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Obama’s ‘Crusaders’ analogy veils the West’s modern crimes

Like many children, 13-year-old Mohammed Tuaiman suffered from nightmares. In his dreams, he would see flying “death machines” that turned family and friends into burning charcoal. No one could stop them, and they struck any place, at any time.

Unlike most children, Mohammed’s nightmares killed him.

Three weeks ago, a CIA drone operating over Yemen fired a missile at a car carrying the teenager, and two others. They were all incinerated. Nor was Mohammed the first in his family to be targeted: drones had already killed his father and brother.

Since president Barack Obama took office in 2009, the US has killed at least 2,464 people through drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones. The figure is courtesy of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which says that at least 314 of the dead, one in seven, were civilians.

Recall that for Obama, as The New York Times reported in May 2012, “all military-age males in a strike zone” are counted “as combatants” – unless “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”.

It sounds like the stuff of nightmares.

The week after Mohammed’s death, on February 5, Mr Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, and discussed the violence of ISIL.

“Lest we get on our high horses”, said the commander-in-chief, “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

These comments prompted a (brief) media storm, with Mr Obama accused of insulting Christians, pandering to the terrorist enemy, or just bad history.

In fact, the president was simply repeating a point often made by liberals since September 11, namely, that all religions have blots on their copy book through the deeds of their followers.

One of the consequences, however, of this invocation of the Crusades – unintended, and all the more significant for it – is to seal away the West’s “sins”, particularly vis-à-vis its relationship to the Middle East, in events that took place a thousand years ago.

The Crusades were, in one sense, a demonstration of raw military power, and a collective trauma for the peoples of the regions they marched through and invaded.

In the siege of Jerusalem in 1099, a witness described how the Europeans ordered “all the Saracen dead to be cast outside because of the great stench, since the whole city was filled with their corpses”.

He added: “No one ever saw or heard of such slaughter of pagan people, for funeral pyres were formed from them like pyramids.”

Or take the Third Crusade, when, on August 20, 1191, England’s King Richard I oversaw the beheading of 3,000 Muslim prisoners at Acre in full view of Saladin’s army.

Just “ancient history”? In 1920, when the French had besieged and captured Damascus, their commander Henri Gourard reportedly went to the grave of Saladin, kicked it, and uttered: “Awake Saladin, we have returned! My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”

But the US president need not cite the Crusades or even the colonial rule of the early 20th century: more relevant reference points would be Bagram and Fallujah.

Bagram base in Afghanistan is where US soldiers tortured prisoners to death – like 22-year-old taxi driver and farmer Dilawar. Before he was killed in custody, Dilawar was beaten by soldiers just to make him scream “Allah!”

Five months after September 11, The Guardian reported that US missiles had killed anywhere between 1,300 and 8,000 in Afghanistan. Months later, the paper suggested that “as many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention”.

When it was Iraq’s turn, the people of Fallujah discovered that US forces gave them funerals, not democracy. On April 28, 2003, US soldiers massacred civilian protesters, shooting to death 17 during a demonstration.

When that city revolted against the occupation, the residents paid a price. As Marines tried to quell resistance in the city, wrote The New York Times on April 14, 2004, they had “orders to shoot any male of military age on the streets after dark, armed or not”.Months later, as the Marines launched their November assault on the city, CNN reported that “the sky…seems to explode”.

In their bombardment and invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US and UK armed forces rained fiery death down on men, women and children. Prisoners were tortured and sexually abused. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. No one was held to account.

It is one thing to apologise for the brutality of western Crusaders a thousand years ago. It is quite another to look at the corpses of the victims of the imperialist present, or hear the screams of the bereaved.

In his excellent book The Muslims Are Coming, Arun Kundnani analysed the “politics of anti-extremism”, and describes the two approaches developed by policymakers and analysts during the “war on terror”.

The first approach, which he refers to as “culturalism”, emphasises “what adherents regard as inherent features of Islamic culture”. The second approach, “reformism”, is when “extremism is viewed as a perversion of Islam’s message”, rather than “a clash of civilisations between the West’s modern values and Islam’s fanaticism”.

Thus the American Right was angry with Mr Obama, because for them, it is about religion – or specifically, Islam. Liberals, meanwhile, want to locate the problem in terms of culture.

Both want to avoid a discussion about imperialism, massacres, coups, brutalities, disappearances, dictatorships – in other words, politics.

As Kundnani writes: when “the concept of ideology” is made central, whether understood as “Islam itself or as Islamist extremism”, then “the role of western states in co-producing the terror war is obscured”.

The problem with Mr Obama’s comments on the Crusades was not, as hysterical conservatives claimed, that he was making offensive and inaccurate analogies with ISIL; rather, that in the comfort of condemning the past, he could mask the violence of his own government in the present.

The echoes of collective trauma remain for a long time, and especially when new wounds are still being inflicted. Think it is farfetched that Muslims would still care about a 1,000-year-old European invasion? Then try asking them about Guantanamo and Camp Bucca instead.

Published first in The National.

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