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Understanding Islamist Millenarian Violence through the Prism of Medieval Europe: Worshipping False Gods

By Praveen Swami

July 26, 2016

“In the Temple of Solomon and the portico”, wrote the chronicler Raymond d’Aguilers, witnessing the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, “crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses”. He recorded “marvellous works”: “Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames”. “Jerusalem was now littered with bodies and stained with blood”, D’Aguilers approvingly went on, “the blood of pagans who blasphemed God there for so long”.

The mind of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who drove his truck into a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, killing 84 people, is closed to us forever. The fragments we have access to are fragmentary, sometimes paradoxical: A man fascinated by Islamic State beheading videos but also by drug-fuelled sexual excess; a man who tore up his child’s teddy bears and drawn to small-time crime; a man diagnosed with mental illness, but capable of meticulously planning his attack.

From d’Aguilers’ account, though, we learn one key thing. Islamist violence, in spite of the aesthetics it sometimes adopts, is a product of our modern times, not the medieval era — yet, it is too easy to think of this ultra-violence as a phenomenon of our time alone. There are important lessons to be learned from the past about the circumstances in which millenarian cults like the Islamic State flourish and grow.

Europe in the medieval period offers a useful prism through which we may examine jihadism, and understand its working. The contours of that period are strangely familiar, characterised as they were by enormous social dislocation. The rise of great cities, built on the production of goods and on organised trade, had given birth to new social classes, which were seeking to dismantle the feudal order. There was a rising tide of immigrants, flooding into the cities from the impoverished countryside, but often finding only misery.

Intense intellectual ferment also characterised the times. In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini, an unemployed papal secretary, hunted down a copy of the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus’s long-lost De rerum natura in a German monastery, reintroducing into the world the radical philosophical idea that the world was created not by the will of god, but the random collision of particles.

Nicolaus Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just before his death in 1543, would lay the scientific foundations for a revolution in our conception of the universe.

Flowering in the midst of this new world, though, were a great number of millenarian death cults, a grim counterpart, as it were, to the making of the Enlightenment world. These movements, the scholar Norman Cohn noted in his masterwork, In Pursuit of the Millennium, were much like modern jihadism, in casting themselves as different from “all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed”.

The case of the Adamites, so named for their peasant leader, who proclaimed himself both Adam and Moses, is instructive. From their island stronghold on the Nezarka River, near Neuhaus, contemporary accounts tell us, the Adamites waged a holy war against nearby villages. Every man, woman and child was cut down or burned alive. Blood, the Adamites believed, had to flow as high as a horse’s head.

In October, 1421, the Adamites were exterminated — fighting to the end, their fanatic resistance fuelled by their leader’s prophecy that the 400-strong trained army arrayed against them would be struck blind by god.

Jan Bockelson, alternately, founded the Anabaptist regime of Münster in the 1520s, preparing for the imminent coming of Christ with freewheeling polygamy, bizarre entertainments, and the execution of all dissidents. As the imperial army besieged Münster, followers were told god had granted them the strength of a hundred enemies; They would suffer neither hunger, thirst nor fatigue.

Even as the population starved, though — many begging Bockelson’s mercenaries to deliver them and their children the coup de grace — they refused the imperial army’s offers of an honourable surrender.

This millenarianism, Cohn noted, “drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society”. Traditional kinship networks and societies having disintegrated in changing times, these groups created their own around charismatic prophets.

Farhad Khosrokhavar, a French sociologist who has extensively interviewed incarcerated terrorists, has described jihadism in similar terms — “individualism through death”. Killers like Bouhlel, his work suggests, are severed from their traditional cultural ties, without having made the transition to cultural modernity. In nihilist violence, they find liberation.

In a larger sense, Khosorokhavar argues this is true of many West Asian societies. The region, he notes, has seen the “dismantling of traditional communities through state action and a new market economy but without the positive side effects of the latter”. Islamism offers the illusion of a just alternative, founded on god’s will, not man’s caprice.

Early in the 16th century, the Book of a Hundred Chapters, an apocalyptic text written by an anonymous publicist who lived in upper Rhine, demonstrated the durability of these fantasies. He prophesised the coming of a Brethren of the Yellow Cross, who would “control the whole world from West to East by force of arms”. For this age of terror, it had a motto: “Soon we will drink blood for wine!”

It is fascinating to contemplate just how close this language is to that of modern jihadist texts. “History does not write its lines except with blood,” wrote Abdullah ’Azzam, founding patriarch of the Arab jihadists in Afghanistan, revered by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State alike. “Glory does not build its lofty edifice except with skulls; honour and respect cannot be established except on a foundation of cripples and corpses”. Like ’Azzam, the crusaders fetishised martyrdom: One chronicle records the story of Jakelin de Mailly, a knight of the order of the Templars, killed fighting Muslim raiders on May 1, 1187, whose genitals were cut off and preserved so they might, if divine providence permitted it, beget an heir with similar valour.

The history of millenarian movements teaches us, though, to read jihadism as a part of a landscape marked by the rise of a violent new right — witness the obscenities of Joseph Kony in Uganda and Mexico’s murderous Narco-Evangelists to India’s Hindutva and Europe’s New Right. These crisis emerge from cultural shocks, in turn the outcome of demographic and economic transformations more rapid than any in history. Failed by states in these times of crises, peoples have turned to gods.

Fighting jihadist movements needs intelligence services and policemen. It needs military resources, and geo-strategic responses. It also, however, needs a better politics.