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Black Banners in the Washington Post

August 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the one point missing IMO in an otherwise fine piece ]
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In WaPo, under the header How the violent Islamic State extremists got their signature flag, Abby Phillip tackles what I believe is a very significant question, that of the black banners, but doesn’t mention their “end times” significance:

Since the Islamic State began consolidating territory in its bloody campaign over the last year or so, it has gone from relative obscurity to global notoriety — and so has its flag.

The black-and-white banner is not only being flown in Iraq and Syria, where the group has claimed a “caliphate,” but also in London — and now, apparently, New Jersey and outside the White House.

Mark Dunaway — a Garwood, N.J., resident who converted to Islam about 10 years ago — seemed to have no idea that the flag he was hanging outside his house was associated with a violent militant group that’s on the march in the Syria in Iraq.

“I hang it every Friday and every Ramadan which ended not too long ago and I keep it up a little longer than I normally do,” Dunaway told FoxNews.com. “I guess some people saw it and got offended so I took it down. I do not support any militant group or anything like that.”

Dunaway removed the flag from the front of his house, replacing it with one for an American football team, the San Diego Chargers, according to NJ.com.

“I understand now that people turn on CNN and see the flag associated with jihad, but that’s not the intention of that flag at all,” Dunaway told NJ.com. “It says ‘There is only one god, Allah, and the prophet Muhammad is his messenger.’ It’s not meant to be a symbol of hate. Islam is all about unity and peace. I am not a part of any group like that, and I’m not anti-American. I love my country, but I am a Muslim.”

Dunway did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday and Friday.

Putting aside the question of whether he had ever heard of the Islamic State or seen the flag flown in photos accompanying dozens of media reports in recent years, the real history of the flag is fairly recent and inextricably linked to jihad.

So how does an unsuspecting New Jersey man end up with a flag associated with a brutally violent militant group? Well, for one thing, you can buy the Islamic State’s flag on eBay for a mere $20, as of this writing.

[ .. more .. ]

That’s all okay, that’s interesting. But there’s one salient aspect of the “black banner” story that’s missing from Ms. Phillip’s account — the hadith which claims that an army with black banners will sweep victoriously from Khorasan (roughly, Afghanistan / Iran) to Jerusalem in the Islamic equivalent of the Christian “end times” war culminating in the battle of Armageddon.

The important thing here is that the black flag signals belief that the army and war in question are those associated with the Mahdi, Islam’s end times awaited eschatological figure.

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It’s very easy for us to overlook the Mahdist / end times aspect of IS and other jihadist rhetoric, because we tend to dismiss end times belief as somehow quaint and outdated. I’ve been suggesting it’s more like an undertow that may catch us unawares if we don’t pay attention.

I’ve written quite a bit about this myself [eg 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 -- see also Aaron Zelin's On flags, Islamic History and Al-Qaida.]

The meaning attaching to symbols morphs over time, sure, and the “black banners” hadith may or may not be the “central” meaning of the flag with shahada and seal, now strongly and almost exclusively associated with the IS attempt at a caliphate — but the IS magazine Dabiq in its first two issues (1, 2) makes that end times connection pretty clear, even if the flag itself doesn’t.

This kind of end times appeal is always something to be particularly watchful of.

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Recommended Reading

August 18th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

TOP BILLING! Small Wars Journal (Gary Anderson) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Theory and Practice of Jihad 

….Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not a formally trained military commander. However, he is not illiterate or a common thug such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who led al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006. Al-Baghdadi holds a doctorate in theology from a theological seminary and appears to be a keen student of American tactics as they were passed on to the Iraqi Army, as well as the military practices of his Syrian Baathist opponents. Whether he is a military prodigy or merely a very talented student and practitioner of military art is irrelevant. To date, he has shown himself to be a very effective commander.

