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Follow-up: Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange

[ by Charles Cameron ]

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on Zenpundit and ChicagoBoyz, picking up on some comments made on both sites, explaining my own interests, and taking the inquiry a little further.

On Zenpundit, Larry said, “Your need to destroy Assange is getting embarrassing. Why not make lemonaid?” and JN Kish, “The real story here should be about the data – and who is helping Assange – not Assange himself.” Meanwhile on ChicagoBoyz, a certain Gerald Attrick commented, “Ah, but as we say in in art crit: Deal with the Art and not the Man…”

To Larry I would say, I think that my post WikiLeaks: Counterpoint at the State Department? — in which I point up the irony inherent in the same State Department spokesman celebrating World Press Freedom Day and chiding Assange for “providing a targeting list to a group like al-Qaida” on the same day — could as easily be read as pro-Assange as today’s post, Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange can be read as calling for his destruction.

More generally, it seems to me that there are a whole lot of stories to be told here: the ones I wish to tell are those where I have a reasonably informed “nose” for relevant detail, and which tend to be overlooked by others — and thus have the potential to blindside us.


My own main interest is in tracking religious, mythic and apocalyptic themes in contemporary affairs, where they are all too easily overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed. Thus I have posted on Tracking the Mahdi on WikiLeaks, and added related material in section 1 of my post today.

I am also interested in concept mapping, games and creative thinking — interests which led me to post WikiLeaks: Critical Foreign Dependencies and The WikiLeaks paradox, and more lightheartedly to take an amused sideways glance at WikiLeaks in The power of network visualization.

And I certainly find Assange himself an interesting figure, and have done what I can to illuminate his background in mythology, religion and games in Wikileaks and the Search for a Cryptographic Mythology, again in Update: Wikileaks and Cryptographic Mythology and (again light-heartedly) in A DoubleQuote for Anders.


Let me be more explicit: I have no wish to lionize Assange, nor to feed him to the lions — I would like to understand him a little better.

I come from a scholarly tradition that doesn’t favor the demonization of new religious movements, and believes (for instance) that it is entirely plausible that the Waco inferno could have been avoided if the religious beliefs of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians had been taken seriously as such, and not dismissed out of hand as “bible babble”.

James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher in Why Waco for instance, write:

The Waco situation could have been handled differently and possibly resolved peacefully. This is not unfounded speculation or wishful thinking. It is the considered opinion of the lawyers who spent the most time with the Davidians during the siege and of various scholars of religion who understand biblical apocalyptic belief systems such as that of the Branch Davidians. There was a way to communicate with these biblically oriented people, but it had nothing to do with hostage rescue or counterterrorist tactics. Indeed, such a strategy was being pursued, with FBI cooperation, by Phillip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston and James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of the authors of this book. Arnold and Tabor worked in concert with the lawyers Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, who spent a total of twenty hours inside the Mount Carmel center between March 29 and April 4, communicating directly with Koresh and his main spokesperson, Steve Schneider. Unfortunately, these attempts came too late. By the time they began to bear positive results, decisions had already been made in Washington to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to end the siege by force.

Jane Seminaire Docherty’s Learning Lessons from Waco, similarly, “offers a fresh perspective on the activities of law enforcement agents. She shows how the Waco conflict resulted from a collision of two distinct worldviews-the FBI’s and the Davidians’—and their divergent notions of reality. By exploring the failures of the negotiations, she also urges a better understanding of encounters between rising religious movements and dominant social institutions.” [Syracuse UP]

I’d therefore be hesitant to drag Assange into a somewhat murky association with the “cult milieu” – but Assange himself was quite open in talking with Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker about the man his mother lived with and had a child by, then ran away from, after her marriage to Assange’s father broke up. Khatchadourian writes:

When I asked him about the experience, he told me that there was evidence that the man belonged to a powerful cult called the Family—its motto was “Unseen, Unknown, and Unheard.” Some members were doctors who persuaded mothers to give up their newborn children to the cult’s leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The cult had moles in government, Assange suspected, who provided the musician with leads on Claire’s whereabouts.

