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Coronavirus meets religion #1

Monday, March 16th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — a quick miscellany ]
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The Vatican:

Starting fairly near home, depending on your flavor of the local religion, the Pope in Rome lives in the Vatican — an independent absolute monarchy wholly enclosed by Italy, and unable to escape the virus sweeping its host nation. The Vatican has now reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus.

The Pope, accordingly, has delivered his usual public Sunday Mass by video conference, and instructed the pries of the Catholic Church to attend to those affected by tea coronavirus.

Islam:

The Kaaba in Mecca, usually crammed with pilgrims, is almost completely empty.

The Shiite regime in Tehran has declared that that medical work is jihad — struggle, typically “in the way of Allah. The Mullah Khamenei:

I have already sincerely thanked physicians, nurses and medical teams, but I deem it necessary to thank all those dear ones once more. Certain phenomena were witnessed these days which are really and truly instructive for all of us and which indicate the sense of responsibility of our medical staff and their human and religious commitment in the country.

India:

Put face-masks on the gods / “idols”. This one’s Shiva, from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi:

**

Sending my best wishes to all..

Persepolis, for instance?

Monday, January 6th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — which cultural heritage sites did you have in mind, Mr Trump? ]
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Persepolis, for instance?

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So?

The Golestan Palace, in the heart of Tehran? The Masjed-e Shah in Isfahan? The Hyrcanian Forests, or Lut Desert? I suppose Trump could bomb the Lut Desert without harming civilians, and wind would soon bring the dunes back into their miraculous order..

Iran has 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites all told.

Let’s just say that it took ISIS to destroy the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, and the Taliban to demolish the Bamiyan Buddha..

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Of possible legal relevance:

After an al-Qaeda affiliated group destroyed ancient religious monuments in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, the International Criminal Court took on a unique criminal case: prosecuting cultural destruction.

Though it generally focuses on human rights violations, the ICC charged the leader of the jihadist group, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, with a war crime for destroying cultural artifacts in Timbuktu.

The case was the first criminal charge of its kind. It “breaks new ground for the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage and values,” UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova said at the time. Al-Mahdi eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Okay, a precedent of sorts has been set.

**

BTW, Mike Knights suggests the “best way to make sure Trump does do something you oppose – say bomb cultural sites – is to engage him in a twitter war about it. The way insiders get him to forget about a course of action is to stop mentioning it.”

He did his PhD on “target selection and vetting,” and tells us:

It’s a very laborious, mechanical process for fixed sites, & there is a huge constantly-refined no-strike list. Judge Advocate Generals are involved in all target lists.

Sometimes POTUS crosses red lines and erases norms, sometimes not.

The martyr Soleimani embraced by Imam Hussein

Friday, January 3rd, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — as so often, religious analysis reveals a passionate motivational driver which can help us understand a national security threat — in this case not just from Iran ]
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Yes, that’s Soleiman embraced in death by Imam Husayn ibn Ali, the great martyr of Karbala

D’oh!

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As we process the death of Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force commander, Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani by today’s US drone strike, it’s worth taking a look at religious aspects of the response to the death of an iconic figure, who is viewed in Iran as a “glorious martyr“.

Narges Bajoghli is an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies {SAIS], and author of Iran Reframed” based on ten years of field research on the IRGC. She has a very pointed tweet which shows the illustration above, commenting:

More Art on Soleimani by Iran reg cultural ctrs. Imp to note dead Soleimani embraced by Imam Hussein. W/in Iran this circulating w text “Iran’s Rostam” (hero from Persian epic). Nat’lism + rel symbols to rally around flag internally, while image alone communicates to non-Iranian Shia.

Two points here — Martyrdom, and the tale of Sohrab and Rustum.

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Martyrdom:

Martyrdom is a central motif in Shi’ite thinking, which centers on the Battle of Karbala in which a small contingent led by the Prophet’s grandson, Ali’s son Husayn was defeated and martyred by the much greater forces of Yazid, second of the Sunni Umayyad caliphs — conceptually, the founding moment for Shia separation from Sunni Islam.

The death of Husayn is mourned yearly on Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, with the slogan:

Every Day Is Ashura and Every Land Is Karbala

Imam Husayn embracing Soleimani thus pouts him at the very heart of Shia maythology. There could hardly be a more emphatic invocation oa a current of religious thought underlying not just Iranian but all Shi’ite thinking>

Thus Iraq’s usually quietist Grand Ayatollah Sistani, hugely admired outside Iran, may well feel called to request the departure of all US troops from Iraq as a result — should this happen, it would be a great victory, in death, for Gen Soleimani.

For a Christian equivalent, think of the devout Catholic observance of the Stations of the Cross.

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Rustum:

The tale of Sohrab and Rustum is an except from the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, “relating how the great warrior Rustum unknowingly slew his long-lost son Sohrab in single combat” —a tale which is even known to English readers in the version by poet Matthew Arnold:

But, with a grave mild voice, Sohrab replied:—
“Desire not that, my father! thou must live.
For some are born to do great deeds, and live,
As some are born to be obscured, and die.
Do thou the deeds I die too young to do,
And reap a second glory in thine age;
Thou art my father, and thy gain is mine.
But come! thou seest this great host of men
Which follow me; I pray thee, slay not these!
Let me entreat for them; what have they done?
They follow’d me, my hope, my fame, my star.
Let them all cross the Oxus back in peace.
But me thou must bear hence, not send with them,
But carry me with thee to Seistan,
And place me on a bed, and mourn for me,
Thou, and the snow-hair’d Zal, and all thy friends.
And thou must lay me in that lovely earth,
And heap a stately mound above my bones,
And plant a far-seen pillar over all.
That so the passing horseman on the waste
May see my tomb a great way off, and cry:
Sohrab, the mighty Rustum’s son, lies there,
Whom his great father did in ignorance kill!
And I be not forgotten in my grave.”

