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The fifth crusade: George Bush and the Christianisation of the war in Iraq

The Fifth Crusade
George Bush and the Christianisation of the War in Iraq
Paul Vallely
The sword with which we would kill the enemy must pass first
through our own hearts.
When President George W. Bush first met Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, in
Slovenia in June 2001, the first thing they talked about was not the failure of
communism, the triumph of market capitalism, Star Wars, the instability of the
Balkans or the End of History. Rather they spoke about God. ‘We’d never met each
other,’ the American president revealed a year later, ‘The first discussion we had was
about our personal beliefs.’ The American leader fell to musing, ‘You know, it’s
interesting, there is a universal God, in my opinion. . .’ Those present when he made
the revelation said that the President was clearly moved.1 It was not a singular
occurrence. Bush later invited the visiting president of Macedonia - a fellow
Methodist - into his private study, where the two men knelt alongside each other in
prayer. Their mutual Christian faith was also a bonding factor for Bush and the
British prime minister, Tony Blair, though the latter expostulated with incredulous
irritation when a television interviewer asked if they too had prayed together. Such
incidents offer an important clue regarding the extent to which religion has come to
play a significant role in the presidency of George W. Bush.
There is more to this than the matter of one individual’s personal faith, though the
story of his religious journey is not without its own significance. George W. Bush was
raised by his father and mother as an Episcopalian, the US church which is closest in
theology and institutional temperament to the Church of England, with which it shares
– at present, at any rate – membership of the Anglican Communion. He was an altar
boy and later a Sunday school teacher. After he married he switched allegiance,
adopting his wife’s denomination and becoming a Methodist. But his faith seems to
have been perfunctory until the age of 39 when, one summer weekend in 1985,
America’s leading Christian evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham, arrived to visit President
George Bush senior, at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. It was to be a
life-changing encounter for the President’s son who was then running a failing oil
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company and drinking too much. Graham joined the Bush family for a chat around the
fireplace. The next day George junior and the famous preacher took a stroll along
Walker’s Point. ‘I knew I was in the presence of a great man,’ Bush later wrote in his
autobiography. ‘I felt drawn to something different. He didn’t lecture or admonish; he
shared warmth and concern. Billy Graham didn’t make you feel guilty. He made you
feel loved.’
It was at this point that George Bush junior gave up alcohol and became a born-again
Christian. Though he remains a Methodist, his faith has adopted the heavy evangelical
accent more usually associated with the Southern Baptists so preponderant in his
Bible Belt home state of Texas. The President reads his Bible every morning. He
worships at the services led by military chaplains at his country retreat in Camp
David, or at impromptu services put together by White House staffers on the
presidential plane, Air Force One, or wherever he and his entourage find themselves.
Prayer is a constant. The president prays often on the phone with a minister in Texas
who is one of his spiritual advisers. Cabinet meetings often begin with a prayer. ‘I
pray all the time,’ he once told Fox News.
All of this, we now know, is an electoral asset in a country where some 60 per cent of
Americans say it is ‘good for the country’ for leaders to publicly express their faith,
according to a poll in Newsweek2. Or at least (as John Kerry found to his cost, faith of
a certain kind). There has been an interesting shift here. The Baptist faith of Bush’s
presidential predecessor, Jimmy Carter, faintly embarrassed his electorate, that of
George Bush Jr. seems to be more in tune with his times. But this faith is more than
personal. It does not simply inspire and motivate one individual in his discourse with
his fellow citizens, of all faiths and none. It colours his worldview in a particular way
and, more significantly, appears to shape not just his general political outlook but also
individual policies and decisions. ‘One of the animating principles of this
administration is the restoration of the role of faith in the public square,’ says Marshall
Wittman, the former legislative director for the Christian Coalition, the largest and
most active conservative grassroots political organization in America. Bush is, he
adds, ‘perhaps the first modern president who actually sees policy applications’ for his
faith. Among these have been his initiative to ease federal restrictions on the role
faith-based groups can play in providing welfare services in the United States. And his
decision that stem-cell research can only be funded by the state if it uses stem cells
derived from pre-existing human embryos (rather than creating new ones ), reflects a
conservative religious instinct on the complex intersection of science and religion. He
has not toed the line of the Christian Right on everything - he has demurred on
homosexuality and school prayer. But, in the judgment of the former White House
spokesman Ari Fleischer: ‘Faith influences the president in that it helps make up his
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character and his judgments, and his policy decisions are based on his character and
his judgments’.3 Nowhere is this more clear than in the war on terror and the invasion
of Iraq.
Few people would suggest that the war on Saddam Hussein was religiously motivated.
Indeed all the evidence is that the impetus for it derived from the post-Cold War
agenda of the neo-conservative hawks who surround Bush - an agenda which pre-
dated by some significant time the arrival of George Bush in the president’s office. An
attack on Iraq was a key strategic priority of many of Bush’s advisers long before his
administration was ever formed. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, and his
deputy – and one of the neo-con group’s leading thinkers, Paul Wolfowitz - wanted to
use the invasion of Iraq to remake the entire Middle East in America’s image and
interest and secure a reliable source of oil (in 1990 Dick Cheney, then an oil man, now
US Vice-President, wrote that: ‘Whoever controls the flow of Persian Gulf oil has a
stranglehold not only on our economy but also on the other countries of the world as
well.’4 The plan was set out by another Rumsfeld associate, Richard Perle, as long ago
as 1996. In A Clean Break, a document he co-wrote with the Israeli hawk Benjamin
Netanyahu, he called for the elimination of Saddam’s regime in Baghdad as a first
step towards overthrowing or destabilising the governments of Syria, Lebanon, Saudi
Arabia, and Iran; in tandem the Israelis should permanently annexe the entire West
Bank and Gaza Strip.5 Two years later a letter was written to President Clinton
demanding a full-scale US-led military drive for ‘regime change’ in Baghdad. Among
the signatories were Perle, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. Bill Clinton rejected the idea
but, within moments of the September 11 attack on Washington and New York -
despite the lack of evidence linking Iraq and 9/11 - the same plan was being put to
President Bush.
