Arab Nationalism and the Crusades


Arab Nationalism is an ideology that calls for the creation of an Arab nation stretching from the Atlantic shores of Morocco in North Africa to the Persian Gulf shores of the Arabian Peninsula.[1] Its adherents believe that because Arabs are connected by a common ethnicity, language, culture, history, and often religion, they should also be united politically. The quest for Arab governance is generally coupled with a socialist-revolutionary transformation at home, and an anti-Western position abroad.[2] Arab Nationalism took hold after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser rose to power in the 1950s that Arab Nationalism became a dominant political ideology in the Arab world.

Arab Nationalists’ Ideal Nation (source:


Arab Nationalism was born out of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, many Middle Eastern cities and regions lost the prowess they once had. Cairo and Baghdad lost their role as premier cities of learning and culture.  As the Middle East fell behind the power curve of industrialization, Western powers utilized their new positions of authority to seize control of parts of the Middle East. This influx of imperialism into the Middle East was met with a concept of Arab independence.

Arab leaders and policymakers plans to accomplish Arab independence differed. Some saw religious unity and purification as the path to independence, others saw Arab Nationalism as the path. Religious purity was the prominent path till about 1948. In 1948, King Farouk of Egypt outlawed the popular party that was pushing for religious purity, laying the grounds for Arab Nationalism to rise to popularity.

The rise of Arab Nationalism led to an increased fascination with the Crusades, because its supporters realized the didactic potential of these Medieval confrontations between Europe and the Middle East. Many Arabs philosophers even sought to recreate the “golden period” of the Crusades, considering them a time of religious purity and Arabic strength.[3] In the context of Western imperialism and the creation of the state of Israel in the Twentieth century, Arab Nationalist leaders evoked the Crusades as an example of European proto-colonialism, and used the unified anti-Crusader response as a blueprint for modern Arab resistance to Western aggression. [4]


President Nasser,

President Nasser (source:

Arab Nationalism truly rose to prominence under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Gamal Abdel Nasser was an Egyptian army officer who led a group known as the Free Officers to overthrow the Egyptian Monarchy in 1952. From there he gained political support and became President in 1956. Nasser’s political agenda was to unify the Arab states in order to withstand European imperialism, an agenda that was heavily built off of the prior success of Arab unity in repelling the Crusaders from the Middle East. Nasser managed to capture the popular support of many Arab people in his success with the Suez Canal Crisis. The Suez Canal was a major symbol of European imperialism. Although Egypt controlled the lands of the Suez Canal, they did not have control over the actual function of the Canal. The Canal itself was controlled by French and British investors, and their respective governments as well. In 1956, due to Egyptian political pressure, France and Britain withdrew their armed forces which had been stationed in the “canal-zone.”[5] President Nasser seized this opportunity to nationalize the Suez Canal, claiming to return “an integral part of Egypt.” This prompted a joint bombing mission and ground invasion from Israel, France, and Britain, but due to political pressure they were soon forced to withdraw.  The nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the subsequent Egyptian political victory in the Suez Canal Crisis, was seen as a major victory in the eyes of the Egyptians and the Arabic people. Not only had Egypt managed to reclaim lands that had rightfully belonged to its people, but also had managed to withstand the joint forces of world powers. Building upon his victory, Nasser became the symbol for Arab nationalism. Nassar used the momentum from this victory to rally both the Egyptian people and the Arabic people in hopes of creating a unified Arab state that could stand up the West. This rhetoric of strength through unity was seen throughout his speeches. [6] [7]


During his presidency, Nasser explicitly aligned himself with Saladin (1137-1193), the Medieval sultan who conquered Jerusalem and pushed out the Crusaders by unifying the Islamic World. While famous in the West since the time of the Crusades as a noble enemy and talented military leader, Saladin was virtually forgotten in the Islamic World in favor of Baybars and other leaders who fought off the Mongols, who posed a far greater threat than the Crusaders at the time. However, in the context of Western colonialism and the creation of Israel, Saladin was discovered as the perfect symbol of Arab unity[8], anti-colonialism, and anti-Western ideals. Furthermore, Nasser’s United Arab States, the short-lived confederation of Egypt and Syria was much of the same land Saladin ruled during the 12th century..,,

Lands under Saladin vs. United Arab Republic under Nasser (sources: 1. 2.

