Bush Enters Mideast's Rhetorical Minefield

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Will the U.S. led "War Against Terrorism" fail and turn into a religious war of "West vs. East" due to tactical mismanagement?

Bush Enters Mideast's Rhetorical Minefield September 21, 2001 2:20 pm EST

By Jonathan Lyons

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush's use of the term "crusade" to describe his fight against terrorism has ignited fears in the Muslim world that U.S. military action is little more than an excuse to unleash holy war. What's more, say experts on the world of Islam, Bush's unscripted remarks last weekend could play into the hands of the very Islamic militants the president blames for the twin attacks on New York and Washington that left more than 6,500 dead or missing.

"This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while," Bush said on Sunday after stepping off the presidential helicopter. On Tuesday, the White House said Bush regretted use of the term. But apparently aware of the rhetorical minefields ahead, the president also used his address to the nation on Thursday to try to allay any such concerns, telling the Muslims of the world: "We respect your faith ... The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying in effect to hijack Islam itself."

But by then, a nervous Muslim world was abuzz with warnings from politicians and newspaper commentators of a renewed military threat emerging from the West. "They (the United States) want to open a battle against Islam," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of the militant Muslim movement Hamas, told Reuters in the Gaza Strip earlier in the week. "Using the word 'crusade' casts the matter in theological terms, as a case of our religion against theirs," said George Saliba, a scholar of medieval Islamic history at Columbia University in New York. "It says, I will recruit God to my side. This is a dead end and has never produced a positive result."


Aside from recalling a historical trauma for the Muslim world, said Saliba, such rhetoric threatens to place the United States on the same footing as Osama bin Laden, Washington's chief suspect in the attacks, who has openly proclaimed his group "The World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders." "They (the militants) want to tap into the reservoir of submerged hatred in the Muslim world. The game for us is to shift that ground, to change their game rather than to play along." To grasp the full weight of a word -- crusade -- that has largely shed its historical baggage in the West, say analysts, one has to recall the shock to refined Muslim sensibilities when the first Christian warriors arrived at the end of the 11th century. According to the Arab chronicles, those they called the Frankish warriors, the "Faranj" or "Franj," were truly barbarians. Local accounts, confirmed by the knights themselves in a letter to the pope, said the crusaders resorted to eating the dead bodies of their enemies. They were also famous for their wholesale slaughter of Jews and even rival, eastern Christians. "All those who were well informed about the Franj saw them as beasts superior in courage and fighting ardor but in nothing else, just as animals are superior in strength and aggression," wrote the Arab historian Osama Ibn Munqidh.

Linguistics has also done its part to keep the Muslim world focused on the religious wars that the word "crusades" represents. Unlike English, where the link has become obscured, the Arabic term clearly contains the root word for "cross." All this has not been lost on the White House, which is actively recruiting Muslim governments to what it hopes is a grand coalition. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged he was prepared to jettison its code name for the coming operation, Infinite Justice, after Muslim clerics objected that such power was reserved for God.


Despite the dread that the Christian knights and their unruly camp followers inspired in repeated attempts to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim hands, the crusades themselves were of little initial significance to the greater world of Islam. The empire was wealthy and vast and the threat appeared limited to its periphery. The spectacular success of the Kurdish warrior known in the West as Saladin, who at last crushed the crusaders, appeared to reinforce this view. Only the most far-sighted saw the kernel of a future threat to the faith. All that changed, however, with the arrival of the European colonial powers in the early 19th century, giving birth to an Islam of resistance that targeted these new "crusaders." It is this rhetoric that militants like bin Laden -- and even many middle-class Muslims -- reflect today, often depicting Israel as a "crusader state" propped up by a United States out to crush the legitimate economic, political and cultural aspirations of the Islamic world.

"The crusades as an historical event were more important to medieval Christianity than to medieval Islam," said Hamid Dabashi, a fellow academic at Columbia. "Only in the colonial context did they reemerge as a symbol of the hated West." Of course, say critics, the use of the term to depict the White House's self-proclaimed war on terrorism suffers from yet another handicap. In the words of Sheikh Yassin of Hamas: "They have to look back at the experience of the crusades. In the end, they were defeated."

-- Robert A Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), September 22, 2001


Hyperlink: http://www.iwon.com/home/news/news_article/0,11746,167994|top|09-21- 2001::15:10|reuters,00.html

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), September 22, 2001.

It looks like the Islams are not totally familiar with the word, crusade. They should explore the various dictionaries of the world to discover variant meanings.

-- Big Guy II (junior@hightower.net), September 22, 2001.

Crusade, shmusade, what's the difference? I say let's just go get them buggers.

-- Buck (bigbuck@trailways.net), September 22, 2001.

What a sick joke. Does anyone really mean to tell me that the justification or non-justification of harboring terrorists is going to hang on the meaning of the word crusade? That's like Bill Clinton saying, it depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is.

-- QMan (qman@c-zone.net), September 22, 2001.

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