'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Friday, September 12, 2014
Kevin McDonald - ISIS isn’t Medieval: Revolution, Terror and Statemaking are Modern
Over recent weeks there has been a constant background noise
State and its ideology are some sort of throwback to a distant past.
It is often framed in language used last week by the deputy prime minister,
Nick Clegg, who
claimed that ISIS is “medieval”. In fact, the terrorist group’s thinking is
very much in a more modern western tradition.
Clegg’s intervention is not surprising. Given the extreme
violence of Islamic State fighters and the frequent images of decapitated
bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of this violence as
somehow radically “other”. But this does not necessarily help us understand what is at
stake. Above all, this tends to accept one of the core assertions of
contemporary jihadism, namely its claim that it reaches back to the origins of
Islam. As one Islamic State supporter I follow on Twitter is fond of saying:
“the world changes, Islam doesn’t”.
This is not just a question for academic debate. It has real
impact. One of the attractions of jihadist ideology to many young people is
that it shifts generational power in their communities. Jihadists and, more
broadly, Islamists present themselves as true to their religion, while their
parents, so they argue, are mired in tradition or “culture”.
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
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 judgement 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. But Maududi’s debt to European political history extends
beyond his understanding of sovereignty. Central to his thought is his
understanding of the French Revolution, which he believed offered the promise
of a “state founded on a set of principles” as opposed to one based upon a
nation or a people. For Maududi this potential withered in France,
its achievement would have to await an Islamic state (The
Process of the Islamic Revolution).
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 still today French
government agencies are 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”
(Islamic Way of Life). 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 Koran to understand this – look to the
French Revolution and ultimately to the secularisation of an idea that finds
its origins in European Christianity: Extra ecclesia 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, the source of what
it means to be a refugee.
If IS’s Islamic State is profoundly modern, so too is its
violence. IS fighters do not simply kill. They seek to humiliate as we saw last
week as they herded Syrian reservists wearing only their underpants to their
death. And they seek to dishonour the bodies of their victims, in particular
through postmortem manipulations. Such manipulations aim at destroying the body as a
singularity. The body becomes a manifestation of a collectivity to be
obliterated, its manipulation rendering what was once a human person into an
“abominable stranger”. Such practices are increasingly evident in war today,
from the Colombian
necktie to troops trading images of body parts to access
pornographic websites during the Iraq war.
Central to IS’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. Nazism wasn’t
medieval, nor is Islamic State.