ISIS and the Politics of the Middle Ages
This week the Guardian reporter Kevin McDonald took issue with Nick Clegg’s description of ISIS as “medieval”. McDonald reported: ‘given the extreme violence of Isis fighters and the frequent images of decapitated bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of these acts as somehow radically “other”.’ Unfortunately analysis of the meaning and implications of this political use of the Middle Ages ended here, and the article instead constructed a somewhat flawed comparison between ISIS and the history of the French Revolution. However, this recent use of the category ‘medieval’ as a label for the things that we refuse to acknowledge or understand is not unique.
Many shocking crimes against humanity, such as torture, slavery, and public executions, frequently occur in our modern world, and yet are described as medieval. This conundrum was discussed by John Dagenais, who argued that ‘the Middle Ages “shadows” modernity, its existence driven by a repeated denial of coevalness with modernity of activities like repression and brutality: a productive and exploitative anachronism’. The ‘denial of coevalness’, a phenomenon first identified by the anthropologist Johannes Fabian, is the practice of locating people, cultures, or events within another time. Within Fabian’s analysis, the ‘denial of coevalness’ was a way to structure colonial power. For example, a ‘remote society’ might be described as primitive, signifying that that society is not only geographically remote from Europe but also remote from ‘modernity’ as it has been defined in the Western historical tradition.
‘Modernity’ is often assumed to be the product of historical evolution, the triumphant outcome of the European Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Yet many dark crimes and threats of chaos occur close to home, challenging this glossy image of post-Enlightenment modernity. Rather than accepting responsibility for flaws in our society, or questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and progress, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time. Instead, shocking crimes and phenomena that generate fear are described as medieval. As Dagenais observed, ‘the typological use of “medieval” was a way of exercising and containing those aspects of modernity that are inadmissible to itself’. Exploited in this way, the Middle Ages cease to be a dynamic and complex period and become a handmaiden for the mythology of modernity.
With the realisation that the governments of Europe and America have engaged in extra-ordinary rendition to conduct torture overseas and that ISIS fighters and perpetrators of public decapitations in the Middle East can have grown up in the UK, it is no longer possible for this generation to interpret shocking crimes against humanity and threats to our imagined social order as something geographically remote. People in Europe and America therefore have two options: they can accept that crimes occur in their world but describe them as ‘medieval’, part of another time, and refuse to acknowledge them; or they can critically reflect upon the ways in which the society they are part of has created the problems it has.
This recent use of the Middle Ages as a label for describing ISIS is dangerous since it justifies a refusal to reflect upon the causes and potential solutions to the problems being faced in the contemporary world. It provides an excuse for not engaging with the difficult and challenging process of introspection, the process of looking at ourselves and asking how have we, as a global society, created this problem and how can we respond to it.
The irony is that, globally, there have been many developments in technology, there are more devices to record and circulate messages to ever increasing audiences – but we refuse to analyse the complex messages channelled by the high tech global communication system. The lenses of social media are distorted. So perhaps we are, after all, living in the ‘dark ages’; yet this dark age is not the medieval period, but a dark age of consciousness.
Julia McClure is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI.
Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barrel_bomb_aftermath_Aleppo_February_2014.jpg Note: The barrel bombing of Aleppo has been generally blamed on Syrian government forces, not ISIS.
 Dagenais, ‘The Postcolonial Laura’, Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2004), pp. 365-389. p. 374.