Just gained access to this article via my university library in the Sunday Times by Tom Holland in relation to ISIS, Iraq and Syria.http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/newsreview/features/article1447369.ece http://search.proquest.com.idpproxy.reading.ac.uk/docview/1553624755/EC0936B622384AFEPQ/1?accountid=13460
Eternal empire of the sword: The ghastly images posted by Isis on social media have shocked the world but to the perpetrators their act is a symbol of conquest practised for millennia across the Middle East -- and one sanctioned by the Koran. The historian Tom Holland explores its originsJihadists: our mission is heaven-sent
Holland, Tom. Sunday Times [London (UK)] 17 Aug 2014: 1.
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Lines drawn on a map by the two men divided what at the time were provinces of the Ottoman Empire into rival spheres of interest and ensured, when the Middle East finally won its independence from the British and the French, that the Arab world would remain diced up into separate countries. The ambitions of the Islamic State, unlike the attempt to impose western-style nation states on the Middle East, go with rather than against the grain of the region's history.
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Posing with severed heads on Twitter has been quite the social media fashion this past week. Last Sunday a seven-year-old Australian boy was photographed in the Syrian city of Raqqa awkwardly holding one up with both hands. "That's my boy!" Dad tweeted proudly. Then, a few days later, it was the turn of a rapper from Maida Vale, west London. Standing in the same square as the Australian boy had done, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary (or Abu Kalashnikov, as he now prefers to be known) was pictured in combat fatigues, pointing to the sky with one hand and clutching a head in the other. "Chillin' with my homie," he boasted, "or what's left of him."
The photographs are disconcertingly reminiscent of holiday snaps. The Australian boy is dressed in sho rts and a blue polo-shirt as though for Bondi Beach. Bary, with his talk of "chillin'" and "homies", might have been tweeting from a club in Magaluf. Never before has it been so easy to publicise a beheading. Bary and his fellow fighters are doubly cutting-edge. A click on a smartphone, a short tweet, and the image of a severed head can go viral around the world.
The atrocities themselves, though, have a primordial pedigree. In the Middle East beheadings have been used by ambitious empirebuilders to terrorise their opponents into submission for millennia. Across the border from Syria, in the Iraqi city of Mosul, fighters such as Bary have been sticking heads on spikes in a manner chillingly reminiscent of kings who ruled there thousands of years ago. Assyria, between the 9th and 7th centuries BC, was the greatest power in the Middle East and the advance of its armies invariably left behind a trail of headless corpses. "I hung heads on trees around the whole city," boasted one king. When the followers of two rebel leaders were paraded through the capital wearing the heads of their masters around their necks, the news of it was assiduously publicised across the whole empire. The kings of Assyria would have been mad for Twitter.
It is this blurring of the ancient and the modern, the intrusion into a 21st-century war of nightmarish images reminiscent of antiquity, that renders the crisis in Syria and Iraq so disorienting. Clearly the circumstances that have enabled killers such as Bary to pose with severed heads in Raqqa and Mosul reflect very particular circumstances: the civil war in Syria, the sectarianism in Iraq. Rotting states invariably breed young men with guns. Nevertheless, there is more than a simple breakdown of order in play. There are psychopaths aplenty loose in Syria and Iraq at the moment but not every head-hunter ranks as a madman. The truth is altogether more disturbing. By their own lights, what fighters such as Bary are doing is not merely justified but right. They believe themselves to be fighting a darkness bred of many centuries: a darkness that it is their heaven-sent mission to dispel.
They certainly have long memories. The western intervention that most obsesses them is not the American invasion of Iraq, nor even the establishment of Israel, but a secret agreement signed back in 1916 by the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French opposite number, Francois Georges-Picot. Lines drawn on a map by the two men divided what at the time were provinces of the Ottoman Empire into rival spheres of interest and ensured, when the Middle East finally won its independence from the British and the French, that the Arab world would remain diced up into separate countries. This is the settlement that the fighters who have crossed from Syria into Iraq have pledged to erase.
Photographs released last week on Twitter showed them waving swords and guns in celebration as the border between the two countries was ceremonially bulldozed. Even the name of their organisation has been changed to mark what one of their propaganda videos Continued on page 2 uu Continued from page 1 gleefully terms "The End of Sykes-Picot". After all, with the border gone it no longer makes sense for them to pledge loyalty to an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. What was Isis is now simply IS: the Islamic State.
It may seem startling that a ragtag army of a few thousand should presume to call time on a diplomatic settlement that has lasted almost 100 years. In the Fertile Crescent, though, a century ranks as barely the blinking of an eye. The ambitions of the Islamic State, unlike the attempt to impose western-style nation states on the Middle East, go with rather than against the grain of the region's history. "This is not the first border we will break," one Islamic State fighter vowed. "We will break other borders too." This is the kind of boast that an Assyrian king might easily have made.
Breaking borders is something that would-be conquerors have been getting up to in Mesopotamia since the first emergence there of urban civilisation. The Islamic State, in that respect, is doing nothing new.
The exercise of cruelty on its own, though, has never been sufficient to maintain conquests once won. If the Assyrians demonstrated just how effectively terror could be deployed in the cause of building an empire, then subsequent superpowers in the region illustrated a complementary truth: that the surest way to maintain a supremacy was to cut the defeated people some slack.
First the Persians and then the Romans were able to preside over immense multi-ethnic dominions by providing peace and order to the dutifully submissive. Security in exchange for taxes: that was the bargain. As a result, in antiquity the notion that a people might be entrusted by the heavens with a charge to spare the vanquished and to overthrow the haughty became increasingly taken for granted by successful imperialists. Religions in which a single god held sway over the universe evolved to provide a sanction for the fantasy of global empire. Autocrats laid claim to their thrones by virtue of right as well as might.
