A few weeks ago, a silly, overlong article made the rounds, angering quite a few people before the predictable quiet. No, it’s not the terrible, bigoted, poorly-researched piece it was said to be, but amidst all its details, the political suggestions (many of them quite solid), the REAL issue was still obscured, and Islam — a 1500 year-old phenomenon — was still left blurred by mystique. The problem is that Graeme Wood’s essay has everything you’ve come to expect of political backtalk: trite observations, vague yet over-the-hill fear-mongering (apparently, ISIS controls a region ‘larger than the United Kingdom’; much as, using similar logic, a band of sea-lions might control half of Antarctica), accusations re: American tolerance of such, and, of course, the requisite contradictions, such as when the author calls the group ‘dystopian’ in one breath and ‘medieval’ in the next. Yet despite the 10,000+ words spilled on the subject, the key to understanding ISIS is not to be found in a bulleted look at Islam, but somewhere in the past, wherein today’s bullshit tends to linger, if only so that it’s mistaken for something else — something harder to explain — tomorrow.
In other words, for all of the books on Islam, for all of the articles, the fear, the PoMo-level analysis on both sides, the beheadings, ISIS (and everything else like it) is little more than the old you. Now, just stop and think what this entails. There was a time, recall, when you — assuming you’re a white Christian in America — put on a stinky old vest, smeared your face with mud, recited a few nonsensical sermons, and still won your converts. This was when things were good. In more difficult times, you’d swap your vest for armor, find a horse, and lance a few skulls in Jerusalem. A century or two later, in Constantinople, you’d pillage, rape, and even destroy your Lord’s churches — for what’s a vow, really, when you know what’s best in your heart of hearts? And this was Christianity in power, at a time when amusements were at a minimum. There were no other outlets, and little else that could be called ‘purpose’. Sometimes there’d be war, and sometimes there was peace, but peace — you’d come to understand — was merely preparation. You never quite knew what for, exactly, but such is faith, and God’s love is narrow and stippled with requirements.
But perhaps you’re neither Christian, nor white. Let’s assume you’re, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese Buddhist. If lucky, you might have seen yourself in a Chinese king — Taizong, say — who felt the need to send his armies where they did not belong, partly for reasons of empire, and partly to help Buddhism as a kind of ‘charity’. Sure, you might have railed against superstition here or there, but given the nature of your era, you couldn’t help but replace one superstition with another, and even adopt that condescending smirk as you watched Buddhism become … Continue reading →