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Phineas Priesthood 2: The Tanakh

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — continuing exploration of the Phineas story as it leads to the recent Larry McQuilliams incident among others ]
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pinchas
Phineas vs Zimri & Cozbi
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I

Paradise is depicted in many traditions as a garden — indeed the very word “paradise” (pardes) means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew. It is a place where the divine presence “walks with man in the cool of the day” — glorious phrase — a green and fruitful garden, rich in beauty and tranquility, where the purity of love is unsullied by despair or hatred.

In our scriptures, myths and rituals, we give expression to all that is noblest and most generous in our nature: the “peace that passeth all understanding” manages somehow to cross the great Cartesian divide between mind and body, promising us both inner peace of mind, and external relief from war and strife.

All is not well in this garden, however. Along with the refreshing breezes and the sounds of voices lifted in praise, our scriptures and religions also offer us reasons for killing and warfare, divinely sanctioned injunctions to the sword as well as to peace. One of the recorded sayings of Muhammad teaches that Paradise is found under the shade of swords.

Christ, too, is reported to have said he “came not to bring peace, but a sword”.

Like a perennial landmine in paradise garden, the story of Phineas (also spelled Phinehas or Pinchas) lies await in the Tanakh / Old Testament for some reader to take a wrong step and explode it once again.

Introducing this series in Phineas Priesthood I: Larry McQuilliams, I said:

Since I shall be discussing how the tale of Phineas / Pinchas / Phinehas has been used as offering divine scriptural sanction for acts of religiously-motivated killing, I shall chiefly focus on the negative implications of the tale .. Accordingly, I’d like to invite my friends in the Jewish and Christian scholarly communities, in particular, to assist me in the comments section by suggesting alternative ways of reading a story which in its most literal interpretation has been the cause of untimely and hateful deaths

That goes for the series as a whole. In later posts in this series I shall follow the trail of Phineas (the lone wolf) and touch on the Maccabees and Zealots (his “group” equivalents), first in the ancient world, and then more recently.

II

The story of Phineas is told in the book of Numbers / Bamidbar, chapter 25:

While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord.

In all likelihood, I must have heard this passage read aloud at least once before the age of eighteen in the chapels of the British boarding schools I attended — yet I have no vivid childhood memory of a God who encourages mass hangings out in the open air. The God of my childhood and schooling was caring, loving, far-seeing (which I understood to be one of those divine omni-attributes, thus distinguishing him from my parents or teachers), and wise.

Thinking back on my time as a choir-boy, I imagine those sonorous phrases about the anger of the Lord, delivered in the splendid prose of the King James Version, must have rolled right over me, like Alan Bennett‘s reading of the text, “My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man” in his sermon in the satirical revue, On the Fringe — something along these lines:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” Here endeth the first lesson. Let us now sing Hymn five hundred and eighty seven, All Things Bright and Beatuiful.

God, however, has not finished with the Baal of Peor and those who worship it. But whereas in these first verses he had commanded Moses and the Judges of Israel to string some of his own chosen people up in the sun, the next episode describes an independent action taken by someone who knows His divine anger, knows His wishes, and does not need a direct command nor any official permission or sanction to act on that knowledge:

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

That’s a fairly graphic description of a double murder, particularly when one considers that the phrase “pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body” is generally taken to mean that Phinehas caught the pair of them in flagrante and speared them through their conjoined offending parts.

God, who according to other passages in scripture is Love, is distinctly pleased by this turn of events:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, `Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

Killing is killing, however, and it is only fitting that we should know the names of the victims. Our text continues:

The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, head of a fathers’ house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian.

Cozbi and Zimri: their names have not perished from memory.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Harass the Midianites, and smite them; for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

From a counter-terrorist perspective, this is the incipit — chapter one in the still unfolding history of religio-political violence, and our first instance of the “lone wolf” operative.

III

As Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee notes in his article, Extremism and Zealotry: The Case of Pinchas, the story certainly appears to offer some sanction for religious violence.

