we have retuned”.

Britain already obsessed with Jewish presence; control on Palestine paved the way for the creation of Jewish state. Done that, West stroked two rivals with one cudgel: locked Jews and Muslims in deadly unabated conflict in the Middle East from 1948. Moreover, to their habit of unabated Muslim hatred, West continuously supported Israel against Muslims in Middle East. West not only permitted Israel to build a nuclear arsenal but has helped it to acquire one, yet it is unable to approve of the idea of any Muslim country getting nuclear weapons.   

Muslims in Arab world thus hindsight the western goals; call them as the new crusaders aimed at colonizing the Muslim world by the dint of their nuclear power and technology. As the Arab historian Said Ashur wrote in his History of the Crusades (1963), “Our condition is very close to that of our ancestors eight and a half centuries ago; it is consequently incumbent upon us to study the movement of the crusades minutely and scientifically”.

What remains is to sum up that the medieval crusading theme is relevant to both the modern conflict in the Middle East and the uneasy relationship that has existed over the years between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

*The author is a research scholar at Aligarh Muslim University, India, can be reached at [email protected]

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