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The Assassins - Murder as Political Tool

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You think assassinations are a new invention? Rubbish! Since the moment people started forming communities, dissatisfied subordinates have always tried to violently remove their authorities. Whenever they did so with the public’s consent, a memorial was erected in their honour. Whenever they did it without the public’s consent, they were prosecuted and executed.

 

The first use of systematic assassinations as a political means can be dated quite accurately. We relate this method to a religious sect that made a great stir during the High Middle Ages – the Assassins. Their name has become a synonym for the political murderer.

 

One thing in advance: Forget everything you have heard about secret gardens, beautiful virgins and the hashish consumption of the Assassins. These are all fictions of people, who could not imagine that men would die for their faith. The truth is a lot simpler and a lot more exciting at the same time. The story begins in the year 1094, when the caliph of the North African Fatimid realm died.

 

The Fatimids were part of an Islamic sect, who saw Ishmael as the legitimate successor of the prophet. The Ishmaelits dreamed of a political system, where believers could worship God far away from greed for money and power. Naturally, there was still a struggle for power. Nizar, the oldest son of the deceased caliph, was expelled from Egypt.

 

His followers are called Nizari. They were hopelessly inferior to the ruling powers, but their most famous representative, Hasan-i Sabbah, still found a way to ensure his adherents’ survival. Hasan came from Iran. He was missionizing for the Ishmaelits in his home country. The new leaders of the country, the Seljuqs, did not approve of this. They were Sunnites and took action against their Shiitic subjects from time to time. This worked to Hasan’s advantage. Many Iranians did not like the Seljuqs. Hasan sought out a wild area without cities. There, he started his mission. Man after man, village after village, he converted the people to Ishmael. And he took over the fortress ruling over that territory. He bought the secure stronghold Alamut Castle for 3,000 dinars.

 

Thus Hasan-i Sabbah had a base for further action of the Nizari at his disposal. How the Seljuqs would have liked to drive him out. But Alamut Castle was too strong. Therefore they fought the Ishmaelits where they could easily do it. There were horrific massacres at Isfahan, in Bagdad. And Hasan-i Sabah reacted. He developed a strategy which instrumentalized the fear, the fear of the powerful.

 

Alamut Castle became a training centre, where potential assassinators were not only trained physically, but also mentally. Hasan-i Sabbah made young men human weapons, who gave up their earthly existence for the promise of an eternal life. Hasan sent them out to kill high-profile, well-guarded victims. Whoever took action against the Ishmaelits, from then on, had to expect consequences.

 

Hasans men killed a qadi in Isfahan, who has assailed him in a sermon. They killed a qadi in Nishapur. They killed many Sunnite theologians, jurists and soon no one dared to denounce the Ishmaelits.

 

They also killed the secular authorities, for instance Nizam al-Mulk, who had tried to storm Alamut Castle. And Hasan also invented the concept of the sleeper. No ruler could be certain he was not harboring an assassin under his very own roof. The stories revolving around Saladin, who took action against one of Hasan’s successors, Sinan Raschid al-Din, whom the chronicles call Old Man of the Mountain, have become famous. It is said, that Saladin raised the siege on Masyaf Castle when he woke up one morning and found a knife lying next to his head.

 

Others claim that Sinan sent a messenger to Saladin one day. Saladin refused to receive him alone and insisted on keeping his bodyguards in the room. When he was left alone with the two bodyguards and the messenger, it turned out, that the guards too obeyed the Old Man of the Mountain and, given his call, would have killed Saladin at any moment. The chroniclers thus reasoned why even the powerful Saladin did not fight a war against the Nizari.

 

Not much seems to have changed since then. Even today, there are still people who are so convinced of their ideals that they will mercilessly murder someone.

 

And yet, something has fundamentally changed. Today, the adherents of totalitarian regimes deeply bow to the Western invention of democracy. They refrain from killing decision makers, because they know that every premier can be substituted. Their target is the simple citizen, the sovereign and governor of every real democracy.