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he reports of an upsurge of violence in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may at a glance appear little more than a continuation of the persistent conflict in the country over much of the last two decades. Yet a closer look reveals not just the particularity of what is happening in one corner of Africa, but the ingredients of a wider arc of endemic conflict across a huge swathe of the continent.

More than a decade of conflict in the DR Congo peaked in 1998-2002 with what was called "Africa's great war". After this, the DRC's war-zone largely shrunk to the eastern Kivu provinces, scene of the last major violence in late 2008. The heart of the violence of September-October 2009 - to call it "fighting" would be to dignify what are mainly atrocities against civilians - is the province of Haut-Uele (formerly part of Orientale).

It is significant that until the mid-2000s this had been one of the DRC's least affected regions; and that - as in so many points in the Congo's recent history - the new massacres, mutilations, rapes and kidnappings result from the spread of conflict from a neighbouring country: in this case Uganda. For the agents of these terrible actions are the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, notorious for a two decades-long campaign of brutality in northern Uganda for which Kony himself was (in July 2005) subject to an arrest-warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The LRA has been in Orientale since 2005. But over the last year it has been driven out of Uganda by the forces of the country's president, Yoweri Moseveni; and in response has made more extensive forays, looting and murdering as it goes. The LRA's campaign makes little sense to the Congolese. Father Benoit Kinalegu, the director of the Justice & Peace Commission in Dungu, says: "A human being can kill with reason, and an animal to eat. But Joseph Kony just kills people for nothing."

The new atrocities only underline how intractable even this relatively limited conflict has become. Ugandan forces claim to have destroyed LRA bases, but this appears not to have seriously affected its organisation and armed capacity. Uganda also suspects Sudan of maintaining links with Joseph Kony, even though the Khartoum regime - which previously gave tacit backing to the LRA - is reported to have cooperated with Uganda in the latest crackdown. Sudan's calculation may be that it can use the LRA to destabilise the precarious comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) in southern Sudan, whose people are due to vote in 2011 on possible independence from Khartoum.

The essential context

The DR Congo has for more than a decade hosted international forces and initiatives intended to stabilise the country (including the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission, and one of the most controversial); yet even now, international organisations can barely keep up with the fragile situation in the country. The atrocities in Haut-Uele come as the UN issues two reports on the abuses of late 2008 in eastern Congo, which were committed by both government and anti-government forces. There is little sign that the International Criminal Court will be able to hold the perpetrators to account, or that compromises with militia groups will really lead to greater security for their former victims in the civilian population. The likely route to progress may lie at an inter-state level - in new agreements between the DR Congo government and those of Rwanda and Uganda, the two countries most deeply involved in the DRC's conflicts since the mid-1990s.

The character and interplay of these dynamics of conflict tend to elude all but the most seasoned of observers. This highlights the immense value of a remarkable study by the French scholar of Africa, G?rard Prunier. His book - From Genocide to Continental War: The 'Congolese' Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2009) - both underlines the sheer complexity of this landscape of conflict and shows how profoundly difficult it will be to achieve lasting progress for the distressed civilian populations of many Congolese and neighbouring regions.

The work is especially timely in a period when ever-increasing academic effort is being devoted to analysing the mass killings in Rwanda of 1994 as a stand-alone genocide - to be compared only to distant (in time) mass murders during the 20th century's two world wars (Ottoman Turkey's annihilation of the Armenians, and Nazi Germany's holocaust of Europe's Jews). For Prunier, who carefully dissected the Rwandan events in The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1998), shows forcefully how Rwanda needs to be seen in the international African context. A wider regional pattern of conflict, especially in Burundi and Uganda, helped produce the Rwandan crisis; in turn the 1994 genocide fatefully influenced an even wider arc of conflicts, above all in the "Congolese" wars.

The six lessons

Gerard Prunier's masterly, subtle and amazingly (though necessarily) complex account maps civil and international conflicts across large parts of Africa. His analysis offers six broad insights.

First, the Rwandan genocide was a decisive moment in modern African history. It was ended by the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from its bases in Uganda; the RPF went on to establish a militarily confident regime determined to project power across its border into Zaire (later the DR Congo), then a corrupt state misruled by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The resulting Congolese war brought the Zairean crisis to a head; proved a catalyst for conflicts across much of Africa, from Sudan to Angola; and directly or indirectly drew in many African states, from Libya to South Africa.

Second, most of the states that became involved did so because of limited, local interests. The examples include Sudan's conflict with Uganda, arising from the civil war in southern Sudan; the Angolan MPLA regime's determination to prevent Jonas Savimbi's UNITA from using the DR Congo to reinforce itself; and the self-enrichment strategy of Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF elite. These interests first drew states into the DR Congo, but in the end caused them to draw back - either when their limited objectives had been more or less achieved, or when the costs (locally and internationally) were perceived to outweigh the benefits.

Third, the partial nature of most states' interests, combined with their restricted mobilising capacities (not comparable at all with those of industrialised European states' in the first world war), explain why this was not really "Africa's great war", but rather a messy, episodic conflict across but some areas of the vast DRC (see Gerard Prunier, "The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict", 17 November 2008).

