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Memories of Crusades live on in today’s war



On Sept. 16, the word shot around the Islamic world. And shocked it.

President George W. Bush thought he’d used the term innocently enough. On that Sunday, walking from his helicopter to the White House, he said of U.S. retaliation to the Sept. 11 attacks, “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a long time.”

As the Muslim uproar swelled, Bush quickly apologized. But damage had been done.

The BBC, for example, in its Persian and Uzbeck broadcast news services, had translated Bush’s remark in the way the Islamic world understands it, as “the war of those signed with the cross,” and “the holy, religious war of the Christians.” (In Islam’s many national languages, from Arabic to Farsi to Urdu, the Muslims call their defense against the crusaders, “the war against the cross.”)

Only a minority of Muslims actually believe America had declared a “holy war” against them, cautions Paul E. Chevedden of the University of California Los Angeles. And Georgetown University’s Zahid H. Bukhari, speaking of both Muslims and Westerners, said, “Certain lobbies, certain people, do use the word [crusade] to project what is happening because they have their own agendas to present. They like the terminology and can be more effective because of it.”

To Muslims, whose memory of historic grievances may be sharper than that of most Christians, the concept of a “holy war” has implications lost in history’s mists. To some millions of Muslims within the Islamic world, crusade still means centuries of bloody Western Christian incursions fought over the Holy Land. Those memories are like ghosts dancing to the U.S. drums of war.

NCR talked to historians of religion and those engaged in Muslim-Christian dialogue and, as the globe’s sole superpower searches for one man among the rocks and caves of Islamic Afghanistan, learned lessons for today from the history of the medieval crusades. From today’s perspective, there are some surprises, some odd similarities and parallels.

Christians did indeed at one time have their “holy wars,” accompanied by language that could have come from bin Laden himself.

The historical record tells us that Fulcher of Chartres (1058-1130), priest-chaplain on the First Crusade, wrote in his eyewitness account that this Crusade was a novum salutis genus, “a new path to Heaven.” Those Christians who followed this “holy war” path would, wrote Fulcher, experience “full and complete satisfaction” and “forgiveness of sins.”

A world bursting apart

To Chevedden, however, who is an associate at UCLA’s Gustav E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Crusades have to be understood as part of tremendous geo-political, socio-economic and religious shifts underway at the time. “The Mediterranean world of the 11th century was changing in a remarkable manner; it was witnessing the birth of a new world. The Crusades were the product of the sudden and all-transforming change that produced Western European civilization. An old world burst apart, and a new one took its place” (see accompanying story).

Bukhari, director and principal co-investigator for Georgetown’s Muslims in the American Public Square project, and Fr. James Fredericks of Loyola Marymount theology department, see similar shifts underway today. Bukhari explained that during a period of great transformation “the Crusades were a clash of religions. In the transformations of modern times, we have a clash of civilizations. To some extent there is the same connotation, the whole West as a symbol of Christianity, the entire Muslim world as the symbol of Islam.”

But what must be taken into account, he said, is the evolution underway. One aspect of that, he said, is “the evolving debate within Islam about living according to Islamic beliefs, to divine guidance. The notion of how to do that has been evolving since World War II, which triggered the end of colonialism. Among Muslim countries and the Muslim world (which includes those Muslims who live as minorities in non-Muslim countries), there is a debate over issues of democracy, civil rights, human rights, the role of women and living with people of other faiths.”

And that debate, he said, “will be violent in some places, look absurd in others, be serious in others, but evolve ultimately, hopefully, in a positive direction.”

Bukhari, a Pakistani who has lived in the West for 17 years, said that when “looked at in the time period of 30 to 40 years, things are going very much in a positive direction. Especially with those Muslims living in Western societies. But we are talking only about 30 to 40 years. What evolution will the next 30 to 40 years bring?”

Fredericks, a priest of the San Francisco archdiocese whose field is comparative religion, comments, “We Americans are so concerned with the violent [Islamic] fringe, we miss what’s going on at a deeper level.”

To Fredericks, the geo-politic transformations Islam is signaling are enormous. “This is a huge, huge topic. First, Christianity and Islam -- you cannot say it about Judaism -- are religions that have been at the foundations of empires. Further, Christianity and Islam are the bases of entire cultural outlooks.

Christian nations today are, by and large, secular societies, in which Protestantism was able to adjust more quickly than Roman Catholicism. “Christianity has made its peace -- an uneasy truce -- with secular culture. Christianity,” he continued, “has grudgingly yielded its place at the center of culture. It isn’t that anymore.”

The peace isn’t total, and opposition to the peace does not just come from Christian reactionaries, traditionalists and conservatives. “We see opposition,” he said, “not just from the new religious right, though in the culture wars they get all the publicity, but in the theology of liberation. The theology of liberation also says that religious voices, religious values, need to be very public realities at the center of culture.

“The other thing -- and it’s such a complicated picture,” he said, “there is something in the very character of Christianity that resists privatization. Christianity wants to be a very public religion. So when Christianity becomes a private religion, it is in a rather anomalous situation.”

The same statement, he said, can be made about Islam. “Islam wants to be a very public force, a very public reality. Islam wants of its very character to be the basis of society. It always has.

“From the beginnings of Islam,” said Fredericks, “submitting to Islam meant renouncing one culture that was sinful and violent and discriminatory and based on petty racial and ethnic rivalries, and recognizing there is this universal humanity, universal morality. A powerful conversion takes place from an immoral society to a moral society.” In fact, he said, submission -- submission to Allah -- is what Islam means.

For Islam to accept a privatized place within secular society “is very, very difficult. We in the West tend to presume that this is an inevitable process. I think that’s naive.”

