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Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- accuracy in naming, and the potentially dire consequences of theological insults ]
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On February 3rd, Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the English daily The National in the UAE, wrote a piece titled Five Reasons Why It Is Stupid To Say ISIL Instead of ISIS for Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Here are reasons 1, 3 and 4 of his five, minus the “stupid” bit, which is intended to make the title eye-catching, while it’s dismissed as fluff (“joking, don’t shoot”) in the body of the piece:

1. “Al-Sham” is a word often used for Syria, and more specifically for Damascus. “Bilad al Sham”, on the other hand, is Levant or Greater Syria.

3. When ISIS was formed, they certainly didn’t mean the group would operate in all of Greater Syria or Levant. It was only recently that they announced they would open a branch in Lebanon. People forget that ISIS was a merger between Islamic State of Iraq and “Jabhat al-Nusra for the Support of the People of Sham”. After a year and two months from creating Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Baghdadi unilaterally announced a merger between his group and Jabhat al-Nusra, in other words between the group that operates in Iraq and the group that operates in SYRIA. Jabhat al-Nusra did not mean, and does not say, it is a group for supporting the people of all the Levant but the people of Syria. So the initial merger was Iraq & Syria, not Iraq and the Levant. It was later that the name of the new merger “broadened” to include other areas, as ISIS announced a chapter in Lebanon and more recently in Jordan. So, in short, this is less about the meaning of “al-Sham” and more about that fact.

4. Often when there are Arabic words whose translation into English is disputed, it’s better (academically speaking) to use the Arabic word and explain what it is – in this case, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (still ISIS).

I’m always grateful for informed background, and in full agreement with point #4.

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Yesterday, the NYT had a post titled What to Call Iraq Fighters? Experts Vary on S’s and L’s:

Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have been translating the group’s name as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS for short. But the United States government and several news agencies call it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or I.S.I.L. (The BBC, curiously, uses the ISIS acronym, but “Levant” when spelling the name out.)

Al-Sham is the classical Arabic term for Damascus and its hinterlands, and over time, it came to denote the area between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, south of the Taurus Mountains and north of the Arabian desert. Similarly, in Egypt, “Masr” may refer either to Cairo or to the whole country. Used in that sense, al-Sham takes in not just Syria but also Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and even a part of southeastern Turkey.

That is fairly similar in extent to what Western geographers call the Levant, a once-common term that now has something of an antique whiff about it, like “the Orient.” Because of the term’s French colonial associations, many Arab nationalists and Islamist radicals disdain it, and it is unlikely that the militant group would choose “Levant” to render its name.

That’s three paragraphs, and a broad strokes version of something the article goes into more detail about…

The fighters do not like “Syria” either, though. Syria is what the Greeks named the region in ancient times, possibly after the Assyrian people who once lived there, though that derivation is disputed. And at times in the past, the term “Syrian” was used to mean specifically a Christian Syrian, while Muslims or Jews living there would be called Shami. Today, when Arabs speak of Syria, they usually mean only the modern state, which the insurgent group is fighting to obliterate.

Historic resonances are the point, said Ali Adeeb, a professor of Arabic at New York University. “When they first thought of the name,” Mr. Adeeb said of the group, “they were thinking with the mentality of the seventh or eighth century, just like their interpretation of religion and the life they want to recreate.” He noted that in the group’s statements, “they use old words like ‘ghazwa’ for invasion, instead of the modern word for battle.”

So if neither “Levant” nor “Syria” will do to translate “al-Sham,” what would? Some writers and geographers use “Greater Syria,” which preserves the distinction with the current state. But that would come at the cost of adding an adjective that is not present in the original Arabic, not to mention cluttering the acronym. Or the already familiar ISIS abbreviation could simply be said to stand for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, though the last word is unfamiliar to English speakers.

Al-Sham is a key concept in the final 100-page apocalyptic rant in Abu Musab al-Suri’s 1,600-page Call to Global Islamic Resistance — hence my own preference for ISIS, as an abbreviation for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I’d suggest it may be time for English readers to get familiar with that last word, although given our proclivity for not knowing even such basic distinctions as that between Sunni and Shia, I’m none too optimistic about that.

