As an aspiring historian, I see the term “crusade” thrown around quite a bit. For most, it denotes a period of history in the High Middle Ages when Christians tried to take back the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors. I won’t bore you with details about the more extensive crusading period in medieval history, but I do want to talk about the “crusader” mentality as it relates to Russian involvement in Syria.
Last week, President Putin practically spat in President Obama’s face when he ordered airstrikes on the Syrian rebel bases after joining our president at the United Nations. Now, Russia is increasing its efforts in the region with religious fervor.
About that same time, Russian church leaders began announcing that the war was religious in nature. The spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, declared that “The fight against terrorism is a holy struggle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world to combat terrorism.” Chaplin’s superior, Patriarch Kirill, made a similar claim: “Russia took a responsible decision to use military forces to protect the Syrian people from the woes brought on by the tyranny of terrorists.” Christianity, which is a traditionally pacifist religion is condoning what may lead to a war of cataclysmic proportions, especially for the Russian people. David Hearst at the Huffington Post points out that this crusader rhetoric is not unlike that used by President Bush in the wake of the September 11th attacks.
This is not to say that either conflict is politically unjustifiable. On the contrary, Russia has legitimate interest in Syrian stability (though whether or not that is being carried out well is another question), and no one blames President Bush for going after the 9/11 terrorists (the Congressional vote was nearly unanimous). Rather, this issue lies in the terms by which each is being waged. Framing a war in the Middle East in religious terms is never, ever going to end well.
It is clear that this religious language is indeed sparking fires, as Saudi clerics are now calling for Arab and Muslim countries to “give all moral, material, political and military” support to jihad. This jihad is obviously aimed at Russia, but its targets also include the Syrian/Iranian coalition, which play a part in a larger struggle between Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslims in Iran. The larger crusade, or jihad, with the Russians serves as a stage for a deeper and much older conflict between the competing sects of Islam.
The international community continues to denounce Russia’s actions, but it does not appear to be providing any solutions to the Syrian issue either. I argue that this is because we grossly misunderstand the nature of the conflict. Many treat this as a political issue, when in fact it is deeply religious.
If we really want “peace in the Middle East,” then we’re going to have to study a little theology first.