Like the prophet Mohammed from whom he claims descent, al-Baghdadi sees himself as a soldier-Imam and recognizes no difference between fighting, governing, and religion. This allows him to flow seamlessly between mediums. If we write him off as a mere terrorist, we make the mistake of underestimating him. He is generally considered to be a crackpot by serious Islamic scholars, but he controls a tract of land that includes most of al-Anbar province, much of eastern Syria, and Iraq’s second largest city; that makes him a serious player in the region. However, we should also beware of making him out to be ten feet tall. If we are going to deal with him, we need to understand how he fights and governs as well as his strengths and weaknesses.

….PRACTICE MANEUVER WARFARE. The army of the newly proclaimed Caliphate is well versed in the theory and practice of maneuver warfare. Maneuver Warfare is not just about movement. It is about putting of all of your force’s effects where they will do the most damage to the enemy. Al-Baghdadi has proven adept at the key tenants of maneuver warfare:

Avoiding Surfaces and Exploiting Gaps. Al-Baghdadi understands the concept of striking the enemy where he is weak and avoiding his foes’ strengths; this is true of physical military capability as well as the exploitation of enemy moral weaknesses. He exploits reconnaissance and intelligence to gauge whether an operation is doable. In Mosul, al-Baghdadi judged Iraqi army leadership to be rotten to the core and was able to take the city with a main force of about 800 men routing thousands of Iraqi government security forces after their leaders fled. However, when Iraqi government commandos provided steadfast resistance at the Baji oil fields, al-Baghdadi’s commander on the scene recognized a surface and moved on to softer targets.

Attack the Enemy’s Moral Cohesion. Through the selective use of terror, al-Baghdadi has gotten inside the opponent’s decision cycle. Iraqi government commanders in Baghdad found themselves issuing orders to subordinate leaders who have left the field. Junior soldiers woke up to see their commanders boarding mini-busses and panicked fearing the fate of fellow soldiers who had previously surrendered only to be massacred. This deliberate use of terror is selective as was the case with Genghis Khan. He massacred the populations of the first cities of any region that he attacked, and the word got around that resistance was futile. The great Khan conquered many cities, but based on his reputation, he had to lay siege to very few….

A tour de force piece by Anderson.

Cheryl Rofer –  George Kennan, The Long Telegram, And Russia in 2014 – Part 1 and George Kennan, The Long Telegram, And Russia in 2014 – Part 2 

….Kennan lists in this section his reservations and qualifications on what he has described as the Soviet viewpoint. Kennan’s words in italics.

First, it does not represent natural outlook of Russian people. Although Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are at record highs, similar highs during the Georgian crisis of 2008 quickly subsided. Russians will support their government, and this government is giving them a sense of self-respect and standing in the world through its annexation of Crimea and bold stand on Ukraine. A heavy propaganda campaign has reinforced these feelings.

Second, please note that premises on which this party line is based are for most part simply not true. This has been bothering me about Russian claims for some time. Many of them are arguable or have a couple of ways of being seen. For example, NATO expansion can be seen as a Western plot to encircle Russia and a betrayal of promises made in the 1990s. However, an examination of that expansion shows that, while there was discussion of Germany and NATO, no written guarantees were made, and that, further, the former Soviet satellites and republics that have joined NATO were eager to do so in order to escape the threat of renewed Russian expansionism. Both Russian and Western actions have led to today’s circumstances, but Russia emphasizes a narrative of its victimization rather than agency.

Russian arguments that the West is economically weak and about to fail are based on the crash of 2008 and a weak European recovery. Russia’s economic position, however, has its own problems. In the twenty-plus years since the wrenching conversion from Communist economics, Russia has failed to develop an industrial economy and relies on oil and other resource exports. When oil prices are good, its economy is good. But both the fall of the Soviet Union and the ruble crash of 1998 were associated with drops in oil prices. Russia is also vulnerable economically, more so than the West.

Max Hastings - Barbarians, genocide and a terrifying lack of Western leadership 

….Thus the huge problem for the West is that, while attempting to repel the Islamic State, it cannot identify any other local faction to champion, except the Kurds who suffered years of persecution. Indeed, the West should urgently give the Kurds the means to defend themselves. Otherwise, the least bad option is the one Obama has chosen: hit the extremists hard and fast with air power. He says there will be no U.S. troop commitment, but let us not kid ourselves: at the very least, some presence on the ground will be indispensable to provide targeting intelligence and control U.S. aircraft. Satellites and drones cannot do this on their own.

