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By John Hanchette

"Foot soldiers were hurling their lances up at the defenders, but they fell halfway up the walls and in return brought volleys of spears and Greek fire, molten pitch. Men writhed on the ground, kicking and screaming, their white tunics ablaze. Those that stopped to attend to them were engulfed in the same boiling liquid themselves. It was a slaughter." -- From "The Jester," by James Patterson.

OLEAN -- To forget some recent tough days and bring on sleep, I've been reading this hot new novel, "The Jester," by the skillful mystery author James Patterson. It is a departure from genre, a medieval thriller. I love immersion in the period. The arduous adventures of the protagonist, impoverished French serf and innkeeper Hugh De Luc, are woven through the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century.

But the book is a poor road to slumber. The beginning chapters, at least, are tough going. Virtually every page drips with gore and mindless savagery -- each side attributing its incredible inhumanity and murderous rage to the wishes of a just God.

The setting is the First Crusade, in which history tells us a European army of about 160,000 men at arms -- peasants, priests, aristocracy -- set out for the Holy Land in the spring of 1096 after being whipped into a frenzy of religious pursuit by a weird pilgrim-preacher named Peter the Hermit.

Peter was echoing the call of another effective orator, who in urging followers of Christ to wrest Jerusalem from the hands of the infidel routinely referred to Turkish Muslims holding the font of Christianity as "an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation, forsooth, which has neither directed its heart, nor entrusted its spirit to God."

This seminal speechmaker was no ordinary rabble-rouser.

It was the pope, Urban II.

Political correctness didn't hold much sway in those days. Urban II said every Christian had a duty to "exterminate this vile race from our lands."

In a field at Clermont in November of 1095, Urban -- in French -- told thousands and thousands to retake the lands "now held by unclean nations, and the holy places that are now stained with pollution," to "arouse you ... and enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject it to yourselves."

This was a very popular speech. "Dieu li volt!" shouted the multitude: "God wills it!"

It was, writes that exquisite historian Will Durant, "the most influential speech in medieval history."

Peter the Hermit and his naive rabble, of course, got sliced to ribbons, but the better-trained warrior knights of Europe finally reached Jerusalem in 1099, and captured it after six weeks of summer fighting -- and after butchering 40,000 of its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants. There were eight bloody Crusades in all, over about 200 years, as the Holy City and surrounding regions shifted back and forth under Christian and Muslim rule.

The most important result for Europeans was not a religious one. The two centuries of military effort opened up western thought, unified great regions of Europe, stopped destructive feudal skirmishing, gave westerners a desire for travel and new things -- food, clothing, learning. New skills were acquired -- better ships, better maps, better armaments, better trade, better profits. An intellectual culture emerged. A merchant class emerged. In a way, the Crusades prepared Europe for the eventual expansion into the New World.

Patterson wrote "The Jester" as an adrenaline-drenched adventure novel, not as a parable for our times.

But by now, of course, many of you have guessed I'm going to bring Iraq, and our imminent war with Saddam Hussein, into this column.

It's hard to read about the Crusades without concluding they have never left us. They reach into today, threatening to haul us by our throats back into a cruel history we thought buried and forgotten. Before the First Crusade, remember, Christians, Jews and Muslims had lived together in the Holy Land in relative harmony -- under Islamic rule -- for 460 years.

A month after Sept. 11, another Washington reporter -- Bob Woodward of Watergate fame -- asked me where I thought all this was going. (He routinely asks acquaintances their view on news subjects.) I replied that I feared we were headed for a momentous and global-sized clash between Islam and Christianity. I thought it then. I think it now.

The best place to begin, if you're interested in this theory, is probably with British historian Karen Armstrong's brilliant "Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World."

When Armstrong began to research this book in the mid-1980s, she merely felt "the crusading theme seemed to me to be somehow germane" to Middle East tensions that existed over the years between the three religions of Abraham -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism. She expected, she writes, "to find some similarities and analogies between the medieval conflict and the modern situation."

Instead, she rapidly discovered the connections are far deeper: "I now believe that the Crusades were one of the direct causes of the conflict in the Middle East today."

Let's pause at this point for a commercial disclaimer. This column is not an attack on President George W. Bush, nor a criticism of his repeatedly publicized plans to invade Iraq in order to preempt Saddam's use or sale of weapons of mass destruction. Nor is it a defense of those belligerent warnings. I believe the threat of terrorism here in the "homeland" -- from Islamic sources -- to be real to the point of inevitability. A discursive look at that subject belongs in another column.

This is, instead, a reminder that western culture has been here before -- and apparently learned little from the experience.

A dozen years ago, when Bush the Elder ordered Baghdad bombed in Gulf War One, an action I covered from the Pentagon, the very first reaction in the Levant was "Al-Salibiyyah" -- or, "A Crusade!"

Yet the White House of Bush the Younger was apparently unaware of this when, after Sept. 11, 2001, in announcing he would attempt enlistment of support for a response from Iran, Egypt and Syria, the current president referred to his retaliation as a crusade.

"He could not have chosen a word more likely to antagonize his potential Muslim allies," according to Armstrong.

Has this been manifested in the Middle East since Sept. 11?

How about as recently as last week?

In Egypt -- thought until recently to be pro-western and perhaps our staunchest ally in the region -- Islamic scholars at the eminent and most venerable seat of Sunni Muslim learning declared an attack on Iraq would amount to a new "crusade" and urged a "jihad" (a struggle, or call to arms) to defend the Muslim world.

Previously peaceful scholars at the Islamic Research Academy at Al-Azhar University in Cairo -- an institution a millennium old -- issued a statement reminding followers of Islam that "according to Islamic law, if the enemy steps on Muslims' land, jihad becomes a duty on every male and female Muslim."

Anthony Shadid, who writes for the Washington Post from the region, noted use of the word "crusade" is worrisome, since "in the Arab world ... the medieval Crusades still frame relations with the West."

In the Muslim world, he wrote, the much-expected war "is increasingly framed as targeting Islam."

Great. So in "fighting terrorism," we have alienated old allies, inflamed smoldering resentment a millennium old, unified a potential enemy that was scattered and divided and hurriedly focused our retaliation on a cagey psychopath who has managed to play the innocent so effectively we're losing global friends left and right.

I know I said I wouldn't criticize the White House in this piece, but I take it back.

Bush the Younger seems to show none of the understanding that his father -- or at least Bush the Elder's ministers -- grasped of "The Art of War." That is the tactical bible of military effort written centuries ago by the master of all such conflict planning, Sun Tzu. It is still much-quoted (apparently without effect) at the Pentagon today.

He wrote, "Attack the enemy where he is unprepared, and appear where you are not expected. These are the keys to victory for a strategist. It is not possible to formulate them in detail beforehand." Sun Tzu held that, in war, "to subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy. Next best is to disrupt his alliances by diplomacy. The next best is to attack his army. And the worst policy is to attack cities."

After the Crusades, writes Armstrong, "Islam would henceforth be seen as the irreconcilable enemy of Western civilization."

It is now, she notes, "over a millennium since Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, but the hatred and suspicion that this expedition unleashed still reverberates, never more so than on Sept. 11, 2001, and during the terrible days that followed. It is tragic that our holy wars continue, but for that very reason we must strive for mutual understanding."

The past is extremely important, contrary to current conviction.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the incisive German philosopher, was right two centuries ago when he observed, "We learn from history that men never learn anything from history."

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 18 2003