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Is Islamic State Medieval?

by on 2014/09/18

Over the course of the last few weeks, we’ve read in dozens of headlines and opinion pieces across western media that those who profess allegiance to Islamic State (or ISIL), and the actions they have been carrying out in its name, not least the beheading of American and British journalists, are ‘medieval’, and that we are witnessing some sort of return to the Middle Ages in the Near East.

To give but a few examples:

International Business Times: ‘Ever since the Islamic State (previously known as IS) took control of Raqqa, the city has become the sort of primitive enclave last seen in the Middle Ages’. September 1st;

Sydney Morning Herald quoting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott: ‘you have to go back to the Middle Ages to see this arrogance in atrocity which we have seen from the ISIL movement in recent months’. September 3rd;

Toronto Sun on the murder of Steven Sotloff: ‘Word came after noon Tuesday that the Islamic State had carried through with its medieval threat’. September 3rd;

North Jersey Record: ‘While the civilized world is outraged by these medieval acts, it has been largely incapable of doing anything tangible to stop the barbarism.’ September 3rd;

Front Page Mag: ‘Apparently, ISIS not only combines its medieval barbarism with 21st century social media technology, but also wants to time the marketing of its barbarism for maximum prime time effect.’ September 3rd;

Business Insider: quoting John Kerry: ‘the brutal execution of American journalist Steven by jihadists affiliated to the group calling itself the Islamic State was an “act of medieval savagery by a coward hiding behind a mask”.’ September 3rd;

New Scientist under the headline ‘In our world beyond nations, the future is medieval’ likens Islamic State to one of the ‘hotchpotch of tribal groupings, feudal kingdoms, autonomous cities and trading networks’ that, for the duration of the Middle Ages, pre-existed the modern nation state. September 4th;

The New York Times: ‘With Videos of Killings, ISIS Sends Medieval Message by Modern Method’, quoting a former CIA officer on the practice of televised beheading: ‘It is very old, going back to the Middle Ages when people were drawn and quartered, a visual lesson to the living of retribution.’ September 7th.

In the very limited sense that its aims include the reestablishment of a caliphate along the lines of those of the seventh-century ‘golden age’ of Islam, IS could be regarded as being ‘medieval’, but many modern nation states have such a medieval origin myth, as the historian Patrick Geary has discussed in detail. By this logic Scotland would be ‘medieval’. And in any case that’s not what these writers mean: Primitive. Arrogance. Barbarism. Brutality. Savagery. As someone who studies the rich culture of the Middle Ages, part of me reacts defensively to this misappropriation of the historical terminology that defines the period of my professional interest: The Middle Ages represents a thousand year period, roughly spanning from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, or so we could say for the sake of argument. After all, I am, to my colleagues ‘a medievalist’, though of course I have no sympathy with the practices characterised in these articles as ‘medievalisms’.

Yet at the same time I understand that in popular usage ‘The Middle Ages’ is assumed to refer to times less civilized than those which followed them, and that ‘medieval’ is synonymous with barbarism and cruelty. I understand this well, because I not only study the literature of the Middle Ages, but also how the period itself was invented as an idea, and how that idea has evolved over time.

No-one in the Middle Ages knew they were being ‘medieval’ (an adjective that comes from Latin for ‘the middle age’ and means the period of history between the ancient world and the modern world). The Italian poet Petrarch first seems to have come up with the idea that human history was chopped up into three phases and Italian humanists subsequently developed this idea in the fifteenth century, calling the bit that, in their eyes, had just finished ‘the middle age’. They also denigrated this ‘middle age’ as a period of ignorance and backwardness precisely in order to promote themselves, and the new age in which they had decided they were living, as more ‘advanced’. Styling the previous ten centuries of human achievement as barbarically ‘medieval’ was, in short, a hugely successful piece of spin – a Public Relations coup for a new philosophical ‘brand’ being launched by an elite group of western Europeans. And we’re still living with it today, as the recent news stories amply demonstrate.

But does it matter? ‘Medievalists’ such as myself could bleat on endlessly about the great achievements of medieval civilization – Bede’s espousal of what we might now call ‘the scientific method’, the rational empiricism of a figure such as Roger Bacon, the humane wit of Chaucer, or the psychological realism of the Icelandic sagas – but it’s probably not going to change the way the rest of the world uses the word ‘medieval’. Nor is it likely to change public discourse if we point out that at many times and places during the Middle Ages a surprising amount of religious tolerance was practised in societies as successfully multicultural as any today: in twelfth-century Norman Sicily, to give but one example we could learn from, Muslims, Jews and both Orthodox and Catholic Christians co-existed and co-operated in one of the most dynamic and culturally exciting states of European history. It’s a further irony, perhaps wasted on those who use the rhetoric of medievalism, that during the Middle Ages the Arabic world was generally more sophisticated than the Christian West in terms of science and philosophy; when used accurately ‘medieval’ is not a term that reflects well on the West, comparatively with the Islamic East.

