“This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while…” In much of the Islamic world, where history and religion play an important role in daily life in ways unfathomable to many Americans, these words struck a deeply rooted chord. Did George Bush Jr. just declare a tenth Crusade during his famous September 2001 speech? Was this really about Christianity versus Islam? It was the single dumbest sentence Bush could’ve ever uttered, framing his entire so-called War on Terror as a Crusade against Islam. It’s needless to say that several international and local Muslim armed groups jumped on the bandwagon of doubt and disbelief with a sneering “told you so!” However, the other side of the divide wasn’t left untouched by the Crusader rhetoric itself, and a distinct subculture popped up among U.S. soldiers, most notably the Marine Corps, involving the intentional and ostentatious wearing of anti-Muslim iconography and symbols with references to the Crusades and the Knights Templar. Serving in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, this was an intentional provocation to say the least.
In Jim Parco’s 2013 research paper for Colorado College titled For God and country: Religious fundamentalism in the US Military, he finds that the Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush Jr. actually cloaked his political rhetoric in religious language, framing America’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks as a Crusade. The insinuation that religion did as a matter of fact matter in the wars and battles to come shifted the focus from a war between individual and political interests to a war between religions. Parco mentions by extension how Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon was responsible for producing a daily Worldwide Intelligence Update intended to inform the president of updates on the field of battle and the wider context. As research by Robert Draper for ABC News found out, the cover pages of these top-rank official military news bulletins were carefully designed with Biblical verses and selectively chosen photos. Above the picture of a M1 Abrams tank roaming the Iraqi desert, the quotation reads: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” [Ephesians 6:13]
With all of this aggressive religious rhetoric, it’s no wonder some soldiers inside the international coalition took things to another level. Several USA-based companies do a brisk business selling patches with Crusader themes, mostly under the “trouble makers” section. As an article in Foreign Policy points out, the “web-based tactical couture retailer Mil-Spec Monkey has sold more than 10,000 “Pork Eating Crusader” patches for wear on combat uniforms. ” Popular are also the patches made to resemble an army Ranger tab with the word “Infidel” written on it. Most of these feature both English and Arabic, so there’d be no confusion among the intended audience. More obscure albeit as popular as the others is the Hadji Don’t Surf patch, featuring an elder Muslim man falling of a magic carpet in a pop culture reference to an Apocalypse Now (1979) quote “Charlie don’t surf“.
Besides these, Knights Templar symbols appear to be used as well. A red St. George’s Cross on a white background, historically associated with the Knights Templar, have been attested among US SOF in Afghanistan, with or without the inscription Militum Christi, or Soldiers of Christ. This isn’t exclusive to the US Army though, and a photograph has surfaced depicting UK nationals embedded with the Peshmerga in Iraq to fight ISIS, most notably Timothy Scott and Steven Costa. The latter is pictured holding a Knights Templar flag (black and white horizontal bands with a red St. George’s Cross in the hoist’s top corner).
Besides the obvious Crusader themes recalled through these flags and patches, blatant Nazi symbolism and iconography has also found its way across foreign armed groups on military duty in the Middle East and North Africa. A photo taken in August 2007 shows a large swastika emblem hoisted over an Australian military vehicle while on operations in Afghanistan. Experts have concluded that the picture was in no way digitally altered. In a separate instance, two members of the Australian SAS were photographed while holding up a Confederate flag on a mission in 2012 in Uruzgan Province Afghanistan. The flag reads: “Southern Pride”. In a video, one of the Australian soldiers is seen slinging the flag over his shoulder while escorting bound Afghan men to a Black Hawk. In the same spirit, UK soldiers on duty in Afghanistan somewhere around 2010 were photographed while performing the Nazi-salute in front of the Union Jack with the inscription “Invicta Loyal“, the name of a Kent-based Glasgow Rangers supporters club. Also pictured is the Ulster Banner, a Northern Ireland loyalist symbol.
The trend is in no way exclusive to Western coalition forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. Amid the raging civil war in Libya, Neo-Nazi and fascist graffiti have been documented in and near a burned-out mosque inʿAyn Zāra (south of Tripoli). The symbols were left behind by Russian mercenaries (such as the Wagner group) on abandoned positions taken by the Libyan GNA (Government of National Accord). They range from swastika’s to *sæwelō runes to derogatory remarks in Russian to white supremacist imagery like 14/88, a reference to white supremacist David Lane’s 14 words and 88 Precepts popular among international neo-Nazi groups. One of the inscriptions left behind reads: “Я вижу мечети на русской земле, но было бы лучше увидеть их в аду (I see mosques on Russian soil, but it would be better to see them in hellfire)”, which may indicate the reason why the mosque burned down in the first place.
These incidents aren’t exhaustive by a long shot, and it seems that foreign armies currently involved in armed conflicts across the MENA region have a bigger problem with far-right extremism than they care to admit. The question, however, remains: Is it the work of disgruntled individuals seeking to make a statement, or is it much deeper rooted and institutionalized through a tolerance policy from higher up the hierarchy?
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Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.