Fredericks argues that because Christians “slowly and begrudgingly, and with a great deal of violence” more or less worked out a modus vivendi with the secular nation, Muslims will not necessarily follow suit.

“Why should we presume that that’s normative?” he asked.

‘Alternative modernities’

Speaking to Bukhari’s point about Islam in the recent post-colonial period, Fredericks talked of “alternative modernities,” of Islamic states developing in unique and non-Western ways.

He uses Indonesia, the largest of all Islamic nations, as an example. “If one allows, and it is controversial to do so, that Indonesia’s Sukarno [1949-1967] and Suharto [1967-1998] regimes were aftermaths connected to Dutch colonialism, then what we’re hearing from Indonesia’s Muslims today is, ‘We want to be a nation. We don’t want to go back to the Middle Ages. And -- the West doesn’t get this -- we want to be a modern nation. We just don’t want to be modern the way you’re modern. We think that’s sick.’ ”

Think of such a development, says Fredericks, in terms “of ‘religious nationalism’ as an alternative to Western secularism. Islam saying our religious nationalism is a way of being a modern, national state: Economically competitive, a state able to provide basic social services to its population. We want to be a success. But secularism -- with all the immorality that comes with it -- isn’t going to cut it for us. We’re not that kind of people. We want to be an Islamic state.”

What the world may be witnessing, contends Fredericks, is not just a violent fringe but manifestations of religious nationalism that from Egypt to Iran to Indonesia “may have more in common with the theology of liberation than we’ve recognized. Both are a critique of Western secular, capitalist, consumerist, materialist, globalist secularism. And that’s something we ought to pay attention to and be respectful of.” Like Islam, liberation theology seeks to put Christian values, such as a preferential option for the poor, at the center of culture.

Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, said Americans need to understand that at the deepest level they have been moving away from cultural values built around honor-shame -- still the dominant framework for values around much of the world. In contrast, the United States “has an achievement-guilt culture focused almost entirely on the individual,” he said.

“Certainly we have very little sense of honor,” he said. “Most Americans will say honor is nice, but give me the check instead. And if we had any shame, we wouldn’t have had the last 20 years of U.S. politics.”

Bartchy said that in Germany in the 1970s, Chancellor Willi Brandt resigned as a matter of honor when an East German mole penetrated West Germany’s security services. In Japan, “CEOs or government officers caught in whatever, resign.” By contrast, he said, “in America if you get caught out, you back and fill. You don’t resign, you just tough it out.”

The 80 percent of the world living with honor-shame values have strict gender divisions and roles, systems that generate enormous competition among the males, and a sense of bonding within the family. “Islam,” he said, “has created a sense of what anthropologists call ‘fictive’ and I choose to call ‘surrogate’ kinship: It goes beyond the family to create a sense of brotherhood. It’s no accident that the extremist group in Egypt is the ‘Brotherhood.’ ”

In many ways, said Bartchy, “Islam, for all the way it looks, is still kind of a thin overlay of ancient tribal cultures.” For example, nothing in the Quran or the Islamic tradition supports honor killing of women, yet in some countries women are killed if they have been raped, he said. “If the father isn’t strong enough, the brothers are supposed to go out there and kill that woman. And if they can kill her in public it’s even better, because that at least eliminates the shame from the family.”

The only groups in the United States that live up to these strong honor-shame codes, Bartchy said, are inner-city gangs and the Mafia. They cannot allow themselves or their family to be “dissed, or shamed.” Every time they step over the threshold, they are in competition with the world outside. “From the time you’re 3 years old until you die, you do and say those things that will bring honor back to your family.”

Which, in part, said Bartchy, explains Osama bin Laden’s popularity in Afghanistan. “Whatever else he was doing,” he said, “Osama was accumulating an enormous amount of honor. Spending his own wealth initially on the widows and orphans of the mujahideen -- an enormous contrast to what the royal elites back home in Saudi Arabia were doing.”

In bin Laden’s eyes, said Bartchy, these Saudis were not sharing, and Islam requires it. As bin Laden and those sympathetic to him looked at the United States, “they saw the ever-increasing gap between the elite -- the enormously rich -- and the Americans at the bottom. Then Osama and his allies looked at the Saudi leadership doing the same and reasoned: ‘How did Saudis learn that those values are OK? Because they looked to the West.’ ” (Bartchy left unanswered the next question: “How did the West learn that those values are OK?”)

“Basically,” he said, “what Muslims in the Near East want is the same things we want. Even the most conservative bring their kids to the United States to be educated. What they can’t understand is how we say we’re so strong for democracy and participation and yet we continue to prop up regimes in their part of the world they regard as terribly oppressive and corrupt.”

At home what bothers Bartchy is the tone of the American popular response, even among his students. They believe, he said, “the only way to look at us is as the victims. We can do anything we damn well please overseas, and that should never have any effect on what comes down.”

What the peeves really are

Bush used the word crusade and apologized. He warned against racism and bigotry, and visited with Muslims at Islamic centers. Sound moves?

If Bush wants support, to prove he’s not against Islam “the first place you start is at home,” said Yvonne Haddad, professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University. “And his rhetoric -- in the speech to Congress, listening to it as an American, I was impressed. Listening with the other ear, as Muslims overseas would hear it, it was awful: he talked about ‘us’ and ‘them,’ you’re either with us or against us. He showed no reflection on what the issues, the peeves, really are.”

And some of those peeves can be seen as related to the Crusades. Israel occupies the same geographic area the Crusades were about, she said. “Therefore anybody who supports Israel’s policies is perceived as continuing the Crusades.”

And a thousand years after the first one, the Crusades remain a source of contention.

Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large, resides in Valencia, Calif. His e-mail is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001