In the early going of the second presidential debate, Anderson Cooper said to Donald Trump, “You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Trump responded by saying his taped conversation with Billy Bush was just “locker room talk,” then pivoted to ISIS. He said, “You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times.”
As a medieval historian, I’ve been watching the ways in which Trump, other politicians, and even plenty of journalists characterize ISIS and its horrific actions as “medieval.” I’ve always thought it was a mistake, but a mistake mostly limited to the world of rhetoric. On Friday, that changed. Three men were arrested for plotting to blow up an apartment complex that houses both a Mosque and many Muslim-Americans. They called themselves – The Crusaders.
The idea that contemporary military and terrorist activities in the Middle East embody a new Crusade isn’t exactly new. What’s startling is that today both supporters of ISIS and radical Christian terrorists have adopted the same language. Both sides are using medieval history to justify their violent intentions.
We have to push back on the notion that this ultra-contemporary conflict is the inevitable result of an unusual episode in the history of Islamic-Christian relations.
My first exposure to the appropriation of the language of crusading came from Saddam Hussein, who routinely called George H. W. Bush the “Chief Crusader,” an epithet he re-applied to George W. Bush in the later continuation of the Iraq war. In roughly the same era, people like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri also picked up the crusade rhetoric . It’s important to remember that the secular tyrant Saddam Hussein and extremist religious organizations like al Qaeda hated each other, but both found it useful to appropriate the history of the Crusades for their contemporary needs.
ISIS has done something similar. As Myriam Francois-Cerrah wrote in 2015, ISIS wants to divide the world into jihadists and crusaders. ISIS perpetuates a myth of an Islam always in conflict with the Christian West. If history teaches that such conflicts can never be resolved, ISIS’ leaders argue, all Muslims will have to join their campaign of terror.
Meanwhile, crusading ideology has also permeated anti-Islamic movements. Anders Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist and mass murderer, claimed to be a Knight Templar. Anti-immigrant groups show up to protests and rallies in Europe wearing faux-medieval costumes and promote the “crying Templar” meme.
In the US, crusader imagery is everywhere. US soldiers deployed to Islamic countries can wear a crusader arm patch, and would-be weekend warriors can buy a deliberately incendiary “Pork-Eating Crusader” patch to wear at home. The right-wing blog world, including hate sites to which I’m not linking, frequently invokes the language and history of the crusades to justify calling for the expulsion of all Muslims from the United States.
The history here is fascinating and complex. For a few hundred years, Catholics in Western Europe characterized their efforts against “enemies of the faith,” including but ultimately not limited to Muslims, as specially sanctified wars. European Catholics did carve out small kingdoms on the coast of West Asia. Even as the process of designating a conflict a holy war became institutionalized, various new leaders emerged among the diverse Islamic groups in the region, eventually conquering the Catholic-ruled Crusader States.
Historians like me have been debating the specifics for generations. Which was the true first crusade (debatable)? Did the Crusaders actually believe their own religious rhetoric (I think so)? Was the violence more extreme than in other wars (sometimes, but not as much as we might believe)? It’s a fascinating subject to which I’ve devoted a lot of my life, and I don’t want to erase informed differences of opinion and interpretation among scholars.
But one thing from the history is very clear to me. The modern use of the Crusades to justify violence by either Muslims or Christians is, in fact, modern. The claim that there’s an inexorable conflict between Islam and “The West” is not based on history, but rhetoric used by extremists to promote their causes.
Which brings us back to Trump and the Kansas Crusaders. Calling ISIS “medieval” is comforting. It says that this horrific group belongs to another era, that it’s a throwback. This isn’t true, ISIS emerged out of the collapse of 21st-century states that were created in the 20th-century breakup of the Ottoman Empire and European colonies in West Asia and Northeast Africa. It’s a group dependent on modern techniques of communication and the movement of people across borders. It’s as contemporary a phenomenon as the Internet or self-driving cars.
ISIS wants to use history to own its interpretation of Islam as it sows chaos and terror, provokes extreme reaction, and tries to use that reaction for recruitment. Its leaders dream of a modern theocratic caliphate, bolstered by an interpretation of history that just doesn’t hold up to the facts. Religiously inspired atrocities did take place during the era of the Crusades, but there were also many episodes of collaboration, coexistence, and sometimes even a kind of tolerance. History is messy. That’s why it’s worth studying and why we should be skeptical of Islamic or Christian terrorist groups who claim history is on their side.
When politicians or journalists call ISIS fighters medieval, we pretend that the group’s campaign of terror is somehow innate to Islam, elevating their stature and making it harder to defeat them. When we call it medieval, we fuel the fires of hate and give fuel to the aspirations of Christian terrorists like Breivik and the Kansas Crusaders.
Knowing history matters. History informs the present and can help us think about how best to respond to today’s crises. But history isn’t just a collection of facts; instead, it’s the act of interpreting both past and present, being critical of sources, and understanding how events unfold in specific contexts. The forces behind ISIS and Kansas Crusaders alike belong to the 21st century. We can’t beat terror by getting medieval. Instead, we’re going to have to get modern.
David M. Perry is professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.