Most of the responses to the recent attacks in Lebanon, Iraq, and Paris perpetrated (most likely) by ISIS sympathizers in Europe and the Middle East has followed the modern standard of what is appropriated or expected to be debated after a terrorist attack. We decide who is responsible, we have a (usually brief, rehearsed and passionate) debate about whether or how many people we should kill in retaliation, we give ourselves a pass at racism for a while while we boo and hiss at the brown-skinned terrorists, and we then return to work without thinking too much else about it.
That superficial understanding (if understanding is even the right word) of modern terrorism and of the Islamic State in general presents a far greater danger to national security then the threat of terrorist attacks themselves. It encourages jingoism and xenophobia as a default response for those that cannot understand the significance and ramifications of world events like the recent attack on Paris. But there was nothing surprising about these attacks, given France’s long and messy history with Islam.
There has been so much discussion on what ISIS really wants, what its goals are, etc., and I don’t want to delve too much into that here, but the popular opinion is that ISIS is an organization bent on bringing about the apocalypse, a gigantic cult so to speak. Certainly there’s plenty of evidence to suggest this is how ISIS recruits new members to its ranks; every culture in the world has a small, clinically insane segment of its population that believes the apocalypse is imminent and they are called to help bring it about. But that theory leaves a lot to be desired. It’s overly simplistic, it has a racist tinge to it, and it smacks of propaganda. At the very least, saying ISIS is a larger version of Jonestown with more aggressive tendencies is an incredibly difficult argument to make. In truth, this has far deeper roots. The organization’s recruitment strategy might take advantage of radical propaganda; there’s not a military in the world that hasn’t done the same at some point. But ISIS’s behavior suggests it’s attempting to restore the dark ages era Muslim caliphate that one dominated the Middle East and came very close to dominating Europe.
If you’ve ever read or heard of The Song of Roland you’ll understand where this is going. The Song of Roland is a very old French military epic poem from the eighth century AD. It celebrates the victory of Charlemagne’s general Roland over forces led by the Emir of Cordoba, as well as some Basque forces, some time around 777 or 778 AD. Even though Charlemagne had to withdraw from Spain a year later and the battle might actually have less historical relevance then the poem would have us believe, The Song of Roland still evolved into a piece of anti-Muslim propaganda through the Middle Ages. The poem wasn’t even written until at least three hundred years later and was steeped with western Medieval tripe about the superiority of Latin Christianity over the pompous and debauchery-laden Saracens.
Charlemagne, of course, was Frankish. And the Franks, after a few hundred short years, became the French. And one does not attack Paris unless one’s target is the French. At least that’s true if we assume one is even remotely competent.
The French have struggled with Islam and Islamaphobia in modern times as well. General Charles de Gaulle, venerated by modern French as a national hero (he even has an airport named after him) took power in France after WWII and immediately made it a priority of his to wage a vicious and bloody war against Algerian independence. This was a war for Algerian independence led by nationalists but many of those nationalists were Muslims. In other words, in modern times countless Muslims gave their lives for a cause dear to their hearts that was directly opposed by the French. Simply given the fact that old propaganda has a way resurfacing during times of war, it’s safe to assume many modern Muslims have read or know of the Song of Roland, and it’s likely that people inside the ISIS command structure know of it as well.
France was a critical turning point in the story of the early Islamic Caliphate. Its military advance was stopped by ancestors of the French, and Medieval Europe turned the story of that into sectarian propaganda. This is only scratching the surface of why ISIS is, but understanding the history of the first Caliphate is crucial to understanding the political and cultural environment of modern Islam and the motivations of the Islamic State in general.