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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


….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.

Latter-day Saints and latter days

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — nobody knows, tiddley-pom ]

The Mormon church was first legally established in 1830 under the name, the Church of Christ, since Joseph Smith founded it to restore Christianity to its original form as taught by Christ himself. Joseph clearly viewed the church he founded as gathering together the faithful of the last days: in 1834, within his lifetime, the church took on the name Church of the Latter Day Saints, and since the time of Smith’s successor Brigham Young, it has been known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.

Almost two centuries have passed since Joseph felt the Latter Days were upon him and his flock, just as almost two millennia have passed since Christ said (Matthew 16.28):

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

But then again, as Shakespeare observed in The Tempest, his last play: What’s past is prologue.


Fast forward, then, towards September 2015, which is conveniently enough the month in which I am writing this post.

According to Nostradamus, there was presumably a 9.8 magnitude quake in California on May 28 this year. Perhaps the God, or the gods, or the four angels standing on the four corners of the earth holding the four winds of the earth (Revelation 7.1), or the purely physical and no way spiritual forces driving great tectonic plates – or some combination of the above — favored my poor self, randomly, or by virtue of my virtue, or because I write for Zenpundit, but I was not no way shaken.

Just this last week, according to a post yesterday on Patch.com -– a site still reeling from the events of May 28 which it apparently survived — “Mother Nature kept Californians humble as she unleashed a wide range of natural disasters across the state”:

It was an intense week in California as residents endured ruthless fires, a surprise summer deluge, several earthquakes and even waited out a tsunami advisory along the coast following an earthquake in Chile.


Forget about California, then.

According to the possibly-no-longer-published Los Angeles Times dating way back to September 28, 2003, ie before the California disaster, “A massive temblor could strike Salt Lake City tomorrow or a century from now, scientists say”:

The geologists cannot say with certainty when the next devastating earthquake will hit the Wasatch Front. But they say the threat is real and constant, and that a large quake could occur tomorrow or a century from now a span that represents a mere blip in geologic time.

It’s not surprising, then, that as the Salt Lake Tribune reported about a week ago, there are now Some Mormons stocking up amid fears that doomsday could come this month:

Mixing a brew of biblical prophecies, the Hebrew calendar, a volatile economy, world politics, a reported near-death experience and astronomical occurrences, hordes of Utahns have become convinced that calamitous events are imminent — maybe by month’s end — and are taking every precaution.

They are called “preppers” and are buying up food-storage kits, flashlights, blankets and tents. Some are even bracing to leave their homes — if need be.

At American Fork’s Thrive Life, which sells mostly freeze-dried food, sales have shot up by “500 percent or more in the past couple of months,” says customer- service representative Ricardo Aranda. “There is a sense of urgency, like something is up. A lot of people are mentioning things about September, like a financial collapse.”

Ah yes, a financial collapse. It might be a financial collapse that’s due any time now.


And nobody can say they weren’t warned.

You remember that catastrophic 9.8 quake that hit California — according to Nostradamus, according to PlanetXNews but also, eh, according to the UK Sunday Express [“End of the world ‘prophet’ predicts HORROR earthquake to hit America WITHIN HOURS“] on May 28th? Well, according to AOL, that Earthquake that Nostradamus predicted didn’t happen, but okay..

The Deseret News back on April 11th, over a month before that California quake didn’t happen, warned the good people of Utah:

Along the Wasatch Front, most of the more than 2 million Utahns who live here are sleeping, at home in suburban homes or aging apartments, even as thousands of others are working graveyard shifts in hospitals or other businesses.

Then it happens. The world erupts in shaking so violent, those standing are knocked to the ground. Picture frames are hurled from walls, furniture tumbles across rooms, televisions crash down.

The land cracks, shifts and, in some areas, lifts into jagged ledges. Highways fracture. Power lines snap. Water and gas lines sever; fires roar to life. Buildings and homes crumble.

The largest earthquake to hit Utah in modern times has just struck. Its magnitude: 7.0.

Except that didn’t happen either, it was scheduled for an “April Thursday” in a “what if” alternate reality, written to give Utahns a sense of how bad a quake that may indeed occur might be, if and when it does. It was a scenario, and clearly described as such:

Under this scenario, the quake’s epicenter hits Salt Lake County, and it ruptures along the Wasatch Fault, which runs 240 miles halfway through the state, from northern to central Utah. About 80 percent of the state’s soon-to-be 3 million people live and work in the region.

A scenario, a hypothetical.

Only this one wasn’t a model of economic collapse, which can also be a topic for prophecy, modeling, scenario planning, prediction and paranoid fantasy — but of a 7.0 earthquake under Salt Lake City.

Perish the thought of an economic collapse.


Ezekiel 8.13 indicates pretty clearly that earthqukes aee the result of the Lord’s wrath — inn this case, directed against Israel:

For in my jealousy and in the fire of my wrath have I spoken, Surely in that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel;

Isaiah 13.13, likewise:

Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.

