Monday, 18 August 2014

Islamic State: history repeating itself? Without redeeming features?

Explaining increased British involvement in action to stop the Islamic State in Iraq, David Cameron points out that the alternative was to allow the emergence of a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member.”

The Nato member in question is Turkey. And, curiously, seeing that region threatened by a militant Islamic movement is a repetition of history – though, as often happens when history repeats itself, the second time round is even more painful than the first.

When the prophet Mohammed died in 632, he left the Arabian peninsula united as it had never been before. His successors discovered an energy and a military drive that would astonish and, generally, overwhelm their neighbours. To their North, two great Empires had been battling with each other for centuries: the Byzantines, successors of Rome, and the Persians. Within a generation, the Persian Empire had been completely overrun by Islamic forces and the Byzantines had lost huge territories, principally in the regions that now make up Iraq, Syria, Lebanon – and Turkey.

See the repetition?

Their sudden irruption on the scene wasn’t the only remarkable aspect of the Muslim conquerors. Their behaviour after victory gave them some unusual redeeming features. Instead of massacring their defeated foes, or even crushing them, they usually recruited them. So, for example, when they’d stretched their Empire along the whole of the North African seaboard, they decided it might be worth crossing the straits into Southern Spain and trying their luck in Europe. Tariq ibn Ziyad, who led their first landing on the rock off the Spanish coast which bears his name, Tariq’s mountain, Jebel Tariq, now Gibraltar, was in all likelihood a Berber, rather than an Arab, and the son of a former prisoner of war.

Once in Spain, the Arabs made allies of the Jews, long oppressed by the Visigothic Christian rulers. Jews held the captured cities on behalf of the Muslim armies, which could therefore move on to capture some more. The tradition of coexistence with other communities inspired one of the world’s great cultural centres in Cordoba. Muslims ran the show, but Jews – who were allowed to settle in pride of place right next to the Mosque – and Christians were tolerated and allowed to debate with Muslim scholars in one of the richest periods of intellectual development in Europe.

When Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote the works that would transform Christian thinking and underpin the Renaissance, he drew heavily on the thought of the Greek pagan Aristotle, as interpreted by a Muslim scholar from Cordoba, Averroes (Ibn Rushd).

That was then. Today a new Islamic military force is threatening the borders of what were once the Persian and Byzantine Empires. Given the opportunity, it would no doubt be more than happy to take the whole Mediterranean littoral and even threaten southern Spain. However, based on their track record so far, you can be pretty certain that they wouldn’t want to found a community in Cordoba that would win an international reputation for the free exchange of ideas.

Islamic State: attempting to reproduce the Muslim conquests
but without any of the redeeming features

On the contrary, it has proved to be a life-threatening condition to be non-Muslim, or even simply the wrong kind of Muslim, in the presence of the Islamic State. 1500 Shia prisoners of war were executed in a single day; Christians or Yazidis have been murdered, enslaved or driven from their homes in huge numbers.

The militants of Islamic State are trying to reproduce the great conquests of Islam in its early days. But as I said before, the second time round tends to be less admirable, less glorious than the first.

In Islamic State’s case, a lot less admirable and a lot less glorious.

No bad thing if we can help stem their attempt to repeat history.


Anonymous said...

I am very pessimistic about the outcome.

David Beeson said...

Not an encouraging outlook, is it?