Ex Libre: The Toki Onqoy Revival and ISIS

While reading and preparing for discussion sections this week, I was struck by this explanation of “revolutionary millenarianism” in Steve J. Stern’s Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (2nd edition 1993):

The ideological core of “revolutionary millenarianism” — then and now, in the Andes and elsewhere — has been the desperate vision of an imminent, totally comprehensive transformation which, by the power of supernatural forces and the insurgents’ own moral purification, will soon destroy an evil social order and regenerate a new, perfect world in its place. Historically, such movements have appealed to sharply disaffected social groups who experience a profound crisis of confidence. They not only find it difficult or impractical to launch a more direct political or military assault against the sources of their discontent, but have also lost confidence in the moral integrity of their own lives. The mixture of radical disaffection, political impotence, and inner doubts imparts to such crises an especially spiritual or moral character, even though the discontent stems from socioeconomic processes. (67)

I was startled at how similar Stern’s explanation of the forces at work in the Toki Onqoy Revival – a spiritual revival among indigenous Andean peoples in the 16th century – matched some of the explanations that have emerged for today’s ISIS, except that easy access to modern weaponry has added “military assault” to the equation. The fact that this explanation appears in a history book whose first edition appeared in 1982 and whose current, 2nd edition, appeared in 1993, over a decade before ISIS became widely known, makes me more convinced then ever of the need for historical education in order to understand and hopefully resolve contemporary developments. We might think that ISIS is some phenomenon never before seen in history, but Stern’s explanation of the Toki Onqoy Revival show this thinking is not entirely true. Particular circumstances and causes might be different for ISIS, but the underlying logic of human behavior is similar to other historical revivals.

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