zenpundit.com » Apocalyptic

Archive for the ‘Apocalyptic’ Category

So: how does it feel at World’s End?

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — on conveying the experience of the eschatological — on the way to better understanding the allure of IS ]
.

Beatus de Facunda. And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit" -- Revelation 9.1-11

And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit

**

WE ARE ENTERING PHASE TWO:

I think we’re entering Phase Two of our conversations about Islamist eschatology.

In Phase One, the task was to point out that apocalyptic scriptures and scriptural interpretations were a feature of Al-Qaida discourse, and specifically used in recruitment, and this phase was necessary because apocalyptic movements, in general, are all too easily dismissed by the secular mind until “too late” — think Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe.

With GEN Dempsey declaring that IS holds an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”, with Graeme Wood describing that vision in a breakthrough article in The Atlantic, with Jessica Stern and JM Berger making the same point forcefully in their ISIS: The State of Terror, and with Will McCants promising us a book specifically about the eschatological dimension of IS, that need may now have passed.

In my view, the salient points to be made in Phase Two are:

  • that the apocalyptic ideology of IS has strategic implications
  • that there’s a largely and unwisely ignored area of religious studies dealing specifically with eschatological violence, and
  • that the sense of living in eschatological time is viscerally different — I’ve termed it a “force multiplier”
  • In particular, IS strategy is likely to draw in part on the specifically eschatological last hundred pages in Abu Musab al-Suri‘s 1600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance. As I noted in my review of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam, Filiu himself states there is “nothing in the least rhetorical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action”. While Filiu devotes several pages to it, Jim Lacey ignores it completely in his A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto, commenting only, “Where appropriate, we have also removed most of the repetitive theological justifications undergirding these beliefs” — see my review of Lacey for the Air force Research Institute.

    I’ll deal with the religious studies literature on violent apocalyptic movements in a future post.

    This post is my first attempt at addressing the feeling engendered by being swept up in an “end times’ movement. I foresee this as my major upcoming area of interest and future contributions.

    **

    SUGGESTED CONTEXTS:

    There’s an extraordinary paragraph in Seduction of the Spirit by Harvey Cox, the prominent Harvard theologian, in which he tells us what the world’s next great encyclopedic work on religion might be like — using the analogy of Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica in a decidedly post-psychedelic age:

    Thus the next Summa might consist not of a thousand chapters but of a thousand alternative states of being, held together not by a glued binding but by the fact that all thousand are equally real.

    Imagine what kind of world it would be if instead of merely tolerating or studying them, one could actually be, temporarily at least, a Sioux brave seeing an ordeal vision, a neolithic hunter prostrate before the sacred fire, a Krishna lovingly ravishing a woodsful of goat girls, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun caught up in ecstatic prayer, a prophet touched by flame to go release a captive people…

    Religious experience is as wide, and in fact as wild as that, and the lives and world views of a Black Elk, a Teresa of Avila, an incarnation of Vishnu and an Isaiah are as different as cultures can be, united only in the degree of their focus. Cox can list them, he can invite us to consider their experiences in turn, but he cannot entirely bring us into each of their lives. Between them and his readers is a distance not only of cultural imagination, but of conviction, of tremendous passion.

    **

    In Fiction as the Essence of War, George Vlachonikolis wrote on War on the Rocks recently:

    Coker reveals the struggle of many a veteran by asking: “how can someone who was there tell others what it was like? Especially if they can’t find a moral?” This is a thought that will resonate with anybody with a wartime experience. As for me, my 6 years in the Army has now all but been reduced to a handful of dinnerpartyfriendly anecdotes as a consequence of this plight.

    Stern & Berger, on page 2 of their book, ISIS: The State of Terrorism, write:

    It is difficult to properly convey the magnitude of the sadistic violence shown in these videos. Some featured multiple beheadings, men and women toether, with the later victims force to watch the irst die. In one video, the insurgents drove out into the streets of Iraq cities, pile out of the vehicle, and beheaded a prisoner in full view of pedestrians, capturing the whole thing on video and then driving ogg scot-free.

    Some things are just hard to explain in a way that viscerally grips the reader, engendering rich and deep understanding.

    The power of religion is one of them, and that’s true a fortiori of the power of its extreme form, that of those who are “semiotically aroused” — in Richard Landes‘ very useful term — by the power of an “end times” vision.

    **

    I have quoted the first paragraph of Tim Furnish‘s book, Holiest Wars, often enough already, and I’ll quote it again for shock value — I don’t think it’s the sort of analogy that can be “proven” or “refuted”, but it gives a visceral sense of the importance of identifying an Islamist jihadist apocalyptic movement as such, and understanding what that implies:

    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.

