Tag Archives: Islamic State

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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Soldier, Scholar, Politician: An Interview with Dr. Wayne Bowen

Although Dr. Wayne Bowen is an accomplished author, professor, and Chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University, he does not look or act like what one might expect from a history professor. He is physically fit, has close-cropped hair, and carries himself with an obvious military bearing, all of which is undoubtedly a product of his many years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Indeed, Wayne is a veteran of deployments to both Bosnia and Iraq, and has risen to the rank of Lt. Col. Perhaps equally as interesting, he has also recently embarked on a successful career as an elected politician, currently serving as a city councilman in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo. Moreover, he has done so unapologetically as a Republican, which is a rarity among academics in the humanities.


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Will the Real Extremists Stand Up Please?

Recently an article in the U.K. Independent came out with the headline “Al-Qaeda video shows public execution of woman accused of adultery – and has disgusted even Isis supporters.”

Previously, it was widely reported that one of the reasons ISIS developed independently from Al-Qaeda was that even Al-Qaeda saw their methods as too extreme– causing division.

Now ISIS is taking shots at Al Qaeda suggesting their methods are too extreme (in this case over something that is relatively minor compared to what ISIS has done).

Add to this the recent condemnation of the Pakistan version of the Taliban’s killing of 130 plus school children as too extreme by the Afghan version of the Taliban and it begins to get a bit ridiculous. Who knows what they all think of their fellow jihadists Boko Haram in Nigeria. They probably nit-pick about their mass killings and public executions as well.

Will the real extremists stand up please?

The fact is that they are all extreme, ruthless, and brutal in their methods of course, but perhaps this is a way to try to win points with potential jihadists looking to join an organization that provides the right fit for their extremism since they now have so many choices? With over 18,000 foreign fighters from all over the world drawn to ISIS’s wars in Iraq and Syria and who knows how many foreign recruits drawn to various Ai-Qaeda or Taliban manifestations around the Middle East and Africa, not to mention the apparent appeal of Boko Haram in Nigeria, recruiting must be very competitive in the jihadist world at the moment. This would all be great material for a Monty Python style sketch if the reality was not so serious.

The Unrelenting and Exhausting Pace of Islamist Violence

Yesterday, more than 130 school children were executed in Pakistan by the Taliban. Now, more than 150 women (some pregnant) were killed in Iraq for refusing to submit to ISIS’ new policy of sexual jihad, which is in some ways reminiscent of Boko Haram’s recent sexual enslavement of 200 Christian school girls in Nigeria. Prior to all of this, we watched “lone wolf” dramas play out regularly on our television screens, including the recent deadly hostage situation in Sydney, and before that the killings of the two Canadian soldiers, and prior to that various attacks in the U.S. (including a beheading of a woman and a hatchet attack on NYPD cops), as well as many other recent examples of Islamist violence or attempted violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world (China, Russia, Netherlands, France, etc…). Indeed, there are currently more than 20 nations (over a broad geographical spectrum) where Islamists are planning or actively committing violence (on various scales). These include several nations in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Europe, Asia, etc…

It is unrelenting and exhausting if you try to keep up with this sort of thing (as I try to do because of my occasional opportunities to provide analysis for local news organizations). It also seems that Continue reading

Modern Crusaders?

At least 15,000 foreign fighters, around 2000 of them from western nations, have left their home countries to go fight on behalf of ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Yet that estimate, widely repeated in the press, is months old, and so the number is probably somewhat higher in both cases. What hasn’t been reported on much until fairly recently, is the phenomenon of foreign fighters, particularly from the west, who have gone to Syria or Iraq to join the fight against ISIS. Indeed, there have been some westerners, driven by various motivations, who have traveled to the region to support and join Kurdish fighters on the ground. They are not mercenaries, so far as we know, doing this for financial gain. Rather, they claim far more altruistic motives and are doing this at their own expense. Continue reading

The Online War Between ISIS and the U.S. State Department

The Online War Between ISIS and the U.S. State Department

There are an estimated 2000 westerners who have gone to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq and an additional 13,000 non-western foreign fighters who have done the same. ISIS has showcased some of them, such as the British jihadist known as “Jihadi John,” through appearances in the gruesome beheading videos posted on Youtube. (See- Who is Jihadi John?- In 60 Seconds– U.K. Telegraph) Yet this number of 15,000 foreign fighters, as significant as it is, does not give the full picture of their level of popular support, either in the west or in other regions of the world.

The 15,000 figure represents only those who have successfully overcome the various hurdles necessary for their supporters to make it to Iraq or Syria, which are substantial (e.g. the threat of arrest in their home countries, coordinating with those who would receive them in Syria or Iraq, financing their trips, etc…). There are certainly many others who can’t overcome these hurdles, but otherwise seem very sympathetic to ISIS. Indeed, those thousands of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS were often recruited by a network of militants operating in their home countries with support from radical mosques and their members. These are people who can’t or won’t go to fight in Syria or Iraq themselves, but are willing to encourage and support others who will.

Perhaps of even greater significance, based on the efforts of the U.S. State Department, has been the role of social media in recruiting foreign fighters and winning support abroad, particularly in the West. While overall support for ISIS among Muslims in the West remains very low, the U.S. Government has shown considerable concern over the potential effect of social media in winning greater sympathy and support among western Muslims. In fact the State Department now has a growing social media division formed in 2010 to counter messaging from Al Qaeda, ISIS, and its affiliated groups. The unit engages in online forums in English, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali. They post on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and Facebook, seeking to question claims made by extremist groups and highlight their brutality. Continue reading

Obama as the “Dog of Rome”- ISIS and Crusading Rhetoric

Obama as the “Dog of Rome”- ISIS and Crusading Rhetoric

“To Obama, the dog of Rome, today we are slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar and tomorrow we are slaughtering your soldiers. And with god’s permission we will break this final and last crusade,” a masked man said before he was shown beheading one of the men.

See ISIL beheads Syrians and U.S. Aid Worker

President Obama as the “dog of Rome”?

The “final and last crusade”?

I was taking an undergraduate course on the Crusades at the University of North Florida in 2001 when the events of 9/11 took place. Since then, having become a historian of the crusading era, I have become almost numb to the constant rhetoric borrowed from the medieval crusades when describing modern conflicts between the West and various Islamic states or organizations. While I was pursuing my education, it was initially interesting to see such references from Al Qaeda, George Bush, or many others. But after 13 years of such rhetoric I hardly notice it anymore. Indeed, I almost skipped over the above references provided in the Al-Jazeera article when I initially read them. Continue reading