In his speech last week announcing plans to combat Islamic State extremists, who are wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria, President Obama was at pains to stress that his country was not embarking on a religious war. "[The Islamic State] is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of [the Islamic State]'s victims have been Muslim," he said, implying that aggressive American military action should not be equated to an attack on all Muslims.
But no matter how delicately the White House wants to frame renewed military operations in the region, it's serving up rich propaganda fodder for the militant group in Washington's crosshairs. As Morning Mix's Terrence McCoy notes, the Islamic State is all too happy to paint the coming battle as a civilizational conflict. In its own glossy publication, Dabiq, the terror organization hails its plans to fight the "crusaders in Washington" and sees its rise amid the chaos of the Middle East as an evocation of history.
McCoy's post cites Dabiq at length:
“The Hour will not be established until the Romans land at … Dabiq [an actual town in what's now Syria],” the first of three issues of the magazine says, quoting the Hadith, sayings and actions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. “Then an army from al-Madinah of the best people on the earth at that time will leave for them. … So they will fight them. Then one third of [the Islamic fighters] will flee; Allah will never forgive them. One third will be killed; they will be the best martyrs with Allah. And one third will conquer them; they will never be afflicted with [distress]. Then they will conquer Constantinople.”
Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine empire, which, alongside the Sassanids of Persia, came into conflict with the early armies of Islam as the religion spread from the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century A.D. By "Romans," Dabiq is referring to the Byzantines. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and became Istanbul, the seat of the last "caliphate" until the Ottoman empire's collapse after World War I. The Islamic State claims to have launched a new caliphate this summer — I explored the organization's various historical delusions here.
The escalating U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq have compelled al-Qaeda's two most prominent affiliates to declare support for the Islamic State, an organization which was earlier repudiated by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's head. A joint statement from al-Qaeda's Yemeni and North African wings called on Muslims to "make the unity of the infidel nations against you a reason for your unity against them." It urged Muslims to "stop the infighting between you and stand as one against America's campaign," which it referred to as a "Crusader campaign."
The memory of the Crusades in the West is a thin one — mostly locked up with images of mailed knights in their arid fortresses and the travails of England's King Richard the Lionheart. But in the Middle East, the rapine and pillage of successive Crusader armies from Europe, given license by the Pope, are better remembered. Though imbued with religious zeal, these expeditions were as much about pecuniary interest and regional power politics. The Fourth Crusade, for example, got distracted from its mission of conquering Egypt when it decided to sack and plunder Constantinople, the center of the Greek Orthodox Church, in 1204.
In any event, it's all dubious propaganda for the Islamic State, which as Obama noted, spends most of its time killing fellow Muslims and faces a constellation of largely Muslim factions — Kurdish militias, Syria's Assad regime, the Iraqi government, Iran, and the Sunni Gulf states — arrayed against it.
And, given Obama's caution, the Islamic State can't count on the same slip of the tongue of the president's predecessor. Just days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush warned that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while."