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Follow-Up: Charles Cameron on David Ronfeldt

Charles Cameron responds at length to a comment left by RAND emeritus David Ronfeldt in the previous post:

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…


7 Responses to “Follow-Up: Charles Cameron on David Ronfeldt”

  1. david ronfeldt Says:

    i appreciate this extended clarification, charles (and zen).  more and more interesting.  with nuances that are not easy to sort out.  
    i used to regard tit-for-tat as a game-theoretic way for players to promote a kind of stand-offish equilibrium based on mutual deterrence.  later i realized that real-life tribal societies often have codes of honor that, when wrongs occur, require tit-for-tat retribution by means of compensation or revenge.  yet, this mundane notion of tit-for-tat tends to move away from fostering equilibrium and deterrence, the more that the actors (players, tribes, whatever) expand their spatial and temporal horizons to include wrongs that allegedly occurred far away and/or long ago.  thus, historic enemies in rival big-city gangs or middle-eastern sects may be caught up in nearly eternal, never-ending patterns of tit-for-tat that are said to be ethically justified in terms of measured reciprocity, but that in fact begin to break the boundaries of being either measured or reciprocal.  
    the millenarians that you, jean rosenfield, and others keep illuminating seem to be aiming for more than mundane: a cosmic tit-for-tat.  this does not apply to all millenarians, of course, for some seem to have in mind the eruption of a new age that will not require unusual punishment and purification.  but the notion of a cosmic tit-for-tat does seem to apply to a lot of millenarians across a lot of religions — bin laden among them — who long for a violent, ferociously righteous retribution.  
    all of which reminds me of an older dynamic — a cosmic tit-for-tat in greek mythology — that antedates the religious texts we’ve discussed: the ancient dynamic of hubris and nemesis, whereby mortals who exhibit hubris (the vainglorious, prideful pretension to be godlike) are struck down by nemesis (zeus’s goddess of divine vengeance and retribution).  narcissus is a classic example (hence the concept of narcissism as a kind of hubris).  in a sense, bin laden is playing nemesis to western hubris.  
    but doesn’t bin laden also exhibit a kind of hubris?  i think so; and if so, then we can push the ancient dynamic in a new direction and speculate that he has a “hubris-nemesis  complex.”  in this extraordinary mindset, an actor not only exhibits hubris but also seeks to play nemesis against something else that he or she accuses of hubris.  the result is a rare, invigorating, all-consuming fusion:  a charismatic hubris-nemesis complex.  
    not all hubris-nemesis characters are millenarians (or vice-versa).  but a bunch are:  as literary archetypes, think captain ahab in "moby dick"; satan in "paradise lost".  as real-life leadership examples, think hitler, castro, etc. (maybe even some of today’s talk-show hosts?).  these are all rather millenarian figures, and in addition — to bring matters around to the theme of this and the preceding post — they all show interest in pursuing some kind of rather cosmic tit-for-tat. 
    does that help?  it’s all of i’ve got as a thought for the day.  but, charles, maybe you should tell us about that duel you mentioned . . .

    source:  http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR461/.  onward.  

  2. david ronfeldt Says:

    make that preceding link without the period:


  3. Jean E. Rosenfeld Says:

    I have never thought of millenarianism as particularly imbued with human retribution, but the entire framework of apocalyptic myth is one of cosmic, political, and social reversal–which is conceived of in ultimate terms as a final judgment, or justice. 

    As for hubris and nemesis, that is a very interesting way to look at the actors–or "messiahs"–in apocalyptic movements.  Bin Ladin, Fawaz Gerges writes, incurred the anger of other (national) jihadists because he played to the media and, specifically, because he required his recruits take an oath of loyalty to him, personally.  I guess in jihadi terms, this would qualify as hubris, because the Sunni Mahdi, Gerges writes, is sometimes identified as one to whom an oath is given.

    On the other hand, much of bin Ladin’s appeal is based upon his heroic sacrifice of comfort and riches to live a persecuted and endangered "amir" of a special sect that is dedicated to protect the religion and the land until the day of judgment.  He is presented as a person of great humility.

    But cosmic, divine justice and "measured reciprocity" are, I think, two different concepts, both in scale and in appearance.  Meting out human justice in a measured way appears in political/legal texts in antiquity, but apocalyptic myth imagines the entire social system (and its implied hierarchies) as completely reversed.  In monotheistic texts from all three world religions the phrase, making the crooked straight or bringing the mountains low–leveling–applies to the social system as well as geography.  Only a divine figure can accomplish this.

