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Tracking the Mahdi on WikiLeaks

by Charles Cameron

A quick search for “Mahdi” and “Mehdi” and “Twelfth Imam” in the 294 messages so far published in diplomatic Wikileaks reveals some references to individuals with those names, and a couple to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (spelled “Jaysh al-Madhi” in one cable by someone who is perhaps confused by the similarity of the name to that of Mahatma Gandhi), along with three cables in which Mahdism is touched upon.


09ASHGABAT1182 of September 16, 2009 reports a comment by an undisclosed source who is “adamant” that the US should not enter into direct talks with Iran’s leadership:

Not only, he insisted, is the Iranian leadership “untrustworthy,” and dominated by a group of “messianics,” who base crucial decisions about domestic and foreign policy on a belief in the imminent return of the “Missing” (Twelfth) Imam.

From my point of view, any foreign policy based on or strongly influenced by belief in the imminent return of a prophesied figure of good or evil, whether that figure be Moshiach or Christ or Mahdi, Antichrist or Dajjal, should be cause for concern: from a religious perspective, because messianic expectations are precisely what Matthew is talking about when he writes that “false Christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24.24) – and from a secular perspective because such identifications have been made again and again across history, often with disastrous results (think Waco, think the 1979 siege of Mecca, think the Taiping Rebellion).

That’s why I’m interested in monitoring the various strands of apocalyptic thinking out and about in the world today.


A little over a month earlier, on August 3, 2009, 09RPODUBAI316 under the sub-head “A Benevolent Dictator’s Fall from Grace” discussed the idea that the “Arab street” (both Sunni and Shi’a are mentioned) initially saw some Mahdist qualities in Ahmadinejad:

A Syrian journalist and blogger, who owns a media consultancy firm in Dubai, believes that many in the Arab street initially viewed Ahmadinejad when he came to power in 2005 as a “benevolent dictator.” Citing the tradition of the Mahdi, the media consultant argued that both Shi’a and Sunni Arabs are taught from early childhood to await the arrival of a strong and unimpeachable figure who will lead the Muslim world. The media consultant maintained that even secular Arabs view the world, albeit unintentionally, with this ingrained mindset. Our contact argued that Ahmadinejad played in to this narrative, and when Ahmadinejad arrived on the international stage many Arabs saw him, in contrast to their own flawed leaders, as a humble and pious man who was brave enough to stand up for his people and the greater Muslim world by confronting Israel and the West head on. However, both the intensely competitive campaign period and the forceful reaction by the Iranian people to the official election results have led some moderate Arabs to rethink Ahmadinejad’s true disposition. The election, the media consultant said, led some Arabs to understand that despite his astutely crafted and well-marketed image in the Arab world, Ahmadinejad is resented by many Iranians for domestic mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption. Because of this public fall from grace, so the media consultant told us, Ahmadinejad is no longer the “untouchable, holy figure” in the Arab world he once was — his flaws have brought him down to the level of the Arab world’s own imperfect leaders.

I’m reminded of the way that Steve Davis of Charleston, SC, among others, projected messianic qualities onto then-candidate Obama, when he wrote:

Barack’s appeal is actually messianic, it’s something about his aura, his spirit, his soul, that exudes enlightenment in the making.

I interpret Obama’s Lebanon, NH remarks as making light of that sort of projection (McCain’s video makes light of it, too), whereas Ahmadinejad appears to take his own status within the aura of the Mahdi all too seriously.


The last reference allows me to end on a happier note.

The French diplo Jean-Christophe Paucelle is quoted in 09PARIS1046 of July 31, 2009 on the topic of Ahmadinejad’s inauguration.

First he mentions that since non-Muslims had not been invited to previous inaugurations, European members of the diplomatic corps might not know which door to take if they wished to walk out on the ceremony, should such an action be called for… and then he discusses an additional reason why the French would attend the ceremony, despite the contested nature of the election:

Paucelle said that the case of detained French citizen Clothilde Reiss has also influenced the EU decision to attend the inauguration ceremonies. “We think she may be released soon, and we don’t want to create another irritant,” Paucelle said. “There are enough already.” He reported that the French have reason to believe Reiss may form part of a group of detainees likely to be released on the August 7 anniversary of Imam Mahdi. Paucelle noted that a letter released July 29 by Ahmadinejad supported the idea of granting clemency to post-election protesters during Mahdi celebrations. “The Iranians will need to take face-saving measures, and so she will likely transfer to house arrest or some other status,” Paucelle said. He added that, of course, she may not be released at all next week, but the French remain optimistic that she will soon be out of prison.

Clotilde Reiss was indeed not released on that occasion — but she was in fact freed somewhat later, on Sunday, May 16th, 2010.

14 Responses to “Tracking the Mahdi on WikiLeaks”

  1. MM Says:

    Oh stop!  You are confused and all mixed up. Mahdi is Paul Atreides.  An off-worlder who came to lead the Fremen to freedom!  Sheesh!         Oh yes, congrats on 1,000,000 page views!

