ISIS: Nothing New


An interesting article by John Grey argues that there is nothing new or shocking about ISIS. The use of large scale terror to transform society started with the French Revolution, was perfected by the Soviets, and brought to the Middle East by the PLO**, a nationalist and socialist movement. ISIS destroying pre-Islamic art has precedents again in the French Revolution, which restarted the calendar and desecrated churches, or in Mao’s cultural revolution. Totalitarian movements always like to imagine they are restarting history on a fresh foot.

ISIS uses tactics that are as old as modernity because, according to Grey, ISIS is a modern movement. In fact, all of its tactics have been used by other typically modern movements over the last few decades.  People often call ISIS medieval, but that overlooks the fact that medieval Islam was fairly cosmopolitan and easy going. No, ISIS is something quite different, and quite up to date.

The reason why we can’t recognize ISIS as being a modern movement is because we have this idea that modernity is all about the inevitable march of moral progress which proceeds in the same manner as scientific progress does. This of course is a stupid assertion: science is by nature amoral and progress in that field has nothing to do with progress in morality. Besides, modern concepts of morality change every five years or so, so there is nothing to progress towards. The end point of moral “progress” keeps changing.


** A certain kind of reader will point out that it was actually Zionists who brought terrorism to the Middle East with the bombing of the King David Hotel and the kidnapping and murder of a British soldier. I am talking about terror as a ordinary means of operation, two whole incidents don’t really count here.



  1. Ummmmm… I think you can push the clock back considerably further. Protestants destroying Catholic art? Protestants were a pain. Also very self-righteous.

    1. Not all Protestants but English Calvinists were quite philistine.

      1. Well- the French religious wars weren’t great either… Same for the Dutch.

      2. Europe’s religious wars were initially about which religion would structure society, and ultimately about subjecting the church to the interests of the state. But I don’t think there was ever the idea of bringing about a new kind of human being or establishing a utopian order. Violence in sixteenth century Europe was about winning a war against a hated enemy. Violence in these modern movements is about creating a new sort of person by annihilating the past and suppressing communities. It isn’t simple tribal violence but transformative violence with universal ambitions.

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