Fourth, the Hutu Power forces in Rwanda in 1994 were unique in organising a large-scale, nationwide campaign of genocide. But genocidal violence (massacres, rape, expulsions) has remained intermittent throughout the conflicts in the DR Congo in the subsequent decade and a half, and been employed by many of the parties. In addition to such targeted violence, war and terror has caused extensive disruption to the Congo's already fragile society; the combination of direct violence and its many consequences for human security (such as disease and deteriorating living conditions) have resulted in an estimated 4-5 million conflict-related deaths since the mid-1990s.

Fifth, the Rwandan (RPF) government of Paul Kagame was unique in having a sustained interest in continuing the Congo wars, and determined to use the west's guilt at failing to stop the 1994 genocide to produce impunity for itself. The RPF was ruthless in carrying out its own massacres (most notoriously at Kibeho, Rwanda, in 1995, but also later in the DR Congo). The idea of a "double genocide" (that is, by the RPF as well as the former regime) is a Hutu Power propaganda notion; at the same time, the RPF did carry out against Hutus - albeit in smaller-scale, localised terms - the same type of violence that had been practised against Tutsis in 1994.

Sixth, many western governments and NGOs were (most of the time) duly blinded by their guilt to acknowledge the hardship Rwanda's campaign was inflicting on the DR Congo's population, or to raise their voices against it. Prunier at one point selects Britain's former overseas-development minister Clare Short as a prime culprit, but his scorn also targets the failings of American and (with his special insight into Paris's particular weaknesses) French policies and politicians.

The policy need

This digest hardly does justice to Prunier's full and detailed study. But as the Lords Resistance Army's latest campaign of violence draws new attention to the DR Congo, the force of his argument is to emphasise that this should not be seen as a mainly local (Ugandan and northeast Congolese) problem, but as a symptom of the intricate pattern of internationalised conflicts that continue across a large area of Africa. True, as the continental war is over and the Rwandan node of the Congolese conflicts has finally begun to be blocked, the danger of large-scale renewal may (as Prunier argues) have passed. But complex conflicts across northeastern Africa, centred on Sudan, still cast a long shadow that reaches into the DRC. International policy-makers tend to deal with crises one at a time: the current outbreak is another reminder that interconnected conflicts call for joined-up responses.

Martin Shaw is a historical sociologist of war and global politics, and professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex.

This article first appeared on OpenDemocracy on 14th October 2009.

Crusade: according to circumstance, either a toxic byword for conflict between Christians and Muslims or a shorthand for what people believe to be a good and worthy cause. In the former context one might quote Osama bin Laden or, in parallel, the allegations made against Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security company, in Iraq: '[he] views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe.' In a more secular arena, any western politician asking for a cut in hospital waiting lists might call for a 'crusade'. Yet such utterly divergent meanings originate with an idea conceived over 800 years ago, a concept that has produced one of the most long-lasting and adaptable legacies of the Middle Ages. Tracing how 'crusade' has evolved, mutated and been appropriated by individuals across the broadest possible spectrum is to follow an intriguing and often surprising trail.

In November 1095 Pope Urban II called upon the knights of France to journey to the Holy Land and liberate the city of Jerusalem and the Christians of the east from Muslim power. In return they would be granted an unprecedented spiritual reward, the remission of all their sins, and thereby escape the torments of Hell, their likely destination after lives of violence and greed. The response to Urban's appeal was astounding; over 60,000 people set out to recover the Holy Land and secure this reward and, in some cases, take the chance to set up new territories. Almost four years later, in July 1099, the survivors conquered Jerusalem in an orgy of killing.While most of the knights returned home, the creation of the Crusader States formed a permanent Christian (or 'Frankish') presence in the Levant. In 1187, however, Saladin defeated their forces at the Battle of Hattin and brought Jerusalem back under Muslim control. The Franks held onto other lands until 1291 when they were finally driven out by the Mamluks of Egypt to end Christian rule in the Holy Land.

Yet the roots laid down by crusading proved extraordinarily deep, in part because of the idea's flexibility. In the course of the 12th and 13th centuries crusades were launched against the Muslims of Spain and other enemies of the faith such as the pagan tribes of northeastern Europe (the Baltic Crusades). Further targets included the heretical Cathars of southern France, as well as the Mongols and the Greeks. The preservation or the recovery of Jerusalem was undoubtedly the most important and prestigious of these endeavours and,while certain expeditions (such as the crusade in southern France) were controversial, crusading as a whole took place with the broad approval of European society.As the range of targets shows, crusading was not a static concept. Other developments in medieval society intertwined with and influenced the idea, most particularly chivalry. Crusading offered a platform for knights to show bravery and integrity. The idea of fighting for God, the ultimate lord, gave service in crusading armies a special attraction, although at times knights' determination to win fame for themselves could cause them to put notions of honour ahead of the greater Christian cause.

Crusading was too deeply established within Catholic Europe to disappear after the loss of the Holy Land in 1291. The reconquest of Spain continued; the Teutonic Knights (another military order first set up in the Holy Land) took control of areas of the Baltic and during the late 13th and early 14th centuries many nobles journeyed there to fight the pagans and gain glory. One noteworthy participant was Henry Bolingbroke. Long before he became King Henry IV, the young knight made two visits to the Baltic, in 1391 and 1392, to gain a noble reputation and to serve Christ's armies; Bolingbroke also went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage in 1393.

