Obama was not saying the jihadists of the Islamic State are no worse than rapacious medieval warriors or segregation-era politicians. Rather, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, he was making a more subtle point about the ways in which religion gets tacked on to exercises of power and violence.
Now, Christianity did not "cause" slavery, anymore than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in [the Islamic State] are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.
But were Obama actually in the market for a historical parallel to describe the Islamic State, there are safer options. Indeed, Iraq's top Christian cleric already suggested it last year when lamenting the ravages of the extremist militants, who had overwhelmed cities, desecrated holy sites and slaughtered innocents.
"How in the 21st century could people be forced from their houses just because they are Christian, or Shi'ite or Sunni or Yazidi?" Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako asked, as fears mounted for the safety of religious minorities swept away amid the jihadists' onslaught. "Christian families have been expelled from their houses and their valuables were stolen and ...their houses and property expropriated in the name of the Islamic State."
As WorldViews reported earlier, Sako then made this chilling, grand historic proclamation: "This has never happened in Christian or Islamic history. Even Genghis Khan or Hulagu didn't do this," he said.
He was talking about the Mongols, who led by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, crushed the once powerful Abbasid Caliphate and ravaged its capital in Baghdad in the mid-13th century.
As the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy observes, the shock and awe of the Mongols' campaigns through what's now Iraq and Syria echoed for centuries onward, and remain ingrained in the Arab historical imagination. When the United States was preparing to invade Iraq in 2002, Murphy notes, Osama bin Laden issued a message likening then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell to rampaging Mongol warriors.
But it's a comparison that is perhaps far more applicable to the Islamic State, with its grisly penchant for beheadings, mass executions and the enslaving of captured women.
Here's the account of the sack of Baghdad, as told by the Lost Islamic History site:
It was at this historic and landmark city that the Mongols arrived in 1258. Their army, estimated at over 150,000 soldiers, stood before the city that was just a shadow of the great capital of the Muslim world of the 800s. The siege began in mid-January and only lasted two weeks. On February 13th, 1258, the Mongols entered the city of the caliphs.A full week of pillage and destruction commenced. The Mongols showed no discretion, destroying mosques, hospitals, libraries, and palaces. The books from Baghdad’s libraries were thrown into the Tigris River in such quantities that the river ran black with the ink from the books. The world will never truly know the extent of what knowledge was lost forever when those books were thrown into the river or burned.
The scale of devastation and upheaval wrought by the Mongols also carries a historical echo -- the Islamic State, which has emerged amid the collapse of Middle Eastern states, is redrawing the political map of the region, not unlike the Mongol conquests seven centuries ago.