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After IS, what next? — the missing (apocalyptic) strand

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — four recent tweets, some lines of inquiry, & no certain conclusion, no date certain ]
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The four recent tweets that set me off..

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There are a multitude of voices now raising the question After ISIS< What Next? They can be heard from as far back as October 2014, onwards:

  • Al Arabiya English, What comes after ISIS’ defeat?
  • Foreign Policy, What Comes After the Islamic State Is Defeated?
  • Lexington Institute, What Do We Do The Day After ISIS Is Defeated?
  • The National Interest, We Defeat ISIS. Then What?
  • The Telegraph, What happens once Isil is defeated?
  • Wilson Center, Iraq: Now and After ISIS
  • The [Huffington] World Post, The Middle East after ISIS
  • and most recently:

  • The Atlantic, The Hell After ISIS
  • If IS continues losing territory, as suggested in the tweets above, this question can only gain in force.

    **

    I have been following Islamic eschatology since 1998 or thereabouts, when I met David Cook, and I thought that what was at that time an eerily unappreciated question had at last made its way into informed consciousness after..

  • 2002, David Cook, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic
  • 2005, David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature
  • 2011, J-P Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam
  • 2014, Martin Dempsey, speech: IS has “an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision”
  • 2015, Jessica Stern & JM Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror
  • 2015, Graeme Wood, What ISIS Really Wants
  • 2015, Will McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse
  • But no, the question I’m interested in has not been raised:

    Is there a more potent form of apocalyptic movement than the two we have most recently seen?

  • a Mahdist movement, one focused on the army with black flags from Khorasan — AQ
  • a Caliphal movement, one focused on the establishment of the rightly-guided kingdom — IS
  • **

    Four hints:

    It seems to me that you can have a Caliphal (kingdom based), or a Mahdist (leader based) movement, and that the Caliphal approach, should IS be a clear failure as a global quasi-state, will be exhausted for quite some time — and that since AQ, to the extent that it is or was an apocalyptic movement, was one that looked to a future Mahdi, the only route “up” from either one would be the declaration of an actual Mahdi-claimant with armed insurrection to follow.

  • The worst messianic movement, in terms of fatalities, would still be China’s 19th Century Taiping Rebellion, 20-30 million dead. Strangely enough, Gordon of Khartoum was involved.

  • The most recent and widely notable Mahdist rebellion was the Sudanese one that killed Gordon, led initially by Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi.

  • The next highly plausible date for the appearance of a Mahdi would be at the start of the next Islamic century, 1500 AH / 2076 BCE, since ahadith suggest a Mujaddid or Reformer will be sent every 100 years, and there have been assertions that the Ummah will not endure longer than 1,500 years (see here eg)
  • My guess is that we’ll have a cooling-off period in terms of Islamic apocalyptic if IS is seen to fail — but as they say, mortal mind cannot know the time of the end, and Allah knows best.

    The reversal of Maugham’s Samarra

    Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — how British and American literature, a Talmudic tale and a Sufi teaching story conspire — twice — to illuminate current events in Iraq and Syria ]
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    Let’s start with Somerset Maugham‘s telling of the Appointment in Samarra, which John O’Hara borrowed as the epigraph of his novel by that name:

    The speaker is Death

    There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

    **

    Here’s the version of the same story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 53a:

    R. Yohanan stated: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted. There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon (I Kings 4:3). One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was distressed. He asked him: Why are you distressed? He responded: They have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here. [Solomon] gave them over to the demons and sent them to the district of Luz. When they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was smiling He said to him: Why are you smiling? He responded: To the place where they expected them from me, there did you send them!’ Solomon immediately began to say: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted.

