[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
I once read a comment by an Israeli author that most people in his country do not want to recall the historic significance of the Horns of Hattin. That place, which is in modern-day Israel, takes its interesting name from the twin peaks that overlook the lower Galilee. But its real fame comes from the 1187 Battle of Hattin, in which the Islamic army led by the legendary Saladin crushed the Crusaders, opening the way to the Muslim re-conquest of Jerusalem.
The reason Israelis find this episode unpleasant is understandable: Their modern Jewish state has some striking parallels with the medieval Crusader state. Both were established by armed outsiders, to use the softest term, in the heart of the Muslim Middle East. Both relied on military force and Western support. And both worried about their survival in the face of jihad, the Muslim holy war.
Harvesting a jihad
These days I can see that some Israelis are almost obsessed with jihad, as some of them keep ranting and raving about it in papers and on TV. But it would do all of us a favor if they tried to understand its dynamics, by taking a deeper look at the one that defeated the Crusaders.
The most curious fact about that medieval Muslim holy war was its belatedness. The Crusaders invaded Palestine in 1099, sacking Jerusalem and massacring most of its inhabitants, which included not just Muslims but also Jews and even eastern Christians. This cruelty, of course, shocked all Muslims in the region, but it did spark an instant holy war against “the Franks” – the term Muslims then used to describe the European invaders, which they carefully distinguished from the Eastern Christians with whom they used to live together. (This, in a way, was a bit similar to the distinction made by many contemporary Muslims between oriental Jews and “the Zionists.”)
Instead of an instant jihad, what emerged was acceptance. Once the first shock was absorbed, Middle Eastern Muslims actually got used to the presence of the Franks in Palestine. Over time, trade started between the two sides, leading to significant cultural interactions. Only several decades later came a popular movement of a Muslim holy war against the Crusaders, solidifying first under the Muslim leader Nur-ad Din, and especially under his successor, Saladin.
The reason why the spirit of jihad culminated so belatedly and slowly was partly due to the internal dynamics of the Muslims. But the actions of the Crusaders also played a quite decisive role.
Karen Armstrong, a prominent historian of religion, explores this nicely in her book “Holy War: The Crusades and the Impact on Today’s World.” The Franks, she explains, “were divided among themselves… [between what] we could call the doves and the hawks.” The doves were people like Raymund of Tripolis, the regent of the King of Jerusalem, who “spoke fluent Arabic, read Arabic and Islamic texts, and… naturally saw the Muslims as normal human beings, not as monstrous enemies of God.” He, therefore, favored diplomacy and co-existence.
On the opposite side there were people such as Reynauld of Chatillon, the Lord of Transjordan, who had “a career of brutal cruelty,” and who hated the Muslims passionately. Consequently, despite the doves’ efforts to calm him down, Reynauld did a lot of things that infuriated the Muslims. His “frequent raids of brutal plunder and vandalism” only helped Nur-ad Din’s nascent propaganda for jihad. When Saladin came to power, Reynauld continued to provoke, only more vehemently, by attacking Muslim caravans and slaughtering pilgrims. He even dared to attack Medina, the city of Prophet Mohammed, and even Mecca, the holiest city of Islam.
All this mindless militarism of the hawkish Franks, Armstrong notes, showed the Muslims that “the Christians were indeed dangerous enemies to Muslims and Islam.” The result, she adds, was that “there were more converts to the idea of the jihad.”
The vicious cycle
Today, I fear the hawks of Israel are following a similarly dangerous route by constantly harvesting hatred against their state.
Of course, no Zionist leader has been as mad and atrocious as Reynauld of Chatillon. We, after all, live in the modern age and Israelis are much more sophisticated than the barbaric Franks. Yet still, their decades-long policies of ethnic cleansing, occupation and humiliation have badly hurt the Palestinians, and other Muslim peoples of the world who care about their co-religionists.
To many in these Muslim nations, Israelis are simply the new Crusaders. And the more Israel provokes them, the more they yearn for a new jihad.
Unfortunately, Israel’s current leaders refuse to see this vicious cycle. Instead of honestly looking in the mirror and facing their own sins, they simply chose to demonize their enemies, by presuming an essential enmity within them, regardless of their own actions.
They, in other words, act like not the wise but the foolish Crusaders. And they are putting not just themselves, but all of us, in grave danger.