Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023

The Crusades and the World Cup: how a contested past interacts with the present

England fans have been banned from entering World Cup stadiums wearing Crusader costumes. We look at the complicated history of the Crusades and the contrasting ways in which it is perceived in the West and the Arab World.

A football anti-racism group called Kick It Out has asked English fans from refraining to dress up as crusaders for the remaining matches. (Twitter/Robert Carter)

As England marched to a dominating win against Iran on Monday (November 21), controversy brewed off the field. Qataris were left fuming as images emerged of English fans dressed as English patron St. George inside the stadium. While replica chain mails, plastic helmets and toy weapons have long been a popular costume choice for English fans, in Qatar and the rest of the Arab world, these are seen as symbols of a painful past and are considered deeply offensive.

FIFA has since stepped in, announcing on Friday (November 25), that fans wearing Crusader costumes will be barred from entering the stadium. In a statement to the media, FIFA said, “Crusader costumes in the Arab or Middle East context can be offensive to Muslims. That is why anti-discrimination colleagues asked fans to wear things inside out or change dress.”

Here’s a brief history of the Crusades and the contrasting ways in which it is perceived in the West and the Arab World.

The Crusades in popular history in the West

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The Crusades refer to a series of military campaigns waged by European Christian powers between 1095 and 1291 AD to check the spread of Islam and ultimately, conquer Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. They began after Pope Urban II called for a war against infidels who had become an existential threat to Christians in the East.

Approximately two-thirds of the ancient Christian world was under Muslim rule by the end of the 11th century, including Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia. As the Byzantine Empire shrank and weakened, the Pope saw the opportunity to not only reconquer the Holy Lands for Christians but also, in doing so, strengthen the power of the papacy and perhaps, reunify Christianity after the Great Schism of 1054.

Crusaders were rallied from across Europe, and were promised special favour in the afterlife. In popular history, the Crusaders are seen as chivalrous holy warriors, driven by religious idealism and a quest for adventure. Their depictions in Western European culture typify the knights of the Middle Ages: riding on horses with chain-mail armour and long swords, often with the Holy Cross embossed on the armour.

There were at least eight sanctioned Crusades, though in the mediaeval times, centralised control of armies was nigh impossible. There are records of hundreds of smaller conflicts stretching all the way from France to the Middle East, which come under the broad public understanding of the Crusades.


Jerusalem was taken by the crusading armies of Europe in 1099 and, over the next decades, “crusader states” would emerge across the region. These were fiefdoms of various sizes and often with conflicting loyalties. Over the next century and a half, the Christians would ultimately be unable to hold any of the territories gained, with the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks eventually recapturing the area.

In the Middle East, Jerusalem fell back into Islamic hands with the conquest of the city by the famed sultan Saladin in 1187. The last Crusader state on the eastern Mediterranean coast, based in the city of Acre in modern day Israel, fell to the Mamluk ruler Baibars in 1291.

A critical understanding of the history of Crusades

In an article for The Smithsonian Magazine, historians David M Perry and Matthew Gabriele argued that the history of the Crusades is more complex than the simplistic framing of them as “religious” wars. There were a variety of different motivations that drove a diverse group of Crusaders against an equally diverse set of opponents that included Muslims, Jews, pagans, and Orthodox Christians.


Perry and Gabriele say, “The term Crusade has always been an anachronism — a way of looking back at complex, often disconnected movements with a wide array of motivations, membership, tactics and results and organising them into a single coherent theology or identity.”

In fact, the term “Crusade” did not appear in the English language till the 18th and 19th centuries when it was used by Victorian historians to historicize prevailing ideas on the “clash of civilisations” between the East and the West, in this case, Christianity and Islam. This provided justification to contemporary European colonialism, echoing a nostalgic vision of the past, which suggested a millennium of conflict with the heretic East.

As modern culture took shape under the shadow of colonialism, the history of the Crusades, as popularly known today, ossified into something it simply was not. Battles fought for material gain were recast as Holy Wars. A history of cultural exchange, complex yet close ties between a diverse group of people, was shelved in favour of an eternal “Us” versus “Them” narrative. Though the historiography of the Crusades has evolved over time to explore the many layers of history that were hitherto ignored, this has not percolated into popular culture.

Today, the Crusades remain a source of pride and an integral part of culture in Western Europe. They are dramatised in games, picturised in movies, and epically narrated in stories.

The warrior Saint George: historicity and appeal today

The first mentions of a figure called St. George appeared in England in the 7th century. However, he rose to prominence during the era of the Crusades as the personification of Christian chivalry. According to British historian Ian Mortimer, “St. George stands for the courage to face adversity in order to defend the innocent. The triumph of good over evil, through courage.”


Today, he remains a national symbol for Britain. Though football fans dressing up like him might not explicitly be thinking of the Crusades, the image is still very powerful. In the context of modern-day geopolitical narratives that have often pitted the “Islamic world” against the West, the St. George costumes have the power to inflame emotions and rekindle historical grievances.

Memory of the Crusades in the Arab world

The memory of the Crusades is very different among Muslims. Historian Suleiman Mourad wrote in the Conversation, “In the Muslim public imagination of today, the Crusaders are remembered as mediaeval Christian barbarians who assaulted the Muslim world and slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent people before the Muslims could mount an effective jihad campaign to drive them away. They are also seen as mediaeval ancestors of modern Western colonialists and imperialists.” In the Arab World, the Crusaders are perceived as existential threats to Islam who were overcome by the Muslims.


However, much like in Europe, the Crusades held a place at the margins of Arab imagination for the longest time. It was only in the 19th century, under the spectre of European colonialism and modern geopolitical developments did they become increasingly significant. Much like the “Clash of Civilisations” theory justified colonial excesses, in the Islamic context, it has been used to justify modern day jihad.

Suleiman Mourad argues, “Conceiving themselves adherents and protectors of true Islam, modern jihadists are inspired by a selective reading of Islamic foundational texts (Qurʾan, Sunna, etc.) and history, and by modern grievances (relating to direct or indirect colonial and hegemonic subjugation of the Muslims). For them, the crusader period was not different from the current clash between the Muslim world and the Christian West. This theme has been generally adopted by Muslim scholars in the last century.”


Dabiq, the online magazine of the Islamic State (Daesh) frequently invokes the history of the Crusades, using the perceived hurt of Muslims as a weapon to radicalise its followers.

When the present dictates the past

This episode in the Qatar World Cup is an example of the power that historical narrative holds over people. While the Qataris were offended by a symbol they associate with a traumatic past, it is the present that has cultivated the trauma for its own purposes. Like any historical happening, the Crusades were far more complex than modern characterizations allow them to be. However, modern developments and conflicts keep such characterizations alive and powerful, so much so that what someone wears becomes deeply offensive.

First published on: 26-11-2022 at 17:44 IST
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