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Waco in Pakistan

[ by Charles Cameron — on the way not listening sometimes leads to trouble, the importance of ultimate concerns, and a remarkable remark by M. Morsi ]

It’s happening again, this time in Pakistan.

Nicholas Kristof‘s NYR op-ed a day or two ago, Exploiting the Prophet, included one particularly interesting little quote that set me thinking – and my friend Bryan Alexander noted it too. Kristof was talking about how people in Muslim countries with little or no tradition of free speech sometimes “have an addled view of how the United States handles blasphemy” and commented, almost as an aside:

A Pakistani imam, Abdul Wahid Qasmi, once told me that President Bill Clinton burned to death scores of Americans for criticizing Jesus. If America can execute blasphemers, he said, why can’t Pakistan?

I challenged him, and he plucked an Urdu-language book off his shelf, thumbed through it, and began reading triumphantly about the 1993 raid on David Koresh’s cult in Waco, Tex.

That’s absurd, preposterous. Perfectly understandable. And dangerous.


Here’s a description of how Americans listened to al-Qaida, drawn from Benjamin and Simon’s book, The Age of Sacred Terror, p. 159:

So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

According, that is, to two senior members of President Clinton‘s National Security Council charged with counterterrorism, jihadist “chords of the apocalypse” were missed because they sounded like “gibberish”.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but recall the label given by FBI field agents to attempts by David Koresh to engage them in a discussion of the Book of Revelation, which for him was a roadmap of the very events he was living through — the FBI’s siege of Mount Carmel in Waco, TX.

Here’s a quote from the abstract of Robert Agne and Karen Tracy‘s analysis, ‘Bible Babble’: Naming the Interactional Trouble at Waco, published in Discourse Studies (v 3 # 3, 269-294):

A frustrating yet persistent aspect for the FBI negotiators was the Davidians’ talk about the Bible and their religious beliefs, what agents dismissively described as ‘Bible babble’.


Does it matter if one group of people persists in misunderstanding the religious positions of another in high-tension disputes?

In the case of Waco, it may indeed have contributed to the tragic outcome.

In this study, we analyze several exchanges between Koresh and one of the FBI agents. The analysis shows how the FBI’s identifying their problem as ‘Bible babble’ contributed to the negotiation failure.


There are other parallels that can be drawn between the Branch Davidians and their worldview, and al-Qaida and theirs — parallels that may have significance wherever there is a clash in which the “irrational” religious discourse of an (often apocalyptically inclined) “other” is easily brushed off by our own “more rational” mindset.

According to conflict resolution scholar Jayne Seminaire Docherty, writing in Learning Lessons from Waco (p. 99):

During the Waco negotiations, the Mount Carmel residents invited the FBI negotiators to choose God’s law over man’s law.

Compare al-Qaida, as seen in two excerpts from Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? published by the Jamestown Foundation in Terrorism Focus (v 2 #5, 2005):

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

Parallel to the warnings, bin Laden on two occasions since 2002 asked Americans to convert to Islam as the means of terminating the war al-Qaeda is waging against the United States. “We call you to Islam,” bin Laden said on both occasions, addressing himself to President Bush – as the leader of the American people – and asking him to lead his countrymen to Islam. He also offered to serve as guide and teacher for the American people, urging them to “follow the right path” to Islam. “I am an honest adviser to you.” bin Laden concluded, “I urge you to seek the joy of life and the after life…. I urge you to become Muslims….” (Al-Jazeera 6 Oct 02; Waaqiah.com, 26 Oct 02)


The Davidian invitation to the FBI interlocutors to talk Revelation — like the AQ invitation to President Bush and all America to convert to Islam — may seem a foredoomed invitation, but it’s one that at the very least situates one side of the conflict in the territory of “ultimate concerns”. Thus Docherty continues:

The negotiators resisted these invitations as situationally inappropriate conversion efforts. The Branch Davidians, they said, were disrupting the “real” negotiations with their proselytizing. However, for the Mount Carmel residents, proselytizing was the truly important business at hand. With the Second Coming looming on the horizon, all else was trivial by comparison, even the task of peacefully resolving the barricade standoff.

What is ultimate and what is, strictly by comparison, trivial?

One of the most significant answers to that question was given by Muhammad Morsi when he said recently:

To God, the attack on a person to Allah is bigger an attack on the Kaaba.

I still have a post or two in me concerning the ugly video clip and the far uglier riots it triggered, and in one of them I’d like to explore that remarkable remark of Morsi’s — deploring the killing of Ambassador Stevens — and supporting texts from the Qur’an, hadith and the writings of the late Egyptian cleric Sheikh Ghazali.