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But here we have the Zenpundit readership, and I have the impression that deepening understanding is a major concern. May I therefore also recommend Aaron Zelin and Phillip Smyth‘s The Vocabulary of Sectarianism over at Foreign Policy? That way we can all be clear on the theological insults conveyed by such phrases as rafidha / rawafidh, nasawi / nawasib and Hizb al-Lat.

In sectarian warfare, theological insults can carry the force of death-sentences.

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Of literal and metaphorical readings

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from "whistleblowers" via the interpretation of hadith to Aztec sacrifice and Christian Eucharist ]
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Whistleblowing in Thailand (upper panel, above), which I wrote about in my previous post, is a literal matter, and whistles have seen a huge surge in sales since the “whistleblower” campaign began. In the US practice and politics of leaks, on the other hand, whistleblowing is an activity that requires no physical whistle — just a “blower” with some form of access to media.

There’s nothing terribly metaphysically significant about the distinction in this case, but in other cases it can make a great deal of difference. It’s an issue I keep running into, as a poet and as an analyst of religious drivers in war and peace, and the image of Thai schoolkids blowing their (literal) whistles finally nudged me into writing about it.

I suspect the difference between literal and metaphorical readings maps closely to many of the major fissues in US and globe-wide society.

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One area where the distinction can be of vital importance is in the interpretation of scriptures. Thus Jonathan Brown, Georgetown professor and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World, shows how the same authoritative text can be very differently interpreted:

When I tell you a hadith, this is in Sahih Bukhari and other books, where the Prophet says to Abu Dharr, his companion: Do you know where the sun goes after it sets, Oh Abu Dharr? and Abu Dharr says, God and His Prophet are more knowledgeable. Tell me, and the Prophet says The sun goes goes down and it prostrates before the throne of God… it prostrates before the throne of Ar Rahman and it asks His permission to rise again and one day it will rise from the West.

Now it’s very interesting, you see in the early twentieth century, Muslim scholars who were kind of modernist scholars start reacting very strongly to this hadith. They said it contradicts astronomy and this hadith contradicts the certainties of modern science because nowadays we know that the Earth actually goes around the Sun and not vice versa and classical Muslims didn’t know that and that’s why they accepted this hadith so we need to go back through the hadiths and analyze them to see which ones are scientifically impossible and which ones are acceptable. This was a big debate and we still have this debate today. Guess what? Classical muslim scholars, going back to the ten hundreds, said exactly the same thing.

Because if you’re a muslim scholar, one of the things you do before you had clocks on your phone and everything is to calculate prayer times and living in a place, I need to tell people what time the prayers are.

And what they found very quickly is that prayer times differ based on latitude, longitude..and they knew that the sun was always up in certain places. You can go to certain parts of the earth where the sun never sets.

So they looked at this hadith and they said how do we understand it then? Oh it must mean that the sun prostrates to God metaphorically like in Surah Rahman Najmu washajaru yas judaan.. the stars and the trees prostrate to God. It doesn’t mean literally the star is doing little sujood up in the sky. It means it’s surrendering to God’s will, it follows God’s will. So they had no problem, they just said this hadith is obviously figurative.

FWIW, the Neoplatonist Proclus, quoted by Henry Corbin in his treatise on Ibn Arabi, uses very similar language:

Just as in the dialectic of love we start from sensuous beauties to rise until we encounter the unique principle of all beauty and all ideas, so the adepts of hieratic science take as their starting point the things of appearance and the sympathies they manifest among themselves and with the invisible powers. Observing that all things form a whole, they laid the foundations of hieratic science, wondering at the first realities and admiring in them the latest comers as well as the very first among beings; in heaven, terrestrial things according both to a causal and to a celestial mode and on earth heavenly things in a terrestrial state….

