Crusades Revisited

Many terrorist groups rely on history as a core part of their ideology, writes Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta in his column.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2005 19:25 IST

Two years ago, I wrote about the sensitivity of the Arab Nations towards the entire Crusades concept. Recently, a few events happened which triggered me to revisit the subject again. The first was the election of a conservative Pope; another the imminent release of a film on the crusades; re-reading Alan Morehead’s book on the Blue Nile; the protests in Lebanon, reaction to the women led Muslim prayers in North America and finally the continuing occupation of Iraq. The common element in all these was the very frequent mention of the crusades. This led me to think a bit about the concept of a ‘national memory’, as I decided to call it and I came up with a hypothesis, which I would like to lay in front of you.

‘National memory’ can be a powerful but disguised force. It is not a scientific measure, but it arises from long experiences with civilisation threatening events. Having travelled like a blithering idiot around the world, I have noticed this feeling in many countries. Examples like the fear of invasion from the west for India; the fear of the horde from the south for Russia; the Cross-channel invasion fear of the Brits; fear of the Germanic hordes from the east for the French, fear of China for the Vietnamese from the north; so on and so forth. This ‘national memory’ is not obvious and one cannot point to a particular event or quote to get this, but it can be ascertained from general reactions to the “other”. Short-term events may subsume the feeling temporarily but the long-term viewpoint remains. If the cause or competition is no longer military, the feeling moves on to economic, financial, religious, or social aspects.

We are not talking about small odd sod wars but invasions here. These invasions have really caused massive turmoil and caused the fear, if not even the terror of extinction of the nation, race, language, or what have you. For example, India has frequently been invaded from the North West going back to times immemorial. There is the now discounted Aryan Invasion Theory to the invasions by the Greeks, Turks, Mongols, Persians, and Arabs and so on and so forth. More recently, the British in India were very concerned about the invasion by the Russians, which gave rise to the great game. With the history behind Pakistan, the institutional fear of invasions is buried deep within the psyche of India. Another example is that of Russia. Despite the French and German attacks on Russia from the west, Russia is most fearful of the hordes from the east going back to the Mongol Golden Horde invasion centuries back.

The Mediterranean has practically seen conflict in almost all ages, but for the purposes of this column, we have to look at the conflicts from the perspective of the Muslim countries. After the rampaging Muslim armies conquered a vast swathe of territory ranging from Spain to India, from the Balkans down to Sudan, it was a process of consolidation and bedding down of their empire. This situation, with the exception of the time when the Mongols thrust a dagger deep into the central Asian and Persian side of the Muslim world, remained as such. It was after the Western / European powers started getting into conflict with the Muslim empire that the problems started. It was all fine as long as the Muslim empire was expanding but once the contraction – for example in Spain; and crusades started, it started wounding them more and more.

During this time, the Muslim nation formed and a civilisation was underway. The invasions after this step started creating the above-mentioned concept of national memory of invasions by the other. The reasons behind the invasions are not the point here, one can find out a gazillions of good or bad reasons behind the various invasions, but our point here is to look at the invasions and try to see why any kind of western attention is suspicious and military presence alarming. We all know about the crusades, but a brief potted history is worthwhile here. The crusades were a series of military campaigns, which under papal dispensation between the 11th and 13th century. The long and short of it was that the Eastern Byzantine Kingdom and church started being put under pressure from the Muslims and due to internal factors facing the western European kingdoms and the papacy, the crusades kicked off. Over a period of hundreds of years, right mayhem lived on in the Levant and Palestine and the horde of Christian crusaders fought to help the Byzantine Empire and “liberate” the Holy Land. Nevertheless, at that time, it was not really such a big deal to the Muslims based on my understanding and brief research but the key was that it was the start of a long series of such events.

That was the first blow; the second was the ‘Reconquista’ or re-conquest of Spain from the Moors. The Moors conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula between 711 and 716 AD, but the fight-back started from 718 AD and ended in 1492, when the last of the Moors were chucked out. That caused a huge ruckus and bigger than the crusades themselves. In fact, Osama Bin Laden himself mentioned this as one of the factors behind his attacks on the west. The loss of Andalusia was one of the biggest blows to the collective self-consciousness of the Muslim World.

Here’s a longish quote: “By the end of 1491 the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella were at the gates of Granada itself. There remained only one final act to be played out, a knell whose sorrow was to reverberate across the Muslim world and become legend. Granada's ruler, [Muhammad XII Abu 'Abd Allah, known in the West las Boabdil), secretly agreed to hand over the city to {the Christians in return for his safe passage out of Spain. As he left the city, Boabdil paused to look (back at the Alhambra palace, the Generalife gardens and the rest of Granada). Stanley Lane-Poole relates Boabdil's reaction in his classic 1887 work The Moors in Spain: "Allahu akbar!" he said, "God is most great," as he burst into tears. His mother Ayesha stood beside him: "You may well weep like a woman," she said, "for what you could not defend like a man." The spot whence Boabdil took his sad farewell look at his city from which he was banished for ever, bears to this day the name of el ultimo sospiro del Moro, "the last sigh of the Moor."”

