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The reversal of Maugham’s Samarra

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — how British and American literature, a Talmudic tale and a Sufi teaching story conspire — twice — to illuminate current events in Iraq and Syria ]
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Let’s start with Somerset Maugham‘s telling of the Appointment in Samarra, which John O’Hara borrowed as the epigraph of his novel by that name:

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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Here’s the version of the same story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 53a:

R. Yohanan stated: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted. There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon (I Kings 4:3). One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was distressed. He asked him: Why are you distressed? He responded: They have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here. [Solomon] gave them over to the demons and sent them to the district of Luz. When they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was smiling He said to him: Why are you smiling? He responded: To the place where they expected them from me, there did you send them!’ Solomon immediately began to say: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted.

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In February 2014 in the US Jewish magazine Forward, writer JJ Goldberg made fine use of this tale, applying it to a then-contemporary news event in his piece, Lesson of the Talmud in an Iraq School Suicide Bombing:

School massacres have become so commonplace that they scarcely shock us anymore. And yet, occasionally mayhem invades the sanctity of the classroom in a way that can still puncture our complacency. At these moments we’re reminded how fragile is this thing we call civilization. Such was the case February 10 in a rural schoolroom outside Samarra in north-central Iraq, where a terrorism instructor teaching a class in suicide bombing accidentally detonated a live explosive belt. Twenty-one students died along with their teacher. It happened in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Sunni terrorist group that was recently expelled from Al Qaeda for, of all things, its excessively brutal extremism in the Syrian civil war. [ .. ]

The location of the suicide school in Samarra has layers of poetic resonance, probably unintended by ISIS. Though predominantly Sunni, the city is revered by Shi’ites as the place where the last caliphs are buried and the Mahdi disappeared. Its name resonates in medieval Islamic lore with mysteries of suicide and predestined death, echoed in modern Anglo-American literature and linked to Talmudic legend.

After discussing the Talmudic and Maugham versions, Goldberg concludes:

Thus, the lesson of Samarra. In Arabic lore, we’re drawn helpless to our predestined deaths. In the Talmud, it’s kings who dispatch us with the best intentions to what they assume will be a cakewalk, but it’s we — or, per the Talmud, the king’s black soldiers — who do the dying.

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The Afghan Sufi writer Idries Shah tells the story in his brilliant little book Tales of the Dervishes, under the title When Death Came to Baghdad:

The disciple of a Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said he realized that one of them was the Angel of Death.

“I have several calls to make in this city during the next three weeks,” the Angel was saying to his companion.

Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he should not be touched. From this reasoning it was but a short step to hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day towards the distant town of Samarkand.

Meanwhile Death met the Sufi teacher and they talked about various people. “And where is your disciple so-and-so?” asked Death.

“He should be somewhere in this city, spending his time in contemplation, perhaps in a caravanserai,” said the teacher.

“Surprising,” said the Angel; “because he is on my list. Yes, here it is: I have to collect him in four weeks’ time at Samarkand, of all places.”

Shah attributes his telling thus:

This treatment of the Story of Death is taken from Hikayat-iNaqshia (Tales formed according to a design’).

The author of this story, which is a very favourite folklore story in the Middle East, was the great Sufi Fudail ibn Ayad, a former highwayman, who died in the early part of the ninth century.

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All of which brings me to this Kurdish news story published yesterday, ISIS captive begs Peshmerga to kill him for 4 o’clock appointment

DUHOK, Kurdistan Region — An Islamic State (ISIS) militant caught in fighting near Mosul last week begged his Peshmerga captors to shoot him dead on the spot so he could reach paradise the same day, a frontline Kurdish soldier said.

“The militant’s own suicide vest had failed to explode but he had sustained injuries from his friends’ vest explosions,” Peshmerga Captain Salim Surchi of the Spilk base told Rudaw. “He kept saying, ‘kill me, you infidels kill me.’” Cpt. Surchi said the militant was captured by the Peshmerga during last week’s fighting in the Christian town of Tel Skof, 28km north of Mosul. The militant was eager to be killed on the spot because it was a holy Islamic day known as Isra an Mi’raj, the day that marks Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven as mentioned in the Koran. [ .. ]

Cpt. Surchi lost three of his close friends that day and had others wounded, he said, but he still rushed to help a wounded ISIS militant to save his life. “I was filming the dead ISIS with my cell phone when I saw one of them moving his leg and I placed my hands on his chest trying to help him breathe,” the Peshmerga commander said of the moment following the fighting. “He breathed heavily a few times, he was conscious and he could even speak,” he added. Cpt. Surchi said that despite the militant’s pleas to be shot dead, he went ahead and treated his leg wound.

“When I was treating him I asked, ‘where’re you from?’ and he said, ‘I’m from Samarra and came here for jihad.’ The militant then said, ‘We were 50 suicide bombers altogether and we wanted to be in paradise by 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Cpt. Surchi recounted. [ .. ]

“The wounded one kept asking us to kill him till the end of the day.”

Which in turn brings us full circle. In Maugham’s telling, our traveller makes his way to Samarra to avoid death, who finds him there. In yesterday’s version, the jihadist leaves Samarra to meet his death, who refuses, on the night of all nights, to oblige him.

