by Raymond Ibrahim
Amidst the images of suffering and slain Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghanis, the internationally (in)famous Arabic news station al-Jazeera today had an interesting five-minute segment that it played over several times: the fall of the Muslim city of Acre (Arabic: ‘Akka’) to the Crusaders, which after a nearly two-year siege, occurred on July 12, 1191.
While the narrator was more or less objective regarding the facts of this battle — though much more emphasis was placed on the “atrocities” committed against the Muslim inhabitants of Acre than anything else — it was clear that it was being tied up with what was happening in the rest of the Islamic world: the hated Crusaders were back again, doing what they’ve been doing ever since the Crusades. Continuity was established. Millions of Arab viewers were reminded.
More interesting is the taken-for-granted Arab/Islamic epistemology that this anecdote reveals. While al-Jazeera portrays itself as a “secular” entity — at least the Western attired news-anchor teams, with their suits, ties, and female unveiled heads, would imply — it was a given that its viewers would empathize. The proof of this is that the opposite scenario would never occur: consider the general reaction of Americans or Europeans if, between news headlines mini-documentaries aired saying things like “Today in historyConstantinople and the Hagia Sophia were conquered and defiled by invading Muslim forces,” elaborating the ruthless and barbarous treatment the Christian inhabitants of Constantinople experienced at the hands of the Muslim Turks?
What if on their respective anniversaries, Western news stations made it a point to remind viewers that, today in history — Arabia, or Syria, or Persia, or Egypt, or North Africa, or Spain, or Central Asia, or Anatolia, or the Balkans — fell to the sword of Islam, with all the gory details? Surely Western viewers, in general, would certainly find such “reminders” offensive and better left unsaid.
Not for al-Jazeera, however; and not for Muslims in general. They zealously cling to their past. Indeed, Islamic history — especially all the “wrongs” committed against Muslims in ages past — seems to be familiar to the average Muslim youth. Osama bin Laden himself, though no great scholar, in his speeches and writings reveals that he has a prodigious memory concerning both the former glory of Islam as well as the indignities it has been made to suffer at the hands of the Crusaders and their descendants — modern day Westerners, whom he, and almost every other “radical,” refers to simply as as-Salibin: “the Crusaders.”
The fusion of religion and politics in the Arab world is further attested on Arabic “secular” stations such as al-Jazeera by the fact that, the Western-looking anchor man or woman normally initiates the program by saying something distinctly Islamic, such as “Salaama ‘alikum,” or “Bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim” (“Peace unto you” and “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,” respectively). Imagine how awkward, not to mention “offensive,” Westerners would find their favorite news-anchor begin today’s headlines with “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, amen”?
Whatever one can say about this phenomenon, about how Islamic history seems to permeate everything in the Arab world, one thing is clear: it is effective and an advantage that the Western world lacks — a sense of collective history and continuity, which, if the West publicly held to it, would trace back to the first century AD; a number of grievances and unsettled accounts against “traditional” enemies, such as the Muslims, would not only be acknowledged but quickly redressed. As in the Muslim world, context and continuity would be created.
Raymond Ibrahim is the editor of the Al-Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.