"A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame... And they cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them as they lie prone on the ground with all their entrails out. What shall I say of the appalling violation of women, of which it is more evil to speak than to keep silent?"
It was 922 years ago today, in 1095, that Pope Urban II delivered those fearful remarks that enraged European Christians and eventually launched the First Crusade, what historian Thomas Asbridge said was the "largest mobilization of manpower since the fall of the Roman Empire."
Speaking to an audience in Clermont, France, Urban said Christians in the Middle East were, in the words of Asbridge, "enduring dreadful oppression and abuse at the hands of their 'savage' Muslim masters," and Urban called on his fellow Catholics to "prosecute a vengeful campaign of reconquest, a holy war that would cleanse its participants of sin," according Asbridge's "The First Crusade: A New History."
"This titanic expedition... marked a watershed in relations between Islam and the West," Asbridge writes. "This was not the first war between Christians and Muslims, but it was the conflict that set these two world religions on a course towards deep-seated animosity and enduring enmity."
Asbridge argued that Urban's speech, and the description of Muslims as "brutal oppressors," was "pure propaganda" and that Islam in the 10th century was more tolerant than European Catholicism.
It's been nearly a millennium since Urban's fiery speech, but terrorism analyst Mia Bloom said there are echoes today in the recruitment pitches used by Islamist terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS to lure recruits to their version of a new holy war. In their literature and videos, both groups pitch potential recruits by claiming "invaders" from Western nations are defiling Muslim lands, killing innocents and doing unspeakable things to Muslim women.
Bloom told Code and Dagger, for instance, that both al Qaeda and later ISIS circulated photographs that purported to show sexual abuse of Muslim women by American-backed troops. Bloom said they were actually images taken from a Hungarian porn.
Bloom said such outrage tactics, especially the purported violation of the honor of women, have been effective throughout history in a number of conflicts, regardless of the religious background.
"In general the virginity, purity, safety of women is the great rallying cry that all groups, but especially terrorist groups from conservative societies, use to rally the troops and whip up sentiment," Bloom said.
Graeme Wood, author of "The Way of Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State," told Code and Dagger he saw "superficial similarities" between Urban's speech and the rhetoric of ISIS or al Qaeda recruiters. But he emphasized the point that countless other calls to violent action during world conflicts -- including inter-religious struggles in Europe -- could be compared at least as aptly if not more so.
[Note: There are reportedly at least five surviving versions of Urban's speech and the version quoted by Asbridge appears to be closest to that recorded by Robert the Monk some 25 years later.]
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