Tag Archives: ISIS

Did the Crusades lead to Islamic State?

The Conversation

Carole Cusack, University of Sydney

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades: can we really understand anything about Islamic State by looking at its rise as the latest incarnation of a centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity?


In 1996, late US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, he argued, conflicts would increasingly involve religion.

Islam, which Huntington claimed had been the opponent of Christianity since the seventh century, would increasingly feature in geopolitical conflict.

So, it wasn’t particularly shocking when, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the then-US president, George W. Bush, used the term “crusade” to describe the American military response.

Framing the subsequent “war on terror” as a crusade acted as a red flag to journalists and political commentators, who could treat the events as simply the most recent stoush in a centuries-old conflict.

The actual Crusades (1096-1487) themselves evoke a romantic image of medieval knights, chivalry, romance and religious high-mindedness. But representing them as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.

Early Islamic conquests

That there were wars between Muslims and Christians is certainly true. After the death of Abu Bakr (573-634), the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph, the second Caliph Umar (583-644) sent the Islamic armies in three divisions to conquer and spread the religion of Islam.

Whole regions that were Christian fell to Islam. The Holy Land, which comprised modern-day Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for instance, was defeated. And Egypt was conquered without even a battle in 640.

The ancient and vast Persian Empire, officially Zoroastrian in religion, had been conquered by 642. Weakened by war with the Christian Byzantine Empire, Persia was no match for the Muslim forces.

Muslim armies marched across north Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into modern Spain, eventually securing a large territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known as Al-Andalus (also known as Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).

They also marched across the Pyrenees and into France in 732, the centenary of Muhammad’s death. But they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as Battle of Tours and, by Arab sources, as Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs) by the Frankish general, Charles Martel (686-741), grandfather of the great Emperor Charlemagne.

This was seen as a Christian victory and, after Poitiers, there were no further attacks on Western Europe. The Crusades came much later.

The causes of the Crusades

The proximate causes of the First Crusade (1096-1099) include the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), who was crowned in 1081 and ruled until his death. His armies met the Muslim Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and were defeated.

This placed the city of Constantinople at risk of conquest. So, the emperor requested that the West send knights to assist him – and he was prepared to pay.

Pope Urban II (1044-1099) preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. He argued that the Turks and Arabs attacked Christian territories and had “killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire”.

He also promised his audience:

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.

This was recorded by a monk called Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade.

The four leaders of the First Crusade.
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands answered the pope’s call and the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099. But the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East was short-lived and the port city of Ruad, the last Christian possession, was lost in 1302/3.

Many later conflicts that were called Crusades were not actions against Muslim armies at all. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), for instance, was a Venetian Catholic army, which besieged Constantinople. Catholic Christians attacked Orthodox Christians, then looted the city, taking its treasures back to Venice.

Islam was not a factor in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, either. In that instance, Pope Innocent III (1160/1-1216) used the language of war against the infidel (literally “unfaithful”, meaning those without true religion) against heretics in the south of France. So, “right-thinking” Christians killed “deviant” Christians.

The end of the Middle Ages

It wasn’t all intermittent fighting. There were also periods of peace and productive relationships between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages.

For instance, Charlemagne (742-814) (also know as Charles the Great or Charles I), who united most of Western Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, sent gifts to Harun al-Rashid (763-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. In return, he received diplomatic presents such as a chess set, an elaborate clepsydra (water clock) and an elephant.

In Spain, the culture from the early eighth century to the late 15th was known as “la Convicencia” (the co-existence), as Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace (though the level of harmony has been exaggerated). And there was an exchange of ideas in fields including mathematics, medicine and philosophy.

The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually reconquered Al-Andalus. And, in 1492, King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) reclaimed Granada and expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, or forced them to convert to Christianity.

A clumsy view

Clearly, to speak of an “us versus them” mentality, or to frame current geopolitical conflicts as “crusades” of Christians against Muslims, or vice versa, is to misunderstand – and misuse – history.

Not all blood and guts: the Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid receives a delegation from Charlemagne.
Julius Köckert via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Westerners would find medieval Crusader knights as unappealing as they do Islamic State.

And it’s impossible to miss the fact that the immediate entry into heaven Pope Urban promised to Christian soldiers who died in battle against the infidel Muslims is conceptually identical to the martyrdom ideology of contemporary jihadists.

Reality is more complex – and more interesting – than the simple continuation of a historical struggle against the same enemy. Muslims conquered Christian territories, yes, but Christians engaged in reconquest.

There were forced conversions to both Islam and Christianity, and – very importantly – actual governments and monarchs were involved. It’s a simplistic thing to say that “Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state”, but there’s an element of truth in it.