Nasser associated himself with Saladin in various ways. He often directly referred to Saladin in his speeches, and in February 1958 the president planned a formal visit to his famous predecessor’s tomb in Damascus, where he gave a speech in response to Syrian crowds coming to pay him allegiance. [9] Nasser’s association with Saladin extended beyond the Arab World, as seen in a New York Times article from March 1958, which described as Nasser as “The man who fancies himself a modern Saladin.”[10]

Nasser also relied on visuals to align himself with the Medieval sultan. Most notably, Nasser adopted the Eagle of Saladin (also known as Arab Eagle) as the symbol for and revolutionary Egypt. Afterward, The Eagle of Saladin was adopted by several other Arab States (U.A.E., Iraq, the Palestinian Territory, and Yemen) .[11]


Arab Emblems (source:

The intentional association between the two men is also very apparent in Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s Saladin (1963). While it technically chronicled the Third Crusade, Saladin was essentially a plug for Nasser and Arab Nationalism. Chahine wastes no time creating the parallel between Saladin and Nasser. Early in the film, Saladin explicitly states Nasser’s Arab Nationalist agenda, with the anachronistic phrase: “My dream is to see an Arab nation united under one flag.” Other instances that connect Nasser to Saladin and forward his agenda are when Saladin is shown talking to his men in front of the Arab Eagle. In this moment, like many others, Saladin may as well transform into President Nasser and be discussing the events of the mid 20th century rather than the Third Crusade.



In 1917, British policymakers leveraged the Zionists’ desire for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine to assert Britain’s geopolitical imperial interests in the region via the signing of the Balfour Declaration.  Because the Balfour Declaration violated previous promises made in the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Zionism immediately became depicted as a religious movement that was politically oppressive and economically exploitative of native Arabs. Many Palestinians viewed the Zionists as an alien regime that lacked a culture of its own and national authenticity.  Nasser viewed the establishment of Israel as a neo-crusading attack intended to keep the Arab nation divided and subservient to Western imperialism[12].  In a translation of his own words, Nasser believed that “Imperialism signed a pact with Zionism and the result was the Balfour Declaration… and the deathblow to our Nationalism, this time under a new name, a substitute for “the Crusades,” which was “the mandate”[13].

Nasser Kicking Israel

A cartoon of Nasser kicking Israel into the sea, with the armies of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in the background supporting his effort. (Source:

Nasser believed Israel would collapse as soon as the Jewish State was up against a united Arab front, which he saw as a “historic confrontation” with direct links to the Crusades[14].  To Nasser, the “Crusades represented nothing less than Imperialism, domination, and despotism against the Arab people—Muslims and Christians alike”—who managed to achieve victory against the Crusaders’ imperialist invasions only by uniting against them.  Evidently, Nasser applied the Zionist-Crusader analogy to the Arab-Israeli Conflict to create a parallel between the colonialism displayed by Crusaders during the Middle Ages and what he saw as a modern form of colonialism by the Zionists and their Western allies.  In order to advance his contemporary anti-Israeli efforts, Nasser viewed the expellers of the Crusaders as Arab heroes and the Crusaders as barbaric in his mythological construction of the Zionist-Crusader invasion.

“During the Crusaders’ occupation, the Arabs waited seventy years before a suitable opportunity arose and they drove away the Crusaders. Some people commented that Abdel Nasser said we should shelve the Palestinian question for seventy years, but I say that as a people with an ancient civilization, as an Arab people, we are determined that the Palestine question will not be liquidated or forgotten. The whole question, then, is the proper time to achieve our aims. We are preparing ourselves constantly [in the objective of destroying Israel].”

-May 26, 1967 Address to Arab Trade Unionists by Gamal Abdel Nasser[14].


Shortly after the creation of Israel in 1948, the Arab-Israeli War quickly arose with violence occurring as the result of the Egyptian occupation of Gaza and the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank.  The Palestinian Fedayeen—who were backed by the Russians—launched guerilla attacks upon Israel, whose defense forces—backed by the Americans and the French—responded with reprisal operations[15].  Tensions elevated between Egypt and Israel after President Nasser closed off Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tehran, an event better known today as the Suez Crisis.  While Britain and France came to Israel’s defense by attacking Egypt and handing over the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula to the United Nations, President Nasser emerged as the figurehead of Arab nationalism at this time.  Over the next ten years, conflict between Israel and the surrounding Arab states continued.  Fearing an impending Israeli attack on Syria, President Nasser once again blocked the Straits of Tehran to Israeli shipping and encouraged Arab nations to move troops to the Israeli border[16].  On June 5, 1967, Israel launched air strikes on the Egyptian air force and moved its troops into Sinai and pushed the Arabs out of the nearby region over just six days, which effectively discredited Nasser’s Arab nationalist movement. as the Arabs failed in their united military effort to destroy the State of Israel.

