Tag Archives: Islamic State

The West, the Muslim World, and Slavery

With the recent institutionalization of slavery in the so-called Islamic State, as well as the troubling and much publicized acknowledgement of the legitimacy of slavery by some modern Islamic scholars (see examples here, here, and here), the issue of slavery in the Muslim world has been on my radar recently.


Consequently, some comments by the former Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis on this issue recently caught my attention. In his book Race and Slavery in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 1990), Lewis wrote: Continue reading

Teaching Marines

I recently had one of the more rewarding teaching experiences of my career when I had the opportunity to present two lectures on the background of the so-called “Islamic State” to U.S. Marines from Company B, 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion. These were not just any Marines, mind you, but Marines from the reserve unit I once proudly served in as a sergeant. Continue reading

Africa, Islamic Terrorism, and the West: An Interview with Evans Gumbe

While focusing on terrorism and the rise of the “Islamic State” over the last 18 months, I have spent a lot of time talking with a variety of interesting people with unique perspectives on the issue, including academic, military, and law enforcement experts. Yet one of the more interesting people I have come across is Evans Gumbe, who is particularly noteworthy for his life experiences.

Evans is a budding scholar, fluent in English, German, Luo, Abagusii, and Kiswahili. He also has a basic knowledge of Spanish and French and his goal is to become a history professor. To this end, he has completed a M.A. in history from Egerton University in Kenya (2011) and then completed a second master’s degree in Leadership and Management (2014) at York St John University in England, where he also worked as a Researcher and teaching assistant. His research to this point focuses on ethnicity and sex and its role in the peace making process in Kenya. His most recent publication, reflecting these interests, is “The Role of Women in Inter ethnic Peace Building in South Nyanza, Kenya, 1850-2008,” in The International Journal of Humanities and Social Studies (2015). While at York, Evans met his German wife Johanna and in 2015 they moved to her home country where he is now enrolled as a Ph.D. student in history at Bielefeld University, Germany. By all appearances he will have a great career as an academic, but it is what he has lived through up to this point that provides his greatest insights. Continue reading

The Islamic State’s Moral Reasoning on the Sexual Enslavement of Yazidi Women and Girls

I’d recently viewed a widely circulating clip showing Al-Azhar Professor Suad Saleh arguing that, in a legitimate war between Muslims and their enemies, Muslims can capture slave girls and have sex with them. This is disheartening because Al-Azhar is a more than 1000 year old seat of learning and perhaps the most respected in the Sunni Muslim world. It’s a particularly touchy issue because of ISIS’ recent actions with regard to the Yazidi people. The video is from September 12, 2014, but has been circulating in social media in recent days. You can view it here: http://www.memri.org/clip/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/5252.htm

It made me think of a something I had recently read in the book by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2015) concerning the well-publicized success of the Islamic State in capturing and enslaving up to 7,000 Yazidi women.


Stern (a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University) and Berger (a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution) offer the following insight Continue reading

The 99.9% Myth

A number of well-intentioned people, including President Barack Obama, have claimed that the Islamic State and other militant radical groups have practically no support among Muslims. Indeed, in a televised interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in response to a question of why his administration avoided using the phrase, “Islamic terrorists,” the president responded the vast overwhelming majority of Muslims reject radical interpretations of Islam, distinguishing between radical extremists and the remaining “99.9 percent of Muslims.”

I understand the desire to believe this and the optimism expressed in such a claim, but what is the evidence for it? Continue reading

Studying Medieval History and Fighting ISIS?

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina recently announced that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford University in the mid-1970s would aid her as a future commander-in-chief in the war against ISIS.


She reasoned that ISIS is essentially medieval, seeking to drag the people and societies it controls back to the Middle Ages before listing a number of atrocities carried out by the group including burning prisoners to death, crucifixions, and beheadings. Because she associated these actions exclusively with the Middle Ages, she argued her education in medieval history would serve her well in dealing with these problems.

Is she right?

Medieval historians, like myself, tend to cringe when they hear modern commentators refer to something particularly brutal as uniquely medieval, as if brutality defined the Middle Ages in contrast to an enlightened and more gentle modern world. The reality is that medieval barbarism, as bad as it could be at times, often pales in comparison to the horrors of the technologically advanced 20th century, which include over sixty million people killed in World War II, the first use of Atomic Weapons, tens of millions killed under communist regimes, and the Holocaust.

Yet, as recently pointed out in a much discussed piece by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic, to dismiss any connection between ISIS and medieval history would be wrong. The self-declared “Caliphate” created by ISIS claims its legitimacy, and authority, is demonstrated in its adherence to the earliest Islamic principles as reflected in the life and examples of the Prophet Muhammad and its strict adherence to the Qur’an. Muhammad’s time as a religious leader and the emergence of the Qur’an came during the seventh century, which is about as medieval as one can get.

The leaders of ISIS often point to medieval historical examples and religious texts to cite precedents that they argue justify their own extreme actions. In light of this, Fiorina is correct in the sense that a western leader well educated on early/medieval Islamic history could have a better understanding of how ISIS and their supporters interpret their actions, motivate their followers, and justify their actions.