The most important reason we should resist the lure of the crusade tag to any fight against jihadists is that groups like Islamic State want the West to think like that.

It justified the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015 as attacks against “the Crusader nation of France”. Osama bin Laden used the same reasoning after the September 11 attacks.

By adopting the role of Crusaders, Western nations play into Islamic State’s hands. It’s how these jihadists want the West to understand itself – as implacably opposed to Islam. But it’s not, and it never has been.


This is the sixth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The ConversationCarole Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Paris: the war with ISIS enters a new stage

The Conversation

Simon Reich, Rutgers University Newark

When in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, I wrote a column suggesting that we all had to demonstrate a new toughness.

At that time, I thought the scale of ISIS’ attacks on Western targets was contained by its avowed doctrine of territorial legitimacy. I assumed any attacks in the West would be carried out by lone wolves or with one or two partners. I was wrong.

Ever since it first declared a caliphate, ISIS’ leadership consistently expressed the intent of fighting a more or less conventional war in a well-defined piece of territory spreading across Iraq and Syria.

Their surprising initial victories reinforced that strategy. And it allowed them to pursue a war against the Yazidis, which the American Holocaust Museum has declared a genocide.

But then the Americans arrived, eager to engage a Jihadist army in direct combat.

And the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters began to make inroads.

So ISIS responded, by shifting its strategy towards new tactics: fighting a more common, irregular, guerrilla war, as the Taliban had often done successfully in Afghanistan and militants had done in Iraq before them.

New tactics

Then the Russians arrived to support Syrian President Al Assad.

Although their initial targets have not been ISIS strongholds, it has changed the dynamic once again.

ISIS leaders understand that with the US on one side and the characteristically merciless Russians on the other, time is running out.

It is one thing to take on one of them. It is quite another to take on both.

They can replenish their forces with raw new recruits. But they probably can’t do it fast enough to hold off all sides. And the apparent execution by drone of Jihadi John, their poster child, threatens a further dent in their recruitment campaign.

So, the ever flexible ISIS leadership has moved to a new stage in their tactics – war by terror.

New goals

The goals are predictable.

  • First, killing civilians at home in Europe in highly symbolic settings. Their intent here is to provoke a debate about these countries’ involvement in Syria and Iraq and thus break the political will of the western countries. There is, in other words, a cost to be paid for military intervention.
  • Second, to convince potential new recruits that with limited training they can still play a crucial role as a martyr. After all, if you are going to die as a martyr, you don’t want to do so by the side of the road in the middle of the desert. You want to do so on the streets of Paris where everyone will know who you were and what you did.
  • Third, to convince the west that you are still a formidable force – everywhere.

The new tactic involves soft civilian targets. They involve country nationals and foreign recruits. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere. It is a classic terrorist response.

First came the Russian plane crash in the Sinai – most probably caused by an ISIS bomb. Then these horrific attacks in Paris – claimed by ISIS and blamed on ISIS – in neighborhoods that I, and many American tourists, frequent when we visit.

I spent the evening of the attacks frantically trying to reach my family and friends. My sister-in-law, Lorene Aldabra, is a professional singer and musician who often visits the Bataclan concert hall, scene of so much carnage. When you have to spend time tracking down loved ones, you really understand what this new war means.

The declarations of support are encouraging and touching. President Obama was as eloquent as ever. London’s mayor Boris Johnson sounded mildly Churchillian. Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel was blunt and forthright. But we can assume these attacks won’t be the last ones.

France is in a state of emergency. The security services in Europe and North America are on a state of alert. My spouse traveled on the Washington, DC-to-New York train Friday night and it was full of sniffer dogs and police. We risk a return to the national fear that gripped us after 9/11.

Parisians got it right when they assembled in large numbers and unfurled a sign saying “not afraid” in the hours after these attacks.

On the streets of Paris
Yves Herman

But not afraid of what?

The terrorists for sure. But also let’s not be afraid to distinguish between terrorists and Syrian asylum seekers. Between those who invoke the forces of evil and those imams who decry it. Between our Muslim friends and neighbors and our fanatical enemies.

The lives of Parisians will not be the same after November 13. But, knowing the city and its inhabitants well, I believe that they will not be deprived of oxygen and disappear into the vortex of hate preached by jihadists – or Europe’s extreme nationalists. Civility, albeit wrapped in an iron fist, will be their response.

The ConversationSimon Reich, Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science, Rutgers University Newark

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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ISIS is destroying ancient artefacts to send a message of intent

The Conversation

By Peter Edwell

Distressing scenes of the destruction of ancient artefacts by ISIS in the Archaeological Museum in Mosul in northern Iraq have been widely reported in recent days.

