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From Robespierre to ISIS: the Eras of Extremism

Are there historical similarities that have given rise to various forms of ‘extremism’ from the French Revolution, to the Tamil Tigers and the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS? This year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival brought together Oxford University historian, Dr Peter Frankopan, US political adviser and author, Emma Sky, and correspondent for India’s The National, Samanth Subramanian, to discuss “The Eras of Extremism”.

Emma Sky first travelled to Iraq in 2003 to apologise to Iraqis for the war and to help them rebuild their country. She went on to become political adviser to the top American General.  She believes extremism arises in the context of a failed state.

“In the first week I was in Baghdad, I was looking at a gutted building. And an older Iraqi man looked at me and said, ‘This is a Hobbesianworld.’ In Iraq we have seen what happens when a state collapses.”

“In this collapsed state people are fearful and formed gangs and militias flourished. There has always been competition between people but the states provide the framework for that to be managed. This situation is not unique to Iraq. Before 2003, there wasn’t Al Qaeda or ISIS. The collapsed state allowed for this.”

Dr Peter Frankopan traditionally works on the history of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Russia and on relations between Christianity and Islam. In his most recent title, The Silk Roads, A New History of the World, he looks at how this route through Central Asia was used as bridge between East and West, at the very crossroads of civilisation. 

He said it was important to look at the history and see how places like Isfahan and Samarkand and Kerala were the central hubs for scholars for so long until the ‘rise of the west’ in the 1600s, when Europe looked to take control over these hubs of exchange. He said it is important because these are some of the regions rising up again.

“We need to look at the situation in the Middle East in light of the new world emerging with Russia, Iran, Turkey, China and India and to understand what is happening to us now.”

“Our great failure as the west is we don’t have a friend left east of Venice as we have lost the ability to talk and connect with these states that are on the rise.”

 He stressed the important of seeing ‘religious extremism’ in light of a wider history of barbarity and reform.

“We can fall into the trap of thinking this problem is brand new. People are capable of extreme violence to promote their view of how the world is – we saw this with the Holocaust.”

“One can see extremists from Alexander the Great to the 20th Century and even many events occurring now, fit the same profile as what we saw in the French Revolution.  Activists gathered around Robespierre as he was offering an alternative vision. He offered hope, which was needed because the ruling power was failing.”

Historian and author, Peter Frankopan
Emma Sky

Samanth Subramanian said he understood modern extremism in a slightly different way, and more as a reaction from people who have their histories rubbed out, especially in light of the Tamil Tigers.

“For example some communities have enjoyed certain political and social power which has robbed others, in the case of the Tamils and Sri Lankan Singhalese this is a motivator.  The Tamils were a minority and they were used to two decades in a political state which used them as proxy votes. Frustration created the Tamil Tigers.”

“What came out was an extremist violent force. And violence has certainly allowed for leverage, for example the PLO, or the Oighars who are trying to change the status quo.”

Crowds at the Sydney Writers' Festival

Sky said current situation with ISIS can similarly be seen as born out of frustration with the state, to the point where it has become viewed by many as one of the only feasible alternatives on offer.

“We always look at symptoms rather than the roots causes. The leaders of these countries have failed at building inclusive states. The Arab Spring was essentially a call for dignity. Islamism is now the only ideology that many feel can put any pressure on the status quo. It is the only counter force that is on offer.”

Frankopan said despite the cyclical nature of history, Al Qaeda and ISIS also have their own historical uniqueness that is important to recognise.

“This division for this group is about politics and attacking Shias to create a civil war which will collapse the state in the hope of building the Caliphate.

“Lots of young people join ISIS as a form of Utopia mixed with masculinity. This flock of young men are driven to seek the answers to a series of questions that have been building. In this way it is ideological as much as it is religious.”

When asked from the audience whether the solution to sectarian violence is to divide regions along sectarian lines, the panellists agreed that solution has always been disastrous.

“Some people think the solution to deal with sectarian violence is to divide Iraq into three; one for the Sunnis, for the Shia, and for the Kurds. This sort of division is a recipe for a whole other kind of resource war,” said Sky.

“One just has to look at the arbitrary lines drawn during the 1947 Partition (the division of land between India and Pakistan)” said Subramanian.  

“This (Partition) might just be one of the single most disastrous decisions of the 20th century. And those lines have a lot to answer for the growth of extremism in places like Kashmir,” said Frankopan.

Frankopan said the way towards a solution was to look both at the lessons in the past and towards a path of inclusion for the future.

“As a historian I am more interested in long periods of peace. In schools we are taught history through the wars; Gallipoli, The Battle of Hastings and so on.”

“When we are wealthy and at peace we are more generous with our visions for building a society or even an empire that is more inclusive, like the Ottoman. It is hard now for our great traditional cities to be tolerant, so by pushing others out, extremism and extremists be a bit closer than we think.” 

The Point

Are there historical similarities that have given rise to various forms of ‘extremism’ from the French Revolution to ISIS?


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