Jack Weatherford says Genghis Khan wouldn’t have made the mistakes we’ve made in the Middle East

Historians in the News
tags: Genghis Khan, Jack Weatherford

Jack Weatherford is the author of GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror

The Mongols fought and won in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – our three theaters of war. DoesGenghis Khan have anything to teach us today?

There is much that our leaders could learn from Genghis Khan, but we generally consider ourselvesto be morally superior to him and therefore remain unwilling to learn. Yet he could have saved usfrom many failures in the Middle East and Central Asia.

First, he fought wars he knew he could win, and he knew exactly what victory meant and how toachieve it. Victory came with total surrender of the enemy. He achieved this through the oppositestrategy and tactics to those used by Americans in their modern wars. We targeted the big cities,such as Baghdad and Kabul, and built fortified compounds that served as headquarters and prisons,leaving most of the city and all of the countryside under the control of its enemies. Genghis Khandid the opposite. First, he conquered the countryside so that his enemies had no place to hide.Knowing that a city cannot live without access to the outside, he conquered the cities last and usuallynever bothered to enter them (with notably brutal exceptions). He kept his mobile headquartersoutside.

Genghis Khan recognized that he could not rule by force or by propaganda. He knew he needed amajority of the population to support him. He did this in two ways. First, he killed his enemies. Hedid not try to persuade them by building schools or digging new wells. He did not try to bribe themwith wealth, power, or promises. Knowing that they would be forever his enemies, he killed them.Then he turned his attention to solidifying support from his allies.

American presidents issue grandiose statements about democracy, human rights, freedom and otherempty phrases that the Americans cannot explain and their conquered people in many instances donot understand, and then there is no follow through. Genghis Khan offered very specific andconsistent laws and policies that he could enforce and never violate. These included guaranteedreligious freedom for every individual, an end to kidnapping, an end to all religious violence, andend to taxation on religious institutions and personnel, an end to torture, and a guarantee ofprotection to those who remained loyal and quick and certain death to thieves, rebels, and all thosewho defied him or violated his laws. These were not empty words. He fulfilled every promise hemade.

We have spent years fighting in the Middle East without success. Genghis Khan conquered quickly,achieved total victory, and imposed a century of peace.

How were the Mongols able to conquer China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia and Korea withfewer than 100,000 men while the US has had such a hard time taming Afghanistan with somany more men & so much more firepower? What was Genghis Khan’s secret? Can we learnsomething from him?

The Mongols were few in numbers. Genghis Khan had an army of about 100,000 and the Mongolnation was only about a million; yet he conquered hundreds of millions of people. For the Mongols,war was not a gentleman’s game, it was a struggle to survive, and they fought fiercely knowing thattheir lives depended upon the outcome.

Every city was offered the chance to surrender and be spared. Those who did saw their taxes remainthe same or lowered and were not plundered. Those who chose to fight were defeated, and theirsoldiers and nobles executed. Anyone with a skill was usually spared – even a skill such as weavingor writing. Those with no skills were used for labor and often as shields for the army in the nextbattle.

His law was harsh, but he always stuck to the law. He even removed a son-in- law from commandfor having plundered a city that surrendered, and then he made his hapless son-in- law lead thecharge in the next battle. He died in combat.
He was totally fierce in battle and totally committed to justice in peace. It was an unbeatablecombination. At the moment the United States can do neither.

How did Genghis Khan deal with religious fanatics—and specifically Muslim assassins?

Genghis Khan accepted every religion as true and valid. He recognized that in its principles andteachings no religion sought to be evil or to create suffering. He decided his task was not to suppressany one of them or to promote any one of them but to give all believers freedom to do the best workthey could. This freedom, however, did not include a license to disobey the law or to follow anypath they chose. Like a herd of obstinate camels, each religion needed to be harnessed to the othersand kept on the road of righteousness. There was no separation of religion and state.

Genghis won the support of many people by offering them religious freedom, but he recognized whatthe clergy most wanted was not freedom of religion. They wanted freedom from taxes, and heexempted all religious personnel as well as teachers, doctors, pharmacists, and undertakers from taxes.

When he first encountered the Muslim fanatics known as the Assassins, based in the northernmountains of modern day Iran, he extended the hand of friendship to them. He met with theirleaders and promised them the same freedoms as everyone else. He allowed them to keep their smallkingdom, demanded no tribute, and promised not to invade them as long as they did not interfere inhis empire. This truce lasted for a generation, but when the Assassins began to kill Mongol officials,Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu invade their territory, tore down their supposedly impregnablemountain fortresses, and executed their imam, his family, and the entire army. He simply wipedthem off the face of the earth.

