Don’t call it a crusade

In a recent speech President Bush declared a “crusade” against terrorism sponsored by Muslim extremists. Although the president clearly used this term in the sense of a struggle between good and evil, it was nevertheless an unfortunate choice of words.

A brief recounting of the history of the Crusades during the Middle Ages reveals that the term is wholly inappropriate to describe the anti-terrorist campaign that the Bush administration must now wage. More important, the failure of the medieval Crusades teaches important historical lessons that President Bush should heed as he prepares to launch a war of weapons and words against Islamic extremists.

In 1095 Pope Urban II preached an armed pilgrimage to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. The resulting First Crusade was fuelled by the three driving forces of medieval European civilization: Catholic piety, knightly pugnacity, and greed for land and treasure. In his speech Urban promised remission of sins in return for killing Muslims, thereby radically expanding the ideology of Christian holy war in Europe. Shouting the words “God wills it!” some 50,000 princes, knights and common people set off on foot for Jerusalem. These pilgrims sewed crosses to their garments, thus becoming crucesignati or “crusaders,” literally “those signed with the cross.”

Unfortunately, the crusaders understood little of the sophisticated civilizations they encountered. They massacred the Jewish communities along the Rhine River (who were protected under Church law) as they departed for the East, thereby institutionalizing anti-Semitism in Europe. The crusaders continued to spark bloody conflicts as they passed through the highly-civilized Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire, whose emperor Alexius I viewed them as little more than a barbarian invasion.

After two more years of unspeakable massacres, suffering, and, on at least one occasion, cannibalism, the crusaders cut a swath of destruction through Asia Minor and Syria and captured Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. In the ensuing days the crusaders massacred every man, woman, and child in the city – not only Muslims, but also Jews and eastern Christians who lived peacefully under Muslim rule. According to one crusader, the streets of Jerusalem flowed with blood up to his ankles.

Although the crusaders were initially successful, their atrocities and religious extremism eventually backfired by fanning the flames of jihad, Islamic holy war against unbelievers. While the ideology of jihad is deeply imbedded in the Qur’an, on the eve of the First Crusade Muslim political leaders had placed it on the back-burner. Indeed, the crusading army was able to conquer Jerusalem only because the local Muslim rulers – Arabs, Turks, Sunnis and Shiites – were disunited and at war with each other. But during the course of the twelfth century, Muslim warlords such as Saladin revived the ideology of jihad against the crusaders as the pretense for uniting the Islamic world under his rule. This spelled doom for the crusader kingdoms. Saladin crushed the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, and three weeks later he recapture Jerusalem. All subsequent crusades to regain the Holy Land ended in failure. The fanatical European crusaders had succeeded in uniting the Islamic world against them and making the tolerant Muslims equally fanatical.

This brief history lesson makes clear that President Bush should avoid describing the new war against terrorism as a “crusade,” a word that is still deeply offensive to Muslims (not to mention Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews). As a historical phenomenon, the term embodies the cultural chauvinism, historical ignorance and anti-Muslim sentiment that the Bush administration needs to avoid at all costs.

Such insensitive rhetoric can only reawaken old hatreds and make the average peace-loving Muslim more sympathetic to extremist groups. Another danger is that this language may encourage deplorable acts of violence against Muslims-Americans in our own country, just as Urban’s call for the First Crusade sparked spontaneous pogroms against the European Jews. Effective political leadership in a time of war demands effective speeches, and President Bush needs to choose his words carefully.

More important, the concept of crusade fails to grasp the complexity of the current political, ethnic and religious situation in the Muslim world, just like the crusaders did nine centuries ago. To make the war against terrorism effective, the Bush administration must emphasize that it is not a struggle between the West and Islam, but rather of all peaceful civilized nations – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – against terrorists and the states that harbor them. Instead of portraying himself as a new Pope Urban II, President Bush would be better off emulating the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I. Alexius skillfully defended the besieged Byzantine Empire by forming political and military alliances throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East with little attention to religious differences. Talk of crusade can only lead to more talk of jihad. That in turn might create another Saladin.