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Furnish on “ISIS: Apocalypse .. How?”

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an important post with notes for Hagel & Dempsey, also my own thoughts on overlapping eschatologies ]

Moire effect from Marvic Textiles bois-de-rose

Moiré effect from Marvic Textiles bois-de-rose


Tim Furnish has a significant piece out today on his MahdiWatch blog, ISIS: Apocalypse…How?

What most interests me here, since I’m an eschatology watcher and it deals with what I think of as “eschatology squared” — the turmoil that results when opposing eschatologies run up against one another, creating some pretty strange intellectual moiré effects — is Furnish’s much needed comment to some of his fellow Christians:

[T]he last thing the US military or intelligence community needs is to have the genuine war against apocalypse-fired Islamic militants conflated with a narrowly Evangelical Christian view of matters. The US government is a secular, not a religious, one — and although I have repeatedly criticized the refusal of the leader of the world’s largest Christian-populated nation to do anything about global persecution of Christians, I do NOT want our forces engaged in an Evangelical Protestant “Crusade.” Furthermore, and just as (if not more) importantly, opposing and defeating the Islamic “apocalyptic strategic vision” — which is shared by groups besides IS[IS] — can only be done by analyzing said vision on its own Muslim terms, using Muslim (Arabic, Turkish and Persian) sources. Frankly, in this fight, I don’t give a damn in this context what Revelation or Ezekiel or Daniel say — it matters more what’s in the Qur’an, the Hadiths, and Islamic commentators thereupon. I say this to my Evangelical brethren: it’s not always about you and your interpretation of Christian Scripture. The rest of us (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutherans, etc.) in the fold might have something worthwhile to say on the topic, too — but this fight against IS[IS] is neither the time nor the place.

You’ll want to read the whole piece, but other things Tim covers include the actual extent of ” what al-Sham constituted in Middle Eastern history” and more generally some observations about, and comments addressed to, SecDef Hagel and General Dempsey.


Synchronously, Richard Landes today tweeted:

I hope to hear more from him about the similarities & differences — stay tuned.


Wikipedia describes moiré effects thus:

In mathematics, physics, and art, a moiré pattern is a secondary and visually evident superimposed pattern created, for example, when two identical (usually transparent) patterns on a flat or curved surface (such as closely spaced straight lines drawn radiating from a point or taking the form of a grid) are overlaid while displaced or rotated a small amount from one another.

Linens and silks can offer us beautiful examples of such superimposed patterns. The image at the top of this post is from Marvic Textiles and their lovely bois-de-rose fabric.

I am suggesting that when Islamic eschatologist discuss Christian eschatology, as was the case with Safar al-Hawali‘s treatment of Hal Lindsey in his Day of Wrath — or Christian eschatologists discuss Islamic eschatology, as in the case of Joel Richardson‘s book, Mideast Beast: The Scriptural Case for an Islamic Antichrist — the effect of one eschatology superimposing itself on another produces further “superimposed” patterns worth contemplating as such.


Of Learned Unknowing: in the matter of ISIS

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Newton, Cusa and Rumsfeld as context, McCants & Abu Susu for your consideration ]

IS tank


Let me anchor this business of unknowing firmly in the hearts of Science, Theology, and the Defense Department. My own preference is for Theology, and the words of Nicolas of Cusa — but you may choose which authority you prefer.

Sir Isaac Newton is reputed to have said:

I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa, in his treatise >De docta ignorantia / On Learned Ignorance:

Socrates seemed to himself to know nothing except that he did not know. And the very wise Solomon maintained that all things are difficult and unexplainable in words. And a certain other man of divine spirit says that wisdom and the seat of understanding are hidden from the eyes of all the living. Even the very profound Aristotle, in his First Philosophy, asserts that in things most obvious by nature such difficulty occurs for us as for a night owl which is trying to look at the sun. Therefore, if the foregoing points are true, then since the desire in us is not in vain, assuredly we desire to know that we do not know. If we can fully attain unto this [knowledge of our ignorance], we will attain unto learned ignorance. For a man-even one very well versed in learning-will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be. Unto this end I have undertaken the task of writing a few things about learned ignorance.

and elaborating on this theme, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously opined:

Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

With your choice of those backgrounds in mind, I’d like to turn now to today’s crop of readings on the Islamic State, and bring together for your attention two lists of five — five things we may think we know, and should unlearn, and five things we don’t know and shpouldn’t kid ourselves we do. Both authors of these lists come highly recommended.


