ISIS is using a Hitler-like strategy to distort history in its favor
History, we are often told, is written by the winners. Modern states and peoples are the products of success; historians seek the origins of their glory. The victors make it easy: they leave voluminous records and they ransack the records of those they have defeated.
What would history written by losers look like? It would look a lot like the history that the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) is writing now.
Islamic history has a good amount of winning in it. Not only did medieval Muslim armies conquer lands from Spain to India, but Muslim traders spread the religion still further into the Far East and Southeast Asia. For centuries, Islamic math and science led the world, and Muslim scholars helped preserve the manuscripts of antiquity. Renaissance scholars relied on them as they rediscovered ancient Greece and Rome.
This winning is not central to the historiography of the ISIS. The group’s followers swim in a sea of victimhood, resentment, and vengeance, and they luxuriate in paranoia and xenophobia. The group’s central organizing truth is not about the power Muslims hold but instead the power that Muslims have lost.
Grievance motivates them, and it is precisely the group’s abject weakness that drives and legitimates its most barbaric acts against symbols of global power. If one looks at the ISIS’s videos, a single theme is overwhelming. The ISIS desperately seeks equivalence to infinitely stronger and more capable foes. Its imagery is all about promoting feelings of agency among its fighters; often times it is accompanied by an effort to enfeeble a symbol of some hostile force.
The ISIS did not invent the instrumentalization of history. Saddam Hussein reveled in the symbolism of Babylonia, and the Shah of Iran sought to tie himself to Persepolis and the empire of Cyrus the Great. Benito Mussolini sought to rebuild the glories of Rome, and Ataturk moved Turkey’s capital from cosmopolitan Constantinople to the Anatolian heartland in order to engender an “authentic” Turkish identity.
What the ISIS is doing is different, though. It is more like Adolph Hitler’s reliance on—and sometimes invention of—Aryan history to inspire and guide a modern society.
Common to both projects is the passionate marriage between a utopian social vision and a conspiratorial worldview—a society locked in endless battle against myriad enemies. The utopian vision inspires, and enemies help preserve solidarity. History helps bind the two.
But it is a certain kind of history at play.
Real history is chaotic, messy, and full of ambiguity. Its lessons are hard to discern, when they can be discerned at all. The history peddled by these groups is different. It is streamlined, possessing a clear moral objective and a clear enemy. It not only projects legitimacy on its adherents but also connects them to an eternal truth. Groups use this kind of history to grasp at immortality.
In her book, The Future of Nostalgia, the scholar Svetlana Boym discusses how history can permit the “transformation of fatality into continuity.” Everyday acts can be sanctified because they are invested with the spirit of lost
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