Why ISIS Isn’t Medieval

Graeme Wood’s recent Atlantic essay on “What ISIS Really Wants” is an exceptionally thoughtful assessment of Islamic State as a group bent on “medieval” violence. It should be required reading, and succeeds in large part because it offers a mainstream, accessible look at ISIS’s political, religious, and apocalyptic goals in relation to al-Qaida and other groups. Wood’s analysis relies upon the assessment of Bernard Haykel, the Princeton University professor of Near Eastern studies. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadis] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel tells Wood. ISIS fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

That, however, is not entirely accurate. ISIS is not re-enacting the seventh-century Arab conquests, even though some among its ranks may think they are. They’re nostalgic for a make-believe past, and those among them who know plenty about Islam’s first decades have conveniently revised medieval history to fit modern ideological needs.

The early Arab conquests were nowhere near as consciously brutal as what we are witnessing in ISIS’s 21st-century rampage. Of course, seventh-century atrocities did happen routinely. Sources indicate, to take an example without clear parallel, that when Arab armies sacked the Persian city of Istakhr around 650, after a fierce and lengthy siege, 40,000 Persians were killed. New York University historian Robert Hoyland recently pointed out in his superb new history of the Arab conquests:

All empires have relied on violence and coercion for their existence, and ... all empires make use of a range of nonviolent strategies to maintain their rule: co-opting the willing, rewarding collaboration, promising protection in return for submission, playing divide and rule, and so on. The Arab empire was no exception to this, and so needs no special treatment.

While Islamic historians from the ninth century onward smoothed over the complex political scene of the Arabian Peninsula in order to describe a holy conquest, Hoyland has shown that the reality was much more uneven and nuanced. Indeed, Islam’s early spread focused on expanding the number of believers without wholesale destruction of existing social structures. In contrast, ISIS’s determined lack of capacity for negotiation is what sets it apart from the early Islamic conquests.

Given this context, ISIS’s insistence on an all-or-nothing caliphate isn’t “medieval” at all. It is a thoroughly modern group. It is executing a new and updated version of the early medieval Arab conquests. (In fact, good cases can be made for thinking of ISIS as shaped by Western political thought.)

As long as there have been conflicts among humans, there have been violent, often public, atrocities: the Roman conquest of Dacia (itself storyboarded on the famous Trajan’s Column in Rome), the Crusades, and the Holocaust. ISIS is part of a long tradition of demeaning one’s enemies through decapitation, incineration, disembowelment, and other reprehensible corporal punishments. But ISIS is better at it than almost any group that has come before it because its fighters are master propagandists, videographers, and photographers. They know how to thrust their violence into the mainstream. So, no, ISIS is not medieval. It is viciously modern.

This matters because ISIS’s most powerful allure is a collective sense of nostalgia for a specific version of the past. Medieval historians like Hoyland are among the best at unearthing the ways in which humans reform their own history for contemporary ideological purposes. Nostalgia has been and continues to be, as Virginia Tech historian Matt Gabriele has shown, a powerful unifier. In this case, ISIS draws its ideological strength from an acute sense of what an invented past can accomplish for the present and how nostalgia can motivate immediate, violent action.

The danger of calling ISIS “medieval” is not that it hurts medievalists’ feelings; it is that it tempts us to define the group’s special barbarism as something from the past that should be eradicated because, by God, we’ve progressed and are therefore advanced as a people. This, as medieval historian and journalist David Perry has recently pointed out, is dangerous thinking induced by the assumption that the Enlightenment fixed everything. (It didn’t.)

Our terminology matters when we mistakenly call ISIS “medieval.” Wood ought to have made a distinction between wholesale recycling of seventh-century conquest (as he argues) and nostalgia for a fictional Golden Age of Islamic conquest. ISIS certainly has revisionist historians among its ranks, nostalgic for a fictionalized past crafted specifically for their modern goals. This is a constant human activity across political spectrums, creeds, nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and classes. And humans will misremember history again and again until the sun burns out.

We need to understand ISIS’s tendency to (mis)remember history in order to deal with it effectively. We also need to understand how revisionist history actually functions in a society—and how it works for and against us.

Without irony or self-reflection, we erect monuments to men who owned other humans. We put them on our money, and we venerate them. As the Oklahoma legislature has vividly reminded us this week in its attack on Advanced Placement exams, we are in a long process of revising our own history in the name of American exceptionalism. We revise our history when we lack the nuance to consider that George Washington was both a great general and a merciless hunter of slaves. We revise history when we label the horrific massacre of hundreds of black Americans in Phillips County, Arkansas, in 1919 with the pathetically inadequate term race riots. We revise history when we refuse to see the ethical problems with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill reminiscing about singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” aboard the HMS Prince of Wales in 1941, only to incinerate entire urban, civilian centers in Germany with fire from on high a few years later. We revise history when we hear about the murder by drone of a 13-year-old boy in Yemen and promptly shrug our shoulders. War is hell. Oh well.

Revisionist history is a great equalizer of human experiences. That’s part of why it is a grave error to pretend ISIS’s barbarism is somehow foreign, medieval, or special. It is none of those things. It is modern and pressing. ISIS should be held accountable for slaughtering Yazidis, Muslims, Christians, and other so-called apostates. In the meantime, we must become more reflective, more willing to interrogate our shared history. If we do not—if we refuse to confront our own nostalgia—we run the risk of harboring dangerous thinking about our policies toward groups like this and turning every struggle into one between Good (us) and Evil (them).

All this said, Wood’s essay draws out a crucial point: We have to understand ISIS’s rationality in order to deal with it. Its members are rational people. They are shaping the world they consider themselves destined to live (and die) in. This is where apocalyptic thought is important to understand.

The United States is now scrambling to find a way to respond to ISIS. The trick will be to do so without rivaling the most recent and longest armed conflict in our history. History tells us, though, that it is critically important for our policymakers to have a nuanced understanding of how to deal with the group. This is also why understanding the dangers of revisionist history matters.