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by William H. Benson

September 2, 2010

     Soldiers from western Europe invaded Palestine, that narrow strip of land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea with the intention of establishing a Western colony there. These warriors called themselves Franks, for they were Frenchmen, and they were led by zealous leaders, such as Raymond of Saint-Gilles and Godfrey of Bouillon, men fiercely determined to undo certain of the Muslims’ territorial gains.

     Their invasion was religiously-motivated: these Christians wished to supposedly “free” the Holy Land, the place of Jesus’ birth and ministry and death, from the the Muslims’ domination. The year was 1096, and it marked the beginning of a two-century clash between West and East called the crusades.

     The local inhabitants, the Muslims, were at first perplexed and then devastated when they understood that these blonde-haired and blue-eyed foreigners, whom they called franj, intended on  assaulting their towns and cities, and that they had no intention on leaving. Quickly, the local inhabitants realized that there was no army in all of Syria capable of stopping the franj’s advances. 

     March they did. After toppling the city of Antioch, the franj committed unspeakable atrocities at Ma’arra, and then stomped south along the coast, disposing easily of a succession of cities—Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa—until, on June 7, 1099, they faced the gates of Jerusalem. “Knights and soldiers fell on their knees, uttering cries of joy, and burst into floods of tears.” But they had not arrived to only cry, pray, and worship; they were there to fight, to seize the city.

     After a siege of forty days, the franj sacked the city of Jerusalem on the night of July 15, killing thousands of both the Muslims and Jews. Survivors carried the grim news to Damascus, and to Baghdad, but there was so little that the Arab world could do to overpower the franj.

     Quickly, the franj established a network of fortresses to secure their colony, instituted a political system not unlike their own in Europe, and began to govern “by principles that were not easily transgressed.” In Jerusalem, the franj’s rulers would succeed one another peacefully. The Muslims were startled by these Occidentals’ allegiance to a mutual political system, for nothing like this existed among the Muslims, where the death of one monarch meant civil war until another regained power.

     Eventually, two centuries later, the Westerners were driven permanently out of their colony along the Mediterranean and, led by Saladin, Jerusalem was recaptured, but the Muslims never forgot. The effect upon them was traumatic, deeply wounding, and rightfully so, for their land had been invaded.

     The Arabs and other Muslims refused to open their own society to ideas from the West, and “this, in all likelihood, was the most disastrous effect of the aggression of which they were the victims.” They would not learn the franj’s language, and so the Muslim world turned in on itself, becoming over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, and deeply suspicious of Western ideas. One author, Amin Maalouf said it best, “Modernism became alien.” And it has remained so there for a millennium.

     Two weeks ago, the last of the U.S. combat troops departed Iraq, after 2,711 days of occupation, although some 50,000 troops will remain until the end of 2011, at which time the State Department, through paid contractors, will train the Iraqi police. However, America’s combat role in Iraq ends this week, on August 31, 2010. A day for rejoicing.

     Peter Baker, a writer from the New York Times, in his August 22nd column, asked a most profound question, “But after seven years of a war started by President George W. Bush on the basis of false intelligence, . . . after hundreds of billions of dollars, more than 4,400 American military deaths and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and perhaps many more, was it worth it?”

     He apparently did not think so, and I do not think it was. In March of 2003, in the days before the war began, in this biweekly column, I questioned the idea of the U.S. military seeking to topple a dictator of a third-world country. Once the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction proved itself a fabrication, the purpose for the war then transformed itself: it was to bring to life and then nurse a fledgling democracy there. But, did no one in the Bush White House point out to him the history of the crusades, and the effect that that invasion had upon the Muslim people?

     In the days after 9-11, George W. Bush described his anti-terrorism campaign as a “crusade,” but an adviser cautioned him against saying that word, pointing out to him that it is a strident word to the people of the Middle East because of the historical events to which it referred. Both Muslims and Jews regard it as highly offensive, mainly for the sacking of Jerusalem in the summer of 1099.


     The world division remains: Christian vs. Muslim. Western vs. Eastern. Crusade vs. jihad—the words and their meanings, the religions, the people, the unforgettable memories, and the sobering histories. After a millennium, the split is still a significant part of our political landscape today and may remain so for the foreseeable future.