The Sea Speaks Arabic: Umej Bhatia Discusses Muslim Memories of the Crusades and Their Resonances in Middle Eastern Politics Today

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ON DECEMBER 11TH, 1917, eight centuries after the Kurdish warrior-general Saladin expelled the Crusaders from the holy city of Jerusalem, a British-led Egypt expeditionary force overcame its beleaguered Turkish defenders. The holy city had changed hands after nearly a millennium of Muslim rule, which had been interrupted only by the short-lived Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291) and assorted Crusader states which had introduced an alien, Western Christian, feudal order to the Levant.

Now, as the Ottoman empire tottered, the commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force, General Sir Edmund Allenby approached the Jaffa Gate on the West Wall. Wearing the unspectacular khaki of the British Army, he entered on foot as a mark of respect to the Holy City. But the General had other strategic considerations in mind. The British and Imperial forces included Indian Muslim sepoys who shared the faith of the Ottoman army. After a failed mutiny in the Far East in 1915, they were deemed highly susceptible to the pan-Islamic propaganda of the Central Powers. Allenby therefore had to be careful not to offend their sentiments by invoking a Christian victory. European media coverage was far less circumspect. Allenby's victory was presented as the 'consummation of Europe's last crusade'. The triumphal narrative drew a straight line from the glorious First Crusade of 1095-1101, down to the thwarted Eighth in 1270, encompassing the inconclusive and fizzled Crusades of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This allowed the popular imagination in Europe to claim a final victory in 1917.

But two years after Allenby's British and Imperial forces took Palestine, it was victory of a more concrete sort that occupied Western statesmen and diplomats who convened in Paris for the frenzied diplomatic activity of the 1919 Peace Conference. Part of the wider mandate to create a lasting post-war peace, which found expression in the Treaty of Versailles, it was also a meeting to supervise the carve-up of the Middle East. In one of many sessions devoted to address the so-called Eastern Question, the French foreign minister Stephen Jean Marie Pichon began a speech to seek political support for France's claim to Syria, which he confidently dated back to the Crusades. Pichon's words resonated among some members of his audience.

But not all were amused. Among those concentrating on the interpretation of the minister's speech was the Emir Feisal of the Hijaz. The Emir's father, the Hashemite Sharif Husayn of Mecca, had led the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule in support of Allied victory in the Middle East. Planned by General Allenby and the Emir's military advisor, Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the desert combat had claimed the lives of many Arab fighters. In return, Sharif Husayn had been promised British support for an Arab state, with the expectation that this would include Greater Syria.

Feisal overcame French obstruction to arrive in Paris for the Conference, his credentials naming him as his father's representative, and not as the Crown Prince. Serving as Feisal's interpreter and aide was the colourful Lawrence, decked out in full Arab regalia. As Pichon held forth on Syria and the Crusades, the trained diplomats present at the meeting would have paid attention to Feisal's body language. But maintaining the stately composure that had so impressed the American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Feisal restricted his response to a succinct retort: 'Pardon me, Monsieur Pichon, but which of us won the Crusades?'

Feisal's riposte had been drawn from a collective memory of the Crusades as a proud and ultimately victorious phase in Islamic history. Pichon, disdainful of Feisal as a British puppet and less impressed by the sight of a regal Arab than his American counterpart, unapologetically asserted France's crusading pedigree in Syria. In gambits that resemble today's trans-Atlantic divide, France and Britain played out their age-old rivalry. When Colonel Lawrence met separately with the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, the British officer was reminded of the French blood spilled during the Crusades. Lawrence's reply was cutting: 'Yes ... but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.'

France was not deterred by the mere fact of a monumental defeat. A powerful log-rolling lobby ranging from fabric manufacturers in Lyons to Jesuit priests in Beirut had their sights trained on Greater Syria. This was all part of the routine realpolitik of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement by which Britain and France agreed to divide the Middle East between them. In addition, France drew inspiration from the poetic glory of the Chanson de Roland, a classic of national poetry that celebrated French valour in the face of a Muslim victory at Roncesvalles.

Even as Feisal collected debating points, Pichon's tricolore and a Great-Power backroom deal bested the Hashemite potentate. At the San Remo Conference held in Italy in April 1920, France arrogated to itself the mandate over Greater Syria. Barely three months later, after Feisal's exile to Italy, the first French high commissioner in Syria, General Henri Gouraud entered Damascus and strode up to Saladin's tomb. According to some possibly exaggerated accounts, he kicked the tomb, or perhaps merely stumbled, before announcing: 'Saladin, we have returned. My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.'

The historic truth of such episodes notwithstanding, contemporary events in the Middle East impart a powerful resonance to the memory of such affronts to Muslim dignity. As the past is recalled, the facts are selectively presented in terms of present preoccupations. Ironically, as distinct terms, the Arabic terms al-hurub al-salibiyya (Crusader wars), or hurub al-salib (wars of the Cross) and al-salibiyyun (Crusaders) first appeared only in modern times among Syrian Christian intelligentsia. Today, shaping the collective memory of the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims, in particular the majority Sunni population, is a stream of invective designed to resurrect painful memories of the Crusaders and connect them to their contemporary avatars.

