Someone on facebook linked to an article from the Guardian about the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (formerly known as ISIS, and still called that in the article), the Islam-based terror organisation that reigns over parts of Iraq and Syria and has committed atrocities against humanity. If found it very interesting in making some connections that are easily missed, giving some historical background on modern Jihadism and deconstructing some of lazy assumptions that are often parroted in the media.
The Islamic State is one of the things dominating the news nowadays, even though they seemed to come ‘out of nothing’. They are a threat to our modern way of thinking and living, and tend to be quite absolutist in their enforcement of what they consider an ‘Islamic state’ to be, in such a way that those who are not considered part of their particular type of Islam do better run away as fast as they can when the IS comes near…
And that category does not just include Christians (the Orthodox Churches of Mesopotamia are (were) among the oldest Christian communities on the planet), Yezidi and ‘heretic’ Shiites and more mystically inclined Islamic followers of Sufism but also anyone who doesn’t agree with them, even if they are as much of a Sunni Muslim as they are.
Some people like to call the things the IS does not only barbaric but also ‘medieval’. Which totally ignores that the worst things that are generally seen as ‘medieval’ are actually from the renaissance (like the European religion wars, the extreme witch hunts, …) But since most of us do are not very historically-minded and believe the englightenment-myths that the medievals believed in a flat Earth (almost everything believed in the Ptolemaic round-earth geocentric model) or that medievals had no place for reason. (Anyone who has read the scholastics will know that a lot of medieval thinkers were closer to excess rationalism than to shunning reason.)
But there actually is not much that can be called medieval (in an Arabic or European sense) about the IS. They are much more (post)modern with a lot of modern Western influence, and the IS actually could never do what they do without the modern mass media for example. Without the internet and our sharing of videos they couldn’t have had the effect on the rest of the world that they do now. For anyone who knows even a little bit about history it’s very clear that the IS is not really going back in time to reclaim something very old, (they wish though) but something new and unique that can only exist in this day and age…
We also should watch out about being too categoric the link between IS and Islam. Yes, IS claims to be Islamic, but so do a lot of the people killed by them. Saying that the IS or any violent group is ‘the real Islam’ and that Islam is nonsense and dismisses all those Muslims who do not agree with IS at all as bad Muslims. (It only affirms the validity of IS anyway…)
On the other hand, saying that IS has nothing at all to do with Islam is also nonsense. They do claim to represent Islam and at least base themselves on a faulty image of Islam. even if they would be excluded as heretics by all other muslims, then it’s still nonsense to say they have ‘nothing to do with Islam’.
The Jehovah witnesses might not be considered as inside of Christianity, but to say that they have nothing to do with Christianity is just nonsense…
But there is another source for the IS, and modern Jihadism as a whole, that we might not like to see. Note the second word in the name ‘Islamic State’. The idea of the absolutist modern nation-state is as central to the IS as Islam is. The earlier mentioned article from the Guardian that inspired this post has the very interesting title “Isis jihadis aren’t medieval – they are shaped by modern western philosophy” and as sub-title “We should look to revolutionary France if we want to understand the source of Islamic State’s ideology and violence.”
For those with a short memory, the French revolution is not that long ago, and brought us the guillotine for those who disagreed, and brought on the modern absolute state which differed enormous from the way politics were done before that time. Those were violent and barbaric times, in the name of progress, science, the enlightenment, and all that yadda-yadda… (Yes, the guillotine was seen as progress too, a new and modern way to execute people with superior technology…. Beheading might be barbaric, but it’s in no way incompatible with modernity!)
It needs to be said very clearly: contemporary jihadism is not a return to the past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology with a very significant debt to western political history and culture.
When he made his speech in July at Mosul’s Great Mosque declaring the creation of an Islamic state with himself as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted at length from the Indian/Pakistani thinker Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1941 and originator of the contemporary term Islamic state.
Maududi’s Islamic state is profoundly shaped by western ideas and concepts. He takes a belief shared between Islam and other religious traditions, namely that God alone is the ultimate judge of a person, and transforms this – reframing God’s possession of judgment into possession of, and ultimately monopoly of, “sovereignty”. Maududi also draws upon understandings of the natural world governed by laws that are expressions of the power of God – ideas at the heart of the 17th-century scientific revolution. He combines these in a vision of the sovereignty of God, then goes on to define this sovereignty in political terms, affirming that “God alone is the sovereign” (The Islamic Way of Life). The state and the divine thus fuse together, so that as God becomes political, and politics becomes sacred.
Such sovereignty is completely absent in medieval culture, with its fragmented world and multiple sources of power. Its origins lie instead in the Westphalian system of states and the modern scientific revolution.
The absolute power of the state (here mixed-up with the sovereignity of God) is indeed completely foreign to the medievals, who had different spheres of authority that were often competing. The middle ages in Europe did have a constant battle for power against the Pope and the kings and emperors, because they both wanted power, and every lower feudal lord did have their own sovereignty in their little part of the world. Nothing like the absolute modern state or the even scarier theocratic version of IS was conceivable to them.
Which is the reason that the French revolution tried to erase all religion, because it could not tolerate another source of authority apart from the State like the Pope. Or even God.. The proclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’ if understood properly is problematic in the modern absolutism, but since most people spiritualise that it’s not such an issue right now. The communist regimes of the 20th centuries did the same thing and tried to ban all religions, sometimes with a lot of violence.
When we mix this modern absolutism of the State with an Islamic theocracy, we get something like the IS:
In revolutionary France, it is the state that creates its citizens and nothing should be allowed to stand between the citizen and the state. That is why today French government agencies are still prevented by law from collecting data about ethnicity, considered a potential intermediary community between state and citizen.
This universal citizen, separated from community, nation or history, lies at the heart of Maududi’s vision of “citizenship in Islam”. Just as the revolutionary French state created its citizens, with the citizen unthinkable outside the state, so too the Islamic state creates its citizens. This is at the basis of Maududi’s otherwise unintelligible argument that one can only be a Muslim in an Islamic state.
Don’t look to the Qur’an to understand this – look to the French revolution and ultimately to the secularisation of an idea that finds its origins in European Christianity: extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation), an idea that became transformed with the birth of modern European states into extra stato nulla persona (outside the state there is no legal personhood). This idea still demonstrates extraordinary power today: it is the source of what it means to be a refugee.
It’s probably because we don’t understand the middle ages very much (how can we, every Hollywood movie about that time is filled with contemporary modern though projected back upon the past) that we associate this stuff with the middle ages. But it’s much closer to us, closer than we like.
Also note that the use of violence by the IS is not medieval, but very modern, postmodern even, since it is used as a means of worldwide propaganda through the postmodern means of the internet.
I will close here with the conclusion of the Guardian article, which is very important. The IS wants to be seen as a continuation of older forms of Islam, but we should not validate those claims. Their ‘caliphate’ (as well as that of Boko Haram in Africa) is no return to the caliphate of the earlier days of Islam, it’s something completely new that they try to validate by using that name.
Central to Isis’s programme is its claim to Muslim heritage – witness al-Baghdadi’s dress. Part of countering this requires understanding the contemporary sources of its ideology and its violence. In no way can it be understood as a return to the origins of Islam. This is a core thesis of its supporters, one that should not be given any credence at all.