zenpundit.com » 2012 » April

Archive for April, 2012

Kepel and Abu Musab al-Suri, with a side of poetry

Monday, April 30th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — cool scholarly Kepel dismissive of hot apocalyptic al-Suri, and some beautifully crafted sentences from Kepel ]


I admire Gilles Kepel, not only and not so much because he is an analyst of Islamism of the first water (which he is) as because the man can write like a poet – and beside the pleasure this brings me, I have the sense that a subtle and compelling voice is liable to be the voice of a subtle and compelling mind.

I am particularly fond, therefore, of his little book, Bad Moon Rising – a journal more than a scholarly tome, but a scholar’s journal none the less – in which you’ll find such gems as these:

Egypt unfurls its seasons according to an intimately olfactory calendar, bound up since eternity with the ebb and flow of the Nile…

— this from the very first page, and – discussing the 1984 exodus of Egyptian radicals to fight in Afghanistan:

For Egyptian officials, this was a boon: the most extremist beards were clearing out, going off to fight in the service of the American ally, and if, perchance, they happened to die, it had been divinely ordained…

— not to mention his reasonably chaste comment on al-Qaradawi and matters sexual on p. 63.


Accordingly, I thought I’d drop in here two paragraphs that Kepel uses to describe the hundred-page apocalyptic finale to Musab al-Suri‘s Global Islamic Resistance Call in Beyond terror and martyrdom: the future of the Middle East, pp. 169-170:

Suri’s existential angst, along with the frightening vision of a near future when the state of barbarism would be combined with a war of all against all, resulted in an astonishing conclusion. The rationalist engineer — who threw physics, Arab nationalism, Third World ideologies, Qutb’s Islamism, and French and Spanish essays and novels into the jihadist blender of his mind — turned into a prophet of the apocalypse at the end of his magnum opus, much like the authors in the Arab world who flood the displays of sidewalk vendors with predictions with predictions about the end of the world, the return of the messiah, and torture in the grave.

As if he had shell-shocked himself with his practical, all-too-human theories of how to take over the world, he turned back to metaphysics at the end, lining up dozens of Quran verses and commentaries that predict the arrival of the Anti-Christ, the return of the messiah, or the battle of Gog and Magog. The rationalism that informs the body of his work gives way, in the Conclusion, to a mishmash of superstitions and ends with a testament “written in a time of misery: we are fleeing from one hiding-place to another, hunted down by the enemies of God, infidels, and the apostates who help them.


Kepel’s comments on al-Suri have a touch of the dismissive to them, I’d say – but it was also Kepel who supervised the painstaking years of research that went into J-P Filiu‘s Apocalypse in Islam, and for that we should be very grateful.

Filiu himself notes that he hesitated for a long time before throwing himself into a detailed study of Islamic apocalyptic literature, fearing that he “would have to overcome academic against a subculture that had grown up around self-educated authors and cheaply produced books” and eventually deciding to commit himself to the work only after his Arab colleagues convinced him of “the necessity of taking this frenzied expression of apocalyptic feeling seriously.”

Getting back to Kepel, then — he’s a “cool” scholar, and al-Suri’s a “hot” apocalyptic warrior D’you suppose cool sometimes dismisses hot just a tad too easily?

Messianic symmetries

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

[ 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.

Grace and the Garage

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — introducing the world of problem solvers and creatives to the world of theologians and contemplatives and vice versa — and then, Simone Weil ]


I believe this is an important post in its own way, though a short one: because it links two areas that I believe are joined at the hip in “reality” but seldom linked together in thinking about either one.

I mean, creativity, as in the guys working away in the garage on something that when it emerges will be the new Apple, and grace, the mysterious and mercurial manner in which inspiration touches down on us…


In the first part of this post, then, I would simply like to suggest that those entrepreneurial folk who follow their dreams — typically into garages or caves — and beg borrow and steal from relatives, friends and passing acquaintances the funds they need to continue their pursuit of some goal or grail under the rubric “do what you love and the money will follow” are, in fact, following a variant of a far earlier rubric, “seek ye first the kingdom of God … and all these things shall be added unto you” – and that creative insight or aha! is in fact a stepped down and secular version of what theology has long termed epiphany – the shining through of the eternal into our mortal lives.

But this will get preachy if I belabor the point: what I am hoping to do is to open the literatures of the world’s contemplative traditions to the interest of “creatives” and the literatures of creativity, problem solving, and autopioesis to the interest of theologians and contemplatives…


And Simone Weil.

Simone Weil, a philosopher I very much admire, wrote a book of superb beauty and wisdom titled Gravity and Grace. I must suppose that her title was somewhere in the back room of my mind, working quietly away behind the scenes, when the title for this post popped up.

Weil is, shall we say, hard liquor for the mind and spirit — highly distilled, potent, to be sipped, no more than two paragraphs or pages at a time…

A Jew who loved the Mass yet refused baptism, an ally of Communists and a resistance fighter against the Nazis, a factory worker, mystic, philosopher. The poster at the top of this post is for a film of her life: I doubt it will be a comfortable film, but the discomfort will likely be of the inspirational kind.

The Anti-Strategy Board Cometh

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

President Barack Obama has established by an executive order an Atrocity Prevention Board.  After the 120 day study and planning period (which will determine the writ of the APB), the board will be chaired by Samantha Power, a senior White House foreign policy adviser, NSC staffer and an aggressive advocate of R2P .

This is not likely to end well.