What had changed in the interval was more than the political reality of the post-
September 11 world. There was something fundamentally different about the
worldview of the man in charge of America’s response. One of the striking
characteristics of George W. Bush is the extent to which he is perfectly comfortable
talking about the world in terms of good and evil. Four months after the September 11
terrorist attacks, in his 2002 State of the Union Address, he came up with the phrase
the ‘axis of evil’ to label three countries - North Korea, Iran and Iraq - whom he
judged to be arming to threaten the peace of the world. ‘By seeking weapons of mass
destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger,’ he said in the address.
‘They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their
hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any
of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.’ By June, he was even
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more Manichean, saying: ‘We are in a conflict between good and evil and Americans
will call evil by its name … And we will lead the world in opposing it.’
A Crusade against Terror
Few in America seemed surprised therefore when, in announcing the US response to
the attacks, the President vowed to launch a ‘crusade’ against terrorism. The word
passed by almost unnoticed in America, where it was generally assumed to be a casual
metaphor for a vigorous campaign. But in Europe, with its much more prominent
Muslim population, alarm bells rang. There it raised the spectre of a large-scale ‘clash
of civilizations’ between Christians and Muslims - to borrow a term popularised by an
American academic6 - a warning which Europeans, with their great experience of
Islam, found to be exaggerated and alarmist. There were fears however, that given a
push by individuals as powerful as George Bush, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It was during a press conference on Sept. 16 – in response to a question about whether
efforts on homeland security were infringing civil rights – that Bush first used the
telltale word in public. “This is a new kind of evil,” he said. “And we understand. And
the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism
is going to take a while.”
The President’s use of the word ‘crusade’, said Soheib Bensheikh, Grand Mufti of the
mosque in Marseille, France, was ‘most unfortunate’ since ‘it recalled the barbarous
and unjust military operations against the Muslim world.’ 7 Around the world Muslims
responded with alarm. In Pakistan the feeling was so strong that a considerable
number of Muslims took to the streets in protest. What Bush ignored - or more likely
simply did not know - was that in his speeches the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden
had repeatedly tried to present the activities of the West in today’s Arab world as a
return of the Crusades. Nor did he seem to appreciate the extent to which Muslims see
the four Crusades8 as a dark era in history, and one which was heroically resisted by
civilised Muslim warriors like Saladdin - a view which is largely endorsed by modern
Western historians who have presented them as an unholy picture of indiscriminate
slaughter, rape and pillage which included pogroms against Jews as well as against
Muslim men, women and children.
Historians have also catalogued the words of the Crusader era. Saint Bernard - from
whom the Crusader Frederick Barbarossa received a cross before battle - ruled that
killing for Christ was not homicide but malecide (the extermination of injustice, rather
than of the unjust and therefore desirable) and pronounced, ‘to kill a pagan is to win
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glory, for it gives glory to Christ.’ Among contemporary quotes from Crusaders are
comments such as:
We have set out to march a long way to fight the enemies of God in
the East, and behold, before our very eyes are his worst foes, the
Jews. They must be dealt with first.
9You are the descendants of those who killed and hanged our God.
Moreover [God] himself said: ‘The day will yet dawn when my
children will come and avenge my blood.’ We are his children and
it is our task to carry out his vengeance upon you, for you showed
yourselves obstinate and blasphemous towards him ... [God] has
abandoned you and has turned his radiance towards us and has
made us his own.10
When the crusaders entered Jerusalem in July 1099 they went on an orgy of butchery.
Some 70,000 men, women and children - the majority of the population - were
slaughtered in a holocaust that lasted for three days. Small wonder that Pope John
Paul II, at the turn of the millennium, issued an apology for the Crusades in which the
Christian cross came to represent what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan
Williams, has called ‘the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi
for atrocity.’11 And there is something else which is lodged prominently in the Muslim
psyche. Most historians agree that the Crusaders lost. The Christian armies regained
Jerusalem on and off, but were eventually beaten back.
In such a context there is more to the casual use of a word like ‘crusade’ than merely
letting loose the doggerel of war. It was part of the black and white vocabulary which
the President found rallied Americans behind him at home but which alienated many
in the international coalition he sought to build for his ‘war of terrorism’. His
Secretary of State spent most of the next day trying to repair the damage by his boss’s
ill-thought out remark. His most significant ally Tony Blair was forced to spend much
of the next week insisting that ‘war on terror’ was not a war on Islam. ‘The vast
majority of decent law-abiding Muslims’, he said repeatedly, opposed fanaticism.
Bush himself a few days later tried to row back from his Freudian slip by visiting an
Islamic centre in Washington where he attempted to assure Americans that, ‘the face
of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about.’
Yet the President’s error was significant, for it exposed several things. It revealed his
ignorance of much of the situation into which he was about to launch himself. It
showed how his religious worldview had shaped a propensity to see the world in
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terms of a cosmic battle of good and evil. And it demonstrated how his intoxicating
rhetoric, with its shoot-from-the-hip Wild West vocabulary about ‘the bad guys’ who
are ‘wanted, dead or alive’12 prevented him from perceiving the complexity of
situations. He might protest that his use of the word crusade was casual and
unthinking, but presidents cannot afford to be unthinking in a world where perceptions
swiftly become new realities.
