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'Short History of Epic Blunder'

January 15, 1987

McDougall's article, arguing that the problem with American policy toward Iran is that we are not willing to play covert "hardball" to get what we want--our way without domestic consequences--contains a sentence that is a dangerous, if not unique, example of American (and more generally, Western) ignorance and arrogance toward history and our involvement with almost everyone else in the world in history.

McDougall states, "Then, Iran and Iraq became locked in a holy war appalling enough to remind Westerners that crusading Muslims taught the medieval Christians all they knew about proselytizing with the sword." McDougall, a diplomatic historian, clearly missed his course on medieval history.

Muslims were not crusading in the 11th through 15th Century; the very term, "crusade" derives from the French word croiserie, which referred to the cross adornments that Christians wore on their clothing as they traveled from Western Europe into the Middle East to "reclaim" the Holy Land.

Lest anyone think that Muslims invented "holy war," all one need do is read the documents issued by the church during this period, which were composed to rationalize the imperialistic pilgrimages.

Furthermore, the martyr status that is conferred upon Muslims who die in the current war between Iran and Iraq is but an echo of the church's promises to its medieval crusaders that they would be martyrs of they met their deaths "defending" the Holy Land.

Finally, McDougall wishes to propagate the image of Muslims as having a corner on the market of holy war, he might be asked to recall that the Crusaders often behaved with extreme brutality--both toward the Muslims in the Middle East, and toward the Jews at home--and justified these acts "in God's name."

The Crusades ought to remind Westerners. not of how brutal Muslims can be toward (innocent) Christians, but rather of how representatives of Western Christendom (whether medieval crusaders spurred on by papal promises of indulgences, cheap land, and martyr status, or contemporary creators and agents of American foreign policy) continually participate in an arrogant rewriting of history so that the most grievous sins of Christendom are somehow rewritten with the aggressors recast as innocent victims who were only trying to do what was right.

We participate in this arrogant revision of history at our peril, and we fuel the fires of bigotry and misunderstanding by attempting to caricature contemporary Islam by misrepresenting our own Western European heritage.

If American foreign policy blunders in its dealings with Islamic nations, it is at the level of cultural arrogance and historical misprision--and not because, as McDougall asserts, Ronald Reagan is "too nice a guy."



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