The Ottomans emerged as the primary focus for crusades and their drive into south-eastern Europe prompted several attempts to rouse new crusading expeditions. The problem was that emergent national identities caused so many deep tensions in the Catholic West that this, combined with a weakening papacy, meant it became ever harder to realise the common crusading cause of centuries past. Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople in 1453 and, although the Ottomans reached the gates of Vienna in 1529, their conflict against the Habsburg dynasty had (on both sides) taken on more of an imperial than a religious aspect. Crusading was, by this stage, in steep decline: when the Baltic region became Christianised any justification for crusading was lost; Spain was reconquered by 1492 and the Catholic Church now faced the challenge of the Reformation. Indulgences were attacked as a venal charge on the naive; no longer was a good Christian required to make an epic journey to the Middle East, he could simply purchase God's grace by attending a sermon. While similar compromises had long been established, by this stage the feeling that the preachers simply kept the money for themselves meant the idea of indulgence had lost almost all credibility.

Perhaps the last crusading battle of note took place at Lepanto in 1571 where a fleet of Spanish,Venetian and Military Order vessels defeated the Turks. The Knights of St John (the Hospitallers) preserved control over their island outposts of Rhodes, until 1523, and then Malta, but otherwise crusading subsided. The advent of Protestantism brought severe judgements on such a papally-directed concept. Thomas Fuller, the English churchman and protohistorian, wrote (c.1639): 'Some say purgatory fire heateth the pope's kitchen; they may add, the holy war filled his pot, if not paid for all of his second course.' By the 18th century and the so-called Age of Enlightenment crusading was disparaged as a worthless, fraudulent charade. In 1769 William Robertson dismissed it as 'a singular monument of human folly' and, a few decades later, Edward Gibbon claimed that 'the principle of the crusades was a savage fanaticism' and that it 'had checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe'. In mid-18th century France, Voltaire gave crusading an ironic label: 'une maladie epidemique'. Taking the sickness metaphor further he insisted that leprosy was the only thing that Europeans had gained from the crusades.

Yet during the 19th century, crusading, or a mutated form of it, gained new interest in the West. One reason was the writing of Sir Walter Scott whose tales of chivalric endeavour in the Holy Land, most particularly Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1832), enraptured audiences across Europe. As a Calvinist, Scott's view of 'intolerant zeal' was restrained, but overall he gave a positive impression of the crusades. Scott's works were translated into numerous languages and in France alone he had sold over two million books by 1840. Ivanhoe alone inspired almost 300 dramas; within a year of its publication, 16 versions of the story were being staged across England. Orientalism was another prominent cultural movement of the time and an interest in the east promoted renewed consideration of the medieval holy wars.

In tandem with these developments, the 19th century saw a dramatic expansion of European political power into the Muslim near east, largely at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire. France invaded Algeria in 1830 and soon afterwards Spain and Italy, too, embarked upon North African adventures. Some looked to the crusades as a forerunner, especially after France took control of Syria in 1920. Paul Pic, Professor of Law at the University of Lyon, regarded Syria as 'a natural extension of France', while in 1929 Jean Longnon wrote that: 'The name of Frank has remained a symbol of nobility, courage and generosity and if our country has been called on to receive the protectorate of Syria, it is the result of that influence.'

Yet crusading did not re-emerge solely as a reminder of past glories overseas; the idea was also employed within western Europe. In 1848, during a bid to drive out the ruling Austrians from his Italian territories, King Carlos Alberto launched a half-hearted invasion of Lombardy and Pope Pius IX,who had been unwilling to fight another Catholic country, sent in an expeditionary force under General Giovanni Durando to help him. In an effort to push Pius into open support for the nationalist cause Durando attempted to convince the public that his undertaking had full papal and therefore divine sanction. His men advanced dressed as crusaders, complete with crosses sewn on their uniforms. He also issued a press release: 'Soldiers!'  The Holy Father has blessed your swords,which, united now with those of Carlos Alberto,must move in concord to annihilate the enemies of God, the enemies of Italy, and those who have insulted Pius IX, such a war of civilisation against barbarism is accordingly not just a national war but also a supremely Christian one.  Let our battle cry be: God Wills It!' Pius was furious at this arrogation of his authority; he repudiated the war and reminded everyone that he was the head of all Christendom and not just Italy alone.While this particular pseudo-crusade failed, it still shows that the idea was perceived to possess real power.

The secular version
The outbreak of the First World War provided an obvious arena for a concept associated with moral right. Clearly many other issues formed the propaganda effort on both sides of the conflict, but crusading did feature prominently. Lloyd George made a speech at Conway in May 1916 in which he claimed men were flocking to join 'a great crusade' for justice and right.A young Harold Macmillan fought at Ypres in May 1916 and in a letter home to his mother wrote of the devastation of war and the thrill of battle: ;Many of us could never stand the strain and endure the horrors which we see every day, if we did not feel that this was more than a war, a Crusade. I never see a man killed but think of him as a martyr. All the men (tho' they could not express it in words) have the same conviction, that our cause is right and certain in the end to triumph. And because of this unexpected and almost unconscious faith, our allied armies have a superiority in morale which will be (some day) the deciding factor.' Austen Chamberlain, then president of the Liberal Union Association, sketched out his understanding of the crusading cause: '[We should be wrong] if we throught we are merely embarked in a chivalrous crusade on behalf of another nation, without our interests being engaged, it is not for Belgium only we are fighting. It is not merely a crusade for right and law against wrong and brute force, though it is all of that, but it is a struggle for the vital interests of this country.' Other than omitting an appeal for divine support, these are all points shared with the earlier crusades and this represents an idealised, secular version of the medieval forerunner.

