A frightening Islamic militant organization sweeps across a vast swathe of contested territory, participating in widespread violence and atrocities; and considered a reaction to Western intervention and appeared insults to their religion. Despite the shocking portrayals in the press, they are quickly and utterly defeated by vastly superior military technology. This story would be just as familiar to a reader in 2014 as it would be in 1899. The militants/paramilitary/terrorists/evildoers who burn our flag ISIS organization bears striking resemblance to a revolt in Anglo-Egyptian dominated Sudan during the late 19th century, known to historians as the Mahdist War. Both organizations had aspirations of world domination, driven by a romantic and violent narrative of history, with delusions of apocalyptic violence. Obviously, the Mahdist Revolt was unsuccessful in toppling the late 19th century British Empire, and it seems likely that ISIS will be unsuccessful in the destruction of American military hegemony in early 21st. This article will discuss the important parallels between these two organizations, both set against the greater narrative of British and American Imperial declines.
The building of the Suez Canal was an important event in maritime and world history. Hitherto, British fleets would sail around the continent of Africa in order to reach the colonial possessions in the Indian Raj. A British puppet state existed in Egypt, while Imperial interests dominated the increasingly important Canal. Egypt invaded and conquered Sudan in the mid-nineteenth century in order to control the strategic Nile River, their rule in Sudan was perceived as inept and corrupt by the local populace. Egyptian authority in Sudan gradually collapsed in the wake of a radical and apocalyptic-minded Islamic revolt. This was lead by Muhammad Ahmad, who claimed to be “Mahdi”, a figure in Islamic eschatology who is foretold to do battle with the Masih ad-Dajjal, a sort of Islamic Antichrist at the end of the world, who they identified as the British Empire. The Mahdists committed several atrocities throughout Sudan until they were quickly defeated by a British army under Lord Kitchener. A young Winston Churchill accompanied Kitchener’s army, afterwards he wrote an account of his experiences in Sudan, called The River War. Kitchener’s army had been sent following a debacle at the Siege of Khartoum, where a British trained and equipped army was slaughtered by the Mahdist rebels. This included the Egyptian appointed Governor General of Sudan, the British officer Charles Gordon. Gordon was beloved by the gutter press for his colourful exploits throughout the British Empire and in China.
While in control of parts of Sudan, the Mahdists enforced a brutal form of Sharia Law. Christians and Animists were brutally persecuted and all manner of books were burned, this included Islamic theology books other than the Koran and Hadith; slavery also re-emerged in Sudan. Early in the Rebellion, Mahdist forces were able to ambush an Anglo-Egyptian column, taking arms and ammunition. Gordon and Egyptian forces were besieged at the city of Khartoum, the siege lasted nearly a year. Nevertheless, Gordon and the entire garrison were cut to pieces by the Mahdists.This was taken up by the British media, and there was a general public outcry to avenge Gordon, the military was criticized for the scheduled relief force’s tardiness. Tales of slavery, brutal treatment of women, and atrocities committed by the Mahdists flooded into the British press. By 1898, the Mahdist army was crushed at the Battle of Omdurman, which proved to be the last major cavalry engagement of the British army, an action which Churchill, serving in the 21st Lancers, was witness to and participated. ISIS and the Mahdists complicate so-called “politically correct” narratives of anti-colonialism; just because an organization is opposed to colonialism doesn’t mean they’re “nice”, this idea derives from the condescending notion of the “Noble Savage”, which, ironically, deprives the colonized of their complete humanity, as humans are complicated (and violent) beings.
ISIS and the Mahdist Revolt bear striking similarities, and it’s likely they will take the same trajectory as organizations. Once again, the Hitler analogy is used. This simply builds up ISIS as an organization to levels of power it will never achieve. The Nazis had at their disposal the apparatus of government, the support of numerous multinational companies, a generally loyal populace, as well as a trained army, navy, and air force. Foreign volunteers for ISIS are not trained soldiers and it seems unlikely that they will build a navy anytime soon. The Mahdist rebels in Sudan were equipped with some modern repeating rifles, some limited artillery, which they were not trained to use, as well as swords, spears, and clubs. Nevertheless, there is the advantage of fighting in terrain one is familiar with and acclimatized to, nevertheless, the British had ready supplies of ammunition and training with their weapons, as well as Maxim guns, a sort of early machine gun. ISIS is equipped with American weapons abandoned in Iraq, which they have limited training with, as well as second-hand Soviet weaponry, perpetually floating around the Middle East since the 1990’s, as well as of course the occasional sword. In certain respects, the gulf of military power between the British and the Mahdists was narrower than that of America and ISIS today; air power and drone technology obviously didn’t exist in 1885.
What is the appeal of apocalyptic violence? One may observe this phenomenon in Western societies as well, conspiracy theorists and Libertarian extremist Sovereign Citizens perceive themselves as stuck in a good and evil conflict; some conspiracy theorists contend the Federal Reserve is controlled by Satan or the Antichrist. Economic collapse, foreign invasion, and other social factors give apocalyptic violence a strange appeal. Nearly every End Times myth involves some form of Good vanquishing Evil. Through apocalyptic violence society may be cleansed of whatever Evil force is perceived as the Antichrist du jour. Certain segments of Zionist Christians have an apocalyptic bent, believing the existence of the State of Israel as necessary for the return of Christ at the End of Days; this could be contended as a form of the social phenomenon historians call “Millenarianism”, actively believing in or taking part hastening the End of the World. The apocalyptic mindset is all the more dangerous in this Nuclear Age, as humanity for the first time has the power to destroy itself, a truly unique historical moment.