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Review: The Rule of the Clan

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner

I often review good books. Sometimes I review great ones. The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom  by Mark S. Weiner gets the highest compliment of all: it is an academic book that is clearly and engagingly written so as to be broadly useful.

Weiner is Professor of Law and Sidney I. Reitman Scholar at Rutgers University whose research interests gravitate to societal evolution of constitutional orders and legal anthropology. Weiner has put his talents to use in examining the constitutional nature of a global phenomena that has plagued IR scholars, COIN theorists, diplomats, counterterrorism experts, unconventional warfare officers, strategists, politicians and judges. The problem they wrestle with goes by many names that capture some aspect of its nature – black globalization, failed states, rogue states, 4GW, hybrid war, non-state actors, criminal insurgency, terrorism and many other terms. What Weiner does in The Rule of the Clan is lay out a historical hypothesis of tension between the models of Societies of Contract – that is Western, liberal democratic, states based upon the rule of law – and the ancient Societies of Status based upon kinship networks from which the modern world emerged and now in places has begun to regress.

Weiner deftly weaves the practical problems of intervention in Libya or counterterrorism against al Qaida with political philosophy, intellectual and legal history, anthropology, sociology and economics. In smooth prose, Weiner illustrates the commonalities and endurance of the values of clan and kinship network lineage systems in societies as diverse as Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, India and the Scottish highlands, even as the modern state arose around them. The problem of personal security and the dynamic of the feud/vendetta as a social regulator of conduct is examined along with the political difficulties of shifting from systems of socially sanctioned collective vengeance to individual rights based justice systems. Weiner implores liberals (broadly, Westerners) not to underestimate (and ultimately undermine) the degree of delicacy and strategic patience required for non-western states transitioning between Societies of Status to Societies of Contract. The relationship between the state and individualism is complicated because it is inherently paradoxical, argues Weiner: only a state with strong, if limited, powers creates the security and legal structure for individualism and contract to flourish free of the threat of organized private violence and the tyranny of collectivistic identities.

Weiner’s argument is elegant, well supported and concise (258 pages inc. endnotes and index) and he bends over backwards in The Rule of the Clan to stress the universal nature of clannism in the evolution of human societies, however distant that memory may be for a Frenchman, American or Norwegian. If the mores of clan life are still very real and present for a Palestinian supporter (or enemy) of HAMAS in Gaza, they were once equally real to Saxons, Scots and Franks. This posture can also take the rough edges off the crueler aspects of, say, life for a widow and her children in a Pushtun village by glossing over the negative cultural behaviors that Westerners find antagonizing and so difficult to ignore on humanitarian grounds. This is not to argue that Weiner is wrong, I think he is largely correct, but this approach minimizes the friction involved in the domestic politics of foreign policy-making in Western societies which contain elite constituencies for the spread of liberal values by the force of arms.

Strongest recommendation.

Islamic State vs Saudi Arabia — Cole Bunzel’s new paper

Friday, February 26th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — contextualizing IS in terms of KSA, Abd al-wahhab and the Prophet, also an interior / eternal aspect of the “end times” ]
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Cole Bunzel, speaking with Charlie Rose

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As a poet, I keep my eyes peeled for the superposition of opposites in a small space. John Donne‘s great phrase, “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels” manages to superpose the imaginary and actual, sacred and soon-to-be profane, flat earth and globe, in just four words, Shakespeare is even more concise with Rosalind‘s “you insult, exult, and all at once” in As You Like It, and Dylan Thomas is after the same effect in his line “Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray” in Do Not Go Gentle.

The poet is after a world in miniature, the balance of contraries. And so it is that I was stopped dead in my tracks on reading Cole Bunzel‘s sentence at the end of the second paragraph of the Introduction to his new paper, The Kingdom and the Caliphate: Duel of the Islamic States:

One of those territories increasingly in its sights is Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest places and one-quarter of the world’s known oil reserves.

