The Crusades and the Development of Militant Islam


Modern Islamism, or political Islam, is the product of the decolonization process and decades of political frustration in the Arab Islamic world. Modern Islamism is a political ideology that seeks to blend governance with religious law and seek to incorporate religious principles into everyday life. Militant Islam, the armed, radical version of Islamism, seeks to reinstall the Islamic caliphate and revitalize the Arab Islamic world to its former glory.

While this ideology of Islamism and Caliphates have been around since Muhammad’s first community of believers, the emergence of nationalism and self-determination in the 1800s reignited a belief in an Islamic caliphate future. In 1798, Napoleon’s invasion and swift defeat of Egypt sent shockwaves throughout the Arab Islamic world. Scholars, both secular and religious, tried to reconcile how the Arab Islamic world had fallen so far behind European military and economic power. For secular scholars, the future laid in modernization and democratic values, while for Islamists, the future laid in a return to Islamic rules of governance and morality.

During the decolonization process of the 1900s, secular nationalism and Islamist ideology rose to extreme prominence throughout the Arab Islamic world. Egypt, as the cultural and political leader of the Arab Islamic world, chose Gamal Abdul Nasser to lead Egypt into a secular, Arab-nationalist future. His vision of a technologically and culturally modern society captured the hearts and minds of people throughout the Arab world and galvanized the streets to overthrow the British-supported Egyptian king. But despite his optimistic and democratic vision for Egypt’s future, Nasser’s authoritarian crackdown on political dissenters and his failure to modernize the Egyptian economy turned Egyptian people against him. Additionally, the brutal defeat during the Six Day War with Israel also disillusioned the Egyptian and the previous supporters of Arab nationalism. With this ideological vacuum, Islamists throughout the country were able to garner massive amounts of support.

Under Nasser’s oppressive rule, several key scholars like Sayyid Qutb were jailed and silenced. But despite Nasser’s attempt at oppression, the Islamist organizations’ (like the Muslim Brotherhood) ability to provide necessary social services like handing out bread, when the state had continually failed them, won the support of Egyptians throughout the country. Coupled with the disillusionment following the totalizing defeat at the hands of Israel during the Six Day War, the Islamists began to garner popular ideological and literal support by promising a revitalization of the Islamic Caliphate and Arab Islamic society. Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood wrote, “Rebuilding the international prominence of the Islamic Umma by liberating its lands, reviving its glorious past, bringing closer the cultures of its regions and rallying under one word. Until once again the long awaited united and the lost Khilafah is returned.” This quotation provides insight into the goals of militant Islam. While Hassan al Banna was not militant, future scholars use his words and his ideas in order to motivate and inspire their soldiers.

This post will first outline the legacy of the Crusades in Militant Islam and how Militant Islamists understand foreign intervention in the Arab Islamic world. The next section will outline how the ideology of Militant Islam is a reaction to foreign intervention in the Middle East (what these Islamists call ‘Crusading interventions’). And our last section will outline how Militant Islamists draw upon the legacy and memory of these Crusading interventions to instill fear and cooperation in Muslims who reside in territories under Militant Islamist control.

Brief Visual Feature: Historic/Geographic Context

What is the legacy of the Crusades in Militant Islam?

The memory and legacy of the Crusades is most salient in the Islamist view of history. For this group of scholars and leaders, the Crusades are not a thing of the past. Rather, the Crusades represent an ongoing conflict between East and West, Islamdom and Christendom. Rather than viewing the Crusades as a singular, monolithic historical event, Islamists like Sayyid Qutb see the Crusades as a never-attending Western quest to subdue and control the Muslim world. This conception of historical events is directly contrasted with the secular, Arab nationalists like Gamal Abdul Nasser’s memory of the past. Saladin the movie represents the Arab nationalist view of the Crusades as a secular, colonial conflict. The film even shows a Christian soldier fighting on behalf of the Arabs in an attempt to dispel the religious component of the war. This understanding of the Crusades informs the way in which Nasser and his supporters understood the Western interventions in the Arab world–secular, colonial interventions based on greed and political control. This understanding is in direct opposition to the Islamist understanding of the Western interventions and sheds some light onto why the Islamists needed to reframe the East-West conflict and continually use Crusading language to remind Muslims of the long past of Christian Crusading intervention in the Muslim world.

