Wednesday, April 09, 2003

This morning at a panel for freshman English students, I got asked a question about the ideological use of history, with Hitler references by the U.S. and U.K. and Crusades references by Arab leaders. I talked about the fact that both conflicts were seen as absolute right against absolute wrong. In the U.S., World War II is (definitely with good reason) seen as the ultimate just war, and so conflict overseas can be legitimized by casting it in those terms. In the Arab world, the Crusades are taught in such a way that the Muslims were always right and just and the Crusaders always aggressive and barbaric (again with good reason).

The very reason the Crusades are linked with colonialism and the present is that Arabs developed a historical topic called the Crusades (or "Wars of the Cross," rather) during the 19th century - before then what European historians see as the Crusading movement was not taken as a unit in and of itself. The "Crusades" concept entered the Arab intellectual landscape via the colonial education system, and it became natural for Arab intellectuals to see in these events historical lessons for their own time, and from there of course it's an easy link from colonialism to neo-colonialism.

What you could add, of course, is the moral lessons drawn from history. The lesson of World War II for the West was about appeasement, which we have heard endless doses of concerning Iraq. With the Crusades, a key lesson is patience. Israel is seen in the Arab world as a modern Crusader state, and people remind themselves that it has only been around for a little over 50 years, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted 88.

Another issue that came up was possible historical analogies for the rebuilding. I can think of some ideas, but I'll save them for later. One that's been making the rounds in the Arab world, though, is Beirut in 1982. Shi'ites anxious to be liberated from the PLO threw flowers on Israeli tanks as they crossed the border. However, the Israelis dream of setting up a pro-Israeli Maronite republic was not accepted by the majority Muslim population, and we wound up where we are today. I doubt that's my analogy, but its another important viewpoint, and perhaps a warning.

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