Bunzel is a PhD student writing a paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, so I’m expecting to be informed, yes, but this immediate, strong duality catches my attention — and it’s followed immediately with another at the start of his third paragraph:

The competition between the jihadi statelet and the Gulf monarchy is playing out on two levels, one ideological and one material.

The ideological and the material — holy places and oil reserves — in both phrasing we can recognize the world in a nutshell. And Bunzel will sharpen that sense of duality throughout, by contrasting Saudi Arabia, where possession of the resources has arguably warped the purity of creed as Abd al-Wahhab prtoposed it, with the Islamic State, which at least as it sees itself has maintained that “original” purity, and is now in a struggle for the resources to propagate its vision of Tawhid across the face of the earth.

As Bunzel puts it:

The comparison worth noting is the one in the minds of the Islamic State’s jihadi thinkers, the idea that Saudi Arabia is a failed version of the Islamic State. As they see it, Saudi Arabia started out, way back in the mid-eighteenth century, as something much like the Islamic State but gradually lost its way, abandoning its expansionist tendencies and sacrificing the aggressive spirit of early Wahhabism at the altar of modernity. This worldview is the starting point for understanding the contest between the kingdom and the caliphate, two very different versions of Islamic states competing over a shared religious heritage and territory.

Kingdom and caliphate: again, the elegant duality.

**

Let’s see now, how this duality — proclaimed, indeed in Bunzel’s title, The Kingdom and the Caliphate: Duel of the Islamic States — plays out in his analysis:

The new king has described Saudi Arabia as the purest model of an Islamic state, saying it is modeled on the example of the Prophet Muhammad’s state in seventh-century Arabia. “The first Islamic state rose upon the Quran, the prophetic sunna [that is, the Prophet’s normative practice], and Islamic principles of justice, security, and equality,” he stated in a lecture in 2011. “The Saudi state was established on the very same principles, following the model of that first Islamic state.” What is more, the Saudi state is faithful to the dawa (mission) of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, meaning Wahhabism, upholding the “banner of tawhid” and “calling to the pure faith — pure of innovation and practices having no basis in the Quran, sunna, and statements of the Pious Forbears.”

The Islamic State makes the same claims for itself. It, too, models itself on the first Islamic state, as its early leadership stated upon its founding in October 2006: “We announce the establishment of this state, relying on the example of the Prophet when he left Mecca for Medina and established the Islamic state there, notwithstanding the alliance of the idolaters and the People of the Book against him.” Another early statement appealed to the Wahhabi mission, claiming that the Islamic State would “restore the excellence of tawhid to the land” and “purify the land of idolatry [shirk].”

Compare and contrast — it’s one of the oldest tricks in the intellectual book, and maybe the most powerful.

And it’s right there — the material in conjunction with the spiritual — from the beginning:

This first Saudi-Wahhabi state was the product of an agreement reached between the chieftain Muhammad ibn Saud and the preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the small desert oasis of Diriyah in central Arabia. The two leaders agreed to support each other, the Al Saud supporting the Wahhabi mission and the Wahhabi missionaries supporting Saudi political authority.

Religion and politics, politics and religion. Church and state, we might say, Caesar and God.

**

But I shouldn’t inflict too much by way of this “dual” poetic formalism on my readers…

Bunzel details the three states at the juncture of Wahhabism and the House of Saud — “the first (1744–1818), the second (1824–1891), and the third (1902–present)” and proposes that we are now witnessing somethiung not unlike the genesis of a fourth:

Indeed, the Islamic State is a kind of fourth Wahhabi state, given its clear adoption and promotion of Wahhabi teachings.

But while the opposition Bunzel studies is between his third and fourth variants of Wahhabi-statehood, the analogy claimed in each of those cases is with the first.

