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A follow-up piece from Furnish

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- here Dr Furnish explores and explains the rival eschatologies afoot in the Syrian conflict ]
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The New Mahdi, from http://ghareb.deviantart.com/art/Ahat-ALGhareb-107961264 via Furnish

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Timothy Furnish has a new post up on Syria at his MahdiWatch blog, supplementing his recent guest post on Zenpundit, Reprehending Ignorance about Syria, in which he discussed sectarian issues, with Intervening (in Syria) Like It’s The End of the World?, in which he zeroes in on the strands of Mahdist expectation and enthusiasm on both sides of the conflict. Dr Furnish’s new post is long, so I’ll offer you some key paragraphs as a teaser, then suggest you go read the rest.

Iraq has always been more more central to Islamic history than far-eastern or far-western peripheries like Afghanistan or Libya, albeit less so than Syria. Iraq was on the fault-line between Western and “Eastern” civilizations, going back to Roman and Byzantine times, when it was a contested buffer zone between those empires and the various Persian ones. The region of Iraq itself was divided, after the coming of Islam, into Sunni and Shi`i sections — the former often under Ottoman Turkish rule, the latter in the orbit of (or at least doctrinally sympathetic to) the Safavid , and subsequent other Shi`i, Iranian states. To this day, especially post-American occupation (which empowered the Twelver Shi`i Iraqi majority to take power), Iraq is religiously and even eschatologically important for the Twelvers of the world primarily because six of the twelve Imams’ tombs are there and, after his reappearance, the returned 12th Imam al-Mahdi will rule from Kufa, Iraq. However, despite Baghdad’s undeniable importance as a political and intellectual center from its founding in 750 AD to its demise at the hands of the Mongols in 1258, Iraq pales in importance next to Syria for the majority Sunni Muslims, particularly Arab ones.

Syria was the first area outside the Arabian peninsula to be conquered, and not only was it taken from the superpower al-Rum (the Byzantine Christian Empire), but al-Sham, “Greater Syria” centered on Damascus included Jerusalem, the capture of which “proved” Islamic superiority to the other, corrupted monotheistic religions: Judaism and Christianity. This fervent triumphalism only intensified after the hated Crusaders were expelled from their 88-year occupation by the Syrian Kurd Salah al-Din in 1187, and the “Zionist occupation” of al-Quds (“The Holy”=Jerusalem) since 1948 is seen by many Arab (and other) Muslims are merely a temporary setback, which the Mahdi and Jesus will rectify. Thus many hadiths predict eschatological events transpiring in what the French and Brits used to call “the Levant,” the most important among them including: al-Sufyani, (a “type” of the Muslim antichrist, al-Dajjal, “the Deceiver”) will emerge from Syria; Christians will (re)conquer Syria; the Mahdi will reveal himself; the Dajjal himself appear; Jesus will return by descending into Damascus; the armies of the Mahdi and the Sufyani will battle; and Jesus will kill the Dajjal in or near Jerusalem. After all this the Mahdi and Jesus will jointly rule over a Muslim planet, and eventually both will pass away. The true end of history, and the Final Judgement, will not come for some years after that. Also: the Sunni Mahdi and the Twelver Shi`i one perform virtually the same role, the major differences being 1) the former will step onto the stage of history for the first time, whereas the latter will return from a millennium-old mystical ghaybah, or “occultation;” and 2) Sunni eschatologists prognosticate that the person whom Shi`is believe to be their 12th Imam will actually be the Dajjal—and Shi`is say the same about the Sunni Mahdi!

Thus, Syria is the most important eschatological venue of Islam, bar none. Quoting sayings of some of their twelve Imams, at least one Iranian government official has superimposed eschatological themes on the Syrian conflict — Hujjat al-Islam (or “Hujjatollah,” a cleric ranking below Ayatollah) Ruhollah Husayniyan, who claims that the strife in Syria is the prelude to the Imam al-Mahdi’s coming and revolution. (This sort of “newspaper exegesis” has been going on for years in Tehran and Qom, actually.) And Twelver Shi`is in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon are not only enthused about this idea, but have been motivated by Mahdism to go join the fight for Bashar al-Asad and the Alawi regime over against its Sunni opponents!