To begin, two of the fundamental tenets of Islam, the ummah and tawhid, stresses the importance of oneness in the Islamic world: oneness with God, oneness with the Islamic community, and oneness of faith. Ummah, meaning community or the community of believers, is one of the most important components of the way Islamists see their community, while tawhid, meaning oneness, stresses the importance of coherence and unity within the community of the believers. As two of the Prophet Muhammad’s central teachings, these two ideas together emphasize the importance of unity within the Islamic world. Therefore, discord or division within the Islamic world is a great sign of weakness or impending disaster. Islamists stress the importance of the Caliphate based on this Islamic principle. Only under a unified, Islamic government can the lands and people of Islam be once again reunited. Under this understanding of ummah, the Crusades (and the attempt to establish a Crusader state in the Islamic heartland) should be considered as one of the most heretical interventions in the history of Islam. Following, the 1798 invasion of Egypt, the memory of the Crusades (which had been somewhat forgotten) became a new lens to view foreign intervention and foreign invasion of the Islamic world. The following section will outline some of the Western interventions in the Islamic world and provide insight into how Islamist leaders and scholars use the legacy of the Crusades to contextual these events and  catalyze Muslim support.

"Saladin" (1963), an Egyptian film.

“Saladin” (1963), an Egyptian film.


The French invasion of Algeria in 1830 directly brought the Crusades back to the contemporary political discourse. Scholar Jean-Louis Triaud explains that anti-Islam sentiment has been alive in France since the Crusades but also that “the hostility to Islam in France also has roots–and this is something that has been recognized less well–in the direct heritage of the French Revolution and the republic; namely, in the spirit accompanying the separation between church and state.” This East-West engagement laid important groundwork for our present understanding of militant Islam. Militant Islam is reacting both to the “secular” fear of Islam as well as the religious condemnation of Islam. Both secular and religious sides condemned Islam for its monolithic control of the Middle East and therefore used targeted Muslims and political Islam through invasion and occupation.

In a prayer for the soldiers in Algeria, the archbishop of Aix-en-Provence, mixed just war language with Crusading ideology and language preaching:

If there was ever a just war…it is that which is prepared today against the perfidious and cruel enemy of the Christian name in Africa. It is to avenge the repeated insults made on our flag; it is to efface the shame of the tribute paid until today to the tyrant of Algiers by Christian nations; it is to assure the freedom of the seas to our commerce; it is to deliver from Moslem slavery the unfortunate navigators who frequent these vicinities. [It is for all this] that our august monarch has seized the sword that God has confided him to defend and protect his people.

The archbishop’s mix of crusading and Just War language sheds light on the ideological legacy of the Crusades. The language of the sword of God calls to mind the blessed instruments of war Crusaders used to wage war in the Holy Land. In addition, his reference to Christians under Muslim slavery also calls to mind the Pope Urban II’s calling of the First Crusade, where he (allegedly) listed the Christian suffering under Muslim leaders as one of the several reason to wage war on Muslim leaders.
This Crusading language was not lost on the Algerian Muslim and the following Muslim response illustrates the crucial role this East-West, Crusader-Muslim divide plays in the development of militant Islam. It is not difficult to see how the Muslims considered this event another Christian Crusade against the Muslim peoples. In his analysis of the Algerian invasion, scholar Benjamin Claude Bower writes, “seeking supporters from the interior of the country, [Abd al-Qadir] told people to see the French landings in Algiers and the occupation of Algeria’s Mediterranean port through the optic of jihad. France did not represent a new version of the occasional power of the Ottoman…but was a non-Muslim invader that all Algerian Muslims were obliged to resist under his banner.” In this call to jihad, Abd al-Qadir establishes the relationship between Western Crusading intervention and jihad. al-Qadir, like Saladin and other Muslim rulers before him, drew upon Islam rather than nationalism or ethnic unity in order to fend off foreign invasion. This call to arms should be considered as a direct response to the archbishop of Aix-en-Provance’s call to Crusade and the secular French leaders opposition to the unity of Islamic governance. By continuing to draw upon the Christian-Muslim framework established by the archbishop, al-Qadir unwittingly laid the groundwork for the use of militant Islam against colonial and apostatic rulers. In a century’s time, Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and again in Algeria, will all echo Abd al-Qadir’s call to jihad against Christian/Western forces.