William McCants today in Five Myths about the Islamic State notes:

As the United States widens its battle in Iraq against the Islamic State and contemplates strikes against it in Syria, the policy debate at home surrounding the intervention is heating up. Here are five myths circulating in the media that are clouding the discussion.

Here are his five myths:

1. The Islamic State was never al Qaeda.
2. International relations scholars agree arming the Syrian rebels is a bad idea.
3. Qatar funds the Islamic State.
4. The so-called Caliphate was established in June.
5. There is an easy, obvious and quick solution to the Islamic State problem.

Of these, it is number 4, The so-called Caliphate was established in June, that I find most intriguing and instructive, so I present it here:

The self-declared Caliph Ibrahim may have officially declared the reestablishment of the caliphate in June 2014, but the group has hinted since its 2006 founding of the Islamic State in Iraq that the caliphate was already established. Because the group knew its claim would be controversial in the jihadi community at the time, it chose the ambiguous name of “The Islamic State in Iraq” to communicate its intent while maintaining plausible deniability. The term “dawla,” translated as “state” today, is also the name of Islam’s greatest caliphate, the Dawla `Abbasiyya. The Islamic State was “in” Iraq but not “of” Iraq, indicating the state was not contiguous with Iraq and would not always confine itself to the country of that name.

Number 5, however, There is an easy, obvious and quick solution to the Islamic State problem, is the one we may need to grasp most quickly and firmly:

As Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, wonderfully gripes in his profanity-laced “cri de cœur” last week, the pro- and anti- intervention camps in the United States have used simplistic and uniformed arguments to support their favorite policies in Syria and now Iraq. But even those who offer complex and informed policy analysis like Brian can’t come up with a clear policy recommendation. Disagree with Obama’s Syria policy (I do) but don’t pretend the alternatives are obvious or would necessarily work better.


Yassin Musharbash, aka Abu Susu, also published a “list of five” today: 5 Things we don’t know about the Caliphate, prefacing it with this para:

Right now, a lot of people (and media) are asking for information on the “Islamic State”, the “Caliphate” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other things related to Jihadist activities in Syria and Iraq. That’s perfectly understandable. But while I am answering as many of these questions as I can, I think it is equally important that we (and by “we” I mean those of us who have followed events there since, let’s say, the days of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi) don’t forget that there are a whole lot of questions we can’t answer (even if these are not the questions we are usually asked).

Here are his five questions:

1. How important is the role of al-Baghdadi?
2. Is there a plan for expansion of the “Caliphate”?
3. Does al-Baghdadi/IS want to strike in the West?
4. Is there communication between IS and al-Qaida’s branches?
5. How stable/instable are relations to allies and helpers?

Here I find number 2, Is there a plan for expansion of the “Caliphate”? the most interesting. Abu Susu writes:

And by that a mean: A real, tangible one, not the ideological version. In propaganda videos, all sorts of targets are being named: Samarra, Najaf, Baghdad in Iraq; Damascus, Mecca, Jerusalem on a more ideologically motivated level; Rome as a symbol. But that is not helpful in predicting the IS’s next moves. These will be determined by their reading of military conditions on the ground, or so I assume. So will they sit in Mosul and Raqqa and consolidate before their next move at a big city or town? Are they busy forging new alliances elsewhere in order to repeat what happened in Mosul? Are they clever enough not to try and take Baghdad – or stupid enough to play with that idea at this point? I can make assumptions, but they are based on my idea of IS, rather than facts.

I womnder about this. They’re an apocalyptic movement, originating in Sham / Greater Syria, and making much play in their publicity about the apocalyptic battle of Dabiq. Jean_Pierre Filiu said of Abu Musab al-Suri‘s hundred-page account of the end times in the finale of his 1,600 page Global Islamic Resistance Call that there was “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action.”