A Prophet without honour
It soon became clear that there was more to all this than George Bush’s much-derided
general linguistic carelessness. Despite the row over the C word he then went on to
allow his first actual deployment of troops to be branded Operation Infinite Justice - a
phrase with echoes of the Christian concept of ‘just war’, which also appeared to
arrogate to the US President powers of judgment that, as ‘infinite’, properly belong to
God alone. American insensitivity to the feelings of moderate Muslims was
It was further inflamed by the pronouncements of many American religious leaders
from the Christian Right in the febrile weeks and months following the terrorist
attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The Rev. Jerry Vines, the former
president of the Southern Baptist Convention - the nation’s largest Protestant
denomination, with 15 million members – declared, ‘Islam was founded by
Mohammed, a demon-possessed paedophile who had 12 wives, and his last one was a
9-year-old girl.’ He went on to challenge one of the monotheistic common
denominators between Islam, Christianity and Judaism by insisting, ‘Allah is not
Jehovah either. Jehovah’s not going to turn you into a terrorist that’ll try to bomb
people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people.’ Other well-known
conservative preachers spoke in similar vein. Mohammed was ‘a terrorist’ according
to the TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, ‘an absolute wild-eyed fanatic’ and ‘a robber and a
brigand’ according to Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition. Islam was a
religion which was ‘wicked, violent and not of the same God,’ said the Rev. Franklin
Graham, the son of Billy Graham, and the man who had given the sermon at George
Bush’s inauguration as President13. Such was the concern that all this provoked in the
Islamic world that a group of Baptist missionaries working in ten Muslim countries
sent a letter home calling for restraint, saying such comments ‘heighten animosity
toward Christians’ and threatened their work and personal safety.
The government of George Bush could not be held accountable for such remarks,
though many Muslims around the world made no such distinctions. But what the Bush
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administration did fail to do was to quash the notion that the invasion of Iraq was to
be, amongst other things, an opportunity for Christian evangelists to attempt to
convert Muslims. In the opening days of the invasion several fundamentalist Christian
organisations announced plans to participate in the rebuilding of Iraq, organising
Christian welcome wagons stuffed with Bibles and band-aids. Among them was
Franklin Graham’s organisation, Samaritan’s Purse, one of the world’s largest
Christian relief agencies, which announced it was ‘mobilised and poised to assist
those affected by the war to liberate Iraq’. This did not augur well. During the first
Gulf war, Graham had sent thousands of Arabic-language New Testaments to US
troops in Saudi Arabia to pass along to local people, violating Saudi law and an
agreement between the two governments that there would be no proselytising. When
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had a chaplain call Graham to complain, according to the
Christian Science Monitor, Graham said he was under higher orders.14
Nor was Graham alone. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s leading
proselytiser, announced it was planning a large relief effort in Iraq once the war
ended. So did the American Family Association whose website carried a pledge, ‘to
help raise money to help the displaced people of Iraq rebuild their lives and let them
know that Christians in America care for them and want to help them through their
struggle against tyranny.’ Alongside it, on the AFA website, was a banner-headline
that read, ‘Is Islam a Peaceful Religion?’ - to which it gave an unequivocal No in
answer. To all this the Bush administration merely shrugged its shoulders, saying it
had no power to tell private groups what to do. Islam, itself like Christianity, a
missionary religion whose believers have the obligation to spread the message of its
universal claims, was in no doubt as to what this meant.
As the war progressed the cultural semiotics continued, spreading far beyond the
prejudices of the Bible Belt Christian Right. Immediately after the gruesome
beheading of an American hostage in Iraq, Nick Berg, was broadcast on the internet -
a US Senator, John McCain was one of the first to condemn it. Those who did it were
‘barbarians’, he said. It was as revealing a choice of word from the lexicon of disgust,
as was George Bush’s earlier reference to the crusades. The barbarians were the
mindless, valueless hordes who lusted only after wanton destruction against the
Roman Empire, the bastion of civilised values. History, of course, shows another side;
the Romans were arrogant and decadent and blind to the culture of others. Mindful of
photographs of US soldiers setting dogs on Iraqi prisoners, we might recall that the
Romans also set animals on their prisoners, and called that Games. That the war was
seen as a clash of symbols was apparent from the other side. Berg’s assassins had clad
him in Guantánamo orange for his online execution.
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More mainstream Christian leaders played a part in the religious polarisation which
set in. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, delivered a series of
politically naïve lectures on Islam in Rome and in Britain. In them, despite his
plenteous affirmations of goodwill to Islam, he insulted Muslims by saying that the
Prophet Mohammed was acknowledged by all to have been an illiterate and that 'no
great invention has come for many hundreds of years from Muslim countries’.
Roman Catholicism offered little better. It chose this time to beatify a friar best
remembered for his role in the last Christian Crusade against Islam, Father Marco
d’Aviano, a man whom one critic described as ‘the Osama bin Laden of his time’
whose outbursts against Islam and the Turks were both racist and provocative. The
Vatican responded that d’Aviano was a man of peace who had aided the legitimate
defence of Christianity against aggressors - which is pretty much what many in the
Muslim world say about bin Laden. Rome also incensed Muslims by refusing to
condemn the French government’s ban on Muslim headscarves in French schools.
