Since Charlie Hebdo republished the 2015 caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, France has witnessed a resurgence of violence in response to a new call to arms by the Islamic State. Moreover, prominent representatives of the Islamic world have accused the French president of launching a new Crusade.
** This is the first of a two-part article series. It explores the historical wound of the Crusades and the West’s persistence in reopening it. The second part will examine how Western media attributes Radicalism to Islamic politics ignoring the Nihilist element.
Of all the modern western countries, France has endured the most intense violence attributed to Islamic fundamentalism, often described rather thoughtlessly as jihadism. From the Charlie Hebdo headquarters attack in 2015 to the Bataclan Club in Paris, and then Nice, Toulouse, and Paris again more recently with the beheadings of a schoolteacher and also an elderly woman in a church in Nice, the list of attacks over the past few years is long. And attacks are bound to continue.
But why has France attracted so much extremist violence? Without approaching the problem from a postmodern perspective of Western guilt, let alone justifying the violence, exploring the potential reasons for the phenomenon of terrorism in France is the best way to discourage it.
Over the past decade, France has experienced a series of terrorist attacks attributed to radical Islam, which has claimed dozens of lives, prompting an intellectual and political debate to understand the rationale behind them. The debate has become more intense recently because on September 1, the trial of 14 defendants in the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack (which took place on January 7, 2015) began. More significantly, to mark the occasion, the satirical Parisian publication’s editors decided to re-publish the very caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that had unleashed the anger and controversy.
Unfortunately, the re-publication of the “Muhammad vignettes” has been blamed for inspiring at least two episodes of deadly attacks.
The re-publication of the infamous caricatures, and more importantly the fact that President Macron refused to criticize it, becoming a sort of official guarantor of that regrettable editorial decision, appears to have precipitated a new wave of violence. Unfortunately, the re-publication of the “Muhammad vignettes” has been blamed for inspiring at least two episodes of deadly attacks. The effect is that of a so-called “clash of civilizations,” which has already produced political fallout in the form of discord between France and many Muslim countries such as Qatar, Iran, and Turkey.
In the case of the latter, President Erdogan has exploited Macron’s error to advance his ambition to be perceived as the moral leader of the (Sunni) Islamic world. After Macron vowed to target radical Islam, on October 24, urging Muslim leaders to make religion compatible with the “values of the Republic,” Erdogan replied: “What is Macron’s problem with Islam and Muslims?” adding “He must take care of his mental health. What can be said to a head of state who treats millions of members of a religious minority in his country in this way?”
The fact that even Egypt’s President Fattah al-Sisi (an ally of France in many Middle Eastern and North African matters and one of Erdogan’s main geopolitical rivals) accused France of having insulted the Muslim world shows the extent of Macron’s faux-pas. Indeed, in many ways Macron’s Charlie Hebdo “defense” has given Erdogan the unintended, yet much needed distraction to obscure domestic difficulties aggravated by the global pandemic. Furthermore, after re-converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque in the spring of 2020, the Turkish president seems to further present himself as the true heir of the Ottomans (who were the formal guardians of the faith and the Muslim holy sites until the end of WW1) by standing up as a defender of the rights of the Umma, the world Islamic community.
On October 28, Charlie Hebdo may have caused Macron to regret his stance when the satirical weekly featured a drunken Erdogan intent on lifting the bottom end of a woman’s Abaya. Erdogan wasted no time in responding. He suggested that the caricature served as proof that Europe is returning to barbarism and, perhaps more significantly, that Macron wants to bring back the Crusades – that is, the Christian expeditions for the “liberation of the Holy Land.” These words represent more than mere symbolism. Fundamentalists typically use the term to describe the invading West.
The French military has fought against Islamic militias in the Sahel and Sahara, a stance that has no doubt put France into the crosshairs of militants.
In addition, through Operation Barkhane, the French military has fought against Islamic militias in the Sahel and Sahara, a stance that has no doubt put France into the crosshairs of militants. Therefore, compared to its European neighbors, France’s foreign policy and related military deployments has exposed it to retaliatory efforts. Islamic History Professor Peter Neumann at King’s College London suggests that Islamic militants in France accuse the French of being a nation of crusaders and their government of spreading Islamophobia. They see France as being strongly anti-Islam.
In that sense, much of the discourse that informs fundamentalists is owed to the poisoned fruit that Europeans sowed in the Middle Ages, masking the desire for power and wealth with the pious ambition of wanting to take back control of the Christendom’s holy places. ISIS, the most prominent – and highly problematic, from a theological point of view – representative of Islamic fundamentalism, has used medieval theology to promote and transform the idea of Jihad. It has done so by reviving the historical legacy of the Crusades and an image of the West, which still burns like a wound in the Islamic world – and which the West has done little to heal in recent decades with its invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and long list of interference in Muslim lands (or Dar al-Islam).
One of the most important ways in which ISIS has manipulated the historic “wound” to inspire attacks against the symbols of the West, or to attract “foreign fighters” is to describe Westerners as Ifranj, or Franks (i.e., crusaders). The Crusades have remained a powerful symbol in the Arab world, leaving scars that symbolize humiliation and setback.