Here are Dr Furnish’s concluding words.

While certain writers in the US obsess about Evangelical Christians trying to fit the Syrian Islamic civil war into a Christian eschatological blueprint, the truth is that they have no significant political power (and the ones I know are adamantly against President Obama’s proposed strikes on the al-Asad military) — they just like to opine, talk, and sell books. The true believers in the Mahdi, the Sufyani and the return of the Islamic Jesus — who comprise hundred of millions of Muslims, according to polling data — should be the real focus of concern, most especially those of their ranks putting their beliefs into practice in Aleppo, Dayr al-Zur and Idlib. The Obama Administration would do well to consider the apocalyptic aspect of the Syrian civil war, before committing our forces to helping those of the Mahdi or the 12th Imam.

As I suggested earlier, now go read the whole thing.

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ICYMI, I think that final phrase — “before committing our forces to helping those of the Mahdi or the 12th Imam” — is one we should read with care in light of his earlier sentence:

Sunni eschatologists prognosticate that the person whom Shi`is believe to be their 12th Imam will actually be the Dajjal—and Shi`is say the same about the Sunni Mahdi!

Whichever side we might commit our forces to, in other words, we’d be supporting one strain of Mahdism or the other…

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Elkus interviews Charles Cameron at Abu Muqawama

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski a.k.a "zen"]

Longtime friend of ZP,  Adam Elkus interviews our own Charles Cameron at the highly regarded Abu Muqawama blog:

Interview Charles Cameron 

[....]  AE: How has the study of apocalyptic tropes and culture changed (if it has at all) since 9/11 focused attention on radical Islamist movements?

CC: USC’s Stephen O’Leary was the first to study apocalyptic as rhetoric in his 1994 Arguing the Apocalypse, and joined BU’s Richard Landes in forming the (late, lamented) Center for Millennial Studies, which gave millennial scholars a platform to engage with one another. David Cook opened my eyes to Islamist messianism at CMS around 1998, and the publication of his two books (Studies in Muslim ApocalypticContemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature), Tim Furnish’s Holiest Wars and J-P Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam brought it to wider scholarly attention — while Landes’ own encyclopedic Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience gives a wide-angle view of the field in extraordinary detail.

I’d say we’ve gone from brushing off apocalyptic as a superstitious irrelevance to an awareness that apocalyptic features strongly in Islamist narratives, both Shia and Sunni, over the past decade, but still tend to underestimate its significance within contemporary movements within American Christianity. When Harold Camping proclaimed the end of the world in 2011, he spent circa $100 million worldwide on warning ads, and reports suggest that hundreds of Hmong tribespeople in Vietnam lost their lives in clashes with the police after moving en masse to a mountain to await the rapture. Apocalyptic movements can have significant impact — cf. the Taiping Rebellion in China, which left 20 million or so dead in its wake.

Read the rest here.

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Mostly it’s religion, now and then it’s sports

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- beheadings and the questions they raise ]
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Tim Furnish, friend of this blog, had a piece titled Beheading in the Name of Islam in the Middle East Quarterly back in 2005, in which he wrote:

The February 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, true to its intention, horrified the Western audience. Chechen rebels, egged on by Islamist benefactors, had adopted the practice four years earlier, but the absence of widely broadcast videos limited the psychological impact of hostage decapitation. The Pearl murder and video catalyzed the resurgence of this historical Islamic practice. In Iraq, terrorists filmed the beheadings of Americans Nicholas Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong. Other victims include Turks, an Egyptian, a Korean, Bulgarians, a British businessman, and a Nepalese. Scores of Iraqis, both Kurds and Arabs, have also fallen victim to Islamist terrorists’ knives. The new fad in terrorist brutality has extended to Saudi Arabia where Islamist terrorists murdered American businessman Paul Johnson, whose head was later discovered in a freezer in an Al-Qaeda hideout.

