Obama as the “Dog of Rome”- ISIS and Crusading Rhetoric

Obama as the “Dog of Rome”- ISIS and Crusading Rhetoric

“To Obama, the dog of Rome, today we are slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar and tomorrow we are slaughtering your soldiers. And with god’s permission we will break this final and last crusade,” a masked man said before he was shown beheading one of the men.

See ISIL beheads Syrians and U.S. Aid Worker

President Obama as the “dog of Rome”?

The “final and last crusade”?

I was taking an undergraduate course on the Crusades at the University of North Florida in 2001 when the events of 9/11 took place. Since then, having become a historian of the crusading era, I have become almost numb to the constant rhetoric borrowed from the medieval crusades when describing modern conflicts between the West and various Islamic states or organizations. While I was pursuing my education, it was initially interesting to see such references from Al Qaeda, George Bush, or many others. But after 13 years of such rhetoric I hardly notice it anymore. Indeed, I almost skipped over the above references provided in the Al-Jazeera article when I initially read them.

Presumably, the reference to President Obama as a “dog of Rome” suggests that he is simply doing the bidding of the current Pope, much as Islamists assume any medieval crusader would have done. The second comment about “the final and last crusade” speaks for itself. The implied message is that the medieval crusades represent the beginning of a long period of unprovoked western aggression against the Islamic world that continues into the present.

Many leading crusades historians have long regretted this use of rhetoric because they see it as false, for a variety of reasons, and harmful to modern relations between the East and West. Such historians have long argued that modern popular Muslim views of the crusades are a 19th century invention. Indeed, such views only seem to have developed during the age of the New Imperialism, when industrialized European states colonized and held influence over much of the world, including the once proud (but then weak) Middle East. It was then when now outdated 19th century western historiographical traditions on the crusades, which framed the First Crusade as the first example of European colonization, were essentially exported to the Arab world. Today those views are used, in part, to fan the flames of Islamic resentment toward the modern West, depicting Muslims as long suffering victims of western aggression.

Prior to the modern era Islamic histories mostly ignored the crusades as a relatively minor setback in the historical effort of Islamic armies to carve out a much grander series of conquests that would ultimately stretch from the Hindu Kush to the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, during this period Islamic armies conquered perhaps two-thirds of the ancient and medieval Christian world. In comparison, the crusaders limited success and presence in the Holy Land during the 12th and 13th centuries represented a minor roadblock during a period of otherwise continuous and successful military expansion. Hence, the crusades deserved comparatively little mention in Islamic histories written in the late medieval and early modern periods.

Medieval Islamic conquests of Christian lands extended to the former Byzantine Empire (which was particularly in danger just prior to the calling of the First Crusade), Christian Egypt, as well as all of Christian North Africa, and even into Europe as Sicily and the majority of Spain were conquered by Islamic armies. These conquests all took place prior to the calling of the First Crusade in 1095. Also, the Christian Byzantine Empire, which since the 1070s had suffered the conquest of many Christian cities or lands by the Turks, had invited the crusaders to the East. Such requests for military assistance by Byzantine Christians to the West for assistance date back decades earlier, to the time of Pope Gregory VII, who as early as 1074 had proposed personally leading 50,000 knights to the east to provide military aid to eastern Christians.

Consequently, many leading crusades historians (e.g. Jonathan Riley-Smith, Thomas Madden, Paul Crawford, etc…) have come to see the First Crusade (at least) as a response to Islamic aggression, rather than a provocation for such aggression. The various remaining crusades to the Holy Land were mostly failures as Muslims defeated the crusaders or held onto most of their gains on each occasion. By the end of the 13th century, Muslim forces had reclaimed any gains Latin Christians had made during the First Crusade and any significant Latin Christian political presence in the Holy Land disappeared. In short, Muslims won the crusades, and then continued to expand into Christian territory afterward (e.g. the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Turkish expansion into Europe in the early modern period, etc…).

Rather than the crusades, pre-modern Islamic histories tend to place a much greater focus on the Mongols, who devastated Islamic lands and peoples to a much greater degree than the crusaders. Comparatively, the crusaders did little to slow Islamic military expansion in the medieval world. But by the 19th century the balance of power had shifted to the West, and the threat of the modern west demanded a historical narrative to fit the circumstances of the time, which depicted westerners (in general) and the medieval crusaders (in particular) as the invaders. Hence, when propagandists for ISIS and Al Qaeda use such terminology, describing President Obama as the “dog of Rome,” they are using medieval terminology meant to send a very specific message about their long-term victimization at the hands of the West to their listeners that has resonated in the Islamic world since the 19th century. Little mention is made of the circumstances leading up to the First Crusade, or the much more substantive Islamic conquests of Christian lands in the centuries prior to or after the crusading era.