Thursday, July 28, 2005

Perhaps it's just that I've missed it, but where's the blog post discussing the relevance of Norman Cohn's masterpiece* of historical-sociological analysis, The Pursuit of the Millenium, and the current problem of Islamicist terrorism and the war thereon?
Cohn's book focusses on outbreaks of violence in Medieval Europe that were inspired by (Christian) millenarian heresies. Side-stepping the possibly obvious comparison of our born-again millenarian-in-chief to these rebels, I think it's interesting to apply some of the insights Cohn derives from his study to Islamicist militants -- both the really nasty ones who have declared a terrorist war on the West (and in some cases on their fellow Muslims), and the milder ones who are merely dedicated to imposing theocratic rule in their own areas of the world.
The first objection to this, of course, is that these people speak in the name of a particular interpretation of Islam, whereas Cohn is writing about Christian Europe. True. But remember that Islam and Christianity do share some common roots; and Cohn traces the ideas of his subjects back not only to the early Christians, but to Jewish and Arabic legends.
There are, it seems to me, a number of places where Cohn's analysis interestingly resembles modern trends. One is his identification of the myth of the usurpation of authority by the devil disguised as true rulers, and the need to extirpate this treasonous masquerade – a blend of manichaenism, conspiracy theory, and millenarianism. Linked to this is a characteristic pattern of millenial movements, whereby charismatic leaders call on their followers to separate themselves out from a corrupt world and rebel against it, to return to a sacred past, an ideal of pure belief and pure living, which the traitors, the corruptors, the servants of the devil, seek to destroy.
Doesn't this sound like the sort of thing one finds among certain radical imams and leaders of terrorist cells? Isn't there some resemblence between, say, John of Leyden, and Osama bin Laden?
Well, whether there is or not is of course debatable; but it seems to me there's an argument for the comparison, and that thinking about modern Islamicist radicalism might be helped by this analogy, imperfect as it is.
(Some might take hope from the comparison: after all, if Christianity was able to survive and outgrow [at least in part] such things, might not Islam do the same? Possibly; but this seems to presuppose a view of history that I find somewhat dubious, which holds that all cultures and religions ultimately follow the same course of [progressive] development, albeit at different times. I think it more plausible to think that all religious traditions, all cultures, civilisations, nations, etc., contain within them the capacity for growth towards greater decency and sophistication and justice, and decline into barbarism and unreason, and that at different times one or another of these tendencies becomes dominant -- and that what trend becomes dominant, and what course the culture or whatever takes, depends on the actions of its members, as well as outside forces)
Ok, but what can we learn from Cohn's analysis of medieval millenialism, as opposed to his description of it?
Well, Isaiah Berlin (who, this blog being what it is, had to come into this at some point) picked up on Cohn's suggestion that it was not poverty, misery, humiliation, which caused the religious revivalism, fanaticism, millenialism, and violent revolt that Cohn examined. Rather, it was the experience of dramatic change, which produced dislocation which in turn led to alienation. In those areas where there were outbreaks of millenarian revolt, people had lived in poverty and under oppression for some time; it was when there was an upset in the equilibrium of traditional forms of life, thought, and feeling, which created confusion and a sense of superfluity and dizzying uncertainty, that millenarian faiths, and their violent consequences, emerged.
I don't know if this is necessarily true for all outbreaks of religious fanaticism and violence inspired by it (I'm not even sure if it's true of the phenomena Cohn looked at, though he does make a pretty strong case). But it's worth consideration in trying to understand why Islamicist terrorism has recently emerged as a major force, and how we might address it; it adds something, I think, to the usual alternative explanations, which seem to generally come down to 'they hate us for our freedom' (i.e. they're bad, oppressive people who dislike our good values because of their bad ones), or 'they've been driven to this by poverty/humiliation/oppression/corruption in their own countries' (i.e. it's our fault for dominating the world unjustly and treating other peoples badly, or letting them be treated badly by their rulers). I'm not denying that there's truth in both of these arguments; but I think that they are clearly one-sided, and even put together, don't quite offer a full and satisfactory explanation. And it seems to me that Cohn's analysis points to a line of thought that is helpful here.
It's also just a really interesting work of history. So give it a look.

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