And there are many more scriptures along those lines, including specifically Mormon scriptures such as Doctrine & Covenants 87.6:

And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn; and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations;


Salt Lake City, likewise, is known to the divine providence in Latter-day Saints’ history:

George A. Smith, a counselor to President Brigham Young, described how President Young first saw Ensign Peak while seeking divine guidance following the 1844 death of the Prophet Joseph Smith. “After the death of Joseph Smith, when it seemed as if every trouble and calamity had come upon the Saints, Brigham Young, who was President of the Twelve, then the presiding Quorum of the Church, sought the Lord to know what they should do, and where they should lead the people for safety, and while they were fasting and praying daily on this subject, President Young had a vision of Joseph Smith, who showed him the mountain that we now call Ensign Peak, immediately north of Salt Lake City, and there was an ensign fell upon that peak, and Joseph said, ‘Build under the point where the colors fall and you will prosper and have peace.’” Young understood that he was to lead the Church members west and that the peak he saw in vision would be a sign that they had reached their appointed destination.

On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young arrived at an overlook for his first view of the Salt Lake Valley. “While gazing upon the scene, . . . he was enwrapped in vision for several minutes. He had seen the valley before in vision and upon this occasion he saw the future glory of Zion and of Israel, as they would be, planted in the valleys of these mountains. When the vision had passed, he said: ‘It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.’

Or as Jacob much earlier said, as quoted by Sir John Mandeville in his Travels, referencing the Vulgate’s Genesis 28.16:

Vere locus iste sanctus est, et ego nesciebam, which is to say, ‘Surely, this place is holy, and I knew it not.

Mandeville’s memory of the Latin text is a little inaccurate, but he gets the point and offers it to us with admirable brevity.



  • Maimonides, 13 Principles, 12, I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming
  • Matthew 24.36, But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
  • Quran 31.34, Verily the knowledge of the Hour is with Allah (alone)
  • D&C 51.20, Verily, I say unto you, I am Jesus Christ, who cometh quickly, in an hour you think not. Even so. Amen.
  • Patience:

  • R Yochanan ben Zakkai. Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b, If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.
  • On the authority of Anas b Malik, the Prophet said, Musnad Ahmad 12981,, If the Hour arrives and one of you is holding a date palm sapling, then he should go ahead and plant it before getting up from his place if he is able to.
  • Signs in the skies

    Sunday, October 4th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — “And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke” Acts 2.19 illustrated! ]

    It is hope that Zenprophet readers won’t confuse the entirely scientific solar flare of October 1, 2015 (upper panel, below)..

    SPEC DQ sun and moon

    with the religious fourth in a tetrad of Blood Moons on the night of September 27-28, 2015 (lower panel, above) — though either one may cause glitches in your mind or your computer.



  • PhysOrg, SDO sees sun emit mid-level flare Oct. 1
  • YouTube, Pope Francis departs USA on night that ends Tetrad blood moons Breaking News September 27 2015
  • See also:

  • EarthSky, Super Blood Moon eclipse September 27-28
  • Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists

    Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — what color does a chameleon turn in a hall of mirrors? ]



    There’s an interesting ascetic aesthetic in photography which prefers black and white to full spectrum color, but the black and white in question has a rich spectrum of its own, a continuum of shades of grey between black and white poles. Not so with black and white choices of the sort President Bush proposed when he said:

    Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.


    Some of the nuances to consider:

    David Kilcullen on this video at 48.55:

    A lot of families in Afghanistan have one son fighting with the government, and another son fighting with the Taliban. It’s a hedging strategy.


    In Syria, many families face a terrible dilemma

    In recent months I have noticed a trend of some families sending at least one of their children to join ISIL because that was the only way for them to generate an income in the family.


    And then this:

    U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Afghan Allies’ Abuse of Boys

    Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.



    Is the CIA undercounting civilian deaths from drone strikes?

    Determining the number of civilian casualties under such circumstances is a difficult task — even for the human rights groups that devote significant resources to doing so. If the CIA is simply counting zero civilians killed in operations where it can’t say for certain who the agency is even firing at, that doesn’t inspire much confidence in their numbers.
    assumed to be combatants.


    And then there’s the paradox, found even in scripture:

    The Synoptic Gospels attribute the following quote to Jesus of Nazareth: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30), as well as its contrapositive, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50; The Synoptic Gospels attribute the following quote to Jesus of Nazareth: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30), as well as its contrapositive, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50; Mark 9:40)


    As I said at the top of this post —


    Angels considered as an Air Force

    Saturday, September 12th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — when not dancing innumerably on the heads of pins ]

    I responded to a question from David Ronfeldt today by saying I don’t know of a book that offers a “a sustained, point-for-point, systematic, thorough comparison” between earlier Christian and contemporary Islamist religious violence.

    I do share his concern for point-for-point comparisons, however, and this one popped up as I was working on my response to David:

    SPEC angels rank clairvaux

    These two quotes are abstract, indeed metaphysical, I know, and don’t deal with human-on-human violence as such — but the DoubleQuote they form is nevertheless a point-for-point comparison, and the very exactness of its counterpoint gives it the sort of power the best haiku have, I believe, offering us wit in brevity, multum in parvo, small is beautiful.

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