    **

    In February 2014 in the US Jewish magazine Forward, writer JJ Goldberg made fine use of this tale, applying it to a then-contemporary news event in his piece, Lesson of the Talmud in an Iraq School Suicide Bombing:

    School massacres have become so commonplace that they scarcely shock us anymore. And yet, occasionally mayhem invades the sanctity of the classroom in a way that can still puncture our complacency. At these moments we’re reminded how fragile is this thing we call civilization. Such was the case February 10 in a rural schoolroom outside Samarra in north-central Iraq, where a terrorism instructor teaching a class in suicide bombing accidentally detonated a live explosive belt. Twenty-one students died along with their teacher. It happened in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Sunni terrorist group that was recently expelled from Al Qaeda for, of all things, its excessively brutal extremism in the Syrian civil war. [ .. ]

    The location of the suicide school in Samarra has layers of poetic resonance, probably unintended by ISIS. Though predominantly Sunni, the city is revered by Shi’ites as the place where the last caliphs are buried and the Mahdi disappeared. Its name resonates in medieval Islamic lore with mysteries of suicide and predestined death, echoed in modern Anglo-American literature and linked to Talmudic legend.

    After discussing the Talmudic and Maugham versions, Goldberg concludes:

    Thus, the lesson of Samarra. In Arabic lore, we’re drawn helpless to our predestined deaths. In the Talmud, it’s kings who dispatch us with the best intentions to what they assume will be a cakewalk, but it’s we — or, per the Talmud, the king’s black soldiers — who do the dying.

    **

    The Afghan Sufi writer Idries Shah tells the story in his brilliant little book Tales of the Dervishes, under the title When Death Came to Baghdad:

    The disciple of a Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said he realized that one of them was the Angel of Death.

    “I have several calls to make in this city during the next three weeks,” the Angel was saying to his companion.

    Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he should not be touched. From this reasoning it was but a short step to hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day towards the distant town of Samarkand.

    Meanwhile Death met the Sufi teacher and they talked about various people. “And where is your disciple so-and-so?” asked Death.

    “He should be somewhere in this city, spending his time in contemplation, perhaps in a caravanserai,” said the teacher.

    “Surprising,” said the Angel; “because he is on my list. Yes, here it is: I have to collect him in four weeks’ time at Samarkand, of all places.”

    Shah attributes his telling thus:

    This treatment of the Story of Death is taken from Hikayat-iNaqshia (Tales formed according to a design’).

    The author of this story, which is a very favourite folklore story in the Middle East, was the great Sufi Fudail ibn Ayad, a former highwayman, who died in the early part of the ninth century.

    **

    All of which brings me to this Kurdish news story published yesterday, ISIS captive begs Peshmerga to kill him for 4 o’clock appointment

    DUHOK, Kurdistan Region — An Islamic State (ISIS) militant caught in fighting near Mosul last week begged his Peshmerga captors to shoot him dead on the spot so he could reach paradise the same day, a frontline Kurdish soldier said.

    “The militant’s own suicide vest had failed to explode but he had sustained injuries from his friends’ vest explosions,” Peshmerga Captain Salim Surchi of the Spilk base told Rudaw. “He kept saying, ‘kill me, you infidels kill me.’” Cpt. Surchi said the militant was captured by the Peshmerga during last week’s fighting in the Christian town of Tel Skof, 28km north of Mosul. The militant was eager to be killed on the spot because it was a holy Islamic day known as Isra an Mi’raj, the day that marks Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven as mentioned in the Koran. [ .. ]

    Cpt. Surchi lost three of his close friends that day and had others wounded, he said, but he still rushed to help a wounded ISIS militant to save his life. “I was filming the dead ISIS with my cell phone when I saw one of them moving his leg and I placed my hands on his chest trying to help him breathe,” the Peshmerga commander said of the moment following the fighting. “He breathed heavily a few times, he was conscious and he could even speak,” he added. Cpt. Surchi said that despite the militant’s pleas to be shot dead, he went ahead and treated his leg wound.