One leading churchman, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, in remarks sanctioned by the
Vatican, declared that many considered the headscarf to be a symbol of discrimination
whereas, ‘Christian crosses and religious clothing have not the slightest trace of
political propaganda about them’. The Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civilta
Cattolica also accused Islam of showing a ‘warlike face’ throughout history. All of
which marked a departure from the Vatican’s previous policy of simultaneously
stressing both positive and negative aspects of Muslim/Christian relations. The
message which many Muslims read between the lines was one of religiously-inspired
suspicion and hostility.
A Christian Army
Such fears were hardly allayed by the person of William G. Boykin. Lieut. General
William ‘Jerry’ Boykin is the all-American hero15. His 32 years in the US army
included two stints as commander of the secret commando group, Delta Force. He is
the archetypal tough guy. As a captain in 1980, Boykin was part of the abortive
attempt to rescue the 53 American hostages held by Iran, a secret mission that ended
in flames at Desert One, with the death of eight US servicemen. Three years later, as a
major, he helped invade Grenada. In 1992, as a colonel, he led the manhunt in
Colombia for drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was killed in circumstances shrouded in
secrecy but in which Boykin was said to have played a key part. He was the man who
advised on what kind of gas to use to end the siege in Waco, Texas. But what marked
him most was an incident in October 1993 in downtown Mogadishu. Under his
command 18 soldiers died in an effort to snatch a Somali warlord, which the US
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nation came to know in detail through the film Black Hawk Down. He went on to
become the nation’s top uniformed intelligence officer. In October 2003 he was the
deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence.
What brought him to public attention in that month was a story in the Los Angeles
Times which reported that Boykin had been regularly appearing at Sunday-morning
evangelical revivals, in full military uniform.16 At one, in Daytona Beach, Florida, in
January 2003, speaking about the notorious Black Hawk Down fiasco nearly a decade
earlier, Boykin revealed that he had collapsed in his bunk that day, angry that God had
let him down. It had provoked a spiritual crisis. ‘There is no God,’ Boykin raged. ‘If
there was a God, he would have been here to protect my soldiers.’ But in the same
address, Boykin says he heard God answer him, ‘If there is no God, there is no hope.’
And he was thunderstruck by the insight that his battle with the warlord was between
good and evil, between the true God and the false one, ‘I knew that my God was
bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.’17 He went
on at these meetings repeatedly to describe America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as
a Christian Holy Crusade against Islam, a religion he suggested was aligned with
Satan. Particular controversy was sparked by his remarks to a congregation in Oregon
that ‘Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he
wants to destroy us as a Christian army’ 18
American Muslim groups were outraged and called on President Bush to fire Boykin,
a demand echoed by sections of secular opinion in both the press and in Congress. But
the administration stuck by their man. Boykin was, said Defence Secretary Rumsfeld,
‘an officer that has an outstanding record in the United States armed forces.’19 He had
no intention of moving his man from this key job. Six months later it was to become
clear exactly why. In May 2004 it emerged that Boykin was at the heart of a secret
operation, on Rumsfeld’s orders, to extend the ‘stress and duress’ methods of
interrogation used on al-Qa’ida suspects at Guantánamo Bay to Iraqi detainees inside
Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison.
Doomsday scenarios
Before that, however, there was another twist in the tale of the Christianisation of the
war on Iraq. In May 2004 the minutes of a secret meeting between Christian
fundamentalists and White House officials were leaked to the New York newspaper
The Village Voice.20 The notes showed that the religious hardliners had met the
President on 25 March 2004 and held a two-hour meeting with White House staffers
including the National Security Council’s top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams. The
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apocalyptic Christians, the paper reported, were eager to ensure that American policy
on Israel and Iraq conformed to their sectarian doomsday scenarios.
The group, the Apostolic Congress which claims to be ‘the Christian Voice in the
Nation’s Capital’, is a key part of the Christian Zionist lobby which supports the state
of Israel and whose members vociferously oppose the idea of a Palestinian state. Their
politics have a distinct theological undergirding which insists that until Israel is intact
Christ cannot return to earth for the Second Coming. Essential to this is the belief that
the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586
BC and again by the Romans in 70 AD, must be rebuilt for a third time so that the
Messiah can return to re-instate Mosaic animal sacrifices there. The trouble is that the
site of the Temple is now occupied by the al-Aqsa Mosque - after Mecca and Medina,
the holiest site in Islam. Because of this, apocalyptic Christians believe, conflict with
Muslims is both necessary and desirable. These ‘End-Timers’, as they are known, also
believe that the Battle of Armageddon - which will take place on the plains of Israel
between Mount Megiddo and the Valley of Armageddon in the north, and Bozrah in
Edom in the south - will be brought about by hostile forces mounting a massive attack
on the state of Israel. They also hold that true-believers will not be part of this final
conflagration but will be ‘raptured’ and lifted into heaven by the returning Christ
before the apocalyptic battle of Armageddon is joined.
The detail here is significant. For they also believe that the Second Coming will
finally come to pass in the generation immediately following Israel’s re-emergence as
a nation; which is why for many fundamentalist leaders, support for Israel has moved
to the very top of their agenda. Thus since 1948, fundamentalists have encouraged the
continued military and economic funding of Israel by the United States. (One sixth of
all US aid goes to Israel, even though it is the sixteenth richest nation on the
planet.)They back Israeli government policy virtually without question, fervently
supporting Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank because God’s granting of the
Holy Land to the biblical patriarchs (Genesis 15: 18-20) was irrevocable. They urge
Israelis to resist negotiating land for peace and instead, maintain the policy of building
settlements and incorporating the Occupied Territories within the State of Israel.
A Chosen People
If such a theological position sounds extreme, it is by no means confined to a tiny
minority. There are as many as eight million pre-millennial Christians in America
influenced by this strong fundamentalist dynamic for whom Armageddon is always
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just around the corner. Their mindset has had a creeping influence on the way
mainstream America thinks about the world.