During Islam's nahda (Rebirth) period of the late nineteenth century, the liberal Egyptian reformer Muhammed Abduh (1849-1905) promoted a polemical view of the Crusades. Rational and judicious, he demonstrated a blind spot, perhaps deliberately cultivated, when it came to discussing the Crusades. Influenced by the pan-Islamic rhetoric of his teacher Jamal al-Afghani, he referred to Europeans as the Franks in the style of his medieval predecessors. He harshly equated the British prime minister William Gladstone, who disliked Jesuit missionaries and was an unenthusiastic imperialist, with Peter the Hermit, the eleventh-century French monk who helped direct the first popular Crusade towards the Holy Land. Making explicit his comparison between the Crusaders and modern European colonialists, Abduh declared: 'A Frank might reach the highest ranks, like Gladstone, yet still, every word he utters seems to be coming out of Peter the Hermit!'

The godfather of modern, militant Islam, Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), expanded Abduh's polemics on the Crusades. From Egypt, Qutb's writings on 'Crusaderism' spread throughout extremist circles in the Arab Middle East and beyond. In 1988, the Palestinian Hamas Charter referred to both the Allenby and Gouraud incidents. In 1998, Osama Bin Laden, chief ideologue of the transnational terror organisation al-Qaeda, readily played up the clash between the Cross and the Crescent:

   There are two parties to the conflict: World
   Christianity, which is allied with Jews and Zionism,
   led by the United States, Britain, and
   Israel. The second party is the Islamic world.

Yet, bin Laden's view does not speak for all Muslims. A more nuanced and potentially more authentic, collective memory of the Middle Eastern Crusades does exist, symbolized in part by the memoirs of a twelfth-century Syrian emir, Usamah Ibn Munqidh. He saw the positive and negative aspects of the crusading enterprise, but his voice is a forgotten one. As the Allenby episode demonstrates, the media tends to simplify and thus distort some critical nuances.

The one-dimensional, black-and-white message of the fundamentalists is well suited to the nature of the mass media, whereas so-called moderates, for want of a better term, have a harder time getting their message across. While the extremists are usually men of action or ideologues, most articulate, moderate Muslims tend to be of an intellectual bent. Their message is not pitched to the lowest common denominator. It is a case of logic versus emotion, and those with effective soundbites will drown out those who think well but speak softly.

In the case of the Muslim memory of the Crusades, the extremist, agit-prop version of history, whether nationalist or Islamist, is ascendant. You have to look hard to find those who actually tap honestly into the genuine, collective memory of the Crusades. The 1998 novel, Harith al-Miyah (Tiller of the Waves), by the Paris-based Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat describes the multi-layered recollections of a textile merchant, Niqula Mitri in Beirut. His hallucinating imagination amidst the contemporary devastation of Beirut is inter-woven with memories of the disasters that befell the city in the past, including the Frankish invasions, Venetian bombardment, internal wars and Druze-Christian feuds. Barakat sees the period of the medieval Crusades as one of a series of destructive events involving military leaders from different factions in different wars. Religion, solidarity or territorial expansion is not the key factor. He draws no moral or lesson that equates Western imperialism or globalisation with the Crusades. Instead, Barakat's humane and apolitical vision catalogues the facts of destruction and hopes for survival. In telling the story of the Crusades as one thread in the tapestry of destruction visited upon Beirut, Barakat makes a return to the tradition established by the first Muslim chronicler of the Crusades period, the twelfth-century AD scholar Ibn al-Qalanisi, in his Chronicle of Damascus.

Tamin al-Barghouti, a young Palestinian poet who teaches at the American University of Cairo, is also among a handful of writers who demonstrate a deep understanding and authentic connection with this episode of history.

Commenting on a recent American foray into the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, Tamim al-Barghouti recounts a folk tale about an Arab and Frankish fisherman in the coastal town of Acre in the early days of the Crusades. Their fishing lines get tangled, and a quarrel ensues. The Muslim fisherman realises that further provocation would be pointless since the Crusaders out-number the Arabs in Levantine Acre. He makes a deal with the Frank. Each will hit the other with a stick, and the last man standing will take the fish. The hardy Frank agrees, receives his beating without complaint and proceeds to return the favour in kind to the Arab. But the Arab discards his stick and walks away, expressing his dislike for fish, and inviting the Frank to keep his catch. Barghouti recounts the folk tale to illustrate the conviction that invaders of Muslim lands can never claim a conclusive victory:

   Whatever victory the Americans claim in Najaf
   is like the fish the Frank took from the Arab;
   the Frank can celebrate the fish as much as he
   wants but the sea speaks Arabic.

Does the West need to develop a better understanding of the Crusades and other watershed events in Muslim memory? Can it help produce insights to help win the hearts and minds of those swayed by extremist rhetoric, or influenced by the fundamentalist reconstruction of history? Is there not a need to develop a greater sensitivity to the implications of policy decisions on the historical imagination of the worldwide community of Muslims, along with an appraisal of the impact of past attempts to shape the Middle East?

After all, don't today's events become tomorrow's memories?

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