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Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take

A Crusader Castle decoration stone at the Arabic Fortress Citadel in Kerak, Jordan, built in 1142. Bill Perry/Shutterstock

Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take

So-called Islamic State (IS) continues to use its online propaganda magazine to appropriate the Crusades of the central middle ages. By blurring time periods and disparate historical phenomena, IS presents its readers with a narrative of continuous Western “crusader” aggression as a rallying cry for support and a justification for its actions. This “crusader” narrative has little basis in historical fact – but it does make for powerful propaganda.

It is hardly the first group to adopt and develop ideas on the many Latin Christian expeditions to the Middle East between the end of the 11th and 13th centuries. But the relentless frequency and nature of the group’s appropriation of the crusades, found among the pages of its Rumiyah and before that Dabiq magazines, are unprecedented, surprising and require a great deal of unpacking to understand its significance.

The obvious place to see this phenomenon is in the English language issue of Dabiq (4), entitled “The Failed Crusade”. The issue used a dramatic photoshopped image of IS’s black flag flying in front of St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican City on its front cover.

DABIQ. Author provided (No reuse)

Agents of ‘divine will’

The issue contains a lengthy feature on the 7th-century prophecy on the Islamic conquest of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Rome (Rumiyah) following the destruction of the “Roman Crusaders” at Dabiq in northern Syria.

The prophecy is alluded to on the front or first page of every edition of the magazines and – along with many other of the group’s Salafi-jihadist readings of Qur’anic verses – is referenced many times thereafter. This element of the IS message is consistent and unmistakable: the group is the prophesised agent of divine will. IS will destroy the “crusaders” at Dabiq before moving on to conquer Constantinople and Rome and bring forth the end of time.

The group confers the most recent authority on its readings of Islamic scripture through the proclamations of its senior leaders. The discussion on the prophecy in this particular feature concludes with the supposed words of Taha Subhi Falaha – also known as Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami – an IS spokesman and its second-most senior leader who was killed by a US airstrike in August 2016. He is quoted as saying:

And so we promise you (crusaders) by Allah’s permission that this campaign will be your final campaign. It will be broken and defeated, just as all your previous campaigns were broken and defeated.

Romans and other ‘crusaders’

The 7th-century “Romans” are obviously not the only “crusaders” to be found in the pages of these magazines. There are in fact many others. The Latin Christian military leaders of expeditions to the eastern Mediterranean in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Europeans involved with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the World War I, and those who helped to create the state of Israel in 1948, for example, are all termed crusaders.

The recent growth of violent Islamism in the region and elsewhere in the world is widely understood as a response to Western forms of modern imperialism. But IS has also proclaimed that, “the enmity of the kafir (unbeliever) is never based in an economic or political motive. It is only a matter of religion”. One issue even maintains that “the old colonialism was but a front for the crusaders, just as it is today a front for the Jews and Christians. Indeed, the ‘Caesar of Rome’ Bush has declared multiple times that, ‘It is a Crusade!’ So why do people lie and deny this?”

A ‘crusader’ narrative

Given the range of people termed crusaders in the magazines, who are these particular “crusaders”? Are they 7th-century Romans/Byzantines, Latin Christians of the central middle ages, Europeans of the colonial era and those somehow involved in the creation of the state of Israel, or any person of any nation involved directly or indirectly in fighting IS? What is the nature of this supposed crusade?

The blurring of such unrelated phenomena is, of course, intentional. It presents its readers with an abridged, vague and yet apparently familiar narrative of “crusader” (read Western imperialist and anti-Islamic) aggression in the region since the 7th-century. Indeed, IS maintain that the struggle against the modern “crusaders” has not stopped since “Allah’s messenger and his noble companions commenced it”. The group proclaims merely to represent Islam “today in these current rounds of … war” against its various enemies – “at the head of which are the crusader nations of the West”. The notion that a defensive jihad against the “crusader” aggressor has been fought since the 7th-century is said to oblige IS supporters to make “preparations for the current battle against the crusader” enemies while being assured that the group will go on to conquer Istanbul and Rome.

An Iraqi soldier inspects a train tunnel adorned with an Islamic State group flag in Mosul, Iraq, in March 2017. AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

This narrative of continuous “crusader” aggression in the region has little basis in historical fact but remains central to the group’s message and deserves to be better understood. In the UK alone, IS and its supporters recently called for and celebrated the killing of “crusaders” and “Crusading Brits” twice in as many weeks. The group recognises that people respond to the notion of Western powers engaging again in the “crusades”. And with its caliphate now crumbling at the hands of its enemies, the group will mutate and its appropriation of the crusades will only increase as it seeks support for its actions in the UK and elsewhere.