The result of this belief, on the ground, is to be seen in e-mail chains, prayer ministries
and grassroots efforts to get the word out that the US must stand united with Israel, its
ally in the war on terror. Christian groups are spending millions on everything from
armoured school buses for Israeli children to halogen lights for the army’s emergency-
rescue service. When the President demanded that Israel withdraw its tanks from the
West Bank in 2002 the White House reportedly received 100,000 angry e-mails from
Christian conservatives. Since more than 15 per cent of the American electorate
describe themselves as Christian conservatives - contrasted with just the half a per
cent who constitute the ‘Jewish vote’ – Christian fundamentalism is now the bigger
influence on US policy in Israel. Nor are their views confined to Israel. Many of these
fundamentalists believe that much of the Book of Revelation, in which Christianity’s
great enemy is symbolically characterised as Babylon, is destined to take place in the
country that is modern-day Iraq.
It is not thought that George W.Bush himself shares the End-Time theological
worldview - though his predecessor Ronald Reagan clearly had some sympathy with
it; Reagan made explicit references to the belief that the world would end in a fiery
Armageddon on half a dozen occasions during his presidency. But if the language of
apocalyptic Christianity is absent from George W. Bush’s speeches, he has shown
himself eager to consult with End-Timers. The leader of the Apostolic Congress,
Pentecostal minister Robert G. Upton, has boasted: ‘ We’re in constant contact with
the White House . . . I’m briefed at least once a week via telephone briefings.’ 21 And
certainly just three weeks after the meeting leaked to the Village Voice – at which
White House officials adopted biblical analysis to argue that, ‘the Gaza Strip had no
significant Biblical influence such as Joseph’s tomb or Rachel’s tomb and therefore is
a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace’ - Bush reversed long-
standing US policy and endorsed Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, in
exchange for Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
The concern here is not that George W. Bush is discussing policy with people who
press right-wing solutions to achieve peace in the Middle East. It is that he is
discussing policy with Christians who might not care about peace at all -since peace
could slow down the Second Coming, and that in any case they will be saved in The
Rapture before the world ends.
The chief anxiety about Bush’s application of his faith to his political analysis lies in
another key American theological construct - the notion that the United States has a
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‘manifest destiny’ and that its citizens are a Chosen People. This concept of
chosenness has long antecedents. The original Chosen People, the Bible tells us, were
the Jews. But this special status was appropriated by the Christian Church early in its
history, with the justification that the Jews by their behaviour had somehow forfeited
this right, which had passed to the Catholic Church. The perception that the Church
was especially favoured as the new Zion was a dominating metaphor throughout the
medieval period.
After the Reformation a similar sense built in Protestants that this chosenness had
been transferred to them, as the true inheritors of God’s blessing since Rome had lost
the prerogative through its errant behaviour. The notion was taken deep into the
thinking of English Protestantism and was a formative philosophy in the shaping of
Britain as the first modern nation state. But the process was again repeated; after the
American War of Independence the former colonists assumed that England has been
stripped of its chosenness and that this special status had passed to them.
As Clifford Longley sets out in his book Chosen People, which tracks this
successionist dynamic in detail, 22 it became a key component in America’s national
sense of identity and their self-perception as a people with a right to impose their
sense of righteousness on the rest of the world. The implicit assumption is that it is
now America which holds a specific covenant with God who has selected the people
of the United States to be his unique instrument, his new Chosen People. This carries
with it rewards in the form of political greatness, as well as a moral duty to lead the
rest of mankind on the path of redemption. This sense, sometimes unconscious,
sometimes overtly articulated, can be detected in everything from the language of
radio phone-ins to the political discourse of Capitol Hill. It is most evident in
America’s messianic born-again Christianity and it is clear in George W. Bush’s
repeated articulation of his conviction that America is blessed, and God is protecting
the country.
A Chosen President
This sense has been clear in George W Bush from the start of his presidency and
before, as the following story makes clear:
Shortly after his 1998 re-election as governor of Texas, Republican
heavyweights begin to discuss George Bush Jr. as a presidential
prospect. W. is dubious. Then one day he’s sitting in church,
Highland Methodist in Dallas, with his mother. The pastor, Mark
Craig, preaches on Moses’ ambivalence about leading the Israelites
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out of bondage. (‘Sorry, God, I’m busy ’, the minister has Moses
responding. ‘ I’ve got a family. I’ve got sheep to tend. I’ve got a
Pastor Craig moves on from the allegorical portion of his sermon.
The American people are ‘starved for leadership,’ he says, ‘ starved
for leaders who have ethical and moral courage.’ He reminds his
congregation, ‘It’s not always easy or convenient for leaders to step
forward. Remember, even Moses had doubts.’
Barbara Bush, the high-church Episcopalian whose husband rejected
advice to insert scriptural references into his speeches because they
made him uncomfortable, tells her son, ‘He was talking to you.’ 23
Barbara Bush’s use of the pronoun ‘he’ is ambiguous in this story. She
may have been talking about the preacher. But her born-again son does
not hear it that way. It is not ‘he’ that George Bush Jr. hears but ‘He’.
