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A Question for Hegghammer & Lacroix

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a single word in a very small book, and the world that hangs in the balance ]
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I’ve just read Hegghammer & Lacroix on The Meccan Rebellion. At 78 pages and 5.3 x 8.3 inches, it’s a tiny book in hardback and quite a delight to hold — the electricity in my city block went out for a while the other day, and I took pleasure in reading it out under the sun — and it contains, in essence, the two authors’ paper, Rejectionist Islamism in Saudi Arabia (Int. J. Middle East Stud. 39 (2007), 103–122) and a companion piece by Lacroix titled Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albanai and his Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.

Blog posts tend to present a point of view – whether to preach to the choir, promote it to unbelievers, stir up trouble, or simply add detail or a fresh angle to an existing narrative. Seldom do they ask questions.

My own instincts — in line with Madhyamaka as I briefly encountered it in the teachings of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel — lead me to leave some kinds of questions open: I use my DoubleQuotes format to set the juices flowing, by providing nudges to thought rather than outright statements – but on this occasion I have a question to ask, and as it’s too long for Twitter I’ll post it here.

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Here’s my question. Juhayman al-Utaybi believed one of his companions, Muhammad al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the awaited Coming One of Islam — and that, in our authors’ words, “consecrating him [al-Qahtani] in Mecca on the turn of the hijra century” would ”precipitate the end of the world”.

In my view, a great deal rests on that simple word, “precipitate”. Would “usher in” do as well? Or “mark the beginning of” perhaps? Or is the idea of forcing the hand of God present, as it is in Reuven Paz’ phrase, “hot-wiring the apocalypse”?

There’s a lot riding on that issue: whether or not it is possible to force the hand of God, to accelerate destiny, to hasten apocalypse.

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Okay, let’s go light-footed into this issue. In The Question in the DC Comics universe, we have a character described thus:

During service in Vietnam Jeremiah Hatch got insane, he began to hear the voice that urged him to do the will of the Lord by serving the Devil. He thought that his mission was “to hasten the corruption, to nurture the foulness until the almighty has no choice but to rain down fire and brimstone and overthrow the cities and the plain and all the inhabitants of cities and all that grows on the ground…”

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Hastening the apocalypse — it’s an idea you can find in the world of DC Comics, but it was Israeli analyst Dr Reuven Paz who presented it to us in canonical “national security” form in his paper, Hot-wiring the Apocalypse, where his actual words are:

The Jihadi and nationalist insurgency in Iraq, which feeds the motivations and enthusiasm of growing number of Islamist youth to search for Jihad, look for the “culture of death and sacrifice,” and self-radicalize themselves, is another factor in the growing sense of Jihadi pride, which also hotwires the sense of the apocalypse.

That’s a faily imprecise form of words (‘The sense of apocalypse”) from a careful scholar, and Paz applies the concept in a specifically Sunni context. This, however, doesn’t prevent a popular Christian writer such as Joel Rosenberg from applying the same idea to the Shi’ite rulers of Iran:

Only when we understand the eschatology currently driving Iranian foreign policy, can we truly begin to understand how dangerous the regime in Tehran is. Only then can we fully appreciate how events like the revolution underway in Egypt only encourages Twelvers like Khamenei to take still further provocative and perilous actions to hasten the coming of the Twelfth Imam.

So the idea is afloat that both Sunni jihadists in Iraq and the Shi’ite state of Iran ay be about the “hastening” business.

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Blog-friend Dr. Timothy Furnish, as I’ve noted here before, rebuts the application of Paz’ concept by Rosenberg, Glenn Beck and others to the situation in Iran, saying of it:

It posits that there is a strain of Islamic eschatological thought which hopes to force Allah’s hand in sending the Mahdi, as it were, via sparking a major conflagration (nuclear, or otherwise) with the West (either the U.S. or Israel). This may be true of some of the Sunni jihadits with an apocalyptic bent, but there is very little evidence that such an idea is operative in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ayatollahs may be cut-throat, anti-Israeli and anti-American-but they are not stupid. They know full well that any nuclear attack on Israel of the U.S. would be met with a crushing retaliation. (Besides, what good would it do for the Mahdi to come and establish his global caliphate over smoking radioactive ruins?)”