    And Richard Landes in Fatal Attraction: The Shared Antichrist of the Global Progressive Left and Jihad gives us a sense of how an apocalyptic undercurrent works:

    It is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and halfeducated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.

    **

    A FIRST APPROXIMATION:

    Let me take a first stab at indicating — by analogy — the level of passion involved:

    Cox writes of prophecy, Sylvia Plath of electroshock treatment. In her poem, The Hanging Man:

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

    And her description of the same experience in her novel The Bell Jar is no less, perhaps even more powerful — note also the “end times” reference:

    I shut my eyes.

    There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

    Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

    Let me suggest to you:

    Many IS members feel they have been shaken “like the end of the world” and live and breathe in “an air crackling with blue light”.

    __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

    The illustration at the head of this post is one of many from The Beatus of Facundus, itself one of many brilliantly illustrated versions of Beatus of Liebana‘s commentary on Revelation. I was first exposed to Beatus by an article Umberto Eco wrote for FMR magazine. Eco also mentions the Beatus in Name of the Rose, and indeed wrote a most desirable book on the topic.

    How passionate was Red team’s eschatology?

    Saturday, March 7th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — wondering how close we are to deep recognition of the millenarian nature of IS ]
    .

    I sense a “change of direction” coming in discussions of terrorism — and IS / Daesh specifically — in the wake of Dempsey‘s declaration “This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”, Graeme Wood‘s Atlantic article, What ISIS Really Wants, and Jessica Stern and JM Berger‘s forthcoming book, ISIS: The State of Terror — and once the Stern / Berger book is out in a week or so, I’ll be posting about that change as I see it, and as it affects my writing here on Zenpundit.

    In the meantime…

    **

    The Atlantic Council posted (above) the video of their recent discussion of last month’s war game in which “Eed Team” representing IS / Daesh took on “Blue Team” representing the US. I wasn’t at either that event or the war game itself — the second in their series — but while I was waiting for the feed to be permanently uploaded, I found time to read an account of the first game in the series in October 2014, and ran across this paragraph:

    Despite its profound interest in waging holy war against Blue and the enormous symbolism of such a campaign, Red members agreed that it would be prudent to delay the launching of spectacular terrorist attacks against the US homeland. Attacking the United States on its own soil now would bring considerable symbolic and material advantages, but it would also come at the high risk of unleashing the fury of the most powerful military on earth. Washington’s most likely response, Red assumed, would be to escalate militarily and deploy US ground troops to completely root out Red. And once Blue goes “all in,” according to Red, it would most likely be the beginning of the end for Red (that does not mean, however, that Red would not put up a fight and incur heavy losses on Blue before its elimination).

    Who were these Red members, and what was their level of understanding of IS / Daesh’s end times thinking, as manifested in the various issues of Dabiq magazine — and recently, since that first war game, noted by Wood in his Atlantic article?

    **

    The thing is, Dabiq makes it very clear that IS, by reason of its eschatology, both desires US involvement and envisions that its own caliphal troops will be severely reduced in numbers before God grants them the final victory. This is in accord with one of IS / Daesh’s favorite hadiths, quoted more than once in Dabiq:

    The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). When they will arrange themselves in ranks, the Romans would say: Do not stand between us and those (Muslims) who took prisoners from amongst us. Let us fight with them; and the Muslims would say: Nay, by Allah, we would never get aside from you and from our brethren that you may fight them. They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive. A third (part of the army). which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah’s eye, would be killed ani the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople.

    Did anyone on the Red Team quote that hadith in either game?

    I ask, because I’m wondering — in terms of that “change of direction” I mentioned above — whether discussion of the apocalyptic driver has reached “critical mass” yet.

    Apocalypse Row: Netanyahu, Nukes, and Iranian Eschatology — Tim Furnish

    Monday, March 2nd, 2015

    [ guest post by Tim Furnish, posted by Charles Cameron ]
    .

    Blog-friend and occasional guest poster Dr Tim Furnish just posted this very timely piece at his MahdiWatch blog, and I am delighted to post it in its entirety here with Tim’s permission.

    **

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak to a joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday, March 3, 2015.  If his speech earlier today at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was any indication, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its pursuit of nuclear weapons will be the major topic.  Partisan bickering (about whether the Republican majority in the House and Senate wished to insult President Obama) aside,  the central issue boils down to whether Bibi is correct in his long-held belief that the IRI leadership amounts to a “messianic, apocalyptic, radical cult” which must be stopped at all costs from going nuclear (as he first said six years ago).   

    He is not.  