Given that the House of al-Saud is the military partner of al-Wahhab-derived theology in the first three cases, their claim to contimuity with the first Wahhabi state, and thus also with the Prophet’s original state in Medina, is readily made:

The new king has described Saudi Arabia as the purest model of an Islamic state, saying it is modeled on the example of the Prophet Muhammad’s state in seventh-century Arabia. “The first Islamic state rose upon the Quran, the prophetic sunna [that is, the Prophet’s normative practice], and Islamic principles of justice, security, and equality,” he stated in a lecture in 2011. “The Saudi state was established on the very same principles, following the model of that first Islamic state.” What is more, the Saudi state is faithful to the dawa (mission) of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, meaning Wahhabism, upholding the “banner of tawhid” and “calling to the pure faith — pure of innovation and practices having no basis in the Quran, sunna, and statements of the Pious Forbears.”

Similarly, Bunzel notes, IS has claimed since its beginnings in late 2006:

We announce the establishment of this state, relying on the example of the Prophet when he left Mecca for Medina and established the Islamic state there, notwithstanding the alliance of the idolaters and the People of the Book against him.

While IS aspires not only to theological continuity but to a greater theological fidelity to al-Wahhab’s original Wahhabi state than the current regime, it regards the current state of the House of al-Saud as depraved and corrupt, in a manner quite different from the Prophet’s Medinan state — ridiculing it as “Al Salul” after “a leader of the so-called ‘hypocrites’ of early Islam who are repeatedly denounced in the Quran.”

The Saudi claim to be a Wahhabi state largely derives, let me suggest, from the al-Saud side of the original Wahhabi-Saudi alliance, while the Islamic State’s claim rests uniquely on the doctrine of al-Wahhab, viewed as a reformer who returned Islam to its original purity.

Indeed, Bunzel can cite an article “distributed by the Islamic State’s semiofficial al-Battar Media Agency” as describing thee IS mission as “an extension of Sheikh [Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s] mission.” And the similarity extends not just to that mission, but also to the opposition it arouses:

The author, who goes by Abu Hamid al-Barqawi, drew attention to the similar accusations made against the two states by their respective enemies, namely accusations of excess in the takfir (excommunication) and killing of fellow Muslims. He noted that both states were denounced as Kharijites, an early radical Muslim sect.

Thus we see, from the perspective of the Islamic state, another dualism repeating itself across history: this time between the original Companions of the Prophet and the abhorred Kharijite heretics, and the present followers of al-Baghdadi’s claim to the Caliphate and the Kharijite House of al-Saud.

In a further twist, both the House of al-Saud and Al-Qaida’s local branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, have accused the Islamic State precisely of being Kharijites, the Saudi Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al ash-Sheikh terming IS Kharijites who “believed that killing Muslims was not a crime, and we do not consider either of them Muslims”, while Jabhat’s spiritual adviser, Sami al-Aridi, has said:

The swords that God ordered us to use are many. One of these swords is the one pointed at Kharijites. This group [IS] has provided solid proof that it is Kharijite.

And who, again, are the Kharijites? I have quoted before now this hadith reported in Abu Dawud:

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “There will be dissension and division in my nation and a people will come with beautiful words but evil deeds. They recite the Quran but it will not pass beyond their throats. They will leave the religion as an arrow leaves its target and they will not return until the arrow returns to its notch. They are the worst of the creation. Blessed are those who fight them and are killed by them. They call to the Book of Allah but they have nothing to do with it. Whoever fights them is better to Allah than them.”

**

There is, of course, much more to Bunzel’s paper than I have captured here, but I would like to comment on one final issue, the one which I always return to — that of the end times, or eschatology. Bunzel writes:

The Islamic State’s apocalyptic dimension also lacks a mainstream Wahhabi precedent. As William McCants, a scholar of jihadism at the Brookings Institution, has set out in detail in a book on the subject, the group views itself as fulfilling a prophecy in which the caliphate will be restored shortly before the end of the world. While the Saudi Wahhabis and the Islamic State Wahhabis share an understanding of end times, only the latter view themselves as living in them.

In the light of our discussion above of the respective Islamic States of the Prophet himself at Medina, Abd al-Wahhab in conjunction with the original Saudi state, and the current Wahhabism of Baghdadi’s Caliphate, this naturally raises the question as to whether the Prophet’s Medina was an eschatological state, a topic which David Cook briefly addresses in the Introduction to Muslim Apocalyptic in his Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic:

The research of some scholars has indicated that Muhammad himself was impelled by a powerful belief in the proximity of the Last Day. For example, the Prophet is quoted as saying that some that see him will live to see the Dajjal (the Muslim anti-Christ).

