About 425 years after the fall of Rome, an Islamic group not unlike those involved now in Mali and the siege in Algeria--Ansar al Dine, and AQIM--tore through North Africa as the latter two are doing today. The Islamic fanatics circa 900, were determined, much like our Wahabi-inspired "militants," to set the clock back, to undo civilization.
Driving in Tunisia (long before its revolution), I was struck by the huge Roman ruins; they ran for miles, sometimes paralleling modern highways. They were at least thirty feet high, and, with breaks, went on for miles in long lines; they were the remains of Roman aqueducts. North Africa had been, in some ways, Rome's California.
The economy of Roman North Africa was unlike anything found there today, because of those aqueducts. Instead of arid land, the Roman colonies grew a large portion of the grain the city of Rome depended upon, all irrigated, like California, today. It was like California in another way, too: Roman buildings in North African cities, like the rebuilt Carthage, were on a larger scale than in Rome, itself. It was prosperous--for free Romans.
Even after the Vandals threw out (or enslaved) the Romans, the aqueducts--and slave labor--allowed exporting bumper crops of grain to Rome and Constantinople. The Vandals grew rich and soft, like the Romans before them.
The first Muslim conquest of North Africa didn't change much; the land was still irrigated, still plentiful--unlike the deserts of Arabia. Now, Muslims were getting prosperous.
Tunisians told me what happened next. Ninth century Islamic militants tore down the aqueducts: North Africa reverted to near desert and has remained that way ever since. Tearing down these monumental structures must have been a major undertaking: there were no explosives then; it had to be done by hand. It was done thoroughly though: there were enough large breaks that no one has ever tried to rebuild them.
Driving the region back to desert was the intended result! It would revert to something comparable to the Arabian Desert, from which the Prophet and his Faith emerged.
The militant vision was much like al Qaeda's fantasy now: restoring pure Islam, as the Prophet practiced it. That requires poverty, not prosperity. The universal Caliphate is al Qaeda's grandiose goal, and again, hard times would be better than corrupt modern ones.
Both extremist Muslim movements represent rejections of the modernity of their day. Both set out to destroy civilization as it was or is.
There is a kind of nihilism in any fundamentalist religion: it requires you to destroy, before you can build the pure, envisioned world. The only modernity any of them seem to accept is the technologies of war, and of control. Those technologies are much more fearsome than in the 9th century, but the goals are about the same.
That's what the world faces in Mali and Algeria--and Pakistan, and Yemen, and--