What other reason can we give for the fact that the heliotrope follows in its movement the movement of the sun and the selenotrope the movement of the moon, forming a procession within the limits of their power, behind the torches of the universe? For, in truth, each thing prays according to the rank it occupies in nature, and sings the praises of the leader of the divine series to which it belongs, a spiritual or rational or physical or sensuous praise; for the heliotrope moves to the extent that it is free to move, and in its rotation, if we could hear the sound of the air buffeted by its movement, we should be aware that it is a hymn to its king, such as it is within the power of a plant to sing…

That’s either nonsense, taken literally — or poetry, taken in a metaphorical sense.

We would do well in reading scriptures of any tradition to bear both possibilities in mind — and remember that in the cultures of the writers, the distinction may be one that is less clear-cut than in our own.

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My second version of literal vs metaphorical readings of texts in this post — there have been and will be others — has to do with the overall genre of sacrificial liturgies, and specifically with Aztec and Catholic practices.

But first, some Judaic background. Leviticus 1-7 is concerned with sacrifice — and opens thus:

And the Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.

If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord. And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And he shall flay the burnt offering, and cut it into his pieces. And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay the wood in order upon the fire: And the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar: But his inwards and his legs shall he wash in water: and the priest shall burn all on the altar, to be a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.

Blood sacrifice was indeed a central aspect of worship in the First and Second Temples — and those who would like to see the Temple again restored in our own times are busy training kohanim, preparing ritual vessels sand holding “practice” sacrifices so that once the Temple is rebuilt, the sacrificial liturgies can recommence…

The Psalmist, however, appears to be of the opinion that God takes no pleasure in blood sacrifices:

Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.

and:

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

— so we also see from the time of the Second Temple what might be characterized as an inward-turning or metaphorical approach to sacrifice.

Eric Heaton, with whom I studied the prophets at Oxford, was easily distracted from whatever text I should have but hadn’t read by a quick reference to blood sacrifice — it would send him into a tirade sufficient to see us through to the end of my tutorial. I will have none of your blood sacrifices, saith the Lord, Dr Heaton would thunder…

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Early Christianity takes this a step further, heightening the sense of sacrifice in the Eucharist to the point where it transcends physical existence, and the “memorial” sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in bread and wine at the Last Supper — prefigured by and embodied in the sacrifice of the paschal lamb of Judaism — along with the subsequent sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, and the continuing of that sacrifice in each successive Eucharist, are all portals within time to the “marriage supper of the lamb” or “heavenly eucharist” beyond time and space.

Thus the church historian JND Kelly writes that in the early days of Christianity:

the Eucharist was regarded as the distinctively Christian sacrifice. … Malachi’s prediction (1:10–11) that the Lord would reject Jewish sacrifices and instead would have “a pure offering” made to him by the Gentiles in every place was seized upon by Christians as a prophecy of the Eucharist. The Didache indeed actually applies the term thusia, or sacrifice, to the Eucharist.

I’ve quoted Dom Gregory Dix‘s long, profound and astoundingly beautiful paragraph “Was ever another command so obeyed?” in the Cadenza to my Said Symphony game, so I won’t repeat it here, but a poetic reaqding can be far more than metaphorical, it can be sacramental.

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And in the Catholic and Anglican liturgies, one phrase struck me with peculiar force. It is found in the opening of the Eucharistic prayers of consecration, the Anaphora. The Book of Common Prayer gives it as:

V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up unto the Lord.

— while the Latin of the Catholic missal has:

V. Sursum corda.
R. Habemus ad Dominum.

It is Sursum corda — literally, Hearts lifted — that I’m concerned with here, because it is a poetic or metaphorical usage, as we can see very simply by contrasting it with its literal equivalent as found in Aztec ceremonial.

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Hearts lifted – isn’t that precisely what is depicted here?

To the best of my knowledge, that’s an indigenous, post-conquistador image of Aztec ritual. And since the section of my library discussing such things is largely still in storage, not to mention under threat of auction, I’ll quote a crafts page on the history of obsidian to bring you a verbal description:

With sacrificial alters at the top of tall pyramids, built to be as close to the sun as possible, human offerings were often dispatched with the aid of an obsidian-bladed knife, their still pulsating hearts lifted high to the Sun.