The most apposite setting for parallels with earlier crusades came with General Allenby's capture of Jerusalem in December 1917. The symbolism of a British commander entering the Holy City was apparent to all and Punch magazine published a cartoon of Richard the Lionheart gazing at Jerusalem saying: 'At last my dreams come true', a reference to his failure to take the city during the Third Crusade. For Allenby the link was profoundly uncomfortable. He was acutely aware that a large part of his army were Muslims and that it would be insensitive to describe his actions within a framework of holy war. The fact that the Germans were trying to stir the millions of Muslims elsewhere in the British Empire into a jihad added to the urgency of the situation. The War Office Press Bureau issued a D-notice:

The attention of the Press is again drawn to the undesirability of publishing any article, paragraph or picture suggesting that military operations against Turkey are in any sense a Holy War, a modern Crusade, or have anything whatever to do with religious questions. The British Empire is said to contain a hundred million Muhammodan subjects of the King and it is obviously mischievous to suggest that our quarrel with Turkey [the Ottomans] is one between Christianity and Islam.

Yet for all Allenby's efforts to stage a secular, restrained entry into Jerusalem, in the popular imagination the link was too strong. Allenby continued in his attempts to dislodge the connection but the label had stuck and, as we shall see, percolated into the Muslim world too.

The Americans also invoked the crusading theme during the First World War. General John 'Black Jack' Pershing was the subject of the first official US government war film, made by the US Signal Corps and released in 1918, titled Pershing's Crusaders. In France, the country most associated with crusading, one recruiting poster proclaimed: 'Pour achever la croisade au droit'. The Germans also called upon a crusading past and boasted that victory over the Poles in August 1914 was revenge for the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. The Germans erected a huge memorial on the battlefield and this became the burial place of the esteemed German commander of the day, General Hindenburg,who was represented as a medieval knight. Hitler and the Nazis later adopted these themes and staged nationalist ceremonies at the same site.

The last major western figure to draw upon the crusading theme was General Francisco Franco. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 his nationalist movement found common ground with the Catholic Church which became a vital element of Franco's legitimisation. The Bishop of Salamanca built upon a papal endorsement for the nationalists and published a text, approved by Franco himself, which presented the rebel cause as 'a crusade against communism to save religion, the fatherland and the family'. Franco argued that: 'Our war is not a civil war, but a crusade, we who fight are soldiers of God.' Franco associated himself with El Cid, the hero of medieval Spain who, in reality, had been a hired hand who fought for Christian and Muslim paymasters in the late 11th century, but within decades of his death had been embraced as a hero of the reconquest.

Decline and re-emergence
While images connected with crusading reemerged in the West during the 19th century, in the lands of Islam the memory of this era (and in some cases the counterpart of the crusade, the jihad),were dormant for a little longer. While some holy war rhetoric pervaded the conflict between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires in the 16th century, jihad sentiments tended to be reserved for the Shia Safavids of Iran. One way in which the memory of the crusades survived was through songs and folklore. Street entertainers recited the Sirat al-Baibars, the story of the fearsome Mamluk sultan who ruled Syria and Egypt between 1260 and 1277. Baibars' jihad spirit, superb military organisation, harsh discipline and low cunning saw him capture crusader castles such as Krak des Chevaliers to lay the foundations for his successor's victory at Acre in 1291. An English visitor to Cairo in the 1830s reported about 30 storytellers earning their living exclusively from telling the Sirat al-Baibars. Oral traditions are central to Islamic culture and it is clear that the adventures of the medieval hero and his opponents, including the crusaders were extremely popular.

With Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 the West began to encroach on Islamic lands once more, although in this instance the French were keen to stress the absence of a religious edge to their actions.As Napoleon pointed out in a communique translated into Arabic: 'I honour God, his Prophet and the Koran is it not we who destroyed the pope, the Christian enemy of the Muslims? It was this army who destroyed the Chevaliers of Malta, the ancient enemies of your faith.'

The expedition of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany is thought to have provided the strongest stimulus to the reappearance of the Muslim world's other medieval hero (Baibars aside), Saladin. The sultan had enjoyed a fine reputation in the crusading West and Scott's novels (known to have been read by the kaiser) reinforced this. The kaiser made great play of the dignity, chivalric virtue and statesmanship of Saladin and laid a wreath on his humble wooden resting place in Damascus. The kaiser also paid for the grotesque marble tomb which still stands alongside the sultan's casket.A couple of decades after this, the first push towards a widescale jihad took place with the pan- Islamic approach of the Ottoman ruler,Abdulhamid II. In his role as caliph (spiritual leader of the Muslim world) and in an attempt to preserve his dynasty's crumbling empire, he brought the sentiments of the conflict back to the fore with his 1914 call for a jihad. Acting with the encouragement of the Germans, he proclaimed a holy war against the enemies of Islam.