At initial glance, this text appears to validate extremist ideology and behavior. An Israelite male and a Midianite female are engaged in publicly lewd behavior. God is angry and sends a plague. Moses appears to be incapacitated, possibly on account to his own marriage to a Midianite woman. So Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, decides to act on his own, grabs a spear, kills the offending couple, and the plague is stopped. Subsequently, God confers his “covenant of peace” upon Pinchas as a reward for his “zealotry.” Latter-day zealots in fact have modeled themselves upon the case of Pinchas.

In writing these posts, I take the story of Phineas as emblematic of all the apparent sanctions for religious violence (the “landmines in the garden” of my title) buried in the world’s scriptures, rituals, histories and hagiographies. But the issue is not restricted to Judaism alone, or Judaism and Christianity, or indeed the three Abrahamic religions. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita gives sanction to Arjuna‘s battlefield violence, and even Buddhism has a prophecy of a righteous war between the Buddhists and Islam in the very same Kalachakra Tantra that HH the Dalai Lama teaches — though in that case, the violence is envisioned as taking place centuries hence.

IV

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its place within the scriptures of two great religions, this story of Phineas, Cozbi and Zimri echoes down the centuries.

It is first retold in Psalm 106, and again, I probably sang these words to the glorious four-part harmonies of the English choral tradition (at the 6.27 mark in this Guildford Cathedral rendition) in my childhood:

Then stood up Phinees and prayed * and so the plague ceased.
And that was counted unto him for righteousness * among all posterities for evermore.

This might seem to add nothing to the account in Numbers, but in fact a subtle shift is already taking place. As Bayme puts it, the Psalmist “quietly transformed the word for Pinchas’s zeal into one connoting prayer.”

It is often the case that the normative teachings of a great religion strongly promote peace and are at pains to offer alternative interpretations of such passages as the Phineas story, while individuals or extreme groups within them still refer to these “landmine” passages for religious sanction.

**

In the next section of this post I shall follow the trail of Phineas / Pinchas through the deutero-canonical Books of the Maccabees, in New Testamental, Talmudic and Patristic writings, and perhaps up through Milton and Brigham Young.

A final post will deal with Hoskin‘s book Vigilantes of Christendom, its tie in with Louis Beam‘s theory of “leaderless resistance” and related events of the last half-century or so — and the happily failed attempt at a massacre in Austin these last few days.

I have a lot of work before me, as well as much already written: I look forward to your pointers, corrections and support.

Jottings 11: self-immolators and suicide bombers?

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on some aspects of religiously motivated suicide, and I’m not clear why I called this one a jotting, since it’s quite long and detailed ]
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I have been taking a couple of online courses on terrorism in recent months, and in one of them I ran across a Foreign Policy article titled Ultimate Sacrifice: What’s the difference between self-immolators and suicide bombers?

… there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan region

It’s an intriguing question, phrased by one of my fellow students as the question, “Can Tibetan Self-immolators be considered “terrorists”?

**

I did my “due diligence” research, and came up with some articles worth reading:

  • Tenzin Tharchen, 125 Self-Immonlations: why suicide by fire protests continue in Tibet
  • Tsering Shakya, Self-Immolation, the Changing Language of Protest in Tibet
  • Martin Kovan, Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism
  • while my interlocutor offered this one:

  • Jose Cabezon, On The Ethics Of The Tibetan Self-Immolations
  • But you know, the mind has indirect back-channels as well as direct information freeways, and the question seems to have been percolating while I’ve been asleep.

    **

    Sonam Wangyal, Lama Sobha, was the first Tibetan lama to self-immolate, and left a cassette tape in which he explained his motives:

    I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them — each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts — to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

    The full text of Lama Sobha’s message can be found at the bottom of an International Campaign for Tibet page titled Harrowing images and last message from Tibet of first lama to self-immolate — the “harrowing images” themselves are linked to, but not shown.

    **

    The Chinese come close to targeting Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists, using the terms “Splittist”– so often also used of the Dalai Lama — and calling their actions “intentional homicide”. This from the “>Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Tibet:

    Nonetheless, the response by the Chinese authorities to self-immolations by Tibetans has been extremely draconian, largely because of an assumption that all protest by Tibetans must be intrinsically “splittist” (that is, secessionist). In particular, it has involved the formulation of new laws that seem to target Tibetans specifically, and the imposition of collective punishments, and the application of the crime of “intentional homicide” to all those aiding, abetting, encouraging or even photographing self-immolations.

