Two books, two eras and one tale of Islamist terror

Holy war is not complete until the screams of its victims burn like a blazing advertisement across the psyche of generations

Abhijit Majumder March 02, 2021 07:47:59 IST
Two books, two eras and one tale of Islamist terror

Representational image. Reuters

I read two interesting books recently.

The first one is ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM Berger, tracing the blood-splatter across West Asia, Africa and the West. The second, Invaders and Infidels by Sandeep Balakrishna, plots the 500-year journey of Islamic invasions from Sindh to Delhi.

The two books belong to entirely different eras and spaces. But their strands intertwine in time like a double helix, revealing the brutal DNA of Islamist terrorism across centuries and continents.

Stern and Berger’s book, published by William Collins, is a linear unfolding of the story of ISIS. Its timeline stretches from former US president George W Bush announcing the start of war against Iraq in 2003 to the rise of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi setting up Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and from the birth of ISIS to videographed beheadings, lone-wolf attacks and beyond.

“ISIS is inflicting an ongoing collective trauma of nearly apocalyptic proportions on the same populations. The longer that ISIS rules its domain, the longer and more catastrophic those traumas will become,” the book says about the nature of the group’s violence. “It is deliberately engaged in blunting empathy, attracting individuals already inclined toward violence, frightening victims into compliance, and projecting this activity to the wider world.”

It quotes a Sunni Muslim telling Reuters: “If you think all those mujahideen come from across the world to fight Assad, you’re mistaken. They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised — it is the Grand Battle.”

What Iraq and Syria have faced in a decade, India suffered across a millennium. Balakrishna’s book, published by Bloomsbury, describes the wave of invasions by Muhammed bin Qasim, Mahmud of Ghazni and others, but it stops at the Mughals.

The raiders of medieval India were the Islamic State on horseback. Their motive in Sindh or Somnath was the same as Daesh’s in Raqqa or Mosul: to establish the rule of Allah, to fulfil the promise of the Prophet, to vanquish and loot the infidels, to purify. The brutality was just as sumptuous.

This is how Balakrishna describes the first destruction of Varanasi by Ghori and his slave commander Qutbuddin Aibak: “It was the most opportune moment to purge ‘the impurities of idolatry’ and rid ‘the country of Hind from vice and superstition’. The words in quotes are perhaps the mildest selections from the descriptions given by the Muslim chroniclers of the wanton orgy of genocide and bloodletting of the Hindus that followed.”

It is the same arc of violence as the Islamic State's as it rampaged across fallen cities. “Heartless, random massacre, pillage, plunder, destruction and rape were carried out as a grand celebration. Hindu temples and shrines and murtis were broken and burnt and razed to the ground and their accumulated treasures, offered as naivedya (offerings made to god) by countless devotees over centuries, were looted in one go.”

There is another uncanny similarity in jihadist strategy across centuries. There was no Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or WhatsApp to circulate videos of beheadings or mass killings then, but as the book says, “Before Muhammad finally departed for Ghazni, the record of his celebrated holy wars had been written in histories and circulated throughout the breadth of Hindustan.”

Holy war is not complete until the screams of its victims burn like a blazing advertisement across the psyche of generations.

Views expressed are personal

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