How’s that for “hearts lifted” in a literal sense, ritually enacted?

It’s crucial (no pun intended) to note that there are significant differences between the various forms of sacrifice I have described here —

  • human vs animal sacrifice
  • the sacrifice of self vs the sacrifice of another
  • sacrifice by God vs sacrifice by humans (albeit commanded by God or the gods)
  • actual vs symbolic blood sacrifice
  • demonic inversion vs divine sacrament
  • etc..
  • — and yet they all fall under the general heading of ritual sacrifice. And although many Aztec ritual practices seemed to the early Catholics who first encountered them as demonic parodies of Christian rites, at some level they spring from the same archetypal soil and utilize the same archetypal imagery–

    — which has itself, thank God, been slowly transmuted from human sacrifice to sacramental symbolism across continents and centuries, a process for which we should be profoundly grateful.

    **

    For those of you interested in further readings in Eucharistic theology, I recomment particularly:

  • Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology
  • William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist

  • I shall have more to say on Torture and Eucharist in an upcoming post on Sarah Palin, baptism and waterboarding.

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    Gladwell on Waco and worldviews

    Monday, April 21st, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- in hope that improved mutual understanding across a range of conflict situations will provide some viable alternatives to needlessly violent solutions ]
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    Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article published in the New Yorker at the end of last month titled How not to negotiate with believers.

    It’s on a topic I’ve been interested in for years, and it quotes several scholars whose work on the topic I know, whose books I read, in whose digital company I sometimes find myself as a researcher of new religious movements, apocalypticism and so on — and I’m happy to say that IMO Gladwell frames and summarizes the key issues very nicely.

    You can read the whole piece on the New Yorker site, and I encourage you to do so. What I aim to do here is to extract the essence, and to suggest that similar considerations apply in greater or lesser measure to interactions with jihadists, members of the 969 movement in Myanmar, and others in one orm or another of religious conflict.

    **

    Here’s the key graf:

    Not long after the Waco siege began, James Tabor, the Biblical scholar, heard David Koresh on CNN talking about the Seven Seals. Tabor is an expert on Biblical apocalypticism and recognized the Branch Davidians for what they were—a community immersed in the world of the Old Testament prophets. He contacted a fellow religious scholar, Phillip Arnold, and together they went to the F.B.I. “It became clear to me that neither the officials in charge nor the media who were sensationally reporting the sexual escapades of David Koresh had a clue about the biblical world which this group inhabited,” Tabor writes, in an essay about his role in the Mount Carmel conflict. “I realized that in order to deal with David Koresh, and to have any chance for a peaceful resolution of the Waco situation, one would have to understand and make use of these biblical texts.”

    Know your enemy, yes?

    **

    There’s a particular exchange that Gladwell notes, between Koresh and law enforcement, which addresses the issue in terms of competing realities:

    Even at the beginning of the siege, in the first call that Koresh made after the A.T.F. attack, the fundamental misunderstanding between those inside and those outside Mount Carmel was plain. Koresh telephoned Larry Lynch, in the local sheriff’s office, and — while the battle outside raged — insisted on talking about the Seven Seals:

    KORESH: In the prophecies -—
    LYNCH: All right.
    KORESH: it says -—
    LYNCH: Let me, can I interrupt you for a minute?
    KORESH: Sure.
    LYNCH: All right, we can talk theology. But right now -—

    What Lynch means is that right now there are dead and wounded bodies scattered across the Mount Carmel property and a gunfight is going on between federal agents and Koresh’s followers. For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense:

    KORESH: No, this is life. This is life and death!
    LYNCH: Okay.
    KORESH: Theology -—
    LYNCH: That’s what I’m talking about.
    KORESH: is life and death.

    Let me repeat that Gladwell comment:

    For those who don’t take the Bible seriously, talking about Scripture when there is a battle going on seems like an evasion. For those who do, however, it makes perfect sense.