For more information on the Six Day War, check out this 3 Minute Video



In addition to President Nasser, the other major player associated with Arab Nationalism is the Ba’ath Party. The Ba’ath Party was founded in 1947 and dissolved 1966, when it split into two factions – one dominated by Iraqis and one by Syrians. The Arabic word al-ba’ath means ‘resurrection’ or ‘renaissance.’ Ba’athists seek a renaissance for Arab culture and civilization, and call for an Arab nation under the leadership of a secular, vanguard party. As with more general Arab Nationalism, the symbol of Ba’athism is the Eagle of Saladin.

Saddam Hussein was a leader of the Iraqi Ba’athist movement, and was President of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. Like Nasser, Hussein drew a close connection between himself and Saladin[17], and made sure it was known that he shared the sultan’s birthplace, the village of Takrit.[18] Saddam’s methods of making these connections varied widely. In 1987 a colloquium on Saladin was held in Takrit, titled “The Battle for Liberation – from Saladin to Saddam Hussein,” and that same year, an Iraqi publisher produced a children’s book entitled “The Hero Saladin.”[19] The cover featured a picture of Saddam Hussein, who stood in front of a Medieval horseman.[20] Additionally, a mural on Saddam’s palace wall depicted Saladin watching his horsemen, as next to him “Saddam admired his tanks rolling to an imagined victory against the West”.[21]


Saladin and Saddam Hussein (source:


[1] Faksh, Mahmud A. 1993. Withered Arab Nationalism. Orbis 37 (3) (Summer 1993): 425-38.

[2] Ibid, 425-426.

[3] Benjamin, Daniel, and Steven Simon. The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s War against America. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003. Print.

[4] Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. Psychology Press, 2000, 595.

[5] Mohomran. “The Other Side of Suez (BBC Documentary).” YouTube. YouTube, 22 July 2012. Web. 29 May 2016.

[6] “Modern History Sourcebook: President Nasser: Denouncement of the Proposal for a Canal Users’ Association, 1956.” Modern History Sourcebook:. Paul Halsall, July-Aug. 1998. Web. 29 May 2016.

[7] BruhMan85. “Abdel Nasser Speech After The War of 1956 *English Subtitles*.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 30 May 2016.

[8] Because Saladin was such a perfect historical model for Arab Nationalism, his Kurdish ethnicity was overlooked.

[9] Phillips, Jonathan.  In ‘European Receptions of the Crusades in the Nineteenth Century. Franco-German Perspectives International Workshop – Research Group ‘Myths of the Crusades’. Eckert. Dossiers 4 (2011). Web.

[10] Caruthers, Osgood. “Nasser’s Star Rising in All Arab States: His Appeals to Nationalism Have Won Support Against Enemies.” New York Times, Mar 30 1958.

[11] Karsh, Efraim. Islamic Imperialism: A History. Second. Great Britain: Yale University Press, 2013. Print.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “The Six Day War: Statement by President Nasser to Arab Trade Unionists.” Jewish Virtual Library. N.p., 26 May 1967. Web.

[15] Jabzy. “Six Day War: 3 Minute History.” YouTube. N.p., 16 Mar. 2015. Web.

[16] Ibid.

[17] BIB: History World, Saladin the Great, Lulu Press, Inc, 2013.

[18] Saddam, who ruthlessly persecuted Kurds, also conveniently “forgot” Saladin’s true ethnicity.

[19]  Phillips, Jonathan.  In ‘European Receptions of the Crusades in the Nineteenth Century. Franco-German Perspectives International Workshop – Research Group ‘Myths of the Crusades’. Eckert.Dossiers 4 (2011). Web. .

[20]Cline, Eric H. “Saddam Hussein and History 101.” ByGeorge! March 4, 2003. Web.

[21]  Phillips, Jonathan.  In ‘European Receptions of the Crusades in the Nineteenth Century. Franco-German Perspectives International Workshop – Research Group ‘Myths of the Crusades’. Eckert.Dossiers 4 (2011). Web.