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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The Templars and Islam -friends or enemies?

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Christian and Muslim play chess in the Middle Ages

Five years ago I posted on this blog about a medieval Arab chronicler who visited a “Frankish” (crusader owned) house in Jerusalem only to find that pork had been banished and the cooks were serving up delicious eastern food. He raised his eyebrows at such a scene. But many western Christians were appalled at the “men of Jerusalem”, Europeans who had gone just a little bit too native for their tastes while living in the holy city.

Wearing silks, living in houses with gurgling fountains, speaking Arabic and even keeping a harem were bad enough in the eyes of more prudish western Christians. But what they really feared was that Europeans were imbibing the knowledge and science of the Islamic caliphate. Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo were great centres of learning as was Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Muslim controlled southern Spain. Already suspicious of the secretive Knights Templar, some wagging tongues began to wonder if these monastic monks were really in league with Islam.

That sounds crazy to many people today. The Templars, after all, displayed suicidal bravery in battle against the Saracens. They funded the crusades to a large degree that maintained the existence of Christian kingdoms in “outremer” – the Middle East. But were their rites and beliefs shaped by contact with ideas that emanated from the house of Islam? Some writers have suggested the Templars soaked up Sufi philosophy – the controversial David Icke for example.

It may not be Islam that influenced the Templars in the east but other variants of Christianity suppressed in the west that had continued in the birthplace of the religion. Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Mandaeism – all heresies stamped out by the papacy but still in circulation in eastern societies. Beliefs that Jesus was not divine, that John the Baptist was the real messiah, that evil ruled the world and all material things had to be rejected – these views may have seeped into Templar belief and practice.

 

How the Second Crusade was diverted to Portugal

This is an astonishing story from the Middle Ages of how a vast crusader army on the way to the Holy Land was convinced to divert to Portugal and help a small Christian kingdom take a city called Al-Usbuna from its Muslim rulers. That city would be renamed Lisbon and become the capital of Portugal. These events unfolded between 1144 and 1147 – and I touch on them heavily in my novel Quest for the True Cross. So let’s look at what happened…

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Pope Urban calls for a crusade!

In the year 1095, Pope Urban II preached a sermon at the Council of Clermont that changed history. News had come that the Christian Byzantine empire – roughly corresponding to modern Turkey and Greece – was in danger of falling to the forces of Islam. In response, the pope launched the crusades. This was to be a holy war. Those knights who took up the cross and went off to fight in the east would have all sins forgiven. It proved to be a very attractive proposition and after the first crusade, Jerusalem had been overrun by the crusaders with Christian kingdoms established in what is now modern Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel.

But it wasn’t just the Holy Land that saw a nose-to-nose confrontation between the two faiths. Sicily had been an emirate up until 1085 when the Normans conquered it. And in modern Spain and Portugal – Muslim rulers had been in control of most of the Iberian peninsula since the year 711CE. However, they were now being pushed back slowly and in 1085, the magnificent city of Toledo was seized by King Alfonso of Leon-Castile (a Christian kingdom in northern Spain). So there were crusades in progress on multiple fronts – not just in the east.

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Dom Afonso of the new Christian kingdom of Portugal

In fact, the pope was very keen to make sure that crusaders kept up the fight in Iberia. There were dreams of creating new Christian kingdoms in that region and already – on the west side of the peninsula – a new entity called Portugal was emerging. It started out as a county of Leon but under an ambitious ruler, Dom Afonso, the territory started to assert its independence from both neighbouring Christian kingdoms and the Muslims to the south. Nevertheless, Dom Afonso felt constantly insecure about his political position. He needed a major victory against Islam to bolster his credibility and his ambition was to seize the wealthy and well defended Muslim metropolis of Al-Usbuna on the river Tagus.

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The crafty bishop of Porto diverted a crusader army

It was the crafty bishop of Porto – the largest city he then ruled – who came up with the solution. Pedro Pitoes knew that a vast crusader fleet had set sail from England bound for the Holy Land. The Second Crusade was underway after the fall of the Christian controlled city of Edessa in Syria – which is where I begin the action in my novel. Pitoes encouraged this fleet to dock at Porto and then delivered a rousing speech to the warriors as they came on to land.

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The huge multi-national crusader army arrives to besiege the Muslim city of Al-Usbuna (later to be renamed Lisbon)

Yes, he told them, I know you’re off to fight in far off Syria. But there is a city right here that needs your help. And if you lend your muscle to the king of Portugal – then you will be allowed to take what you want from the city before handing it over to us. And this will be a just war in which you will be providing a great service to the church of Rome. That was the gist of his speech, which features in Quest for the True Cross.

The crusaders – amazingly – were convinced. This would lead to a delay of many months before they reached their final destination in the east. And along the way, as I detail in Quest, there were many grumbles and mutinous moments. But somehow, thousands of men from Flanders, Germany, England, France and elsewhere were convinced to march to the walls of Al-Usbuna and end four centuries of Muslim rule there.

