Burying the Crusader's sword

Nine hundred years after a Pope denounced Muslims as a `vile race', a leading Western newspaper talks of an `Islamist gangrene'. The language of hatred is frightening European leaders and hindering peace, says Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online
A few months ago, the telephone rang in my Beirut apartment and a shy, academic voice asked if he could present me with a document. Dr Georges Jabbour turned out to be a Syrian who worked in the office of his prime minister but whose personal mission had nothing to do with his government. The document he gave me was addressed to Pope John Paul II and it asked, with great courtesy and without resentment, if - on the 900th anniversary of Pope Urban II's appeal for a holy war against Muslims - His Holiness would like to apologise for the Crusades.

"Most of the European Kingdoms and Empires participated in the Crusader wars against Arabs and Muslims," Dr Jabbour noted. Could not Pope John Paul say something that was "close to an apology to the descendants of those who were the victims of the implementation of those decisions [for a Crusade]?"

The 192 years of blood and fire that Europe was to unleash on the Middle East - in which both Muslims and Jews were massacred by the Crusaders, some of whom indulged in cannibalism - had been preceded by Pope Urban's chilling condemnation of Muslims as "an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God". It was a holy act, he said, to "exterminate this vile race from our [sic] lands".

Dr Jabbour's letter 900 years later hopefully predicted that an apology from the modern-day Pope would "assuage and bring peace to the Islamic world as a whole".

I was reminded of my unexpected Syrian visitor this week by something familiar in the rhetoric that the West is now using against its real or supposed enemies in the Middle East - and by the very real danger that this language represents for Europe. "Islamic terror" is now a password for anger and hatred on American television and in the American and Israeli press, an insidious punctuation mark that pays no attention to religion or history, and often little attention to proof. At Sharm el-Sheikh and again this week, President Clinton - supported by world leaders - appears to have launched a modern-day Crusade that goes far beyond the outrage that any sane person must feel towards the acts of criminal violence now afflicting the United States.

Of course, when suicide bombers or gunmen - in Israel or in the West - boast that they murder civilians in the name of Islam, it is understandable that many millions of Israelis and Westerners will believe that "Islamic terror" is their enemy. That is what the bombers want them to believe. Oddly enough, the Serbs who massacred and raped their way through the Muslims of Bosnia were never described as servants of "Christian terror", but that is another story. Nevertheless, the association of religion and violence has now reached racist proportions, not just in America but in Israel and in Europe. Who would have believed, for example, that a respected European newspaper would carry a cartoon of a Muslim cleric portrayed as an octopus with tentacles spreading from his robes opposite an article headlined "Islamist gangrene"? But that is exactly what Le Monde did on 6 March; the cartoon was by Ronald Searle, the article by Marcel Goldstein, vice-president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.

And what of the so-called "security expert" who announced that "hundreds of Iranian-directed Muslim maniacs are emerging from the Middle East woodwork ... slobbering over the promised virgins waiting them in paradise". This "expert" was quoted, in all seriousness, in an article on the TWA disaster in last Thursday's Jerusalem Post by Dennis Eisenberg and Uri Dan, both of whom stated as fact that the Iranians had set off a bomb on the airliner.

The language of hatred - of "terror" and of "slobbering" maniacs - cannot be dismissed as journalese. Imagine, for instance, the disgust we would feel - rightly - if the massacre of 29 Palestinians by an Israeli settler in Hebron had been followed by an article in Le Monde entitled "Jewish gangrene"; in fact, Baruch Goldstein's bloodbath was never even called an act of "terror" - because that is not quite the "terror" against which Americans and Europeans are being asked to campaign.

Violent language, however, is becoming endemic throughout the West and there are signs that it is beginning to frighten some European governments. At least one European foreign minister has felt obliged to warn his colleagues that injustice rather than "fanaticism" breeds "terrorism" and that name- calling deliberately serves to hide the nature of that injustice. For as the American-Israeli "peace process" finally crumbles to dust in the aftermath of the Likud election victory, the last thing Europe needs now is to pursue an American-Israeli crusade against something called "Islamic terror" - and for one simple, overriding reason. America has identified national interests in the Middle East. Cynics might sum them up as Israel and oil, though not necessarily in that order. Europe also has interests but we have something infinitely more important. The nations of the Middle East are our neighbours. They will never be neighbours of America. They will always be neighbours of ours.

It is this realisation that lies at the heart of a slow but growing European re-engagement in the Middle East, one that is not opposed to America but which may well infuriate Americans and some - though not all - Israelis. The process was marked by last year's European refusal to join President Clinton's embargo against Iran, an embargo which he announced at a Jewish meeting in New York, but which was immediately rejected by the European powers whose policy of "dialogue" rather than confrontation has now become de facto EU policy. A similar practice - which in no way expresses approval of the dictatorships involved - applies to Syria, against whom some American commentators are now advising pre-emptive military strikes (by Israel, of course, rather than by the United States).

