"Jihad Works Both Ways:” Representations of the New Crusaders

Ariel Koch investigates the anti-Islamic ideology of websites being used to recruit Western Christian volunteers to fight in Iraq and Syria - an ideology also reflected in violence against Muslims in Europe and North America.

A picture from the Facebook page of the Britain First movement
A picture from the Facebook page of the Britain First movement, with the caption “Brave anti-‎ISIS volunteers waving the Templar flag in Syria!”

Over the course of ISIS’ expansion into large areas of Iraq and Syria, the organization has severely victimized Christians and other minority communities. In opposition to Christian victimization, a few hundred volunteers from various Christian countries, mainly in North America and Europe, have been recruited via social networking sites (SNS).[1] This recruitment effort has developed a Christian discourse to oppose the online ISIS discourse. The Christian discourse reflects an anti-Islamic ideology identified with the West’s new right, and ironically, echoes many of the elements of ISIS’ discourse. [2]Down the road, this type of recruitment discourse may result in violence against Muslims in the volunteers’ countries of origin, as volunteers return home with military experience from Iraq and Syria. In fact, it is already evident that such anti-Islamic elements are active in Western countries.

The SNS pages that aim to recruit Christian volunteers are adorned with Crusader symbols and images drawn from a reservoir of verbal and nonverbal messages justifying Christian religious violence as a “crusade” against oppositional religious violence, particularly “jihad.”[3] These symbols include those of the Knights Templar (see picture), reflecting the desire of extreme right-wing elements in the West to perpetuate the Crusaders’ legacy and eradicate the Muslim threat. They contend that a containment process must be enacted in the Middle East, where ISIS embodies this threat, and in the Christian countries of Europe and North America, wherever there are Muslims who identify with the Salafi-Jihadi ideology. The use of crusader symbols creates a parallelism, juxtaposing the Templar flag with the Salafi-Jihadi black flag. Among other manifestations of this theme, this exemplifies the fact that these SNS pages ultimately develop a discourse similar to the jihadi discourse, in terms of symbolism and content. The stylistic similarity is also evident in the religious arguments presented on the SNS pages, including reference to New Testament verses that emphasize a desire to protect brethren of the Christian faith, destroy the enemy, and remove its influence from Christendom.

Parties identified with the new extreme right in Western Europe, North America, and Australia recruit Christian fighters and have them absorbed into designated military units. These units include the Babylon Battalion of the Popular Mobilization (al-Shaqib al-Sha’bi), a Shiite militia supported by Iran, and the Self-Sacrificing (Dwekh Nawsha in Assyrian), a Christian unit of the Kurdish Peshmerga. [4]

The Christian volunteers pose a security threat and challenge to the authorities in their countries of origin, whose main concern has been the return of jihadists, but now must also cope with the possible return of militant, combative Christians.

During the early 21st century, extreme right-wing violence has gained ground in Europe. Prominent examples include the activities of the German neo-Nazi underground between 2000 and 2006, whose members detonated explosives in crowded streets and murdered 10 people, mostly of Turkish origin. The European extreme right also sharply criticizes leftists’ support for refugees, sometimes accusing leftists of treason for helping to “Islamize” the West. Indeed, some rightists assert that due to this treason, leftists must be eradicated. For example, Anders Behring Breivik‎, a Norwegian nationalist who identified himself as a Knight Templar, murdered dozens of youth from the Norwegian Labor Party in July 2011. A more recent example was the June 2016 murder of British MP Jo Cox, who supported allowing refugees fleeing the Syrian war to enter Great Britain. The two most recent examples of extreme right-wing attacks in Europe occurred in June 2017, when a neo-Nazi youth attempted to run over Iraqi demonstrators in Malmo, Sweden,[5] and a similar vehicle attack targeted Muslims near the Finsbury Park mosque in London five days later, injuring eight people.[6]

North America is also witnessing an increase in anti-Islamic violence. Since the beginning of the year, there have been several cases of violence defined as hate crimes and terrorism. One example was a shooting at a mosque in Quebec in January, perpetrated by Canadian nationalist Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six worshipers. In late May, Jeremy Joseph Christian, a racist, stabbed three train passengers in Portland, Oregon after being reprimanded for verbally assaulting two Muslim women. The stabbing left two passengers dead and one injured. The new extreme right’s violence extends beyond Muslims, leaving leftists and the general public in the crossfire.

In recent years, the English Defense League (EDL) has been one of the foremost right-wing elements appropriating Crusader-Templar discourse on SNS. EDL is a street movement that began in England in 2009, and was followed by similar groups in Europe and elsewhere. This movement exalts the Knights Templar and aspires to continue their legacy. The emblem of the EDL and of the other “Leagues for Defense” is the cross of St. George, the patron saint of England, captioned with the Crusaders’ motto, “In this sign [the cross] you shall conquer” (in Latin: In Hoc Signo Vinces). The movement makes extensive use of SNS, distributing memes and pictures of crusaders accompanied by slogans threatening a crusade on jihad: “Jihad works both ways,” and “I’ll see your jihad, and raise you one crusade.”

Another example of this movement is Britain First, which maintains a Facebook page with approximately two million likes.[7] Britain First activists march through Muslim neighborhoods holding crosses and Templar flags, and demonstrate at mosques’ entrances, distributing copies of the New Testament. Other Facebook pages displaying similar Christian content and recruiting fighters to battle ISIS can be found in English, Spanish, French, and German, demonstrating that this is a broad, cross-border phenomenon, not confined to a specific country.

In conclusion, the new anti-Islamic right in the West poses a substantial threat, considering the Christian militants volunteering to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or operating in their countries of origin against supporters of the Salafi-Jihadi Muslim ideology. This movement utilizes a Crusader discourse that encourages religious Christian radicalization, and emphasizes that violence is a legitimate response to the jihadist threat, which is expanding from the Middle East into Europe.  The result might lead to militarization of social movements identified with the right, and the formation of quasi-military bodies composed of fighters with combat experience who have accumulated in the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, who want to eradicate what they see as the Muslim enemy that physically and spiritually threatens the Christians around the world.



[1] Henry Tuck, Tanya Silverman and Candace Smalley, ““Shooting in the Right Direction”: Anti-ISIS Foreign Fighters in Syria & Iraq”, The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Horizons Series No. 1, 2016, pp. 8-9.

[2] The difference between the new extreme right and the traditional extreme right is the focus of the newer movement on a single issue, namely, opposition to Islam, and thus opposition to Muslims and the migration of Muslims to Europe. Ostensibly, the new movement is based in cultural, rather than racial, superiority, while the traditional extreme right seeks to replace democracy with fascist, racist regimes.

[3] Using the term “crusaders” for people from Western, Christian countries began with the Osama bin Laden’s declaration of “Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders” in 1998.

[4] Tuck et al. pp. 36-37.

[5] Russia Today, 19 June 2017.

[6]The Guardian, 19 June 2017.

[7] See, for example, the website of Britain First.  As of 2018, other channels belonging to this movement, such as on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, are no longer active.