While there was relatively little response to this, the profile of Saladin and holy war greatly increased and one or both were soon adopted by a variety of leaders in the Middle East who began to draw a parallel between their own situation and the medieval period. The fact that Saladin had defeated the crusaders and forced them out of Jerusalem seemed even more relevant following the foundation of the state of Israel, although this viewpoint ignored the crusaders' brutal treatment of Jews in medieval Europe.

During the 1950s Arab nationalism came to the fore under the leadership of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. His success in the Suez crisis of 1956 imbued him with the confidence to form the United Arab Republic,welding Egypt with Syria, just as Saladin had done. Nasser looked to Saladin for context and inspiration, reminding his audiences that 'the whole region was united for reasons of mutual security to face an imperialism coming from Europe and bearing the cross in order to disguise its ambitions behind the facade of Christianity'. His speeches contained frequent references to Muslim victories over the crusaders: 'Fanatic crusaders attacked us in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Arab Muslims and Christians fought side by side to defend their motherland against this aggressive, foreign domination. They all rose as one man, unity being the only means of safety, liberty and the expulsion of the aggressors.' Nasser archly demolished a celebrated, but fictional, phrase by Allenby in 1917. He asserted that the westerners 'had never forgotten their defeat [by Saladin]' and wanted revenge in another 'fanatical, imperialist, crusade'. Nasser then 'quoted' Allenby: 'when he entered Jerusalem during World War One he [the general] said: "Today,we end the fight of the Crusaders who were defeated 700 years ago."' Nasser's use of this statement shows why Allenby strove so hard to uncouple the tie between the medieval crusades and his own experiences and it demonstrates just how completely he had failed to do so.

Another medium through which Nasser's message was transmitted was Youssef Chahine's 1963 film Salah ad-Din Nasser in which Saladin leads the Arabs to victory against the treacherous crusaders.After the Battle of Hattin the sultan proclaims that 'Jerusalem has been returned to the Arabs'. While Islam was important to Arab nationalism, the creed was based on regional and cultural identity, rather than faith. Most of the Christians in the film are bellicose, greedy and duplicitous, with Richard the Lionheart a noble exception; the worthy opponent of the great Saladin. Showing a humanity that some of his fellowcrusaders lack, the English king worries about the losses of troops and this eventually brings him to the negotiating table. Saladin points out that 'Jerusalem belongs to the Arabs' and he tells Richard to inform the people of the West that 'war is not always the solution', another reflection of Nasser's desired image. His rival acknowledges the Arab victory and the Lionheart is received by the sultan at the gates of Jerusalem (a completely fictitious scene - the two men never met).

Nasser died in 1970 but the enthusiastic identification with Saladin was taken up by the Syrian leader Hafiz al-Asad, a man determined to oust the 'neocrusaders' in Israel. When former US President Jimmy Carter visited Asad in Damascus in 1984 he saw a huge mural on his office wall depicting Saladin's victory at Hattin. Carter noted: 'As Asad stood in front of the brilliant scene [the picture] and discussed the history of the crusades and the other ancient struggles for the Holy Land, he took particular pride in retelling tales of Arab successes, past and present.He seemed to speak like a modern Saladin, feeling that it was his dual obligation to rid the region of all foreign presence.' The most public legacy of Asad's admiration for Saladin stands in front of the citadel of Damascus: an equestrian statue of the sultan flanked by a Sufi holy man and a jihad warrior and trailed by two defeated, dejected crusaders. The message is obvious: as Saladin triumphed over the crusaders, so will Asad.

The most recent nationalist leader to invoke Saladin was Saddam Hussein. The two men shared the same birthplace, Takrit, a fact the Iraqi leader made much of. Children's books,murals and postage stamps connected him to the man who had defeated the Christian West, although Saladin's Kurdish origins were conveniently ignored by a man who persecuted his modern counterparts so ferociously.

In contrast to these largely secular emphases, Osama bin Laden's pronouncements have portrayed conflict with the crusading West in strongly religious terms. Jihad is a central concept to the Islamic faith, unlike crusading which was invented centuries after Christ. There is the higher jihad, that of the soul, and the lesser jihad which seeks to bring the world under the sway of Islam. Like crusading, there is also a defensive aspect to the jihad, frequently invoked by nationalists and Islamists alike.According to the Koran, if Muslim lands and/or Islamic belief are attacked then it is a religious duty to resist ? if too few of the faithful are present to do so, then neighbours should assist: 'Yet if they ask you for help, for religion's sake, it is your duty to help them.' Bin Laden calls upon this to combat what he terms a 'Judeo- Crusader alliance' against Islam.He addresses his appeal to the Muslim community as a whole and he frames the conflict in religious terms rather than the imperialist struggle employed by Arab nationalists. When President Bush so disastrously used the word 'crusade' in his unscripted response to the 9/11 atrocities he simply fulfilled the claims Bin Laden had been making for years: 'So Bush has declared in his own words: "Crusader attack". The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth.' He deftly turned Bush's words against him: 'So the world today is split into two parts, as Bush said: either you are with us, or you are with terrorism. Either you are with the Crusade or you are with Islam. Bush's image today is of him being in the front of the line, yelling and carrying his big cross.'

