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Happiness in the proximity of faith and death

Monday, August 1st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — the emotional impact of faith, from a nun present at the Normandy attack to a failed suicide bomber in Syria ]
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According to this IB Times article, Tragic last words of Catholic priest killed by Isis terrorists revealed, Sister Helene Decaux, one of the nuns who was present at the killing of Fr Jacques Hamel, reported his last words thus:

Jacques shouted at them, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’ It was then that one of them struck the first blow to his throat.

What caught my attention more forcefully, however, was the following:

Fearing for her life, she added: “Thinking I was going to die, I offered my life to God.” The nun then described how Petitjean and Kermiche had at first been aggressive, but quietened down after they had cut Jacques’ throat. Showing remarkable calm, Helene asked the two terrorists if she could sit down. “I asked for my cane, he gave it to me,” she said. One of the attackers asked: “Are you afraid to die?” To which the nun replied no. “I believe in God, and I know I will be happy,” Helene said. Sister Huguette Peron, who was also in the church, told Catholic newspaper La Vie: “I got a smile from the second (man). Not a smile of triumph, but a soft smile, that of someone who is happy.”

Not only is Sister Helene happy in the face of death because she believes in death, but Sister Huguette reports that one of the attackers gave her a smile, “Not a smile of triumph, but a soft smile, that of someone who is happy.”

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Compare those two descriptions of people who are happy with this, from Murtaza Hussain‘s Intercept piece, New Documentary Pierces the Psychology of Modern Suicide Bombers:

In a scene from Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal’s new documentary Dugma: The Button, Abu Qaswara, a would-be suicide bomber, describes the sense of exhilaration he felt during an aborted suicide attack against a Syrian army checkpoint. “These were the happiest [moments] I’ve had in 32 years. If anyone had felt exactly what I felt at that moment, Muslims would want to go through the same feeling and non-Muslims would convert just to experience it,” he enthuses to the camera, visibly elated by his attempted self-immolation.

Abu Qaswara’s attack failed after his vehicle was blocked by obstacles on the road placed by the Syrian military. But speaking shortly after he returned from his mission, it was clear that his brush with death had filled him with euphoria. “It was a feeling more than you can imagine,” he says. “Something I cannot describe, it cannot be described.”

My primary purpose in recording these instances of happiness is to emphasize how strongly religious faith exerts what to the modern secular mind must be an unexpected and perhaps even unimaginable emotional impact on those who possess it. And even if the Normandy attacker’s ‘soft smile” had more to do with a blood lust slaked, the same cannot be said either for Sister Helene or for Abu Qaswara.

If we are to understand the motivations of suicide bombers and other jihadists, comprehending not just intellectually but viscerally the emotions involved will be a task of some importance — and one for which many of our analysts will not be prepared.

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There’s a second point to be made, however. Hussain goes on to write:

Only the few Syrians who appear in the film speak at length about their grievances over the crimes of the Syrian government. In contrast, the foreign volunteers appear largely driven by personal motivations. Liberating the local people from oppression appears at best a secondary concern. Perishing in the conflict and reaping the existential rewards of such an end takes precedence. Both Abu Qaswara and Abu Basir gave up comfortable lives to come to Syria, knowing that certain death would be the outcome of that decision. But rather than deterring them, the prospect of a rewarding death was a primary factor motivating their decision to fight.

That para sets the scene for the following one, in which Mustafa Hamid, as reported in his book with Leah Farrall, notes how contrary this motivation is to the practical pursuit of victory:

This impulse toward self-destruction is actually seen as selfish by some fellow insurgents. In his co-authored 2014 memoir The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, Mustafa Hamid, a former high-ranking Egyptian volunteer with the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, described his own frustration with many of the later waves of volunteers arriving to that conflict. “One of the negatives that emerged from the jihad, and which continues to have severe consequences today, was the tendency for the youth to focus not on success and achieving victory and liberating Afghanistan, but on their desire for martyrdom and to enter paradise,” Hamid wrote. This overriding preoccupation with becoming a martyr meant that participation in the conflict, “became individual instead of for the benefit of the group or the country where the fight for liberation is taking place.”