The problem is that I have no idea how much knowledge of medieval history Fiorina picked up as an undergraduate at Stanford and has retained since then. I doubt that, as a busy CEO and businesswoman, she has had much time or interest in keeping up with medieval scholarship over the past few decades. Yet her broader point, that knowledge of the Middle Ages can be helpful for modern leaders facing some of our current challenges, is valid.

One well versed in medieval history is presumably more aware of historical understandings of the life and example of the prophet Muhammad (which still influences the actions of many Muslims today), the emergence and background of medieval religious texts like the Qur’an, the basis for the Sunni-Shia split (contributing to extensive conflict within the Muslim world even today), the historical treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim ruled lands (a pressing issue at the moment as we have recently seen step declines in Middle Eastern Christianity), the causes and consequences of the crusades (whose interpretation remains a hot button issue among many today), etc…

Fiorina’s suggestion that her study of medieval history is valuable for understanding events in the present has been mocked, but one could certainly do worse than to have a solid understanding of the medieval past as a base from which they consider some of the issues we face in our presumably “clash of civilizations” modern world.

*Updated on 10/8. ———————————–

*A 350 word version of this essay was published as a “Lead Letter” in the Florida Times Union on 10/9/2015. See http://jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2015-10-09/story/lead-letter-fiorina-has-point-suggesting-history-background


Below are some additional thoughts of mine on a Facebook post (10/7/2015) on a thread by Paul Halsall linking to a recent essay by David Perry for The Guardian (Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/06/carly-fiorina-medieval-history-degree-fight-isis?CMP=share_btn_fb )

My comments follow:—————

I’m not entirely sure of one of David’s points. While I respect David as a thinker and writer, he seems to be hedging his bets in this piece a bit.

In one place, at least, he seems to be mocking Fiorina’s suggestion that a degree in medieval history is useful for a political leader dealing with modern problems involving the Islamic world. He writes:

“She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree [in medieval history] will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions…”

But elsewhere he writes:

“the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time…”


“I believe that we need to study the past in order to respond to the present…”

Based on these last two comments David clearly see’s value in studying medieval history to “respond to the present.” So in that sense, at least, he agrees with Fiorina’s larger point, even if he does not like doing so.

Let me get into the weeds a little bit here. As you all know, ISIS bases its ideology on how it interprets medieval events and medieval texts. Particularly the life and example of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century (which they cite all the time to justify their actions- e.g. “Muhammad burned apostates according to the Hadith so it’s okay for ISIS to do it.”) and the Qur’an and other texts that emerged around this time. Understanding that, to some degree, is unquestionably a huge plus for any political leader. In fact, in an ideal world, I would wish all western generals and politicians who involve themselves in Middle Eastern affairs had a solid grounding in a number of medieval topics (e.g. the rise of Islam, the evolution of Islamic beliefs and texts, etc…). Even if ISIS is somehow interpreting those medieval events and texts incorrectly, then one needs an education in medieval history to know the difference and be able to argue the point.

Also, there are so many other ways an education in medieval history can help one better understand events in the present. One of the reasons I have been called on so much by local media to comments on ISIS and events in the Middle East is because such media often has very basic questions on topics like the origins of Shia-Sunni animosity, which is rooted in the Middle Ages, or questions about crusading rhetoric often used on both sides in modern clashes between Islamists and westerners, the historic treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, or many other topics. Nobody else [or at least very few] at my college really has the background in those areas (e.g. early Islam, the crusades, etc…) that I as a medieval historian have. That became a base from which I have come to analyze events in the M.E. over the past 15 months or so, doing no less than 32 interviews with local media. So I certainly know from personal experience that having a background in medieval history can help one better understand (than many people without such an education) at least some of the complexities of current events in a way that engineering or accounting majors, for example, will not understand. I admit that knowledge of medieval history alone was not enough to provide coherent commentary on current events, but it was undoubtedly a solid base from which to engage in additional studies over the past 15 months.

So on this very basic point, that a background in medieval history is useful for a leader dealing with modern relations between the west and the Islamic world, Fiorina is obviously right.

Now, whether or not Fiorina actually remembers anything about the Middle Ages from her studies at Stanford back in the 70s, or her study of the Middle Ages involved any significant focus on Islam or related topics, is entirely another topic and fair game. I doubt as a business woman and CEO she bothered to keep up with recent medieval scholarship over the past 40 years since she graduated and I have no doubt that like a good politician she is touting her degree in the most opportunist of ways. But nevertheless I don’t like seeing some commentators (not referring to David here) dismiss the value of medieval history with regard to understanding current events. Diss Fiorina all you want and question her motives, but not the value of studying the medieval past for a greater grasp of events in the present. On that point she is right, even if she is only saying it to score political points rather than maintaining any real devotion to understanding the Middle Ages.

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The Iran Deal and ISIS?

Regardless of the debate over the broader merits of the plan, when I first heard about the controversial recent deal by the U.S. and other countries with Iran, lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for a suspension of their nuclear efforts, I immediately thought of how ISIS (e.g. “Islamic State”) might factor into this.

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