Temple of Solomon and the portico”, wrote the chronicler Raymond d’Aguilers,
witnessing the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, “crusaders rode in blood to the
knees and bridles of their horses”. He recorded “marvellous works”: “Some of
the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows plunged from
towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in
searing flames”. “Jerusalem was now littered with bodies and stained with
blood”, D’Aguilers approvingly went on, “the blood of pagans who blasphemed God
there for so long”.
The mind of
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who drove his truck into a Bastille Day celebration
in Nice, killing 84 people, is closed to us forever. The fragments we have
access to are fragmentary, sometimes paradoxical: A man fascinated by Islamic
State beheading videos but also by drug-fuelled sexual excess; a man who tore
up his child’s teddy bears and drawn to small-time crime; a man diagnosed with
mental illness, but capable of meticulously planning his attack.
d’Aguilers’ account, though, we learn one key thing. Islamist violence, in
spite of the aesthetics it sometimes adopts, is a product of our modern times,
not the medieval era — yet, it is too easy to think of this ultra-violence as a
phenomenon of our time alone. There are important lessons to be learned from
the past about the circumstances in which millenarian cults like the Islamic State
flourish and grow.
the medieval period offers a useful prism through which we may examine
jihadism, and understand its working. The contours of that period are strangely
familiar, characterised as they were by enormous social dislocation. The rise
of great cities, built on the production of goods and on organised trade, had
given birth to new social classes, which were seeking to dismantle the feudal
order. There was a rising tide of immigrants, flooding into the cities from the
impoverished countryside, but often finding only misery.
intellectual ferment also characterised the times. In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini,
an unemployed papal secretary, hunted down a copy of the Roman poet Titus
Lucretius Carus’s long-lost De rerum natura in a German monastery,
reintroducing into the world the radical philosophical idea that the world was
created not by the will of god, but the random collision of particles.
Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just before
his death in 1543, would lay the scientific foundations for a revolution in our
conception of the universe.
in the midst of this new world, though, were a great number of millenarian
death cults, a grim counterpart, as it were, to the making of the Enlightenment
world. These movements, the scholar Norman Cohn noted in his masterwork, In
Pursuit of the Millennium, were much like modern jihadism, in casting
themselves as different from “all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm
from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed”.
The case of
the Adamites, so named for their peasant leader, who proclaimed himself both
Adam and Moses, is instructive. From their island stronghold on the Nezarka
River, near Neuhaus, contemporary accounts tell us, the Adamites waged a holy
war against nearby villages. Every man, woman and child was cut down or burned
alive. Blood, the Adamites believed, had to flow as high as a horse’s head.
1421, the Adamites were exterminated — fighting to the end, their fanatic
resistance fuelled by their leader’s prophecy that the 400-strong trained army
arrayed against them would be struck blind by god.
Bockelson, alternately, founded the Anabaptist regime of Münster in the 1520s,
preparing for the imminent coming of Christ with freewheeling polygamy, bizarre
entertainments, and the execution of all dissidents. As the imperial army
besieged Münster, followers were told god had granted them the strength of a
hundred enemies; They would suffer neither hunger, thirst nor fatigue.
Even as the
population starved, though — many begging Bockelson’s mercenaries to deliver
them and their children the coup de grace — they refused the imperial army’s
offers of an honourable surrender.
millenarianism, Cohn noted, “drew its strength from a population living on the
margin of society”. Traditional kinship networks and societies having
disintegrated in changing times, these groups created their own around
Khosrokhavar, a French sociologist who has extensively interviewed incarcerated
terrorists, has described jihadism in similar terms — “individualism through
death”. Killers like Bouhlel, his work suggests, are severed from their
traditional cultural ties, without having made the transition to cultural
modernity. In nihilist violence, they find liberation.
In a larger
sense, Khosorokhavar argues this is true of many West Asian societies. The
region, he notes, has seen the “dismantling of traditional communities through
state action and a new market economy but without the positive side effects of
the latter”. Islamism offers the illusion of a just alternative, founded on
god’s will, not man’s caprice.
the 16th century, the Book of a Hundred Chapters, an apocalyptic text written
by an anonymous publicist who lived in upper Rhine, demonstrated the durability
of these fantasies. He prophesised the coming of a Brethren of the Yellow
Cross, who would “control the whole world from West to East by force of arms”.
For this age of terror, it had a motto: “Soon we will drink blood for wine!”
fascinating to contemplate just how close this language is to that of modern
jihadist texts. “History does not write its lines except with blood,” wrote
Abdullah ’Azzam, founding patriarch of the Arab jihadists in Afghanistan,
revered by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State alike. “Glory does not build its
lofty edifice except with skulls; honour and respect cannot be established
except on a foundation of cripples and corpses”. Like ’Azzam, the crusaders
fetishised martyrdom: One chronicle records the story of Jakelin de Mailly, a
knight of the order of the Templars, killed fighting Muslim raiders on May 1,
1187, whose genitals were cut off and preserved so they might, if divine
providence permitted it, beget an heir with similar valour.
of millenarian movements teaches us, though, to read jihadism as a part of a
landscape marked by the rise of a violent new right — witness the obscenities
of Joseph Kony in Uganda and Mexico’s murderous Narco-Evangelists to India’s
Hindutva and Europe’s New Right. These crisis emerge from cultural shocks, in
turn the outcome of demographic and economic transformations more rapid than
any in history. Failed by states in these times of crises, peoples have turned
jihadist movements needs intelligence services and policemen. It needs military
resources, and geo-strategic responses. It also, however, needs a better