Monday, 6 October 2014

Not Islamic. And nothing like a state

The terrorist group Isis has pretensions to being an Islamic State. That State, it claims, will be a new Caliphate. A claim that only demonstrates how little it knows of Islamic history.

Islam had its heroic period. Most cultures do. I’m not terribly keen on heroes or heroic periods, since they tend to cost a lot of other people their lives or their livings. I’m pretty certain that as the Arabs swept out of their peninsula, beat both the Persian and Byzantine Empires to their north, and then spread along the whole of the North African littoral, what happened on the battlefields was ugly in the extreme, and what happened immediately afterwards probably not much better. It was a time when men met in combat to damage each other brutally with steel, and did little that was wholesome to the civilian populations once they
’d beaten their enemies

Just like today, in fact.

So I’m sure heroic Islam had its seamy side. On the other hand, it also did something remarkable. It didn’t hold grudges. The Islamic armies didn’t put their opponents to death; they didn’t even try to convert them. Their defeated enemies might be reduced to what was technically slavery, but they weren’t killed or tortured and they often found themselves being recruited into the armies that had just beaten them – where they could pursue careers under their new masters.

The result was that often within a generation, the newly subjected peoples were in the forefront of Islamic advance themselves. Now, that’s what I call true statesmanship: make an ally of your former enemy, and you strengthen him and yourself. What could be shrewder?

And what could contrast more starkly with what’s happening in Isis today? Where they go, they rape and murder. Those who are not of their religion are put mercilessly to the blade – literally, since beheading is one of their favourite rituals. Far from turning those they conquer into allies, they turn them into mutilated corpses.

Worse still, they even kill the individuals who are trying to help their people. Alan Henning, the latest hostage beheaded by Isis, was an aid worker trying to bring help to Syrian victims of civil war. Muslims, co-religionists of Isis. And yet he was killed too. Which is certainly not a response to service that Islam favours.

One of the most striking illustrations of how different the original Caliphate was is provided by the Muslim conquest of Spain. The army that took on and defeated the Visigothic Spanish kings, was predominantly Berber rather than Arab. And yet the Berbers had been overrun by Arab Muslims just a generation earlier.

Gibraltar: Jabal Tariq, where Tariq ibn Ziyad landed his
predominantly Berber force and began the Muslim conquest of Spain
Even once in Spain, the Muslims armies didn’t massacre non-Muslims. On the contrary, they brought peace to a mainly Christian peasantry, so that it kept producing the wealth the Caliph’s new province needed. Even the Jews, victims of persecution by the Visigoths, became allies who held one city when the soldiers moved on to attack the next.

Statesmanlike. And servants of Islam.

But nothing like Isis.

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