    **

    To Koresh and those he spoke for, his emphasis, his sense of where the “real” reality lay made perfect sense — while the FBI dismissed his words as “Bible babble” since they held a substantially diferent view of reality.

    If religion continues to be a major element in terrorism and perhaps other forms of conflict in what remains of this century, we would do well to learn the importance of listening to and addressing the worldview of our interlocutors.

    And that goes for the Koreshes and other dissenters of the world, as well as to those who hold “the usual suspects assumptions”.

    **

    Further reading:

  • James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco?
  • Jayne Seminaire Docherty, Learning lessons from Waco

  • For an Al-Qaida equivalent, see my post Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style.

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    Clickskrieg, and Y2K before that

    Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- slowly adding words to my vocabulary with the changing generations of warfare, etc ]
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    Via my friend Hellekin, from the Master’s thesis on Wargames in the Fifth Domain by Dipl.-Ing.(FH) Karin Kosina, and before that from cartoonist Patrick Chappatte in the International Herald Tribune, 30 May 2007:

    Offered to the ZP readership for a smile, & in case anyone finds it a useful graphic to accompany their own writings…

    **

    And almost as funny as this one, which I’m ancient enough to remember with post-millennial delight:

    What Bug?

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    Jottings 10: The rabbi who cried Allahu Akbar

    Monday, February 17th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- expect the unexpected ]
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    I can’t claim to understand Hebrew or Arabic, but the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, a leading Gush Emunim settler rabbi, can clearly be heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” at 5.37 and then repeatedly at 5.42 and following.

    What’s going on?

    **

    I wrote a while back:

    I am hoping to make Jottings a continuing series of brief posts, some serious and some light-hearted, that release the toxins of fascination and abhorrence from my system rapidly, ie without too much time spent in research. Jottings — hey, my degree was in Theology, Mother of the Sciences — derives from the English “jot” — and thence from the Greek iota and Hebrew yod, see Wikipedia on jots and tittles.

    Today, I hope to post four more of them. This one’s the first.

    **

    Rabbi Froman was visiting a mosque that had been desecrated the previous day by a group of his fellow settlers, who had scribbled the phrase “price tag” and some slurs against the Prophet on the walls, then set the mosque on fire.

    Harvard Professor Noah Feldman, in a Bloomberg op-ed titled Is a Jew Meshuga for Wanting to Live in Palestine? explains:

    If Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing, it’s that more settlements in the West Bank will eventually make a two-state solution impossible. Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died on March 4 at age 68, thought differently.

    Froman was a proud and early settler, a founder of the hard-line Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”), theologically committed to permanent Jewish settlement in what he considered historical Judea and Samaria. But Froman also fully accepted the idea of a Palestinian state there — in which he and his fellow settlers would continue to live as minority citizens.

    Crazy, you say — as did just about everyone else in Israel, to say nothing of other settlers. Froman played up the appearance of madness by appearing in Palestinian villages in his prayer shawl, tefillin (phylacteries) and long white beard and blessing the people in Arabic and Hebrew. His acting and speaking like a biblical figure further underscored the impression that he was some sort of unrealistic prophet, whether utopian or dystopian resting in the eye of the beholder.

    But why, really, is it impossible to imagine that religiously committed Jews might live under Palestinian sovereignty as citizens in the way that some Palestinian Arabs live under Jewish sovereignty in Israel proper? Looking at the standard reasons carefully, instead of just assuming their truth, can provide us with a much-needed thought experiment about the viability of the two-state solution, which looks increasingly tenuous to its supporters and critics alike.

    Food for whatever that thing is that hearts and minds do.

    **

    Related readings:

  • Yair Rosenberg, To Save the Peace Process, Get Religion
  • International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith: Israel’s National Religious and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  • Adam Garfinkle, If Kerry Wants To Make Peace in the Middle East, He Should Just Put God In Charge
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    Allahu Akbar — God is Great. Not such an unexpected sentiment coming from a rabbi, after all?

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