    Now as my usual friends and colleague sharpen their knives, allow me to explain.  First off, I am a staunch supporter of Israel, as both a Christian and an American, and have been there three times in the last decade.  Also, now that Turkey, under Sultan Erdoğan, has slipped back into Neo-Ottomanism, Israel is the only truly democratic nation in the Middle East.  Along with the Kurds, the Israelis are our closest allies in that region.  

    But that does not mean that everything Israeli is automatically correct.  And this claim that Iran wants nuclear weapons in order to use them on Tel Aviv and thus spark the coming of the 12th Imam al-Mahdi is a gross misreading of Twelver Shi`i doctrines as well as of Iranian politics. 

    I examined this issue in depth for the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis back in 2011, in a paper entitled “A Western View on Iran’s WMD Goal: Nuclearing the Eschaton, or Pre-Stocking the Mahdi’s Arsenal?”  The major points therein follow, after this pictorial message:

    Ismail
    Safavid Shah Isma’il (L), founder of the 16th c. dynasty that converted Iran to Twelver Shi`ism. HE would not have hesitated to use nukes (in fact, his turban itself is weaponized). But Khamenei? Not bloody likely.

    Z  Belief in the return of the 12th Imam from ghaybah, “occultation,” is not “fringe” or “extremist” but a mainstay of this brand of Islam (just as is the doctrine of Jesus’ return for all orthodox Christians).

    Z The 12th Imam’s reappearance is totally up to Allah’s discretion; nothing humans can do will advance his timetable.  “Hotwiring the apocalypse” depends not on WMD usage or any other violent activity but, rather, hinges on creating the Mahdist state in microcosm (i.e., the IRI) and then waiting on Allah to send the Mahdi to rule it.

    Z The anjuman-i hujjatiyeh (“Hujjatiyeh Society”) is not some insane group dedicated to destroying Israel but an organization dedicated to re-converting Baha’is to Twelver Shi`ism—and, furthermore, was banned in the early 1980s for being insufficiently supportive of Ayatollah Khomeini’s clerical rule.

    Z As per the excellent article by Ze’ev Maghen, “Occultation in Perpetuum: Shi`ite Messianism and the Policies of the Islamic Republic,” the ruling ayatollahs are probably the most vociferous opponents of a true Mahdist claim on the planet—because acknowleding anyone as such would end their rule of Iran, and with it their wealth, power and privilege. 

    Z Twelver Shi`i views of jihad mandate that jihad-i ghalaba, “victorious holy war,” be prohibited until the return of the 12th Imam—NOT employed to importune him to appear.  Usage of nuclear weapons is thus really not allowable for the apocalypse-hotwiring which many pundits impute  to Iran.

    Z Yes, some Iranian leaders have spoken, repeatedly, of Israel being “erased from the pages of history.”  But I believe that this means they believe in a gradual demographic disintegration of the “Zionist entity,” and not a mushroom cloud over Israel.

    Z It is possible for men to have long beards, wear turbans, express eschatological beliefs and yet still be rational political actors. The Supreme Leader and his cronies all know that were Iran to use a nuclear weapon against Israel, their nation would be a radioactive ruin about 15 minutes later. The Mahdi has no desire to rule over such a wasteland. Plus, it would deprive the clerics of their wives and Rolls Royces.

    Z All of the above by no means makes the IRI a peaceful or trustworthy state.  The ruling ayatollahs want nuclear weapons not only to hold onto their power (as per the ruling clique in Pyongyang) but to provide immunity against possible American military strikes and to increase Tehran’s regional clout—just not to summon the Mahdi via a nuclear conflagration.  

    President Jarrett, er, Obama and SecState John Kerry are fools to think that any written agreement will disabuse Khameini and his ilk of their lust for nuclear weapons.  But attempting to counter the administration’s naiveté with inane bluster that misepresents our enemy’s beliefs and intentions amounts to falling off the horse on the opposite side.  Instead, let’s try sitting upright on a strong horse and avoiding partisan extremes of misapprehension.  

    David Brooks gets his Islamic eschatology wrong on NewsHour

    Saturday, February 21st, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — why scholarship should inform punditry ]
    .

    **

    I am a bit surprised, I have to say, that I haven’t seen — and Google doesn’t seem to have found, either — a clear rebuttal to one highly significant detail in David Brooks‘ discussion with Mark Shields and Judy Woodruff on Islamic eschatology.

    In the PBS NewsHour segment labeled Shields and Brooks on fighting Islamic extremism (above), Brooks makes the statement:

    I do think you have to take the religion seriously, that these people are — it’s not like they can’t get what we want. They want something they think is higher than what we want. Their souls are involved. And I’m saying you have to conceive of them as moving, as acting in a religious way.

