Speaking at the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast in 2015, president Barack Obama took the opportunity to reflect upon contemporary violence conducted in the name of religion. “How do we, as people of faith,” he asked the audience in attendance, “reconcile these realities—the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends?”1 Of course, his reference to religious “hijackers” pointed most directly to the insurgent terrorist organization that calls itself ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).2 The group first rose to prominence through organized actions beginning in 2013, taking advantage of power vacuums resulting from civil wars and destabilized governance in Iraq and Syria over the previous decade.
In his speech, president Obama then drew from the past, the historical record, to argue that reconciling conflicting convictions of religious groups is a question that “humanity has been grappling with [. . .] throughout human history.” Obama used this historical scope to caution against sanctimony or hypocrisy: “lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Of course, Obama isn’t alone in his invocation of the Crusades to contextualize U.S. and Middle Eastern relations years after 9/11. On September 16, 2001, just five days after 9/11, President George W. Bush disembarked the “Marine One” helicopter on the White House South Lawn with his wife, Laura, close at his side. As press asked him questions, George Bush interjected (not in response to any question posed), “this, this, this, this, this [sic] Crusade, this war on terrorism, uh, is going to take a while.”3 A month later, former president Bill Clinton spoke to students at Georgetown University:
Terror—the killing of noncombatants for economic, political, or religious reasons—has a very long history, as long as organized combat itself [. . .] Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless. Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with three hundred Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount [. . .] that story is still being told today in the Middle East, and we are still paying for it.
One can argue as to whether or not George W. Bush was consciously referring to the historical Crusades when he used the metaphor. But Obama, like Clinton, intentionally and purposefully used the history of the Crusades in the months and years after 9/11 and in the age of ISIS. Rhetorically, their claims are not attempts to interpret the “historical” past. Rather, Obama and Clinton invoked the Crusades to reconfigure them as the “practical” past, something essential for decision-making in the present.
Traditional academic studies of “medievalism” focus on how the medieval past is imagined after the medieval period. In this way, scholarship on medievalism often draws on social and historical context or literary histories to explain why, how, and when the medieval past is posthumously re- imagined. Traditional medievalism, in this manner, does not need to be “practical” for present politics. Medieval re-imaginings are colored by the present circumstances of the creator and audience, to be sure. But in examples like those offered by Obama, Bush, Clinton, and others detailed below, the stakes are different. In these cases, the medieval past, even if invoked metaphorically, is called upon for the most practical of purposes: to ask contemporary citizens to consider their moral and ethical stances, to probe their decisions about supporting the ongoing War on Terror, and to interrogate the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric propagated by figures like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington in the 1990s.5 In this essay, I argue that we can best understand the political use of Crusade metaphors in the U.S. and the Middle East—and the critiques levied against this kind of discourse—by viewing them as either invocations of the “historical past” or the “practical past.” In doing so, I hope to emphasize a unique kind of medievalism, one which may draw on the affordances of figurative language like metaphor to make the past “practical” for contemporary political concerns. Medievalism that draws on the practical past is not just shaped by the conditions of the present, but it actively seeks to make the medieval past essential for grappling with and acting in the present—and the future.