Don’t Teach Osama bin Laden’s Version of History.

Above Image: The northeast face of World Trade Center (south tower) after being struck by a plane in the south face on September 11, 2001. Source: Wiki Creative Commons.


A number of medievalists and their followers are commenting in articles and on social media about the appropriation of the Middle Ages by modern white supremacists or “Nazis.” Indeed, a significant number of scholars in the literary camp of medieval studies have rallied around the notion that those teaching courses on the Middle Ages need to actively and urgently challenge such narratives in the classroom. This seems to be particularly the case with a popular academic website called In the Middle, where several medieval scholars write or comment on related issues. One recent essay by Dorothy Kim, Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, was widely shared on social media and has firmly emphasized such a goal, claiming that “objectivist neutrality” by scholars teaching in academic disciplines that focus on the Middle Ages no longer works “because it facilitates white supremacists/white nationalists/KKK/Nazis and their horrific deployment of the Middle Ages.” Professor Kim issues both a wake up call and a rallying cry for scholars to pro-actively work against white supremacist narratives in the classroom, noting that because professors are authorities teaching medieval subjects they are, “in fact, ideological arms dealers.” Her essay expresses concern over the violence associated with white supremacy, historical linkages between white supremacy and academia, and the responsibility of scholars to clearly signal to their students that they themselves are not white supremacists or some of their students will “absolutely question” if they can “speak in your class with safety.” The full text of Professor Kim’s essay can be read here

While I find Professor Kim’s essay overly alarmist, particularly the idea that I need to declare in some way on the first day of class to my students that “I am not a white supremacist,” I certainly don’t object to the efforts of scholars to dispel white supremacist narratives of the medieval past that are based on inaccuracies, myths, or outright lies meant to prop up their ideologies. Yet rather than awkwardly introducing myself on the first day of class as “not a white supremacist,” I would rather let my teaching do the work in a far more substantive way for me. The complexities of the medieval past, its cultures, and its societies, do not fit a white supremacist narrative, and modern understandings of “whiteness” are of much more recent origin. Yet if other professors want to stand in front of their class on the first day and declare they are not white supremacists then I certainly don’t object so long as they are also doing the much more important work of teaching an honest understanding of the past, which will do more to disarm extremist narratives than any formal declarations of innocence on the matter.

Yet something else in Professor Kim’s essay interested me; she very briefly addressed the appropriation of the Middle Ages by the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS/ISIL). She addressed this topic far too briefly, in my opinion, as the focus of her essay was on white supremacy, but she did (to her credit) at least touch on this issue. The Islamic State’s appropriation of medieval history is often not addressed by those who are otherwise very concerned about it when white supremacists do it. Such authors emphasize the violence of white supremacists and the importance of medievalists to counter their narratives as they relate to the Middle Ages, but rarely seem, comparatively, to address it in the case of extremist organizations like the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc… as well as their sympathizers who embrace the same harmful view of the medieval past as such groups.

Because I am a crusade historian who for a couple of years served as a regular media commentator on events in the modern Middle East, providing background information on the history of the region and its peoples, I was often alarmed by how Islamists appropriated a view of the medieval crusading movement that was meant to stir up hatred and animosity toward modern westerners by portraying Muslims as historic victims of western aggression dating back to the Middle Ages. The simplistic narrative that the crusades represented an unprovoked attack on a peaceful Muslim world is sadly not only found throughout Islamist narratives (“Islamist” is a technical term, meaning supporters of Islamic fundamentalism who are often militant in their views and sometimes in their actions), but also sometimes among modern westerners, even academics.

One might consider the criticism of the late eminent Cambridge University historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, perhaps the most respected and influential crusade historian of the last thirty-five years, for Ridley Scott’s epic film Kingdom of Heaven, which purported to represent events leading up to the calling of the Third Crusade. In an article for the Telegraph, Riley-Smith noted the following about the film’s plot:

“It sounds absolute balls. It’s rubbish. It’s not historically accurate at all. They refer to The Talisman, which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilised, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality.”

Prof Riley-Smith added: “Guy of Lusignan lost the Battle of Hattin against Saladin, yes, but he wasn’t any badder or better than anyone else. There was never a confraternity of Muslims, Jews and Christians. That is utter nonsense.”….

Prof Riley-Smith added that Sir Ridley’s efforts were misguided and pandered to Islamic fundamentalism. “It’s Osama bin Laden’s version of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists.”

Please note Riley-Smith’s final comments regarding the narrative of Kingdom of Heaven, a narrative that many westerners seem to embrace as well:

“It’s Osama bin Laden’s version of history.”

Just as Professor Kim has called out her colleagues to warn them against promoting a white supremacist version of the medieval past, it seems at least equally important to warn our colleagues against promoting a simplistic and a-historic version of the crusading past which depicts the crusaders as the simple brutes, barbarians, and aggressors with medieval Muslims as their sophisticated and civilized victims. Professor Kim is right that we do not want to teach Adolf Hitler’s version of the Middle Ages, but I would add that we also do not want to teach Osama bin Laden’s version either.

Indeed, many crusade historians, based on a simple timeline of events, see the birth (at least) of the crusading movement as a response to intensive Muslim military aggression against Christians in the east (particularly Asia-Minor). Those eastern Christians then called on their fellow Christians in the west, over a period of decades in the later eleventh century, for military assistance, finally resulting in the calling of the First Crusade. In surviving sources of various types (histories, charters, letters, etc…) both clerical promoters and lay participants of the First Crusade framed it as a defense of eastern Christians and eastern Christian holy places, and so in response many modern crusade historians have viewed the First Crusade in the context of a “defensive war.” Based on some comments that scholars studying the Middle Ages have recently made, I think some (or even many) medievalists, perhaps those who are not historians or those who do not focus on the high Middle Ages, are simply unaware of the current historiography on the issue.

None of this is to suggest the crusaders were sinless or to ignore that crusade participants sometimes did terrible things (whether to Jews, Muslims, or even their fellow Christians). Yet the crusading movement itself was born in circumstances which frames that birth, understandably, as a response to Muslim aggression. In an article written for the Economist in 1995, Jonathan Riley-Smith laid out his influential view on these matters, noting:

“Many Muslims, for instance, still reckon that the crusades initiated centuries of European aggression and exploitation. Some Catholics want the pope to apologise to the world for them. Liberals of all stripes see the crusades as examples of bigotry and fanaticism. Almost all these opinions are, however, based on fallacies. The denigrators of the crusades stress their brutality and savagery, which cannot be denied; but they offer no explanation other than the stupidity, barbarism and intolerance of the crusaders, on whom it has become conventional to lay most blame. Yet the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression…”

In reading Professor Kim’s comments and thinking more carefully about her alarm over the threat and violence of white supremacy, I could not help but wonder how it compared to the threat and violence of Islamic extremism. Both groups appropriate the medieval past for their own purposes, but most of the emphasis on appropriation seems to be on white supremacists. If we are going to consider the deadly nature of these two ideologies, how do they compare in total deaths, which is clearly the best indicator of their deadliness? Which is more dangerous and, as a result, where should medievalists make the greater effort if their goal is to combat deadly ideologies that appropriate the medieval past?

I looked at the numbers.

It’s not easy to get a comprehensive listing of all murders carried out by someone on behalf of a white supremacist ideological agenda. I found a recent article published by Slate after the much-publicized murder of a protester (a young woman named Heather Heyer) by a white supremacist recently in Charlottesville. The article sought to provide a comprehensive listing of people killed (in the U.S.) by “white extremists” since the Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 (resulting in 168 deaths) and is based on research taken from the Southern Poverty Law Center. To be clear, this is not a list of people killed by white supremacists for ideological reasons related to white supremacy, but rather a list of “white people” who have killed others for various ideological reasons that quite often seem to have some connection to white supremacy, but not always. The only qualifier for inclusion seems to be that the perpetrators were white and held some sort of extreme view. The list includes, for example, attacks on a planned parenthood clinic and the flying of a plane into an IRS office, for which the motives behind such attacks are not necessarily connected to white supremacist ideology. Nevertheless, if one were to include all the examples that the Slate contributor listed, it comes to 77 people that have been killed by white extremists over a 22-year period since 1995. This averages out to three and a half (3.5) people per year. If we add in the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, with 168 killed, then the total becomes 245, which averages out to 11.1 people per year during this period.

What are the figures during the same time period (since 1995) for people killed by Islamists in the U.S.?

We all know that around 3000 (2996 to be precise) were killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Yet there have been a number of other attacks by Islamists, to include the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 that resulted in the murder of 49 people (49 dead), as well as much publicized Islamist attacks that took place at San Bernardino (14 dead), Chattanooga (5 dead), Fort Hood (13 dead), the Boston Marathon Bombing (4 dead- with 264 additional casualties), as well as the Washington and New Jersey killing spree (4 dead), but also an Oklahoma beheading in 2014 (1 dead), the Little Rock Shooting of 2009 (1 dead), the Seattle Jewish Federation Shooting of 2006 (1 dead), and the Los Angeles Airport shooting of 2002 (2 dead). These are incidents included in the New America study of terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11.

Some additional attacks resulting in fatalities would include the following; In June of 2006 in Denver, a man shot four of his co-workers and a swat team member, killing one (1 dead). He later claimed he did it because it was “Allah’s choice.” In December of 2009 in Binghamton, a Saudi Arabian graduate student named Abdulsalam S. al-Zahrani killed Richard T. Antoun, a non-Muslim Islamic studies professor who served on al-Zahrani’s dissertation committee, in revenge for “persecuted” Muslims (1 dead). Prior to the killing one of al-Zahrani’s roommates tried to warn the university administration that he had been acting “like a terrorist.” In 2012 in Houston, in two separate incidents in January and in November, two people were shot to death by a Muslim extremist for their roles in his daughter’s conversion to Christianity (2 dead). In March of 2013 in Ashtabula (Ohio), a Muslim convert walked into a Christian Church during an Easter service and killed his father (1 dead), claiming it was “the will of Allah.” In August of 2014 in Richmond (California) a man killed an Ace Hardware employee by stabbing him seventeen times (1 dead), claiming he was on a “mission from Allah.” A simple Google search will provide news reports on any of these incidents.

If one adds the 2996 deaths resulting from 9/11 to the 100 deaths (listed above) due to Islamic extremism since 9/11, then you end up with 3096 deaths over the last 16 years, which averages out to 193.5 per year. Yet this only considers deaths since (and including) September 11, 2001, whereas the Slate list goes back to 1995.

Nevertheless, using an unequal time distribution, the breakdown is as follows:

Deaths in the U.S. resulting from white extremists since 1995 = 245

An average of 11.1 per year

Deaths in the U.S. resulting from Islamic extremists since 2001= 3096

An average of 193.5 per year

If one were to compare such death rates only since 2001, to provide an equal period of time for such an assessment, then the numbers are in even greater contrast.

Deaths in the U.S. resulting from white extremists since 2001 = 60

An average of 3.75 per year

Deaths in the U.S. resulting from Islamic extremists since 2001= 3096

An average of 193.5 per year

Averages since 2001- 3.75 killed per year by white extremists vs. 193.5 killed per year by Islamists.

I should note that in many press reports, often shared on Left-leaning news sources and websites, there has been an effort to exclude the victims of 9/11 from such accounting. Doing so evens out the numbers a bit, although they are still lopsided in favor of Islamic terrorism. Putting aside the fact that there is no good reason to exclude the victims of 9/11 from calculations of terrorist deaths, If we only looked at deaths due to white and Islamic extremism since the day after 9/11 (excluding 9/11), then there would be around 100 deaths in the U.S. due to Islamic extremism and 60 attributed to white extremists (who may or may not have had a white supremacist ideological agenda).

While both numbers are relatively small considering they cover a period of 16 years in a country as large as the United States, it still reflects disproportionately high numbers of Islamist attacks when one considers that the U.S. has around 200 million people considered “white” (the number would be significantly higher if one included the category “white Hispanic” as well) and only 3 million Muslims representing around 1% of the total U.S. population, yet Islamic extremists are responsible for a statistically far higher percentage (as well as higher overall numbers) of people killed even after excluding 9/11 from such calculations. But I see no good reason for excluding the victims of 9/11 and so the real numbers, as highlighted above, are much worse.

Regardless, much of the focus of at least some of my colleagues seems to be disproportionately given to the victims of white supremacists rather than Islamists, and I suspect this is due to the intersectional nature of their worldview rather than the hard numbers shared here. They are worried about the hardships that Muslims in general, as opposed to the smaller subset of Islamists committing violence in the name of Islam, face as a result of the actions of their more fundamentalist coreligionists. I appreciate that concern as I realize there is a broad spectrum of opinion in the Islamic world and that the world view of modern Islamists does not define the totality of modern Islam. Indeed, Muslims in Muslim majority countries are the primary victims of Islamist violence and minimizing such violence does nothing to help those victims. Thus, eliminating the victims of 9/11 from terrorism calculations and emphasizing white supremacy as more deadly, when this is not the case based on concrete numbers of actual deaths, helps to perpetuate the dangerous notion that Islamic extremism is somehow not that big of a problem. Yet minimizing the problem does nothing to help (and likely hurts) the efforts of Muslim reformers actively fighting against deadly Islamist narratives in both the U.S. and the broader Muslim world (where this form of terrorism is a much greater problem than in the U.S.).

Moreover, as scholars we also have an obligation to look at the facts as they relate to extremism as realistically as possible if we are to offer constructive responses. Placing a heavier emphasis on the problem of white extremism when Islamic extremism has proven to be far deadlier (3.75 vs. 193.5) distracts attention from reality. There is certainly room for addressing both forms of extremism, but to emphasize the lesser of the two while minimizing the greater helps to create an alternative reality; a sort of alt-history at best and a form of propaganda in service to ideological goals at worst.

But to return to the teaching of the Middle Ages, if medievalists are concerned about combating extremist ideologies in their classrooms, then it is important that they do not elevate inaccurate Islamist historical narratives concerning the crusades or other aspects of medieval history. Doing so only adds fuel to the Islamist fire, which as noted above has proven far more deadly for Americans (and others) than other forms of extremism. One certainly does not need to declare on the first day of class to their students that they are not an Islamist, but how they teach the subject should be done with care. Indeed, as Jonathan Riley-Smith once warned, make sure you are not teaching “Osama bin Laden’s version of history.”


Addendum (9/24/2017)– In response to the essay, Professor Florin Curta sent me the following note with his permission to share it.

“If the post-modernist project coincided with a systematic effort at deconstructing all types of discourses in order to denounce their ideological underpinning, the task now is made so much easier with the new academic activism, pushing for all of us to wear blindfolds, so that we will all look in a single direction–the one mandated by those who do not want “objectivist neutrality” and reject reality.”