Not long afterwards Bush called his friend, the Charismatic TV
evangelist James Robison and told him: ‘I’ve heard the call. I believe
God wants me to run for president.’ 24
This sense of personal and national chosenness characterises the whole of Bush’s
approach. Professor Bruce Lincoln, the author of Holy Terrors: Thinking About
Religion After September 11, teaches a course on the theology of George W. Bush at
the University of Chicago Divinity School. The President, he says, ‘does feel that
people are called upon by the Divine to undertake certain positions in the world, and
undertake certain actions, and to be responsible for certain things. And he makes, I
think, quite clear - explicitly in some contexts, and implicitly in a great many others -
that he occupies the office by a Divine calling. That God put him there with a sense of
purpose.’ 25 That purpose, says Bruce Lincoln, holds that, ‘the U.S. is the new Israel
as God’s most favoured nation, and those responsible for the state of America in the
world also enjoy special favour.’ For Bush to waver would be to tempt God’s
disfavour. ‘Wherever the U.S. happens to advance something that he can call
”freedom”, he thinks he’s serving God’s will.’ ‘The liberty we prize is not America’s
gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity,’ Bush said last year. The president’s
habit of ending his speeches with the homiletic, ‘May God continue to bless America’
suggests, in Lincoln’s analysis, a deliberate attempt by Bush and his speechwriters ‘to
emphatically reaffirm the notion that the United States has enjoyed divine favour
throughout its history - moreover, that it deserves said favour insofar as it remains
firm in its faith.’
It is a view of the world with which those around the President agree. ‘George Bush
was not elected by a majority of the voters in the US,’ General William Boykin has
The Fifth Crusade Paul Vallely
said. ‘He was appointed by God.’ It is a small step from that conviction to Boykin’s
assertion about the US military and its current role in Iraq that: ‘ We in the Army of
God, in the House of God, the Kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as
Abuse in Abu Ghraib
Quite how men like Bush and Boykin reconcile such elevated sentiments with what
happened on the ground in Abu Ghraib jail, is not clear. In May 2004 the news broke
that abuse bordering on torture was a commonplace in the Baghdad prison in which
the US military incarcerated terrorist suspects and common criminals. Photographs hit
US TV screens which showed Iraqi prisoners being stripped naked, made to stand and
squat without rest, forced to simulate sexual acts, piled in grotesque naked pyramids,
set upon by dogs, subjected to mock electrocution and humiliated by being led on a
leash on all fours like an animal. Female soldiers with sly grins pointed in ridicule at
the prisoners’ genitals. The pictures shocked America and outraged the rest of the
world. Few Muslims believed the Bush Administration’s assertion that this was the
work of a few isolated perverted individual soldiers. Like the gaffes about the
Crusades, the anti-Muslim insults of US preachers, the proselytising intent of
Christian relief agencies and the comments of General Boykin, they were flashed
around the Islamic world and repeatedly shown on its TV stations and on the front
pages of its newspapers.
The photographs rang particular bells in London at the Medical Foundation for the
Care of Victims of Torture in London, which has dealt with tens of thousands of
torture cases over the past three decades. There one of its senior staff, Sherman
Carroll said: ‘The idea of it being ‘a few bad apples’ who are responsible for this
abuse won’t wash. It looks increasingly like a systematic process.’ 26 To the experts,
the excesses of Abu Ghraib looked horribly familiar, for they echoed techniques of
using psychological disorientation rather than inflicting physical pain, which were
pioneered in Soviet Russia and China after the Second World War. These included
humiliation, hooding, disorientation and depriving prisoners of sleep, warmth, water,
food and human dignity. The West came into contact with them when the KGB and
Chinese secret police passed them on to the North Koreans during the Korean war -
subjecting British prisoners of war to the new torture techniques. British military
intelligence, realising how effective they were, applied similar interrogation methods
in colonial situations in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus. They were carried over to Northern
Ireland too. In 1970 a unit from the British army’s Intelligence Wing at Ashford
The Fifth Crusade Paul Vallely
deprived 12 IRA suspects of food and sleep, and placed hoods over their heads,
forcing them to lean against walls with only their fingertips while playing into their
ears a piercing high-pitch screech of ‘white noise’. When the technique became public
it was banned by the Heath government in 1971, and the Court of Human Rights in
Strasbourg ruled that the practices were inhumane, degrading and unlawful.
In the Seventies, when the Cold War rather than terrorism was seen as the main threat
to the West, the tide turned against torture. In 1984 the UN Convention Against
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was
enacted. The international community, with the US State Department at its head, set
up operations to monitor torture. The State Department still produces annual reports,
with Burma, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia,
Tunisia and Turkey being censured in the latest. But though both the UK and the US
signed up to the Convention both continued to train selected military personnel in
them. At Ashford, in Kent, and at a former US base at Chicksands, the tactics are used
to train special operations soldiers - the SAS, SBS, pilots, paratroopers,
reconnaissance specialists and others who might find themselves behind enemy lines -
to prepare them for the possibility of capture. The techniques are, however, subject to
a strict 48-hour time limit.
Sexual humiliation, along with stripping naked, is part of the system of ill-treatment
and degradation to which they are subjected in the programme which is called R2I -
resistance to interrogation. That the United States employs such techniques on its
enemies too became apparent in 1997 when two CIA interrogation manuals became
public. The theory on which they draw is that detention should prolong the shock of
capture by disrupting any continuity in surroundings, habits, appearance and relations
with others, on all of which the prisoner’s sense of identity depends. ‘Detention
should be planned to enhance’, one manual says, ‘feelings of being cut off from
anything known and reassuring.’ 27 The emphasis is placed upon psychological rather
than physical pain because, as one manual explains, ‘The threat of coercion usually
weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself.’ The threat to
inflict pain, it says, can trigger fears more damaging than actual pain itself. Though it
adds that pain must be inflicted if the prisoner refuses to comply, ‘Otherwise,
subsequent threats will also prove ineffective.’ It also adds that actual pain is likely to
produce false confessions, whereas psychological pain is more likely to undermine the
prisoner’s ‘internal motivational strength’.
