Back to the Future: ISIL and Confessional Conflict in the Modern World

Recent attacks in Paris and Nigeria have once again cast a light on extreme elements of Islam. Many in the West condemn these extremists, some through hyperbolic statements denouncing the Islamic faith, others with declarations of unity with the majority of Muslims who practice their faith peacefully. The rise of Islamic extremism is a complex issue. Few commentators have compared it with Christianity’s religious history and the relationship between extreme ideology and transforming political structures. In the case of ISIS, some useful and interesting parallels exist.

The threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State (IS) continues unabated, despite ongoing coalition bombardment. Since its inception, jihadis and supporters of the IS have sought to establish a caliphate, or Islamic empire, in the Middle East. Most of the media attention given to the movement and its supporters has focused on its anti-Western vitriol, the execution of ISIS hostages, as well as how some recent converts have travelled from western states, such as Canada, the United States, or Britain, to fight alongside their co-religionists.

Aside from these exposes, few have explored what the IS has actually done or implemented in practice. The proponents of ISIS seek to implement Sharia law, against which all actions and ideas in the state are ostensibly measured. In August 2014, VICE News reporter Medyan Dairieh spent three weeks with IS fighters and supporters of the movement in Syria. As the documentary from VICE shows, in cities like Raqqa armed gunmen patrol the streets to ensure that people are living in accordance with Islamic traditions.

From an historical perspective, attempts to modify state structures based on a religion or confession are certainly not unprecedented. For example, historians of early modern Europe (1450-1648) refer to state-building along religious lines as confessionalization. In broad terms, the idea of confessionalization describes the ways in which churchmen and politicians sought to reclaim authority over regions following the decentralization of Roman Catholic power during the period of reformation. Among other ways to reaffirm authority, Protestant reformers established a series of courts to discipline individuals in the community. This social disciplining, reformers believed, would help towns and villages remain pure in the eyes of God.

The period of reformation and renewal that took hold of Christendom in late medieval and early modern Europe helped transform, for better or for worse, all the territories over which western dynasties and governments reigned. In a rather ironic way, the attempts of ecclesiastics like Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and others who sought the return to an original, purer Christianity had an unintended, but long-term, consequence: they laid the foundation for dissociating church and state, and paved the way to think critically about episcopal and global authority in matters of both body and spirit.

The advocates of the IS are partially seeking the opposite. They hope to breakdown the sovereign borders that separate modern-day Syria and Iraq, creating a centralized state with a key figure at its apogee. In other ways, though, attempts to establish a confessional state require the very same ingredients across time and space. Some of these include juridical instruments, such as courts or councils, and a means to implement accepted practices. In the late medieval period, the political structure in many parts of Europe allowed ecclesiastics to maneuver politically, to implement specific reforms in theory, and to develop methods, such as moral courts, to implement the reforms in practice.

In his book, German Histories in the Age of Reformations (2009), early modern political historian Thomas Brady Jr. has shown how the political environment of late medieval Europe permitted the acceptance and expansion of religious renewal in a way unlike previous eras. It was the changing nature of late medieval politics that allowed the Protestant, and later Catholic, reformations to gain momentum across urban and rural parts of Europe.

The recent history of Iraq and Syria is replete with examples of political destabilization. In Syria, for example, the absence of a strong, stable political structure has allowed ISIL to move in and gain support. Much like in previous eras, the political structure has now accommodated confessionally-driven change in some parts of the region. If the objectives of ISIS seek to establish a state using the Quran as its foundation, and establish methodsoften violent onesto implement those ideas, then the proponents of ISIL are very much reformers. Like the Christian theologians and statesmen of the early modern era, supporters of ISIL see the world in which they operate in apocalyptical terms. In sixteenth-century Zurich, reformer Huldrych Zwingli could not imagine living in a confederation with Catholics, which ultimately led to his premature death and provoked a war between the reformed and Catholic cantons of the Swiss Confederation in 1531.

Huldrych Zwingli as depicted by   Hans Asper   in an oil portrait from 1531 (  Kunstmuseum Winterthur  ) via Wikipedia

Huldrych Zwingli as depicted by Hans Asper in an oil portrait from 1531 (Kunstmuseum Winterthur) via Wikipedia

This raises an important question if historians are trying to draw parallels between religious renewal across time and space: what is the difference between the Christian reformers of early modern Europe and todays Jihadis of ISIL? Certainly, it has nothing to do with either groups conviction or dedication to their cause. But the primary difference between the two groups is the context in which both operate. This is what at present makes the use of violence and beheadings abhorrent to us, while easy to dismiss similar cases in the past. Such great dissonance exists in the modern era between those individuals who believe in what, for simplicity's sake, we will call democratic principles, and individuals driven by apocalyptical and eschatological beliefs that continue to drive behaviour and influence attitudes. If we simply dismiss ISIL as a group of fanatical Jihadis, then we fail to understand the enduring power of confessionally-driven ideology in places where political structures have weakened.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est (The Church is always to be reformed) applies to all monotheistic and hierarchical confessions. Like any form of religious renewal, ISIL has contributed to further fragmentation of Islam, but it is nonetheless part of a reform movement. Outspoken scholars of Islam, for example Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, have denounced ISIL, claiming that they have endangered Islam. ISIS is by no means representative of Islam, but viewed through the lens of radical reformers as we do with Christian Protestant reformers, we can better understand the context of their demands. That they have pushed their faith towards a dangerous and violent extreme is beyond doubt, but it is also clear they are exploiting or at least reacting to the weakened and faltering political structures of the region.

The rise of ISIS and their goals offers a warning for us. Though most of our readers may be safe within the bastion of North American democracy, we must also be vigilant of weakening political structures. When those structures weaken, they allow for the growth of ideological extremism as a means of buttressing failing faith in them. While the result here would be vastly different than the one witnessed in Europe or the Middle East, the process is the same. As voter turnout declines and democratic institutions seem to falter (or at least, seem to go undefended), where will North Americans to turn to?