ISIS-style extremists are not new: they are indeed a more obvious part of human history than Western-style liberals. They are, however, newly powerful.
Take the plight of Assyrian Christians driven from their homes in Mosul. Their grandparents had the same experience, but worse: 300,000 of them were massacred a century ago at the instigation of the Ottoman authorities (as described in Joseph Yacoub’s new book, The Year of the Sword).
That was not unprecedented. The Ottoman Empire just 20 years before had sent an army to kill or convert the Yazidis, just as ISIS later would try to do. It had also done the same in 1838. The sanction for this cruelty was a fatwa from the revered 14th-century cleric Ibn Taymiyyah, which licensed the killing of heterodox groups like the Yazidis and Druze.
Is this, then, a purely Muslim phenomenon? Why, no. If we look back far enough, we will see Christians behaving similarly. “Kill them all,” said papal legate Arnaud Amalric in 1209, faced with a town of 20,000 Catholics and heretic Cathars. “God will know his own.”
There is something in human nature, with apologies to Robert Frost, that does love a wall. We enjoy the feeling of being among our own, and if there is a visible enemy then those feelings of closeness become even stronger and dearer.
Such feelings can exist even in the most prosperous and stable societies. In ones where a victory for one community may mean death or poverty or humiliation for another, the feelings are greatly intensified. Then add to the mix weak and unenlightened governments and Islamist movements which, instead of repressing communal hostilities, exploit them to their own advantage. Add, too, a society where religious identity is much more public, and much more political: where a rejection of Islam is regarded as not only wrong, but disloyal to the state.
Then add the history: the Iranian Revolution, ushering in a regime which weaponised religion and turned it against those it called its country’s enemies. This happened as more inclusive forms of national identity were losing their lustre. It made Islamic rule seem a practical possibility. Islamist movements were already in cahoots with governments across the Arab world (partly, as a bulwark against communism). Now religion and patriotism came to be dangerously interwoven.
The next ingredient: the dangerous romanticisation of extremism and violence in the Arab world. Terrorism and even suicide bombing were defended or lauded by Arab poets and singers when they were used against Israel. Then they were used against America in Iraq, and against the Shia government that took power there. The moral barrier that makes most religious zealots in the West hesitate before using violence to achieve their goals was dismantled.
Meanwhile, technology empowered the state – and those who could pilfer its resources. The Yazidis lived for centuries beyond anyone’s reach. The 19th century Ottoman expedition failed for that reason. ISIS, however, had motorised vehicles (originally US-supplied). No one is safe any more. This technology came without the broadening of perspectives that accompanied it elsewhere; on the contrary, the education system in Iraq regressed under pre-2003 international sanctions, resulting in a narrowing of minds and a weakening of tolerance.
Finally came the Syrian conflict. Sunni Muslims, already angered by the fall of Iraq’s Sunni elite, see their co-religionists under daily attack (with full blood and gore: Arab television does not censor violence). It adds to the feeling of Shia-Sunni confrontation, always present since the Iranian Revolution.
The result has been the destruction of the region’s once-treasured religious mosaic.