George W. Bush and the Ideology of Crusade. (09/20/2001)

While it is never popular, and perhaps not really prudent, to criticize a President during times of war, several news agencies reported the fact that the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, spent most of the day on Tuesday, September 18, 2001, trying to "repair the damage" caused when George W. Bush referred to his planned military response to the terrorist attack against New York and Washington (9/11) as a "crusade." I have no way of knowing whether that was an accurate assessment of the Secretary's day, since the report itself was never repeated and was not particularly edifying or detailed in its scope. The problem, apparently, arose because a considerable number of Muslims, especially in Pakistan, took to the streets to protest the fact that Bush had used the term "crusade" to characterize the nature of his planned "war against terrorism." That cause and effect phenomenon probably strikes most Americans as absurd, ridiculous, or bizarre, by its very nature. Clearly, the Bush administration was caught off-guard, if not flat-footed, by the strength and breadth of the protests. The question that arises, then, is why would the offhanded use of that word (I saw Bush's statement "live" and know it was spur-of-the-moment and not calculated) generate such a fire-storm of Islamic reaction? The protesters in Pakistan were calling on their ruling clerics to declare "holy war" against America in response to Bush's comment.

As everyone knows, a few questions were asked during the campaign about whether or not George W. Bush was qualified to be President. Taking this particular incident as a guide in deciding that issue, while perhaps unfair for any number of reasons, nevertheless speaks to one concern that any thinking person ought to have; namely, how much or how little knowledge does he have with regard to the history of the cultural animosity that exists between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East? Given the response to his use of the word "crusade" in labeling his "war against terrorism" from the street people of Pakistan, not nearly enough. This matters in the immediate context because, while it is possible for Colin Powell to alleviate the misgivings generated by the comment when he talks to Pakistan's leaders, neither he nor they can change the animosity expressed by the people of Pakistan toward Bush's "crusading" American soldiers. What that might mean to the future of America's attempt to eradicate terrorists in Afghanistan, for instance, is that it has already become impossible to station American forces anywhere in that country as a necessary staging area for military actions across the border into Afghanistan. Without a secure base of operations behind the front lines, there is no way an army in the field can be re-supplied as its campaign advances against the enemy. Bush's comment may have already lost that part of his war.

Something everyone knows about Osama bin Laden, since it has been widely reported by the media, is that his terrorist activities have been inspired by, and directed toward, forcing the removal of US military forces from Saudi Arabia. He perceives that presence as part of a crusade against Islam by Christian European nations. His followers in Pakistan share that perception and will do everything in their power to prevent their own country from becoming a staging area for the American military. When Bush used the word "crusade," he simply confirmed bin Laden's argument that Islam needs to, and must, protect itself against becoming subjects of the domination of Christian Europe and America. Understanding why that single word evokes such strong passion in the Middle East depends on knowing the history of conflict between Christians and Muslims in the region, something that Bush clearly failed to take into consideration when he characterized his plan as a "crusade."

In 638 AD, for instance, Muslim warriors reached and conquered Jerusalem as they spread their religious ideology outward from its point of origin in the Arabian peninsula. Christianity was extremely slow to respond to these events and did not mount a counter-attack until Pope Urban II, at Clermont, France, made a speech encouraging Christian knights to retake Jerusalem in 1095 AD. According to some scholars, this happened primarily because Muslims in the regions east of Italy began to attack and murder Christian pilgrims on their journey to the Holy City. Surprisingly, the First Crusade, which was launched shortly after Urban's speech, and which was badly organized, managed to recapture Jerusalem in 1099 AD. As many as four Christian kingdoms, even land-grabs if you will, were established in the areas around Jerusalem. These kingdoms survived mostly intact until the rise of Saladin, a powerful Islamic general, who caught the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem near the Sea of Galilee in 1187 AD. He annihilated the Christian army and ended the Christian domination of Jerusalem for the foreseeable future. By 1291 AD, the last of the Christian strongholds in the region were overrun. Several subsequent Christian crusades were mounted after that, at Nicopolis in 1396, for instance, but all efforts to retake the Holy Land from Islamic control failed. (For more details of this history click here.)