Enough — both pieces are woth pondering:

  • Will McCants’ 5 Myths
  • Abu Susu’s 5 questions
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    From the caliphate to Ferguson and back, it’s a small world

    Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- starting with the news, closing with Jay Forrester & the impact of systems dynamics on our understanding of cause and effect -- a catchup post ]

    Clearing the decks grom the last few days, I found this DoubleQuote in the Wild from Ferguson staring out at me from my twitter feed — suggesting just how intricately interwoven our world really is:


    Souad Mekhennet has a piece titled Even the Islamists of ISIS are obsessing over Ferguson in the Washington Post:

    You can understand if President Obama would rather talk about the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq, where he has scored some victories, than talk about the unholy mess in Ferguson, Mo. Surprisingly, though, ISIS militants are following developments in the St. Louis suburb, and some of them would rather focus on that. According to interviews and social media, members of the group and sympathizers with its jihadist ideology are closely tracking the events in the St. Louis suburb, where protesters and police have clashed. In it, they see opportunity.

    Here are a couple of ISIS-fan tweets:


    Look, the point I’m making isn’t about Ferguson, it isn’t about the Islamic State, it has to do with the way that an event in one place whill have myriad unexpected effects downstream. The classic case which really opened my eyes to this was Aum Shinrikyo — the group that released sarin in the Tokyo subway system — sending a planeload of its members to Zaire in an attempt to collect Ebola samples for their biochem weapons labs.

    Someone in a medium size yoga cult in Japan read the New Yorker and learned that Ebola esisted and was lethal, and the next thing you know there’s a religious terror group, led by a guy who reads Nostradamus, Asimov and Revelation — and has been granted a photo op with the Dalai Lama — working diligently to get that capability.

    That was back in the last century, but Ebola’s in the news again these days, and it turns out that epidemiology needs to take into account pervasive belief in some affected corners of Africa that the whole business is a conspiracy designed to imprison Africans in “clinics” — the result being riots against at least one clinic, and blood-stained bedclothes and live virus carriers being dispersed into a poorly protected slum.

    Epidemiology as theorized and modeled should be cleaner than that. But then there are other factors — in the case of polio, there’s CIA use of a vaccination team as cover for an attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA in Abbottabad, resulting in widespread rumors of conspiracy, refusal of vaccinations, and a resurgence of the disease.


    Big question: how can you figure out the unknown unknowns represented by riots affecting quarantine? words spoken when a mic supposedly off is in fact on? the impact of large scale climate engineering.

    One of the ideas that has most influenced me in my thinking about games, simulations and models over the last dozen or more years comes from Jay Forrester. I’ll quote him from section 4.1, Cause and Effect Not Closely Related in Time or Space, in his 2009 paper, Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century, though I think I first ran across the idea in one of his books, probably Urban Dynamics (1969) or World Dynamics (1971):

    Most understandable experiences teach us that cause and effect are closely related in time and space. However, the idea that the cause of a symptom must lie nearby and must have occurred shortly before the symptom is true only in simple systems. In the more realistic complex systems, causes may be far removed in both timing and location from their observed effects.

    From earliest childhood we learn that cause and effect are closely associated. If one touches a hot stove, the hand is burned here and now. When one stumbles over a threshold, the cause is immediately seen as not picking the foot high enough, and the resulting fall is immediate. All simple feedback processes that we fully understand reinforce the same lesson of close association of cause and effect. However, those lessons are aggressively misleading in more complex systems.

    In systems composed of many interacting feedback loops and long time delays, causes of an observed symptom may come from an entirely different part of the system and lie far back in time.

    To make matters even more misleading, such systems present the kind of evidence that one has been conditioned by simple systems to expect. There will be apparent causes that meet the test of being closely associated in time and in location. However, those apparent causes are usually coincident symptoms arising from a distant cause. People are thereby drawn to actions that are not relevant to the problem at hand.

    That stunned me. But it gets a little worse:

    Comments such as I have just made about cause and effect carry little conviction from being stated in a text. Only after a student has repeatedly worked with models that demonstrate such behavior, and has had time to observe the same kinds of behavior in real life, will the idea be internalized and become part of normal thinking.