    And you have to have religious alternatives. And they are driven by an end times ideology. They think there’s going to be some cataclysm battle and Mohammed will come down. And if you ignore that part of it, write it off as sort of marginal, that they are being produced by economic dysfunction, I just think you’re missing the main deal.

    I’m largely in agreement with this, but the phrase “and Mohammed will come down” is just plain wrong. In Islamic eschatology, it is claimed that Jesus (‘Isa ibn Maryam) — not Muhammad — will “come down” from heaven at the ‘Umayyad mosque in Damascus:

    God will send the Messiah, son of Mary, and he will descend to the white minaret in the east of Damascus, wearing two garments dyed with saffron, placing his hands on the wings of two angels. When he lowers his head, beads of perspiration will fall from it, and when he raises his head, beads like pearls will scatter from it.

    The return of Jesus and his “breaking the cross” and preaching the one faith of Submission (Islam) may be what Brooks should have mentioned — or perhaps he meant the arrival and recognition of the Mahdi, who does not “come down” to us but is already among us by the time his end times role begins.

    I can see how this may seem a slight slip-of-the-tongue to David Brooks, who is after all not solely preoccupied with IS, Islam, and / or apocalyptic — but it’s not something that should go unchallenged if we are to “take the religion seriously”.

    Two new hipbonegamer appearances: Lapido & WotR

    Friday, February 20th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — two recent posts elsewhere, and two forthcoming posts here on ZP ]
    .


    About LapidoMedia, including a great short Simon Schama clip

    **

    My second post for LapidoMedia went up a couple of days ago, along with my first appearance on War on the Rocks.

    The LapidoMedia piece summarizes much that I have written here about the Islamic State / Daesh and its apocalyptic view as expressed in Dabiq magazine. From Lapido’s statement of purpose:

    Many news stories do not make sense – whether to journalists or policy makers who feed off what they report – without understanding religion. Lapido Media is an internationally networked, British-based philanthro-media charity, founded in 2005, that seeks to increase understanding among journalists and opinion formers of the way religion shapes world affairs.

    It’s called religious literacy. We run media briefings, publish research and essays and work with journalists around the world. Our stringers practise on our website the kind of religiously literate journalism we wish to see, going deeper to the sources of social motivations, and providing a resource for other journalists. And we work with civil society groups on campaigns and media strategy to improve the flow and quality of stories with a religion dimension.

    My Lapido piece, ANALYSIS: ISIS’ magazine Dabiq & what it tells us, begins:

    THE TITLE, and much of the content, of the Islamic State’s magazine, Dabiq, emphasises the ‘end times’ nature of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate.

    The beheadings, crucifixions and most recently the burning of 45 people in Al-Baghdadi, grab the West’s attention, and are intended to trigger a military over-reaction, proving to those who are willing to believe it that the West is in a ‘war with Islam’.

    But the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq has a different audience and a distinctly different message.

    **

    I was also delighted to make a small appearance at War on the Rocks, thanks to both August Cole and Ryan Evans. WotR is working closely with the Brent Scowcroft Center’s Art of Future Warfare project, and it was my piece for that project’s first Challenge that landed me on WotR’s pages.

    My story was excerpted on WotR with a link to the whole thing, and since I really like the opening, I’ll repost it here:

    Flashing across my sub-eyes and a few dozen others today, those tiny edge of vision thunderclouds that when my saccade leaps to them indicate increasing war chance – lit by a single bolt of miniscule lightning. As my transport turns itself into its parkplace, too far from the Ed’s for me to throat her a quick morning buzz, I flipvision up and “Temple” appears in yellow and red across the sub-world, and an accompanying jolt from the adrenals gets me out of the comfort of my now stationary pod, through visual check-in and up to my console where I can dig into deets..

    Not my usual Zenpundit style, but great fun to write!

    **

    I want to note in passing that I am working on a few major posts, though they may take a while.

  • I intend to comment in detail on Graeme Wood‘s major piece, What ISIS Really Wants in The Atlantic. It gets one huge piece of the puzzle right, and for that reason I’m delighted to see some of the things Tim Furnish and I have been pounding away at for years getting visibility. Various scholars have weighed in, and one very interesting comment has come from JM Berger — I’d definitely like to weigh my response to his view, too. So that’s one forthcoming piece.
  • Another, which would have been teh major piece for me this month all on its own if Wood’s article hadn’t appeared, will cover “countering violent extremism” — the topic, the White House event, the many interesting comments from Humera Khan, Clint Watts and others.
  • Also worth mentioning — in response to a suggestion from T Greer, I have a piece in the works listing the best books to read on Islamic apocalyptic, both for its content and context. But first, my responses to both Graeme Woods and the current interest in CVE — with a few quick posts along the way, while those twon are in preparation.


    Switch to our mobile site