    **

    It occurs to me that sacrificing oneself for the benefit of other beings is symbolically enacted in the Tibetan Chöd ritual, in which one symbolically feeds the parts of one’s body to the pretas or hungry demons to satiate them and put them to sleep — and also in some of the Jataka Tales of the previous rebirths of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

    I’m thinking particularly of The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress, and will quote here from Edward Conze‘s telling in Buddhist Scriptures, pp 24-26. On being told that self-sacrifice is difficult, Mahasattva (the future Buddha) replies:

    It is difficult for people like us, who are so fond of our lives and bodies, and who have so little intelligence. It is not difficult at all, however, for others, who are true men, intent on benefitting their fellow-creatures, and who long to sacrifice themselves. Holy men are born of pity and compassion. Whatever the bodies they may get, in heaven or on earth, a hundred times will they undo them, joyful in their hearts, so that the lives of others may be saved.

    His prayer before offering his own body and blood to feed an ailing tigress and her cubs is:

    For the weal of the world I wish to win enlightenment, incomparably wonderful. From deep compassion I now give away my body, so hard to quit, unshaken in my mind. That enlightenment I shall now gain, in which nothing hurts and nothing harms.

    Assuming the Jataka tales made it to Tibet, this one might be a potent influence on potential self-immolators.

    **

    A possible Tamil “comparable” — presumably Hindu rather than Buddhist, culturally if not religiously:

    When young Murugathasan Varnakulasingham (aged 26) committed self-immolation in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 he was protesting against international failures of intervention in the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in northern Sri Lanka, where he believed that large bodies of Tamil people faced extinction by the Sri Lankan government. “The flames over my body will be a torch to guide you through the liberation path,” he wrote in his parting letter.

    There have been a few other protest suicides by Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia, but Varnakulasingham’s altruistic act probably garnered the most attention.

    **

    Further thoughts:

    There’s always Samson, pulling down the pillars that upheld the roof of their temple on the Philistines, once he’d regrown his hair and strength…

    Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand. And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us. And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars. And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them. Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport. And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

    — Judges 16.23-30 — not quite self-immolation, not quite suicide bombing, but certainly suicidal warfare with a religious motive.

    Okay, When Christians quote John 15.13:

    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

    surely they include in their understanding of that verse, those who throw their bodies on top of grenades to protect their comrades — which would seem in its own way to parallel the teaching of the Jataka Tale.

    **

    Likewise, when Muslims quote the hadith from Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53, in which the Prophet says:

    Narrated Anas bin Malik:

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).”

    and from Sahih Muslim, Chapter 28, Book 020, Number 4626:

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace upon him) said:

    [ … ] By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, if it were not to be too hard upon the Muslims. I would not lag behind any expedition which is going to fight in the cause of Allah. But I do not have abundant means to provide them (the Mujahids) with riding beasts, nor have they (i.e. all of them) abundant means (to provide themselves with all the means of Jihad) so that they could he left behind. By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, I love to fight in the way of Allah and be killed, to fight and again be killed and to fight again and be killed.

    — how close are we to Nathan Hale:

    I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country

    — and behind that, to Joseph Addison:

    What a pity it is
    That we can die but once to serve our country.

    — that’s from Addison’s now obscure play, Cato, a Tragedy, Act IV, Scene 4

    **

    Of course, the way to stop self-immolations in Tibet is simple — put up a notice:

    See also New document sheds light on China’s campaign against self-immolations in Tibet

    Monk Wirathu’s 969 quotes the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra

    Sunday, October 27th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — a Buddhist instance of the widespread use of sacred texts as offering sanction for religious violence, with Muslims depicted as the enemy on this occasion ]
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    Three dimensional Kalachakra mandala by Arjia Rinpoche, photo credit kalachakranet.org

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    I have commented a couple of times on texts from the Kalachakra Tantra literature about a future war between Buddhism and Islam, first in In a time of Religious Arousal and later more fully in Apocalypse Not Yet? — and today I ran across a reference to the same texts on the web page of the 969 movement in Myanmar.

