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.
chess
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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Knights Templar tolerance towards Muslims

Cantigas-di-santa-Maria-2This is a very telling story from an excellent book – Islam’s War Against the Crusaders – in which the story of a medieval Muslim writer, Usama of Shaizar is referenced.

He once visited Jerusalem and went to the Al-Aqsa mosque to pray. Well, it had once been a mosque – and is today of course – but in the crusader period it had become the headquarters of the Templars. It was known as the Temple of Solomon and underwent some major modifications at that time – not least the walling up of the minbar.

Usama described the Templars as ‘friends of mine’ and there doesn’t seem to have been any problem with him popping in to pray. But as he knelt towards Mecca, a Frankish visitor – who was not a Templar – flew in to a rage and made him face in what he saw as a Christian direction. The Templars took exception to this rough handling of their guest and told the Frank off – but as soon as their backs were turned, he did it again!

The Templars laid in to the guy and apologising to Usama, they explained:

He is a foreigner who has just arrived from his homeland in the north and he has never seen anyone pray facing any other direction than east.

Knights Templar – papal anniversary today

Pope_Honorius_IIYes, on this very day in 1128 – Pope Honorius gave official recognition to the Knights Templar.  You should all know the early part of this story off by heart.  In 1119, Hugues de Payens and Godfrey de Saint-Omer found the Order to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.

This duo and the band of knights who joined them seem to have been part of a Burgundian social/religious scene that included Bernard of Clairvaux – who went on to write their rule book.  There were ties of blood and kinship between all these fellows and it’s suggested that the idea of setting up the Order came from Bernard and was suggested to De Payens.  There’s no doubt they ended up becoming the military wing of Bernard’s own order, the Cistercians.

There had been a deterioration in safety for pilgrims in the Holy Land since the emergence of the Seljuk Turks, who had conquered the Levant from the Fatimids.

In contrast to the Seljuk’s more aggresive stance, many of the early caliphs who had ruled over Jerusalem were surprisingly tolerant of Christians flooding in to the holy places – as they were people of the book and, at the risk of being vulgar, there was a fast buck to be made out of this medieval form of tourism.

The First Crusade saw Jerusalem fall to Christian forces from the west but this did not mean that pilgrims now had a trouble free journey to the city. Crime was a serious threat with many losing their lives to robbers.

By 1119, things had got so dangerous with bandits and thieves pouncing on passing groups of pilgrims that the Knights Templar were ostensibly set up as protection for them. Well, that’s the official reason for the Order being set up.   Whether the Knights had a wider agenda from the outset is a matter of ongoing debate.

The group seems to have grown as an Order pretty rapidly and barely a decade later were getting a papal thumbs up from Honorius.  This included the sanction to wear a white mantle – to which a later pope, Eugenius, would permit the red, eight pointed cross, to be emblazoned.

The Templars were to be answerable only to the Pope and enjoyed a measure of self-government that was sooner or later going to irritate the hell out of the feudal aristocracy.  Nobody likes a parallel power structure on their patch.

Honorius II was elected pope on the death of Callistus II and got the top job largely as a result of being backed by the powerful Frangipani clan in Rome – who were opposed by the equally powerful Leoni.  The latter had quickly stuck a cardinal on the throne as Celestine II when Roberto Frangipani stormed in and removed him – putting the Cardinal of Ostia in his place, who became Honorius II.

This was an example of the unseemly politics that surrounded pope making for centuries – with aristocratic factions or rival monarchs pushing their favoured candidates.   Honorius not only gave the green light to the Templars but also gave papal approval to the Premonstratensian Order.