FIFA World Cup: Why England Fans Dressed As Crusaders Touched Raw Nerve

The Crusades were not just any other wars or an ordinary event in world history, but a theologically-justified attempt to erase Islam and the Islamic civilisation

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

FIFA World Cup security led away two fans wearing chain mail helmets and St George’s cross before England’s opening match against Iran and prompted an anti-discrimination charity to issue a note of caution. The charity noted the dress representing knights or crusaders may be unwelcome in Qatar and the wider Islamic world amid efforts to put the controversy over them to rest. The controversy came hard on the heels of disquiet over racist and Islamophobic scrutiny of the Gulf States over Qatar’s hosting of the region’s first FIFA world cup.

England fans have supported their team dressed as St George, the patron saint depicted as a Crusader warrior. They showed up for FIFA World Cup in Qatar in costumes representing crusaders despite a British Foreign Office travel advisory, which asked fans to familiarise themselves with local sensibilities.

In the wake of the controversy, there have been calls for an environment for fans to openly enjoy what they want to wear. But the matter is far more serious than how it has been characterised. The Crusades were not just any other wars or an ordinary event in world history, but a theologically-justified attempt to erase Islam and the Islamic civilisation. They intended to subjugate the natives through settler colonialism.

The West’s wars in the Middle East and support for Israel have drawn parallels to the Crusades. It has long insisted its policies on the region were not determined by religion. President Donald Trump, however, was more forthright about it. He said he formally recognised Jerusalem, which has much significance in Christian theology and the final events of humankind, as Israel’s capital in 2017 by moving the US Embassy there for evangelical Christians. Bible literalists and conservative Christians believe Jerusalem has to be under Jewish control for Christ’s return. 

The occupation of Jerusalem was as such the main aim of the Crusaders, who captured the city and slaughtered its estimated 40,000 Jewish and Muslim inhabitants on Pope Urban II’s call. The First Crusade ended in 1099 before a Saladin-led Muslim army defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century. The Crusades have since continued to cast a long shadow on the ties between the West and the Muslim world. 

When General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem after the Ottoman defeat in Palestine in 1917 to pave the way for the expulsion of Palestinians for Israel’s creation, the British press compared him to Crusader king Richard the Lionheart. In 1920, French General Henri Gouraud stood in front of Saladin’s grave when France captured Damascus and said: ‘Awake, Saladin – we have returned.’ Decades later, Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic, who considered himself a crusading defender of the Serbs, massacred at least 8,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica to cleanse Bosnia of Muslims in 1995.

The Crusades have shaped the West’s blinkered view of Islam and adversarial policies towards the Muslim world. The Western distortions of the Prophet Muhammad, which have been a major source of friction between the two sides, date back to the Crusades. 

Jonathan Lyons has painstakingly documented 1,000 years of anti-Muslim ideas and images representing a totalising narrative about Islam in the West in his book Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. He has blamed this for the West’s failure in having any meaningful or productive engagement with Muslims. Lyons writes the ideas formulated in the medieval halls of the Roman Curia and courts of the European Crusaders have been perfected in the newsrooms of TV networks such as Fox News. The ideas have come in handy for demagogues, who have fuelled Islamophobia to capture power globally.

George W Bush, who invaded Iraq in 2003 on the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction leaving, directly and indirectly, left half a million Iraqis dead, spoke about Crusade. He believed his presidency was part of a divine plan. Bush told a friend that he believed God wanted him to run for president and was convinced he was following God’s will as the leader of a global war against evil. He wanted the US to lead a liberating Crusade in the Middle East and believed this call of history had come to the right country.

Columnist James Carroll argued in 2018 that Bush’s use of the term Crusade was not a ‘stumble, however inadvertent’ and insisted it was a ‘crystal-clear declaration of purpose that would soon be aided and abetted by a fervent evangelical cohort within the US military, already primed for holy war.’ Carroll noted it was now possible to see the havoc Bush’s crusade was wreaking across much of the globe, citing the example of the devastation caused in Iraq, Afghanistan Syria, and Yemen. He wrote Europe was increasingly politically destabilised by refugee flows from the conflicts Bush spawned.

Crusades have also long fascinated the far right in the West. Three members of a group calling itself ‘The Crusaders’ were in January 2019 sentenced to 81 years in prison for plotting the mass slaughter of Muslims in Kansas in America’s mid-west. ‘The Crusaders’ collected weapons and tried to manufacture or buy explosives with an aim to target an apartment complex housing Somalian Muslim refugees. The plot was hatched ahead of the 2016 presidential elections. American secret agents foiled it by infiltrating and bugging the group’s communications. They intercepted their conversations about plans for car bombing and shooting Muslims ‘with arrows dipped in pig blood.’

In a Time magazine piece on the sentencing of members of the group in October 2019, Dan Jones noted the ‘square-limbed crusader cross, often accompanied by the Latin phrase Deus Vult (God Wills It – a catchphrase shouted by warriors during the First Crusade in 1095 -1099AD) is a symbol often spotted on white supremacist marches.’ The supremacist website The Daily Stormer’s masthead has a cartoon of a crusader knight and the phrase Deus Vult. 

A 35-year-old man was arrested in the American city of Seattle in September 2019 for sending racist and threatening messages to a woman on Facebook. He thanked God that President Trump was the President as he threatened to ‘launch a Racial War and Crusade.’ The man wanted to send black people, Hispanics, and Muslims to concentration camps. Invoking Adolf Hitler, he threatened to cut out the woman’s heart to eat it and called for the death of all Hispanics.

The assault rifles and automatic shotguns Brenton Tarrant used to kill worshipers at mosques in New Zealand’s Christchurch in March 2019 were painted with references to Crusaders. Tarrant emailed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a manifesto calling the slaughter an act of revenge against Islam. The manifesto also quoted Urban II, who called for the First Crusade. ‘ASK YOURSELF, WHAT WOULD POPE URBAN DO? he asked in bold letters. Tarrant carved on his guns the names of Alexandre Bissonette, who attacked a mosque in Canada’s Quebec in 2017, and Luca Traini, the attackers of African migrants a year later in Italy. 

Anders Behring Breivik, who claimed there was a Marxist Islamic takeover of Europe and killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, thought he was part of a Crusade, underlining a clear and present danger of harm such ideas continue to pose. Global sporting events have a great unifying power to bring the world together and to promote peaceful co-existence. The last thing we need is the promotion of ideas such as the Crusades howsoever inadvertent as they have caused among the worst atrocities in human history. And ignorance cannot be an excuse.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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