“Ifranj” and the Impact of the Crusades
Ifranj* or Faranj (i.e., the Franks) – a word that many Arabic speakers still use when referring to Christians from western Europe – invaded the Muslim lands of Syria and Palestine as crusaders from the 11th to the 13th centuries AD. Pope Urban II (born in the territory of present-day France as it happens) launched the first crusade in retaliation to reconquer the Holy Lands in 1096 after a horde of Turkish nomads massacred a caravan of European pilgrims near Constantinople on October 21 of that year.
The tenth century Arab geographer and historian Abu al-Hasan al-Mas’udi who recognized and admired the Franks’ bravery and military skills, described their culture as bordering on barbarism, crystallizing this opinion for centuries to the point of becoming a disadvantage for the Muslims, who remained blind-sided and unaware of Europe’s evolution. That is until Napoleon, another Ifranj, invaded Egypt in 1799. And by then it was too late.
If Muslims failed to pay attention to European evolution, Europeans generally failed to learn valuable lessons from the Crusades.
If Muslims failed to pay attention to European evolution, Europeans generally failed to learn valuable lessons from the Crusades, which have separated the destinies of Europe and the Islamic world. Christians invaded Dar al-Islam with a religious conviction that God had established that it belonged to them. Muslims responded in kind, launching a conflict that has kept its religious nature, even though its nuances have remained poorly understood even today.
The conflict has been presented and fought as a dispute between two different faiths even as, nine centuries after its inception, the obvious political and economic interests remain hidden in the popular imagination. And those who have an interest in stoking that popular imagination, on both sides, continue to exploit the “civilizational” myths, fueling the conflict.
Most students in the West, when and if they learn about the Crusades, are taught a highly partisan version of these events, characterized by such literary works as Torquato Tasso’s “Jerusalem Delivered” or (the more favorable toward Muslims) Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso.” Written in the 16th century, both accounts glorify the likes of the valorous Christian figures such as the Knights Templar, Bohemond of Antioch, Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard the Lionheart, and of their “evil” Muslim counterparts such as Saladin (aka: Salah al-Din).
The Crusades, their interpretations, and their history have never been as topical as they are now, considering the situation in the Middle East and the misunderstanding that persists between the Arab Muslim world and the West. Much of that misunderstanding has persisted because of ignorance: the crusaders returned to Europe with the knowledge they had lost amid the ruins of the Roman and Byzantine empires.
Indeed, the Muslims had preserved and developed ideas in chemistry (al-qimia, or alchemy), mathematics (the notions of the algorithm, al-kharawazmi, or algebra –al-jabr), astronomy, the making of paper, new agricultural products and techniques, lenses and eyeglasses, for example. The Muslims, however, rejected the Ifranj and anything they could have learned from them.
Perpetuating the Crusades and Misunderstanding
This rejection would eventually turn into fear of the kinds of changes that Europe would bring during its second wave of invasion in Muslim lands in the 19th century, opening the path for Western economic and technological domination, which would then lead to colonialism. Despite independence in the post-WWII decades, Muslims continued to experience the burden of Western cultural, technological, linguistic, and economic domination.
The hostility towards the French state, and the “Crusades” legacy it revived, intensified in the wake of WW1 after the leading colonial powers dismantled the Ottoman Empire.
Furthermore, the hostility towards the French state, and the “Crusades” legacy it revived, intensified in the wake of WW1 after the leading colonial powers dismantled the Ottoman Empire, which had challenged Europe successfully for over 600 years. France and the United Kingdom first encouraged anti-Ottoman nationalist sentiment among the Arabs and led them into a war against the Turks. Meanwhile, behind the Arabs’ back, France and the UK signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which instead of creating a single Arab state, or at least states formed according to a partition plan engaging the local populations, led to the establishment of de-facto French and English administrative and commercial “mandates” in the Middle East.
The implementation of Sykes-Picot failed to take into account the many different ethnic, religious, and national characteristics of the populations, which had been organized in millets –autonomous religious communities – to reflect those very aspects under the Ottomans. It’s not hard to see that the Arabs would have interpreted the Sykes-Picot as another “Crusade” and it’s not surprising that a strong discontent began to spread. A discontent which recent wars the West has been involved in such as the ones against Iraq (1991and 2003), Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, has only reaffirmed.
On both sides of these wars, the quarrel has been presented as one between civilizations. And extremists on both sides (even though mainstream Western media tends to portray only one side as “extremist”) do not have an interest in discussing the political, economic, and financial interests that have always fueled every Crusade; from the one in 1096 to the most recent ones of the 21st century, in an inept effort to export “democracy” and “human rights.”
In that regard, France has played a leading direct military role against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, along with the US-led international coalition, further driving contempt among Islamic fundamentalists factions towards the West and France in particular.
* The term Ifranj was used to distinguish the latter from the Christians of the east, the heirs of the Byzantine empire, whom they appreciated far more.
Alessandro Bruno is an analyst at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is a frequent guest on BBC, CBC, and CTV. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Toronto. Bruno has worked abroad as a United Nations officer in Libya and was a sustainability/ESG analyst at one of the pioneering firms of sustainability investing. @GulfStateAnalyt @TheAlessandrist
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