Cook footnotes this claim with the following intriguing comment:

Though I do not wish to overspeculate as to the significance of this belief upon Muslim history, one cannot help but notice that the question of why Muhammad did not designate a successor is frequently asked. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that he genuinely did not believe that there would be time enough before the end of the world for anyone to succeed him. The very fact of some sort of will would show a lack of faith in the immediacy of the End.

Christianity, similarly, can be seen as an apocalyptic movement from its origin, with Christ similarly telling his followers “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1.15) and “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9.1).

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Here if I may, I shall turn speculative and poetic.

In his extraordinary reading of the Quran in The Apocalypse of Islam, Norman O Brown views the history of Islam as comprising “a series of decisive (requiring decision) apocalyptic moments, moments that will recur throughout a history that has no set end-point”:

These moments must (through the action, the cooperation with God’s call by the believer’s response) break through the crust of the familiar way of doing business (whether globalized or traditional), and lead one to an action that will necessarily be historical and personal (towards purification) because the drive of God’s will is always towards unity, both within and without.

The Islamic world today clearly anticipates the end times in the future, perhaps near, perhaps far, its date and hour necessarily unknown, and expects it to come upon us after various notable signs of the time have occurred –- the Shia with the return of the expected Twelfth Imam, now in ghayba or occultation, and the Sunni with the coming of the Mahdi and of the Prophet Issa (Jesus).

With regard to those notable signs, at 47.18 in the Arberry translation the Quran asks:

Are they looking for aught but the Hour, that it shall come upon them suddenly? Already its tokens have come; so, when it has come to them, how shall they have their Reminder?

Brown quotes Louis Massignon as calling Sura 18, The Cave, “the apocalypse of Islam” — and further suggests we should not apply enlightenment notions of linear time to a book, the Quran, which is itself both Revelation and Word. The poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal, in a phrase reminiscent of earlier Jewish and Christian texts, says of the Quran, “whole centuries are involved in its moments.”

Brown writes:

There is an apocalyptic or eschatological style: every Sura is an epiphany and a portent; a warning, “plain tokens that haply we may take heed” (XXIV, 1). The apocalyptic style is totum simul, simultaneous totality; the whole in every part. Hodgson on the Koran: “almost every element which goes to make up its message is somehow present in any given passage.”

Mathematicians will no doubt note the resonance here with the principle of holography, Buddhists with the Hua-Yen concept of the Jewel Net of Indra.

Brown, again referencing Massignon, who along with Henry Corbin was one of the major sources of his insight into Islam:

Massignon calls Sura XVIII the apocalypse of Islam. But Sura XVIII is a resume, epitome of the whole Koran. The Koran is not like the Bible, historical; running from Genesis to Apocalypse. The Koran is altogether apocalyptic. The Koran backs off from that linear organization of time, revelation, and history which became the backbone of orthodox Christianity … Islam is wholly apocalyptic or eschatological, and its eschatology is not teleology. The moment of decision, the Hour of Judgment, is not reached at the end of a line; nor by a predestined cycle of cosmic recurrence; eschatology can break out at any moment.

The End is in the Beginning — or as Eliot would have it, “And the end and the beginning were always there. Before the beginning and after the end.”

In the first sura on the Quran, al-Fatihah, The Opening, God is described first as “the All-merciful, the All-compassionate” (1.3), then as “Master of the Day of Doom” (1.4), and only then is there mention of humanity, in the words “Thee only we serve; to Thee alone we pray for succour” (1.5). According to a hadith reported in Tirmidhi, the Prophet said, “I was sent in the presence of the Final Hour.” To be present at the End, to be present at the Beginning — both are reminiscent of Christ’s extraordinary trans-temporal remark — perhaps the deepest teaching in the gospels, a true koan

Before Abraham was, I am.

