While Donald Trump and the various Republican fear-mongerers have been crying Lacoön about the so-called existential threat posed by Syrian refugees and outlining vague stratagems about how just a few extra bombs will solve the Middle East’s problems, I’ve been doing some learnzerizing about the Mongols.
Yeah, the Mongols. You know…. Genghis Khan and his prodigal general Subutai. And the sons and grandsons of Genghis as well – Ögedei, Batu, Hulagu and Möngke. Those Mongols. “The fearsome Mongol hordes“. The infamous horse raiders from the Eastern Steppe.
I got onto this tangential Mongol reading binge after noticing some parallels between the apocalyptic horse-borne invasions of the Khans and a popular trope in jihadist eschatology which prophesises the arrival of the Mahdi (the redeemer of Islam) at the head of a great horde coming from the cold netherworlds of Khorosan (a historical region to the northeast of Ancient Persia).
The prophecy of the Mahdi has its origins in an unauthenticated transmission from hadith which says: “if you see the black banners coming from the direction of Khorosan, then go to them, even if you have to crawl over ice, because among them will be Allah’s Caliph – the Mahdi.”
Jihadists, of course, see themselves as the manifestation of these storied Riders of Khorosan and in keeping with the spoken tradition that the Mahdi’s Army will one day defeat the Anti-Christ at the gates of Jerusalem, a patchwork of jihadist cells linked to Al-Qaeda Central (the AfPak coven led by Al-Zawihiri) were reported to be operating in Syria under the moniker “Khorosan”.
Imaginariums of all-conquering “black swan”-type hordes from the East have played an important role in the history of Islam. Apart from their role in the fantasies of modern salafist-jihadists, the prophecy of the Mahdi and his Black Banners was also invoked by the Abbasids during the revolution of 750 which overthrew the Ummayid Caliphate.
Elsewhere, and from a position which saw the inscrutable East as the dwelling-place of a great and unimaginable evil, the Qur’an contains a story where Alexander the Great is helped by God to build a wall with which to contain Gog and Magog (the tribal personification of chaos) in order to prevent them from wreaking havoc upon the world. Indeed, these apocalyptic ideas remained so strong for believers that centuries later, when the Mongols arrived to sack the Muslim and European worlds, the Khans were seen by many as the Quranic “Gog and Magog” worst-case-scenario finally realised.
Certainly, the Mongols, as far as medieval Muslims and Europeans were concerned, were the ontological (and visceral) successors to the Huns of Rome-sacking fame – a pastoral people from the East who, having formed an almighty confederacy, had mounted an unstoppable cavalry charge to conquer the known world. To Medieval Europeans, the Mongols were like the Four Horsemen of Christian eschatalogia – destroyers of worlds. To the Muslims of the Middle East, the Mongols’ arrival served up an equal helping of doom – the end of the Golden Age of Islam.
Writing about the arrival of the “Tartars” in Muslim lands, the 13th century Arab historian Ali ibn Al-Athir began with the following: “to whom, indeed, can it be easy to write the announcement of the death-blow of Islam and the Muslims, or who is he on whom the remembrance thereof can weigh lightly? O, would that my mother had not born me or that I had died and become a forgotten thing ere this befell! … Nay, it is unlikely that mankind will see the like of this calamity, until the world comes to an end and perishes, except the final outbreak of Gog and Magog.” Even professional historians it seems, had trouble recounting the horrors of the Mongols.
Bearing witness to an approaching Mongol horde must have been terrifying. When Genghis Khan entered Nishapur, one of the first major cities he encountered on the edge of Persia, the riders under his command were said to have murdered 1.7 million people in a matter of hours. The skulls of the slaughtered were piled up in pyramids next to the city gates.
When his grandson Hulagu reached Baghdad (the centre of science and government in the medieval Islamic world), the city was sacked so thoroughly that the Tigris, which had once been described as a river running through town “like a string of pearls between two breasts” now “ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs”.
Mustasim, the Caliph of Baghdad himself, was awarded special treatment. Accounts vary between the more “conventional” tale that he was simply wrapped up in a carpet and trampled to death by Mongol horses and the more fantastic story told by Marco Polo in The Travels – that he was locked in his own treasure room without food or water and told to eat as much of his own treasure as he “wilt”.
The havoc wreaked by the Mongols set off a great deal of fear-mongering in the lands of their enemies and in many ways, when we listen to the various pundits taking over our newscasts, we can see much of the same threat rhetoric now being employed to describe the hordes of ISIS.
I should say that the threat rhetoric surrounding ISIS isn’t, in and of itself, wrong. Indeed, if we compare the “Riders of the Khan” with today’s “Riders of Khorosan”, we can observe some astonishing similarities between the Mongols and ISIS. First, there is the almost-unique proclivity for cruelty and destruction. The Khan’s gold-feeding method of execution seems like it would slot perfectly into one of ISIS’ snuff films. And though ISIS’ war on archaeology is perhaps even more intense than the cultural destruction reaped by the Mongols (the Khans were apparently quite respectful of the mosques, cathedrals and pagodas in the cities they conquered) both groups proved themselves very good at making ruins of fine things.
