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Njdeh Asisian on Iranian eschatology at SWJ

Monday, May 9th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — one selection from a much longer piece, followed by a CAVEAT LECTOR in red and a note about the Houthis ]
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Imam Mahdi will capture minds
Mahdist image from a Haroun Yaha fansite in Pakistan — representing a Sunni variant eschatology in the school of Bediüzzaman Said Nursî, see Yahya’s official website, also an academic analysis of Yahya’s work at The Mahdi wears Armani — a distant cousin to the Shia and Sunni doctrines below

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Okay, I posted the image above for its delightful AE Van Vogt science-fictionality. Now to the serious topic at hand.

Here’s the “Globalization and Eschatological-Apocalyptical Approach” section of Njdeh Asisian, Shia Iran and Effects of Globalization on State and Religion: The Beginning of Post-Islamism Era:

Eschatological-Apocalyptical analysts, without paying attention to what is going on within their own backyard, believe that the globalization provides tremendous opportunities for the expansion of the global reach of Shia Islam. The other side of this statement is also true when you read carefully between lines. The same Eschatological-Apocalyptical analysts believe that globalization negatively impacts the Islamic Republic because of its influence on Iranian civic society and the continuous weakening of the religious component of the Republic (Shia Islam). In other words, the Islamic Republic’s dilemma cannot be solved unless there is a global Islamic state where secularization and liberal-democratic forces have been defeated by the universal Islamization of the international political system. Consequently, the Islamization of global political system will also put an end to the liberal tendencies of Iranian people. The best possible model for such a scenario is the Soviet Union. With collapse of the Soviet Union, the Marxist-Leninist parties and even countries have collapsed, one after another, due to the failure of ideological legitimacy.

I will examine two types of “eschatological- apocalyptical” approaches to globalization. The first type is the realist approach in which adherents sought to prepare the ground for the political manipulation of the world order. The second type is to consider the globalization process through the Shia Eschatology.

The realist approach searches to find ways and means to establish a structure and thought process which will eventually bring into power an Islamic political and legal system as a dominant power on the world stage. In the realist opinion, the Iranian revolution of 1979 should serve as a serious basis of a new beginning for globalization of Islam as a major power broker in the international political system. They mentioned that, “From the beginning, the nature of revolution and the Islamic movement was based on the culture and return back to our original identity which was based on the religious doctrine. Therefore, we witnessed a fact that the Iranian Islamic Republic’s constitution highly praised the goal of having a global government which governs by Monotheism and hoists the banner of ‘There is no God but Allah’ in all over the world.”

At the same time, the realists promote the nature of global mission of the Iranian Revolution through the Iranian Constitution of 1979. In the constitution, religious identity and values are held in the highest possible place with the promise, made in the constitution, to assist all oppressed people around the world. They have envisioned the Iranian political system as the model for the future global Islamic order. At the same time, these Muslim intellectuals believe that they can offer something more important for human society, without rejecting the very essence of the globalization and technological advancements of our era.

The first step of the realists is to establish the legal framework for the future world order. They consider Islam as the engine of change on the global level and they mentioned that “now days the world turns to religion to fill the spiritual and emotional gaps; further, the world came to acknowledge that liberal-democracy is not useful and it tries to improve the situation through spirituality. This new trend produces a significant opportunity for different religions, and especially for Islam, in order to provide the masses with true teachings.” Further, Shia Jurisprudence is one that can bring serious and positive changes in human life because it has a global nature and it can implement it all over the word; therefore, “One of the distinguished features of Islam that makes it more applicable to the phenomenon of globalization is the existence of political Shia Jurisprudence. The special trait of political Shia Jurisprudence is that it turned Islam [automatically global]; Islam is a pro-active religion that is capable of answering all challenges that human beings can face.”

Besides the applicability of Islamic Jurisprudence at the global level which is theorized by religious scholars, Islamic Jurisprudence must be supported by sets of values that could be easily understandable and approachable by the masses. Therefore, the “Global Quranic Order is a desired system that had been promised to human beings. This system has structure and traits that is far different from the others. Creation of this Islamic Utopia is not possible unless [you] understand and recognize its peculiarities.” The most important pillars of this Islamic Utopia are “Global Quranic Order,” such as “Sovereignty belongs to God, Jurisprudence and Leadership, Unified Muslim Nation [Ummah], Unified Law [Fiqh], Justice, Rationality, Spirituality, Peace and Security, Good Life, Unified Language (Arabic as a Quranic language).”

The theory of Islamic globalization, as described above, is a world that its advocates want to create. They compare and contrast the current globalization with their own Quranic Order. “They do not reject the current technological advancement nor do they reject urbanization, industrialization, development, capitalism, science, and technology, and all that these imply for the organization of society. In this sense they are not anti-modern. They accept modernization, and the inevitability of science and technology and the changes in life-style they bring. However, and most importantly, they are unreceptive to the ideas that they say are Westernized.” They argued that the current Western-style globalization is based on false teachings. Therefore, globalization is taking the wrong route. “In the Alavi culture, technology is used for better living and the perfection of human beings and whatever improves the technological advancement is acceptable. In contrast, in the Western culture the technological advancements are used for profit and the capitalist culture is based on liberalism, individualism and hedonism which concluded in plunder of 99 percent of the population in favor of the 1 percent.”

The above mentioned Muslim scholars are providing theoretical grounds for an Islamic global government or empire. Naturally, these Muslim scholars resent the ideological part of globalization, where the liberal-democratic values have a dominant position in the global system. In other words, they want the technological advancements of the West without the ideology that is attached to it. A question arises here concerning what type of socio-economic system or platform they propose in order to keep up with the technological and economic creativity at the global level. It is obvious that no one can govern the world with just good wishes and ideology.

