Waxing evangelical about a holy course
The Crusades are back in vogue and on the national curriculum. Hardly surprising, given that after the attacks on the Twin Towers, President George W Bush referred to his war on terrorism as "this crusade". The word sparked a furious reaction throughout the Middle East and fed the darkest fears of Muslims everywhere that Bush's administration was about to replay the brutal ideological conflict - "the clash of civilisations" - that tore the Near East apart over a period of several hundred years in the Middle Ages.
Before the arrival of the first Crusaders in the 11th century, the land of Palestine had been a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society in which Muslims, Jews and Christians, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Egyptians, Greeks and West European merchants lived in a complex network of mutual dependence.
The onslaught of the Crusaders, whose aim was to "reclaim" the Holy Land for Christ, took them by surprise. Appalled by the violence, intolerance, lack of cleanliness, sexual laxity, drunkenness and fondness for pork of their invaders, they at last managed to unite sufficiently to send the "barbarians" packing. Palestine and Syria reverted to their previous multi-confessional structure, which lasted right up to the 20th century.
However, ignorant of the complex nature of Middle Eastern society, oblivious to the religious and national sensitivities of its peoples, the United States and Britain have embarked on an aggressive foreign policy which, for Muslims, echoes the events of nearly 1,000 years ago. This policy also compounds a century of Western imperialist, ideological and colonialist interference. Western powers seized parts of the Middle East after the First World War. They introduced Western economic and social models and, perhaps most damagingly, they ushered in ideas of exclusive nationalism, which had been alien to the region. Muslims perceived this particularly in the Zionist project to establish a specifically Jewish state.
The Crusaders invaded the Middle East to impose their big idea - Western-style Christianity - on its people. Bush and Blair call their big idea "freedom and democracy". But in their actions, the peoples of the Middle East recognise the same arrogance and ignorance that was displayed so disastrously by Richard the Lionheart and Philip of France.
It is hard to think of any period in history that has more to teach us about the present crisis in the Middle East than that of the Crusades. The decision to include a study of the Crusades in the national curriculum is therefore to be welcomed.