Regardless, this will leave us – and I say ‘us’, because it’s hard to see how Britain can escape participation – in a very deep hole. The fact is that Western follies since 2001 have contributed mightily to unleashing forces we cannot control, demented hordes who are killing more people than the dictators did. These are worrying times for those fearful of a descent into a historic confrontation with militant Islam. Although the jihadis in Iraq are killing Muslims as well as Christians, multiple stress points around the world – Gaza not least among them – intensify the danger that we shall eventually find ourselves going head-to-head with a vast religious grouping.

Professor Sir Michael Howard, Britain’s most distinguished historian and strategist, now 92, lamented to me last month the tottering, if not collapse, of every pillar that has supported international order through his lifetime. By that he means the UN, Nato and a strong America. I thought that he overstated the scale of the chaos that is currently unfolding, both in the Ukraine and the Middle East. But today, his words seem dismayingly justified.

al-Arabiya (Hisham Melhem) Enough lies, the Arab body politic created the ISIS cancer  

….Ever since the 1967 Arab defeat in the war with Israel, Arab politics have been influenced and mostly shaped by various stripes of Islamists, including the radical and violent groups that constitute the antecedent of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Their emergence was in the making for decades. Today most of the politics in various Arab states from the countries of the Maghreb; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, through Egypt and on to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen is highly influenced by Islamists who occupy a shrinking spectrum. Most of the debates are essentially “all in the family” of Islamists kinds of debates. The rise of the Islamists; such as al-Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the various Salafists, the Jama’a Islamia, Hezbollah, Hamas and later al-Qaeda and ISIS has been facilitated by the depredations of the “secular” Arab regimes, the military strongmen and the one party rule, particularly the depravities of the Baath Party in both Syria and Iraq.

War on the Rocks ( Bryan McGrath) THE PARADOX OF AMERICAN NAVAL POWER 

….The U.S. Navy is to some extent, a victim of its own success. It consistently provides presidents with flexible options for response and it rarely has to say, “No, we cannot do that.” Unless a president comes into office with the idea that the nation must begin to prepare for the rigors of great power competition again, the Navy will appear sufficiently sized to meet the requirements of crisis response, for these are the requirements against which its size and capabilities are resourced. And since there is no bureaucratic incentive for anyone within the chain of command to advocate for such preparation in the absence of presidential leadership, we may unfortunately someday find ourselves with a navy we can afford, but not the one we need. 

Global Guerrillas - iWar 101: Kicking the Squirrel 

Bruce Kesler - Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy: Obaman Bluster Without Substance 

Steven Metz -The Rise of the Islamic State and the Evolution of Violent Extremism

Israel’s version of The Onion and The Duffel Blog – introducing  The Israeli Daily !

China Matters -ISIS Tentacles Reach Toward China

Scholar’s Stage – It’s time to talk Honestly about the US-Japanese Alliance

Chicago Boyz (Lexington Green) -History Friday: Oliver P. Morton, The Great War Governor 

Watch how Western Culture migrated.

Sic Semper Tyrannis - IS Diary – 7 August 2014

The Glittering Eye -In What Belief System? and The Real Fear 

USNI Blog (Alex Smith) -Cooperative Strategy in the 21st Century 

David Brin -More Science: Microbes, Pathogens & Parasites

Cicero MagazineSpymaster Jack Devine on Building a Better CIA 

Studies in Intelligence - The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warlord  

PARAMETERS –  Options for Avoiding Counterinsurgencies  

That’s it.

 UPDATE:

Broken link to The Scholar’s Stage is now fixed.  My apologies to T. Greer.