Romance as a precursor drug, and as a cure, for terror

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a scary thought for a poet, given that “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact” ]
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Considering the matter of altered states of consciousness as they relate to terrorism, I’m reminded of one of Shankara’s aphorisms:

Who is the greatest hero? He who is not terror-stricken by the arrows which shoot from the eyes of a beautiful girl.

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I was just reading The American Women of ISIS: Who they are, why they’re joining, and what life is like once they get there:

Shannon Conley met a guy online. She was 19, a normal Colorado teen with glasses and a big, toothy smile. He was 32.

One day in early 2014, Conley nervously told her father that she had a new boyfriend. She wanted her dad to meet him, so she set up a Skype call on her laptop. During the chat, the couple asked for his blessing to marry. They also told him that Conley would be moving to Syria, where they would wed and start their lives together.

Their lives, they told him, would be dedicated to ISIS.

Conley had recently converted to Islam after researching the religion online, and felt strongly about righting the global wrongs against Muslims. Then, adopting an extremist stance, she decided she wanted to lend her skills as a certified nurse’s aid to ISIS—also called the Islamic State, and known the world over as the vicious terrorist group responsible for brutally murdering countless victims and inciting new levels of global fear. They, she thought, were the way to do it.

It was then that my question struck me: is anyone studying romance, specifically, as a gateway drug for violent extremism?

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And the converse? How about romance as a cure?

Bruce Hoffman told us more than a decade ago in All you need is love: How the terrorists stopped terrorism, romance can be the cure…

Black September was, suddenly, not a deniable asset but a potential liability. Thus, according to my host, Arafat ordered Abu Iyad “to turn Black September off.” My host, who was one of Abu Iyad’s most trusted deputies, was charged with devising a solution. For months both men thought of various ways to solve the Black September problem, discussing and debating what they could possibly do, short of killing all these young men, to stop them from committing further acts of terror.

Finally they hit upon an idea. Why not simply marry them off? In other words, why not find a way to give these men—the most dedicated, competent, and implacable fighters in the entire PLO—a reason to live rather than to die? Having failed to come up with any viable alternatives, the two men put their plan in motion.

They traveled to Palestinian refugee camps, to PLO offices and associated organizations, and to the capitals of all Middle Eastern countries with large Palestinian communities. Systematically identifying the most attractive young Palestinian women they could find, they put before these women what they hoped would be an irresistible proposition: Your fatherland needs you. Will you accept a critical mission of the utmost importance to the Palestinian people? Will you come to Beirut, for a reason to be disclosed upon your arrival, but one decreed by no higher authority than Chairman Arafat himself? How could a true patriot refuse?

So approximately a hundred of these beautiful young women were brought to Beirut. There, in a sort of PLO version of a college mixer, boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy would, it was hoped, marry girl. There was an additional incentive, designed to facilitate not just amorous connections but long-lasting relationships. The hundred or so Black Septemberists were told that if they married these women, they would be paid $3,000; given an apartment in Beirut with a gas stove, a refrigerator, and a television; and employed by the PLO in some nonviolent capacity. Any of these couples that had a baby within a year would be rewarded with an additional $5,000.

Both Abu Iyad and the future general worried that their scheme would never work. But, as the general recounted, without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family.

If so, would that be a sort of variant on the homeopathic formula Similia similibus curantur?

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Shakespeare — who coined the phrase “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact” which I used in my subtitle — died 400 years ago today.

Human Sacrifice and State-Building

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

A while back I had a longish post that argued that the mass executions practiced by ISIS drew from the long pagan tradition of ritualistic human sacrifice. Today in the news, some social scientists see evidence of human sacrifice as the catalyst for establishing and maintaining stratified, hierarchical and (usually) oppressive societies:

Human sacrifice may seem brutal and bloody by modern social standards, but it was a common in ancient societies.

Now, researchers believe the ritualised killing of individuals to placate a god played a role in building and sustaining stable communities with social hierarchies.In particular, a study of 93 cultures across Asia, Oceana and Africa, has found the practices helped establish authority and set up class-based systems.

Human sacrifice was once widespread throughout these Austronesian cultures, which used it as the ultimate punishment, for funerals and to consecrate new boats.Sacrificial victims were typically of low social status, such as slaves, while instigators were of high social status, such as priests and chiefs, installing a sense of fear in the lower classes.

….Analysis revealed evidence of human sacrifice in 43 per cent of cultures sampled.

Ritualistic killing of humans was practiced in 25 per cent of egalitarian societies studied, 37 per cent of moderately stratified societies and 67 per cent of highly stratified societies.The researchers constructed models to test the co-evolution of human sacrifice and social hierarchy and found that human sacrifice stabilises social hierarchy once the system has arisen. They said it also promotes a shift to strictly inherited class systems, so that people of a high social class will continue to stay important over time, because of ritualistic killing.