That’s one of the more striking of Hamid’s observations in The Arabs at War in Afghanistan — itself an astonishing book, product of the collaboration between Hamid (aka Abu Walid al-Masri) the man who brought bin Laden‘s oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, and Farrall, a respected scholar-analyst who was the Australian Federal Police al-Qaida subject matter specialist at the time of the Bali bombings.

It is an extraordinary book, and one I cannot recommend too highly.

Hipbone update & request for your vote!

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — 3 Quarks Daily, Boston Apocalyptic conference, LapidoMedia, World Religions and Spirituality Project, Bellingcat, Loopcast, Pragati, Sembl ]
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First, please vote!

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[ Note added: voting is now closed: my story received the fifth highest tally of votes out of 45 entries, and is now up for consideration by the 3QD editors in the next round — many, many thanks! ]

My story, War in Heaven, is in the running for the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize. 3 Quarks Daily is a great aggregator site, I’m honored to have made the cut so far, and would love to make it to the next level. My entry is #33 in the alphabetical list here, and votes can be cast at the bottom of the page. Networking for votes is all part of the game, so I’m hoping you’ll vote — & encourage your friends to go to that page & vote my entry up.

If you haven’t read it, here’s my story. It was a finalist in the Atlantic Council‘s Scowcroft Center Art of Future Warfare Project‘s space war challenge, in association with War on the Rocks.

There’s even a Google Hangout video in which Atlantic Council Non-Resident Senior Fellow August Cole, who directs the Art of Future Warfare project, interviews the contest’s winner and finalists, myself included. August’s book, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, is in the running for next great Tom Clancy like techno-thriller.

You’ll find plenty of other good entries at the 3QD contest page, and daily at 3QD as well — as I say, it’s excellent in its own right, and one of the richest contributors of varied and interesting posts on my RSS feed.

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Then, in no particular order — check ’em all out —

The Boston conference on Apocalyptic Hopes, Millennial Dreams and Global Jihad:

To my way of thinking, the critical thing to know about the Islamic State is its “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” as Martin Dempsey put it — and the implications of that statement, both in terms of strategy and of recruitment & morale. That’s what the Boston conference focused on, and that’s why I think it was no less significant for being sparsely attended. In a series of future blogs I hope to go over the videos of the various presentations and spell some of their implications out — Will McCants‘ book, The ISIS Apocalypse, is due out in September, and I’d like to have filled in some background by then.

Here, though, as I’m giving an update on my own doings, is my presentation — an attempt both to tie together some of the strands of the panel I was commenting on (but could barely hear, but that’s a tale or another day), and to express my sense of the importance of apoclyptic thinking, not merely as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional and indeed visceral relaity for those swept up in it:

The other speakers were Richard Landes, WIlliam McCants, Graeme Wood, Timothy Furnish, Cole Bunzel, Jeffrey Bale, David Cook, J.M. Berger, Itamar Marcus, Charles Jacobs, David Redles, Mia Bloom, Charles Strozier, Brenda Brasher and Paul Berman — quite a stellar crew.

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My two latest pieces for LapidoMedia, where I’m currently editor:

ANALYSIS: Understanding the jihadists through their poetry and piety
12th June 2015

YOU might not think that ‘what jihadis do in their spare time’ would be a topic of much interest, but it’s one that has been under-reported and is just now breaking into public awareness.

Much of the credit for this goes to Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel for their current New Yorker piece, Battle lines: Want to understand the jihadis? Read their poetry.

But behind Creswell and Haykel’s piece lurks a striking presentation given by the Norwegian terrorism analyst Thomas Hegghammer at St Andrews in April.

Hegghammer’s Wilkinson Memorial lecture was titled Why Terrorists Weep: The Socio-Cultural Practices of Jihadi Militants…

Read the rest

I’m still intending to do a longer and more detailed write-up for Zenpundit on Hegghammer’s highly significant lecture.

Today:

The Bamiyan Buddha lives again

A CHINESE couple, dismayed by the Taliban’s destruction of Bamiyan’s two Buddha statues, has brought the larger of the statues back to life.

Locals and visitors can once again see the Bamiyan Buddha through the use of laser technology – this time not in stone but in light.

