When condemning the hideous acts of the Islamic State, many Western politicians have trotted out a familiar line: The Sunni fundamentalist terror group is "barbaric," wants to "live in the 7th century" and "take us back the Stone Age."
"What ISIS wants to do is drive us back to the Middle Ages, literally," said Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in a recent New Hampshire town hall, using another name for the extremist organization that controls territory in parts of Syria and Iraq.
But Bruce Holsinger, a medievalist at the University of Virginia (and an academic who has appeared in WorldViews before), has a different view. "Mrs. Fiorina’s resort to this sort of garden-variety medievalism represents a failure of historical imagination," Holsinger writes in an op-ed in the New York Times.
Significantly, he argues, the presumption that there's something innately "medieval" about the terrorist group obscures the many ways in which it's a product of our very specific moment.
As a slew of commentators have noted, the Islamic State adheres to a brand of Islam that's not in accord with centuries of mainstream religious jurisprudence. Its fanatics may subscribe to an idealized Islamic past, but their gains and strengths are rooted in far more contemporary phenomena: The reach of the Internet, for example, and the disintegration of fragile 20th century nation-states in the Middle East.
"If [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi's new state were an anachronism, it would pose little threat," writes Jason Burke, a British journalist and author of a new book on the rise of the extremist organization. "It is not, however. It is, tragically, very much of its time and place and much stronger for it."
More importantly perhaps for Holsinger, harping on the jihadists of the Islamic State being agents of some sort of "medieval" order is unfair to, well, medieval history. He explains:
Rather than invoking the medieval world for its brutality, [Fiorina] might have looked to that epoch for, say, the birth of the university. Or she might have looked to the multiethnic civilization of medieval Spain, hailed by the medievalist María Rosa Menocal for forming a “culture of tolerance” among Muslims, Jews and Christians.
None of this ought to lessen the revulsion and horror with which we ought to view the jihadists' actions now. But it's a worthwhile corrective: Hey Islamic State, the Middle Ages called, and they want their metaphor back.