zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Messianic symmetries

Messianic symmetries

[ by Charles Cameron — Shin Bet’s Yuval Diskin calles Netanyahu messianic, Netanyahu called Ahmadinejad messianic, and other millenarian parallels and face-offs ]

One man’s Christ is another man’s Antichrist:

We’ll get to Diskin and Netanyahu, but first some background.

It is not uncommon to see the face-off between the West and Global Jihad — however you might prefer to name the opposing sides — as both asymmetrical (our kevlar vs their shalwar kameez, so to speak) and symmetrical (our crusaders vs their mujahideen, so to speak).

There are several aspects of these symmetries and asymmetries that interest me:


The first is that the asymmetries are typically quantitative: one side has more firepower than the other, more troops and more sophisticated weaponry, and indeed, the conflict or flurry of conflicts in question does seem to fall under the rubric of asymmetric warfare, and those who write about asymmetries with the deepest understanding are typically those whose “loop” is to observe, orient, decide and act… while by way of contrast, the symmetries are most frequently observed by those whose “loop” is to observe, comprehend, describe and influence, and the symmetries they observe are typically qualitative, operating at the level of ideas.

I’ll get to a couple of examples shortly.


The second is that within the asymmetries, it is not uncommon to find a reversal of polarities by which the lesser outsmarts and defeats the greater force. I’m thinking here of David and Goliath as the archetypal version, and of Nigel Howard, in Confrontation Analysis: how to win operations other than war, writing:

the problem of defense in the modern world is the paradoxical one of finding ways for the strong to defeat the weak.

A different aspect of asymmetry emerges when one can think of Israel as both the powerful high-tech occupier of a poorly-equipped and stateless mass of Palestinians, and a tiny emergent Jewish democracy surrounded on all sides (except the sea) by Arab and or Muslim once and future foes… a Goliath seen one way, a David the other…

What’s intriguing here is that in some ways everybody wants to be David, right?


The third point of interest is the frequency with which the symmetries appear to contain explicit millenarian, messianic or apocalyptic elements.

Here are two examples. The first is from Gilles Kepel, who has been studying Muslim political movements for decades – he wrote The Prophet and the Pharaoh: Islamist movements in Sadat’s Egypt in 1984. In his 2010 Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East, p. 10, he writes:B

ush, Cheney, and the neoconservatives on one hand, Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Al Qaeda on the other — both sides staked their claim to power on a vision of global rectification through violent means. But the utopian ends that supposedly justified those means — universal democracy or a universal Islamist state — proved impossible to achieve, and in a few short years the opposing dreams of Bush and Bin Laden had devolved into an endless shared nightmare.

And then there’s Arundhati Roy, whose Guardian piece, The algebra of infinite justice, written less than a month after 9/11, asked:

What is Osama bin Laden? He’s America’s family secret. He is the American president’s dark doppelganger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilised. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America’s foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of “full-spectrum dominance”, its chilling disregard for non-American lives… Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable. … Now Bush and Bin Laden have even begun to borrow each other’s rhetoric. Each refers to the other as “the head of the snake”. Both invoke God and use the loose millenarian currency of good and evil as their terms of reference.

Note here that Kepel’s “vision of global rectification through violent means” and Roy’s “loose millenarian currency of good and evil” both have resonance that falls clearly within Richard Landes’ corpus of “varieties of millennial experience“.


Even more explicitly messianic is the parallelism / opposition observed by Jean-Pierre Filiu, Kepel’s Sciences Po colleague, in his Apocalypse in Islam, where he notes that:

the emergence of al-Qaida has been accompanied by a millenarian rereading of jihadist terrorism that considers the Taliban sanctuary in Afghanistan to be only a first step toward the establishment of a universal caliphate… the Hour is near. The signs are there for all to see.

and writes with reference to Ahmadinejad and his Mahdist cohorts in the next paragraph:

These tragic visionaries share with the most farsighted of American neoconservatives the conviction that an implacable conflict is foretold in prophecy.

concluding (with regard to both, I would imagine):

It is therefor less a clash of civilizations that is now beginning to take shape than a confrontation of millenarianisms.


Tim Furnish has a milder variant on the classic “One man’s Christ is another man’s Antichrist” theme as the opening sentence of his study of Mahdisms, Holiest Wars — he writes:

One man’s messiah is another man’s heretic…

which in turn reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges and his short classic, The Theologians, in which he describes the vicissitudes of two men deeply concerned with the nature of God — the heretic John of Panonia and the heresy-hunter Aurelian, his nemesis: Borges concludes his tale of these two intertwined lives with an extraordinary symmetry:

The end of this story can only be related in metaphors since it takes place in the kingdom of heaven, where there is no time. Perhaps it would be correct to say that Aurelian spoke with God and that He was so little interested in religious differences that He took him for John of Pannonia. This, however, would imply a confusion in the divine mind. It is more correct to say that in Paradise, Aurelian learned that, for the unfathomable divinity, he and John of Pannonia (the orthodox believer and the heretic, the abhorrer and the abhorred, the accuser and the accused) formed one single person.

But let there be no mistake about it, theologies differ. Safar Al-Hawali may use some of Hal Lindsey‘s exegetical devices to elucidate the end times from an Islamic perspective and proclaim “the Messiah = Christ Jesus Son of Mary, Allah’s servant and messenger” — but Islam’s Mahdi is pretty clearly Joel Richardson‘s Antichrist.


What I hope to have accomplished thus far is to show two things: that keeping an eye out for symmetries and antitheses is a powerful tool for exploring conflict, especially at the qualitative and ideological level, and that messianic juxtapositions in particular have great force, and crop up with significant frequency in the literature of the “sacred vs secular war” also known to some as “jihad vs crusade”.


But hey, we came here to talk about Netanyahu and his spy, right? I find the juxtaposition of these two quotes — one from the current Israeli Prime Minister shortly before he was elected, the other just a few days ago by the man who was recently his spy-chief — striking, particularly in the contex provided above:

I try to read carefully. When I first saw the Yuval Diskin quote it was contextualized as suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were the leaders making “decisions out of messianic feelings” – but then for a moment it occurred to me that Diskin might have been saying “I don’t believe the prime minister’s accusation that the leadership of Iran makes decisions based on messianic feelings is correct – I see them as rational, persuadable actors.”

But no: Yuval Diskin is quite clear that it is Netanyahu and Barak he is talking about in this extended quote from Ha’Aretz:

My major problem is that I have no faith in the current leadership, which must lead us in an event on the scale of war with Iran or a regional war. I don’t believe in either the prime minister or the defense minister. I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings. They are two messianics – the one from Akirov or the Assuta project and the other from Gaza Street or Caesarea. Believe me, I have observed them from up close… They are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off. These are not people who I would want to have holding the wheel in such an event.

Perhaps because I am more than usually sensitive to apocalyptic and messianic fervor, I find the implications of both Netanyahu’s and Diskin’s observations – if accurate as to the respective temperaments of the leaders concerned — quite chilling.


As so often, I’m hoping to raise questions here — to prompt deliberative thinking, not to argue or persuade.

Comments are closed.

Switch to our mobile site