Last April, although initally criticised by EU officials, the French foreign minister, Herve de Charette, flew to the Middle East during Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon, expressing to Israel the anger of President Chirac - who had just paid a state visit to Lebanon - and eventually playing a leading role in a ceasefire between the Israelis and the Hizbollah. It was De Charette who personally visited the scene of Israel's massacre at Qana. And as a reward for its later peacemaking, France is now to sit on the - admittedly rather impotent - five-power ceasefire committee. And then in early July, Germany - whose "dialogue" with Iran has proved the closest and most economically advantageous of all European states - was able to mediate between the Iranians, Syrians and Israelis to secure the exchange of bodies and prisoners of both sides in the south Lebanon war.

There are other signs of European impatience with America's policy in the Middle East; its growing awareness that America's uncritical support for Israel is alienating ever more millions of Arabs has led to pointed remarks from both Britain and France for the need to follow signed peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israel. France has now objected to America's campaign to prevent Boutros-Boutros Ghali - an Egyptian Christian - seeking UN re-election. And it should not be forgotten that it was Europe which accepted long before the Americans and Israelis that the PLO should be involved in peace negotiations. At a time when President Jimmy Carter was forced to rid himself of a UN ambassador who had privately met with a PLO adviser, British and other European ambassadors around the Middle East were meeting publicly with Yassir Arafat's senior officials. Indeed, the 1980 Venice declaration specifically stated that the PLO - still "international terrorists", according to Israel and America - should be "associated" with peace negotiations. When European foreign ministers met in Paris just under four years later, they reiterated the terms of the Venice agreement, adding their support to what they called the "right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, with all that this implies." In Brussels in 1987, Community foreign ministers were demanding an improvement of living conditions for Palestinians in occupied territory. In the same year, EC declarations in Copenhagen and Bonn supported George Schultz's peace initiatives but deplored what they referred to as Israel's "repressive measures ... which are in violation of international law and human rights". Most important of all, the EU has remained steadfast in its belief that UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 - the end of Israeli occupation in return for the security of all Middle East states, the very formula now rejected by the Israelis - must remain the unalterable bedrock of peace in the region.

But there is another element of US foreign policy in the Middle East that can also prove perilous to its allies, not only to those nations such as Egypt which are now locked into a straitjacket of loyalty on pain of losing the massive US subventions that save it from bankruptcy, but to Israel itself.

Ever since the foundation of their state, Israelis have been concerned - and rightly so - at the extent of their own dependency on the United States. Israeli politicians of left and right have noted the degree to which Israel must rely upon the US not just for its military and political protection but for its financial solvency. And many Israelis suspect that this relationship with the US, however essential in the short term, will not last for ever. If Israel was an "unsinkable battleship" during the Cold War and a dubious standard-bearer against "Islamic terror" today, these are transitory roles. And if the day comes when Israel no longer exerts such enormous influence on US foreign policy, it is to Europe that many Israelis will look for a new form of alliance, not - given the wickedness of Europeans this century - with much confidence, but through growing necessity all the same.

Europe remains weak in the Middle East, its failure to form a common European policy symbolic of that frailty. And Europe's sins against the people of two great Middle East faiths are self-evident. Last year marked the end of the Holocaust, the greatest atrocity ever perpetrated against human beings, in which Europeans tried to destroy those of their fellow Europeans who were people of an ancient Middle East faith. Arabs will remind us that in a year's time we will pass the 80th anniversary of Lord Balfour's declaration that the Jews should have a homeland in Palestine. And what Muslim can forget that just over a year ago soldiers of a European country drank champagne with the men who were about to massacre thousands of the innocents whom those same soldiers were supposed to protect at a town called Srebrenica.

And yet in many parts of the Middle East, Europe is still seen as an enlightened international community whose friendship will last longer than that of the US. Something of this idea lay behind the Barcelona conference last year, when both Arabs and Israelis came together in a relationship based upon partnership rather than dependence. And an EU policy of complimentarity - of standing by the original terms of a Middle East peace, rather than secret peace deals with no international guarantees - may even produce some form of safety net when the elaborate construction of the "peace process" turns out to be as ill-fabricated and unsafe as most Arabs - and many Israelis - now suspect. But that same Europe cannot afford to maintain these relationships while going to war with "Islamic terror". For Islam - alongside Christianity and Judaism - is the religion of our neighbours from southern Russia to Turkey to Bosnia to Morocco.

Dr Jabbour never received his apology from the Pope. But at least he should feel confident that there will be no more Crusades.

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