The Crusades: Europe’s First Imperialist War of Colonization

The Crusades: An Arab Perspective

Al Jazeera (2016)

Film Review

The Crusades is a fascinating history of a subject that was quite new to me, as Americans rarely study the Crusades in school. Despite the title, the expert commentators represent a balance of French and English historians, as well as Muslim scholars from various Middle Eastern universities. Most of the documentary series consists of historical re-enactment of papal enclaves, battles, sieges, treaty signings and other historical events. The filmmakers use a series of maps to plot the progress of European occupation of Jerusalem and the Levantine* coast, as well the eventual liberation of these territories in the 13th century.

The documentary leaves absolutely no doubt that the Crusades were an imperialist campaign of colonization – and not religious wars, as is commonly claimed. Whenever European crusaders conquered a specific city or region, they indiscriminately slaughtered most of the inhabitants, whether they were Muslims, Jews or fellow Christians. The entire fourth Crusade (1203) was devoted to sacking the greatest Christian city in the world (Constantinople), whose residents were mainly Byzantine Greeks.

Part 4 is my favorite because it focuses on the role of the Crusades and Muslim influence in facilitating the European Renaissance of the 14th-15th centuries. When the Crusades began in 1085, the vast majority of Europeans (99%) were illiterate, whereas Middle East cities enjoyed an advanced flourishing civilization (as did India, China, Africa and North and South America prior to European colonization). When occupying crusaders were finally defeated and forced to return to Europe in 1291, they took with them advanced knowledge of Arab military tactics and agriculture, sugar cultivation, medicine, algebra, glass manufacturing and Greek philosophers ( whose work had been translated and preserved by Muslim scholars.

Part 1 – covers the role of Pope Gregory and Pope Irwin in instigating the disastrous Peoples Crusade and the first Crusade (1086-1099), resulting in the sacking and occupation of Jerusalem (lasting nearly 200 years).

Part 2 – covers the fragmented Muslim resistance to the expansion of European occupation, hindered by both religious (Sunni vs Shia) conflict and tribal rivalries. It’s during this period (1100-1127) the term hashshashin (origin of the English words assassin and hashish) came into usage, owing to the Shia assassins hired to secretly kill Sunni military commanders. Between 1127-1143 a Muslim revival led to the liberation of numerous crusader strongholds, and the launch of a second crusade by Pope Eugene, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany.

Part 3 – describes the rise of Salah Ad-Din (known in in Europe as Saladin), who unified rival Muslim armies and by 1187 retook all crusader strongholds except Jerusalem. This led to the launch of the third Crusade by Philip II (France), Frederick I (Germany) and Richard the Lion Hearted (England) This was followed by the fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople; the failed fifth Crusade (1213); the sixth Crusade in which Frederick II (Germany) retook Jerusalem by treaty and the failed seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX of France (1248). In 1244, Muslim armies retook Jerusalem, which remained under their control until it became part of the British protectorate of Palestine with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.

Part 4 – in addition to outlining the cultural riches Europe gained from the Crusades, Part 4 also explores how Europe’s medieval colonization of the Middle East laid the groundwork for the eventual European colonization of North Africa and the Middle East (in 1917), with the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 representing a major milestone in this re-colonization.


*Levantine – a term describing a region on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea north of the Arabian Peninsula and south of Turkey, usually including the area of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.

The Sacrifices of Empire

(The 4th of 8 posts regarding my 2002 decision to emigrate from the US to New Zealand)

It only became clear once I left the US the immense sacrifices Americans make for their cheap gasoline and consumer goods (see previous post). The most obvious is a range of domestic programs that other developed countries take for granted. These include publicly financed universal health care (in all industrialized countries except the US) and a range of education, jobs and social programs enacted under Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, which Reagan, Bush and Clinton repealed.

With a so-called war on terror on multiple fronts (I can count at least ten countries the US is at war with), federal block grants to states and cities have all been diverted to Pentagon spending. In city after city, there is no money to repair badly decrepit roads and bridges or provide adequate street lighting and policing. While dozens of clinics, libraries and homeless shelters shut their doors and teachers, cops and other state and local employees get laid off.

Sacrificing Democratic Rights and Civil Liberties

As citizens of the world’s greatest military power, Americans also make major sacrifices in terms of democratic governance and civil liberties. This, too, only became clear once I became an expatriate.

Genuine democracy is totally incompatible with military empire. If allowed some say whether to spend most of their tax dollars on weapons and war, the vast majority of Americans would respond with a resounding “no.” Civilian populations are universally repelled by the carnage of war. Women, who comprise more than fifty percent of the population, consistently oppose any military tactics that kill large numbers of civilians. Likewise taxpayers of both sexes expect to see their hard earned tax dollars spent on public programs that benefit them. Not to enrich Wall Street banksters and corporate war profiteers.

Ordinary Romans felt the same way. Which was the main reason their leaders abandoned democracy when they undertook to expand the Roman republic into an empire.

Creating a Constitution Conducive to Empire

There’s also a clear link between the growing wealth an power of banks and multinational corporations and the recent attack on democratic rights and civil liberties (the repeal of habeas corpus and legalized government spying authorized under the Patriot Act and NDAA).

This relates, in my view, to structural flaws in the US system of government that make it less democratic than other industrialized countries. These mostly relate to what the Constitutional framers referred to as “separation of powers.”

In social studies we were taught these “checks and balances” were intended to make the US government more democratic. However it’s clear from the writings of Hamilton, Madison and other constitutional framers that their real intent was to minimize the risk of a direct popular vote harming the interests of wealthy landowners and merchants.

In their writings, the founding fathers make no secret of their imperialistic ambitions (their plans to declare war on the Native Americans and Mexicans who possessed the lands west of the 13 original colonies). This military expansionsim was extremely unpopular with a mainly rural, farming population that experienced immense personal and economic hardship during the Revolutionary War.

And military expansion didn’t end when the US seized the Southwest and California from Mexico. In 1895, the US declared war on Spain to expand the empire to include Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines and other Pacific islands.

Parliamentary Democracy=One Man One Vote

Unlike the majority of industrialized countries, the US doesn’t employ a “one-man-one-vote” system of representational democracy. The only hope our Constitutional framers had of enacting their pro-business, pro-military agenda was to establish two branches of government (the Senate and Presidency) that wouldn’t be determined by direct popular vote. The idea was to block populist legislation enacted by the democratically elected House of Representatives

After 11 1/2 years experience with New Zealand’s, parliamentary democracy, I have absolutely no doubt that it’s more democratic than the US system. Under a parliamentary system, the head of the party controlling the majority of legislative seats automatically becomes chief of state. The moment the prime minister loses the majority he/she needs to pass legislation, the government collapses and a new election is called. This is in marked contrast to the US Congress. The latter has been virtually paralyzed for 30 years – while American schools and the US health care system continue to disintegrate in front of our eyes.

Another important advantage of a parliamentary democracy is the establishment of an official opposition party, which is expected to attack and embarrass the party in power. The result is vigorous and often raucous parliamentary debate, characterized by booing, cheering and outright heckling by members of the opposition parties.

Open “bipartisan consensus,” which is so heavily promoted by the US mainstream media, would be extremely unpopular in New Zealand. The majority of Kiwi voters retain a strong working class consciousness and are extremely dismissive of politicians with open ties to the corporate and business lobby.

Video of Question Time in NZ Parliament: