With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Have Muslims in the Middle East Really Remembered the Pain of the Crusades for a Thousand Years?

Many political figures and media in the Muslim/Arab world, and a few in Europe, now commonly refer to the American and European presence in the Middle East and elsewhere as a "Crusade." So does an occasional American president. Their usage derives neither from an ages-old polarity between East and West nor from a continuous memory of the Crusades in either culture, but rather from a series of specific events dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, as a result of which the term and imagery of "Crusade" was discovered and used in an unintentionally collaborative effort in both the West and the Middle East.

By the end of the eighteenth century in Europe, the Crusades had long since been fought, lost, and largely forgotten, except for the cynicism and scorn heaped on their memory and motives by Enlightenment philosophical historians like Hume and Gibbon, who roundly condemned them and those who had launched them. Among later skeptics the one Enlightenment view that survived was that the Crusades had been launched for financial and territorial gain rather than from religious motives and were marked by the characteristic savagery and brutality that they attributed to medieval Europeans generally.

In the early nineteenth century, a new set of historians began to work on the Crusades, arguing in favor of a return to the original sources and an historicized view of the distant past. The most influential example of their work was the six-volume history of the Crusades by Joseph François Michaud published between 1817 and 1822.

The efforts of Michaud and others coincided with a revived, largely sympathetic attitude toward the Middle Ages in general and an instrumentalization of some aspects of the French medieval past, including the figure of St. Louis, the crusader king, by the Orleanist monarchy. There is no better illustration than Louis-Philippe's decision to convert the abandoned palace at Versailles into a museum of French national history, including a Hall of the Crusades, with many large historical paintings and coats of arms of crusading families. At the same moment, 1830, France launched its colonizing invasion of Algeria, and both politicians and historians proudly identified the new colonizing movement with the old Crusades. Here was the beginning of the French mission civilisatrice. The subsequently increased French and English military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the Middle East, accompanied by Christian missionary fantasies about the conversion of the Holy Land and France's claim of its right to protect Syrian Christians, generated resistance from the Ottoman Empire and much of the Turkish and Arab intelligentsia.

Historical scholarship and its political uses occurred simultaneously with a widespread European fascination with the Crusades expressed in travel accounts, novels, children's literature, the visual arts, and opera. That fascination also included regarding European colonialism as a reprise of the Crusades. By the end of the nineteenth century, virtually every component of late twentieth-century conceptions of the Crusades -- both honorific and pejorative -- was in place in western Europe.

The Ottoman Empire and the Arab world indeed had much to complain about in this respect, including a long history of European contempt for the Middle East, Arabs, and Islam as well as an increasingly sharp perception that Europe had effectively overtaken the Middle East in scientific, material, and diplomatic development. But neither Arab nor Turkish historiography retained much memory of the Crusades (Arabs remembered the Mongol invasions much more sharply and much longer), nor did either language have a word for Crusade. They soon acquired one around the middle of the nineteenth century. The work of French Crusade historians had begun to be translated into Arabic (by Arab francophone Christians in Syria) and Turkish between 1865 and 1870. In these translations there appeared for the first time in Arabic a specific word for Crusade: al-hurub al-salibiyya, "The Wars of the Cross," which added a novel religious, as well as a political and economic dimension to Ottoman and Arab perceptions of modern European incursions. Turkish response to European histories in precisely this context launched the career of Saladin, first as a Turkish, but later as a universal Arab/Muslim hero.

In 1899 the first Crusade history written by a Muslim, the Egyptian historian Sayyid 'Ali al-Hariri, praised Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) for denouncing a European Crusade against the Ottoman world. In the same year the prolific Indian Muslim scholar, Syed Ameer Ali, published his widely-read Short History of the Saracens, in which the Crusades were depicted as the product of European greed and savagery. Ali's European sources were largely the Enlightenment critics whom recent French, German, and English historians of the subject had long since discarded or substantially revised. Here is the Arabic/Muslim origin of such uses of the term in circles as different as those of Tariq Aziz and Osama bin Laden in 2003.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924 only brought a greater European presence and degree of control to the region and to India. That presence in turn magnified the earlier Crusades in many Arab eyes and integrated a paricular image into the history of the new post-Ottoman Arab states, especially Egypt and Syria, and later of the Palestinian cause.

Two other elements during the second half of the twentieth century sharpened the use of the term and spread it. The first was the independence and survival of the state of Israel after 1948 and the second the emergence of political Islam. Those European Zionists who urged militancy in Eretz Israel also began to use the terminology of Crusade and colonialism about themselves; in fact, as early as the eve of World War I some Arab political leadership had also referred to Jewish settlements as a parallel with earlier Crusader states.

The various forms of political Islam, from eighteenth-century neo-Hanbali Wahabism revived in the twentieth century, to the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) and its most influential theorist, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), to the Pakistani Muslim Abu'l-A'la al-Madudi (1903-1979), originally directed their wrath against the regimes of Middle Eastern states and other Arab modernizers, but they too gradually adopted the new Crusade terminology to designate intrusive outsiders. The U.S. was first included among the Crusaders in some of the polemic of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1950s because of U.S. support for Israel against the Palestinians and later in Libyan anti-American propaganda.

Not all Islam is militant, of course, and not all Islamic militancy is the same. But the odd legacy of nineteenth-century French and British Crusade historiography, missionary idealism, and popular imagery, as well as colonialism and the results of World War I and the Versailles and other treaties, taken up and disseminated by Arab political leaders, historians, journalists, and polemicists, has created in many minds on both sides a convenient designation of the distinctive presence of Europe and the U.S. in the Middle East as yet another Crusade.

That designation has now made its way far down the Arab street, even, as a recent survey shows clearly, into Saudi Arabian textbooks for primary and secondary schools. It is also widespread in print media. A fabricated historical identification of events in the twelfth and the twentieth centuries in either the Middle East or the West does nothing to help clarify issues that are important, pressing, and urgent. We would do far better without anyone calling for - or perceiving - a Crusade where none was intended or launched.


This essay is based on a lecture given on May 3, 2003 at the History Institute for Teachers, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute at American College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

© Edward Peters