By Praveen Swami
July 9, 2015
The horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle,” recorded Raymond D’Aguilers in his eyewitness chronicle of the First Crusade. The Muslims of Jerusalem had been put to the sword; the Jews dispatched by fire. “O’ new day, new day and exultation, new and everlasting gladness,” D’Aguilers wrote. “That day, famed through all centuries to come, turned all our sufferings and hardships into joy and exultation.”
Even as the Islamic State (IS) celebrates the first anniversary of the Caliphate it founded, the world has been struggling to find a strategic response to the macabre dystopia that has descended on West Asia and North Africa. Even though 62 nation-states are now engaged in fighting the IS, its reach — and lethality — have grown, apparently inexorably. D’Aguilers’ chronicle of his times reminds us that the IS is not a unique pathology: like other millenarian movements through history, it has been spawned by a political crisis, and will need political responses.
Last week, Tunisian university student Seifeddine Rezgui walked into a hotel in the Tunisian resort-town of Sousse, and shot dead 38 people. Till he recently joined an Islamist student group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Rezgui seemed to have no interest in politics. His passions, friends have said, were break-dancing, rap and Real Madrid. Its likely Rezgui was drawn by the IS’s online propaganda. In the movie Salil al-Sawarim, young jihadists drive through the town of Fallujah, shooting dead unarmed passers-by, as a song plays: “The clash of swords is the song of the defiant; the path of killing is the path of life”.
From the great cities of Europe and the quiet islands of the Maldives, this kind of ultra violence — precisely the kind that drew D’Aguilers and tens of thousands of others to the crusades hundreds of years ago — is attracting young people to the IS. The question is: Why? Islam is the easy-reach answer — but this doesn’t explain why Muslims are the principal victims of the IS’s savagery, as well as the bulk of those on the frontlines of the resistance to it.
For more substantial answers, we must turn to December 17, 2010, when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, igniting what we now call the Arab Spring. Ever since he was 10 years old, Bouazizi had struggled against the odds to support his family by selling his wares on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, just three hours drive from tragedy-hit Sousse. That afternoon, he was slapped on the face by municipal inspector Fedia Hamdi — and unable to bear the insult of being hit by a woman, committed suicide.
Across the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region, Bouazizi’s story spoke to a generation of young men whose lives are suffused by rage. Two-thirds of WANA residents are under 30, but a third are jobless. Ragui Assaad and Gadha Barsoun have pointed out that while the numbers of “young workers entering the workforce with higher educational levels has increased drastically since 1980, the quality of jobs available to them has not”. Families, jobs, progress: All these markers of adulthood have proved elusive for this generation of young men, threatening their masculinity. The economic and cultural pillars of mainly rural patriarchal societies are collapsing — but the new world has proved a brutal one. Seeing little hope in modernity, young people are turning to god. Tunisia, the one democratic success story of the Arab Spring, is the largest single exporter of foreign jihadists to the IS.
The work of historians like Norman Cohn tells us this is just what we should expect. In late-medieval Europe, peasants began to flee rural feudalism for the new economic opportunities opening up in Europe’s cities. But many, Cohn observed, “acquired new wants without being able to satisfy them”. In addition, the new world was capricious — plague, famine and war regularly undid hard-won economic gains. Fear, unleashed in changing societies yet to evolve a cultural vocabulary to deal with challenges, bred hate. Thus, when the great plague (the Black Death) reached Western Europe in 1348, pogroms were unleashed by those who believed it had been caused by Jews. The Jews were blamed for poisoning wells with potions concocted of spiders, frogs and lizards.
Historian Jack Goldstone has demonstrated that similar social and demographic dislocations underpinned crisis from the English civil wars of 1642-51 to the European revolutions of 1848. Demographer Herbert Moller has shown that German fascism rose on the back of demographic circumstances similar to those in West Asia today.
For three generations now, Islamists have held out the illusion that god’s order can save WANA from its crisis. In his seminal 1964 book Ma’alim fi’l Tariq, the ideologue Sayyid Qutb argued that Islam and modernity were locked in an irreducible confrontation. He rejected modernity — a “system which is fundamentally at variance with Islam and which, with the help of force and oppression, is keeping us from living the sort of life which is demanded by our Creator”. Pop-Islamist literature — filled with bizarre fantasies involving everything from Jewish cabals to the Bermuda Triangle — has made the utopian project mainstream. It casts the injustice and violence of life in the region as evidence that the apocalypse is imminent.
Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, the Islamic State’s caliph, draws on this intellectual tradition. The Caliphate’s war, al-Badri writes, is building one nation of equals under god: “Blood mixed and became one, under a single flag and goal, in one pavilion.” “If kings were to taste this blessing, they would abandon their kingdoms and fight over this grace,” he writes.
Like the crusader D’Aguilers, the IS’s killers exult in blood — but theirs is no animal lust. Instead, millenarians believe blood will water the fields from which a new, just world will spring. There’s no doubt resisting the IS does, indeed, require the willingness to wage a long war against those who believe slaughter will bring salvation. To imagine that killing terrorists will kill the millenarianism, though, is an illusion. For this war to succeed, the WANA region needs the emergence of a politics that believes human agency alone can build a world worth having. There are few signs, sadly, that such forces are being born today.