“Successful wickedness hath obtained the name virtue… when it is for the getting of the kingdom.”
Fishing your keys out of a hospital’s public toilet after you’ve found out they won’t flush down is a bitch. Keys that had fit into the ignition of a Toyota pick-up truck. Had fit, but would no longer since a half-hour earlier it’d disappeared in a massive fireball and taken 213 lives along with it. And matters aren’t made any better when it’s right around the noon lunch-rush to the porcelain. When anyone from the grumpy chain-smoking caffeine-slugging nurses to the patients who’ve had their bowels loosened and ripened by disease, hospital food, and hopelessness would’ve just taken their regular load off before returning to their day.
The task is made even more surreal when you’re holding three unfired bullets to go along with your keys. When you can feel that your jeans, white-patterned shirt, socks, and black shoes are all stiffening and jelling with the pungent, coagulating blood of your victims. And the blood of a close friend. The blood of a man who you’d sworn to fight to the death with, and who’d cared for you when you nearly died from contracting tuberculosis in a third-world country.
Mohammed Rashid Daoud al-Owhali could still smell the tang of dynamite in the dry African air. He stood, bleeding from cuts on his back, right hand, and forehead, and tried to figure out just how things had gone so wrong. He had left his home in Saudi Arabia, crossed paths and earned the respect of the legendary muhajideen, proved his loyalty to Osama bin Ladin, and fought and trained in Afghanistan to die the brave death of a martyr.
How could it be that after so much, he’d ended up only a bloodied coward?
Almost seven-hundred years earlier, Jacques de Molay had also stood contemplating his fate with strong smells swirling in the afternoon air. Except he was in front of the crowd that’d gathered at the Notre Dame, standing because he was chained to a stake.
And the smell overwhelming the chill October air was the burning of his own flesh.
In 1307, the Knights Templar ceased to exist as a cohesive organization, and their next palpable contribution to history would be as a plot twist in a Dan Brown novel. De Molay had spent two years imprisoned in Paris because he’d been the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, a once-venerable military order founded to secure safe passage for the innumerable European pilgrims and soldiers making their way to the Holy Land. More precisely to the sacred Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from which the Templars drew their moniker. Refusing to denounce his brethren, he was put to the torch. This occurred because with the end of the Crusades had come the shriveling of the Templar’s raison d’etre – however their still-plump fortune was greedily eyed by European monarchs. Most keenly, by King Phillip IV of France.
In the aftermath of the First Crusade, the order was organized when “a small band of knights took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to dedicate their entire lives to the protection of pilgrims to the Holy Land.”1 They began simply protecting the roads to Palestine, but soon grew to be the largest standing army in all of Christendom.
Over the course of almost two-hundred years more than twenty-thousand men would become sworn military monks fighting and killing in the Middle East under the banner of the Knights Templar.
But then in holy cahoots with Pope Clement V, King Phillip had a papal bull issued that charged the Templars with heresy, an important charge because it was the one crime that would allow Phillip to confiscate their extensive wealth and properties. This treasure has amassed “in such abundance that the employment of its surplus funds had made the Knights Templar the major bankers of the Christian world.”2 And the underpinnings of how the Templars became so rich are locked in step with the financial impetus that marched the First Crusades to the Middle East so many hundreds of years ago, leaving a legacy that is still bitterly remembered today.
As Pope Urban II consolidated his rule at the end of the first century of the second millennium, he saw that “the main forces in motion in Western Europe were: exceptional demographic growth coupled with harsh economic conditions, which together fueled widespread social unrest.” Amplifying the waves of social unrest beginning to ripple across Europe were both the Papacy’s sinking power, which demanded new ways to bring the commoner back to the Church, and the “pressing demands for new commercial outlets posed by the new social classes of merchants, bankers, and traders.”3
The status quo, it seemed, would not be able to hold much longer unless something was done.
So in late November of 1095, after traveling across France the previous summer to feel out the nobles and clerics whose support would be at the crux of his plan, Urban II held court at Cathedral of Clermont. In attendance were some three-hundred churchmen who were answering the letters Urban had sent out and a throng of locals so vast that they soon overfilled the Cathedral, forcing Urban to move the session to a nearby field.
With his Papal throne sitting high atop a platform that’d been hastily constructed to loft Urban above the masses, he began to passionately lay out the plight of their Christian Brothers in Eastern Christendom. He claimed that their brothers living within the land of Palestine had appealed for their help, as there were “Turks advancing into the heart of the Christian land, maltreating the inhabitants and desecrating their shrines.”4 Among the worst of these alleged desecrations were that tender Christian boys were being circumcised with hackneyed carelessness, that Turkish soldiers were buggering imprisoned Christian men, and that Christian women and girls were being abused as if they were barnyard animals.5
Given the still-popular beliefs about what backwards country peoples do to their livestock, we can only guess what traumatizing practices were allegedly being carried out by the Muslim Turks on young Christian girls.
Such sensational claims were necessary because at the time “there was no underlying anger against the Muslims, about whom almost nothing was known in Europe.” In fact, within the Holy Land there was no Muslim impediment against Christians visiting their holy places except versions of the same gate-toll that was paid whenever anyone passed through the gates of any major European city, say London or Paris.
There was so little understanding about the region that the name soon applied to all followers of Mohammad, Saracens, was a misinformed bastardization cum overgeneralization derived from the name of just a single Middle Eastern tribe that had been pestering the Greeks near the Syrian border for generations. But the name of this one tribe came to encompass Muslims in general within every papal bull and encyclical, likely since all Arabs about looked the same to the Europeans anyways.
The Muslim rulers of the Christian Holy Land allowed Christian pilgrims and permanent residents alike to pursue their interests in the lands of Palestine, and “had no problem with the presence of either Orthodox or Latin Christians in their territory.”6 To overwhelm this tolerant reality and incite Europe’s pangs for war, Pope Urban skillfully used propaganda that harnessed the same appeals that would almost one-thousand years later find Mohammed Rashid Daoud al-Owhali in Africa.
Stinking of encrusted blood and his own fear, cowering in a public restroom after just carrying out the murder of hundreds of civilians, al-Owhali was brought to Africa by an appeal that had hundreds of years earlier brought thousands of Christian Crusaders to the Holy Land.
In 1996, from the catacombed compounds of Tora Bora, Osama bin Ladin issued his first communiqué to his Muslim brothers across the world. It would shortly be joined by other written and spoken statements that would coalesce in the years to come as the manifesto embodied as al-Qaeda. Bin Ladin echoed the two main appeals made by Pope Urban at Clermont: protecting brothers of the faith who were being persecuted by a corrupt and vile enemy, and tracing a path to redemption leading out of the harsh economic reality that was everyday life for most members of the faith.