Video footage (see below) showed individuals wielding sledgehammers at ancient statues which the perpetrators claimed were images of gods. The exact identification of the destroyed artefacts is speculative, but most of the destruction appears to have been wrought on statuary of the Assyrian period (1365 BCE–609 BCE) and from the ancient trading principality of Hatra.

These items would be too difficult to smuggle out to the international black market for antiquities, a practice which ISIS appears to have been employing for smaller looted items from museums and archaeological sites across Iraq and Syria.

A number of rich archaeological sites lie in the immediate vicinity of Mosul and some of these rank among the most significant yet discovered in the Middle East.

Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) and Niniveh were successive capitals of the neo-Assyrian Empire (911 BCE-609 BCE) the latter thought to have been the largest city in the world in the seventh century BCE.

The remains of Nimrud lie approximately 30km to the south-east of Mosul while those of Niniveh are located on east bank of the Tigris in the immediate vicinity of the city. Foreign excavations of both sites began in the 1840s and many impressive items of statuary, architecture and other sculptures were transported to museums including the British Museum and the Louvre.

Some of this material stayed in Iraq where it is still held at museums in Baghdad and Mosul.

Mosul’s occupation of a strategic crossing point of the Tigris River for many centuries means that the city has a rich history, reflected in the museum’s holdings and the, until recently, diverse population of the city.

Mosul was a key crossing point for invading Parthian, Persian and Roman armies from the first century BCE to the seventh century CE and it formed an important trade connection between northern Mesopotamia and Syria, especially with the wealthy trading principality of Hatra (first century BCE – third century CE), some 90km south-west of Mosul, and the more distant trading emporium of Palmyra in central Syria.

Mosul was also an important trading centre during various Islamic Caliphates and in the Ottoman period. Today it is the second largest city in Iraq and its bridge across the Tigris is an important part of connecting the whole region of northern Iraq and eastern Syria, which ISIS controls.

Cultural vandalism

While the destruction of ancient artefacts in Mosul is without question cultural vandalism at its worst, ancient cultures in Iraq and elsewhere were equally capable of cultural vandalism, often on grand scales.

When the Assyrian empire disintegrated towards the end of the seventh century BCE, Nimrud was sacked and levelled by an alliance of enemies including Babylonians and Persians. In 330 BCE Alexander the Great looted the ancient city of Persepolis in Iran and burnt its palace to the ground in a drunken rampage.

Roman Emperors and Persian Kings besieged Hatra on five occasions in the second and third centuries before it was finally captured and mostly destroyed while the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE resonates to this day.

There is a clear distinction, however, between the devastation of priceless cultural items by ancient powers and the targeted destructive activities of ISIS.

The vandalism perpetrated in the Mosul Museum is part of a targeted program of desecration and devastation undertaken in Mosul by ISIS since it overran the city in June 2014. Reports of the demolition of six Shi’ite mosques and four shrines to Sunni and Sufi figures emerged in early July last year and later that month the 14th-century Prophet Younis (Jonah) shrine and associated mosque were blown up.

Antiquities are on display during the re-opening ceremony of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, February 28. Source: EPA/Ali Abbas

The obliteration of other Islamic monuments and places of worship has continued while the Chaldean and Syrian Orthodox Cathedrals were occupied after the vast proportion of Christian residents fled the city. Reports emerged in late February that the Mosul Public Library had been ransacked with approximately 100,000 books and manuscripts burned.

These actions are directly linked with the adherence by ISIS members to the Salafi movement, an extreme branch of Islam which views the centuries of development in Islamic theology and thinking after Mohammed as accretions which have polluted the faith.

The veneration of saints’ tombs and images is a particular problem for Salafists, which explains the destruction wrought on Islamic monuments in Mosul. It mirrors the destruction of saints’ tombs in Mecca and Medina in the early 1800s when Salafists captured the holy cities in what is now Saudi Arabia.

The destruction of artefacts depicting what are claimed to be gods in the Mosul Museum is part of making a broader statement to the Islamic world while enforcing an extreme doctrinal position in the city. It is also part of a message aimed more broadly at Iraq and the West.

On the same day that the video was released, the National Museum in Baghdad reopened after 12 years of painstaking effort to rebuild it following the looting which took place during the US-led invasion in 2003. The reopening of the museum is a moment of national pride for a country whose very existence is under threat.

The destruction of artefacts in Mosul sends a clear message, reflective of the intent of ISIS, which is to destroy whatever stands in the way of its ideology. The release of video footage of this vandalism has other purposes as well, especially with regard to the West, where museums and the precious artefacts they hold are treasured and sacred.

The infinitely more gruesome video footage of defenceless hostages being murdered has a similar purpose, partly to terrorise all who see it but also to entice the West back into a high-stakes war which will be difficult to prosecute and far more difficult to win.

​This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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