A leading expert on far-right politics says the imagery and symbolism used by the Crusaders rugby team could be feeding into white supremacist and anti-Muslim ideology.

The Crusaders' team name and imagery has sparked controversy after the terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch last Friday which claimed 50 lives and left dozens injured.

Some say the name and the images used by the Super Rugby franchise – horsemen with swords evoking the series of religious and political wars between Christians and Muslims fought in the medieval period – is offensive and insensitive, especially after the targeted killings in Christchurch.

Massey University professor of sociology Paul Spoonley, who has studied the behaviours of the rising far-right and white supremacist movement in New Zealand, believes the Crusaders' name and its imagery is an example of the country's "naivety".

Advertisement

"It's like an 'A-ha' moment isn't it. In the wake of what's happened, you look at the symbolism that the Crusaders use, you look at those guys on horses, I mean it's unequivocally reflecting the crusades and one side in those crusades," Spoonley said.

The Crusaders horsemen at the start of a Super Rugby game. Photo / Photosport
The Crusaders horsemen at the start of a Super Rugby game. Photo / Photosport

"I've referred several times in the media to our naivety. This is one of those cases where probably nobody ever thought about the imagery or the possibility that it reflected a history of anti-Muslim crusades and politics."

Spoonley says the crusades are a common point of reference for modern day white supremacists and supporters of the far-right movement, and that symbolically, the imagery used by the Crusaders rugby team could also be seen in the same light.

"[The accused] is certainly aware of his history and has called upon that history.

"The white supremacists and the extreme right certainly refer back on occasion to the crusades. That's part of the history that they want to call upon in order to remind people that there is a global struggle against Islam.

"That's not necessarily connected to the Crusaders rugby team … [but] on a symbolic level, absolutely. But it's a bit like a number of the rest of us, we'll be saying to ourselves 'I had no idea. I did not realise that what I was doing was feeding into those groups who might be Islamophobic'. So it's that naivety again I think."

'Understanding why it's offensive and to whom'

The Crusaders' name controversy is a part of a global movement calling for a re-evaluation of historical symbols and monuments which could be seen as glorifying harmful ideologies like white supremacy.

For instance, calls in America to remove Confederate monuments and memorials, believed by many as memorialising and celebrating white supremacy, was intensified after the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, in which a gunman murdered nine African Americans.

The killer, like the accused gunman of last Friday's massacre in Christchurch, was an avowed white supremacist.

In 2017, the American Historical Association said in a statement: "To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history."

Spoonley echoed that sentiment in relation to the Crusaders' team name issue.

"We don't want to cleanse history of anything which might be offensive, but we want to have a discussion about it so that we understand why it's offensive and to whom. And then I think we need to make a decision about whether we need to change the name or take down a statue.

"I think we do need to have a discussion. And I agree entirely with the Crusaders management that you need to pick your moment to have that discussion and you need to involve members of the Muslim community in that discussion.

"It might be that that Muslim community says 'No that's fine'. I don't know that, but you wouldn't want to continue just using that imagery without having that discussion."

How other sports teams named Crusaders reacted to controversy

In 2009, Middlesex County Cricket Club in England changed their name from the Middlesex Crusaders to the Panthers after only receiving "one or two" complaints from Muslim and Jewish communities.

"We felt that the time was right for us to take a look at our one day image and unanimously reached the conclusion that rebranding to a new look would be the right decision at this time," said then-Middlesex chief executive Vinny Codrington.

Last year, the athletics team at College of the Holy Cross, based in Worcester, Massachusetts, who have been called the Crusaders since 1920, decided to keep their name.

The school's board of trustees voted to retain their moniker but opted to ditch any knight imagery.

"While we acknowledge that the Crusades were among the darkest periods in Church history, we choose to associate ourselves with the modern definition of the word crusader, one which is representative of our Catholic, Jesuit identity and our mission and values as an institution and community ... We are not simply crusaders, we are Holy Cross Crusaders," the school said in a statement at the time.