In 1920, the Ottoman Empire came to an end in Paris with the Treaty of Sèvres (a sister document to the much more famous Treaty of Versailles). The treaty required the forfeiture of all non-Turkish land and set the stage for the creation of the modern Turkish state. The last caliphate was at an end.
Yesterday, a flurry of violence erupted across Paris leaving at least 127 people dead and hundreds more injured. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack as well as for a set of bombings in Beirut, Lebanon on Thursday. Many in the European and world media were quick to blame the attacks on the flood of Syrian refugees who have been pouring onto European shores in the past months. These refugees are, of course, fleeing a brutal civil war, a war created and prolonged in no small part by the Islamic State; but ask yourself who is funding and arming these radical groups.
But what is the Islamic State really? In the West, it has been largely portrayed as a super-charged next-generation terror group, Al-Queda 2.0. But the Islamic State has done something that Al-Queda never managed. It has held and governed territory—and it has declared caliphate. The Islamic State has acted out the propaganda dreams of Al-Queda recruitment videos. And these dreams are deeply rooted in the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and its place as the last historical caliphate. Even the name by which the Islamic State first became known to the world, ISIS/ISIL invokes the Ottoman past. Al-Sham was the name of the Ottoman province that included modern Syria. Along with beheadings, crucifixions, and stonings, IS is, by its own admission, unapologetically medieval.
This harkening to the medieval world, a past in which the Ottomans are frequently conflated with earlier Islamic empires, is the central hallmark of the Islamic State’s ideology. What makes this ideology particularly dangerous, however, is the way in which it has been married to millenarian dreams that foresee a final battle between “Rome” (the name commonly used for the West in IS propaganda) and the Caliphate in Syria that will usher in the Judgement Day.
However, it is not only the Islamic State that is waiting for a battle straight from the Middle Ages, because the Western response to radical Islam generally, and the Islamic State in particular, have been deeply colored by the events of the medieval and early modern world. Since its beginnings, Islam has been perceived by the West as an existential threat (a perception that was frequently justified). On October 10, 732, Charles Martel defeat the forces of Abd el-Rahman Al Ghafiqi at Tours, France in a battle that historically has been seen as preventing a Muslim conquest of Western Europe. This morning, #CharlesMartel is a Twitter hashtag. Europe remembers the Middle Ages too.
In the coming days, the full extent of what happened in Paris over the past 24 hours will become clearer. But what is already clear is that this attack began long before bombs exploded in the Stade de France. And it will not end there. French president François Hollande has declared the attacks in Paris “an act of war” and has vowed to strike back at the Islamic State. Ancient memories of attack have once again been reawakened and the rhetoric and actions that accompany those memories will certainly follow. The only question that remains is if knowing the past does anything to prevent its repetition.
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