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And if I might ask a follow-up question — is the first of the Juhayman Letters, which is devoted to the theme of the coming of the Mahdi, available in English?

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US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

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A triptych for Jane McGonigal

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- on play, games, vertigo and koan -- technically this is a ludibrium, a jeu, a jest -- a dervish whirl for the mind ]
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I’m joining the conversation Jane McGonigal is leading over on Big Questions Online — our topic is How Might Video Games Be Good for Us? — and she came up with a gem of a quote from Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens which pointed me to two other quotes that are part of the collection I keep in mind, one from Wittgenstein, the other from Roger Caillois.

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I’ve strung them together here because the way the mind hops and skips from one idea to the next in this series enchants me:


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There’s more to those three quotes taken together, along with the leaps between them, than there is in keeping them apart. They have, what was it Wittgenstein said? — a family resemblance. They belong together. You could start with the third quote, in fact, and then hop to the first and second, and the effect would be much the same, you could make a ring of them.

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They spiral so closely in on one another, indeed, as to induce ilynx, vertigo. Let’s keep on spinning.

To my mind, the master of vertigo in our times is Jorge Luis Borges, who uses the word “vertiginous” at least four times in his fictions — my favorite arriving in his story The Circular Ruins, where he writes:

He understood that modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake, even though he should penetrate all the enigmas of a superior and inferior order; much more difficult than weaving a rope out of sand or coining the faceless wind.

Blam! — is there anything more vertiginous than paradox, enigma, koan, mystery?

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In perspective, there’s the vanishing point. In service to others, there’s forgetfulness of self.

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While we’re on the subject of play, I have a confession to make. Several times on this blog and elsewhere, I have cited the art historian Edgar Wind as saying that Ficino’s motto was “studiossime ludere” and that he translated it “play most assiduously” — Marsilio Ficino being the intellectual hub of Renaissance Florence under the Medici. When I was putting together my initial post to Jane McGonigal for her Big Questions discussion, I wanted to use that quote, but couldn’t quite find it in the source I thought it came from. Well, I’ve been doing some checking since then, and Wind does quote something very similar in his Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance — but the phrase is “studiosissime ludere”, and what he writes is this —

Serio ludere was a Socratic maxim of Cusanus, Ficino, Pico, Calcagnini — not to mention Bocchi, who introduced the very phrase into the title of his Symbolicae quaestiones: ‘quas serio ludebat’.[1]

which he then footnotes thus (translation coming up shortly):

[1.] cf. Ficino, In parmeniden (Prooemium), Opera, p. 1137: ‘Pythagorae, Socratisque et Platonis mos erat, ubique divina mysteria figuris involucrisque obtegere, … iocari serio, et studiosissime ludere.’

Then there’s Ioan Couliano, another great scholar of Renaisssance thought — and a victim of Ceausescu‘s secret police — in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, translates for us (pp. 37-38):

Pseudo-Egyptian hieroglyphics, emblems and impresae were wonderfully suited to the playful spirit of Florentine Platonism, to the mysterious and “mystifying” quality Ficino believed it had. “Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato had the habit of hiding all divine mysteries behind the veil of figurative language to protect their wisdom modestly from the Sophist’s boastfulness, of joking seriously and playing assiduously, iocari serio et studiosissime ludere.” [34] That famous turn of phrase of Ficino’s — translation of a remark by Xenophon concerning the Socratic method — depicts, at bottom, the quintessence of every phantasmic process, whether it be Eros, the Art of Memory, magic, or alchemy — the ludus puerorum, preeminently a game for children. What, indeed, are we doing in any of the above if not playing with phantasms, trying to keep up with their game, which the benevolent unconscious sets up for us? Now, it is not easy to play a game whose rules are not known ahead of time. We must apply ourselves seriously, assiduously, to try and understand and learn them so that the disclosures made to us may not remain unanswered by us.

