Putin’s Crusade Remark a Master Narrative Snafu

by Jeffry R. Halverson and Bud Goodall

Muammar Gaddafi, “Leader and Guide” of Libya, and Vladimir Putin, current Prime Minister of Russia and former head of the FSB (formerly KGB), have separately denounced (Putin here ) UN Security Council Resolution 1973, approving military action in Libya, as something resembling “the medieval Crusades.” We understand why Gaddafi might use the comparison for strategic communication purposes. But why would a non-Muslim Russian statesman make such a provocative comparison to one of the most powerful master narratives in Islamic culture?

It’s not as strange or unlikely as one might think. Russia is a predominately Orthodox Christian nation. And Rome’s Crusades, beginning with Pope Urban II’s call at Claremont in 1095, ostensibly aimed to defend their “eastern brethren” (i.e. Orthodox) from the Turkish advance into Anatolia, in addition to conquering the Holy Land of Palestine. But as Putin knows, that goal would change, as we discuss below.

Pope Urban II’s decree at the Council of Claremont, which Putin compared to the UN resolution on Libya, bares no resemblance to any statement issued by the United Nations. Obviously, the Security Council consists of numerous non-Christian nations, including communist China (who abstained from voting). Meanwhile, Pope Urban II’s “Letter of Instruction” to those who would take up the cross (i.e. Crusade), states:

Urban, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to all the faithful, both princes and subjects, waiting in Flanders; greeting, apostolic grace, and blessing,

Your brotherhood, we believe, has long since learned from many accounts that a barbaric fury has deplorably afflicted and laid waste the churches of God in the regions of the Orient. More than this, blasphemous to say, it has even grasped in intolerable servitude its churches and the Holy City of Christ, glorified by His passion and resurrection. Grieving with pious concern at this calamity, we visited the regions of Gaul and devoted ourselves largely to urging the princes of the land and their subjects to free the churches of the East. We solemnly enjoined upon them at the council of Auvergne (the accomplishment of) such an undertaking, as a preparation for the remission of all their sins. And we have constituted our most beloved son, Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, leader of this expedition and undertaking in our stead, so that those who, perchance, may wish to undertake this journey should comply with his commands, as if they were our own, and submit fully to his loosings or bindings, as far as shall seem to belong to such an office. If, moreover, there are any of your people whom God has inspired to this vow, let them know that he (Adhemar) will set out with the aid of God on the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary, and that they can then attach themselves to his following. (emphasis added)

When we examine the Pope’s letter against the wording of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, there is obviously no comparison. The letter urged “the princes of the land and their subjects to free the churches of the East.” The UN Resolution is  “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council.”

And while the Pope’s decree condones a “holy war” and guarantees the forgiveness of sins to those who take up the cross, there is no religious content in the UN Resolution. It is a pragmatic statement of objectives justified by the need for “humanitarian relief” under “international humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law” for citizens of a state attacked by their own leader. “Forgiveness of sins” is clearly not an issue.

Of course, wars are always unpredictable and plans tend to change. After all, the First Crusade may have begun as a defense of the Church, its lands, and its cities against “infidel invaders,” but it turned into a legendary bloodbath. Many accounts of Crusaders killing, raping, pillaging, and otherwise destroying whatever got in their way, are documented by Christian and Muslim chronicles alike. So it is not so much the literal image of the Crusader Putin summons, but perhaps what Sayyid Qutb called “the Crusading Spirit,” a spirit recognized by many Muslims in the age of European colonialism.

Putin is also certainly aware that the Crusaders turned against the Orthodox, treating them as “heretics” and rebels against Rome. The Western and Eastern Church had split in the “Great Schism” of 1054. And the Western Crusaders laid siege to the Orthodox capital of Constantinople, a city they once vowed to defend, multiple times amidst their campaigns. The most notorious siege resulted in a bloody sacking of the sacred city in 1204. Thus, an analogy between Western military action in Muslim North Africa and the Crusades drawn by a Russian, nominally Orthodox, statesman, is not entirely shocking, even if it is politically unwise.

By drawing such an analogy, Putin is disassociating himself with Western powers that Muslim dissidents may group him and his government alongside. He is also issuing a rebuke of Western “democratization” efforts, which have often placed Putin and the Russian government in the crosshairs (figuratively speaking). Lastly, Libya has long been one of Russia’s strongest allies in the volatile (and oil-rich) region and Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow is not in its interests.

For these reasons, the Crusades invocation makes some sense coming from Putin. But it is still an unwise strategic communication choice for Russia.

First and foremost, the term has a divisive effect that feeds violent extremist rhetoric. As Russian President Medvedev, speaking against the use of the term “Crusades” in Putin’s remarks, put it:

“Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions which essentially lead to a clash of civilisations, such as ‘crusade’ and so on. . . It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse compared to what’s going on now.”

Medevdev seems to recognize that ideas, and the words used to express them, have consequences. By referring to Samuel Huntington’s controversial thesis to denounce Putin’s use of the Crusades analogy, he—inadvertently or not—demonstrated an awareness of the importance of language and context, and more importantly, how those words may be interpreted—or misinterpreted—in a globalized world with social media. As we have argued in a series of white papers (this one in particular) and blogs, the senders of messages do not control how those messages—or in this case, how an analogy—will be interpreted locally in the world’s diverse cultures.

Within this strategic communication context, Russia is clearly unsettled by the Arab uprisings and revolutions. Russia does not need the West to perceive Putin’s remark as support for Gaddafi, and it does not need Muslims to hear anything that might inspire further unrest in the Caucasus, namely Chechnya and Dagestan, where authoritarian Russia has fought for years to maintain its control over a Muslim population. In other words, there is no good that can come from Putin’s poor choice of language. However Putin himself may have intended it, a lot of bad possibilities could, indeed, result from it.

Furthermore, contemporary usage of the Crusader master narrative in Muslim societies suggests that no clear distinction is made between the Catholic Crusaders and the Orthodox Christians. The Terry Jones controversy last year over the evangelical minister’s “Burn a Qu’ran Day” revealed that some in Muslim societies do not even have any understanding of the difference between Protestants and Catholics (calls were made for the Pope to prevent Jones from carrying through on his promise).  Hence, Muslim audiences will likely not detect the historical context of Putin’s remarks. They may well hear not a critic of the UN sponsored action but an “insider” of Crusading Europe getting caught in a moment of candor.

The Crusades are generally perceived in Muslim societies as a monolithic Christian civilizational campaign of aggression and exploitation against the Muslim world. In that scheme, Russia and Mr. Putin are understood as allies of Britain and the USA (e.g. due to Russia’s history in Chechnya and Afghanistan). Unless his rhetorical ploy works to distance himself and Russia from the UN Resolution, he may well find himself, and his country, “tarred” by the same master narrative brush. That consequence seems to be what Medevdev fears most.