Within a few months, Hulegu also conquered Baghdad, executed the Caliph and his family andmoved on to take Damascus. The Mongols struck a series of blows from which today, nearly 800years later, the Muslim world still struggles to recover.

You’ve written one book on Genghis Khan that was a bestseller. Why this new one?

In 1997 I began research on the Secret History of the Mongols, an oral history compiled during thelifetime of Genghis Khan’s grandsons that had only recently been rediscovered. My goal initiallywas to locate all the episodes in the manuscript devoted to the life of Genghis Khan and to find theplaces where the events unfolded within Mongolia and across China and Central Asia. This was theinspiration for Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, in which I examined the impactof the Mongol conquests on history, with an emphasis of the transmission of material items –gunpowder, printing, the compass, trade goods, etc. That book touched on the life of Genghis Khanbut it was mostly about the conquests and impact of his grandsons. Genghis died on p. 134.

From the beginning of my research, I recognized but did not truly understand the importance ofGenghis Khan’s spirituality and his unique approach to religion on the success of his imperialproject. I was intrigued by the observation of Edward Gibbon in a footnote to The Decline and Fallof the Roman Empire that the American colonists borrowed their ideas of religious freedom fromGenghis Khan. The transmission of ideas and beliefs is much harder to trace than the spread oftechnological innovations, and I was very skeptical of such a seemingly outlandish claim about hisinfluence on the American Founding Fathers. At that point I had no way to prove or disprove it. Ittook me ten years to find the evidence. Only now, after nearly two decades spent researching the lifeof Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, do I feel ready to tentatively offer my findings.

What is the connection of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin toGenghis Khan?

Benjamin Franklin was an enthusiastic promoter of books on Genghis Khan throughout theAmerican colonies. He advertised the sale of a popular French biographies and offered to shipcopies to any of the colonies. Thomas Jefferson bought more copies than any other known customer,inscribing one as a birthday gift to his granddaughter and buying copies that still remain in theLibrary of Congress and the University of Virginia. Even George and Martha Washington kept acopy of Anne de la Roche-Guilhem’s novel about Genghis Khan in their library at Mount Vernon.

Genghis Khan was something of an intellectual novelty in eighteenth century Europe, who could bepraised for qualities that people felt to be lacking in their own monarchs, but in the emergingAmerican nation, determined to find new models of society and government, he had a far moreprofound influence. Plays about him appeared on stage from Charleston to Philadelphia and NewYork. Americans saw Genghis Khan as a revolutionary hero at a time when America was search fornew models outside the narrow classical European and Christian traditions.

Why did Genghis Khan end up extending religious freedom to all of his subjects?

He believed all religions were good and sought to make humans better. So he supported all of thembut demanded that they only teach what was good, serve the public in some practical ways, andalways obey the laws of the state. Granting religious freedom was also a strategic decision: he couldprevent the rivalries of different sects from become violent or destructive to society. Left to theirown devices religious leaders were among the most divisive and destructive forces in society;managed and harnessed religion had the potential to alleviate suffering and make a better society.

What evidence do you have that Genghis inspired the American law guaranteeing religious freedom?

Some previous rulers like Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great had tolerated rival religions, andsome had even allowed a diversity of cults and religions to flourish. And various philosophers hadadvocated freedom of religion. These liberal policies, however, were granted to religious institutionsand their priests; they were not individual freedoms. Under Genghis Khan’s law, for the first time inhistory, the freedom belonged to the person, not to the established religion.

Thomas Jefferson did not borrow the idea of religious freedom from Genghis Khan, but he borrowedthe concept that the freedom belonged to the individual and not to the church or to its priests. WhenJefferson wrote the first law of religious freedom for his home state of Virginia, he used wordingvery similar to that in the Genghis Khan biography he liked so much.

Mongol law forbade anyone “to disturb or molest any person on account of religion.” Similarly,Jefferson’s law prescribed “That no man shall . . . suffer on account of his religious opinions orbelief.” Genghis Khan’s law insisted “that everyone should be left at liberty to profess that whichpleased him best.” Jefferson’s law echoed this in the statement “That all men shall be free toprofess . . . their opinions in matters of religion.” The First Law of Genghis Khan and the Virginiastatute were similar in spirit but different wording to the First Amendment to the United StatesConstitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, orprohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

What was Genghis’s own religion?

