The Apotheosis of Terrorism

3 December 2011


Who can resist a portrayal of Roman decadence? Perhaps the picture galleries of the future will feature works named something like 'Americans of the Decadence,' although Madden's book fortunately doesn't feed into this famliar narrative.

I have just finished listening to Empires of Trust: How Rome Built — and America Is Building — a New World by Thomas F. Madden. The author makes a tripartite distinction between empires of conquest, empires of commerce, and empires of trust. He formulates an elaborate analogy between the growth of the Roman Empire and the growth of the de facto American empire. The author would point out that the Roman Empire, at least during its phase of growth, was also a de facto empire, because Rome preferred allies to conquered territories, and did all that it could to avoid foreign entanglements while also seeking to secure its frontier.

From what I have written briefly about the book above, the contrarian cast of the book should be clear. This is to be welcomed. Too many people write popular histories and rely on regurgitating conventional wisdom in order to avoid offending their public and therefore selling more copies. Thus I welcome the author’s contrarianism. I also appreciate the author’s studied distantiation from any declension narrative. He goes out of his way to point out that his parallelism between Rome and America is not the familiar parallel of Rome became decadent and fell, therefore America, which is becoming decadent, will soon fall. Madden emphasizes that his parallels are between the Roman Republic, a thousand years before it fell, and America. He also explicitly acknowledged, near the end of the book, that all empires fall, but that if an empire has a thousand years of life that this is a good run. I agree.

Roman grew to such a great extent, according to Madden, because Rome turned enemies into friends and allies.

Much is Madden’s argument is closely parallel to what I have called The Credibility Paradox: Rome once, and America now, have credibility in foreign affairs not because they sought or seek power, but precisely because they avoided or avoid it. Empires of conquest grow because a sovereign power actively seeks to control other peoples, conquering them in order to rule them. Empires of trust grow because a sovereign power does not seek to control, and therefore has credibility when it comes to power. Not wanting to rule, an empire of trust comes into power by refusing power. Madden tells some stories of cases in which dying kings actually willed their kingdoms to Rome, such was the trust and confidence that these kingdoms would be well ruled by Rome.

In the latter parts of the book, Madden formulates another detailed analogy between the terrorism that the US faces from Islamic militants and the terrorism that Rome faced from Jewish militants. In one place he quite explicitly argues that the Romans had it worse in first century Palestine than the US has it today in the same general region.

Roman occupied Palestine. According to Madden, Jewish terrorism in ancient Judea got so bad that the Romans eventually came down hard on the Jews and re-named the whole region.

By touching on issues of terrorism he brings up an important point of contemporary relevance, although he avoids using some familiar terminology, and it isn’t clear that this is purposeful or not. The position he formulates is the familiar line that political Islam is the problem, and that Islam must modernize and become a personal faith rather than a political doctrine. However, Madden never speaks of “political Islam” in his discussion.

Madden also writes — and I agree — that Islam in the minds of many of its practitioners, is still an essentially medieval belief system. I think that this is true because Islam is about six hundred years behind Christianity in terms of its social development, and when it has passed through its medieval phase — think of Christianity six hundred years ago and you should understand what I mean by having a “medieval phase” — it will experience its own modernization through internal forces. This view of mine entails the idea that what we think of as the high point of medieval Islamic civilization (which occurred during the Christian Middle Ages) was not a medieval period for Islam, but was rather Islam’s “classical antiquity,” and the great empires of Islam of the Middle Ages are then parallel to the Roman Empire. I don’t think that Madden holds this view at all, but I wanted to mention my own point of view here.

Golden Age of the Abbasid Caliphate: classical antiquity for Islamic civilization?

In any case, when Madden develops his position of Islam as a medieval belief system, he nowhere mentions the idea of cosmic war that has been developed by Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God and Reza Aslan in How to Win a Cosmic War. I discussed both of these books in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception. I think that Madden’s formulations could have been improved by drawing on the idea of cosmic war, since that seems to be what Madden is getting out, but he didn’t use the term or explicitly invoke the concept. Also, the “solution” that Madden urges (force Islam to modernize) strikes me as being as unworkable as Aslan’s “solution” (refuse to fight a cosmic war).

Madden, Juergensmeyer, and Aslan have in common an explicit recognition that Islamic terrorism is religiously motivated. Madden extends this model to Jewish terrorism in classical antiquity, and I think that his argument is a sound one. Again, he didn’t call it a cosmic war, but we can say that ancient Jewish terrorists waged a cosmic war against Rome. In this struggle, Rome prevailed, but at the high cost of destroying the temple, depopulating Jerusalem, and sending the Jews into exile — events commemorated in Rome by the Arch of Titus, which can still be seen today. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, Madden’s message is a hopeful one, in so far as he explicitly states that terrorism can be overcome, and suggests that he is hopeful that it can be overcome in our time through less brutal methods.

The Romans plundering the temple in Jerusalem: not so much the spoils of war as the price to be paid for terrorism.

Madden’s treatment of terrorism set me to thinking, and I realized that he is right, is so far as terrorism could be much worse today, and has been worse in the past. While Madden’s focus of concern is a comparison of Rome and America, if we go a little farther afield we can produce an even more “successful” example of terrorism than first century Palestine, and that is the cult of the assassins, also known as Shi’a Nizari Ismaili Muslims (as well as by many other names).

The story of the assassins is so astonishing that it would seem to have been taken from a Hollywood film rather than actual history, but the assassins were real, and we might even say that they constituted the apotheosis of terrorism. If we take the murder of Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092 as the first victim of the assassins, and fall of the last assassin fortresses in 1265 to the Mamluk sultan Baybars as the end of the group, the assassins exercised an influence throughout the region for more then 170 years — which is quite a run for a terrorist group. If any government today thought they were facing a threat that could last nearly two hundred years, there might be a certain sense of hopelessness in fighting such a menace.

Nizam al-Mulk, first known victim of the Assassins.

The assassins began as a stateless entity — essentially an NGO — but grew to such power that they seized fortresses and held territory for almost a hundred years. They organized secret cells throughout much of the region, and such was their power at the height of their influence that it was felt that anyone, anywhere, anytime could suddenly become the victim of the assassins. By killing prominent figures at politically sensitive times — they murdered Conrad of Montferrat just before his coronation in 1192 — they fulfilled the essential function of terrorism, inspiring disproportionate terror in the populace at large, and especially among the political leaders who feared that they would be the next target.

The fear that anyone, anywhere, anytime could become a victim is curiously parallel to the situation of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, since under these latter circumstances the same formulation was found, and was the basis of escalating fears: anyone, anywhere, anytime could be killed by a nuclear missile appearing as though from nowhere. But a nuclear weapon is an anonymous agent of death; an assassin was a very personal agent of death. I am not sure which is worse, or which inspires the greater terror. Certainly, both are effective.

Putting a smile on mutually assured destruction.

The point here is that we must recur to something as monumental and as a horrific as mutually assured destruction in order to understand the impact that the assassins had on the Levant during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was the success of the assassins that led the major military powers of the day to eventually undertake military operations to destroy the fortresses held by the assassins. Eventually this action was successful, and the archive of the assassins was burned, so that the record of history consists exclusively of hostile witnesses. Perhaps if the assassin’s library had been preserved we would view them in a different light, and not call them terrorists (as I am doing here). From what we do know about them, however, the assassins seem to deserve to be called the apotheosis of terrorism.

Like Madden’s upbeat closing note that Jewish terrorism in the Levant was eventually ended by Rome, and that we can hope that terrorism today can be defeated at a lower cost, I can also observe that the assassins were eventually defeated, but it was a long, hard slog.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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