New Book ! Global Radical Islamist Insurgency

Friday, February 19th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Torn from the pages of Small Wars Journal…..

Global Radical Islamist Insurgency: al Qaeda and Islamic State Networks Focus Vol. II 2012-2014  edited by Dave Dilegge and Robert Bunker

New and looking to be very useful. Right up the alley for our own Charles Cameron and friends of ZP blog like Tim Furnish and Leah Farrell. Another one,  Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has written the foreword.

From SWJ:

….This anthology-the second of an initial two volume set-specifically covers Small Wars Journal writings on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State spanning the years 2012-2014. This set is meant to contribute to U.S. security debates focusing on radical Islamist global insurgency by collecting diverse SWJ essays into more easily accessible formats. Small Wars Journal has long been a leader in insurgency and counterinsurgency research and scholarship with an emphasis on practical applications and policy outcomes in furtherance of U.S. global and allied nation strategic interests. The site is able to lay claim to supporting the writings of many COIN (counterinsurgency) practitioners. This includes Dr. David Kilcullen whose early work dating from late 2004 “Countering Global Insurgency” helped to lay much of the conceptual basis focusing on this threat and as a result greatly helped to facilitate the writings that were later incorporated into these Al Qaeda and Islamic State focused anthologies. This volume is composed of sixty-six chapters divided into sections on a) radical Islamist OPFORs (opposition forces) and context and b) U.S.-allied policy and counter radical Islamist strategies.

The editors are well known to many ZP readers with Dave being SWJ Editor-in-Chief while Dr. Bunker is the Futurist in Residence for the Strategic Studies Institute. Somewhere along the line though, I somehow completely missed the roll-out for Volume I.  Guess my review copy was lost in the mail….cough 🙂 I will be ordering both.

In all seriousness, I’m very glad to see the valuable work done by the editors and contributors at SWJ compiled into book form. Small Wars Journal is literally a national resource of military thinking, theory and open debate that operates on a shoestring and love of country ( consider making a tax deductible donation here).

On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 1: its sheer intensity

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — first in a series of four posts on the central theme of a proposed book ]
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Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon

In a previous post, I introduced my work on a book proposal concerning Coronation: The Magic and Romance of Monarchy. The second book proposal I’ve put together, which is also currently in the hands of an agent and making the publishing rounds, is titled Jihad and the Passion of ISIS: Making Sense of Religious Violence.

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We now have, I believe, a strong undertanding of the Islamic State and its origins in such books as Stern & Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, Jason Burke, The New Threat, Joby Warrick, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, and Weiss & Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Delving directly into the key issue that interests me personally, the eschatology of the Islamic State, we have Will McCants‘ definitive The ISIS Apocalypse. My own contribution will hopefully supplement these riches, and McCants’ book in particular, with a comparative overview of religious violence across continents and centuries, and a particular focus on the passions engendered in both religious and secular movements when the definitive transformation of the world seems close at hand.

What follows is the first section of a four-part exploration of the horrors of apocalyptic war.

**

I’ve attempted to give a sense of those passions in my post So: how does it feel at World’s End? — invoking Sylvia Plath‘s extraordinary couplet:

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

That’s the intensity of the feeling aroused, I’d suggest, in the throngs who followed Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi to Khartoum, and Winston Churchill in his book The River War, conveys the intensity of their jihad in these words:

the force of fanatical passion is far greater than that exerted by any philosophical belief, its function is just the same. It gives men something which they think is sublime to fight for..

Churchill is really pretty astounding on the topic of the Mahdi — a messianic figure in a religion he characterized as laying dreadful curses on its votaries inclouding “the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog”, and a warrior of whom he said that a future Arab historian should place him “foremost among the heroes of his race”.

Here is another Churchillian description of that “fanatical frenzy”:

Then came the Mahdi .. it should not be forgotten that he put life and soul into the hearts of his countrymen and freed his native land of foreigners. The poor miserable natives, eating only a handful of grain, toiling half-naked and without hope, found a new, if terrible magnificence added to life. Within their humble breasts the spirit of the Mahdi roused the fires of patriotism and religion. Life became filled with thrilling, exhilarating terrors. They existed in a new and wonderful world of imagination. While they lived there were great things to be done; and when they died, whether it were slaying the Egyptians or charging the British squares, a Paradise which they could understand awaited them.

