Sunday, 15 August 2010

Book Review: The Assassins, by Bernard Lewis (1967)

Author and historian Bernard Lewis explores the first group in history to use political assassinations as a deliberate long-term tactic to expand power and weaken their enemies.

A branch of the Ismaili sub-sect of Shi'a Islam took root in Iran, and later Syria, around the year 1100. Building a power base centred on a series of impressive mountaintop fortresses, the Ismailis attempted to challenge the traditional Sunni rulers of the Muslim world. In addition to spreading their message through traditional means, the Ismailis used targeted assassinations against their political and military opponents.

Always using poisoned daggers and stealth to eliminate their opponents, and often successful against high profile targets, the Ismailis achieved a fearsome reputation, which grew when the Crusaders brought back tales of the mysterious, ruthless, and self-sacrificing killers back to Europe.

But the Ismaili assassins achieved little else in terms of strategic political gain; in time, the advocates of assassinations were defeated and overrun, and demoted to a footnote in the history of Islam. The Ismailis ultimately reemerged in modern times as peaceful and model citizens of the global community.

Bernard Lewis presents the story of the Ismaili assassins with meticulous research, and succeeds in setting the historical and political context of the time. He also presents a well considered assessment of the effectiveness of assassination as a tool for political gain. The best sections of The Assassins achieve the fluidity of historical thrillers.

But there are also long sections of the book that cannot avoid the lining up of sequential historical facts with a mind-numbing listing of names, dates, and locations, Lewis guilty of cramming too many factoids that would only interest fellow academics, without tying them together into an engaging narrative.

Assassinations have been around for as long as humans have sought power and influence over one another. In most if not all cases, a successful assassination is a tactical victory that obscures a lurking strategic defeat. The main lesson of The Assassins is that even when assassinations are used as formal policy and backed by dogma, they still represent a road to failure for those who launch them.

Subtitled "A Radical Sect In Islam".
140 Pages plus Notes and Index.
2001 hardcover edition published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

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