On the other side of the Muslim world, the British Empire in India meant the loss of India to the Muslims, the creation of Pakistan was but a mild palliative, and this loss is still deep within the psyches of Muslims. The Mogul Empire lasted for centuries and ruled over a vast area ranging from Afghanistan to parts of Burma, from Kashmir down South India. After the first war of independence in 1857 against the British East India Company, also known as the Indian Mutiny, the last Mogul Emperor was unceremoniously deposed, exiled to Burma, his family butchered and the British went on to rule India. The entire panoply of Muslim civilisation and supremacy went out of the window in India.

The Ottoman Empire started its long decline from the Battle of Vienna in 1683, and it was a slow retreat ever since. The European powers kept on nibbling away at its territory through insurrections, rebellions, outright invasions, and wars. As it so happened, internal dissensions were rife with rulers such as the Mamluks taking power in Egypt and having only a very weak link to the ‘Sublime Porte’ in Istanbul. Besides that, the French, British, Austro-Hungarians, and Russians all started to take big bites out of the empire. As one will guess, the common factor was the fact that they were all western Christian powers. Yes, even Russia was considered a western Christian power. Which obviously, after the communist revolution, became even worse as it became a “godless” power? However, we are drifting from the point. By the end of WWI, the Ottoman Empire was no more and another World War saw the western powers in control over large portions of the Muslim world.

Not that the situation improved after WWII. The colonial powers did start to withdraw and handed over power to local potentates. As always, the colonial powers, for a long time, were the power behind the thrones. So, for all practical purposes, these autocrats, despots, dictators, kings or what have you were just the corrupt figureheads backed by the western powers. Once the cold war started, obviously, another angle was taken and support was given to these gems of Muslim leadership. To top it all off and just to make things even more interesting, the Jews decided to go and carve their own homeland with the support of the west out of a sense of misplaced guilt or what have you in the middle of it. Then came 1956 when the British and French tried to re-invade Egypt along with Israel, the 1967 war when the Israeli’s trounced the Arabs, the 1973 war when a bit of Arab dignity was upheld, then the Gulf War of 1991 and the ongoing Gulf war, all which had the direct or indirect presence of the western powers.

So why am I enumerating all these? It is simply because reading the various pronouncements by the militants, the terrorist groups, the discussions across the various Muslim email groups, the reactions to the up and coming Crusades film, the Amina Wadud prayer meeting, all show these strands coming together. I know these were discussed in various shapes and forms by people such as Bernard Lewis, Giles Keppel, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and others; but I just had this idea while reading a book called as ‘The White Nile’ by Alan Moorehead. One of those Eureka moments, so to say, but my editor said when I bounced this idea off her: “so what? This sort of litany can be drawn on any nation.” Ah! But if I am paranoid, looking to consolidate my power, wanting to draw more recruits and needing an external enemy, what better way to do so than to vomit up a series of attacks and pose as the injured, discriminated and wounded party? This litany is also the basis of innumerable conspiracy theories around the world.

If this is indeed the case, then the implications of this are significant, because one cannot fight against history and the lessons people draw from them. We are talking about targeting the ideology of the Islamic militants. For example, Osama Bin Laden talked about the crusades and the ‘Reconquista’. There is simply no way to counter-act that historical episode. Talking about these events, being reactions to Muslim conquests, is simply counter-productive and will merely be ignored. Furthermore, simply staying away from the region is also not possible, given the tightly integrated and globalised world of ours. All the western powers are strongly secular, but since secularity as a concept simply does not occur in Islam, this is another factor that is ignored.

So what can one do? I am afraid there is not much one can do, other than try to remove highly visible invasive signs, and try to help with actual empowerment of the people of the Muslim world. When the common and ordinary public is dis-empowered, the tendency to blame outside factors for their own powerlessness is very common and as we have seen, the blame factor on the west is already quite high indeed. The majority of the people just want to live happy productive lives, but that goes for the educated sort, the sort who rationalises and lines up events like the above. Now mix in violence and you have the problem of long term resentment and buried anger. No easy answers, but many terrorist groups do rely on history as a core part of their ideology. For them, the immortal words of the philosopher Santayana still apply, namely: “History is a vast early warning system and people who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” They are fighting against injustice and their national memory of invasions is a foundation for their fight.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(The opinion expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not reflect the positions, official or otherwise, of any firm or organisation, that the author is associated with at the present or has been in the past or may be in future. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently lives in the City of London and works there in various capacities in the Banking Sector.)

First Published: Oct 14, 2005 00:00 IST