The second similarity however (and the most crucial similarity to this piece), is the one we see when we look at how the Mongols and ISIS were able to exploit the internal divisions of their enemies. Hulagu’s Mongols, it seems, were able to exploit existing grievances by driving a wedge between the Sunni Caliph and some of his non-Sunni subjects. In the final years of his rule, Mustasim had gained some notoriety after throwing a copy of a celebrated Shia poem into the Tigris – an unforgiveable insult to an already-livid Shia population. The Caliph’s own Shia vizier would later defect to the Mongols and prove integral in the eventual fate of Baghdad.
Likewise, in modern Iraq where a post-Saddam Shia-dominated government oversaw the widespread repression of non-in groups, ISIS was able to obtain bay’ah from the anti-Maliki Sunni tribes in Anbar, creating a tribal union which accelerated ISIS’ military advances in early 2014. Indeed, just as the Mongols took Baghdad riding on the coat-tails of internal weakness, so too ISIS has shown itself capable of riding Baghdad-ward on the backs of angry Sunni tribesmen.
Insofar as these problematic internal divisions can be observed in our own society, there is perhaps no clearer example of Mustasim-style division-making than some of the recent discourse concerning the moral value of Islam (and its place in our society) and the “threat” posed by the Syrian refugees waiting on our borders.
When, just days after the Paris attacks, it was revealed that one of the perps was carrying a (rightfully- or wrongfully-acquired) Syrian passport an uproar about the so-called existential threat posed by Syrian refugees (and Muslims more generally) began in earnest. Donald Trump began talking about a religious ID card for American Muslims (with terrific responses from those same Muslims). Marco Rubio proposed refusing entry to certain refugees based on their Syrian-ness. Letting Syrian refugees into the West, these people have argued, might be akin to “letting in a Trojan Horse”.
A similar bout of refugee fear-mongering began when the Mongols arrived on the doorstep of Medieval Europe. Having conquered most of Asia, when the Mongols descended upon Hungary, they did so harassing the fall-behinds of a wave of refugees from a place called Cumania. The Cumans were a nomadic Turkic people (i.e.: they looked different and had a different God) and when a wave of about 40,000 of them were allowed to settle in the lands of King Bela IV, many of the Hungarian nobles immediately suspected the Cumans (in particular their leader Köten) of having Mongol sympathies.
Eventually, discord between the settled Hungarian agriculturalists and the itinerant Cuman pastoralists reached boiling point. Köten was assassinated by a group of angry nobles on suspicion of being a spy. A rabble of angrier Cumans began plundering the Hungarian countryside. Things fell apart. Unfortunately for all parties concerned however, this internal discord also happened to coincide with the eve of the main Mongol invasion – the real existential threat menacing Europe. The Hungarians were routed, utterly, at Mohi. And Hungary suffered a similar fate to that of Baghdad under Hulagu.
Bearing in mind that for the most part, we humans as a species are very bad at learning from the lessons of the past, there are some very important takeaways from the case of the Cumans in Hungary – the main one being that we should be careful about domestic fear-mongering when there are real threats overseas.
While we’re on the point of refugees, I should point out that history is replete with negative repercussions caused by sudden mass immigration. Just ask today’s Gazans what they think of the Jewish refugees who ended up on the shores of British Palestine. Multi-culturalism is not always pretty. Racism is common in ethnically-diverse communities because, as a general rule of thumb, people tend to get along better with people that look like they do and think like they do.
But though I’ve commented extensively about the need to return to a more isolationist world outlook, ultimately, there’s really only one course of action to take on the refugee issue. Let a few of them in. Because what harm can these people really do? At the very very worst, our post-Paris fears are realised and some kind of shoot-up occurs.
Indeed, as an article in Foreign Policy recently suggested, ISIS-inspired attacks “will not disappear, but they will be too few and [too] small in scope to topple a government”. A terrorist attack – hell, even a nuclear terrorist attack – is not an existential threat to our society. A nuclear bomb exploding in Sydney or New York would be a real bummer, but it wouldn’t spell the end of our society.
Indeed, the real “existential danger”, as political anthropologist David Killcullen has argued, is that “our response to terrorism could cause such measures that, in important ways, we would cease to be ourselves”.
The refugee crisis is more complex than some commentators like ex-soldier Harry Leslie Smith have painted it to be. The economic reality is that Western countries can’t open their borders to everyone from every warzone around the world. We have to be comfortable, if only for the sake of our own sanity, with the fact that we can’t eliminate the suffering of all of the world’s refugees.
But if we follow the medieval Hungarian example and begin demonising people based on who they are (Muslims) and where they come from (Syria) then all we are likely to achieve is the creation of a society with widening schisms between the different faiths and worsening tensions between the different ethnic groups. A recipe for a domestic societal crisis. And all this is likely to do is weaken us against the real existential threats – such as the Mongol-Khorosan hordes on our doorstep.