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"The rise of ISIS is intensely unsettling to the liberal West, and not just because of the capacity the jihadist group has demonstrated to launch a mass-casualty terrorist attack in a major European city. The group’s advance confounds the predominant Western view of the world. For the current generation of liberal thinkers, modern history is a story of the march of civilization. There have been moments of regression, some of them atrocious, but these are only relapses into the barbarism of the past, interrupting a course of development that is essentially benign. For anyone who thinks in this way, ISIS can only be a mysterious and disastrous anomaly.

For those baffled by ISIS, however, it cannot be only ISIS that is mysterious. So too must be much of modern history. ISIS has brought with it many atrocious assaults on civilized values: the sexual enslavement of women and children; the murder of gay men; the targeted killing of writers, cartoonists, and Jews; indiscriminate slaughter at a rock concert; and what amounted to the attempted genocide of the Yezidi. All of these acts of barbarism have modern precedents, many of them in the past century. The use of sexual violence as a military strategy featured in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990s; during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971; in Nepal, Colombia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and many other conflict zones. The destruction of buildings and artworks, which ISIS has perpetrated at the ancient site of Palmyra among other places, has several twentieth-century precedents. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks razed churches and synagogues in Russia. Mao Zedong demolished large parts of China’s architectural inheritance and most of Tibet’s, while the Pol Pot regime wrecked pagodas and temples and aimed to destroy the country’s cities. In these secular acts of iconoclasm, the goal was to abolish the past and create a new society from “year zero”—an idea that goes back to “year one” of the calendar introduced in France in 1793 to signal the new era inaugurated by the French Revolution. Systematically destroying not only pre-Islamic relics but also long-established Islamic sites, the aim of ISIS is not essentially different.
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The Anomaly of Barbarism | Lapham’s Quarterly

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