I place my hero – an English Templar knight called Sir William de Mandeville – in the centre of this incredible tale. The details of the siege and the characters involved were taken from a contemporary account called De Expugnatione Lyxbonensi – The Conquest of Lisbon – written by an Anglo-French priest who was present throughout the battle.

 

 

Spain and Portugal – battle ground between Islam and Christianity

Say the word “Crusades” to many people and they automatically think of the Holy Land, Syria and Egypt. The wars between Christian knights and Muslim warriors are seen entirely as a violent confrontation that took place only in the Middle East. Our rather narrow and misleading view is coloured by the continuing instability in that region. In fact, the Crusades were a much bigger affair.

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The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century – Muslim ruler of modern Spain and Portugal

Indeed the Crusades extended far beyond modern Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Up in north east Europe, the Teutonic Knights fought both pagans and Russian orthodox Christians. Meanwhile in south-western Europe – the Iberian peninsula to be precise – saw initially small Christian kingdoms fight a large flourishing caliphate that at one point in the eighth century CE stretched into southern France.

So how exactly did Muslim rulers come to be in charge of the Iberian peninsula?

Well, in the year 711CE the armies of Islam were invited into modern Spain to take sides in a dispute between rival Visigoth nobles. These were the descendants of the Germanic tribes that had overrun Roman Hispania three centuries earlier. Seeing the stretch of fertile land before them, the Umayyad Muslim generals could scarcely believe their luck. And the Visigoths duly crumbled before their gleaming scimitars. Over the next sixty years, the Umayyads set about subduing the entire peninsula – what we now call Spain and Portugal.

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The medieval cathedral in Porto from where a crusade was launched to take modern Lisbon from its Muslim rulers – an undertaking covered in my book Quest for the True Cross

This invasion would have a huge impact on this part of the world. Cities like Cordoba and Seville came to be regarded as an integral part of a caliphate that stretched all the way to Damascus and Baghdad. The only parts of the Iberian peninsula not taken were the north west, which was less economically attractive and more remote, and the harder to conquer bits of the Basque country. Otherwise, every major urban centre and most of the land fell to the caliphate.

For the next seven hundred and fifty years, the Muslim domains would be pushed back bit by bit. New Christian kingdoms gradually formed in the north like Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal forcing the Emirate of Cordoba to yield its cities to the Cross. This story of prolonged warfare is fascinating and one I touch on in my book Quest for the True Cross. I take my protagonist, Sir William de Mandeville, from the killing fields of the Holy Land to the siege of a great and glorious city called Al-Usbuna.

Al-Usbuna is modern day Lisbon. In 1147, it was a Moorish city with a Muslim governor, a great mosque and a maze of streets called the Medina where the ordinary people lived. It’s hard to believe that the capital of modern Portugal was part of the Umayyad caliphate and had to be conquered by a large crusader force including many Knights Templar. Even today, the northern Portuguese often refer to their southern Portuguese fellow countrymen as “arabs”.

In my book, I draw on a contemporary account of the siege translated from the Latin – The Conquest of Lisbon – which details how the city, after over four  hundred years of Muslim rule – came to be besieged by a Christian force. Even though my book is a work of fiction, it does include many key details of that siege and you’ll get a real flavour of how the Crusades were fought in Spain and Portugal to an ultimately successful conclusion.

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The mistaken statue of Saladin

At Kerak castle, built by crusaders in the 12th century, there is a block of stone in the walls depicting a very muscular figure. For centuries, it was believed to be Saladin – scourge of the Templars and crusaders and the Muslim ruler who re-took Jerusalem.  In fact, it definitely isn’t Saladin and is much, much older.

The figure is a Nabatean warrior – the civilisation that built the legendary tomb city of Petra. It dates back to the 2nd century AD and shows a cavalryman equipped for the afterlife. So what on earth is it doing in a crusader castle? Well, masonry from much older monuments (this would have been nearly a thousand years old when Kerak was built during the crusades) was often incorporated into new buildings. So this chap – whose name we shall never know – found himself immortalised in the wall of Kerak castle.  Even if he was given an incorrect identity subsequently!

Racy images in an early Islamic palace

During my recent visit to Jordan I journeyed into the eastern deserts towards Iraq and visited the only remnant of an early Islamic castle dating back to around 723AD – built by the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid II.  This was within a hundred years of the death of the prophet Muhammad – so fascinating to see how an early Muslim lived. And it seems Al-Walid lived very well.

The site was being cleaned by a team of archaeologists as I entered and being in the middle of a vast, hot desert, I was very much on my own. What I saw was not what I expected. The remaining building of a once great palace was a bathhouse with Roman-style underfloor heating and rather racy paintings on the walls and ceilings. Dancing ladies and animals playing musical instruments. It seems the caliph liked the high life!

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