"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ISIS, the Crusades, and the Modern Middle East

If you were able yesterday to watch that gruesome video of ISIS burning alive the captured Jordanian pilot, and you watched it through to the end, he was in the fine print at the conclusion, after the immolation of his body, described as deserving his fate because he was a "crusader pilot." I am teaching a course on the Crusades this semester and so was especially struck by this use of the phrase to describe a pilot who was Jordanian and therefore presumably (a) Arab-speaking; and (b)  himself Muslim. But the fact he was flying raids over ISIS territories in conjunction with the Jordanian, American and other governments was enough to disqualify him apparently from membership in the umma and presumably to enroll him instead in the "crusading" enemies of Islam in the dar al-harb, thus making him fit for an exceptionally nasty execution.

ISIS of course is a uniquely demonic mixture of ancient barbarisms and modern technologies. But their invocation of the Crusades is especially modern, more than they or others likely realize. As Jonathan Riley-Smith, the doyen of Crusades scholars today, demonstrated in his short but illuminating book The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, the Crusades were not a prominent or common feature in Muslim political imagination until the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth when they were re-discovered not so much as evidence of Muslim suffering and Western wickedness--for most Muslims were entirely ignorant of the history of the Crusades, or to the extent they knew of them at all they regarded them as generally glorious victories for Islam in the main--but instead as tools by which to browbeat an increasingly guilt-ridden and self-loathing West into ever lower levels of auto-debasement, a process that has only accelerated since then. 

To understand the connections between the events of 2015 and the invocations of Crusades from a thousand years ago, a recent book is especially helpful, coming from the pen of North America's leading scholar of them, Thomas Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 264pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
What is the relationship between the medieval crusades and the problems of the modern Middle East? Were the crusades the Christian equivalent of Muslim jihad? In this sweeping yet crisp history, Thomas F. Madden offers a brilliant and compelling narrative of the crusades and their contemporary relevance. Placing all of the major crusades within their social, economic, religious, and intellectual environments, Madden explores the uniquely medieval world that led untold thousands to leave their homes, families, and friends to march in Christ’s name to distant lands. From Palestine and Europe's farthest reaches, each crusade is recounted in a clear, concise narrative. The author gives special attention as well to the crusades’ effects on the Islamic world and the Christian Byzantine East.

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