Carved into the great cliff face towering over the fertile valley of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, two Buddha statues stood for centuries.

In 2001 the Taliban dynamited the statues, built in the Sixth century in the Gandhara style, the larger of them standing 55 metres tall.

It was not the first attack against them.Lapido aims to provide (mostly secular) journalists with insight into the religious & spiritual values behind current events.

Read the rest

I stood there, atop the Bamiyan Buddha: it’s personal.

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At the World Religions and Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University, I’m one of two Project Directors for the JIHADISM Project. We’re very much a work in progress, aiming to provide a resource for scholarship of religion as it relates to jihadism.

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Justin Seitz made a post titled Analyzing Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf on Bellingcat, to which I responded, and we had a back-and-forth of emails &c.

Justin then gave our discussion a shoutout at The Loopcast

— the immediate context starts around the 30 min mark, and runs to around 35 — and followed up with a second Bellingcat post, Analyzing Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf Part 2 — in which he quoted me again. Key here is his remark:

a human with domain expertise is always going to be in a better position to make judgement calls than any algorithm

Agreed — & many thanks, Justin!

Bellingcat — definitely an honor to get a shoutout there,

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Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review

My latest on Pragati was my review of JM berger & Jessica Stern’s ISIS: the State of Terror, which I’ve already noted & linked to here on ZP.

Up next, my review of Mustafa Hamid & Leah Farrall‘s The Arabs at War in Afghanistan

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And last but not by any means least…

Cath Styles’ new Sembl slideshow:

It’s a terrific feeling to see the next runner in a relay race take off from the handover… Cath is getting some high praise for her work on Sembl for the museum world, including the following:

Sembl incredibly succesfully mixes competitive and collaborative play, creativity and expression, and exploration and inspiration. It’s the sort of game you think about when you’re not playing it, and it’s the sort of game that helps you see the world in new ways.

Paul Callaghan
Writer, Game Developer, Lecturer at Unversity of East London

Meanwhile, I’m still quietly plugging away at some other aspects of the HipBone / Sembl project.

DoubleQuoting Leah Farrall & John Boyd

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — because integrity is so crucial, and because this point so richly deserves repeating ]
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Leah in a Sources & Methods podcast, talking about her work as a counter-terrorism analyst, as the co-author of her book with Mustafa Hamid, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, and as an academic:

You have to be very sure of your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you will and won’t tolerate, and the consequences of that. It sounds silly, but if you’re not prepared to lower your standards, for example, if the integrity of your work is something you value above all else, be prepared to be blacklisted. I’ve pulled things from high-profile publications because they’ve insisted on using words that would misrepresent something so badly that subject matter experts would say ‘what the hell.’ Now, that’s my commitment, that’s a personal commitment, but that’s come with a cost. And to anybody coming into the academic field, be aware of that type of stuff. Be aware of what it is you will commit to, and what it is you won’t. Because there is going to come a time where you will have to make a choice – do you surrender some of that integrity?

And Boyd, in an anecdote that will be familiar to many Zenpundit readers:

“Tiger,” he would say, “one day you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?

When the promise of the miraculous is disappointed

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the role of promise and illusion in recruitment, disappointment and disillusion in CVE ]
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Here’s an example of promise and disillusionment from the early Afghan jihad: upper quote below from Abdullah Azzam, lower quote from Mustafa Hamid.

SPEC DQ miracles azzam & hamid

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It seems that disappointed hopes are and/or should be a major focus in countering violent extremism, ie places where the jihadist recruitment “narrarive” fails when it comes in contact with ground reality. Because a caliphate that is losing ground is no caliphate. Because a caliphate that diverges from its own ideals and standards is no caliphate. Because the food is terrible, or battle turns out to be more real than bargained for:

[ order of these two NYT paragraphs reversed here at Zenpundit ]

During nearly a year in contact with New York Times reporters, Abu Khadija expressed gradually growing discontent. His grievances ranged from relatively mundane issues like eating canned food and being deployed to a front line far from his family because of a lack of fighters, to discomfort with the group’s strategic priorities and its extreme violence.