One further role awaits Saladin in 2010. Demonstrating his extraordinary adaptability he will star in a new cartoon series as 'the ultimate hero: courageous in the face of danger, never willing to admit defeat and funny when he needs to be'.To take a figure with such a huge historical reputation is an intriguing move. While openly fictional, the makers (al-Jazeera Children's TV) have taken a period in his career when the young man learns the lessons of life needed to make him the great leader he became. The crusades are part of the backdrop, although in the trailer they are described in neutral terms as an invading army from the West, rather than anything more polemical. In fact, one of Saladin's friends is a Frank, although Reynald of Chatillon (Saladin's prime foe) provides a justifiably sinister villain.

Crusading has been taken as a more distant metaphor in countless other circumstances the Women's Temperance Crusade in the USA of the 1870s or the Jarrow Crusade of 1936 are two examples of note. All have helped preserve this centuries-old idea. Since the efflorescence of interest in crusading in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001 and the Madrid bombings in 2004 and, especially with the controversy over President Bush's use of the word, there has been a greater awareness of the historical context of 'crusade' and the negative connotations that it carries in the Muslim world. It is worth remembering, too, that the Greek Orthodox church has remained angered by the events of 1204 when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople; in the summer of 2001 senior Greek clerics compelled Pope John Paul II to apologise during a visit to Athens. Of course, while it is easy to draw parallels between the medieval and modern eras, the call to the First Crusade bears only a limited resemblance to the colonial and imperial enterprises of the 19th centuries because it was conceived as a war to recover territory, rather than as an aggressive acquisition of new land. Nonetheless, a crusade in the sense of fighting for a good cause with a moral right continues to prove a potent and alluring concept across the western world, albeit one that politicians are now considerably more wary of. Saladin, meanwhile, the crusaders' greatest rival, continues to maintain the highest of reputations across both Sunni Islam and in the West.

Jonathan Phillips is Professor of Crusading History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest book, Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades, is published by The Bodley Head.

This article appeared in this month's edition of History Today.

The Barack Obama administration is continuing to engage in feverish debate about the future direction of its policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The high stakes of the argument are reflected in a whirl of media stories and briefings about its possible direction and the personalities of those involved.

In this delicate moment, three ingredients of the United States's assessment of the military situation in "AfPak" are notable. The first (positive for the administration) is apparent progress in Pakistan, as the extensive use of armed drones weakens elements of the al-Qaida movement and the Pakistani Taliban; this process, it is anticipated, could be aided by the Pakistani army's reported preparations for an incursion into the key border districts of North and South Waziristan.

The second ingredient (negative for the administration) is growing evidence that the insurgency in Afghanistan is evolving into a more general insurrection in which the Afghan Taliban and some associated warlords now form only a component of much broader opposition to foreign forces (see "Afghanistan: from insurgency to insurrection", 8 October 2009).

The third ingredient is rarely mentioned. This is that the most of the direct advice available to President Obama is coming from current or former military officials. A retired colonel in the US air-force, William Astore, compares this situation to the militarised advice-bubble that enveloped Lyndon B Johnson at a key period in the Vietnam war (see "Obama at the Precipice",, 13 October 2009).

The tendency to mix a genuine analysis of military realities with a view that serves a particular interest is widespread in such circumstances; the current military advice to Obama emphasises the Taliban's links with al-Qaida, and the risk that withdrawal from Afghanistan will allow al-Qaida to re-enter the country (see Gareth Porter, "Pro-War Officials Play Up Taliban-al Qaeda Links", Inter Press Service, 14 October 2009).

The approach of such advisers is also inevitably affected by a rooted belief in the United States's position as the world's only military superpower. It would be hard for these senior military personnel to suggest withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially in the wake of the hugely costly six-year war in Iraq; for this would represent in effect a further defeat for men whose careers have been devoted to the service of what they sincerely believe to be a noble institution.

A turn in the road

This immediate context of Barack Obama's critical decision may vitally influence the formal announcement by the administration of its long-awaited response to the report of General Stanley McChrystal. The indications are that the United States will indeed inject the requested 40,000 additional troops into Afghanistan; and that this is part of a retooled counterinsurgency strategy that will place civilian security higher up the list of the coalition's priorities.

A shift in this direction has already been made, with the deployment of an additional 13,000 support troops, which itself supplements the 21,000 committed in March 2009; all this before a formal response to McChrystal's appeal (see Ann Scott Tyson, "Support Troops Swelling U.S. Force in Afghanistan" Washington Post, 13 October 2009).

There remain grave doubts, however, over whether such a change can lead to meaningful "success" in the war. Ian Davis makes the case in NATO Watch's bi-monthly observatory, accessible via ISIS Europe:

"NATO fielded 60,000 troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 - a country a fraction the size of Afghanistan. FM3-24 [the relevant Field Manual] recommends a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents. In Afghanistan, with a population of 33 million, that would mean at least 660,000 troops trained in counterinsurgency doctrine. At best, if Obama's pleas to European NATO allies are heeded, US and ISAF forces might reach a total of 120,000 - larger than the Soviet Army that occupied Afghanistan, but still only one-fifth of what the counterinsurgency manual recommends".