For myself, convinced as I am that perceived, preached or proclaimed divine endorsement for such killings plays a major role in facilitating them, the existence of what are overtly at least non-religious examples of the same brutal behavior are valuable, albeit humanly distressing, for the questions they raise:

  • is the brutal behavior in question a bestial aspect of human nature in general, and religion merely a thin veneer with which it sometimes conveniently clothes itself?
  • or are sports in some way alternative modalities of group transcendence — and thus effectively religious in their essence?
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    Bryan Alexander, another friend, comments today on a related story at his gothic-themed blog, Infocult, under the heading When sports fans attack, Russian remix.

    DoubleQuote Sources:

  • Seventeen Afghan partygoers beheaded
  • Brazilian referee beheaded
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    Dateline, June 5th 2012

    Monday, June 10th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- screengrabs from a very recently posted video, mostly Taliban with just a smidgeon of NSA ]

    [edited to add: please see warning in comment below]
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    Scary, hunh? Yeah?

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    No, this is not from a NSA / Prism video — I’ll have just a little more on that topic later.

    Nor is it from your local mafiosi

    In fact, it’s from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

    i.e the Afghan Taliban.

    And it’s addressed to Saakashvili and the people of Georgia (FSU), telling them:

    and:

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    What interests me here is this: I tend to think of the Islamic Emirate as mainly Afghanistan-centric, so viewing this video I wondered whether they’ve announced similar intent to raid or attack other nations. Alex Strick van Linschoten responded to my query as to whether he’d seen this sort of message before:

    He also pointed me to his book, An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, where (p. 277 in my uncorrected proof) we read:

    It was around this time that Dadullah started to make increasingly strident statements of support for a global jihad, one in which attacks in Europe and the United States were not to be ruled out.101 Dadullah was, in contrast to most other Talibs of his generation, a ‘true believer’ in this rhetoric. Some commentators have suggested this is pathological, but a possible explanation can be found in the time he spent with foreign jihadis both on the northern fronts during the 1990s as well as post-2001, when he was in South Waziristan. He was frequently used as a go-between for the Taliban in Pakistan and retained ties to the foreign al-Qaeda affiliates as well.

    So this kind of thing is not entirely unknown, and indeed “revenge” strikes outside Afghan territory would fit the model Dadullah himself proposed for strikes within Afghanistan (pp. 273-73):

    Our tactics now are hit and run; we attack certain locations, kill the enemies of Allah there, and retreat to safe bases in the mountains to preserve our mujahidin. This tactic disrupts and weakens the enemies of Allah and in the same time allows us to be on the offensive. We decide the time and place of our attacks; in this way the enemy is always guessing.

    Mullah Dadullah died in 2007, but it seems his thinking still exerts some influence…

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    And NSA — or Nonesuch as I was taught to call it, back in the day?

    I stand by the idea I tweeted to JM Berger yesterday:

    I’d only add that three days doesn’t seem long enough in this case, and that when the dust settles we may still find ourselves holding just a few loose ends of a multiply-tangled web…

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    I am not Kafka. But..

    Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

    [by Charles Cameron -- a very preliminary salute to James Bennett and Michael Lotus' new book, with blues harp to match ]
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    Okay, I’m a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, a jackdaw, not the most consistent of readers — but I did stumble upon something…

    I’ll admit, I cannot even see how “the actual time and materials cost of the hammer might be $60 a hammer” when its “functional equivalent might cost $20 in a hardware store” — but let’s overlook that 200% markup for a moment, and chew on the rest of this dazzling paragraph from James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus, America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century — Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come, pp. 266-67:

    The Department of Defense requires that the labor time and materials used in building defense items on a “time and materials” basis, which is the great majority of all such items, be documented in excruciating detail. The costs of doing this are themselves allowed as expenses, so that the government ultimately pays for the costs of this proof. Therefore, when lurid accounts of $600 hammers procured by the Pentagon surface in the press, what is actually happening is a hammer whose functional equivalent might cost $20 in a hardware store is purchased in the Pentagon system, the actual time and materials cost of the hammer might be $60, with an additional $540 in documentation costs to ensure that the government is not being over¬charged for the item.

    I admit, I am not Kafka.

    But if that isn’t a snake biting its own tail arrangement, I don’t know what is.

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    What can I say?

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    Interesting, btw — I’ll bet there’s a story behind the decision to switch book covers from the one proposed earlier (at the top of the post, left) to the one the book now carries (right)!

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