How White Supremacists and Islamists exploit the Middle Ages

IMG_3976I’ve tried to avoid this topic but with comments from white supremacists appearing on social media channels linked to this blog, I need to make my position crystal clear on the relationship between the Knights Templar, white supremacists and Islamist-inspired terrorists.

It’s quite simple. There isn’t one.

That unfortunately hasn’t stopped groups in my native United Kingdom like the English Defence League adopting Templar symbols and mottos as their own. White supremacist marchers who stormed Charlottesville in 2017 employed imagery referencing the Holy Roman Empire and the Templars. The words Deus Vult  and Saracen Go Home were recently sprayed on a mosque in the town of Cumbernauld, Scotland and extreme right groups in northern Europe and the United States can be heard yelling Non Nobis Domine.

Groan.

This might all be ignorable if the consequences weren’t so potentially fatal. On 22 July 2011, Anders Breivik killed eight people in the Norwegian capital by detonating a bomb and then made his way to a summer youth camp where he gunned down 69 teenagers. On YouTube he had posted a rambling manifesto covered in Templar imagery and ranting about the need for a crusade. I blogged at the time that this murderous sociopath had zero in common with the Knights Templar.

Why did I claim that? Here’s some reasons:

  • The Knights Templar were not loners or sociopaths. They were a military order endorsed by kings, princes and popes. The Templars ran agri-businesses (huge farms to finance the crusades), banking operations and were high level political advisers. They were not bedsit bombers or hate filled cranks.
  • Turcopoles were local Middle Eastern warriors who joined the Templars as auxiliaries. They were often Christians whose families had been Christian for longer than many families in Europe.
  • In one recorded incident, the Templars admonished a Christian who was trying to stop a Muslim praying in the Al Aqsa mosque, which was rebranded the Temple of Solomon while Jerusalem was under crusader control.
  • The Templars were respected by their Saracen opponents – not because they were racists but because of their bravery and dedication. First into battle and last to leave.
  • Christians respected Arabic learning. When the Spanish city of Toledo was taken by crusaders after centuries of Muslim control, scholars from all over Europe descended on its libraries like locusts. When the Templars were put on trial, they were accused of having been influenced by and admiring Islam.
  • Muslims and Christian realms were in much closer proximity – literally bumping up against each other. The caliphate in Spain bordered France. In Sicily, the king issued proclamations in Norman French, Greek and Arabic. The crusader states conducted trade and diplomatic relations with their Saracen enemies out of necessity. Templars would have known their Saracen counterparts, probably by name in many instances.
  • There was no concept as we understand it of white supremacy in the Middle Ages. The Templars were certainly a Christian order but Christians could still be found in large numbers in north Africa, the Middle East and the Byzantine empire (modern Turkey and bits of Syria on occasion). Christians were white and brown, to put it crudely. Please show me where a Templar ever talked about whiteness being a defining issue.
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Christian and Muslim play chess in the Middle Ages

Ultimately the Templars were all about keeping the Holy Land Christian and pushing back the caliphate in modern Spain and Portugal. But they saw this as a lofty, spiritual cause – not a thuggish day out to beat up some migrants and asylum seekers.

That is not to deny the existence today of extremist and violent Islamist inspired terrorism. To me, the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda are the mirror image of white supremacism. They preach a murderous form of religious supremacism where their victims are both Muslim (Shia, Sufi, dissenters) and non-Muslim. They frame the past in terms that are also completely ahistorical. Ignoring the complexities of medieval politics, they boil the past down to a binary struggle between the “caliphate” and the Christian “House of War”. This is as false as the perspective of white supremacists.

The caliphates of the past that they imagine were 100% Muslim were nothing of the sort. The Ottoman empire was a patchwork of ethnicities and faiths. In fact, Ottoman Constantinople had a much more diverse population then modern day Istanbul. The Ottomans also stoned less people to death over a four-hundred-year period than ISIS in two years of nightmarish terror in Syria and Iraq.

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An image to excite an Islamist ideologue

Islamists also use medieval analogies to prop up their world view. The 2017 terrorist attack in Barcelona led some blood-soaked supporters of ISIS on social media to invoke the memory of the medieval caliphate that once ruled Spain and Portugal – Al-Andalus. Ignoring the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslim co-existed under that caliphate, they claimed it was only a matter of time before Islamic rule was reinstated.

Let’s be clear on this. Islamism is an ideology developed largely in the 20th century around groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as the puritan Salafi and Wahabbi schools of thought. Contrary to its claims, it is not and never has been mainstream Islam. Fortunately for the Islamists though, white supremacists characterise this ideology as…mainstream Islam – doing it a great favour. Islamist ideology has borrowed heavily from fascist and Leninist methodology and created a totalitarian version of the caliphate that neither Saracens or crusaders would have recognised.