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Let me make the general point more explicit. Dr Tim Furnish, a frequent commentator on these pages and author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden, opens his book as I have cited frequently with this analogy:

Islamic messianic insurrections are qualitatively different from mere fundamentalist ones such as bedevil the world today, despite their surface similarities. In fact, Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.

Will McCants makes it very clear in his The ISIS Apocalypse that the Islamic State as we currently encounter it is a caliphal movement rather than a Mahdist one, in other words that it is in an earlier stage of the same process leading eventually to the Mahdi’s arrival — although its propaganda, quoting its “founding father” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is clearly apocalyptic…

**

Up next: On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 2: to spark a messianic fire

On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 2: to spark a messianic fire

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — it’s what we won’t notice that can blindside us ]
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Dabiq issue 1 graphic
al-Malhamah al-Kubra, the great end-times battle

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To recapitulate: in my previous post I suggested that “apocalyptic, end-of-days” movements are qualitatively different by virtue of the immediacy of their divine / transcendant mandate. Richard Landes sums the matter up nicely in his book Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience:

For people who have entered apocalyptic time, everything quickens, enlivens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused — everything has meaning, patterns. The smallest incident can have immense importance and open the way to an entirely new vision of the world, one in which forces unseen by other mortals operate. If the warrior lives with death at his shoulder, then apocalyptic warriors live with cosmic salvation before them, just beyond their grasp.

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Here’s my concern, having lived a while in Malibu — and once watched on a friend’s TV in Santa Monica as a fire that had leapt the Ventura Freeway and swept down towards the Malibu Colony – rerouted by the fire service to go down the sparsely inhabited Corral Canyon, where as it happened I then lived..

Brush fires.

The human terrain is dry tinder, not yet ablaze – but a spark will ignite it, and the blaze then spread “like wildfire”.

The problem here is that we are far more disposed to read surfaces than undercurrents, news articles than the comments beneath them, what’s happening than what’s primed to happen, kinetic rather than potential energies. And so when potential goes kinetic, we are blindsided, caught off guard, faced with events we then characterize in retrospect as “unanticipated” — even though a little observation of what’s stirring below the surface would have allowed us to anticipate them…

What’s the equivalent, in contemporary Islamic terms, of dry underbrush of the sort that can suddenly ignite?

An expectation of the Mahdi’s coming – present enough in AQ some years back that AQ Central issued a caution against its people making premature claims concerning the Mahdi; present in IS but distanced by the possibility of a sequence of Caliphs preceding the Mahdist moment [cf McCants, Appendix 4]; and overall present to a considerable degree in the Islamic countries Pew polled in 2012:

The survey also asked respondents about the imminence of two events that, according to Islamic tradition, will presage the Day of Judgment: the return of the Mahdi (the Guided One who will initiate the final period before the day of resurrection and judgment) and the return of Jesus. .. In nine of the 23 nations where the question was asked, half or more of Muslim adults say they believe the return of the Mahdi will occur in their lifetime, including at least two-thirds who express this view in Afghanistan (83%), Iraq (72%), Turkey (68%) and Tunisia (67%).

A qualification is in order here. The British scholar Damian Thompson has shown in his remarkable study, Waiting for Antichrist, that it is possible for people to express expectation of a messianic “soon coming”– and still save for the college tuition of children who would presumably arrive at college age during the epoch of the “new heaven and new earth”. Expressing expectation, then, in a soon-coming Mahdi as much as a soon-coming Christ, does not necessarily imply “on the edge of one’s seat” expectation in real time. It is, however, suggestive…

Given dry conditions, then, to return to our analogy, what sort of spark can start a wildfire?

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The Zipper metaphor.