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Funny you should mention that. I read a paper on "Science Fiction as Scripture, Spirituality as Space Opera" at the Center for Millennial Studies conference in 1999, and mentioned Paul Atreides in passing.
    The ways in which various religious groups have shaped themselves science around works of science fiction has long been an interest of mine. Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo saw himself as Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation series, the leaders of the Heaven’s Gate movement used analogies drawn from Star Trek to explain their beliefs to others, David Koresh made his followers in Waco watch The Lawnmower Man again and again, Jeffrey Lundgren used the Sean Connery movie The Highlander as a "training film" – and then, as you say, there’s Dune.
    Here’s Orson Scott Card, discussing Dune in light of Osama bin Laden:

    The emotional core of the novel, then, comes from a T.E. Lawrence-like character, Paul Atreides, coming to dwell with and learning to live as an Arab Muslim, until he is able to lead them to victorious battle.
    Paul, being a non-Muslim, treats the idea of jihad as an abhorrent one; he long tries to resist the blood and horror of such a thing, though by the end of the book he has given up and realizes that the jihad will happen and cannot be prevented or even controlled.
    So here’s the thought that occurred to me during such passages of Dune: What if Osama bin Laden somehow read Dune during his formative years? Or, if he did not read it himself, certainly there were Arab Muslim students in America who did read it, and the book might well have been part of the reason they became receptive to Osama’s ideas.
    Because a Muslim would not read this book the same way I did. To an Arab Muslim, the Arabic words and names would leap off the page; the Fremen characters would be the ones an Arab reader would most identify with.
    Such a reader would not feel any of Paul Atreides’ reluctance for jihad — on the contrary, he would be hoping Paul would fail to stop the jihad.
    And when, at the end of the book, the Arab jihad is triumphant, this reader — Osama or another of his ideology — would not only feel great emotional satisfaction, he would have the blueprint for his own future.
    [ … ] I can just see such a reader thinking, This isn’t fiction. This is the future. This is why jihad not only can work but must work; we lack only a leader to show us the way. The novel made it a European (in culture) who comes to the poor Fremen and leads them, but this is nonsense.
    [ … ]
    Whether Dune had any causal influence on the rise of Al Qaeda, Herbert certainly did a superb job of predicting the rise and the power of such an ideology. I would be surprised if there were not, among the followers of Osama bin Laden, at least a few readers of Dune for whom this book feels like their future, their identity, their dream.
    In other words, Herbert got it horribly right.

    It’s an intriguing thought, no?

  3. jeane Says:

    Charles has asked if I have posted my (preliminary/superficial) findings that link Assange to Marutukku, the third name of Marduk, the creator God of the Enuma Elish, a text that Assange seems to take inspiration from.  This gives Assange a messianic blueprint for his role as "protector of the people" (as Marutukku is described in Bk 7 of EE).  Please note that EE is the primary creation myth of Western Civilization, an ancient epic that precedes the Hebrew Bible and which furnished some of the (often reworked) material for Genesis.  A messianic paradigm explains the behavior of several self-designated "messiahs" from Jim Jones to Usamah bin Ladin.  Does Assange fit this paradigm.  If he chooses a deity to imitate and a myth as inspiration for his role in the earthly world, yes.  The paradigm does not designate the content, but it provides the pattern for messianic behavior and extends any information we might get from a conventional psychological profile.  Marutukku is Assange’s ultimate name for his encryption program, which he describes (in the voice of "Suelette Dreyfus") as a protection for human rights workers in a hostile context.  The "decoy" name or public name for his program is "Rubberhose," with its connotations of operating in a brutal/hostile environment.

    This fits with one other feature of the messianic paradigm: paranoia.  The messiah operates in a world where he/she expects persecution and disinformation about his/her role to be visited upon the messiah by the hostile powers he/she is battling.

    Marutukku is a hero to the people, a third feature of the messiah paradigm.

    I don’t have time or space to elaborate on the paradigm, but it has worked in my research on religion and violence for a few decades.
    Jean Rosenfeld
    UCLA Center for the Study of Religion

  4. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    This fits with one other feature of the messianic paradigm: paranoia.  The messiah operates in a world where he/she expects persecution and disinformation about his/her role to be visited upon the messiah by the hostile powers he/she is battling.

     I was instantly reminded of Emerson, who knew the dimensions of persecution.

    The circumstances of man, we say, are historically somewhat better in this country, and at this hour, than perhaps ever before. More freedom exists for culture. It will not now run against an axe at the first step out of the beaten track of opinion. But whoso is heroic will always find crises to try his edge. Human virtue demands her champions and martyrs, and the trial of persecution always proceeds. It is but the other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was better not to live.

    (from Heroism)

    Is anyone ever persecuted for another reason? Prosecuted, yes. And a many other, worse things. Perhaps I am too steeped in Emerson, because I recall to many places in his essays and what I’ve read of his journals in which he writes not only about the persecution the heroic or courageous person may experience, but also that such persons should expect that persecution. And, that they should never give up.
    But then, most of us have something of a messianic complex.  For instance, referencing ancient texts or ideologies (or even those written by 19th Cent. essayists!) in order to share information — or, to teach it — displays one’s own belief in being a benevolent bearer of truth to those who may not have it:  I shed light on the masses for the masses!
    Well, I don’t know how many masses come to ZP, I guess.  Over 1 million view though!