The argument is reinforced by the spread of the insurgency into the north and west of Afghanistan, which tends to undermine the frequently made point that much of the country remains unaffected by the Taliban and its paramilitary associates; and by the change in the nature of the war suggested in last week's column in this series.

What of the fighters themselves? An American intelligence official who helped draft agency assessments says: "Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency, ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban" (see Bryan Bender, "Taliban not main Afghan enemy", Boston Globe, 13 October 2009).

Many analysts argue that this is good news, on the grounds that it should be possible to detach and even co-opt many of the "non-Taliban" insurgent majority. But this ignores two elements: the widespread suspicion of foreign troops among Afghans as occupiers who must be opposed, and the illegitimacy of the corrupt and inefficient Hamid Karzai administration in Kabul.

A torrent of blows

But if the military problems in Afghanistan are escalating, Washington is taking comfort from the belief that the situation across the border in Pakistan was brightening. That view, however, was always composed as much of hope and inattention as of sustained evidence; three current factors are emerging to expose its fragility.

The first is a series of deadly and devastating military attacks. These include an attack in Mingora on 30 August 2009 that killed sixteen police-officers; a suicide-bombing of the World Food Programme's offices in Islamabad on 5 October, in which five people died; a car-bomb in Peshawar that devastated a market, killing forty-eight; and an attack in the Swat valley on 12 October that killed forty-one people (including six soldiers and four community-police officers).

The worst such incident by far from the perspective of the Pakistani army, however, was one that targeted the very heart of Pakistan's military power: the audacious assault on 9 October on the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi (close to the capital, Islamabad). This resulted in a twenty-hour siege to dislodge the insurgents, and ended with twenty-three people dead and scores injured; it is comparable in psychological terms to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

The wave continues. On 15 October, five coordinated operations across the country - three of them in Pakistan's cultural capital, Lahore - targeted against police academies and posts, killing dozens of people.

This torrent of blows has demonstrated the ability of the Pakistani Taliban to strike across the country with near-impunity. Its timing is crucial, for it has come as the army is reported to be preparing to launch its long-planned major military operation in North and South Waziristan.

Washington regards this move, intended to end the Waziristans' status as "safe havens" for (supposedly) hard-pressed insurgents returning from Afghanistan, as a crucial escalation of the war. But this very focus on a military solution in these regions tends to push aside the awkward question of whether the army's earlier anti-Taliban operation in the Swat valley, completed in August 2009, achieved its intended results.

In strict military terms, it now appears that the claims of direct successes by Pakistan's army against Taliban militias in Swat were overblown. Many of these militias responded in time-honoured fashion by retreating from combat rather than face the heavy artillery and air-strikes that could be employed by the army.

There is evidence too that many of the more rural parts of Swat have seen little in the way of aid and reconstruction; that, combined with the onset of winter, could mean the kind of hardship that earlier encouraged local people to turn away from the government and towards the Taliban (see Sabrina Tavernise & Irfan Ashraf, "Racing Time and Taliban to Rebuild in Pakistan", New York Times, 10 October 2009).

A cold prospect

A second factor is now emerging: namely the Pakistani army's lack of sufficiently well-trained troops and of the necessary equipment even to deploy effectively into the Waziristans. These limitations in part reflect the fact that the army is primarily a conventional force, trained and equipped to fight a defensive action against a similar Indian adversary, rather than being in any sense a counterinsurgency force.

The Pakistani army suffered serious casualties during the Swat operation, and is now trying to obtain new materials - including helicopters, night-vision equipment and signals-intelligence systems - as quickly as possible (see Usman Ansari, "Pakistan Army Seeks To Rearm To Enter Taliban Lair", Defense News, 5 October 2009). Its particular concern in the meantime is that a shortage of helicopters requires the army to move troops in the conflict-zones mainly by road, and this makes them vulnerable to local militias in Waziristan that are greatly skilled in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially roadside-bombs.

But with or without such improvements in military technology, operations are likely to begin at some stage before the full onset of winter. There may initially be an appearance of progress as (once more) local militias melt away rather than engage in confrontation; but this is likely to be exposed as an illusion when these units launch protracted guerrilla assaults through and beyond the winter, with corrosive effects on (still inadequately equipped) army contingents.

The sobering implication of this analysis is that Washington's current governing perception - that the war may be proving difficult in Afghanistan, but at least is showing signs of progress in Pakistan - is quite misleading.

A dual strategy

A third factor illustrates the difficulties facing the United States and its coalition allies in the region: the Pakistani elite's differential attitude to the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The former is viewed as a threat to the state and efforts will be made - even including incursions into North and South Waziristan, however costly - to contain it.

But this strategic choice, and the willingness to accept (with all the resentment it carries) American involvement in combating the internal enemy, is accompanied by Pakistan's much more supportive attitude towards Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan. Any prospect of the latter's defeat would be seen as a serious blow to Pakistan's security in relation to its regional-superpower adversary: India. Pakistan's deep worries that India's influence is becoming embedded across much of Afghanistan is reflected in local press reports that Indian road-construction teams in several parts of Afghanistan are simply fronts for New Delhi's intelligence operations.

