"Medieval" is a term we've heard more and more frequently over the years to describe Islamist militants such as Al Qaeda and now ISIL. Given the cruelty of their tactics, it's understandable. But it's also a misleading label that obscures the ideology and motivation of what are, in fact, modern political movements.
Historians of the Middle Ages will tell you that ISIL bears little resemblance, in words and deeds, to actual people of that era. The Islamists' particular brand of religious fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon. And their brutal executions are carefully choreographed spectacles, created to take full advantage of spreading terror through contemporary viral media.
As professors Clare Monagle and Louise D'Arcens write in a recent essay, the tendency to describe Islamist terror as "medieval" lies in the longer history of how the Middle Ages came to be perceived in Western cultural imagination:
First deployed in the Renaissance, the term "medieval" was invented by scholars who wanted to celebrate the progress of their own age in contrast to the preceding centuries….Since then, whenever modernity has found itself in crisis—when the shibboleths of rationalism, secularism, capitalism and the nation-state seem to be coming apart at the seams— fantasies of the medieval have suggested a mostly frightening, though sometimes alluring, vision of what the alternatives to modernity might be.
When commentators and politicians describe Islamic State as "medieval" they are placing the organization outside of modernity, in a sphere of irrationality. The point being made is that they are people from a barbaric and superstitious past, and consequently have not matured into modern political actors.
A Modern Ideology
But the militants have little compunction about embracing the tools that modernity provides. Their purported medievalism has not deterred them from effectively using the Internet and videos to mobilize the faithful.
Jason Burke, one of the foremost experts on Al Qaeda, has written about how Islamist movements owe more to the 20th century than the 7th century:
At the ideological level, prominent thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb and Abu Ala Maududi borrowed heavily from the organizational tactics of secular leftist and anarchist revolutionaries. Their concept of the vanguard is influenced by Leninist theory. Qutb's most important work, Ma'alim fi'l-tariq (Milestones), reads in part like an Islamicized Communist Manifesto. A commonly used Arabic word in the names of militant groups is Hizb (as in Lebanon's Hizb Allah, or Hezbollah), which means "party" — another modern concept.
In fact, the militants often couch their grievances in Third-Worldist terms familiar to any contemporary anti-globalization activist….Egyptian militant leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has decried multinational companies as a major evil. Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, once told a friend how angered he was by a world economic system that meant Egyptian farmers grew cash crops such as strawberries for the West while the country's own people could barely afford bread. In all these cases, the militants are framing modern political concerns, including social justice, within a mythic and religious narrative. They do not reject modernization per se, but they resent their failure to benefit from that modernization.
Likewise, ISIL's desire to carve out a state in the form of a revived Caliphate is a decisively modern one, which has its origins as much in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia as it does in the history of Islam. Such sovereignty is completely absent in medieval culture, with its fragmented world and multiple sources of power.
In fact, within the context of Islamic observance, these militants are not considered traditionalists, but radical reformers, because they reject the authority of the established clergy and religious scholars, and instead demand the right to interpret doctrine themselves. That view was recently condemned in a letter, signed by more than 120 Muslim scholars.
As the Huffington Post reports:
The Muslim leaders who endorsed the letter called it an unprecedented refutation of the Islamic State ideology from a collaboration of religious scholars. It is addressed to the group's self-anointed leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and "the fighters and followers of the self-declared 'Islamic State.'"
But the words "Islamic State" are in quotes, and the Muslim leaders who released the letter asked people to stop using the term, arguing that it plays into the group's unfounded logic that it is protecting Muslim lands from non-Muslims and is resurrecting the caliphate — a state governed by a Muslim leader that once controlled vast swaths of the Middle East.
"Please stop calling them the 'Islamic State,'"said Ahmed Bedier, a Muslim and the president of United Voices of America, a nonprofit that encourages minority groups to engage in civic life. "They are not a state and they are not a religion."
Nor are they medieval peoples, trapped in a future world. They're the product of the same modern ideologies and tactics that we experienced in the west, and that made the 20th century the bloodiest in history. And that's what makes them the ultimate embodiment of 21st century warfare.