5 Responses to “Waco in Pakistan”

  1. Dave Schuler Says:

    Another brilliant post, Charles.
    I think that one of the factors undergirding the siege at Waco, the initial reactions to Al Qaeda, and the responses by both our government and media to the riots in the Muslim world over the last several weeks is a reluctance to consider religion seriously.  I think their view of religion is somewhat like their view of dinosaurs:  big and potentially dangerous if they weren’t both extinct.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Dave, as always.
    You may recall the exchange that Gary Sick reported from back in the era of Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution:

    There was no Islamic fundamentalism for all practical purposes before Iran. I mean, this was the first major manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism, of Islamic politics, Islamism. It was not something we were familiar with at all. So the whole concept was new and radical and required a serious shift of thinking. And a friend of mine said to me at the time, “You know, whoever took religion seriously?” You dealt with politics and religion really had very little to do with that. Now that sounds incredibly naïve, but at the time it was not part of the tool chest of American or other observers in the region. We were simply beginning to discover that religion could, in fact, be used for political purposes and could have major political consequences. But it took twenty-two years for the penny to drop all the way. Then it was too late. The full force of religion and politics struck on September 11th, 2001.

    That’s from a BBC radio interview, back around 2001 or 2002 I think. And as I recall, he said elsewhere that it was someone fairly senior from CIA talking to Sick himself representing State. In Sick’s book, All Fall Down, he makes it clear that this was someone from State, talking to Sick himself representing the National Security Council.
    I don’t think that fixing this “dinosaur” problem is nearly as simple as adding religion to the “toolchest” to be honest– I think you have to have people around who can feel it in their bones. 

  3. Dave Schuler Says:

    I don’t know if you’re familiar  with the work of Ernest Gellner but Gellner argued that among its traditions Islam had an urban bourgeois tradition on the one hand and the religion of the rural countryside and urban poor on the other.  The former has collapsed under the onslaught of Western culture, technology, and economic might, leaving the latter.
    That ties in somewhat with the observations of Dom Crossan on fundamentalism.  Christian fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, and Hindu fundamentalism share some characteristics.  My gut tells me those characteristics flourish in isolation but have difficulty playing nicely with others.

  4. zen Says:

    “There was no Islamic fundamentalism for all practical purposes before Iran. I mean, this was the first major manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism, of Islamic politics, Islamism. It was not something we were familiar with at all. So the whole concept was new and radical and required a serious shift of thinking. And a friend of mine said to me at the time, “You know, whoever took religion seriously?” You dealt with politics and religion really had very little to do with that. Now that sounds incredibly naïve, but at the time it was not part of the tool chest of American or other observers in the region
    The State Department brings to mind the old adage about Harvard University: that you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much. There were observers in 1978 and 1979, including the CIA, who tried to tell State that Khomeini was dangerously anti-American and the fall of the Shah might bring a catastrophe, but Gary Sick (State’s alleged Iran expert), Warren Christopher and Cyrus Vance preferred to listen to the advice of assholes like Ramsay Clark

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Zen:


    I remember attending a discussion session tied in with Carter’s  President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies back in the very late 70s or very early 80s, and my impression was that the US Embassy in Tehran had lamentably few Farsi speakers at the time of the Khomeini Revolution.  As I said when we talked about this on ChicagoBoyz:

    this is purely anecdotal and subject to memory failure, but I carried away the sense that the Embassy was used to dealing with Iranians who had been “educated at Princeton or Yale” and wore business suits, and didn’t know what to make of the new lot, who wore mullah’s robes and were graduates of seminaries in Qom or Masshad.

    I like the Gary Sick quote — “You know, whoever took religion seriously?” — because it so pithily expresses my own point, but can understand your distaste for the fellow — I simply don’t know enough to argue that issue.
    These two quotes make much the same point though, specifically in the context of that Presidential Commission.  From the Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 1984:

    Why is foreign-language competency so vital? Experts see the importance of language study not so much as an academic exercise, but as a means for fostering cross-cultural understanding. Such understanding is sometimes indispensable in the realms of diplomacy, national security, and international business.
    A well-known example of the diplomatic problems that can be caused by language deficiency was the lack of Farsi-speaking diplomats at the American Embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution. Many observers believe that the failure to foresee or head off the embassy takeover can be traced, at least in part, to inadequate language training.
    The US government acknowledges the direct link between national security and foreign-language competency.

    And from the Toledo Blade, June 12, 1980 — around the time I’d have been at that retreat / discussion: 

    When the U.S. Embassy in Teheran was seized, only a few of the American personnel there spoke Farsi.

    I guess that meeting would have been the germ of my later thinking about insights from cultural anthro (which I was teaching back then) as applied to the politics of Iran and Islam. 

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