Waco in Pakistan

[ by Charles Cameron — on the way not listening sometimes leads to trouble, the importance of ultimate concerns, and a remarkable remark by M. Morsi ]


It’s happening again, this time in Pakistan.

Nicholas Kristof‘s NYR op-ed a day or two ago, Exploiting the Prophet, included one particularly interesting little quote that set me thinking – and my friend Bryan Alexander noted it too. Kristof was talking about how people in Muslim countries with little or no tradition of free speech sometimes “have an addled view of how the United States handles blasphemy” and commented, almost as an aside:

A Pakistani imam, Abdul Wahid Qasmi, once told me that President Bill Clinton burned to death scores of Americans for criticizing Jesus. If America can execute blasphemers, he said, why can’t Pakistan?

I challenged him, and he plucked an Urdu-language book off his shelf, thumbed through it, and began reading triumphantly about the 1993 raid on David Koresh’s cult in Waco, Tex.

That’s absurd, preposterous. Perfectly understandable. And dangerous.


Here’s a description of how Americans listened to al-Qaida, drawn from Benjamin and Simon’s book, The Age of Sacred Terror, p. 159:

So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

According, that is, to two senior members of President Clinton‘s National Security Council charged with counterterrorism, jihadist “chords of the apocalypse” were missed because they sounded like “gibberish”.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but recall the label given by FBI field agents to attempts by David Koresh to engage them in a discussion of the Book of Revelation, which for him was a roadmap of the very events he was living through — the FBI’s siege of Mount Carmel in Waco, TX.

Here’s a quote from the abstract of Robert Agne and Karen Tracy‘s analysis, ‘Bible Babble’: Naming the Interactional Trouble at Waco, published in Discourse Studies (v 3 # 3, 269-294):

A frustrating yet persistent aspect for the FBI negotiators was the Davidians’ talk about the Bible and their religious beliefs, what agents dismissively described as ‘Bible babble’.


Does it matter if one group of people persists in misunderstanding the religious positions of another in high-tension disputes?

In the case of Waco, it may indeed have contributed to the tragic outcome.

In this study, we analyze several exchanges between Koresh and one of the FBI agents. The analysis shows how the FBI’s identifying their problem as ‘Bible babble’ contributed to the negotiation failure.


There are other parallels that can be drawn between the Branch Davidians and their worldview, and al-Qaida and theirs — parallels that may have significance wherever there is a clash in which the “irrational” religious discourse of an (often apocalyptically inclined) “other” is easily brushed off by our own “more rational” mindset.

According to conflict resolution scholar Jayne Seminaire Docherty, writing in Learning Lessons from Waco (p. 99):

During the Waco negotiations, the Mount Carmel residents invited the FBI negotiators to choose God’s law over man’s law.

Compare al-Qaida, as seen in two excerpts from Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? published by the Jamestown Foundation in Terrorism Focus (v 2 #5, 2005):

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

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