    “When I was treating him I asked, ‘where’re you from?’ and he said, ‘I’m from Samarra and came here for jihad.’ The militant then said, ‘We were 50 suicide bombers altogether and we wanted to be in paradise by 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Cpt. Surchi recounted. [ .. ]

    “The wounded one kept asking us to kill him till the end of the day.”

    Which in turn brings us full circle. In Maugham’s telling, our traveller makes his way to Samarra to avoid death, who finds him there. In yesterday’s version, the jihadist leaves Samarra to meet his death, who refuses, on the night of all nights, to oblige him.

    Do unto yourselves more of what you would do unto others?

    Thursday, April 28th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — IRA kills more Catholics, IS kills more Muslims ]
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    Tablet DQ victims catholic muslim

    **

    Is there anything we can learn from either one of these situations that would shed light on the other? Are there other instances of this pattern? How quickly can we take note of this effect in future, to benefit from that recognition?

    Sources:

  • The Guardian, Catholics main victims of Northern Ireland republican terror groups
  • The Independent, Paris attacks: Isis responsible for more Muslim deaths than western victims
  • Hat-tip: John Horgan

    Brutal violence vs deeply symbolic threat

    Thursday, April 21st, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — two manifestations of the extreme right in Israel ]
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    Tablet DQ Israeli right

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    I don’t think too many people will argue that deliberately burning famiies in their homes is less than brutal. My question to ponder here is how brutal human-on-human violence of that kind is, compared with the symbolic impact of rehearsing a longed-for but long-unpracticed ceremonial, accompanied by prayer that the holy places of another religion may be flattened so that the ceremonial may once again be held in its place of origin.

    The first is clearly a simple act of murder, the second a presumably legal practice-run for the full restoration of Temple sacrifice.

    If I were a Palestinian, I might perhaps be more frightened by the former; as a citizen of the world and as a poet, I find the latter more troubling — as well as considerably more complex.

    Sources:

  • New York Times, Israel Says It Has Uncovered Jewish Extremist Cell in West Bank
  • Jerusalem Post, Hopes for Temple Mount to be ‘flattened’ expressed at Passover sacrifice
  • Yesterday’s learnings in science and religion

    Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — theo-ecology, with a side of spaghetti ]
    .

    First, a Nobel laureate makes a distinction that should be of interest to all who study war — as also to those who “ain’t gonna study war no more”. Lucy Hughes-Hallett begins a New Statesman book review titled Chernobyl and the ghosts of a nuclear past thus:

    “This not a book on Chernobyl,” writes Svetlana Alexievich, “but on the world of Chernobyl.” It is not about what happened on 26 April 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded near the border between Ukraine and Belarus. It is about an epoch that will last, like the radioactive material inside the reactor’s leaking ruin, for tens of thousands of years. Alexievich writes that, before the accident, “War was the yardstick of horror”, but at Chernobyl “the history of dis­asters began”.

    If we are not approaching the Eve of Destruction, nor the Zombie Apocalypse, nor an outbreak of nuclear war or some abominable plague, nor the Islamic Qiyama nor the Christian Armageddon, nor the drowning of our major coastal cities nor rapid heat death of most or all human life on earth, and if we forgo the notions of the anthropocene age, or the impoending singularity, why then the distinction that we have left the age of war (as teh major concern of the human race) and entered the age of disaster may be of interest, taxonomically speaking.

    But I understand that last paragraph contains a vast “if” encompassing a large range of “nors”.

    **

    Okay, getting back to what I hope is the positive side of the ledger while keeping an eye of the negative, A Western Soto Zen Buddhist Statement on the Climate Crisis just came out:

    As Buddhists, our relationship with the earth is ancient. Shakyamuni Buddha, taunted by the demon king Mara under the Bodhi Tree before his enlightenment, remained steady in meditation. He reached down to touch the earth, and the earth responded: “I am your witness.” The earth was partner to the Buddha’s work; she is our partner, as we are hers.

    From the Buddha’s time, our teachers have lived close to nature by choice, stepped lightly and mindfully on the earth, realizing that food, water, medicine, and life itself are gifts of nature.

