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Why changing the Crusaders' name is a sacrifice worth making

The horsemen who gallop around the field before Crusaders games are a reminder of a violent history. Photo/Getty Images

For those who say it’s too soon to think about renaming the Crusaders, the right time will probably never come.

The question of whether, in the wake of the massacres at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, the Christchurch-based Crusaders Super Rugby franchise should change its name is more complex yet more straightforward than it might seem.

The Crusades took place a very long time ago – the most famous Crusader, Richard the Lionheart, King of England and various other territories, died in 1199 – and in a vastly different world that doesn’t reveal all of itself when viewed through the lens of 21st-century attitudes and sensibilities.

One columnist described the European armies that conducted nine campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean between 1095 and 1291 as “people who murdered, attacked, raped, pillaged and plundered many an innocent township” and asked, “How can we say, ‘This isn’t us?’ when a rugby team is named after mass murderers?”

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As well as being a little unfair to those who named the franchise, this picture doesn’t convey the facts that life then was nasty, brutish and short. War rather than peace was the norm – Richard spent his life waging war – and there was no Geneva Convention and precious little humanity.

According to Douglas Boyd, author of Lionheart: The True Story of England’s Crusader King, “knights prosecuted their incessant power struggles … by slaughtering defenceless men, women and children, burning their humble homes, laying waste their fields and cutting down their orchards to bring starvation to the survivors, thus depriving their enemy of the support base that financed his unproductive way of life. It was, to use a modern expression, total war.”

And if the Crusades were a clash of civilisations, to use another modern expression, there’s no question which was the more civilised.

“The Islamic world was much bigger and more urbanised with more wealth and cultural patronage and more ethnic and linguistic diversity,” said Professor Paul Cobb, author of The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. “We’re talking about an invasion of peoples from a marginal, underdeveloped region … to one of the most urbanised, culturally sophisticated zones on the planet.”

Nor were the Crusades all carnage. “Wars and bloodshed … wasn’t the only or dominant story,” said Suleiman Mourad, professor of religion at Smith College, Massachusetts. “There was also coexistence, political compromise, trade, scientific exchange, love.”

The history may not be entirely black and white but the bottom line is that the Crusades were anti-Muslim in intent and violent in execution. Mourad: “I personally don’t find any structural difference between [jihad and crusade]. Jihad has an Islamic concept: religiously sanctioned aggression. The Crusades were precisely that.”

In reality, the only context that matters in this discussion is that a white supremacist allegedly killed 50 people because they were Muslims. For all the well-meant expressions of “Kia kaha, Christchurch”, this was an attack on the Muslim community, not the people of Christchurch.

Those who argue it’s “too soon” to address the question of a name change may feel that, for the time being, our focus should be on the victims. However, “too soon” is often the catchcry of those who want to preserve the status quo, regardless of how tarnished it may be, by stonewalling the issue until the pain subsides, memories fade and the media’s attention is directed elsewhere. For the US gun lobby, calls for gun control after mass shootings are invariably “too soon”. Given how often mass shootings occur in that country, they presumably always will be.

“It’s an opportunity to change things, to make things better,” said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, a Cantabrian and former Crusaders assistant coach. “It would appear that that is happening. But the key thing is that it continues to happen for a long time.”

Dropping the name would be hard on the region’s rugby community. The franchise’s achievements have made the Crusaders name synonymous with excellence wherever the game is played and given Christchurch a strong claim to being rugby’s equivalent of Silicon Valley.

But sympathy and declarations of solidarity only go so far. The scale and nature of this abomination demand meaningful action.

Rugby’s leaders should be proactive, since to engage in discussions with the Muslim community might lead to the latter being blamed by name-change opponents, should a change eventuate. Canterbury rugby should make a sacrifice that establishes its commitment to inclusiveness and tolerance and stands as a lasting repudiation of bigotry and hatred.

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.