President Bush in June 2003 denied to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
that the US was using torture in Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay or Iraq. But in May
2004 his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld admitted that methods such as sleep
The Fifth Crusade Paul Vallely
deprivation, dietary changes and making prisoners assume stress positions are being
used. Pentagon lawyers, according to the US pressure group Human Rights Watch,
have drawn up a 72-point ‘matrix’ of types of stress to which detainees can be
subjected, including: stripping them naked, subjecting them to bright lights or blaring
noise, hooding them and exposing them to heat and cold, and binding them in
uncomfortable positions. The more stressful techniques must be approved by senior
commanders, but all are permitted.
Onward Christian Soldiers
The lawyers’ advice, and the matrix allowing ‘graduated levels of force’, which was
drawn up in association with the CIA, are being kept secret. The argument may be that
torture conventions do not apply where detainees are formally in the custody of
another country. But what is clear is that the advice has created a climate in which US
officials and soldiers feel free to deal more harshly with detainees. Nor does it seem
coincidental that a battery of 50-odd special ‘coercive techniques’ were introduced in
Iraq in autumn 2003 after Major General Geoffrey Miller took over as US commander
in charge of military jails in Baghdad. The general previously ran Guantánamo Bay
where, according to one British detainee, naked prostitutes were paraded before
inmates to taunt them. The man who briefed him on his transfer to Baghdad was
General William G. Boykin.
What became clear in May 2004 was that at the very moment Boykin became mired in
such public controversy over the anti-Muslim comments he made while appearing, in
full military uniform, at evangelical rallies – he was at the heart of a secret operation
in Baghdad. He had flown to Guantánamo, (which is known among the US military as
‘Gitmo’) on Rumsfeld’s orders. There Boykin met Major General Geoffrey Miller, the
man in charge of Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray. Boykin ordered Miller to fly to Iraq
and extend X-Ray methods to the prison system there. The instruction was to
‘Gitmoize’ the Abu Ghraib prison.
The revelations about Boykin’s role were made in the New Yorker magazine by the
investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. According to the magazine, General Boykin
himself was involved in the design of the military policies that allowed for the use of
torture against Muslim prisoners. The implication was that General Boykin, because
of his fundamentalist belief in a Christian holy war against Islam, was more inclined
to approve dehumanising measures against Muslim prisoners. Hersh claimed that the
unit brought ‘unconventional methods’ to Abu Ghraib as a way of getting better
information about Iraqi insurgents and non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But
The Fifth Crusade Paul Vallely
he also reported reservations among some insiders that techniques approved for use
against ‘high-value terrorist targets’ were now being used for ‘cabdrivers, brothers-in-
law, and people pulled off the streets - the sort of prisoners who populate the Iraqi
Apologists for the harsher regime insist that it stops just short of torture. Human rights
campaigners disagree. ‘The UN Convention says torture means “any act by which
severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a
person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a
confession” ‘, according to Sherman Carroll of the Medical Foundation. But what also
alarms the torture experts is the suspicion that, in Sherman Carroll’s words, ‘there
have clearly been conscious attempts by psychologists to make the techniques
culturally relative to a Muslim population.’ 28 He pointed particularly to the reports of
the enforced simulation of oral sex, forced masturbation and naked human pyramids
which seemed calculated particularly to offend followers of Islam. Other
commentators agreed. ‘The American public enjoys male nudity - when the men are
athletes, actors, or models displayed by fashion photographers for our entertainment -
to sell underwear, perfume, sex and other basic American values,” said Raymond A.
Schroth, the Jesuit professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College, New Jersey. ‘Arab
men, unlike Western men accustomed to the sports locker room, do not appear naked
in the presence of one another . . . These Iraqi men are anonymous, ordinary, dark-
skinned, cowering in their disgrace and fear. Theirs is the nakedness of the bombing
victim whose clothes have been blasted away, the nakedness of Jesus on the cross.
Their nakedness is part of their torture. . . Either these men would cooperate with
their interrogators, even serve as our spies, or the pictures would be circulated in their
home neighbourhoods.’ 29 Critics observed that the head of the American defence
contracting firm implicated in the torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison had visited an
Israeli ‘anti-terror’ training camp in the occupied West Bank earlier in the year.
Many will find far-fetched the idea that US officials specifically tailored the ‘stress-
and-duress’ interrogation techniques - which critics dubbed ‘torture-lite’ - to make
them more effective on Muslim detainees. What we do know is that there was an
awareness of Islamic cultural differences and sensitivities among the invading forces.
A manual for the First US Infantry Division, entitled Culture Guide to Iraq, spells out
Muslim sensitivities on dress, diet, manners and much else - even if it does so in a
way which is ill-informed and patronising (accusing Arabs of paranoia, exaggeration,
extremism and of having a black and white view of the world).30
Yet even those Muslims who do not detect conspiracy in the US actions are inclined
to feel that all this vindicates their view of American culture as carnal, licentious,
superficial and amoral. Those US commentators who sought to explain away the Abu
The Fifth Crusade Paul Vallely
Ghraib abuse as rooted in a comparatively harmless cultural form of fraternity
humiliation or hazing - the kind of psychology which also spawns reality TV - merely
confirm Muslim distaste for US culture as debased. When Westerners hear the Islamic
dismissal of America as the Great Satan, the tendency is to assume that it is monstrous
evil which is being ascribed to the United States. In fact Shaitan, to Muslims, is not a
monster but a rather pathetic creature, a trickster who falls for the lure of cheap
materialism, summed up by the casinos of North Tehran under the Shah, when the
phrase was first coined to symbolise the superficiality of American culture. Shaitan is,
above all, the Great Trivialiser.