    969 is the monk-led Buddhist movement which has been rioting recently against the Rohingya Muslims, and the monks concerned are Therevadins. The Kalachakra Tantra is the empowerment HH the Dalai Lama gives in the cause of peace, and the tantras are Vajrayana teachings. I think this para from the current Wikipedia article on Buddhism gives the relevant distinctions in a non-contentious form:

    Two major branches of Buddhism are generally recognized: Theravada (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”). Theravada has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar etc.). Mahayana is found throughout East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan etc.) and includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon, and Tiantai (Tendai). In some classifications, Vajrayana — practiced mainly in Tibet and Mongolia, and adjacent parts of China and Russia — is recognized as a third branch, while others classify it as a part of Mahayana.

    I won’t go into the theological, philosophical and ritual differences, which are considerable, complex — and somewhat contested.

    **

    To refresh your memory of the relevant details regarding the Kalachakra’s treatment of “holy war”, here are my key paragraphs on the topic from Apocalypse Not Yet?:

    Alexander Berzin has been tutored by HH the Dalai Lama and HHDLs own tutors on the interpretation of the Kalachakra Tantra, and served for some years as HHDL’s translator when HHDL was giving the Kalachakra initiation: indeed his book on the Kalachakra initiation carries a Foreword by HHDL.  His writings are thus among the most scholarly and trustworthy available in the western world on the topic of the initiation which the Dalai Lama will impart for world peace again this July.

    Berzin’s words introducing the topic of Holy Wars in relation to the Kalachakra, Buddhism and Islam, are therefore important:

    Often, when people think of the Muslim concept of jihad or holy war, they associate with it the negative connotation of a self-righteous campaign of vengeful destruction in the name of God to convert others by force. They may acknowledge that Christianity had an equivalent with the Crusades, but do not usually view Buddhism as having anything similar. After all, they say, Buddhism is a religion of peace and does not have the technical term holy war.

    A careful examination of the Buddhist texts, however, particularly The Kalachakra Tantra literature, reveals both external and internal levels of battle that could easily be called “holy wars.” An unbiased study of Islam reveals the same. In both religions, leaders may exploit the external dimensions of holy war for political, economic, or personal gain, by using it to rouse their troops to battle. Historical examples regarding Islam are well known; but one must not be rosy-eyed about Buddhism and think that it has been immune to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, in both religions, the main emphasis is on the internal spiritual battle against one’s own ignorance and destructive ways.

    Specifically, he writes:

    In The Abridged Kalachakra Tantra, Manjushri Yashas explains that the fight with the non-Indic people of Mecca is not an actual war, since the real battle is within the body. The fifteenth-century CE Gelug commentator Kaydrubjey elaborates that Manjushri Yashas’s words do not suggest an actual campaign to kill the followers of the non-Indic religion. The First Kalki’s intention in describing the details of the war was to provide a metaphor for the inner battle…

    **

    That, then, is the context — “the fight with the non-Indic people of Mecca is not an actual war” but a metaphorical one. Here, by contrast, is the interpretation given to the same text by the 969 movement in an article titled Kalachakra Tantra and 969, posted on their website two months ago (Sept 1st, 2013):

    The Kalachakra is a Tibetan Buddhist doctrine on the cycles of time. In addition to being a text, meditation practice, and initiation ritual, Kalachakra is a prophecy for the victory of the Buddhist religion in a war with Islam.

    Beginning in 712AD and continuing through 1030AD, India was subject to massive annual invasions from Muslims who eventually conquered and destroyed much of the cultural heritage of India. In a final desperate act to annihilate Buddhism, in 1193, Nalanda University which was home to the greatest center of learnings in the East was destroyed, with thousands of monks beheaded. The destruction of the temples, monasteries, centres of learning at Nalanda and northern India to be responsible for the demise of ancient Indian scientific thought in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and anatomy. Much of what modern scholarship of Buddhist studies puzzles over today was contained in the manuscripts and minds of those who were lost during this calamity. However as the Kalachakra Tantra shows, the war between Dhamma and Islam is not over, nor is it. The prophecy includes detailed descriptions of the future invaders as well as suggested ways for the Buddhist teachings to survive these onslaughts.