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, Curtis:
    “The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately.”

  6. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    "But a new danger appears in the excess of influence of the great man. His attractions warp us from our place. We have become underlings and intellectual suicides. Ah! yonder in the horizon is our help;- other great men, new qualities, counterweights and checks on each other. We cloy of the honey of each peculiar greatness. Every hero becomes a bore at last."

  7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    For me, when judging messiahs, their vision of the future plays a key role.  If I look at Osama bin Laden or Ahmedinejad, for instance, my response is, "Um, no, no thank you.  Absolutely not."  If on the other hand I look at Assange, I draw more of a blank or at least some ambivalence resulting from a lack of clarity:  if he indeed is focused upon creating a much more transparent world (at least, very transparent government and transnational-corporate world), I look upon that future and do not see any BAD in it even if the exact dimensions of such a world are not perfectly clear as yet; but, if he is the rabid anti-American that wishes to see America covered in several inches of radioactive ash (as some have been drawing in their characterizations of him), I am likely to give him the same response I’d give to bin Laden and Ahmadinejad.  But then that is the 4GW point of creating the metaphor of the "messianic complex" in such universal, absolutist terms, and linking Assange w/ bin Laden et al.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Curtis:

    In cases such as this, I try to see not only what future world the individual would like to see, but also what processes might be involved (or unwittingly evoked) in getting there — what worlds might perforce be "passed through" one one’s way there, so to speak.

  9. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Oh, I absolutely agree Charles. One of the difficulties with Assange/Wikileaks is the fact that the individuals working in government and large corporations are private individuals who happen to don a title/role when they leave home; to what degree will their individual rights to privacy be abridged in the search for transparent government/corporation? In some respects, this ties in to the problem with revealing the names and roles of operatives fighting in our wars or conducting diplomatic missions or espionage. (That last one is a peculiar case, since espionage is precisely the role spies play: they go to the closed system and attempt to pry it into transparency for the sponsors of those spies. Would Assange’s efforts compromise such efforts and thus ultimately lead to greater secrecy and more draconian systems?)
    I have a quite similar problem with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Calls for a smaller federal government with reduced powers strike a positive chord for my inherent libertarian soul, but if it leads to stronger local governments who are closer to the populace, and thus may have a larger draconian affect on the public — what I call "the big fish in a smaller pond" effect or goal, that I often see in the Tea Party — then I’m hesitant to follow Messiah Palin.
    Incidentally, this seems to be the theme of our Times. Al Qaeda, Palin, Tea Party, etc., are the free agents fighting against the more centralized top-down mechanisms; the top mechanisms keep working to maintain their hold.  Assange fits in there as well.
    But then, the belief that we should not have to "pass through" dangers on our way to paradise (so to speak) may become the rallying cry of all manner of tyrannical, dictatorial, Top-heavy powers.  They are at the top precisely because they have created, or found and then maintained, the status quo which has allowed them to ascend; naturally they would argue against any tremors or cracks in that status quo.

  10. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    (There be multiple paragraphs there, heh.  I refer back to Fouche.  I’ll remember to place extra lines, not merely periods, between paragraphs in the future! 😉 )

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ve tried to reformat your comment with some para breaks — I may not have gotten them all right, but hope I’ve come closer to what you intended…

  12. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Charles, thanks!  You got ’em right! I’ll try to remember the quirks of ZP better next time.

  13. jeane Says:

    I think there is a latent propensity to heroism in every young boy (and many girls, post feminism II) and they are recruited to whatever opportunistic messianism is afloat in their surround, which these days with "I" power is global.  Certainly, there would be no response to the call to arms by any government if fighting for truth and justice did not trigger the latent desire to be a hero.

    That said, I invoked messianism (and its risk, indeed expectation, of persecution) as a feature of various individuals who have recently created a rebellion against authority not to evaluate them by placing them on one side of a dichotomy, equating, for example, bin Ladin with Assange, but to identify the paradigm of messianic movements.  The content and personnel of such groups change and are always innovative–something always new and unexpected on the radar screen–but the framework/typology is recurrent.  Thus, Jim Jones and bin Ladin may fill the same slot or role in the paradigm–and Assange may also, but evaluating their inherent "goodness" or "evil" is not part of the process of explicating the phenomenon. 

    Like any typologizing, finding and describing the paradigm gives us an instrument to apply to emerging cases that behave like past instances, without evaluating them.  I believe it is more important to properly typologize a new thing in social and political events than to demonize or idealize it.  Dealing with something is much easier when it conforms to underlying properties that bring it into focus and enable us to view it as an ordered phenomenon, not a chaotic and unpredictable threat.

  14. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Jean. 
    I have been trying to make the point that parallelism and analogy imply formal or structural kinship rather than "moral equivalence" for some time now — most recently in a comment on a recent post of Zen’s here on Metaphors as Catalyst and Scaffold
    I believe that a proper appreciation of "form" is an invaluable ingredient in the best analytic work, and hope to develop that idea in greater detail in later posts in my Hipbone Approach series.

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