“I can’t eat, I feel I want to throw up, I hate myself,” he said, adding that the executioners had argued over who would wield the knives and finally settled the issue by lottery. “Honestly, I will never do it. I can kill a man in battle, but I can’t cut a human being’s head with a knife or a sword.”

Jessica Stern makes a similar point on NPR:

I think that we need to hear a lot more from people who leave ISIS – somebody who says, gosh, I joined. I thought I was going to be making the world a better place, and it turned out that it really wasn’t what I imagined, that there were atrocities that I didn’t want to be involved in. There are people who are saying that. We need to amplify those messages.

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The quote in the upper panel of the DoubleQuote above comes from Azzam’s collection, The Signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan. There are many miracles (both mujizat and karamat) described there. Among them, one of the most interesting to me concerns the Miraj and al-Aqsa mosque:

Informing the people of the details of Baitul Maqdis after the night of Me’raaj.

Rasulullah sallAllaahu alayhi wa sallam said: When the people denied (the Me’raaj), Allaah Ta’ala revealed the Baitul Maqdis to me and I informed the people of its details whilst looking at it.”

The Miraj was the prophet’s night journey to the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount (Bait al-Maqdis) in Jerusalem, from whence he ascended the heavens and was given the instructions for Muslim prayer. The Noble Sanctuary was Islam’s first Qibla or direction of focus in prayer.

The quote in the lower panel above comes from Mustafa Hamid in his forthcoming book with Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan. In it, Hamid illustrates both the spiritual aspirations and disappointed hopes at play in that earlier jihad.

I have discussed Azzam’s and others’ descriptions of miracles previously in such posts as Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad, Azzam illustrates Levi-Strauss on Mythologiques, and Gaidi Mtaani, the greater scheme of things. Such stories are profoundly moving to those who are open to believing them.

In Mustafa Hamid’s words, we see the equal and opposite influence unleashed when such stories, offered as promises in recruitment, prove unsubstantiated by reality.

A hat-tip to Myra MacDonald, who pointed me to this quote.

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Side note:

Students of comparative religion may find the following paragraphs, quoted in the Azzam compilation from the Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanwi of interest:

Karaamaat and Mu’jizah do not occur by a person’s design — that whenever the Nabi or Wali wishes he can execute such an act. Such acts only occur when Allaah Ta’ala in His Infinite Wisdom wishes to exhibit the act. It then occurs whether a person desires it or not.]

A karaamah does not indicate that the person performing such an act is better than others. In fact, sometimes the karaamah decreases his status in the sight of Allaah, due to fame and vanity entering his heart. It was for this reason that many of the pious personalities used to make istighfaar (seek forgiveness) when a karaamah would manifest itself at their hands, just as they would make istighfaar when sins are committed

The statement “It then occurs whether a person desires it or not” reminds me, for instance, of the tale told of St Teresa of Avila, friend and colleague of St John of the Cross:

Legend tells it that as Teresa was in the choir singing among her sisters one day, she began to levitate. When the other nuns started to whisper and point, Teresa lowered her gaze and realized that she had risen several inches above the stone floor. “Put me down!” she demanded of God. And he did.

There’s a deeper truth hidden in St Teresa’s request, I suspect: grace is not taken, it is given.

Two new “must read” books

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Hamid & Farrall, Stern & Berger, full reviews coming up shortly ]
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Farrall & Berger

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I recently received a review copy of Mustafa Hamid & Leah Farrall‘s breakthrough book, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, courtesy of the publisher, Michael Dwyer of Hurst, and will be writing it up once I’ve finished devouring it:

A former senior mujahidin figure and an ex-counter-terrorism analyst cooperating to write a book on the history and legacy of Arab-Afghan fighters in Afghanistan is a remarkable and improbable undertaking. Yet this is what Mustafa Hamid, aka Abu Walid al-Masri, and Leah Farrall have achieved with the publication of their ground-breaking work.

The result of thousands of hours of discussions over several years, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan offers significant new insights into the history of many of today’s militant Salafi groups and movements.

Huzzah!

An almost unbelievable and very welcome collaboration.

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And:

Huzzah!

Jessica Stern is terrific, while JM Berger is not only one of our ablest analysts, but also a good friend. This book will be an eye-opener.


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