The Familiar Barbarism of ISIS

I write this as President Obama takes questions in Estonia. He just referred to ISIS’ “barbaric and empty vision.”  Barbaric it surely is, but far from empty.

As usual, he makes no mention of the Islamic roots of this world view, and notes that its primary victims are Muslims.  He never will state the truth that Islam began as, and has largely been, a religion of war and conquest.  And thus, it is supremely pragmatic and reflects truths about human nature that we would prefer to forget.

Earlier today, I watched Megyn Kelly of Fox News speak with Maajid Nawaz, former Islamic terrorist, and now a Liberal Democratic candidate for the British Parliament.   She said that ISIS appeared to be psychopaths.  Nawaz quite rightly told her that this is not the case. These fighters make war on behalf of their ideology, he said.

That ideology is again, Islam, which is, as it has always been, about conquest and power, and one might consider that this, the third transnational ideology to afflict the modern world, as did its predecessors, simply codifies the truth behind most of human history.

The strong will terrorize the weak, both to achieve their ends, and for the sheer joy of it.

In this the civilized state and its barbarian enemies can be quite the same.  Consider the Assyrians
Ashurbanipal, in his reduction of Elam, one of his many campaigns:

“According to his inscription, he killed the Elamite king Teumann and his son with his own sword: ‘With the encouragement of Assur, I killed them; I cut off their heads in front of each other.” He then brought the heads back to Nineveh where he hung them in his garden as decoration.”The destruction of Susa in the land of Elam 652 BCE

 “The rest of those living I destroyed…and their carved-up bodies I fed to dogs, to pigs, to wolves, to eagles, to birds of the heavens, to fishes of the deep.”

.

Then the Romans, those master engineers and lawgivers, the second element in the hyphenated classical heritage to which we credit the Renaissance and later, the Enlightenment, from the viewpoint of Calgacus, a Caledonian chief, as reported by Tacitus:

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The incessant dynastic wars of the middle ages, the Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years War.

And then, The Enlightenment, which  gave rise to what we take as a self evident principle, that humans have natural rights, which they should not need to defend, but enjoy peacefully, simply because they are humans.

The Western European wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, and even the Great War, saw civilians excluded from much of the violence, as never before. Cities were occupied, sometimes destroyed, but not sacked

The second European War reversed this, with civilians targeted and brutalized in spectacular numbers,  often with an up close and personal cruelty that was the equal of any in the ancient world.

And we come to James Foley, Sotloff, and many others, before, and to come.

We are shocked because this does not happen in our world.  Such things are confined to the forests and deserts of faraway lands where languages and customs are so different as to be unfathomable.
Yet ,Islam is quite straightforward:

“Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”

Qur’an 2:256 al-Saif

Yet the futile search for “why” continues, misdirected by our own natures.  

We refuse to understand that Islam’s resurgence, like the Holocaust and the Stalinist butchery, should tell us that barbarism, as we call it, has been the normal state of humanity.  In the years just before August 1914, European civilization reigned supreme, and progress, both in the metropolitan countries and their colonies was thought to be unstoppable.  Science, comfort, hygiene, and material well being would only continue to improve the lot of humanity.

The horrors that followed need not be outlined here, but following the two European catastrophes and the long tensions of the Cold War we found ourselves once again in the light of optimism. Technology and commerce were – and are – well on the way to bringing most of the world out of poverty.
Yet  in these same decades, the darkness that is Islam gathered strength.  It is easy to forget that the Middle East, benighted as it seems, and eternally embroiled in its hatred of Israel, had, or at least its elites had, not so long ago, embraced modernism, albeit often in their own forms of socialism and nationalism.

Nasser_and_Tahia_wedding

Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser and bride Tahia, 1944

Retrogression is never impossible, and has in history often been unstoppable.  The liberal humane and democratic life we treasure, in its varying forms in Europe, North America, Australasia and much of Asia is not the inevitable pinnacle of human progress.  It needs to be understood as precious, and delicate.  And therein is the contradiction.  Comfortable civilizations have arisen before and been shattered as that very comfort fails in the face of the basic human lust for power and domination. The barbarian may sweep in on horseback, or through an electoral victory.

President Obama and his Secretary of State have both referred to ISIS crimes as barbaric, and its outlook nihilist. This is an easy tag to throw around, much as the left enjoys the epithet “fascist,” and it is equally meaningless in this context.

ni·hil·ism
ˈnīəˌlizəm,ˈnē-/
noun
noun: nihilism

the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

Robert Zaretsky and David Mikics, writing in the Boston Globe on August 31, 2014, I think, correctly argue that, if anyone is nihilist, it is the post religious, post national West.  ISIS certainly cites its religious and moral principles, amply grounded in the Islamic canon.  However, Zaretsky and Mikics might have gone further.

The barbarian could not be more alive.  He knows that life has meaning:  conquest, plunder, and power. Just as the café habitué with his copy of “Being or Nothingness,” cannot understand this, the barbarian could not for a moment understand the intellectual’s search for meaning.

Nor would he want to.  He would simply relieve the searcher of his valuables, woman, and perhaps his head.

The west and its civilizational allies are still in denial.  The civilized man simply cannot understand the appeal of barbarism. We cannot prevail until we acknowledge that it is not ISIS that is aberrant, but we. Should we finally marshal our material and spiritual forces, and defeat Islam, the peace will not be eternal.

The barbarian is always at the gate, without, and within.   

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