Couliano footnotes the quote thus:

[34.] Proem. in Platonis Parmenidem (Opera, II, p. 1137). This is simply the Latin translation of an expression Xenophon had used to designate the Socratic method (paizein spoude). On the custom of the “serious games” of Ficino and his contemporaries, see Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance 3d ed. (Oxford, 1980), pp. 236-38.

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Okay, I was trying to check a Latin tag that I’d obviously been quoting from memory, and things just kept on spinning — and weaving — together.

So where are we now? We’re talking of “playing with phantasms, trying to keep up with their game” (Couliano) — and thus back at that Borges quote, too, with its “incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed”…

Which is us.

I mean, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

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Okay. Practical matters. To go along with Witty Wittgenstein and the others on my recommended reading list, here’s an image of McGonigal’s dissertation and book:

The dissertation is available here as a .pdf: the book is available here on Amazon.

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Strategy and Creativity: Part I.

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”
                                                                                                -Carl von Clausewitz, On War

“Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities….Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.”
                                                                                             - Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

This blog is read by many people with a deep interest in strategy coming from different philosophical and professional perspectives. While I have my own speculations  based on years of study, I would like to begin by first posing a few questions to the readership:

  • What is the relationship between strategy and creativity?
  • Or between strategic thinking and creative thinking?
  • Is “doing strategy” primarily an act of planning, calculation and rational problem-solving or is it also a profoundly creative and intuitive enterprise?
  • If we get better at thinking creatively, do we become better, more effective strategists? The reverse?
  • Is creativity more useful in “grand strategy” (or “statecraft”, if you prefer) and policy than in straightforward “military strategy”?

The floor is yours, strong argument is welcomed.

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On the Limits of Human Intelligence

Monday, July 16th, 2012

IQ as a concept (and specifically “g“) and the psychometric instruments used to quantify them has provoked fierce political and scientific debate for decades. The political debate tends to be heatedly emotional and revolve around the inescapably inegalitarian societal implications of crafting policy (education, public health etc.) in light of a wide spectrum of IQ scores being unevenly distributed through the population. Scientific debate tends to be more focused on defining or identifying the parameters of intelligence, the relationship between physical brain structure, cognition and human consciousness,  heritability, neuroplasticity, the accuracy of psychometric instruments and more specialized topics beyond my ken.

What’s usually seldom disputed by scientists is that large differences in IQ are significant and that a very, very small number of individuals – the top 1% to .0001% of the Bell Curve, have unusually gifted and varied cognitive capacities.  It is technically more difficult to measure people who are such extreme outliers with accuracy as their intelligence might very well exceed the parameters of the test. Stephen Hawking’s IQ is frequently estimated in the media to be in the 160′s and Albert Einstein’s in the 150′s but those are speculative guesses. Most of the people touted as being “smarter than Einstein” with astronomical IQ scores, like Marylin vos Savant or Christopher Langan do not (for whatever reason) produce any tangible intellectual work comparable to that of Stephen Hawking, much less Albert Einstein. Maybe we really ought to use that cultural comparison with greater humility until there’s a better empirical basis for it :)

[If you are curious what the extremely smart do think about, browse the Noesis journals of The Mega Society]

It is being asserted that any evolutionary improvements to human intelligence are apt to come with (presumably undesired) tradeoffs or deficits. That we are “bumping up against” our “evolutionary limits”. I’m not qualified to evaluate that hypothesis, but it’s assumptions are not stable as advanced societies are already radically changing their cognitive environments as well as approaching the ability to directly manipulate our genetic legacy. Whether it is Kurzweil’ssingularity” or not matters less than these things change the “natural” probability of our evolutionary trajectory. A one in a billion random genetic mutation is no longer so if you can design it in a lab.

How much higher could we push cognition? Or could we expand the existing range by adding a new dimension of senses?

Why would a dictatorship not bound by ethical scruples not do this, even at considerable cost to the individual subjects of such experiments, in order to systematically harness the results of “a genetic arms race” for the benefit of the state? Though a growing body of supersmart people would eventually become difficult to control if your secret police were not intelligent enough to comprehend what they were doing .

The potential economic rewards of increasing human intelligence would inevitably outweigh any risk assessment or ethical constraints.

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