From a purely Christian point-of-view, especially after Muslim people began attacking pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Holy Land became an object of legitimate desire for people of the faith. Some even argued that by virtue of prior occupation and control, prior to 638 AD, Islamic people had no legitimate claim to the region apart from the fact that they had managed to conquer it in unprovoked warfare against Christianity. An argument like that probably even seems appropriate today. From a Muslim point-of-view, however, since its essential belief system was always meant to be spread by military conquest, as it moved out of Saudi Arabia and into the rest of the Mediterranean basin, even as far north and west as Spain, the conquest and capture of Jerusalem was a perfectly legitimate act demanded by Allah, and one that had to be accomplished by the true believer. Once Israel became part of Islam, it became part of an ever expanding nation-state that was ruled by a single God and a single law as expressed by and in the Koran. When Christian knights invaded Palestine, defeated the Muslims there who controlled it, and established their own Crusader States, after the First Crusade, Islamic people perceived that as a wholly illegitimate act of a savage and barbaric infidel who had absolutely no claim whatsoever to their own Islamic kingdom of God. The response to that invasion was Jihad (holy war) declared by the ruling clerics of Islam against the Christian infidels. Many of the wars, battles, and skirmishes, that followed were bloody and brutal, with entire civilian populations of both Christian and Islamic towns and cities being slaughtered by the victors in this or that military encounter. In time, civilians were as much a target of the warfare as were soldiers.

On the Christian side, warfare itself was perceived ambiguously by the Fathers of the church. Initially, war had to be just before it could be supported at all, or in any way, by the church. Eventually, however, in the face of continued assaults by Islamic armies, Christians everywhere began to redefine the concept of the Just War and adopted their own version of Jihad, which came to be called, after Urban II's speech, Crusade. Hence, a crusade is more or less the same as the jihad. The reason the people of Pakistan demanded that their ruling clerics declare a jihad against America after Bush characterized his "war against terrorism" as a crusade, even if he did not know what he was saying when he used that word, concerns the fact that to Islamic ears a Holy War had already been declared against them before they took to the streets to demand response in kind.

In a continuing escalation of the rhetoric, which may already have severely reduced American options in conducting the "war against terrorism," Bush announced yesterday (09/19/2001) that he has ordered the deployment of US air forces (mostly support aircraft so far) to various military installations in the Middle East. This is to be expected, of course, and Bush has already secured permission, where necessary, to station those aircraft in "friendly" Islamic nations around the Persian Gulf. He has chosen to name his first actual deployment of troops "Operation Infinite Justice." This casts a decidedly Christian shadow across the operation because it recalls, on the one hand, the concept of the Just War, but also points to the idea that Christianity always masks its efforts to achieve revenge against its enemies under the banner of a just punishment of evil. In this case, one might argue that Bush is assuming a kind of Godlike aura for himself as Commander-in-Chief, since only God is capable of performing any action that could be called "infinite." I have discussed this concept of Revenge as Justice in Christian ideology elsewhere.

A final point to make is that George W. Bush's rhetoric stands to gain very little in terms of bolstering Islamic confidence in the just and noble intentions of the US military in seeking to establish its presence on Islamic soil. As far as anyone can tell, from a Muslim perspective, Bush is simply repeating what every Christian "general" ever said about the necessity of sending European military forces into the Middle East during the period of the actual Crusades. Since the only enemy we have to this point with a face and a name attached to it is Osama bin Laden, a man who has been warning Muslims the world over about the dangers of allowing our military to acquire space within the physical States of Islam for the past fifteen years, and whose terrorist cells are specifically targeting our efforts to achieve that "goal," everything Bush has done so far only supports the appearance that bin Laden has always been right about our intentions. Worse, Bush's words are actually undermining our efforts to achieve the kind of trust we need if we hope to establish even temporary bases of operation in places like Pakistan. The absence of such ground support facilities nearly dooms our efforts to act effectively against terrorism in the region.

In the end, the US will probably create more terrorists than it will destroy.