Territorial Isis

When young I was first introduced to man’s evolution by Chicago-born Robert Ardrey.  Although he’d graduated as an anthropologist, he actually earned his living — and very successfully, too — as a prolific playwright and screenwriter, being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937. Before too long, however, he revived himself as a ‘straight’ anthropologist, went to live in Africa in order to interview the leading archaeologists there and wrote the book that first turned me on, African Genesis in 1961. It was a best-seller and he followed it with The Territorial Imperative in 1966.

In the latter book he laid a great deal of importance of a group, or a tribe or a culture having a defined territory — even though it might be a nomadic one — in maintaining morale. Indeed, within limits, the more a territory is attacked the more it becomes psychologically healthier. He gave as an example the fact that, during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, individual mental illness seemed to melt away — the psychiatric hospitals were almost empty.

We discovered this in this country during the Second World War.  The more we were bombed by the Germans, the more our morale and fighting spirit went up.  America re-discovered this when bombing Vietnam in 1975 as no country had ever been bombed before.  But the more they were bombed the more imaginative and resilient the Vietnamese became and eventually caused the Americans to evacuate.

The predominant feature of any group, or culture or nation within defined boundaries is that it has a common ideology.  “We are superior to any other group, or culture or nation. We are correct.  Everybody else is wrong.”  And the same applies to the sub-cultures of the politics — usually for practical political warfare between two groups — between the rich and better-off, with their typical sub-territories (houses and locales), and the ordinary and poor.  Even within countries with proportional elections and several parties, the basic division is always there.

There’s been some interesting research which brings this out very clearly.  Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood in a paper entitled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines — New Evidence on Group Polarization.” published in the American Journal of Political Science (2014).  In a series of four carefully designed projects they tested the relative effects of race, gender, religious belief and political ideology on one’s prejudices. The last one came out as the most powerful in all four tests.

In times of economic stress when jobs are being downgraded kin terms of skill and real income that old-fashioned polarities should have revived.  The Tea Party and Donald Trump in America, the revived left-wong Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in this country, and the brand new extreme left-wing and right-wing parties in Europe.

It also confirms what I’ve thought about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Isis in Syria and Iraq — and more recently in Libya, too. The phenomenon is not so much about their religion but about the same sort of old-fashioned nationalism that created the nation states of Europe. It’s about territory first — the rest can come later.  As I related in a post early last year, al-Baghdadi’s doctorate at Baghdad University was gained for a study of the early wars of Islam as its armies swept out of Saudi Arabia and the caliphates that were established. Nothing about the doctrines of Islam, or its vast amount of scholarly commentary and poetry — never mind some of the scientific branches it was pioneering at around 800-1200AD — maths, astronomy, medicine.

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