Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Iraq is not a twentieth century Crusade

In September 2001, President George W Bush declared that ‘This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.’ Since then it has become common to refer to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as crusades and to frame the war on terror in religious terms.
Crusading rhetoric permeates political discourse and lends a veneer of historicism to discussions of the ongoing conflicts in the middle East. But are these parallels justified on historical grounds?
Christopher Tyerman, Professor of the History of the Crusades at Oxford, argues that the parallels drawn between the war on terror and the crusades are largely spurious and indicative of intellectual laziness.
His speech consisted of a non-stop barrage of defense of the war on terror with little moderation. Tyerman’s speech came from a one sided perspective with little time given to the other side.
While many would have qualms with such onesidedness, the fact is that such attacks on interventionism are the norm. Allowing Tyerman to make his case may be the only way to hear the case at all.
According to him, the Crusades have little “relevance, comfort, insight or instruction” for historians, commentators or policy-makers studying the web of conflicts that have emerged since 9/11.
For a start, the war on terror was not justified to the public on religious grounds. Nor were American citizens encouraged to sign up to the military in return for indulgences that absolved them of their sins.
Admittedly, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did have a religious inflection. Memos sent to George Bush by Donald Rumsfeld were titled with verses from the Bible, Osama bin Laden referred to the Americans as ‘crusaders’, and addresses to US troops were often framed in biblical terms. But, for Tyerman, they were not holy wars in any substantive sense. Even the physical parallels between the war on terror and the crusades are shaky – the crusaders never even came close to Iraq or Afghanistan.
David Hume described the crusades as as ‘the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.’ The same, too, might be said of the war in Iraq. But there is no reason to regard the war on terror as anything more than superficially similar to the crusades.
The crusading ideal did linger on after the ninth crusade. As late as 1481, Pope Sixtus IV called for a crusade against the Turks and Leibniz urged Louis XIV to launch a crusade in Egypt in 1672. However, the aftershocks of the crusading idea had petered out by the nineteenthcentury and modern-day conflicts are little more than distant echoes.
According to Tyerman, the false parallels drawn between the crusades and modern conflicts are partly a result of taking intellectual short cuts. By framing the war on terror as a modern crusade, one can reduce it to a simple us-and-them narrative, a modern-day clash of civilizations.
However, this sort of simplification risks caricaturing all those fighting the US and US-backed forces as alien extremists driven only by religion, obscuring the political dimensions of the ongoing conflicts in the middle East and the complexity of the situation on the ground.
As such, those who draw parallels with the crusades only make the situation in the middle East harder to understand. Indeed, Tyerman goes so far as to accuse them of perpetrating a “meretricious confidence trick” – strong words, perhaps, but with the ring of truth.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles