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.

alandalus
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 grave of the Prophet to be destroyed – but not by crusaders

Jannat al Baqee anti-Wahhabi protest @ Daley C...
Jannat al Baqee anti-Wahhabi protest @ Daley Center (Photo credit: jbracken)

During the crusades, there were numerous plans to try and invade Mecca to dig up the Prophet Mohammed and despoil the holy places. The view of Templars and all crusaders was that Islam had been a terrible heresy, a theological aberration, that could be crushed by attacking its most revered site. If only the tomb of its founder could be destroyed, then the Muslim world would implode in on itself.

Most notoriously, Reynald de Chatillon (portrayed in the movie Kingdom of Heaven as something of a monster) menaced Mecca and Medina until the Saracens managed to get hold of him and end his life. It’s even said that he managed to capture Saladin’s sister (or some accounts say his aunt or mother) as she returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Over three hundred years later and Christians still dreamed of getting the Prophet’s body. The Portuguese adventurer and governor of Goa – Afonso de Albuquerque – set out in 1513 to secure the Red Sea for Portuguese ships on route to India. In the process, he hatched a plot to seize the corpse of Mohammed and wouldn’t return it until all Muslims had left the Holy Land. In the end, however, much like the crusaders before him – all his attempts to attack Mecca and Medina came to nothing.

And so – the original mosques built in the seventh century AD by Mohammed and his immediate followers survived. Until the last few years. Incredibly, the Saudi authorities have been busy demolishing buildings that the Prophet himself would have known. And their enthusiasm for the task goes beyond anything that Chatillon or Albuquerque could have possibly imagined.

The Wahhabi variant of Islam in Saudi Arabia is against any whiff of idol worship or veneration of sites not directly associated with the Prophet. As early as 1806, when the first Wahhabi state was formed in Arabia, gouged out of the Ottoman Empire, there was an attempt to destroy Mohammed’s tomb. This caused outrage across the Muslim world and was stopped. The Ottomans reasserted control but when the Saudis achieved full independence after the First World War, then the destruction began in earnest.

Ironically, as the number of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina has increased hugely in recent years – so has the pace of demolition. In effect, those going to Saudi Arabia are contributing to the leveling of the tombs and mosques dating back to the life of Mohammed.

In 1998, the grave of Mohammed’s mother was burnt down and his father’s tomb has also gone in recent years. The reason, apart from Wahhabi purity, is the massive expansion in modern religious complexes to house and channel all these pilgrims. New buildings are simply being slapped on top of seventh century structures. It would be rather like demolishing Westminster Abbey to make way for a hotel for worshipers – if that makes any sense.

And now in Medina, the biggest building in the world (the Masjid al-Nabawi) is about to shoot up sweeping away another three mosques from the century of the prophet. Unbelievably, these mosques contain the tombs – you guessed it – of the Prophet himself as well as Abu Bakr and Umar, his two closest associates. Reynald de Chatillon must be laughing in his grave.

 

Templars and the ‘white slave trade’

English: Seal of the Templars
Seal of the Templars 

There is a recurring story out there that the Templars engaged in what is termed the ‘white slave trade’.   The gist of the tale is that the Templars were engaged in all sorts of trading in the town of Ajazzo, known in Armenian as Ayas, located today in modern Turkey.

In the thirteenth century it was part of the Armenian kingdom of Cicilia, a Christian territory linking the Byzantine empire to the increasingly beleaguered crusader states of the Levant.  It’s a neglected kingdom historically speaking – and more should be written about it.

By the time the Templars were active in the kingdom, it was taking a hammering from Mongol armies that had come from the east, Mamluk armies from the south and Turks from the north.  Inevitably, the kingdom just kept shrinking till it was completely absorbed in to the Turkic Ottoman empire.

Before that happened though, it benefited from the criss-cross of trade in the region and it’s said that both Mongol and Turk slave drivers brought their human cargo to Ayas to trade the live bodies to the highest bidders.  Some of those bidders, it’s said, were Templars.  They basically bought up the slaves and took them back to work on the estates attached to their preceptories.

These slaves were not black Africans but peoples who lived on the Russian steppes.  Both the Turks and the Mongols had invaded and raided these lands and part of the treasure was a section of the population.  Many of these slaves were sold in to the various Islamic emirates to the south and forced to convert.  In Egypt, these converted slaves rose up and killed their masters becoming the Mamluk rulers of that country.

Proof that slaves could and did in exceptional situations take control.

The facts that are not in doubt are that slaves whose skins were white were routinely bought and sold in ancient and medieval times.  The distinction was between peoples deemed to be on side and civilised and those seen as enemies or barbarians.  Colour was not the deciding factor in who became a slave.

It’s also true that slavery continued in to the Middle Ages, far beyond the collapse of the slave based Roman Empire.  People in the Domesday Book are classified as slaves and the practice was condemned in England as late as the sixteenth century.  Christians and Muslims were slave traders and there’s one tale of an audacious Arab raid on a Cornish village in western England where an entire congregation were shipped off from a church service in to slavery in north Africa.

So did the Templars trade in slaves?  Seems like they did.  Did those slaves work their lands?  I don’t know – it’s claimed by some that they did, particularly in southern Europe.  Were the Templars particularly disposed to slave trading?  Can’t see why they would be any more than anybody else.