‘In Austronesian cultures human sacrifice was used to punish taboo violations, demoralise underclasses, mark class boundaries, and instill fear of social elites  – proving a wide range of potential mechanisms for maintaining and building social control,’ they wrote. ‘While there are many factors that help build and sustain social stratification, human sacrifice may be a particularly effective means of maintaining and building social control because it minimises the potential of retaliation by eliminating the victim, and shifts the agent believed to be ultimately responsible to the realm of the supernatural.’

Supernatural forces….like for example, because Allah wills it.

This Austronesian study conclusions sounds remarkably similar to the role of (allegedly) Sharia sanctioned horrific punishments meted out by ISIS and fetishistically recorded and widely disseminated in video propaganda. A religiously ritualistic rein of terror as a mechanism to reengineer Sunni Arab society in areas under the group’s control and cement the state-building efforts of ISIS.

For details of ISIS use of extremely ghoulish violence for propaganda and state-building, I heartily recommend ISIS: the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Terror Is Glamour as War is Game

Friday, March 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on the necessary simultaneity of temporal and eternal perspectives ]
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quote-terror-is-glamour-salman-rushdie

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First as to glamour -– it may help to reflect that glamour, our word, comes not from Vogue but from the same origins as grammar (referring to languages) and grimoire (a book of spells, spelling also being a matter of language), and means something along the lines of “luminous illusion”. If we say terror is glamour, then, we mean that it “casts a spell” — and thus creates an appealing, indeed compelling, mirage. It lies, then, in the realm of magic, image, imagination, so ably delineated by Ioan Couliano in his great book, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.

The best of contemporary advertising draws on precisely the same Renaissance principles of persuasion — principles of extraordinary power which we nowadays tend to dismiss as “magical thinking”.

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Thus Virginia Postrel, in Terror Is Glamour:

Glamour can sell religious devotion or military glory as surely as it can pitch lipstick or island vacations. All promise a way to transcend our everyday circumstances, to experience more and become better than ordinary life allows. All invite us to imagine escape and transformation.

Postrel continues:

From Achilles and Alexander to “national greatness,” the glamour of battle is remarkably persistent. So is the glamour of martyrdom, as any trip through a Western museum or perusal of a Lives of the Saints (or its Protestant equivalent) will demonstrate. Nor is martyrdom’s appeal to Christians merely historical, as Eliza Griswold reported in this 2007 TNR piece.

Glamour appeals to our desires, whatever they may be, and Jihadi glamour offers something for everyone: from historical importance to union with God, not to mention riches and beautiful women.

Postrel then quotes Egyptian cleric Hazem Sallah Abu Isma’il, indicating that the “beautiful women” in question are “black-eyed virgins” from a world conceptually above our own:

If one of these virgins were to descend to this world, her light would extinguish the light of the sun and the moon. That’s how beautiful she is.

Yet as Postrel comments, “glamour proves perishable”:

As Rushdie suggests, of course, glamour always leaves something out, in this case the literally gory details of the act .. Either aspirations change, entropy and boredom set in, or the audience learns too much, destroying the mystery and grace on which glamour’s beautiful illusion depends.

She concludes with a significant question and preliminary response:

How do we puncture the glamour of Jihadi terrorism? The first step is recognizing that such glamour exists.

That may seem like CVE 101, but the deeper our understanding of magic, imagination, image — and hence the power of glamour — the deeper our understanding of the deep problem that CVE presents will become.

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Next we turn to Richard Fernandez, writing in A Bellyful of War, picking up the themes of war’s attraction, and the carnage its glamour omits from mention, and tying both to the notions of war as game and war as brutal reality:

William Tecumseh Sherman understood what many modern theorists have forgotten: war can be attractive to young men for as long as long as it remains a game. War in small doses is supremely thrilling, even glamorous. It is peace which can be routine and boring.

And so it goes until war stops being a game and the going gets really rough. “Its glory is all moonshine,” said Sherman. “It is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.” To Sherman a “bellyful of war” was ironically the psychological foundation of generational peace.

Not only is that last sentence a profound statement worthy of the contemplation of all who love peace – it is also far more subtly convincing than the old Strategic Air Command motto, Peace is Our Profession, which sounds more like one of Rochefoucauld’s tributes that vice pays to virtue than anything, and yet is presumably intended to convey the same insight.

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Finally we have Plotinus, for whom – in a manner richly echoed by Shakespeare — life itself is a dream, a play, a sport, a game:

Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man, that grieves and complains and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing. All this is the doing of man knowing no more than to live the lower and outer life, and never perceiving that, in his weeping and in his graver doings alike, he is but at play; to handle austere matters austerely is reserved for the thoughtful: the other kind of man is himself a futility. Those incapable of thinking gravely read gravity into frivolities which correspond to their own frivolous Nature. Anyone that joins in their trifling and so comes to look on life with their eyes must understand that by lending himself to such idleness he has laid aside his own character. If Socrates himself takes part in the trifling, he trifles in the outer Socrates.

Plotinus is correct, I would suggest, sub specie aeternitatis, just as is Sherman sub specie incarnationis — and it is the role of the artist to hold both visions, trivial and eternal, as Koestler suggests.

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I am again grateful to David Foster for his ChicagoBoyz post The Romance of Terrorism and War which triggered this exploration and the one on Getting Deeper into Koestler which preceded it.

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).


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