ISIS: Mediaeval or Modern?

Age of Anger: A History of the PresentCover of Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

The Mediaeval

There is a tendency to denounce the brutal violence and the ideology of ISIS as ‘mediaeval’. We know that the movement aims to unite Muslims under the black ‘flag of the people … when they go to aid … the Mahdi¹ – the saviour who will soon appear to rid the world of evil before Judgement Day. And, indeed, it is possible to draw parallels between these expectations and those of certain heretical Christian sects of the Middle Ages.

From the eleventh century Europe began to experience, in patches, relative peace, causing trade to flourish. Across regions now part of France, Belgium, Holland and Germany a cloth industry was established. With it came urbanisation, and burgeoning populations moved to the cities, where a peasant could escape bondage to the manor and dream of finding his fortune among the merchant class.

And yet a peasant cast adrift from his family and village, where his life, if hard, was safeguarded by a web of mutual support, might find that he had ‘merely acquired new wants without being able to satisfy them’ and that ‘the spectacle of a wealth undreamt-of in earlier centuries provoked a bitter sense of frustration.’² On the fringes of this nascent capitalism grew a class of those without family or land to support them: beggars and mercenaries. Any shock to the market – plague, famine, war – added to these itinerants and left them especially vulnerable. And desperate.

Throughout the Middle Ages there was a pervasive disgust with the wealth hypocritically hoarded by Christian kings and clergy in contrast to the voluntary poverty and communal possessions of the New Testament apostles. Leading eventually to the Reformation, this resentment meant that prophets of the end times found ready listeners among the proto-proletariat in times of stress, and the more charismatic of them were able to command fanatical followings. A series of apocalyptic cults led by self-proclaimed messiahs sprang up, aiming to tear down Babylon and usher in the Last Days.

While there were broader progressive social and political movements, these revolutionary offshoots demanded heaven on earth now and were often willing to get it by the sword. Bands of cultists might roam the countryside, pillaging and massacring nobles, clergy and other servants of Antichrist standing in the way of the new Paradise – frequently, to no one’s surprise, Jews. At times they became so large, and enjoyed such popular support, that they took over cities and armies were dispatched to disband and massacre them in their turn.

In 1534, the Anabaptist sect (which in its non-militant form survives today) was popular enough in Münster for its adherents to launch a town council coup. Münster was to be the New Jerusalem following the imminent apocalypse and at this promise Anabaptists flocked there as others left. The local bishop quickly raised an army of mercenaries to besiege the town. Within, private property was abolished, polygamy and divorce (and so considerable freedom of love) established. But these utopian gestures foundered on the usual human frailties.

John of Leyden became leader of the Münster Anabaptists and was hailed as the Messiah, king over all the earth, requisitioning fine goods and food for his court while as the siege dragged on his immediate subjects were reduced to eating ‘grass and moss, old shoes and the whitewash on the walls, the bodies of the dead.’³ Execution was the punishment for almost any transgression, with mutilated corpses frequently displayed pour encourager les autres.

Apostles of Münster’s revolutionary Anabaptism were dispatched while the siege was not yet total, distributing pamphlets and giving sermons to raise support. Copycat occupations of monasteries and town halls occurred and over 1,000 armed supporters made for the nightmare New Jerusalem. These efforts were met with deadly force and when the year long resistance at Münster was finally broken the remaining inhabitants were killed.

It isn’t hard to see a reflection of ISIS in this mediaeval mirror. But, conversely, the Christian cultists who responded to the weakening of traditional communities and beliefs, and the increasing ‘spectacle of wealth’, by defying authority and attempting to create their own questionable utopias, can be seen as modern.

Such is the story told of the Anabaptists and the Münster uprising in the novel Q, written by Luther Blisset, ‘until recently on the coaching staff at York City FC. He is perhaps best known for the brief period he spent playing for AC Milan in the early ‘80s. He had nothing to do with the writing of this book.’ Which was in fact written by four Italian anti-capitalist activists, since morphed into the impressively productive Wu Ming Foundation. From their website you can freely download Q and other writings.

For Luther Blisset (the collective, possibly not the footballer), the Anabaptists prefigure today’s left-wing campaigners against neo-liberal capitalism. The novel employs some poetic license to emphasise the connection, but the historian Norman Cohn drew similar links between the anti-authority Brethren of the Free Spirit (precursors of Anabaptism) and the arch-anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and between Anabaptists and communists.

Cohn didn’t stop there, arguing in his superbly named history of such groups, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, that the two foremost revolutionary cults of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, communism and fascism, are underpinned by millenarian ideologies. Both wished to inaugurate a new phase of history, a perfect society, by exhorting the common man to violently overthrow an evil, exploitative other: the Jews and the bourgeoisie respectively.


The Modern

Pankaj Mishra embarks on a related archaeology of ideology in Age of Anger. But whereas Cohn saw outbreaks of fanatical violence such as the Russian Revolution and the Second World War as lapses from liberal forms of society in times of change and uncertainty, Mishra believes they are characteristic of the liberal, capitalist, industrial model of society that dominates our globalised lives.

The liberal orthodoxy sees as ‘regressive’ the rising anger at elites, immigrants and infidels of all kinds: Brexit; Trump and the far right; the illiberal democracies of Poland, Hungary and Turkey; Modi’s Hindutvar nationalists; the turning of Europe’s back on refugees; mass murder and terrorism from Breivik to ISIS. For Mishra that anger is the same that has historically erupted everywhere the modern world, with its emphasis on the individual acting according to self-interest, has arrived.