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Ferguson compared: Kelsey Atherton compiles the tweets

August 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- easily the clearest and most powerful critique of recent events in Ferguson comes from KD Atherton and friends ]
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Kelsey Atherton has Storified a fine compilation of tweets comparing Ferguson police, their weaponry, posture and tactcis, with military equivalents, in what is essentially an extended DoubleQuotes approach to understanding the “militarization” of US police. Please note that the piece runs two pages to see the second, you need to click for it at the bottom of the first page.

He leads of with a sequence of tweets from Andrew Exum aka Abu Muqawama, of which this is one:

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Two of the tweets Atherton posts use what I call a DoubleQuotes in the Wild format:

and:

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Here are some other examples, pulled from a total of 45 tweets all told — including some from friends of this blog:

One point nicely made by Adam Weinstein is that the “militarization” isn’t military much beyond the gear:

See also this:

Here’s Jimmy Sky:

— which pretty much confirms a point I was making in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

Three from Nathan Bethea offer further perspective on Iraq:

Again, that last tweet reinforces what I was suggesting in DoubleQuotes in Foreign Policy: Ferguson and the world.

My next-to-last pick: Jason Fritz makes a triple point:

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After requesting further tweets that might be relevant to his Storify story, Atherton includes a handful of tweets from @kudzu81 aka ibreakthings, offering this moderate critique:

Atherton’s own conclusion, which he posts as a sub-head to his Storify:

The general consensus here: if this is militarization, it’s the shittiest, least-trained, least professional military in the world, using weapons far beyond what they need, or what the military would use when doing crowd control.

All in all, an impressive performance — much kudos to Kelsey Atherton, be sure to read his whole piece on Storify — and follow him on Twitter.

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The dapple, shimmer, dazzle

August 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the Jesuit poet GM Hopkins, on the dazzling diversity of life and the stark contrasts of mortality ]
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The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ made great and frequent use of the word “dapple”. I’ll get to that word, and what I make of it, by a roundabout route.


Canyon de Chelly, in Navajo country

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Philosopher-architect Christopher Alexander in his book A Pattern Language describes the “pattern” he terms Pools of light, first by dissing “uniform illumination” — which he calls “the sweetheart of the lighting engineers” — saying it “serves no useful purpose whatsoever”, and that it “destroys the social nature of space, and makes people feel disoriented and unbounded.” The engineers’ preference for uniform lighting, he continues, “is based on two mistakes.” It is the first of these that interests me here:

First of all, the light out-doors is almost never even. Most natural places, and especially the conditions under which the human organism evolved, have dappled light which varies continuously from minute to minute, and from place to place.

Let’s call that a contemporary version of an ancient truth.

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Christopher Alexander is not alone in noticing this feature of our natural surroundings. It’s a less poetic and more prescriptive version, for instance, of the Navaho view of creation in terms of the “four cardinal lights” which play unceasingly across the gloriously striated walls of Canyon de Chelly and the lands of the Dine:

Trudy Griffen-Pierce describes the Navaho cardinal lights thus, in her Earth is my Mother, Sky is my Father: Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting:

the four cardinal light phenomena are results of the sun’s apparent daily motion. These phenomena are the four directions and the times of day and colors that are linked to them. A Navajo does not think of the east without envisioning hayolkaal, Dawn, and the white color of the sky at this time of day. Next is nahodeetl’iizh, which is usually glossed as “horizontal blue” or “blue haze” in reference to the band of relatively darker blue that lies on the horizon at midday; this light is associated with the south. Nahootsoii follows and literally means “around the area becomes yellow,” although this word is usually translated as “evening twilight”; it is linked to the west. Finally, chahalheel, darkness, is associated with the north and with the blackness of the night sky.

Here a people who live, walk in beauty, balance, peace, sa’a naghai bik’e hozho, minutely observe the play of light and shade that contitutes our “dappled” world.

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Hopkins was the first poet I read and loved — Trevor Huddleston introduced me to him — and the word “dappled” was and remains a central one in Hopkins’ poetry, a window on the way he saw the world, and thus a window on how we may see it ourselves.

Poem the first:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                    Praise him.