Presidential boards, commissions, study groups and other executive branch bodies are political agendas that power has made into bureaucratic flesh. Some, like the Warren Commission or the Iraq Study Group were transient for an instrumental purpose; others, like the Defense Policy Board put down roots and become real institutions. Some are killed for partisan reasons by new administrations (as Rumsfeld did to DACOWITS by letting it’s charter expire and then remolding it) or from congressional pique (this terminated the Public Diplomacy Commission) while some linger on for decades in zombie status, politically irrelevant but still animate, due to the inertia of bureaucracy.

What is interesting about these various bodies is that without the statutory powers granted to agencies created by legislation, they are merely empty shells unless filled with influential figures with clout or blessed by the patronage of high officials. If this is the case, even very obscure bodies can be platforms for impressive political action. Creepy and cloying old Joe Kennedy parlayed a minor post on a maritime commission and his vast fortune to become successively FDR’s SEC Chairman and the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, where he dispensed bad geopolitical advice and pushed the future careers of his sons, netting a president and two senators. The role of the Defense Policy Board in the run-up to the Iraq War is well known and I am told that one can even launch a constellation of careers and a powerhouse think tank from something as mundane and thankless as writing a COIN manual 😉

It is safe to say that the new Atrocity Prevention Board is not going to be window decoration.

Many people who are seeing what I am seeing in this move are now uneasily prefacing their critical comments with “Well, who can be against stopping atrocities, right?”. Let me say with complete candor: I can. The Atrocity Prevention Board is a great sounding  bad idea that represents an impossible task in terms of Ways, unaffordable in terms of Means and unacheivable in relation to Ends. Worse, by holding the national security community hostage to the serendipity of governmental cruelty on a global scale, the intelligent pursuit of national interests are effectively foreclosed  and the initiative ceded to random, unconnected,  events. This worst kind of institutionalized crisis management time horizon also comes weighted with implicit theoretical assumptions about the end of national sovereignty that would, I expect, surprise most Americans and which we will soon regret embracing.

Given the ambitions and missionary zeal of some R2P advocates and their ADHD approach to military intervention, it is unsurprising that this new entity was not titled “The Genocide Prevention Board”. Genocide, which the United States has definitive treaty obligations to recognize and seek to curtail, is too narrowly defined and too rare an event for such a purpose. “Atrocities” can be almost any scale of lethal violence and could possibly include “non-lethal” violence as well. This is a bureaucratic brief for global micromanagement by the United States that makes the Bush Doctrine appear isolationist and parsimonious in comparison.

A while back, while commenting on R2P, I wrote:

…As Containment required an NSC-68 to put policy flesh on the bones of doctrine, R2P will require the imposition of policy mechanisms that will change the political community of the United States, moving it away from democratic accountability to the electorate toward “legal”, administrative, accountability under international law; a process of harmonizing US policies to an amorphous, transnational, elite consensus, manifested in supranational and international bodies. Or decided privately and quietly, ratifying decisions later as a mere formality in a rubber-stamping process that is opaque to everyone outside of the ruling group.

The president is entitled to arrange the deck chairs as he sees fit, and in truth, this anti-strategic agenda can be executed just as easily through the NSC or offices in the West Wing, but the creation of a formal board is the first step to institutionalizing and “operationalizing a R2P foreign policy” under the cover of emotionalist stagecraft and networking machinations. A doctrine of which the American electorate is generally unaware and the Congress would not support legislatively (if there was a hope in Hell of passage, the administration would have submitted a wish-list bill).

This will not be a matter of just going abroad looking for monsters to slay but of a policy machine that can spew out straw monsters at need even when they don’t exist.


What others are saying about the APB:

Foreign Policy (Walt) –Is the ‘Atrocity Prevention Board‘ a good idea?

Duck of Minerva (Western) –Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention 

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command—currently reading

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida

This monograph piqued my interest several weeks ago, as I consider whether or not to re-read Alfred Thayer Mahan‘s classic The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783. I’m about twenty years removed from my original reading, and honestly wasn’t ready for it when I did read it, so much of what I remember remains a blur at best.

Professor Sumida leads with a Preface entitled, Musical Performance, Zen Enlightenment, and Naval Command. Sumida draws parallels between the performance of music and the artistry inherent in sound leadership during war. Boyd’s ideas with respect to harmony came to mind. Sumida also draws parallels between Mahan’s ideas and Zen and offers:

“Mahan’s writing about the art and science of command resembles Zen in three major respects — a pedagogy that attempts to teach that which cannot be directly described in words, the absence of doctrinal ends, and a recognition of the limitations of ratiocination as the basis of action under conditions of rapid and unpredictable change.”

After finishing the first chapter of Professor Sumida’s work, I was struck by how relevant Mahan’s ideas with respect to leadership development seem to be in harmony with ideas advanced of late regarding the need for disruptive thinkers (this links to Mark’s excellent summary). Sumida portrays Mahan as man convinced of the need for naval executive education that goes beyond the scientific and mechanical, and focused rather on the “deep knowledge” and “truths” found only in history (I agree). He writes:

Mahan “was convinced that constant and rapid mechanical innovation had upset planning and education to the detriment of command confidence and authority. He feared the consequences of a navy led by indecisive men, bred by bureaucratic routine—or worse, subservience to corrupt civilian officialdom—to follow rules or act politically.”

At only 116 pages, Sumida’s monograph would normally be a quick read, but I plan to savor every word—and probably read more Mahan.

More to come.

Cross posted at To Be or To Do.

Switch to our mobile site