Wikipedia’ has an account of that group, also known as the Santiniketan Park Association.

And as you might expect, there’s a bizarre and frankly conspiracist take on this connection already out and about on the web.


For a more detailed and indeed harrowing view of the Santiniketan Park Association from a member who left, see this excerpt from Sarah Moore’s book, Unseen, Unheard, Unknown.

A couple of odd remarks here strike me:

Some of us had multiple birth certificates and passports, and citizenship of more than one country. Only she knows why thus was and why we were also all dressed alike, why most of us even had our hair dyed identically blond.

The motto of the sect is ‘Unseen, Unheard and Unknown’, and even now the thought of the consequences of betraying that motto still worries me sometimes.

We weren’t often allowed to see newspapers, in fact that happened only after we were quite a bit older and even then they’d been censored .


Looking back, I can see that any game or hobby that we started we would get hooked on, playing it over and over again in our limited spare time. If we got into a game or fantasy we tended to want to keep on with it and it assumed the utmost importance in our lives.

It might have appeared that we were obsessive kids but it was understandable considering the malevolent reality we faced outside our games. Usually Anne and the Aunties saw to it that as soon as we started enjoying ourselves, it was stopped, and a new rule would be made, forbidding us from playing that particular game. We would thus be forced to try and make up a new one within the boundaries of the rules that governed our lives, still knowing that eventually this new one would be banned also.


Speaking of “cults” – there are several WL cables that make reference to a cult or cults, generally in the context of a “cult of personality” (Mao, eg), and in one case with reference to Scientology. There’s also – and this where things get interesting from my POV — one intriguing reference to a cult in Iran:

Though stressing that he is not an opponent of the Islamic system, he warned that the Revolutionary Guard-based faction which “stole the election,” and is now seeking total control is “extremely dangerous to both us and you.” He repeatedly characterized this group as “a criminal cult,” motivated by its fanaticism, ignorance, and the monetary self-interest of its members. He added that the group is intent on exporting revolution. According to source, both Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi are affiliates rather than “leaders” of this group, and neither will likely end up with significant power if the group successfully consolidates control over the state and its economy (see reftel).

A religious group of which “both Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi are affiliates” sounds suspiciously like the Hojjatiyeh.

But that’s the topic for another upcoming post, I promise.

7 Responses to “Follow-up: Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange”

  1. david ronfeldt Says:

    hey charles — just a hasty note of appeciation and encouragement for all your posts about this spectacular phenomenon.  please keep at it.  

    i’ve read a lot about it these past few days.  what a protean gargantuan matter, still far from unfolded, full of ironies, contradictions, and paradoxes, shifting shape as one then another keen observer has a go at it and then attracts all manner of  comment.

    your odd approach helps illuminate all this.  also, so far, this is the only blog inquiring persistently into the messianic and related mental dynamics.  they interest me.  (i wonder about hubris and nemesis dynamics as well.)  

    i look forward to more in your continuing series.  — onward, david

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi David:
    As I said over at ChicagoBoyz, I’m grateful for your encouragement, and your comment about hubris and nemesis has set me thinking.  They are certainly both important ideas at the level of imaginative processing that most interests me — the archetypal, if you like — and present, obviously, in both Greek myth and tragedy — and yet I haven’t "kept an eye out" for them in the way that I "keep an eye out" for signs of messianic activity.
    In any case, a little reflection has prompted me to the idea that hubris and nemesis are terms of characterization, typically applied from the outside to other people, whereas martyr and messiah are titles to which individuals may personally aspire — and with which they may verbally identify.
    Perhaps because I feel more comfortable with the terms of a discipline in which I have studied (theology) than I do with the terms of another in which I am an interested bystander (psychiatry), and therefore instinctively avoid making "diagnostic" judgments — perhaps because I have some of Keats’ negative capability — or find it difficult to see past my own faults clearly enough to recognize those of others — or perhaps because I’m more confident at a close reading of texts than of people, I don’t think I "register" hubris or narcissism the way I do messianic claims or the wish for martyrdom.
    So now I am going to go back to reread your piece Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex, to see what pointers I can pick up.  And I’d very much appreciate any further insights you can offer as to how to identify hubris (plausibly one of my own failings) — and hopefully sidestep nemesis!