Every so often in the history of Islam currents have emerged that are dubbed, by Muslims, as “Khawarij”. Heretical and violent bigots who believe they have the right to determine who is a good Muslim and who is not – and then to excommunicate (“takfir”) or even execute those who don’t meet their criteria. In the Qur’an, the Prophet Mohammed anticipated these people who would “recite the Qur’an but it won’t pass beyond their throats. They will slay the followers of Islam and would spare the people of idolatry. They will pierce through the religion just like an arrow which goes clean through a prey.” He called on other Muslims to wipe them off the face of the Earth.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are Khawarij, twisting Islam to a bloody agenda. And they have a symbiotic, mutually supportive relationship with the white supremacists. Because both Islamists and white supremacists strive for an end of days civilizational clash. They crave the end of compromise, co-existence and moderation yearning instead for what ISIS terms the “extinguishing of the grey zone”.

If we want a world safe for our children – we must reject both ideologies. We can start by disconnecting the Knights Templar and the Saracens from this hateful garbage – both white supremacism and violent Islamism. It’s time for Medieval Studies departments and other experts to stop hiding under stones cowering and come out to refute this distortion of the medieval era. There has been an encouraging start from THESE medieval experts.

The silence of others is literally costing lives.

Your views, as ever, very welcome. But advocacy of racism and/or violence will be taken down.

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ISIS destroys a mosque built by a ‘scourge of the crusaders’ – Nur ad-Din

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Nur ad-Din fleeing from crusaders – not something that happened often in reality

It’s been reported that the thugs of ISIS have blown up an 800 year old mosque built during the Crusades by Nur ad-Din, a Saracen ruler described during his lifetime as a scourge of the crusader armies.

 

Up until recently, ISIS had exploited the historical significance of the mosque to legitimise their land grab in Syria and Iraq. Three years ago, their so-called caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi launched the ISIS “caliphate” from the pulpit at the Grand al-Nuri mosque, which now lies in complete ruins.

The mosque was based in Mosul, Iraq – a city that ISIS invaded in 2014. The terror group now faces almost certain defeat at the hands of Iraqi government forces. So they have reacted by blowing up this ancient jewel. It’s appalling to see a mass of rubble where this medieval glory so recently stood.

This mosque was a physical link between us in the 21st century and those far off times. Its builder, Nur ad-Din, famously captured the Knight Templar grand master Bertrand de Blanquefort who was held in prison for three years in Aleppo before being handed over to the Byzantine emperor. Even though he bested the crusaders on several occasions, Nur ad-Din was respected by the Christian chronicler William of Tyre who described him as a “just prince, valiant and wise”.

This is one of many historical sites that have been vandalised by ISIS. Many churches, mosques, shrines, temples and of course the Roman ruins at Palmyra have been trashed by ISIS. The objective is to erase history and undermine the sense of national identity of Syrians and Iraqis. However, with every insane of violence, they simply show themselves to be mindless, bigoted vandals.

Terrorists endanger Templar sites

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A photo I took inside Karak castle in 2013

The news that Karak castle in Jordan had been attacked by members of the so-called Islamic State is horrifying and shocking. Much worse that a Canadian tourist, Linda Vatcher, was killed in the skirmish along with members of the Jordanian security forces. Linda’s son Chris was also injured. Our thoughts go to them at this terrible time.

I visited Karak (or Kerak as I spelt it then from the Arabic) in 2013. It’s a stunning place to see and underneath is a warren of mysterious tunnels. The fortress was the stronghold of the notorious Raynald of Chatillon who apparently wasn’t averse to chucking his enemies off the battlements. And I can assure you that the drop is steep and vertiginous. It eventually fell to the forces of Saladin but not without a long and bitter fight.

IMG_3797Sadly, I will not be returning to Karak anytime soon. This is one of many Templar sites across Syria and Jordan that are off limits as war rages in the region. The splendid Krak des Chevalier was reportedly damaged during fighting in 2014, the BBC reported. While the outside walls looked pretty much intact, the interior had taken a pounding and there was rubbled strewn everywhere.

We might say – well, tough for those buildings but people come first. And that would be right. However, the deliberate demolition and vandalism perpetrated by so-called Islamic State against historic buildings is calculated to destroy the spirit of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi peoples. The terrorists know that when they release film of Roman, Templar or ancient Muslim sites being reduced to dust, that it cuts deeply.

This is part of their year zero strategy to convince us that everything before them was false and sacrilegious and that history now begins with their self-proclaimed “caliphate” – rejected by most Muslims worldwide. So we must do whatever we can to defend these great places and assist in the rebuilding and repair after the wars have dissipated. We must preserve the past to build the future.

