History Repeats

'Policymakers should recall that there have been intolerant Muslim movements in the past'

Hugh Thomas

The Second World War began for me in a comfortable country hotel in west Devonshire. The parents of my preparatory school in Hertfordshire were told the school was going to be carried on in Devon “for the duration”, far from the risk of German bombs and invasion. As a rule schoolboys aged seven — as I was then — were not allowed to hear the news on the wireless because it was thought too alarming. But on September 3 we were permitted to listen to a speech by Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, broadcast on the BBC. “How terrible,” he said, “that we should be trying on gas masks against a possible gas attack on our country.” Then the parents agreed that the school should be resettled in Devon.

We were all aware that the new war of 1939 was not only a continuation of the war which we thought we had finished in 1918 but was a new conflict against a modern state, with a traditionally organised army, military arrangements and nerves stretching deep into the country. Germany had been conquered by a new political party, the Nazis, but they were a familiar type of organisation, if a brutal and simple one. Our own country would be reorganised for war but it would be done thanks to 1914-18 in a way which most adults would find normal. I remember seeing a newspaper headline which shouted WINSTON IS BACK, recalling that Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914 too. So the nation, including schoolboys, could think that once more brave if not always wise decisions would be taken. We were also privileged to hear frequently for the next six years Churchill’s strong, witty, aristocratic and self-confident voice, making fun of the Nazis as often as he attacked them for their cruelty.

The character of the war apparently levelled at us — “the West” — by the organisation known as Islamic State is quite different. It is necessary to point out first that the body which claims to be restoring a Muslim “caliphate” regards itself as at war with us all. We have not, yet, used such a word to describe our own relation with them, but the dilemma shows that two sides are not needed to make a quarrel into a war. If there are any more murders on our soil or that of our friends, like that of Drummer Lee Rigby, our attitude will presumably change. But even so we shall not find ourselves at war with a state, such as happened in 1914 and 1939. IS must have, of course, an organisation, it has an all too effective fighting force, it has a great deal of money, it has a strategy presumably, but even if it has a name — “caliphate” — it does not have the recognisable leaders which states and even most terrorist bands have had.

How to face and eventually defeat IS is a major challenge for all regularly constituted states. The difficulty is rendered greater because of the connections which the group has with the Muslim populations of some European states — particularly, it seems, Britain — but also France, Italy and Germany. In Britain we are facing a challenge by some Muslim leaders who have not accepted British traditions adequately and are not aware of old maxims such as that for tyranny to prosper it is only necessary for justice to be silent. Or of the Cambridge poet A.E. Housman’s harsher saying: “Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season: let us endure an hour and see injustice done.”

Policymakers might be assisted more, however, by recalling that there have been purist intolerant Muslim movements in the past. There was, for example, the Muslim group known as the Assassins, the word passing into several European languages as a synonym for political murderer. To begin with, the Assassins were known as the Ismaili branch of the Shi’ites, founded by Hassan-i Sabbah in the late 11th century. They were active in the lands now known as Iran, Iraq and Syria — precisely where IS is busy killing its opponents so ruthlessly. Hassan formed a secret society with headquarters in the mountain of Alamut in Persia. Their rule was secret murder — assassination — of all enemies. They obtained a secret stronghold in Syria, clashed with the Crusaders and murdered several leaders such as Count Raymond of Tripoli. Eventually they were crushed by the Tartars, Alamut fell and about 12,000 Assassins were massacred. The Syrian branch was defeated by the Mamelukes, ex-slaves of the Ottomans.

There were also the two rather similar Muslim gangs which conquered Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Almoravids and the Almohads. The first began as small gangs of defiant Muslims inspired by a Berber preacher and leader, Yahya ibn Umar. His followers carried all before them in Morocco and Spain, inflicting a serious defeat on the Christians at the battle of Sacralias, near Badajoz, in 1086. Madrid, Lisbon and Porto were soon conquered too. But eventually the Almoravid power collapsed, partly in consequence of the temptations of the good life.

The Almohads too originated with a Berber tribe from Morocco, the founder being Ibn Tumart, son of a mosque lamplighter. In the late 11th century, he began advocating attacks on wineshops and other lax behaviour. He found a brilliant soldier, Abd al-Mu’min, to conduct his followers; he led them as far as Egypt and carried out a successful campaign in Spain. Their greatest leader was al-Mansur, an accomplished individual as well as a good general. But his successor was defeated by an alliance of Christian kings at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212.

These recollections suggest that IS should be seen as part of a historic pattern. Such memories should enable politicians to face present problems with greater wisdom. We are not wise to recall 1939 or  1914 for what they tell us to do now. Whether Nato can devise some Arabian Nights entertainments to sap the will of these modern Almoravids must, for now, be a matter of speculation.

A version of this article has appeared in the Spanish newspaper ABC.

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