My Pragati review of Stern & Berger’s ISIS: State of Terror
[ by Charles Cameron — in which the Islamic State is nicely viewed through the lens of WB Yeats ]
My review of Jessica Stern & JM Berger‘s book, ISIS: State of Terror, just came out in tbe Takshashila Institution‘s magazine, Pragati. Here’s a teaser..
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are filled with passionate intensity.
– WB Yeats, The Second Coming
In the closing pages of ISIS: the State of Terror, Jessica Stern and JM Berger quote Yeats’ celebrated poem and comment: “It is hard to imagine a terrible avatar of passionate intensity more purified than the ISIS. More than even al Qaeda, the first terror of the twenty-first century, ISIS exists as an outlet for the worst — the most base an horrific impulses of humanity, dressed in fanatic pretexts of religiosity that have been gutted of all nuance and complexity. And yet, if we lay claim to the role of ‘best’, then Yeats condemns us as well, and rightly so. It is difficult to detect a trace of conviction in the world’s attitude toward the Syrian civil war and the events that followed in Iraq…”
Stern and Berger suggest that in Yeats’ poem, “the reality of the world is distilled to the razor-sharp essence that the best poetry provides”. Indeed the poem and their comments on it, captures the essence of both their book and of the situation we find ourselves in.
Yeats in his poem writes “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”. It would be hard to find a more apt description for the IS’ video of the twenty-one Coptic Christians beheaded on the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean, their blood mingling with the tide, than these few words written a century earlier. Yeats writes “The worst are filled with passionate intensity”. This intensity is something we need to come to terms with. And how better explain the increasing sectarianism in the Middle East, than with the simple words, “The centre cannot hold?” Finally, Yeats’ vision is an overtly apocalyptic one, as the poem’s title, The Second Coming, eloquently testifies.
In understanding that intensity, three words describe the major strands with respect to the ISIS: barbaric, viral, and eschatological. The barbaric nature of IS behavior is not a spontaneous eruption, but a calculated move away from al Qaeda’s more subdued approach, premised on Abu Bakr al-Naji’s book, The Management of Savagery, which describes, according to its subtitle, “the most critical stage through which the Ummah will pass”. Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the revered forerunner of today’s Islamic State, was heavily influenced by Naji’s tract, as is IS to this day, as Stern and Berger make clear. Indeed, to quote a phrase from within the book, their book itself might have been subtitled The Marketing of Savagery.
To read the whole review, please visit the review on Pragati.
May 7th, 2015 at 7:08 pm
Only tangentially relevant, many, many years ago I numbered a a sister-in-law of Yeats’s among my friends. She was exactly the sort of old lady you’d hope to meet but so rarely do.
She was certainly among the best and equally certainly did not lack all conviction.
May 8th, 2015 at 3:08 am
A very pleasant tangent indeed, Dave.