And, with a mournful voice, Rustum replied:—
“Fear not! as thou hast said, Sohrab, my son,
So shall it be; for I will burn my tents,
And quit the host, and bear thee hence with me,
And carry thee away to Seistan,
And place thee on a bed, and mourn for thee,
With the snow-headed Zal, and all my friends.
And I will lay thee in the lovely earth,
And heap a stately mound above thy bones,
And plant a far-seen pillar over all,
And men shall not forget thee in thy grave.

Soleimani, then, is drawn into an embrace by Huseyn, viewed as another Rustum, heroic Iranian icon — and on today’s Middle Eastern battlefields from Lebanon to Iraq a brilliant strategist and warrior..

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Reflect, then, on this 2009 quote from Soleimani, to get a sense of the man as he regards his own role:

The war-front is mankind’s lost paradise. One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise. … The war-front was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.

Isaac Chotiner describes him thus in the New Yorker:

If he had described himself, it would probably have been as the commander of Iran’s equivalent of CENTCOM, the regional commander of all of Iran’s operations — security, intelligence, military– outside of the Iranian border.

And to return to martyrdom:

The main [Iranian] news channels showed a live gathering at a mosque in Gilan Province, where the preacher reassured worshippers that “the best death is martyrdom for God” and that “great men prefer martyrdom to death by natural causes, cancer, accidents or old age”.

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Recommended tweeting:

  • Vali Nasr, until recently dean of SAIS
  • Narges Bajoghli, SAIS Assistant Professor
  • Mohammad Ali Shabani, PhD Researcher at SOAS
  • Here is a word, maybe even a sentence, in the language of menace

    Monday, May 20th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — behold Abraham Lincoln of the USN sending a signal to Iran, the IRGC, and various Shia militias of dubious reliability ]
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    Here is a word, maybe even a sentence, in the language of menace:

    It looks even more menacing in the full-sized image as I found it, thanks to Julian West, in the Guardian. – hit the link to see it, it’s too large for the Zenpundit format!

    Now imagine how menacing that word or sentence becomes when it’s not a photo but a carrier strike group sailing your way..

    And now think how menacing that carrier group becomes when John Bolton‘s the one who may be — pardon the pun — calling the shots

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    Let’s go back to the image up above for a moment, and pray there are no unfortunate accidents, and that the carrier strike group seen here as a sentence in the language of menace doesn’t become anyone’s death sentence..

    The thing about a carrier strike group and John Bolton

    Friday, May 10th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — strategy / metacognition — here’s an easy to feel, hard to conceptualize notion: the threat to Iran is a human+carrier-group threat, not just a carrier-group threat, okay? ]
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    The U.S. Navy’s Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group includes guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, and missile destroyers USS Bainbridge, USS Gonzalez, USS Mason and USS Nitze. Photo by MCS3 Stephen Doyle

    As the son of a captain RN, I can’t resist images like this:

    **

    Aside:

    Let me start by noting that MSNBC’s Richard Engel today mentioned that North Korea expresses varying levels of frustration by exploding underground nukes when “really, really angry” — and then in descending order firing off ICBMs and then short-range missiles — the stage we’re at this week, indicating “moderate displeasure — but why? — And Engel suggests the Kim regime is signalling that it “wants to get back to the bargaining table”..

    So the firing of missiles, albeit into the Sea of Japan, an act of aggression on the face of it, and plausibly a bit of a threat — an example of “saber-rattling”, as Engel goes on to say — can carry a message of tghe wish to negotiate, if not for actual reconciliation.

    I mention this merely to indicate that threat — along with such related categories as exercise, deployment, war-game, &c — is a polyvalent matter.

    But that’s just to open our minds to the matter of The thing about a carrier strike group and John Bolton…

    **

    Main point:

    John Bolton just announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln was hastening to the Persian Gulf “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

    That’s a threat.

    Presumably, as far as Bolton is concerned, the threat in this case is the Lincoln strike group and accompanying bomber wing — the deployment of massive lethal force.

    I don’t think that’s the threat — or to put it another way, I think that’s only half the threat, or more precisely, it’s y in the threat xy.

    What I’m getting at is on the one hand patently obvious, and on the other, conceptually difficult to handle: that the threat is in fact John Bolton force-multiplying the carrier strike group..

    John Bolton is a hawkish hawk — Trump himself said today with a laugh that he’s the one who has to “tempers” Bolton, rather than the other way around — Bolton, if I may say so, is somewhere between a rattling saber and a loose cannon. He may be in complete control of himself, full of sound and fury purely for effect, and far more cautious in purpose and action than he lets on. But his hawkishness is unpredictable, and it’s that unpredictable bellicosity — multiplied by the lethality of the carrier group — that constitutes the real thread.

    It’s easy to feel that, particularly if you’re an Iranian honcho — but not so easy to think about it or discuss it strategically, because there’s no such conceptual category as a human-warforce hybrid.

    We need that category.

    Because the threat to Iran is a human-warship threat, not just a warship threat. And when the human is John Bolton — watch out!


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