Cultural history of the Crusades in 2010 United States

Crusade –” a word caught between the lexicon of pedestrian, every day use and the charged memories of civilizational struggle. The mixed history of the Crusades is itself caught within these contradictions. A colorful chapter in a history book that speaks to the fact that it is in the past tense? Or an all-significant event that pulses in our cultural life today? An intriguing question, a seductive dilemma. What is the relationship of the Crusades to the dreams and fantasies of US culture?

In 2010 America, the Crusades are revivifying in an unmistakable fashion. Holly-wood celluloid is perhaps the most trusted barometer of US culture, and the recent Ridley Scott film, Robin Hood, resurrects the Crusades from a dusty footnote to the framework of lusty, sword-wielding American machismo. Robin of Locksley becomes the fearsome opponent of domestic tyranny prevailing on English soil, because he returns with military training and a political fervor from the Crusades war machine. A note: this is different from standard versions of the folk bandit’s story. In previous adaptations, his father and Richard of England depart for war against the Muslims but he remains as a bulwark against the necro-feudalistic greed in the country. From mere setting, the Crusades have been upgraded as part of the hero’s intimate, personal experience.

Academia isn’t far behind either in the national nostalgia for the Crusades. Sparked by the post-9/11 rhetoric of war against the Muslim world –” fancifully reconceived as “the axis of evil” –” the publication industry began pumping out books on every aspect of the Crusades that can be possibly mined for a few hundred pages between covers. War Strategies of the Crusades, Oral Histories of the Crusades, Paintings and Visual Representations of the Crusades –” the list is exhaustive, but less so than US cultural imagination.

An interesting question is lurking on the wings of the swords and shields pomp. Didn’t Europe, after all, lose the Crusades? Why this desiring glance back at the series of wars that climaxed with Salahuddin al-Ayyubi’s victory at Jerusalem? We are, of course, confronted with a cultural paradox –” different memories of the same historical event. This too is fitting, because the Crusades were a nexus of cultural contact. War can make for good conversations.

For Muslims, the Crusades become synonymous with gratuitous savagery of the European intruders on the one hand and Salahuddin’s personality and character on the other –” the legendary generosity, taqwa, supreme tactical skill, and finesse. We forget the centuries intervening from the First Crusade to the Third (there were other crusades that followed but by then, the balance of power had shifted to Muslims). We forget too, the sheer amount of time and lives it took to mobilize a slothful Muslim world against the lustful invaders. But there is a reason for that –” the centuries spent in colonized servitude would have erased all hope of self-mobilization, had it not been for the cultural memory of the Crusades.

But what would it mean for the United States, the self-proclaimed representative of the West, to remember the Crusades? For a long time, the epic wars remained buried in memory, with no one troubling themselves to dig them out. For a long, long time, the modern West did see the Crusades as past tense –” their power was greater, the weapons shinier and more lethal, the armies stronger, so then what reason was there to remember beyond the occasional movie or sermon? The modern West was omnipotent against the stranger races and brother religions. A fact one wouldn’t dream of questioning.

After the 2009 economic collapse and the expensive bloodletting of Iraq and Afghanistan, this fact is hurling into the past tense. The Romance of the Crusades has become connected with one driving need –” coming to terms with the twilight of one’s power and redefining oneself against a foe once more. This is the domain of strange longings and fantasies. In the Islamo-hysteria that can be diagnosed in France’s legislation against veils, the US’s never-ending discourse on terrorists, in the Pentagon’s recent memo on expanding the war in the Muslim world, there is not so much antipathy as desire. As in the famous nursery rhyme with Humpty Dumpty, the desire to put one’s broken body, nation and continent back together again.

The Crusades are important because they invented “the West” –” the first religious-ideological call to unite kingdoms that had been at each other’s throats; the first call to enter on a global battleground. Quarrelling over your neighbor’s fief simply wasn’t on the same scale as occupying great, wealthy lands, with earthly glory and heaven thrown in on a discount value.

The United States, whose nationalism has always had much more of an intense religious flavor than Europe’s, is turning to this ancient history in (re)inventing the West. It links up quite nicely with the conservative movement to hatch Armageddon ahead of its time, by pre-empting all the signs that foretell Jesus’ (a) second coming. The one thing missing in the Crusades, was, of course Jesus (a) to lead the warriors. The caveat is that he would have to be on the Pentagon’s payroll, just as he would have had to take orders from the Roman Catholic Church if he had showed up in the Middle Ages. The neocon and rightwing Christian alliance in the United States have Jesus’ (a) schedule mapped out from Day One.

But then, what to make of the US nostalgia for righteous war? The return of the Crusades in books, movies, and speeches isn’t some random phenomenon that rears its head every so many years, like padded shoulders on women’s jackets or mousse-spiked hair for adolescent guys. It is connected with a broader sea change of US culture. The rise of popular religiosity in this remembrance for a religious war is significant. More or less, the West has always been at war. But while the two World Wars this last century were political wars, with a little bit of ideology thrown in for speechmaking, this longing for neo-Crusades in which to recreate oneself marks a significant breakdown in the liberal frame of reference.

One casualty is the liberal discourse of multiculturalism. Much in vogue during the 1990s, at the peak of US economic power, the idea that different races and cultures should be tolerated, appreciated, and enjoyed in a multicultural smorgasbord is becoming a charming relic of the past. Of course, it is much easier to tolerate different people milling on your porch when you are wealthy and you can afford the welcome snacks. It is also convenient as a way of routing them to work in the corporations, service industries, agricultural sectors that sustained the capitalistic machine of US civilization. Social tolerance was often a way to maintain economic inequality. However, with mass unemployment of the white middle class caused by Wall Street piracy, immigrant labor is no longer in demand. And religious evangelism in the United States is strongly linked to desires of racial purity.

For instance, Rand Paul, a political candidate from the conservative Tea Party movement, criticized the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act in a speech delivered in May 2010. The Civil Rights Act, which ended the brutal legacy of racial discrimination of African Americans, is the legal cornerstone of the multicultural epoch, protecting the racial and ethnic difference of individuals from social harm. Immigrants to the United States from the 1970s to 1990s, which include Muslims from South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions, reaped the benefits of the civil rights legislation in the form of jobs and economic mobility. The conservative attack on the Civil Rights Act speaks more than volumes about the shift in the reeling nation’s culture towards religious and racial Puritanism. It also portends change for Muslims and minorities living in the West.

Nor is this an isolated incident –” disturbing signs of racial intolerance are bubbling up on college campuses, the most liberal and secular places in the US. At the University of California, San Diego, a Ku Klux Klan hood was displayed on a statue and a noose was found hanging in the library, evoking images of the brutal lynchings of African Americans in the South.

The Crusades –” the storied epic of two life worlds clashing –” has become the framework for deploying the mix of religion and hyper-nationalism defining a new cultural state of being. As with all civilizations steeped in war, an uber-War of the past would seem like the answer for a US looking to repair the confusions, loss, and despair of the present.