I move now from the realist theorists, who sought to establish an earthly Islamic Utopia, to the theocratic approach of Islamic globalization, where Shia Eschatology will change the world order beyond repair and establish a heavenly government on earth through the reappearance of the “12th Imam, Mehdi.”

In some Iranian writings regarding globalization and Islam, we see analysis that is a mixture of globalization theories, futurism, and the Shia Eschatology about the Mehdi. Muslims, regardless of whether they are Shia or Sunni, believe that one day the savior of the world or Lord of Ages, Mehdi, will appear in order to reestablish the justice, global governance and expanse of Islam all over the world.

In the Iranian case, we see the Shia version of Mehdi is somehow different from what Sunnis believe. The authors of these articles that call themselves “Mahdavist” have no faith in the current globalization processes. These authors are futuristic; they are analyzing international relations, geopolitics, socio-political relations, and economics of a society that does not exist, at least not yet. (Note: the other importance of this literature lies in the fact that the Iranian regime, due to its religious nature, cannot discount the religious belief system from interfering with what Kissinger called a Westphalian state that has specific commitments against the international community. However, many scholars and pundits do not look at the events in the Middle East through the lens of the religious belief system. Perhaps, this literature can assist them in understanding that the other side is preparing for an Eschatological end and even some activities may directly be connected to preparation for 12th Imams reappearance. The best example of this is Yemen. “Yemen plays a pivotal role in the Shia Eschatology”. Mahdavists have brought into Iranian globalization literature a phenomenon that is strictly religious. However, it is interesting to read and understand the religious scholars who are faithfully trying to analyze the religion through contemporary socio-political events. The other issue with these types of futuristic analysis is that there is no scientific literature or method that one can use to examine the validity of this claim. In other words, it is a religious belief system that one should accept by heart, rather than by scientific reason or methodology. The Mahdavists see the current globalization as a man-made phenomenon that has nothing to do with divine design for human beings.

They consider globalization as being empty of spirituality and human value and it is materialistic. In contrast they consider that real globalization will be achieved through the Mehdi’s revolt against the tyrannical order of the world. In the Mahdavist world, “The true definition of globalization is putting effort into building the world based on the Islamic teachings and governing the world through Islamic values. This goal is the undeniable promise of God. It is a message of the Quran, and the prophecy of prophets. On balance, wisdom of [the Islamic globalization] is doable. All man-made cultures and ideologies are condemned to total defeat and annihilation.”

Mahdavists believe that there is a close correlation between the reappearance of Mehdi and globalization. “The globalization that is based on liberalism, Omanism and secularism that propagated separation of church and state and rejected the system based on justice, is not acceptable for the global government of Mehdi. In contrast, the globalization that is acceptable is the one that does not pursue the domination of a specific culture, because all human beings are members of the global society. This type of globalization accepts multiculturalism, it accepts dialogue between civilizations, cultural understanding and access to shared values, mutual respect, international cooperation, and finally, the belief that global culture cannot swallow the other cultures, national or local”. Further, the global government of Mehdi cannot be considered as deterministic and cruel because it fulfills the prophet’s promises of global universal justice. Based on the Shia teachings, Mehdi will create a central government, a unified leadership and therefore, he will be able to end the main causes of conflict, wars and oppression.

In the final analysis, the universal Islamic government will establish the Islamic Jurisprudence that will put an end to religious and linguistic plurality where everyone is Muslim and speaks Arabic as the Quranic language. At the same time, the religious Eschatological-Apocalyptical approach does not produce a realistic analytical solution for the problems that Iran faces in the globalized world. This is because they are analyzing and looking for an unknown future and there is no set time for the reappearance of Mehdi.

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I’m offering this here without much commentary, since I lack Farsi and access to the various quoted sources. This footnote, however, may be of interest:

Eschatology is a part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. This concept is commonly referred to as the “end of the world” or “end time”. The word arises from the Greek eschatos meaning “last” and -logy meaning “the study of”, first used in English around 1550. The Oxford English Dictionary defines eschatology as “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell’.

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CAVEAT:

I would however note this next footnote, and particularly the phrase, “According to our numerical analysis of the Quran”:

For Sunni Muslims, the Mahdi (Mehdi) is a unique Muslim leader who will appear in the End Times and act as a Caliph, ruling the Muslim World. According to our numerical analysis of the Quran, it seems that the Mahdi will be fulfilling a divine mission and will act as a Witness, a Warner and a Carrier of Good News, so he could be considered a Messenger.

This numerical anaysis appears to come from a site I’ve mentioned before [1, 2], Discovering Islam, which predicts:

The End Times: Based on Numerical Analysis of the Quran, Hadith, Arabic Words, and Historical Events.

Imam Mahdi in 2016
Jesus Christ (p) in 2022

I’d have to say that anyone quoting that site as though it is representative of Sunni Islam isn’t to be relied on for theological acumen. And that’s a serious defect, when writing about Shia Iran and Effects of Globalization on State and Religion

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Finally — and bearing that caveat in mind — this footnote too may be of interest:

Based on the Shia Eschatology, the first group of people who will come to 12th Imam’s assistance are Yemenis. Currently the “Shia Houtis” of Yermen are trying to take over the government and establish a Shia state by Iranian assistance. As far as the Iranian theocratic elite concern, the sole purpose of the current Houtis’ agenda is to prepare for 12th Imam’s occultation which will take place in one of the Mosques in Makah Saudi Arabia. 12th Imam will be under siege in Makah until Yemenis come to his assistance. The Yemeni reinforcement will be the beginning of the 12th Imam’s journey.

And a minor point — just a typo — the Twelfth Imam’s occultation (ghayba) has already taken place: what is to be expected is his eventual return from occultation.

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.

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.

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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…

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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

ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).

   

However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2

And:

….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.


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