The British and French occupation of the Islamic Caliphate

Following the French invasion of Algeria, scholars around the Arab Islamic world continued to see the French occupation of Algeria as another Crusader expedition. While Arab Muslims next fought for independence against the Ottomans, the next great Western intervention would come during World War I with the Sykes-Picot agreement. This secret agreement between the French and the British during WWI divided the Middle East and became effective as soon as the war ended. Palestine, Transjordan (contemporary Jordan and Iraq), and Egypt went to the British, while the French took control of al-Sham (modern day Syria and Lebanon). The Sykes-Picot agreement divided up the Middle East along arbitrary lines, often neglecting natural boundaries–and more importantly, boundaries based on linguistic, ethnic, cultural, or religious communities. According to Islamists, this division of the Islamic world is one of the most heretical interventions by Western powers. Based on Islamists understanding of the umma or the Islamic nation, the British and French division of the Middle East inherently breaks apart the singularity and unity of the Islamic caliphate. Not only did the Sykes-Picot agreement dissolve the Ottoman Islamic caliphate, but it also divided the Islamic world along arbitrary political boundaries. Islamic fundamentalists consider this another attempt of Crusader nations to split up and weaken the Islamic caliphate. These Islamists also consider the rulers of the postcolonial nations as illegitimate because their power is divided from the artificial nation states.

The Creation of the Zionist-Crusader Alliance

Following the colonial periods of the British mandate and the French protectorate, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 also served as another symbol of the West’s continuation of their crusading mission. While many Europeans and Americans consider the foundation of the state of Israel as the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, Islamists and Palestinians alike see another colonial occupation of the Arab Islamic world. American and European support for the state of Israel added further flame to the fire, creating what many Islamic militants call the “Crusader-Zionist alliance.” Osama bin Laden reframes the Arab-Israeli conflict as the “Zionist-Crusader war against the Ummah of Islam.”

For Sayyid Qutb, one of the most fundamental scholars involved in the development of militant Islam, these Western interventions exist as a part of the long history of the Crusades. One scholar notes that, “In his writings, ‘the Crusades’ are an ancient and perpetual antagonism, unconfined by specifics of time and place.” For Qutb, the legacy of the Crusades and the Crusades are one in the same. The Crusades are an ever-continuing war of East vs. West, Christian society vs. Islamdom. In his collapsing of the specific historical and environmental contexts in which the Crusades arose, Qutb paints the Crusades as deep, festering wounds in the hearts and minds of Islamic society. Qutb’s view of history is extremely important to understanding the development of militant Islamic ideology and the context from which it arose. By positioning the Western interventions as part of an unfinished history of Crusading, Islamists bring the infractions against the Islamic ummah into much closer perspective. This Crusader-Islamdom framework envisions the Crusades as a lingering, festering wound in the heart of Arab Islamic homeland, further galvanizing Muslim populations against Western intervention. Such a view of history collapses time and space in order to frame multiple conflicts under one umbrella: Christian/Zionist vs. Muslim. This conception of history is key to understanding the context from which militant Islam develops because Islamists develop militant Islam as a reaction to these fundamental conceptions of history.

The legacy of the Crusades emerges in rhetoric used by modern-day leaders.

The legacy of the Crusades emerges in rhetoric used by modern-day leaders.

The Development of Militant Islam as a Reaction to the Ongoing Legacy of the Crusades

Based on this Crusading understanding of Western involvement in the Middle East, fundamentalist Islamic scholars developed the ideology of Militant Islam as a reaction to the repeated Crusader involvement in the Islamic ummah. Under the ostentatious rule of King Farouk of Egypt, Islamists and Nationalists alike honed in on their different ideologies. Modernists, who advocated for the modernization of Arab society in congruence with Islamic principles, looked to Europe and the US as model societies and the keys to unlocking a prosperous and thriving future. While they considered the US and Europe to be sometimes morally bankrupt, they admired their technological advancements and popular democracies. Scholars like Taha Hussein sought to re-envision Egypt, based on its ancient past, as a fundamental part of Western civilization. He therefore argued that the modernization and technological advancement are definitive parts of Egyptian society. In the Islamist camp, Islamist scholars like Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, sought a return to the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs under the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. These scholars considered the time of the Prophet to be the most powerful period of Islamic history and that only a strict adherence to the norms outlined in the Qu’ran and Hadith would reinstate this Islamic golden age.

Delving further into the ideology of militant Islam, Sayyid Qutb, one of the forefathers of militant Islam believed that freedom and success lay in an Islamic caliphate. Religious scholar Jonathan Brown wrote, “In the new world Qutb envisioned, man would be honored and freed through total submission to God.” This understanding of freedom is integral to understanding the worldview of militant Islamists. Where many Americans often call these Islamic fundamentalists as “anti-freedom,” these Islamists instead see freedom as freedom to practice Islam within an Islamic caliphate, rather than the freedom to speak or the freedom to choose their own path. Therefore, in their understanding, freedom lays in the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and Western interventions, which they view as anti-Islam, directly inhibit their ability to establish an Islamic caliphate. By occupying and creating artificial borders within Islamdom, the Western Crusaders at the most basic level disrupt Islamic unity and the ability to create a political Islamic state. Thus, the emergence of militant Islamic ideology should be understood as a reaction to the Crusader interventions in the Middle East.