It is difficult to overestimate the vulnerability that is felt in Islamabad over Indian influence in Afghanistan. In this context it is important to note that for Pakistan strategists, controlling the (Pakistani) Taliban based in the country's western regions is essential to state security; but this does not remotely mean that Islamabad wants to limit (Afghan) Taliban power across the border. Quite the reverse, since these militias offer almost the only counter to the rise of Indian influence in Afghanistan and the risk this carries of Pakistan losing its one regional asset in the decades-long confrontation with its giant neighbour.

For the United States this remains a formidable difficulty. If your supposed key ally in the region cannot afford to see you achieve your political goals because they run counter to its own perceived security needs, what price the possibility of victory - no matter how many troops are surged into Afghanistan?

For this reason, if no other, Afghanistan is "unwinnable". Sooner or later, the Obama administration will have to face up to this reality as it comes to terms with the full impact of the toxic legacy it has inherited from George W Bush.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England.

This article first appeared on Open Democracy on 16th October 2009.

Three years ago this month Jack Straw argued his case for urging Muslim women who attend his MP's surgery to remove their niqab. He said that he wanted to start a debate. In this, at least, he was successful.

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy said "the veil is an invitation to rape"; the Daily Mail columnist Allison Pearson said women who wear "nose bags on their faces ... have no place on British streets"; the then shadow home secretary David Davis argued that Muslims were encouraging voluntary apartheid.

And 16-year-old Daniel Coine insisted he felt threatened: "I'd go further than Jack Straw and say they should all take off their veils. You need to see people face to face. It's weird not knowing who it is you're passing in the street, specially late at night when someone might jump you."

And so Muslim women passed, in the public imagination, from being actually among the group most likely to be racially attacked to ostensibly being a primary cause of social strife roaming the land in search of white teenagers to physically harass.

Tomorrow night the conversation that Straw started will follow its logical, lamentable path as he takes his seat alongside the British National party leader, Nick Griffin, on the panel of Question Time.

The issue of whether the BNP should be given this kind of airtime has been debated extensively elsewhere in these pages. But there is little doubt that once the BNP is on Question Time, Jack Straw or indeed anyone in the New Labour hierarchy is in no position to take the fight to it. The same is true for most of the rest of the British political establishment that will be represented on the panel they have either actively colluded or passively acquiesced in the political trajectory of the past decade.

But it is no accident that this happened on New Labour's watch and no small irony that Jack Straw should set himself up as Griffin's opponent.

Economically, its neoliberal policies have resulted in growing insecurity, rising unemployment, child poverty and inequality that have alienated the poor and made the middle class feel vulnerable. Politically, its lies over the war, stewardship of the expenses scandal and internal bickering have produced widespread cynicism with our political culture. The ramifications of its role in the war on terror in general, and Iraq in particular, were to elevate fear of a racialised "other" to a matter of life and death at home. "Terror is first of all the terror of the next attack," explains Arjun Appadurai, in Fear of Small Numbers. "Terror ... opens the possibility that anyone may be a soldier in disguise, a sleeper among us, waiting to strike at the heart of our social slumber."

Meanwhile New Labour's race-baiting rhetoric gave the state's imprimatur to the notion that Britain's racial problems were not caused by racism but the existence of non-white, non-Christian and non-British people. This provided little material solace but plenty of vulnerable scapegoats.

Having inflated racism's political currency, New Labour vacated the electoral market so that others with a more ostentatious style might more freely spend it. Once they had made these ideas respectable it was only a matter of time before a party reached a position where it too would earn sufficient respectability to appear on prime time.

New Labour marginalised the white working class, assuming they had nowhere else to go, only to find some of them rush into the arms of the far right. Peter Hain has made an impressive stand over the last few weeks. But during the last election he slammed those who were abandoning New Labour as "the kind of dinner party critic who quaffs shiraz or chardonnay".

But it was always the beer talking. New Labour extinguished all hope of class solidarity and singularly failed to provide principled anti-racist alternatives, leaving a significant section of the white working class to seek cheap refuge in racism and xenophobia. In their identity they see not the potential for resistance against corruption and injustice, but only a grievance. They don't trust government and don't see any alternatives. The coming election simply provides the choice between two parties that share the intent to slash public spending, after the gift of billions to bankers.

There has always been more to the BNP than racism and always been more to racism than the BNP, which is merely the most vile electoral expression of our degraded racial discourse and political sclerosis. Under such circumstances setting Straw and the rest of the political class against Griffin is simply putting the cause against the symptom without any suggestion of an antidote.

This has been New Labour's problem all along. While they have long recognised that racism is a problem, it never seemed to occur to them that anti-racism might be the solution. This should not obscure some of the positive things Labour has done most notably the Macpherson report and the Race Relations Amendment Act. But in the words of the late African American writer James Baldwin: "What it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other."

The BNP's victories are a product of our politics. Its defeat, when it comes, will necessarily be a product of a change in our politics. But since New Labour's politics enabled the BNP, it is in no position to disable it. The BNP is a bottom feeder. But the system is rotting from the head down.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 21st October 2009.