The Islamic State's false promise [Commentary]

The terrorist organization recruits members by promising a return to an ancient past that never was

September 30, 2014|Thomas F. Schaller

The political practices of the Islamic State are terrifying: kidnapping, ransoming, ethnic cleansing and, of course, beheading. These people must be vanquished.

But equally frightening is the group's key premise. Like many reactionary movements, ISIS feeds upon and nurtures the dangerous notion that somehow the world, or at least the parts over which they claim authority, can somehow be restored to an earlier, idyllic era — in this case, the 8th century.

ISIS can chop off all the heads members want, but here's a newsflash for them: Try as they might to reverse history, time marches in but one direction. That's true for Christians or Muslims, civilizations East or West, democracies or caliphates. Leaders or movements who believe otherwise should rightly be regarded as dangerous.

Yet political leaders hungry for power and control often peddle to potential followers the intoxicating promise of reviving a high-varnished, glorified past that never really existed. Such delusions often turn lethal, especially when revanchist aspirations cannot be delivered to adherents and are met with resistance from opponents. What ISIS wants to revive — or purports to want — are the triumphal glories of the era of Islamic caliphates.

Really? Imagine how absurd it would be if butchers were slaughtering people across the Americas in the name of restoring the Aztec, Mayan and Incan empires. Actually, why imagine such atrocities? Merely recall what happened when Pol Pot suffused his genocidal campaign in Indochina with the rhetoric of restoring Khmer nationalism.

Regarding ISIS, religious historian Karen Armstrong recently argued that it's misleading to equate religious identity and fervor with war and genocide, when in fact secular motives have historically been as lethal.

"When secularisation has been applied by force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction — and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme," she wrote in the (London) Guardian. "The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of ISIS, we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain."

Well, geez — sorry about the lethal consequences of remaining devoted to the notion of separating church from state. If secularism is a trigger for religious-inspired barbarism, the American military may as well organize itself around fundamentalist religious principles, too.

I'm kidding, of course. But guess what? That's already happened in the post-September 11 era.

According to a recent report written by James Parco, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, for the Center of Inquiry, Christian fundamentalism has infested our military ranks: "religious proselytizing and evangelizing" is rising; civilian overseers and commissioned officers "repeatedly couch" America's military mission in language of a Christian crusade; military leaders have "created cultures and atmospheres of religious sectarianism" in the service academies; and those who have dared to complain about rising religious messaging and themes are often punished or reassigned. Although 69 percent of military members self-identify as Christian, 98 percent of chaplains are.

As for Christians who believe that Jesus' legacy could never be manipulated by warmongers, they should read some of John Dominic Crossan's deeply researched work. They'll wonder how Jesus is transformed during the course of the New Testament from an advocate of nonviolence in the Gospels into a bloodied leader of violent armies in the Book of Revelation.

The gods may change, but the blueprints for mass-mobilized belligerence are often the same.

And even those barbarians motivated by less divine pursuits, like land or riches, will always find it easier to summon armies using the unifying banner of religion. The Crusades, after all, were little more than a religious-themed campaign to pillage. Even when god is removed from the political equation, leaders who promise future glories based on the restoration of ideologies and empires unearthed from deep in our past should be viewed warily.

Yes, ISIS is evil and must be neutralized. But to prevent new strains of virulently revanchist politics from emerging elsewhere, home or abroad, requires a fuller rejection of the human propensity to amass power by falsely appropriating the past.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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