November 2, 2015

MOSKOWITZ | ISIS and the Power of the Past

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By HUNTER MOSKOWITZ

For the past couple of years, ISIS has been deemed “medieval,” a return to “barbarism” and even apocalyptic in the American discourse. There has been a concerted effort among members of the Western media to paint the actions of ISIS as those of the past, stuck in a static universe. This has come from beheadings, mostly of Western journalists, and accusations of sex-slavery and Sharia Law in the area of the Islamic State. Ethnic cleansing and the mass displacement of refugees has also been reported across the region along with the destruction of numerous historical artifacts and places. All of this evidence has propagated a view that ISIS represents some sort of ancient rebirth. A returned to a “pathological” theology that once dominated medieval times.

Yet ISIS is not medieval, it is modern. It exists in 2015 because it is a product of the circumstances and historical phenomena that has led to this day and time. ISIS does not represent anything close to the Islamic Empires of medieval times, and even if it did, it would be both ignorant and misleading to label it as a direct descendant of the diverse Islamic Empires of the medieval period. It is also interesting to note that a group that drives around in Toyota pickup trucks with Russian-made guns and prominently uses the social media is considered some relic of the past. In contrast, ISIS’s violent and destructive tendencies are not a distorted past, but a very real present and probable future.

However, the medieval characterization works well in the circumstance because it helps contribute to the larger narrative about the war between Islamic and Western power. It is the continued construction of the East-West divide in which the United States represents the powers of Western good and progress while ISIS represents Islamic changelessness and evil, leaving the vast amount of Middle-Easterners stuck somewhere “in-between.” As the writer Edward Said has said, “This is the problem with unedifying labels like Islam and the West: They mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly reality that won’t be pigeonholed or strapped down as easily as all that.”

This is to say that this conflictive narrative did not begin with ISIS or even suddenly arise after the events surrounding 9/11. ISIS is not a product of a singular past and a simple narrative; it is not the product of Islamic religion or a medieval society waiting to be crushed by modern weaponry and progress. ISIS is the product of a much more long and complicated history. It is the product of accelerating globalization and the violent and tyrannical colonial past that lurks underneath it. It is the product of free-markets and scientific enterprise and cultural interaction and all types of Western interventionism. More than any of this, ISIS is a product of overlooked local circumstances and history, some of which I cannot and will not understand. ISIS developed in Iraq and Syria because of the local circumstances that existed, and these local histories are much more powerful than any oversimplified metanarratives.

The power of the past radically shapes our interpretation of the present. This region in the Middle East cannot be forced into modern or traditional, East or West. It is not succumbing to a “radically Islamic” society that wishes to only embraces “backward” or “violent” perspectives and law. Neither is it a society overcoming its “Islamic roots” through globalizing, embracing certain technologies and racing to embrace educational systems and cultural values that are predominantly “Western.” It is not in some sort of continual stuck “in-between,” a mix of “good and evil” that uses the guise of a complex narrative to promote baseless assumptions about “modern or traditional” societies. In fact, each country, town and person is as modern as any American industrial city. Yet they are all rooted in the past, in the historical moment of the last couple years, and the trends that exist over decades and even centuries of time.

This is to say that the most important actors in these conflicted regions are the people who live in them. These are the voices that are not heard. It is their actions that go unrecognized, clouded out by the East versus West narrative. They more than anyone else shape their own society and it is their struggles and ideas that have been silenced. In this way, the “medieval” characterizations not only dehumanizes ISIS, but the people of this region as a whole. It creates a broad narrative that fits them into a certain category lacking complexity. They become defined and structured, able to be acted upon, and forced into continued exploitation and oppression. History, in this sense, cannot comprehend the aspiration and abilities of these people to create their circumstances. They become stuck in a static universe, and so the power of the past ignores how their hands and minds build our world.

Hunter Moskowitz is a sophomore in ILR. He enjoys playing the cello and running. His posts appear on alternate Mondays. He can be reached at hm376@cornell.edu.

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