In my simplistic way — and switching metaphors — I like to use the analogy of the zipper on a windbreaker. There are two elements that need to come together, in my view: some ancient prophetic utterance in scripture, and what appears to be a strong confirmatory event in contemporary affairs. Let me give you two examples:

The Chernobyl zipper

Nicolai Berdyaev, in his The Russian Idea, declared that “Russian people, in accordance with their metaphysical nature and vocation in the world, are a people of the end.”

Revelation 8. 10-11 reads in the English of the King James Version:

Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it was made bitter.

Nothing especially marks this visionary verse as prophetic to Anglophone ears — but to our cousins in the Orthodox world, it suddenly attained significance on April 26, 1986, when the Chernobyl power plant blew up in a Level 7 nuclear event, showering Belarus, Ukraine and Russia with massive amounts of radiation – for as The Orthodox Study Bible notes:

Wormwood (in Slavonic, “Chernobyl”), an extremely bitter plant that would make water undrinkable, symbolizes the bitter fruits of idolatry…

Chernobyl had already been the site of an apocalyptic movement in the eighteenth century, when a group of Old Believers known as Chernobylites “preached the arrival of the Antichrist and the imminent end of the world.” I’m drawing here on my colleague Michael J. Christensen’s presentation, The Russian Idea Of Apocalypse: Nikolai Berdyaev’s Theory Of Russian Cultural Apocalyptic delivered at the Center for Millennial Studies conference in 1998. As you can see from his paper, the topic is a complex one, but the key comment for my purposes is this one, analogous to the Pew research referenced above:

According to a survey of 485 Belarusian citizens I commissioned in April 1996 (during the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl), nearly one third (31.2%) considered the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a prophecy specifically predicted in the Bible.

The Israel Zipper:

My other and perhaps more powerful example concerns Israel, and is a clincher that isn’t only notable to eastern Europeans. Tim LaHaye, in Charting the End Times, describes Israel as “God’s Super Sign of the End Times, writing:

The study of Bible prophecy is divided into three major areas: the nations (Gentiles), Israel, and the church. More detail is given prophetically concerning God’s future plans for His nation — Israel. When the church takes these prophecies that relate to Israel literally, as we do, then we see a great prophetic agenda that lies ahead for Israel as a people and nation. When the church spiritualizes these promises, as she has done too often in history, then Israel’s prophetic uniqueness is subsumed and merged unrealistically in the church. God has an amazing and blessed future for elect individual Jews and national Israel. Israel is God’s super sign of the end times.

Mark Hitchcock describes the connection between the founding of the State of Israel and prophecy in his 2003 book, The Second Coming of Babylon:

In the 1940s, who would ever have believed that the Jewish people would have a national homeland by 1948? The Jewish people were exiled from their homeland in AD 70. It had been almost 1900 years! It was unthinkable. But the Jews endured the horror of the Nazi death camps, and within a few years thousands of them were home. Over the past fifty years, millions of Jews have returned to Israel. About 37 per cent of the Jews in the world now live there. The current and continuing stream of Jews back to Israel is setting the stage for the Antichrist’s peace covenant with Israel that will trigger the seven-year Tribulation (see Daniel 9.27).

Once again, it’s a powerful “proof” – and once it’s accepted as validating the connection between prophecy and current affairs, it’s only too easy to fit the rest of current affairs, seductively if selectively, into the same overall pattern. The cover of Charles Dyer’s The Rise of Babylon all but screams at his 1991 readers:

Saddam Hussein is rebuilding the lost city of Babylon. The Bible says Babylon will be rebuilt in the last days. Could ours be the last generation?

But then we invaded Iraq, captured, tried, and executed Saddam.. and twenty-five years have passed since Dyer’s prophetic book was published..

In sum:

When there’s one single, strong (perceived) correlation between prophecy and news, in other words, the connection between them works like the zipper on a windbreaker – connect these two particular pieces together, and its fairly easy from then on to “see” current events in prophecy / prophecy in current events all over the place. The single strong case validates all sorts of other apparent correlations that would seem a lot less definite in its absence.

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Next up: On the horrors of apocalyptic warfare, 3: Taiping and Falun Gong


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