A historical parallel to ISIS from 11th century Iran

Last week in the aftermath of the burning of Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, I took the decision to watch the video created by ISIS, as well as the videos of the beheadings that proceeded it.

I had been thinking about the reasons why a human would inflict such a brutal death upon another. In order to better understand the motivation, I felt it necessary to see the video with my own eyes, rather than simply read reports of it from others that had watched it.

Days later, I came across an interesting passage in the novel that I am reading. The book, a work of historical fiction, is called “Samarkand” and was written by a journalist named Amin Maalouf. Set in Iran during the 11th century, the book details the life of the prominent intellectual of the period, Omar Khayyam, a feature in the court of the Sultan.

During the period, two antagonists fight for power and when one, Hassan Sabbah, is defeated he creates an order which would come to be known as the Assassins. The passage begins just after Hassan Sabbah’s enemy has been slain, and his assailant butchered in retaliation.

In the years and decades to come, innumerable messengers from Alamut would meet the same death, the only difference being that they would not attempt to flee. ‘It is not enough to kill our enemies,’ Hassan taught them. ‘ We are not murderers but executioners. We must act in public as an example. By killing one man we terrorize a hundred thousand. However, it is not enough to execute and terrorize, we must also know how to die, for if, by killing, we discourage our enemies from undertaking any action against us, by dying in the most courageous fashion, we force the masses to admire us, and from their midst men will come to join us. Dying is more important than killing. We kill to defend ourselves, but we die to convert, and to conquer. Conquering is the aim we are seeking; defending ourselves is only a means thereto.’

It occurred to me after reading over this several times that ISIS has been extremely effective is discouraging its enemies from taking action against it. No public has appetite for watching it soldiers, its countrymen, die. Let alone beheaded or burnt alive.

ISIS willingness to commit such executions, not only of foreign POWs, but journalists and humanitarian workers, and later propagate those executions, has effectively ruled out any government choosing to confront it with ground troops.

It is certain that at some point soldiers will die in such a conflict. Whats more it is also certain that those deaths will not be glorious, but repulsive, humiliating and extremely public.

In Samarkand, the ruling elite who were so terrorized by the Assassins would eventually stop trying to defeat them.


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