Last Thursday President Barrack Obama gave his annual National Prayer Breakfast in which he provided the Crusades as an example of how a religion can lash out violently against others. It is not the first time a President has used the Crusades as a metaphor in addressing the public. Following 9/11 George W. Bush used the word when he explained to the nation “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.”
The context on Thursday was a little different than that of the shock that was being felt after 9/11. Here, the President was addressing a group of Christians and used the Crusades, a historically Christian call to action, as an example of what ISIS is doing. This topic becomes blurred when it is considered that this how ISIS recruits its members. They tell people that the West is on a crusade against them and they need to retaliate.
Twitter erupted with tweets arguing that Obama is refusing to address Islamic aggression head on by using the Crusades as an example of terror in this way. Medieval historian and director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London, Thomas Asbridge, said that he was not surprised at all by the reaction this comparison made on Thursday. Asbridge explains that, especially when used in the context of the Middle East, the word “Crusade” will receive much attention from either side. Now having occurred over 1000 years, these wars still bring some powerful emotions to the surface.
Obama received some particularly harsh criticisms from Fox anchor Laura Ingraham who said that Obama just cannot help but to lecture the people. Others in the past like Sen. Lindsey Graham have commented on how frustrating it is that the Obama will not admit that the country is engaged in a religious war. To some, this comparison on Thursday could be him changing his stance on this point, and less to do with unintentionally offending a religious group. Although the United States boasts it separation of church and state, if cannot be denied this is not how Islam operates.
Obama may have known that when he used the Crusades as an example of terror at the National Prayer Breakfast he was taking a risk. He himself has asked how “we, a people of faith, reconcile these realities” of pursuing the path of nonviolence with being engaged in acts that require force. He has also explained his opinion that violence is the exception to the rule and not the norm in both Christianity and Islam.
This sentiment does not however address the issue of the U.S. acting as an international peace keeping mechanism. As Obama has indicated the U.S. is on a “high horse” that it has earned, and while seated upon that saddle there is responsibility. So, while Obama may have shocked many who were listening to his comments on Thursday, he may have also been admitting, to those who have questioned his view of this ongoing battle, that religion is a crucial element.