In response to David Ronfeldt:
David Ronfeldt wrote an important comment on my last post, taking off from it in a very interesting direction, and I think its deserves its own thread. I am going to quote the main thrust of it here, then address some of the issues he raises. David writes:
What i wonder about is the nature of a mind bent on measured reciprocity vs. a millenarian mind (like those you’ve written about before)? Millenarians, I gather, aren’t much into measured tit-for-tat thinking. If they are, then maybe they really aren’t all that millenarian. they may think they are on a righteous, vengeful mission ordained by God – but it’s so tit-for-tat that it falls short of being truly millenarian.
Or is there a spectrum of combinations? I can imagine a millenarian using tit-for-tat thinking as part of a rationale for wanting to inflict apocalyptic punishment. But I can also suppose that it’s a mental game that a millenarian leader uses to help explain his views to attract new adherents. If so, who/what may be examples of minds that combine millenarian with measured reciprocity?
Here’s my response:
I think it boils down to a difference between two types of millenarian. Some millenarians are just outright antinomian from the gitgo. Their apocalyptic beliefs fundamentally contradict the moral tenets of the
surrounding culture, and they feel cut loose from them. The Brethren of the Free Spirit felt free to cut the purses of others for the benefit of the cause, but I’m not sure that the Perfecti of the Cathars did, and I’m pretty sure the early Franciscan “spirituals” wouldn’t dream of it. So there are others, like the Spirituals, who are far from antinomian, living according to a strict code — which in their case presumably included the moral injunctions of Christ in the Beatitudes, albeit interpreted pretty stringently.
This raises the possibility that some millenarians may feel obligated to the constraints of a traditional path up until such time as their messianic hope-figure appears, at which point he will himself be able to give specific, timely (end-timely) guidance. Thus reports of the Mahdi as warrior must be distinguished from reports of warfare engaged in by his followers in the hope of attracting him.
The Christian apocalyptic writer Joel Richardson made an interesting comment touching on this issue. Describing an interview he gave on NPR, he wrote (in what he would agree are broad strokes with possible
I explained to my host that unless a supernatural man bursts forth from the sky in glory, there is absolutely nothing that the world needs to worry about with regard to Christian end-time beliefs. Christians are called to passively await their defender. They are not attempting to usher in His return. Muslims, on the other hand, are actively pursuing the day when their militaristic leader comes to lead them on into victory. Many believe that they can usher in his coming.
The whole issue of “hastening the arrival”, including means proposed to achieve it, and whether indeed it is even possible, deserves serious comparative religious study. I’d only note here the Israeli analyst Reuven Paz’s seminal 2006 essay, “Hotwiring the Apocalypse: Jihadi Salafi Attitude Towards Hizballah and Iran“, and follow up with Tim Furnish’s comment on the way this concept has been stretched by others (Paz writes only about Sunni jihadists) to cover (putatively) Iran’s (Shi’a) nuclear program. Furnish, who attended one of the recent Mahdist conferences in Tehran, explains the misapplied notion:
It posits that there is a strain of Islamic eschatological thought which hopes to force Allah’s hand in sending the Mahdi, as it were, via sparking a major conflagration (nuclear, or otherwise) with the West (either the U.S. or Israel). This may be true of some of the Sunni jihadits with an apocalyptic bent, but there is very little evidence that such an idea is operative in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ayatollahs may be cut-throat, anti-Israeli and anti-American-but they are not stupid. They know full well that any nuclear attack on Israel of the U.S. would be met with a crushing retaliation. (Besides, what good would it do for the Mahdi to come and establish his global caliphate over smoking radioactive ruins?)”
Discussing Christian apocalyptic rhetoric in his book, Arguing the Apocalypse, Stephen O’Leary writes, “The End itself is beyond the capacity of human discourse to hasten or postpone; the deterministic construction of the tragic apocalypse eliminates contingency from history”.
By the time the arriving or returning one has arrived or returned, things are very different. Having the absolute divine sanction — being, in the case of the Mahdi, by definition “Rightly Guided” — he (or I suppose, “she” if appropriate) can order people killed in much the same way that Krishna at the Battle of Kurukshetra could, saying in effect, “they’re dead already”.
To be sure, this “black and white” quality of alignment between the forces of good and evil will more than likely be building towards a climax during the “end times” run-up to the appearance — Stephen O’Leary again, “as the predicted End approaches, apocalyptic rhetors increasingly tend to view their opponents or interlocutors as representatives of demonic forces…”
Bin Laden, it seems to me, clearly feels constrained by Quranic notions of warfare, and his address to the US before the 2004 elections contained by my count at least four echoes of the ayat I cited from the
Quran, the most vivid of which was his comment, “And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in
America in order that they taste some of what we tasted…” — which takes the idea of measured reciprocity very literally sense indeed! Another example: as Steve Coll noted in a Washington Post piece in 2005,
“Bin Laden has said several times that he is seeking to acquire and use nuclear weapons not only because it is God’s will, but because he wants to do to American foreign policy what the United States did to Japanese
imperial surrender policy.”
Finally, I’d like to point out the enormous discrepancy here between two worldviews.
The view enshrined in the Geneva Conventions holds that certain acts are permissible in warfare, while certain others are so ruthlessly immoral as to constitute “war crimes” and are never permitted.
The Quranic view also holds this — but with the specific exception of measured reciprocity.Here is Brig. SK Malik on the topic, in his book The Qur’anic Concept of War:
According to an age-old tradition, fighting in Arabia was prohibited during the three sacred months of Ziqad, Zil Haj and Muharram, and the Holy Qur’an issued directions for the observance of this custom. ‘The prohibited month for the prohibited month,’ the Book said, ‘and so for all things prohibited,– there is the Law of Equality. If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him but fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.’ [2.194] The book likewise commanded the Muslims to respect the Arab custom of observing truce at the Sacred Mosque, on a reciprocal basis. ‘But fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there,’ was the Quranic injunction in the matter [2.191]. On both these issues, the Muslims, no doubt, were nevertheless counseled to show restraint. The Quranic injunction that ‘Allah is with those who restrain themselves’ speaks of the importance attached to tolerance and forbearance.
One system draws a line, and what is below it is impermissible — the other holds a mirror up to the opposing force, and what goes beyond the limits of image it reflects is impermissible. And both systems call for
restraint — which in time of war is not the easiest of virtues to maintain.
But that’s another story — the story of the duel of Ali bin Abi Talib with ‘Amru bin ‘Abd Wudd, in fact…