That would almost certainly have been the poem from which I first learned Hopkins use of the word “dappled” — and it remains a touchstone for me, more than a half-century later.

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It is glorious, begins indeed with the word “glory” — and Hopkins’ world is one in which a divine glory “will flame out, like shining from shook foil” to use another phrase of his. It is the “kingdom” of the Gospel of Thomas —

the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.

— and one of those who did see it is the English poet Thomas Traherne, who wrote to his friend:

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places.

I think here also of the American poet, still among us, Gary Snyder, and of one poem of his in particular, The Dazzle, from his Turtle Islamd collection:

the dazzle, the seduction the
design
intoxicated and quivering,
bees? is it flowers? why does this
seed move around.
the one
divides itself, divides, and divides again.
“we all know where that leads”
blinding storms of gold pollen.
– grope through that?
the dazzle
and the blue clay.
“all that moves loves to sing”
the roots are at work.
unseen.

The dapple, shimmer, dazzle.. the trembling of populus tremuloides, the quaking aspen in the canyon.. trembling of the Quakers before their God..

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Hopkins illustrates this exuberant, ecstatic, exhilarating sense of “dapple” in another great poem of his, The Windhover:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air…

In his poem, Duns Scotus’s Oxford he writes of the “dapple-eared lily”..

In The May Magnificat he asks:

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:

and answers himself:

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all–
This ecstacy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Dapple, dapple, dapple — the outer and inner worlds, dappled, the outer and inner worlds dappled together.

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And then, as Hopkins moves towards the end of his life, and his world towards the End of Days, the dapple, the variegation, is lost, the many colors turn to black and white.

I find Hopkins’ poems in general are wrestling matches of a sort that strengthens the fortunate reader, as Jacob wrestled with an angel, just as Rilke reported:

I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Poem the second is a harsh, hard poem. There is more in it of both music and meaning than I can easily wrestle from it — but these are the phrases I would pick out as delivering the central thread:

Evening strains to night .. earth her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end… let life .. wind off her .. veined variety .. all on two spools .. páck now her all in two flocks, two folds .. black, white; right, wrong .. reckon .. mind .. but thése two.. ware of a wórld where but these two tell, each off the other ..

Here, then, is the poem itself:

Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ‘ vaulty, voluminous, … stupendous
Evening strains to be tíme’s vást, ‘ womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ‘ stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ‘ her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as- 5
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ‘ self ín self steedèd and páshed—qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering ‘ áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘ Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind 10
Off hér once skéined stained véined variety ‘ upon, áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; ‘ right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ‘ twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

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Anthony Burgess, in a New York Times piece, The Ecstasy of Gerard Manley Hopkins, writes:

To Hopkins, who was almost blindingly devout, God’s glory showed itself in the intense variety of the physical world, especially when such variety was present in a single member of it. .. Dapple was a kind of tension of opposites: nothing flaccid, everything dynamic..

At the end, for Hopkins — at the end of his days, and at the End of Days — all that glorious variety of dazzle and dapple narrows and collapses into a stark yes or no: black or white, good or evil, pass or fail, quick or dead.

It is a humbling thought, for one who loves the dapple, dazzle.

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Gaza and the CAR: War and Peace

August 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- different beauties ]
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The faces:

The quotes:

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The upper face is that of Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, and the upper quote is one she quoted on FaceBook a few weeks back, from an unpublished piece written 12 years ago by Uri Elitzur, a Netanyahu advisor, which Shaked endorsed saying it was “as relevant today as it was at the time”.

The lower face is that of Fr. Patrick Nainangue, and the lower quotes is from a report by Alexandra Zavis in the LA Times titled A plea for peace: conflict in the Central African Republic.

The beautiful Ms Shaked shows me one aspect of what humans are capable of, while the no less beautiful Fr. Nainangue shows me another.

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Here is the uncropped photo from which that portrait of Fr Nainangue was taken:

Its legend reads:

Father Patrick Nainangue, left, talks with imam Mamadou Goni, who found refuge from the killings at the church compound in Bossemptele. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Beautiful.

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