Where Islamist ideology turns militant is in the resistance to Crusader interventions. Militant Islamists believe that the they need to violently expel Western forces in the Arab Islamic world and overthrow apostate rulers. Only through expelling Zionist-Crusader interventionists and the apostate-puppet rulers can the militant Islamist successfully reestablish the Caliphate. While it may be easy to understand why Islamist leaders want to expel foreign leaders, the overthrow of other Muslim leaders is more complicated. Religious scholar Jonathan Brown writes, “at the root of these militant revival movements was the question of Takfir, or declaring someone who claimed to be a Muslim an unbeliever.” Traditionally it is understood that Muslims should not commit violence against other Muslims, but Militant Islamist leaders draw on takfiri ideology, established by Ibn Tamiyya during the time of the Crusader states, as an ideological basis for committing violence against other Muslims. Takfiri ideology essentially states that one can commit violence against another Muslim if that Muslim is not practicing to the true faith. In this way, the Muslim can be labeled a kafir or non-believer. Militant Islamists have coopted the traditional understanding of jihad (most often understood to be an internal struggle to be the best self), to be instead a violent struggle against non-believers. It is important to understand this ideological development as a reaction to the legacy of the Crusades and Western intervention in the Middle East.


Modern Uses of Crusading Rhetoric in Militant Islamist Organizations

cross worshipers -- al qaeda propaganda

Still from an al-Qaeda propaganda video created by Al-Malahem Media. The translation reads, “Here are your selves and blood being licked by the cross worshipers and their agents. Stand and protect your land and honors before you regret!”

To the militant Islamists of today, “crusade” invokes religious memories—indeed, Islamists consider the religious wars of the Middle Ages as still unresolved—yet the word simultaneously implies secular motives. How is this possible? To borrow language from Osama bin Laden, “the oppressive Crusader campaign led by America” is the outgrowth of a now-apostate society that bears the cross to hide its true intentions. The western powers, together with Israel, constitute the morally destitute “Zionist-Crusader alliance.” They seek to separate Muslims from their two holiest cities (Mecca and Medina)—that is, to disrupt the ummah—without fighting the war solely as a war between antagonistic faiths. As scholar Robert Burns phrases it, “The connection between colonialism and crusade, and more broadly between Christianity and Western Imperialism, has been etched into the Arab psyche.” Taking it one step further, this connection of colonialism and crusade is based on the active work of militant Islamists who repeatedly use Crusading ideology and language to refer to recent historical events (as outlined in the section above). This section will explore the way different militant Islamist groups use Crusading ideology and language as well as the effect of this work. While the backgrounds, goals, and theologies of the many militant Islamist factions differ, they agree on a common memory of the Crusades and of current “Crusader aspirations;” they then incorporate those interpretations in their language and propaganda to inspire a collective Islamic antagonism toward the Zionist-Christian West.

If militant Muslims use “Crusade” and “Crusaders” to imply present-day religiously motivated conflicts, then how exactly do they use those words? The answer to this question varies from faction to faction. For example, the Taliban, who continue their struggle to topple the Afghani government, group together imperialism, colonialism, Christianity, and Crusade. Like many militant Islamists, they invoke the word “Crusade” to inspire hatred for the disruption of the ummah which the foreigners have brought.

In this flyer distributed in Lahore, Pakistan, the Afghani Taliban (not the Pakistani Taliban) threaten to destroy schools: “Christian missionary ones, Army-owned, and those associated with the Western educational system.” The flyers are addressed to “Apostate Rulers & Fools of Civil Society! O Appeasers of Crusaders…

taliban flyer

Taliban propaganda flyer disseminated in Pakistan in the spring of 2015

!!!” Because of their compliance with Western support and their embrace of a democratic system of government, many Pakistanis are under threat of attack from extremist groups like the Taliban who remember the destruction of the “imperialist” crusades. This flyer is an excellent example of Islamist propaganda: note their final appeal to Ahlus Sunnah (that is, Sunni Islam) parents to remove their children from Western schools which endorse “apostasy & Satanic culture.” The Taliban’s usage of the legacy of the Crusades inspires fear of betrayal of Islam. If a parent sends their child to a Western education school, these flyers immediately frame them as betrayers of Islam and therefore targets of takfiri ideology. Therefore, the use of Crusading terminology, in this case, is used as a powerful motivator to avoid Western institutions.


Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda share this application of crusading terminology. In their famous 1998 fatwa (that is, religious decree) of jihad against the “Jews and Crusaders,” Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri declared that the US seeks to maintain the state of Israel for its own economic and political benefit: “The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab

world islamic front for jihad

Image of the World Islamic Front’s publication of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s “Declaration of Jihad against Jews and Crusaders”

state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.” In addition to the “Zionist-Crusader alliance,” bin Laden considers the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia, the location of the two holiest sites in Islam (Mecca and Medina) to be a part of the “brutal crusade occupation.” As bin Laden and al-Zawahiri make clear, al-Qaeda is convinced that the “brutal crusade occupation” of the Arabian Peninsula has not ceased and will not cease until the destruction caused by jihadists worldwide makes it materially disadvantageous to stay. Here, in this call to Muslims around the globe, al-Qaeda invokes the Crusades to draw aggression against the same “Christian West” that had “raped” the Peninsula centuries before. In addition, by linking US military power to Crusading ideology, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri make it explicitly clear that the presence of US military bases is a dagger in the heart of Islamdom (the two holy cities).

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or “ISIL”), too, remember the Crusades mainly as disruptions of the ummah which have left Islam crippled to this day. But ISIL’s implementation of the memory of the Crusades is the most distinct from the other groups discussed. Because ISIL’s core desire is to instate a caliphate and begin the countdown to the apocalypse, they do not frequently use the historical remembrance of the Crusades to inspire hatred for Western colonialism. Rather, they look forward to the final Crusade: the battle at Dabiq which will result in heavy losses for the Islamists and the beginning of the end of time. The masked executioner of Peter Kassig (a year-long captive of ISIL) said in an ISIL propaganda video, “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”


Still from an ISIL propaganda video showing the captive Peter Kassig with his masked executioner. Kassig was decapitated in the November of 2014.

ISIL does not fear Western colonialism, though they do see it and its Arab allies as apostate; instead, they joyously welcome the intrusion of the new Western Crusaders. While ISIL certainly views their conflicts with the West as religious in nature, they see the majority of Muslims around them as apostates as well. These Muslims, who accept crusader influence by not following all Sharia, are slaughtered by ISIL regularly. Hence comes al-Baghdadi’s comment that ISIL must “deal with the rafida [Shia] first … then al-Sulul [Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy] … before the crusaders and their bases.” So, while groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda are primarily concerned with removing Western “crusader” influence in the Middle East, ISIL sees that mission as secondary to building a caliphate and then awaiting the imminent apocalypse brought by the final crusaders. For ISIL, the invocation of the destructive Crusades is used to electrify anticipation of the final Crusade; by repeating this apocalyptic Crusading terminology again and again, ISIL keeps its energy alive despite repeated destruction from drone strikes and coordinated assaults. 

Ultimately, the formation of these groups and their use of Crusading ideology sheds light on the painful legacy of Crusades in the Arab Islamic world. For them, Crusading is a part of their modern experience and the artificial boundaries of the Middle East serve as a constant reminder of the Crusading legacy. While the violent actions and radical nature of these groups seem to be illogical, once viewed in context with the West’s long legacy of intervention (starting with the Crusades), the motivations and goals of these groups is far more comprehensible. 

Works Cited:

al-Banna, Hassan, “Young Muslims.” 6.

Benjamin, Daniel and Simon, Steven, Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s War Against America: 66.

bin Laden, Osama, “Exposing the New Crusader War.” February 14th, 2003: 10

Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad against Americans.” In Milestone Documents in World History. Salem Press. Web. 29 May 2016.

Brown, Jonathan, Misquoting Muhammad, August 4th, 2014: 124

Burns, Robert. Christianity, Islam, and the West, page 113. Maryland: University Press of America, 2011. Print.

Khurram, Qadir, “Modern Historiography: The Relevance of the Crusades,” Islamic Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Winter): pg 527-558.

Mandement of Charles Alexandre de Richery, archbishop of Aix-en-Provence, May 5, 1830, reported in Ami de la Religion 74 (March 18, 1830): 53.

Qutb, Sayyid

“Taliban Think Crusades Never Ended, Says Pakistani Archbishop.” – Worldwide Catholic Network Sharing Faith Resources for those seeking Truth . N. p., 2015. Web. 29 May 2016.

Triaud, Jean Louis “Islam in Africa under French Colonial Rule”: 170.

Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants.” The Atlantic. N. p., 2015. Web. 29 May 2016.

“World Islamic Front Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews And Crusaders.” N. p., 2016. Web. 29 May 2016.

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