Fighting demons
The charge that George Bush has Christianised the war in Iraq is threefold. It stems
first from his insufficient knowledge about those he has branded as the enemy. His
second weakness is that his religious sense of himself and his nation being Chosen by
God dangerously distorts his perception of the reality of the world; so that his norms
become absolute norms, his form of government automatically superior to all others,
and his spiritual tradition the only really true religion. However forcefully he
renounces the word ‘crusade’, all this reveals that his mentality is exactly aligned with
that of the Crusaders. And, third, his intoxication with his own highly-charged rhetoric
polarises issues in an unhelpful way through a process of demonisation.
Interestingly the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, highlighted this latter danger in a
largely unreported address to a conference in May 2004, entitled Naming Evil and
held in Trinity church, Wall Street, which suffered directly from the horror of the Fall
of the Twin Towers in New York. Noting that George Bush and his allies had gone
under a banner of messiahship, to save Iraq from an evil dictator, he reflected: ‘Once
we classify people as evil it can lead us to do evil ourselves. In fact, we may easily
think we are entitled to suppress them.’ The demonisation of an enemy - the notion
that one country, one people, one culture, can name another people evil - he said is,
‘the moral equivalent of declaring war. ...We cut off dialogue. We absolve ourselves
of any obligations to treat them as human beings.’ 31 It also gets us off the hook of
self-examination. We no longer have to ask what part our own actions may, even in a
small way, have contributed to the problem.
In August 2004 an apparently coordinated wave of car bombs exploded in Iraq. They
were targeted on Christian worshippers at Sunday evening prayers. At least 11 people
were killed and dozens were injured. The incident sent a wave of fear through the
country’s 750,000 Christians who make up about three per cent of the population.
The Fifth Crusade Paul Vallely
Until this point the Christian minority - who had lived peacefully side-by-side with
their Muslim neighbours throughout Saddam’s regime - had been largely untouched
by violence during the 15-month-old insurgency. But less dramatic forms of
intimidation had been evident for some months. Christian leaders complained of
kidnappings and murders of Christians and threats against bishops. Islamic radicals
had instructed Christians running liquor stores to close them: those who did not
comply were beaten. Even before the bombs, several hundred Christian families, who
had been relatively free to practise their religion under the former Ba’ath regime, had
left the country out of fear of religious persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists.
The main Christian communities in Iraq are not Protestant like the Christians who
have been influencing policy in the White House. Rather they are from the ancient
Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian and Armenian churches. Yet after the August bombs one
Assyrian Christian said: ‘ We have seen fanaticism on the rise. We are accused of
being collaborators with the ‘crusader’ coalition forces.’ The next day a group calling
itself the Planning And Follow Up Organisation in Iraq claimed responsibility and
said the blasts were in response to the US ‘crusader war’. The violence against Iraqi
Christians could, of course, merely be part of the general strategy by America’s
enemies to destabilise Iraqi society. Or perhaps, in the words of the Bible32, those who
have sown the wind, are now reaping the whirlwind.
© Paul Vallely, 2004
Published in a collection of essays, Re-imaging Security, by the British Council, 2004
ISBN 0-86355-536-5
The Fifth Crusade Paul Vallely
1 The private faith of a public man, Francine Kiefer, Christian Science Monitor, 6 September 2002
2 July 2002
3 Quotes from Kiefer, op cit
4 The Guardian, 2 August 2004
5 The paper written in 1996 by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith for the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political
Studies, Israel, can be found at
6 Samuel P Huntingdon, The Clash Of Civilizations and The Remaking Of World Order, Touchstone, New York 1996
7 Europe Cringes at President Bush's 'Crusade' Against Terrorists, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, 19 September
9 Historians generally speak of four crusades, though some church historians have adumbrated eight
10 Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, Oxford University Press, 1992
11 Christmas sermon, 25 December 2003
12 New York Times, 19 September 2001
13 to be found at
14 Plans of some Christians to evangelise as they offer aid pose dilemma for Iraqi reconstruction, Jane
Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, 17 April 2003
15 See The Boykin affair, Mark Thompson, Time magazine, 27 October 2003
16 Los Angeles Times, Oct. 16, 2003
17 CBS News, Washington, May 21, 2004
18 The Guardian, 20 May 2004
19 Associated Press, Oct. 16, 2003
20 Rick Perlstein, The Jesus Landing Pad, Village Voice, New York, 18 May 2004
21 Rick Perlstein, The Jesus Landing Pad, Village Voice, New York, 18 May 2004
22 Clifford Longley, Chosen People, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002
23 Rick Perlstein, The Divine Calm of George W. Bush, Village Voice, New York, 3 May 2004
24 Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2003
25 quoted in Rick Perlstein, The Divine Calm of George W. Bush, Village Voice, New York, 3 May 2004
26 The Independent, 14 May 2004
27 quotes are from the "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983," a handbook produced by the CIA and
used during the early 1980s to teach Latin American security forces how to extract information from prisoners. Leaked to
Harper's magazine, April 1997.
28 The Independent, 14 May 2004
29 in the National Catholic Reporter, Kansas City, 4 June 2004
30 to be found at hunter-choat/1st%20ID%20Guide%20To%20Iraq.pdf
31 “Naming Evil,” Trinity Institute’s 35th National Conference, New York, May 2-4, 2004, reported by Joan Chittister ,
OSB, in the National Catholic Reporter, Kansas City, 18 May 2004
32 Hosea 8:7
Full-text available
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