    The Japanese founders of Soto Zen Buddhism spoke with prophetic clarity about our responsibility to the planet and to all beings. In Bodaisatta Shishobo/The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Dharmas Dogen Zenji, the founder of Japanese Soto Zen, wrote:

    To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons are the activity of dana/giving.

    **

    One particular concern of mine has to do with the impact of global warming on the heartlands of Islam, and Mecca in particular, as mentioned here in an NYT piece titled Deadly Heat Is Forecast in Persian Gulf by 2100:

    The research raises the prospect of “severe consequences” for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that draws roughly two million people to Mecca to pray outdoors from dawn to dusk. Should the hajj, which can occur at various times of the year, fall during summer’s height, “this necessary outdoor Muslim ritual is likely to become hazardous to human health,” the authors predicted.

    Here’s another distinction worth pondering, this one drawn from the same NYT piece, quoting Erich M. Fischer of the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at ETH Zurich:

    Anyone can experience the fact that humidity plays a crucial role in this in the sauna. .. You can heat up a Finnish sauna up to 100 degrees Celsius since it is bone dry and the body efficiently cools down by excessive sweating even at ambient temperatures far higher than the body temperature. In a Turkish bath, on the other hand, with almost 100 percent relative humidity, you want to keep the temperatures well below 40 degrees Celsius since the body cannot get rid of the heat by sweating and starts to accumulate heat.

    **

    Staying with Islam, and parallel to the Zen declaration above, we have this Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Section 2.8 reads:

    In view of these considerations we affirm that our responsibility as Muslims is to act according to the example of the Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings be upon him) who –

  • Declared and protected the rights of all living beings, outlawed the custom of burying infant girls alive, prohibited killing living beings for sport, guided his companions to conserve water even in washing for prayer, forbade the felling of trees in the desert, ordered a man who had taken some nestlings from their nest to return them to their mother, and when he came upon a man who had lit a fire on an anthill, commanded, “Put it out, put it out!”;
  • Established inviolable zones (harams) around Makkah and Al-Madinah, within which native plants may not be felled or cut and wild animals may not be hunted or disturbed;
  • Established protected areas (himas) for the conservation and sustainable use of rangelands, plant cover and wildlife.
  • Lived a frugal life, free of excess, waste, and ostentation; Renewed and recycled his meagre possessions by repairing or giving them away;
  • Ate simple, healthy food, which only occasionally included meat;
  • Took delight in the created world; and
  • Was, in the words of the Qur’an, “a mercy to all beings.”
  • **

    It is curious to find Walid Shoebat, a vigorously anti-Muslim Christian apologeticist, making some of the same points in a piece titled It Is Now Confirmed And Scientists Now Predict That Mecca Will Be Destroyed By Extreme Heat:

    While many will cry “global warming”, it will actually be the sun heating up (Deut 28.23,24) (Zech 14.17). Another form of judgement prophesied by Isaiah appears to be extreme heat – heat severe enough to kill people:

    ‘Therefore … the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left’ (Isa 24.6)

    The book of Revelation appears to speak of the same end time events and predicts extreme weather as part of God’s judgement upon the nations. There will be fierce, scorching heat:

    ‘The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. Men were scorched with fierce heat …’ (Rev 16.8,9)

    The Bible also predicted (as scientists now do) that Mecca will be “uninhabited”: “After her destruction, Babylon [Arabia] will merely be a home for demons, evil spirits, and scavenging desert creatures” (Revelation 18:1-2).

    **

    And finally, on a lighter note — sticking with religion, at least arguably, but definitely moving from science to science fiction, we have this (theological) ruling from a Nebraska federal district court in Cavanaugh v. Bartelt:

    This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise” on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds. 6 See, Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (Dell Publishing 1988) (1963); Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (Putnam Publ’g Grp. 1961). Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

    And may the force be with you — or what’s a metaphor?


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