    The "measured reciprocity" of al-Qaida is selected from the Quran and emphasized as a kind of rule of engagement for war.  On the other hand, our concept of terrorism is of acts that do not heed the rules of engagement, but are criminal because they deliberately overturn them.  The defense of terrorists is to recount back that they are only delivering licit retribution–measured reciprocity- for our great sins, which are enumerated in their speeches and broadcasts.

    A good example of this "morality of terrorism" (and bin Ladin is an insufferable moralist, according to those who know him as well as his speeches) is a recent address to "you Obama" by S. Khalid bin Abdul Rahman al Husseinan (http://www.nefafoundation.org), entitled, "Calm Dialogue with Obama," 8/10/2009.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    David’s idea:    
    the ancient dynamic of hubris and nemesis, whereby mortals who exhibit hubris (the vainglorious, prideful pretension to be godlike) are struck down by nemesis (zeus’s goddess of divine vengeance and retribution).  narcissus is a classic example (hence the concept of narcissism as a kind of hubris).  in a sense, bin laden is playing nemesis to western hubris.      
    but doesn’t bin laden also exhibit a kind of hubris?  i think so; and if so, then we can push the ancient dynamic in a new direction and speculate that he has a “hubris-nemesis  complex.”  in this extraordinary mindset, an actor not only exhibits hubris but also seeks to play nemesis against something else that he or she accuses of hubris.  the result is a rare, invigorating, all-consuming fusion…    
    Thanks, David.    
    I hadn’t read your earlier paper on this, so those two paragraphs were fresh and powerful for me, especially the second. Hubris and the way it has of calling forth its own downfall from the faes via Nemesis is certainly a central and well-known tragic dynamic, but what I hadn’t really "seen" quite so clearly before is the way in which a human taking on the mantle of Nemesis is inevitably inflated thereby, so that we wind up (on the human scale) with hubris facing off against hubris.    
    And those who claim messianic (or precursor) status will tend to leave themselves open to precisely this dynamic, to the extent that their messianic system is oppositional (unbelievers must be slain, or the earth cleansed of sin and in some cases, cities) rather than strictly benign ("I am come sio that ye may all have therapy, and live happily ever after").  
    So I am very grateful for your post, David – it opens up a new "pattern" in my "pattern langage" of apocalyptic.

  5. Jean E. Rosenfeld Says:

    One small caution in our learning curve:  why do some individuals commit to enacting the apocalyptic myth of judgment (i.e., acting as the "arm" or "hand" of the divine force of justice), while most believers in eschatology communicate the endtime myths of world destruction in words or other symbols, without enacting the violence or encouraging others to enact it?

    Apocalypticism is the endemic infection that flares up in various ways, violent and non-violent in most religions.  It is "domesticated" in cults, such as the cult of Kali, but it can catch fire and be enacted by groups, such as the Thugs.  Why?  Under what conditions? Is there a degree of randomness in the occurrence of these active bouts of apocalyptic infection?  That is where Cohn started in his study of European apocalyptic sects, and we still have not advanced our understanding of these questions to any great extent.

  6. david ronfeldt Says:

    charles, jean — i seem to be out of new steam right now, but i wanted to thank you both quickly for your additional remarks.  charles, i’m delighted you like the hubris-nemesis notion (and note that the full paper can be downloaded free, thanks to rand policy).  jean, that’s a good final point you make, with reference to norman cohn’s seminal study (and i still like what michael barkun has added since then too).  — onward, david

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, David.    
    As far as the likelihood of different millenarian groups becoming violent is concerned, Cathy Wessinger writes that it is "important to distinguish between millennial groups that are assaulted because they are perceived by outsiders to be dangerous; fragile millennial groups that initiate violence to preserve their religious goal; and revolutionary millennial groups possessing ideologies or theologies that legitimate violence."     .     Her book, Millennialism, Persecution and Violence, offers case histories of each type, and includes Jean Rosenberg‘s "A Brief History of Millennialism and Suggestions for a New Paradigm for Use in Critical Incidents", a presentation to the LAPD.     .     Jayne Docherty‘s Learning Lessons from Waco offers pointers from the perspective of conflict resolution on the subtleties — and not so subtleties — involved in successful dealings with groups that bhold a strongly religious worldview.    
    And Damian Thompson‘s Waiting for Antichrist, and in particular his chapter 2, "The Problem of the End", offers what is thus far the best treatment I have seen of the ways in which people can be eschatological in theory but not in practice, hold eschatological views that conflict with those of their religious ministers, together with an analysis of the costs and benefits of end times beliefs, and of how the contrasting requirements of charisma and routinization can shift the apocalyptic balance in a given organization.    

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