Tuesday, August 02, 2005

“A New Kind of Evil”?

Back, less than a week after 9/11, when George Bush said
This is a new kind of--a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.
most of us didn’t really pay much attention to Bush’s choice of words. After all, this is a man renowned for tripping over his own tongue.

Turks and Arabs, however, did notice. And their reaction made those of us in the US say (at least), “Oh yeah. ‘Crusade.’ Yeah, guess they’ve got something of a point.”

Now, professionally (I teach literature) I fancy myself a “New Historicist.” One of the benefits is that I get to play in the muck others have long-since ignored. In other words, I often read books (look at film strips, examine old photographs, etc.) that have been long superseded or forgotten—at least in terms of their primary focus. What I look for is not their take on science or history or anthropology (or even of the subject of a particular snapshot), but what that take says about the society of the time.

Recently, I came across a book by René Grousset, The Epic of The Crusades. It was first published in France in 1939, the English translation (by Noël Lindsay) appearing in 1970. A member of the Academie Francaise, Grousset was certainly one of the most distinguished French academics of his time.

What drew my attention was the title (in French, it is L’épopée des Croisades—with pretty much the same meaning as in English). The crusades as an epic? Personally, I saw them as gross mistakes, though with unintended consequences that have benefited all of us with European roots.

But I didn’t think about them much. Few of us in America ever do.

Not so, in the Middle East.

A look at this book has helped me understand why. Even as late as 1939 (and later, given the date of the translation), attitudes in Europe and America towards the Turkish and Arabic foes of the crusading “Franks” have been, at best, disdainful. Take a look at this passage:
We see in him [Bohemund of Tarentum], moreover, a man of exceptional vitality. Some of his stratagems of war look like enormous, if somewhat rough, pleasantries. The Frankish army was infested with Turkish spies disguised as Armenians. No one knew how to get rid of them. Bohemund took on the task. One evening, at dinner time, he bade his cooks prepare a batch of Turkish prisoners for the table. “Their throats were cut,” says the chronicler, “they were spitted, and the cooks set about roasting them.” On being questioned about these strange preparations, Bohemund, with the most natural air in the world, said that the headquarters mess was being regaled with spies on the spit. The whole camp came running up to see if it was true. Nothing could be more true: the Turks, duly basted, were cooking over a hot fire. The next morning, all the spies had disappeared in horror, without waiting for their quittance.

Apart from these displays of somewhat ferocious humor, the crusaders followed a very wise and flexible policy toward the Moslems.
Shades of Rush Limbaugh and his ”fraternity pranks” at Abu Ghraib!

Is it any wonder that people, who have been treated so cavalierly by the West (even in 20th-century retrospect) are outraged by the way the United States is treating its prisoners today?

We did not enter the dance in Iraq with a clean card. We carried with us the baggage of a millennium of interaction between Europe and the Middle East. When our representatives do something wrong, it resonates with wrongs from generation upon generation ago.

Yet we (our government, that is) continues to stupidly believe that the dance we’ve forced upon Iraq will be seen as the first—and that our overtures are to be trusted.

For a thousand years the West and the Middle East have been having problems. Yet Dick Cheney can still say that the insurgency in Iraq is in its “last throes.”

Until our attitudes change, and change in such a way that the people of the Middle East can believe us, those ‘throes’ may last for a very long time, indeed.

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