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(photo credit: )
Of the assorted exhortations, bravados and metaphors with which al-Qaida's man in Iraq checkered his videotaped message to the world this week, one - the equation between today's Americans and the medieval Crusaders - deserves particular attention.
First, because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi knows the millions of impoverished Muslims across the Arab world who are his target audience. For them, the Christian kingdom that lasted in the Holy Land and its environs for some two centuries epitomizes to this day Western intrusion and, more importantly, Islam's ultimate victory over it. In telling this disenfranchised population that it faces a reincarnation of the Crusaders, he both fuels enmity towards, and inspires belief in, eventual victory over the West.
Secondly, the Crusaders really were a nasty lot, and the Middle East has good reason to recall them with horror. The invaders who descended on Jerusalem in 1099 ruthlessly slaughtered its Muslims and then proceeded to impose not only their rule, but also their faith, on the Holy Land.
And lastly, even more than for their violence, the Crusaders are remembered in the Middle East for their glaring, and eventually also catastrophic, lack of local roots.
Though well organized, theirs was a garrison kingdom that relied for its survival on a network of fortresses so massive that their thick walls stand to this day, having endured eight centuries' of wind, quake, war and neglect. Those citadels, whose ruins still dot Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Jordan, were sometimes surrounded by moats - a telling reflection of their architects' unawareness that the water with which they would surround similar structures in Europe could not be supplied in the Middle East.
That foreignness eventually proved fateful. In 1187, in what proved to be their ultimate showdown with the Arabs, the Crusaders arrived at the battlefield of Hittin overlooking the Sea of Galilee dressed in heavy armor despite the baking July heat. The lightly dressed Muslims, led by the legendary Saladin, capitalized on the Crusaders' second failure, to secure sufficient water, and then set ablaze the area's abundant summertime thorns, thus trapping the Europeans in their heavy armor like chickens in cooking pots.
By nightfall the Muslims' victory had been so complete that the Crusader leader, Reynald de Chatillon, was captured and offered his life in exchange for conversion. When he refused, Saladin personally slew him with his sword.
Now, some in the West, whether out of ignorance or malevolence, might accept and in fact trumpet Zarqawi's implication that America's tactical performance, strategic prospects and moral cause in Iraq are no better than were the Crusaders' in Palestine.
Don't believe them.
TACTICALLY, America indeed made a mistake in exposing its troops so extensively in densely urban scenes, and the sooner it moves them to the sparsely settled countryside the better. Having said this, Zarqawi clearly misjudges America's resources, which unlike the Crusaders' are unlimited. America can easily reduce its casualties in Iraq, and at the same retain the local population's American-inspired emancipation. Zarqawi can rest assured that this is also what will happen.
Strategically, the Crusader analogy conveniently ignores the fact that in Iraq most of the indigenous population is actually siding with the invaders - a sentiment that was made plain in their gutsy and massive turnout last year for their first-ever free elections. More importantly, the contemporary Islamist urge to ignore the rest of the world has actually been tried by their predecessors, and proven a disaster.
Fearing a future European invasion, the Muslims laid waste Palestine's coastal plain, thus condemning the region to centuries of desolation and backwardness. Eventually, this tunnel vision proved an emblem of the entire Muslim civilization's self-inflicted insulation and decline.
Yet such flaws in the Crusader analogy dwarf compared with its moral dimension.
Zarqawi's suggestion, that "when the Crusader army entered Iraq it intended to gain control over the Islamic nation," is as ludicrous as it is manipulative. If anything, it is he and the rest of the Islamist fundamentalists who are today's Crusaders.
It is Zarqawi's al-Qaida and their ilk who are out to conquer the rest of the world, and not the other way around; it is they who habitually send their children to commit suicide, as the Crusaders did in the Children's Crusade of 1212; it is Zarqawi and his colleagues who have murdered thousands of innocent civilians in their fanatic quest to conquer turf for God; and it is they who attack other faiths' shrines, as Zarqawi's people are believed to have done in February's decapitation of the Shi'ite Askariya mosque's golden dome in Samarra.
Never mind that in his distortion of history Zarqawi also lumps the Jews with the Crusaders, whose destruction of Franco-German Jewry in 1096 constituted the first-ever mass murders of Jews in Europe. Never mind even that the Crusaders torched Jerusalem's Jews inside their synagogue - within walking distance of today's Damascus Gate - and subsequently banned Jewish residence in Judaism's holiest city. Just think of Saladin's refusal to raze the Holy Sepulchre, as some of his lieutenants prodded him to do after their hard-won conquest of Jerusalem.
Apparently, Islam's ultimate liberator was less pious than Zarqawi.