What I’m Reading, February 24, 2015

The First Victims of the First Crusade, Susan Jacoby, New York Times, February 13, 2015

The message from the medieval past is that religious violence seldom limits itself to one target and expands to reach the maximum number of available victims.


Cultural ignoramuses portrayed President Obama’s references to the Crusades and the Inquisition at the recent National Prayer Breakfast as an excuse for Islamic terrorism, but the president’s allusions could and should have been used as an opportunity to reflect on the special damage inflicted in many historical contexts by warriors seeking conquest in the name of their god.


Thomas Asbridge, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London, commented in this newspaper that “we have to be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current standards.”

This issue is better judged from the other side of the looking glass. What we actually see today is a standard of medieval behavior upheld by modern fanatics who, like the crusaders, seek both religious and political power through violent means. They offer a ghastly and ghostly reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation of church and state.

Unreconciled History: Why even victims don’t have the right to rewrite the past, Michael Kinsley, Slate, February 13, 2015

[N]o thinking person can control the direction his own thoughts take him. And I can’t help thinking that even history’s victims don’t have the right to rewrite history. Some of the Israelis of 1948 had gone from German concentration camps to United Nations displaced-persons camps with barely an opportunity for a free breath, losing everything they owned and everyone they loved along the way. If Israelis and their supporters believe that the tragic history of the Jews—especially the recent history of the Jews in Europe—entitles them to a few atrocities in the bank, let them say so, and defend this proposition, instead of pretending it never happened.

What would such a defense be? Here’s my best effort; it’s not an impossible case to make. Of the millions of innocent people driven from their homes during and after World War II, virtually all have been comfortably relocated for decades by now, usually in the lands of their ethnic origins. Only the Palestinian Arabs still fester in refugee camps, because the Arab leaders prefer not to give up a useful grievance.

Is it fair that Arabs should have to share their land with the Jews just because an Austrian madman took over Germany and invaded Poland? No, it’s not fair. But as the unfairnesses of World War II go, this one is not the largest.

In law school, they teach you that “necessity” can temporarily give you rights that you otherwise wouldn’t have. If you are in a boat in the middle of a storm, and about to capsize, you are entitled to tie up to a stranger’s dock, even if he or she objects, rather than see your boat capsize. But you are then responsible for any damage your boat causes to his dock.

That damage to the dock is a loss. No one is to blame, and litigation or negotiation can only allocate the loss. There is no way to make everybody whole. There also is no way a judge or a court can sensibly rule about whose side justice is on. It is on both. And ultimately it will be necessary for both sides to give up their respective grievances, or nurse them quietly. That’s hard to do when the grievance is valid. It must be harder if the grievance isn’t even acknowledged.

The Middle East That Might Have Been, Nick Danforth, The Atlantic, February 13, 2015

The King-Crane report is still a striking document—less for what it reveals about the Middle East as it might have been than as an illustration of the fundamental dilemmas involved in drawing, or not drawing, borders. Indeed, the report insisted on forcing people to live together through complicated legal arrangements that prefigure more recent proposals.

Among other things, the authors concluded that dividing Iraq into ethnic enclaves was too absurd to merit discussion. Greeks and Turks only needed one country because the “two races supplement each other.” The Muslims and Christians of Syria needed to learn to “get on together in some fashion” because “the whole lesson of modern social consciousness points to the necessity of understanding ‘the other half,’ as it can be understood only by close and living relations.”

But the commissioners also realized that simply lumping diverse ethnic or religious groups together in larger states could lead to bloody results. Their report proposed all sorts of ideas for tiered, overlapping mandates or bi-national federated states, ultimately endorsing a vision that could be considered either pre- or post-national, depending on one’s perspective. In addition to outlining several autonomous regions, they proposed that Constantinople (now Istanbul) become an international territory administered by the League of Nations, since “no one nation can be equal to the task” of controlling the city and its surrounding straits, “least of all a nation with Turkey’s superlatively bad record of misrule.” Although the authors had been tasked with drawing borders, it seems that once they confronted the many dilemmas of implementing self-determination, they developed a more fluid approach to nationhood and identity.

What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, March 2015

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.


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