Genghis Khan worshiped Heaven and Earth, or more specifically Father Heaven and Mother Earth.For him religion was not a set of beliefs or ideas; it was a way of doing, a way of living in the world.He felt that just as God could not be trapped inside a church or temple, the word of God could not betrapped inside a book. He worshiped the Heaven in the open air, on mountain tops and beside the rivers.

Why did he summon representatives of all religions to his court? What did he want to learnfrom them and what did he conclude?

The religions of the city people whom he conquered interested Genghis Khan but they alsoconfounded him tremendously. He acknowledged the goodness of their words but was puzzled thattheir words could be used to justify any action. He summoned priests, monks, scholars, mullahs, andleaders of many faiths to his camp to understand what was good in them and what caused so many problems.

He also summoned them because he wanted their political support. He recognized the power ofreligion over common people, and felt that if he had the support of religious leaders, he would havetheir believers’ support. To get that support, he offered them freedom from taxation, exemptionfrom the military draft, and other special concession to facilitate their work.

How can you claim that such a bloody conqueror was a man of religion? Wasn’t he just onemore in a long line of cruel barbarians looting the civilizations around him?

Genghis Khan was a conqueror, and his conquests were certainly bloody, but he had a highlydeveloped sense of his mission on earth. He was convinced that heaven had endowed him with theresponsibility to bring peace to the world and unite all people. And he succeeded in creating peacefor a century after his death.

America has made similar claims of fighting wars to create peace, and yet it has rarely succeeded infulfilling its lofty claims. In some ways, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to My Lai and Baghdad, theAmericans have been more ruthless in their handling of civilians than Genghis Khan, but we havenot been able to produce a Pax Americana to match the century of peace created by Genghis Khan’sPax Mongolica.

Contrary to common myth and cliché, history is written not necessarily by the victors, but by thosewho hold the deepest grudges. “Never forget” is the slogan of the defeated, or those who feelwronged by history. The so-called civilized world –Europe, the Middle East and China-- was notonly defeated but humiliated by its conquest by people whom they considered inferior barbarians.The Chinese and Iranians in particular poured scorn on the illiterate barbarians who destroyed theircivilization in eloquent and waspish chronicles that often strayed far from the truth. For a long timewe have been unable to accept that an Asian conqueror might have something to teach us still today.It is time to reconsider the legacy of Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan surrounded himself with elite soldiers who were like a band of brothers. Whatmade him such a great warrior and leader? Does he have lessons to teach our own leaders?

Loyalty was the key to Genghis Khan’s success. He was loyal to his soldiers, loyal to his people,and, above all else, loyal to the law. As ruthless as he was in battle, he was tenaciously faithful tothose around him and demanded the same loyalty from them. He lived a simple life, just as his mendid. He dressed the same, ate the same food with them, slept in a tent his entire life, and he obeyedthe same laws that his people had to obey.

Although, by some estimates, he was the richest man in history, he redistributed all the wealth to hispeople, even guaranteeing a share to widows and orphans. He built no palace for himself, no tombor monument. He wasted nothing on himself and lavished everything on his people.To those who were disloyal to him, there was only death. There was no negotiation, no compromise,no re-education or reform. When he conquered a people, he killed their leaders for leading thepeople into a war they could not win. He destroyed the ruling class, believing they were uselessparasites who could never be trusted. He spared everyone with a trade, skill, or craft, even simpleones such as weaving, or knowing how to write.

People sometimes say winning the war is easier than securing the peace. How did Genghissecure his empire?

First, Genghis Khan killed all enemies so that there would be no dissatisfied faction of the formerelite or defeated military left to threaten his rule. Then, he guaranteed peace and justice foreveryone who remained loyal to him. He created good will and stimulated prosperity by loweringtaxes on trade, building a network of postal stations to supply lodging, food, fresh horses, andestablishing basic banking services. He encouraged religion by eliminating all taxes on religiouspersonnel, their institutions, and any profession deemed a public service such as teaching or healthcare. He eliminated kidnapping, torture, forced confessions, corruption, and even made theft acapital offense. His law was strict, but in a world of such uncertainty, he offered an emotional andspiritual refuge for his subjects. As long as they obeyed him and remained loyal, he gave themsecurity of a kind they had never known.

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