    The Dalai Lama has stated that the public exposition of this tantra is necessary in the current degenerate age. The initiation may be received simply as a blessing for the majority of those attending, however, many of the more qualified attendees do take the commitments and subsequently engage in the practice.

    In a phrase, “Kalachakra is a prophecy for the victory of the Buddhist religion in a war with Islam”.

    That’s the opening of the article, clearly identifying the Kalachakra as a text about Buddhism vs Islam. There follows a curious incomplete sentence:

    We must be diligent in reminding the

    I’d love to know what the author wanted to remind us of, and what the rest of that paragraph — or group of paras? — had to say about the Kalachakra, but the rest of the text as printed is no longer talking about warfare, but explaining some basic notions in Buddhism:

    It is important to notice what Alexander Berzin wrote how “Karmic potentials, in fact, give rise to a broad array of impulses that affect our lives. Collective karmic potentials from previous actions of a huge number of beings – including ourselves – give rise, for example, to the impulse for a universe to evolve with specific environments and life forms into which we and these beings subsequently take rebirth.” Collective karma can be seen as the actions that have generated us in our present bodies, from the decisions of our parents, ancestors, and peers that gives us the appearance of our lives (Janaka kamma or the kamma that determines birth). We are all recipients of karma beyond our control. Put in another way, our DNA contains a vast storehouse of kamma.

    This sad state of affairs is where the Kalachakra initiation takes its cue. By harnessing ritual and intention, the Kalachakra initiation at its highest level bestows a daily practice for awakening that an army of practioners around the world are also engaging in. This collective kamma has the subtle effect of making the conditions of purifying bad kamma’s and unwholesome dhamma’s into virtuous ones.

    Ultimately we feel this will have the eventual effect of producing a Dhamma centered world based on the natural laws of mind that the founders of the 969 Movement are striving to achieve.

    Whether or not warfare, as suggested in the first section of the article, is compatible with Buddhism, as expressed in the second, is a matter for Buddhist theological debate — as is the nature of “war” as envisioned in the Kalachakra itself.

    My own purpose in making this post is to point out that the 969 movement, led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, is now quoting a prophecy of war against Islam, found in the Kalachakra literature, which in turn is taught as a instrument of peace by HH the Dalai Lama. To my ears, that sets up a howl of cognitive dissonance.

    Myanmar between Woolwich and Al-Aqsa 1: interfaith hatred

    Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — in which jihadis take on Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, quite an interfaith haul for hatred ]
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    Aaron Zelin at Jihadology posted an hour-long video entitled Woolwich Attack a week or so ago, and I found it particularly interesting on two accounts: first, that it makes a multi-faith attack that includes Buddhism in its catalogue of enemies of Islam, and second, that it uses an innovative feature of modern digital typography. Here, I’ll concentrate on the first. Here’s the video’s title:

    **

    Christianity as a target is well represented in the form of Dr Justin Welby, the recently-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury:

    Notice also the lower of these two screengrabs, this one showing Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) berating a leading Muslim spokesman in the UK, Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain (right), for speaking at the same event as the Archbishop. The damning subtitle suggests he’s one of those “who issue Fatwas according to the school of thought of the head of the Church of England”.

    **

    It wasn’t the attack on Christians or fellow Muslims that caught my eye, though, but the unexpected presence of the monk Wirathu, the rhetorical leader of Myanmar’s recent Buddhist rioting against Burmese Muslims. I’d seen his face on Time magazine and elsewhere, but it came as a bit of a shock here in a jihadist video — I’d filed him and his 969 movement under “Buddhism” rather than “Islam” in my mental listing of violent movements with religious underpinnings.

    Ugly, ugly.

    **

    Finally, no invitation to jihad these days is complete without its mention of the al-Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem — and it is here that Judaism comes in for attack. Consider these two screengrabs:

    **

    The video closes, significantly, with a long shot of the Dome of the Rock through a window…

    Yesterday my friend William Benzon made a post titled On Describing a Painting which began:

    Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts bills her article thus: The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention. OK. But I take a different lesson from it, one about one of my current hobby horses: description. Roberts focuses on an 18th Century painting by John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel. Her point is that the more you look at the painting, the more you notice and hence the more you can note in a written description. She asks her students to spend a full three hours with a single painting.

