Islamic State: A Historical Perspective


I remember September 11th 2001 very clearly.  I had just started a temporary job during my year off before university and was on my second day of training.  Over lunch a murmur went around the staff room and someone switched on the TV.  We all watched, horrified, as one of the World Trade Centre towers collapsed.  I was shocked – we all were, everyone in the world was – but I consoled myself with the thought that people had probably been evacuated by then.

Then I was informed that they hadn’t been evacuated, and thousands of them were dead.

I went home on the train.  My Dad picked me up at the station.  He had been sitting in front of the TV all afternoon, crying.

Those attacks marked what seemed like a new level of terrorist horror: televised mass murder on an immense scale. Yet more recent events have surpassed even that appalling act of cruelty: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, more recent yet, the unimaginable savagery of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.  Who, on September 11th 2001, would have thought that even that day of cruelty and destruction would one day be surpassed by levels of savagery even higher, even more cruel, of beheadings and massacres and people locked in cages and burned alive?

I’ve been trying to put the actions of Islamic State into a historical context.  It’s all too easy to look at current events and assume that they are more dramatic, more cruel, more terrible than anything in human history, because they are happening to us, and they are happening now.  The immediacy changes things.  So how does Islamic State fit in, when seen in a historical perspective?

One thing which occurred to me is that the actions of Islamic State are not unprecedented.  Beheading enemies is a tactic that has been used countless times throughout history: by the Mongols, by the ancient Persians, by the French revolutionaries, by countless movements across history.  Killing one’s enemies by removing their heads from their shoulders was not invented in 21st century Syria.

Nor, for that matter, is burning people alive.  Islamic State did this to a captured Jordanian pilot, and even filmed the event, but again, this is a tactic as old as humanity itself.  Joan of Arc was burned by the English in 1431.  Christians were put to death by burning by the Emperor Nero in 64 A.D.   Rebels and criminals were burned to death by the Ancient Babylonians a full eighteen centuries before the birth of Christ.

So why are the actions of Islamic State so deeply shocking?  I think there are two reasons.  Firstly, because of media.  Gruesome executions throughout history leave little mark on us now because the only records we have of them are either written accounts, or engravings such as those seen in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  Compare the shock-value of these hand-drawn pictures with the shock value of an actual colour video of the event, with sound, and the difference is evident.

The main reason, though, is this: because the execution of Joan of Arc happened nearly six centuries ago, in a primitive age of brutality and violence and sickness, whereas the actions of Islamic State are taking place in an era of relative liberty and progress.  We have the UN Declaration of Human Rights, we have democracy as the most common form of government, we have relative human equality (or at least the aspiration to achieve human equality), we have education and healthcare and prosperity.  To look upon the crazed cruelty of Islamic State is to open a window and peer back into the murky depths of man’s historical cruelty.

Islamic State is not really any more cruel than any of the myriad savageries committed by humans over the centuries: the Mongol armies who made entire pyramids of the severed heads of their enemies, the armies of Cromwell who packed women and children into Irish churches and burned them alive, the execution of Robert Damiens in 1757 who attempted to kill the King of France and was stabbed with red-hot pincers, had molten lead poured over his wounds, and was then dismembered and burned alive.  The difference is that they are happening now, in an era in which personal liberty is taken, broadly, for granted, and they are being filmed.  To look upon the actions of the psychopaths of Syria is to look back at the dark, murderous past of humankind.

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