Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

In our work identifying and tracking the use of Islamist narratives here at the CSC, the second most frequently invoked among Islamist extremists in our research (after Nakba or Palestine) has been the Crusader master narrative. The use of this term among Islamists connotes religious war, subjugation by Western Christians, injustice, and eventual colonization. Its use in the West, however, connotes a much different meaning: a righteous cause, good triumphing over evil, a reclamation of holy lands. Hence perspective is key in the use of narratives, which is why they are so powerful and able to convey deep meanings with the invocation of a few key terms. The use of narrative to convey meaning is important, and it is equally important to understand how audiences perceive the use of these narratives.

Islamists the world over continue to use the term “crusade” to describe the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when George W. Bush referred to the war in Iraq as a crusade, he was roundly (and rightly) criticized for playing into the Islamists’ narrative. While he may have wanted to convey the justness of the struggle to eliminate violent extremism, to Muslims worldwide he conveyed the meaning of religious war in order to dominate Muslim lands. The narrative slip is widely considered the gaffe that it was.

When NATO forces began to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya in an effort to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from bombing and strafing his own people, the opinions of observers – including allies and enemies of the United States – ran the gamut from full support to condemnation. Because it was an attack on a predominantly Muslim nation by predominantly Christian nations (Qatar an exception), Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized the effort and called it a crusade (Qaddafi also used the term). Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, in a rare public difference on policy, condemned the use of the word in this context.

The Putin-Medvedev rhetorical dispute was covered in the mainstream press, including the New York Times, which carried a story with the connotation that Putin’s words were not well chosen (Christian Science Monitor story here). My colleague Jeffry Halverson wrote a Comops blog post about Putin’s comments here.

This is why it was particularly surprising and disturbing to read a front-page story on March 29 about the conflict in Libya that invoked the crusade narrative in referring to Samantha Power, President Obama’s advisor on human rights.

The Times fell into a narrative trap that it set for itself. The issue of human rights in the Muslim world – and elsewhere in Asia and Africa – is contentious. Dictators – in Africa, Latin America, and Asia – have often portrayed western ideals of human rights as an imposition of foreign values on these countries, and claim that democracy, for example, is inconsistent with their cultures (here is a recent essay on the topic from the Chinese embassy in the US).  This is belied, of course, by these countries’ grassroots human rights and pro-democracy movements – including those in Libya (although it remains to be seen exactly what would hold the rebels together if they should achieve their goal of ousting Qaddafi). Sharp observers of those condemning “western” human rights point out that this criticism is made frequently by those for whom human rights and democracy are a threat – such as Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, Indonesia’s Suharto, and more recently Syria’s Bashar al Assad.

When the Times refers to a human rights promoter as a “crusader,” however, it plays into the historical notion of human rights as a foreign, western concept, and provides rhetorical ammunition for Qaddafi and his supporters, as well as opponents of democracy and human rights elsewhere. It is as if the United States is suggesting that human rights are an imposition of western or foreign or even Christian values, similar to the crusades, and it is a particularly curious and troublesome choice of words on the part of the Times. It sends an unfortunate message that undermines its intent when viewed from a Muslim perspective. Many Muslims have beliefs about human rights that are mostly consistent with international norms. We need to engage and empower these people, not alienate them.