    Of her own experience with that painting she observes:

    It took me nine minutes to notice that the shape of the boy’s ear precisely echoes that of the ruff along the squirrel’s belly—and that Copley was making some kind of connection between the animal and the human body and the sensory capacities of each. It was 21 minutes before I registered the fact that the fingers holding the chain exactly span the diameter of the water glass beneath them. It took a good 45 minutes before I realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain are actually perfect copies of the shapes of the boy’s ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs distributing or imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on.

    She begins her next paragraph: “What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it.”

    Looking at that final screengrab with this in mind, I see a close correlation between the golden Dome that focuses our attention on the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount, and the round, yellow-gold keffiyeh of the jihadist observing it through his window — “making some kind of connection between” them, to echo the words of Harvard’s Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities…

    It’s a skilled and meaning-filled use of the medium.

    **

    In my second post in this series, I’ll point to a significant development in graphics and technology introduced in this video.

    Rant Day, twelve years and two days on

    Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

    [defrosted by Lynn C. Rees]

    Eleven years ago, on September 9, 2001, the Web rudely informed me that Ahmed Shah Masood had been assassinated.

    I was annoyed.

    I hated the Taliban. To me, they were the enemy of all mankind. My hate didn’t single them out just for their Third World thuggishness, their seventh century flavored oppression, or their harboring of a declared enemy of my country. No, my hate singled them out for blowing up a few statues that had stood for 1,500 years.

    For 1,000 of those years, Islam lived alongside the Buddhas of Bamiyan. During that time, weather, entropy, and sporadic iconoclastic enthusiasm had heavily damaged the Buddhas. But, until March 2001, they still stood, as they had stood for one millennium and a half.

    Then the Taliban came. They were different. They had the iconoclast ends of March 622 and the means of March 2001 to carry them out. Dynamite, artillery, and rocketry let the Taliban do in three weeks what history had failed to do in fifteen centuries.

    History is fragile. What survives down to us is idiosyncratic. We inherit only a few suggestive piles of rubble from the past. From this debris, numberless castles of the imagination have been conjured. One very insistent ghost of conjured history drove the Taliban to destroy the statues: an idealized vision of the community created by Muhammad in Medina and then Mecca from the hegira in 622 to his death in 632. From an antiseptic remove far from the compromised Islam of March 2001, this phantom umma looked down on the Taliban from the heights of 15 centuries and commanded them to erase the Buddhas of Bamiyan from history. The phantom umma promised that, as each piece of shattered idol fell away, the sacralized community of the Prophet would draw nearer and nearer.

    And so the Buddhas of Bamiyan fell.

    Since history consumes itself anyway, I oppose those who feel that history needs help swallowing. Human meddling in what survives and what doesn’t is unneeded: accident and negligence will always chew up more history than intention can aspire to. But the Taliban insisted on speeding the work of history along. Furthermore, they figured that they could not only speed it up but make it flip 180° and make it run backwards. And so they declared war on history.

    To me, this made the Taliban barbarians. To me, they deserved to be removed from history themselves. The only man who seemed to be actively helping the Taliban out of history was Massood. And now Massood had gone to Allah, assisted by these same barbarians.

    Downstairs I went. I ranted in the kitchen about the tragedy of Ahmed Shah Massood and his death to Mom and the occasional passing sibling. They didn’t know who Ahmed Shah Massood was. They didn’t know where Afghanistan was. To them, it was a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom they knew nothing. Massood of Afghanistan might as well have been the Massood in the Moon, fighting to keep one small grubby corner of the lunar surface Space Taliban-free.

    Mom patiently listened as dinner was set. Over the years, she’d grown used to my ranting on and on about this or that distant obscurity. She knew that, with time, I’d fulminate my way out of my momentary idée fixe and go back to quietly tending my garden of trivia. The world would go on. Normalcy would flow unvexed to the future.

    She was right. Rant mode ran out of steam. I ate dinner. I went back to my lair where my books and my computers would protect me. The sun set on September 9th, 2001. I went to sleep.

    Two Buddha statues and the Lion of Panjshir would be only be the first to fall. Unseen in the gathering dark, history, with brutal intent, blatantly ignoring its own death in 1989, crept up the East Coast to be reborn.


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