Total holy war and suicide attacks are nothing new. History has kept a long list of organizations popping up, committing atrocities in the name of god, and then suffering absolute defeat—sometimes these campaigns are coupled with ironic consequences for the crusaders. And I use that word—“crusaders”—because there’s a lot of talk about the similarities between the Islamic State and the Crusades. That’s obvious, and I could easily spend 10,000 words pointing out those parallels. But instead I want to talk about different similarities I’ve recently started recognizing. The Islamic State shares interesting closeness with two other groups: the Zealots-Sicarri and the Assassins.
The Zealots-Sicarri was a short-lived (25 years) group of Jewish extremists in Jerusalem, operating around the 7th decade CE. The Assassins was a group of Islamic extremists in Persia and much of the Levantine Middle East, operating during the 11th through 13th centuries. Both groups used terror to spread their messages and begin a holy war to purge the land of non-believers.
[Note: “Non-believers” here merely denotes people who don’t follow the extremist groups’ religious beliefs; it doesn’t necessarily mean atheism.]
Interestingly, both groups also suffered humiliating defeats. The Zealots-Sicarii initially enjoyed major victories, such as taking control of the Temple of Jerusalem; however, when the Romans fought back, they wiped the Temple from the map, causing mass suicide at Masada, and—after a subsequent Sicarii revolt—the removal of the Jews from Judea, which lead to a Jewish dispersion throughout the Roman Empire. In other words, this tiny radical Jewish group was ultimately responsible for the Jewish Exile.
The Assassins, too, suffered a humiliating defeat when they tried to assassinate Möngke Khan. He sent his army to retaliate, and the Mongols crushed the Assassins, killing essentially all of them.
The Islamic State should take note of this pattern: Small and weak religious extremist groups who attempt to radically change the political landscape through acts of public violence against innocent civilians and military members while engaging in total holy warfare tend to suffer demeaning defeats that—at least in the Jewish case—have the opposite effect than was intended.
Below I’ve made a table comparing the three groups. I must confess that the similarities are not perfect, and I’ll let you decide how strongly they resemble each other. But to me it’s beginning to look like a pattern. The technology might have changed, but the methodologies and goals share some qualities.
|Ideology||Jewish extremism||Islamic extremism||Islamic extremism|
|Goal||Force Romans and Greeks into war with Jews in order to purge non-believers from their land and spread Judaism||Spread “pure” version of Shia Islam; create Islamic totalitarian kingdom||Spread “pure” version of Sunni Islam; create Islamic totalitarian republic|
|Methods||Daggers and swords: Murdered innocent people in public; waged massive and total holy war against Roman soldiers||Stabbed innocent victims in public, compelling military reaction. Assassins’ missions were often suicide missions. Early form of suicide terrorism||Total holy warfare: Public executions, territorial conquest, murder of innocent people in addition to foreign and domestic soldiers|
|Unforeseen Consequences||Utter defeat and destruction of Jewish temple, beginning of the Jewish Exile||Completely annihilated by Möngke Khan’s army of the Mongol empire||Only time will tell|
Also please note that my descriptions of all three groups are very, very brief and general. For much more detailed information, feel free to Google these groups or, even better, visit your public library, which probably contains really great literature about the Zealots-Sicarii and the Assassins. There you will probably find a lot of information that contradicts the similarities between them and the Islamic State. With that said, feel free to point out where I’m wrong.