The Enlightenment introduced the liberal and secular belief in Progress, the idea that we are gradually perfecting our mastery of the world and understanding of ourselves, and are moving towards a global ideal of democratic, rational, tolerant societies. Belief in Progress is rooted in the same Judaeo-Christian messianic expectation as are apocalyptic cults – while it is possible that we are moving towards a future of universal prosperity, the expectation is an article of faith.

The preachers of the modern world, the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, wanted to do away with the irrational aristocratic and religious dynasties that stood in the way of self-interested competition among rational individuals. In a more meritocratic social order, men (meritocracy had a little way to go yet) of talent could join the upper ranks – men, conveniently, like them.

Liberty, equality and fraternity were ideals proclaimed by those who wished to remove obstacles to their own advancement, much as ‘freedom’ of the market is promoted by contemporary capitalists who wish to remove restrictions on the appropriation of wealth by their corporate vehicles. Voltaire, for instance, was a cheerleader for despotic monarchs, preferring to be a member of a sophisticated elite than to concern himself with the masses. He amassed a considerable fortune.

An unreachable ideal for the poor and politically irrelevant majority, the modern ‘self-made’ man a lá Voltaire was hated by those whose traditions he disdained, but at the same time envied for his success and power. The spiritual values of the past, according to Mishra, have been replaced by acquisitiveness. We are all enjoined to be entrepreneurs but as the poor of developed, and the people of developing, countries have found, too often we are zero-hour contracted instead of Richard Branson.

Wherever the blithe promises of the already rich and powerful that you are their equal and you too can make it – by following the American Dream, IMF rules, or what have you – run up against the real limitations of people’s lives, frustration and envy build up. When you say that success is a question of individual merit, you say that the unsuccessful are losers. The losers don’t like it.

So Mishra says that it is exactly the Enlightenment ethic of free individuals pursuing their own interests that creates anger in those who are left behind. He reminds us that nationalism is often considered a modern phenomenon, and argues that it emerged as an expression of resentment. Chafing against the cultural, economic and military dominance of the first modern nations, their neighbours claimed that a unique cultural heritage and traditional morality (typically carrying the baggage of xenophobia, scapegoating and fanatical religiosity) were superior to the homogenous, amoral decadence of those they envied. And when the left behind began to catch up, they were forced to juggle their material satisfaction with their fading sense of authenticity. Globalisation continues to create such divisions both between and within nations, and the tensions visible now as Leave-versus-Remain and Trump-versus-Clinton are the Scylla and Charybdis we moderns steer between.

Mishra traces this difficult journey as it has been taken by: France, through the Revolution⁴ and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars; Germany, through the ideology of the Volk, anti-semitism and the World Wars; and Russia, through another Revolution. And in the case of Britain, as Cecil Rhodes said, ‘he who would avoid civil war must be an imperialist.’ As more and more nations and communities are drawn into the globalised world, their old ways demolished only to see the wealth created disappear into the pockets of the few, Mishra anticipates more anger, more violence.

To take one of many examples he gives, in the nineteenth century anarchists wanted to tear down the ‘decadence, unbelief and corruption’, in the words of Bakunin, of bourgeois society. Some turned to violence and autonomous groups inspired by anarchism carried out bomb attacks across Europe on buildings symbolic of bourgeois greed and decadence. They assassinated the ‘Russian Tsar … the presidents of France and the United States, the King of Italy, the empress of Austria and the prime minister of Spain’. The parallels with contemporary terrorism are clear, as are those with Cohn’s revolutionary millenarians. So were these anarchists unwittingly replicating fanatical mediaeval ideologies, as Cohn suggests, or are they an example of the violence modernity provokes from those disenfranchised by it, as Mishra argues?


Meeting in the Middle

It’s possible to appreciate both the continuing force of mediaeval thought and the long roots of the modern sensibility – and to see how they intertwine. Ideological influences filter down, but in every example noted here, fanaticism, atavistic or otherwise, was able to flourish in times of societal upheaval. Mediaeval Christian apocalyptic cults, nineteenth century militant anarchists and ISIS are not the same, and neither are they clear regressions or progressions. Rather, they are similar (and similarly deplorable) responses to similar pressures: the pressures of the modern age.

Of course, very few Christians, anarchists and Muslims, in the past and in the present, were or are fanatics bent on destroying the old world to reveal the new. What Mishra wants to show is that modernity unleashes violence everywhere, regardless of local ideology.

Timothy McVeigh was a racist, misogynist, army veteran and gun nut. He was also a middle class American atheist who stated his religion as ‘science’, supported universal health care and in the first Gulf War became disgusted with US violence against Iraq. ‘When I took a human life, it taught me these were human beings’.

In jail for the bombing that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City, McVeigh met Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, trained by Osama Bin Laden and there himself for the first World Trade Centre attack that killed six. Like McVeigh, Yousef believed that the liberal US government’s use of overwhelming force to cow opponents, and the acceptance in modern warfare of ‘collateral damage’, legitimated his own tactic of violent terror. They became friends and Yousef later said ‘I have never [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own as his.’

Age of Anger is, by Mishra’s admission, not a thorough academic history, aiming instead to explore the subjective experiences that lead to political rage. It rushes through 300 years of intellectual, cultural and economic history across many countries and inevitably simplifies. No doubt, therefore, it also distorts. But it is persuasive on the point that self-interested competition is an incentive to violence and reminds us that an interest in others can move us beyond the stale categories that bog down the ‘with us or against us’ conflicts proliferating in the twenty-first century.


² The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn, p 58
³ The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn, p 278
It is remarkable that the French Revolution, perhaps the defining event in the creation of the modern nation-state, gave us the concept ‘terrorism‘.

All quotes not formally referenced are from Age of Anger.

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