  3. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Thanks Charles for continuing this conversation. I really didn’t have a clue as to the direction you were going in your discussion of Assange, and missed the pro-Assange implied context to your other posting, which I had read and liked. While your posting is still a puzzle to me, some of the pieces have been filled in. I suppose if I knew completely where you were going with this it wouldn’t be any fun anyway. Do you have any word of Christ/Muslim leanings of the new/upcoming leader of North Korea? The Chinese have written that North Korea is warning it will wage "Holy war" if provoked http://twitpic.com/3izbdq . I think this is coming from the son instead of the father, but I also believe holy war is more likely a result if China is seen to "side" with South, than some second-coming. 

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    In general, Larry, I post when I believe I have some clarification to make, or an overlooked aspect of a situation to point to, but I almost never feel that my contribution is all that’s required for a decision to be made, and I try not to overstep my "leadings".
    There’s widespread discussion at this point as to whether Assange is a hero/saint or a narcissist/ traitor – that’s just not my conversation. Exactly what WikiLeaks has "done" to blow the whistle on conspiracies or to hinder the practice of diplomacy, to threaten lives (on the theory that the Taliban will exact vengeance on named sources) or to save them (on the theory that outbreaks of war will be less likely in future if governments know their inner workings are liable to be revealed) and so forth is, in my view, beyond my competence.
    I am not driving towards a conclusion, I am weaving a picture — hence my keen interest in form: in similitude, analogy, pattern. Hence my use of the DoubleQuote format – to stir thought, not to prove a point.
    But that fits, it seems to me, with my general orientation as a poet: I am not trying to say something, I am trying to see something.
    I’ll respond separately on your question re North Korea.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    In line with what I said above: I don’t know enough about the Koreas to draw a conclusion.
    I have seen both the words "holy war" and "sacred war" used in English-language accounts of North Korean statements, and I expect a great deal is being lost in translation in either case.  I’m betting that "holy war" is a phrase that springs to mind because we’re already jittery about the whole idea of "jihad" and have already used the term "holy war" in that context – so my guess would be that North Korean spokespeople are threatening something along the lines of a war driven by exalted patriotism ("sacred" in the sense in which a flag is "sacred") rather than one driven by religious fervor ("holy" as in a jihad or a crusade).
    But if anyone has access to the appropriate Korean media and knows the language, I’d be very interested to arrive at a closer approximation to what has been said.
    I would also note that the usage has not only just cropped up in the last week or so, although it has been much in the news of late.
    Reuters, in a post titled China seeks fresh nuclear talks with North Korea on August 28, 2010, reported:

    China is lobbying neighbors to sign up to a road map for renewed nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong-il is visiting China amid conciliatory words and threats of "holy war."
    [ … ]
    If Washington and Seoul try to create conflict on the Korean peninsula we respond with a holy war on the basis of our nuclear deterrent forces," North Korea’s ambassador to Cuba, Kwon Sung-chol, said in Havana, according to a report from there by China’s official Xinhua news agency.

    So the rhetoric was there before the latest (December 23?) occasion.

  6. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "I don’t know enough about the Koreas to draw a conclusion." I thought you might have found something in connection with Ahmedinejad. There seems to be some connection there. "So the rhetoric was there before the latest (December 23?) occasion." Yes I agree. I have also seen the rhetoric in connection with Ahmedinejad, which is why I brought it up in this feed. I know it sounds weird, but I get the feeling that N Korea has split with the East and is looking West, which has a different image of the benevolent leader than the East does. Genghis Khan’s son finally prevailed against China by becoming more Chinese than those in power in China. I am just wondering if this is not happening in the generational change that is happening or going to happen inside North Korea soon, i.e. North Korea is going to become more "western" than South Korea, at least in the terms of a benevolent leader. I mean, it doesn’t seem like even China has much "faith" in communism anymore. 

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Dunno.  I have a little background on N Korea now here.

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