None of which is to say that the Middle Ages – in East or West – were free from examples of great barbarity and stupidity. Which age is not? But savagery is not the exclusive domain of the centuries we call ‘medieval’. If we really wanted examples of shocking violence inspired partly by religious fundamentalism we would be hard-pressed to find any more horrific than those perpetrated across ‘civilized’ Europe in the seventeenth century during the Thirty Years War, and while public beheadings did undoubtedly sometimes take place in the Middle Ages, the historical precedent for their use as spectacle that most readily springs to mind is that of the guillotine in post-Revolutionary France. But the Age of Rationalism is not styled as ‘barbarous’ in the grand narrative that the West has to tell about itself. And as for the barbarity of Europe in the twentieth century, it’s almost impossible to know where to begin… My point is that we can tell many different stories about ‘the Middle Ages’, but we choose to tell only one. ‘Modern’ atrocities don’t fit the narrative that contemporary journalists are – perhaps unwittingly – seeking to tell about IS and the West’s relationship with it.

For ‘the Middle Ages’ is not a neutral historical term. It’s a metaphorical way of understanding history as a process of evolution, by which a less advanced culture has to (or perhaps fails to) progress from a ‘medieval’ period to modernity. Consequently, these lazy clichés are more than just examples of historical illiteracy (though they are that too). The language of ‘medievalizing’ radical Islam looks like it offers an explanation of the disturbing events taking place in the Middle East when actually it causes ‘us’ in the West (I write as a westerner) to misunderstand those events fundamentally. In fact, it increases the likelihood of international responses being either ineffective or actively dangerous.

Because to call the perpetrators of these crimes, and the societies that foster them ‘medieval’ is to place them on the other side of a temporal fault-line imagined to run through history. ‘We’ are ‘modern’ and therefore civilized and unable to countenance these forms of violence; ‘they’ are ‘medieval’, pre-modern, and have not progressed through the same process of historical evolution that would render such acts unthinkable. In effect ‘they’ are inhuman, or rather ‘pre-human’ if being human means having gone through the later stages of European history (and it is a metaphor which is entirely Euro-centric), which Humanists first labelled ‘the Renaissance’, and subsequently that most savage of times, ‘The Enlightenment’.

There is already a substantial history of this language of medievalism being used to describe the opponents of the West. On occasions, in denying individuals their humanity, it has encouraged state actors in the West (somewhat ironically) to perpetrate their own acts of barbarity; the naming of violence as ‘medieval’ is usually a disguised call for counter-violence of a ‘modernist’ temper. The medievalist academic Bruce Holsinger has analysed how the so-called ‘torture memos’ of the U.S. State argue that the Taliban is an apparently ‘feudal’ organization, and one which has therefore failed to evolve into a modern state, and as a consequence its ‘medieval’ members do not qualify for the protections of the Geneva Convention while under detention at Guantanamo. The logic is shockingly brutal: ‘medieval’ people are not modern humans; Human Rights do not need to be extended to ‘pre-humans’.

To return to the news of recent weeks, the ‘othering’ in time of Islamic State seems comforting precisely because it allows us to disengage from deeper enquiry into the real causes and motivation driving their campaign. It allows us to think that this kind of savagery is an historical atavism, an aberration – the temporal equivalent of a genetic throw-back – rather than forcing us to confront much more uncomfortable truths. The events of 2014 in the Middle East are not medieval, but hyper-modern. Their perpetrators are not separated from us across the gulf of a millennium, but are uniquely a product of our newly globalized age (as the news that some IS activists come from highly educated British families ought also to tell us). The video beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines are not barbaric medievalisms. They are worse than that. They are the barbarisms of our modernity.

Some further reading for the curious:

Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: the Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Timothy Reuter, ‘Medieval: Another Tyrannous Construct?’, in Janet L. Nelson, ed., Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 19-37.

Bruce Holsinger, Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism and the War on Terror (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007).

James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London: Icon, 2009).

Tison Pugh and Angela Jane Weisl, ‘Political Medievalisms’, in Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present (New York: Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), pp. 140-157.

From → History, News Stories

  1. julie scott meisami permalink

    Thanks for this excellent article. As a medievalist (Arabic and Persian “middle ages” (al-‘usur al-wusta; no Persian equivalent that I know of), I too am deeply offended by the description of the barbarities of ISIS as “medieval”. No; they are distinctly modern.

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