Fans of the Templars and fans of the Saracens will need to come together to protect the heritage of the Middle East that means so much to all of us.

And on that note – Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2017!

 

Precursors of ISIS

The Islamic State has rightly horrified millions of people – both non-Muslim and Muslim. A trail of public executions, mass rapes, the selling of women and random killings has dismayed ordinary people in the Middle East and most folks in the West. But does it have precursors in modern times, the Middle Ages or before? There’s no doubt that for the average Syrian or Iraqi, the activities of IS seem very alien, in spite of their brutal experience of the Assad and Saddam dictatorships. Most people have never experienced anything like IS – and they keep their mouths shut lest they end up crucified or whipped. Yet IS – many of whose fighters come from outside the region – claim to be good Muslims doing the right thing by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and life of the Prophet).

A very telling story was of a woman, Faddah Ahmad, who was led out to a public square in a Syrian town this year to be stoned to death. A lorry pulled up depositing stones on the road. The IS thugs urged local people to join in the stoning. They refused. This barbarity hasn’t after all been seen in the Levant since the 15th century. Stoning all but died out during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here we are in the 21st century with a so-called “caliphate” reviving this brutal practice. In fact, IS may have stoned more people to death over the last six months than the Ottoman Empire did in six centuries.

So – where can we find an equivalent to IS in the period covered by the Knights Templar, the subject of this blog.  The only group that comes remotely close in my view is the Assassins. They originated in the 11th and 12th centuries as an offshoot of the Ishmaili Shi’ite branch of Islam. Murder was used as a political tactic. And their objective was to overthrow the Sunni Islamic empire of the Middle East. Sound familiar? They attacked crusaders as well, slaying the king of Jerusalem – Conrad of Montferrat. Their daring attacks were often carried out in public without any thought of effective escape. In fact, martyrdom was to be gloried in.

Assassin
Victorian image of an Assassin at work

“They prefer rather to die than to live” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Their Grand Master would force his warriors to commit suicide in his presence to evidence their loyalty – rather a waste of manpower you might think. The Assassin Grand Master was referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in crusader sources but never referred to as such in Arabic sources. I should add that tales of the Assassins smoking hashish and this being the reason for their name is total garbage. But they were a fanatical sect with blurred messianic objectives led by a self-appointed madman. Well, that’s pretty close to ISIS!

Over time, the Templars were able to exact control over the Assassins and even collect tribute from them. And in a complete turn of events, the Assassins were forced to turn to the west for help in the mid-13th century as the Mongol armies appeared on the horizon.

If anybody else can think who ISIS resemble in history – feel free to comment. 

Homs under siege – don’t plan a trip to Krak des Chevaliers

krakSadly as I write, the city of Homs is under bombardment from government forces as Syria slowly sinks in to what looks increasingly like civil war.

Many history buffs may be unaware of the city of Homs until I refer to it as Emesa.  Then those of you with a strong interest in ancient Roman history will experience a twinge of recognition.  Emesa came to prominence under the Severan dynasty of emperors (late second/early third century AD) when Septimius Severus married in to the local nobility.  After his death, the family continued to rule in Rome producing the wildly erratic teenage emperor Elagabalus who introduced the cult of Sol Invictus to the centre of Roman life – as well as bringing a holy stone, probably a meteor, to Rome to be worshiped.  This object would have been similar to the holy stone still venerated in Mecca.

Emesa remained under Roman control being ruled from Constantinople when the empire divided permanently after Theodosius (late 4th century AD).  But as with the rest of Syria – it was invaded by the armies of Islam in the seventh century when the emperor Heraclius was forced to abandon Emesa, which then became Homs.  A resurgent Byzantine (eastern Roman) empire was able to retake Homs for about thirty years in the tenth century – which partly explains why many Muslims mistook the First Crusade for a Byzantine attack.

By the time Jerusalem and Antioch were taken by the crusaders, Homs was back under Muslim control – though no doubt with nervous glances down the road to the newly arrived westerners.  Homs changed hands several times among different Islamic rulers but by the 12th century was firmly under the sway of the Seljuk Turks.  The crusaders realised its strategic importance and tried to take Homs but it was given super fortifications that effectively repelled the crusaders and provided the Saracens with a strong base from which to attack the Christian states of outremer.

Being very much on the front line of the crusades, Homs was not that far from the crusader stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers.  Unfortunately – if you’re planning a trip there you may have to wait a while.  Normally, you would go from Homs to this historic location but until the fighting between government and rebels is over – your plans may have to go on the back burner.