    I don’t think that’s quite right, I think we’re now seeing generations arise for whom system dynamics and networked thinking seem progressively more “intuitive” — more in tune with the zeitgeist.

    But the decision makers? As far as I can see, they are largely impervious to the kinds of thinking necessary to navigate our complexly interwoven envirorment.


    The curious case of the unheard word “apocalyptic”

    Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- so now at least the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs hears it and speaks it ]

    Get loud. It''s the only way..

    Get loud. It’s the only way..


    I’m reminded of “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” to which Sherlock Holmes refers in Silver Blazea, a story in Conan Doyle‘s collection, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ Scotland Yard interlocutor, Gregory, replies, “The dog did nothing in the night-time” — to which Holmes responds, “That was the curious incident.”

    In Three Ways the Islamic State Is Turning Things Upside Down, Peter Feaver writes at FP today:

    Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that the more demanding task of “defeat” would require attacking IS’s Syria sanctuaries. That objective would certainly be proportional to the threat the administration says IS poses, but that is a far more demanding military task than Obama has been willing to embrace until now and so far there is little indication the president himself is willing right now to commit the country to that task. But if President Obama is indeed committed to more modest steps, why does the administration keep describing the threat in apocalyptic terms, and why does it keep describing more ambitious objectives?

    And that’s what reminds me of Holmes’ silent dog — does “the administration keep describing the threat in apocalyptic terms”? Really?


    I ask, because Tim Furnish has the feeling that what he’s been saying and writing, nay preaching for some years now, both on his own MahdiWatch blog and here on Zenpundit, may finally have been heard by senior levels in the administration. And his proof text comes from today’s Guardian, in which Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is quoted as saying of ISIS:

    This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated.

    That’s in a piece titled ‘Apocalyptic’ Isis beyond anything we’ve seen, say US defence chiefs.


    DNI James Clapper has called the Syrian situation an “apocalyptic disaster“, but that’s using “apocalyptic” as a synonym for “nightmareish” in much the same way that “of biblical proportions” is often used to rean “enormous” — it’s a loosening of the word.

    The White House site also hosts a piece by Torya Blanchard, a Champion of Change, “Winning the Future” award, in which she describes the recession in Michigan, and Detroit in particular:

    We almost lost our auto industry, our housing market was decimated, a scary apocalyptic media coverage..

    That too is a non-eschatological use of the term.

    The NSC’s 2009 National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats uses the word in its specifically theological meaning when it refers to “the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult” which “sprayed a liquid containing Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) spores from the roof of their headquarters near Tokyo, Japan”..

    Aum Shinriko was indeed an apocalyptic movement, seeking the end of this world and a rebirth of its own civilization somewhere, sometime in space — under the inspiration of Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series.

    And now comes Gen. Dempsey with the explicit phrase “apocalyptic, end-of-days”:

    This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision


    Get loud. It’s the only way we will ever make the world listen to us. — Watchmen

    Tim Furnish has been warning us about the perils of Mahdist movements at least since 2008 — when I apparently pointed Zen to a post on his own MahdiWatch blog. I’ve been concerned about contemporary Islamic apocalyptic since 1998, and writing about it here on Zenpundit since 2009. David Cook published his book, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature in 2005, as did Furnish his Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden, and J-P Filiu published his Apocalypse in Islam, in French in 2008 and English, 2011.



    Does it matter that the Islamic State has an “apocalyptic end-of-days” strategic vision?


    Which is mightier, the pen or the sword?

    Friday, August 22nd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- an open question to our readers, and a koan for strategists ]

    It is one of the world’s great questions, and a central koan for strategists: which is mightier, the pen or the sword? I found it posed yesterday in two cartoons memorializing the journalist James Foley in British newspapers.

    The sword was made in Britain, The Times suggests.

    According to The Independent, the pen is mightier.


  • sword
  • pen
  • **

    To the sword goes the short term, vicious victory — but it was and is the pen, surely, whose power was so persuasive that the sword was brought out to defeat it, and the pen, surely, that will triumph in the end.

    James Foley, RIP. Daniel Pearl, RIP.

    The tragic irony is that both journalists worked for a better understanding of Islam as a peaceable religion, and were brutally murdered in Islam’s name for their pains.


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