“Either you are with the crusaders or you are with Islam.”
Dabiq – the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine – in 2014. (1)
It is said that in the Middle East the land does not forget. Contemporary politics in the Middle East owe much to the memory of the medieval crusades. Fought over the course of three centuries, the crusades gave rise to religious fundamentalism from Christians and Muslims alike, military campaigns at great cost to civilian life, and military leaders capable of unmeasurable cruelty.
It was, according to crusades historian Sir Steven Runciman, “nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God”. The ironic effect of this long act of intolerance then is the emergence of newer and crueler forms of intolerance in the region today.
For terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State, the crusades have become a vital cornerstone of their extremist worldview.
“Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a crusader and kill him,” Dabiq advocates to its adherents, “and the Islamic State will remain until its banner flies over Rome.” It has referred to Barack Obama as “Crusader in chief”, Henry Kissinger as “the Jewish Crusader”, US drones as “crusader aircraft” and westerners in the USA, the U.K., France, Australia and Germany as “crusader civilians” and, as such, targets to be attacked. (1)
An issue of Dabiq, entitled ‘The Failed Crusade’, issues a stark warning of their intentions: “We will conquer your Rome, break you crosses, and enslave your women, by the promise of Allah.” Elsewhere in Dabiq is a vision of the Islamic State’s successful jihad: a caravan of armed vehicles flying the black flag of the Islamic State advancing towards the ancient Coliseum. The allusion to Rome as a centre of political power serves only to expose the atavism at the core of the Islamic State’s dislocated worldview. (2)
However atavistic, one of the Islamic State’s greatest successes is its creation of a propaganda super-machine.
Its exploitation of the Internet and social media has led to the most successful recruitment of any terror group in the modern history of the Middle East. The Islamic State has been called “the digital caliphate” and it is the modernity of this machine which explains IS’s achievements. (3)
IS propaganda is effective because it manipulates memory. The Islamic State’s rhetoric of the war on terror, casting the US military as neo-crusaders and their aim as to bring the unfinished crusade to a final end, is not a new phenomenon.
On 23rd February, 1998, Osama Bin Laden announced al-Qaida’s war against the crusaders. Following George Bush’s declaration of the war of terror after the 9/11 attacks, he said in a 2001 interview broadcast by Al-Jazeera that “[t]oday the crusading countries rushed as soon as Bush raised the cross. They accepted the rule of the cross”. (4)
In 2005, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq until his death in 2006 – accused the Iraqi army of being an “agent army allied to the crusaders and came to destroy Islam and Muslims.” (5)
Hafez al-Assad built a statue of Saladin – the Kurdish leader who united the Muslim Near East Egypt and drove the crusaders out of Jerusalem in 1187 – in his capital city, Damascus. Saddam Hussein also saw himself as a modern-day reincarnation of Saladin. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) uses Saladin as a symbol of their struggle against Israeli occupation. (6)
In the twentieth century, the memory of the crusades became a potent propaganda tool in the politics of the Near East.
It wasn’t until 1899 that the first modern Arabic history of the crusade was written. In 1899, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and faced the prospect of the European imperial powers capitalising on its breakdown. The fall of the Ottomans did lead to a period of western imperial intervention in the region, resulting in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and documents such as the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided Syria and Iraq between Great Britain and France. Interestingly, it is precisely at this point in the history of the Islamic world that the word “crusade” started to reappear in the political lexicon of the region. (7)
The idea of the crusade can be manufactured very easily to recruit and to intensify a conflict. This is as true of terrorism against “crusaders” as it is of crusades against terror.
Two years following its surge across Iraq and Syria in 2014, IS now faces the combined forces of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the US-led coalition in its last real stronghold, Mosul. The alleged crusaders against the Islamic State are also its own co-religionists.
The very essence of the Islamic State’s myth of a world split into crusaders and Muslims is broken. Its simplistic worldview is a medieval narrative in conflict with a complex geopolitical world of the modern age. As this article was written in October 2016, Dabiq fell to coalition forces.
- Abdel Bari Atwan, The Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate