The bloody history of defending Western civilisation

From Crusades to Gaza, the bloody history of defending Western civilisation
6 min read

Robert Clines

19 March, 2024
For centuries, the West depicted Islam as violent to justify its violence against Muslims & Arabs. Now, Israel uses this rhetoric in Gaza, writes Robert Clines.
From the Crusades to the Ottoman empire, the War on Terror and now Gaza, Western imperial violence is predicated on the false belief that Islam is a threat to Western civilisation, writes Robert Clines. [Getty]

On 6 December 2023, Israeli President Isaac Herzog explained that, “This war is a war that is not only between Israel and Hamas. It’s a war that is intended, really, truly, to save Western civilisation, to save the values of Western civilisation.”

Herzog’s dubious claim that Hamas is an existential threat to Western civilisation jettisons historical reality in favour of an impoverishing worldview that furthers sectarianism, feeds the imperial arrogance of the US, Europe, and Israel, and prolongs the 75-year-long occupation, ethnic cleansing, and destruction of Palestinian life.

At its root is the belief that Islam is a militant, antagonistic religion driven by jihad, the purported desire to destroy the West. And lately, intifada has been maliciously reframed as a call for Jewish genocide.

In this world view, no other voice is permitted, and only the West can tell us what Arabic words mean. Little has changed since 1984, when Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said wrote that “‘facts’ and the truth of a consecutive historical experience stand very little chance of wide acceptance or distribution in this wilderness of mirrors.”

Herzog’s claim and those of his coteries echo Islamophobic rhetoric used to justify Western bellicosity since the Middle Ages, which began with mediaeval Christians referring to all Muslims as “Saracens,” a racist epithet that collapses any ethnic, cultural, or linguistic distinctions between Muslims in order to present them as barbaric, uncivilised, and violent threats to Latin Christendom.

Popes and potentates argued for the First Crusade (1095-1099) because Muslims allegedly destroyed and defiled churches, raped Christian women, and circumcised Christian men.

In turn, Jerusalem was subjected to widespread violence and destruction, as crusaders looted churches and homes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

In The Song of Roland, an old French epic poem written around the First Crusade, Muslims were labeled pagans and Apollo worshippers who desired to slaughter Christians.

Crusader epics to follow, such as Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (1495), Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532), and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) also presented Muslim invasions of Europe or the violation of Christian Jerusalem as justifications for Christian war against Islam.

This bellicosity continued across the European Renaissance. In On the War against the Turks, the Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam referred to the Ottomans as “this race of barbarians” who had confined Europeans “to a narrow strip of land” and aimed to destroy Christianity completely.

The Christian force that defeated the Ottoman navy at Lepanto off the coast of Greece in 1571 saw their victory as ordained by God. And the belief that Christians must protect Christian chastity from the depravities of Islam undergird much of English theatre, such as Shakespeare’s Othello and Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turk.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I allowed Western powers to put these ideas into practice. Europeans colonised the Arab world and helped found the state of Israel, causing decades of conflict.

Yet, rarely do we see any admission that Western imperial violence, the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, the propping up of complicit authoritarian regimes, US-orchestrated coups, and the never-ending ‘War on Terror’ have all resulted in the deprivation and distortion of life in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world.

The so-called ‘War on Terror’ in particular has resulted in widespread death and suffering across the Muslim world. This lens colours the way Western media discuss Israel’s motivations and justifications for its assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians.

Since September 2001, roughly 4.5 million people have died either directly from or in the fallout of America’s military interventions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and roughly 38 million people have been displaced.

Likewise, mendacious conflations of Hamas with ISIS - despite their differences in ideologies, tactics, and aims, to say nothing of their mutual antipathy for one another - point to a desire to collapse all Muslims under the banner of “terrorists” who oppose Western values.

As a result, the scale of Hamas’s attacks is discussed as more violent than Israel’s response. As an investigative report from The Intercept has shown, US media described Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israeli civilians as a “slaughter,” “horrific,” and “massacre” 218 times, but used similar language to describe Israel’s killing of Palestinians only 9 times.

Tendentious headlines from the New York Times or statements that the Gaza Health Ministry is “Hamas-controlled” undermine Gazans’ ability to report their own brutalization.

This obsession with presenting Hamas as ISIS-like terrorists has been so thoroughly evacuated of meaning that one BBC journalist felt compelled to ask Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, if Hamas cares that children have died while Albanese was discussing Israel’s responsibility to not target civilians.

Likewise, Western cultural institutions that peddle these centuries-old tropes have allowed for Islamophobic violence to be turned toward Muslim communities in the US, Europe, and beyond.

Arabs and Muslims are misrepresented in films like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper as terrorists, rich oil sheiks, and shady businessmen, which leads to racial discrimination and profiling.

In recent months, anti-Muslim sentiments and attacks against Arabs and Muslims in the US have skyrocketed, such as the three Palestinian college students shot in Vermont for wearing kuffiyehs or the murder of 6-year-old Palestinian Wadea Al Fayoume.

In 2021, the British publication The Mail laughably reported that parts of the country were Muslim “no-go zones.” French secularism is often weaponised against Muslims.

In Germany, the active suppression of pro-Palestinian speech operates alongside anti-immigrant, xenophobic, Islamophobic policies, and hinders productive dialogue between Germans, Palestinians, and Israelis.


From the Crusades to the European dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire to the ‘War on Terror’ to ongoing Western-backed Israeli attacks on the Palestinians, Western violence against the Arab and Muslim world hinges on the false belief that Islam poses an existential threat to Western civilisation.

In one of his last essays before his death, Edward Said claimed that, “We are in for many more years of turmoil and misery in the Middle East, where one of the main problems is, to put it as plainly as possible, US power. What the US refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

This remains true not only for the US, but for the rest of the West and Israel. The West must begin to grapple with its history of Islamophobic violence if we ever hope to live in a world grounded in peace with justice for everyone.

Robert Clines is Associate Professor of History and International Studies at Western Carolina University. His scholarship focuses on Islamophobia, antisemitism, and Orientalism in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, as well as the history of premodern Arab Christianity.

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