The empire that the Islamic State now dreams of re-establishing was recognisably bred of these cultural presumptions. "Caliph", the rank that its leader awarded himself a month and a half ago, is one redolent of godliness as well as earthly power. The title means "successor": successor to the prophet Muhammad who was himself, in the opinion of Muslims, the mouthpiece for that incomparable revelation of God, the holy Koran. It was under the first four caliphs, so Muslim tradition teaches, that the Arabs, a people hitherto despised by the haughty superpowers of the day, had swept out from their desert fastnesses to conquer the Fertile Crescent and far beyond. Such a feat, coming from nowhere, seemed to the faithful then, as it has done ever since, a palpable miracle. "We went to meet our enemies with small abilities and weak forces," as one medieval scholar put it, "and God made us triumph and gave us possession of their lands."
Now, after a year in which they have routed forces many times their size, conquered a swathe of territory larger than Britain and grown flush with gold and oil, the fighters of the Islamic State can justifiably make the same boast. They believe themselves the heirs of the first Muslims, charged by God with restoring to the world the pristine Islam that existed back in the days of Muhammad and his immediate successors.
The conviction is one that has inspired them to win great victories; but it has also brought inordinate pressure. The perceived failure of Muslims to live in a way worthy of the example provided by the early caliphate hangs heavy over the Islamic State. Why, after all, had God permitted the division of Arab lands in the first place, if not as a punishment? "This blessed advance will not stop," so the caliph of the Islamic State declared in a sermon last month, "until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy."
Victory, though, cannot be secured on the battlefield alone. Only by living as the first Muslims had done and following God's law to the letter will it be ensured. Obedience to the path followed by Muhammad, to his "deen", is what will enable the Islamic State to unite the faithful everywhere in a single caliphate and ultimately to rule the world.
None of which, for those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the power of its fighters, is good news. Armed to the teeth with Humvees and smartphones the Islamic State may be; but the literalism with which it interprets the inheritance of Muslim scripture obliges its fighters to live by the moral standards of antiquity. Islam was born into a world that took for granted the right of conquerors to extort tribute from the conquered; to capture and keep slaves; to maim and execute rebels. Scattered throughout the Koran are verses which, read in isolation, might seem to justify all these practices. The implications for those whom the Islamic State condemns as "kuffar", or non-believers, are therefore ominous in the extreme.
Muslims deemed to be inadequately Islamic have been crucified or shot. Christians, on the say-so of a Koranic verse that grants them tolerance in exchange for acknowledging their own submission and paying a tax, have had their churches stolen and been stripped of their belongings. Yazidis, the adherents of an ancient faith that has no mention in the Koran, have been condemned outright as pagans and targeted for slaughter.
Nasser Muthana, a former medical student from Cardiff who is now fighting with the Islamic State, spelt out the details in a particularly chilling tweet: "Kuffar are afraid we will slaughter yazidis, our deen is clear we will kill their men, take their women and children as slaves insha Allah." And so it is coming to pass.
The Yazidis had endured 72 persecutions over the course of their long history until this one and survived them all. The 73rd is liable to prove terminal. It is no exaggeration to speak of attempted genocide. The horror of this, for those Yazidis who have managed to escape the clutches of the Islamic State, goes without saying; but the implications are appalling for the vast majority of peaceable and decent Muslims too.
The brute literalism of those who would interpret the Koran as a licence to maim, enslave and kill represents a challenge to everyone who prizes it as a revelation from God, supremely compassionate and supremely wise. The more successful the fighters of the Islamic State are on the battlefield, the more urgent it becomes to defeat them in mosques and seminar rooms. Ultimate victory over them cannot be secured militarily. This is a battle that has to be fought and won by theologians.
Why, for instance, do Islamic militants think a beheading is something to revel in? Not just because it terrifies their enemies; not just because it demonstrates their own martial prowess. Nothing is permissible in the Islamic State, after all, unless it is believed to be divinely licensed -- and beheadings, in the opinion of its fighters, are indeed sanctioned by their deen.
"I will instil terror into the hearts of the unbelievers," God declares in the Koran. "Strike off their heads, then, and strike off all their fingertips." Muhammad himself is said to have ordered the decapitation of 700 rebellious Jews. His sword -- after which the Iranian battle tank Zulfiqar is named -- translates into English as "cleaver of vertebrae".
Medieval caliphs were recorded as harvesting heads with an almost Assyrian zeal. The fighters of the Islamic State, self-professed heirs of the early caliphate that they are, know all this perfectly well.
That there are other, richer, more nuanced interpretations of these various verses and traditions in Islam goes without saying. Indeed, so completely does it go without saying that there is a temptation to take it for granted. This, amid the horrors of what is happening in the Fertile Crescent, would be a mistake. The appeal of the brutal and murderous literalism of the Islamic State is too lethal to permit such complacency.
Non-Muslims, and particularly those impatient with the very notion of religion, may well find it startling that a debate over Islamic scriptures could possibly have any significance beyond the mosque. We live in an age, though, when antiquity has begun to intrude upon the present more bruisingly than it has done for many centuries. What the various shades of opinion among communists were during the Cold War, the disputes among Muslims are now: a motor driving world events. Already, as the wretched Yazidis and Christians of Iraq can vouch, they have become a matter of life and death.
In Mosul, fighters have been sticking heads on spikes in a manner chillingly reminiscent of ancient kings
Victory over the Islamic State cannot be secured militarily. This is a battle that has to be fought and won by theologians
Credit: Tom Holland
Caption: Judith With the Head Holofernes by Cristofano Allori. The act of beheading is a potent image in many cultures
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