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Monday, March 23, 2015
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I finally got around to reading Graeme Wood’s important article in The Atlantic entitled “What ISIS Really Wants”. In a recent post I discussed Wood’s follow-up note to his article; this note seemed very relevant in and of itself. But now it’s time for a thought or two from me about Wood’s main article.

Actually, I only have one big thought to share here (but yes, it is still a big one, requiring many words). In my previous post regarding Wood’s follow-up note, I embraced his point that ISIS should be considered a “legitimate” interpretation of Islam. After reading the actual article, I reaffirm his contentions. Most Muslims around the world do not embrace this version of Islam; by the same token, very few attempt to reject it on grounds of being inauthentic.

The key players and supporters of the ISIS movement (including clerics, scholars, politicians and military leaders) are very savvy about the Koran and the history of Islam. They make a very detailed and credible effort to justify their policies (however brutal and inhumane) using the words and directives of the Prophet Mohammed himself. Over the past two years, ISIS has managed to assemble military force and capture territory; set up a national governing structure; and most importantly, declare the return of the caliphate.

The last caliph or khalīfah was Abdülmecid II of the Ottoman Empire. His reign lasted until 1924, when the last remains of the Ottoman Empire was disbanded by the new Turkish Republic as established by Mustafa Ataturk. The new caliph is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a cleric and militant jihadist from Iraq.

This is historically and theologically significant for millions of Sunni Muslims worldwide. Even if a majority of them reject or do not recognize the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s rule, and if most wouldn’t take up arms in support of it, the new caliphate has increased the flow of volunteers ready to sacrifice and die for radical Islam. Also, it has increased financial support from a variety of Muslim sources.

ISIS thus has a story to tell — a detailed and well-researched historical rationale for its awful and inhumane fury. And that reason is rooted in the idea of apocalypticism. Most modern Americans and Christians don’t appreciate the historic significance and power of this idea. And that is quite ironic, given that Christianity’s origins are grounded in an ancient apocalyptic movement.

Jesus himself was clearly an apocalyptic; he preached to his followers that God would soon intervene directly in human history to right what they saw as a terrible wrong (i.e., Roman control of Israel/Palestine, and Jewish cooperation with Roman governors and absorption of its culture). A “Kingdom of God” would be established right here on Planet Earth, and at the moment of its inception (i.e., the “End of Days”, or the “End of the World as We Know It”), the good would be judged worthy to dwell in this new kingdom, and the wicked would be banished. As to where the wicked would wind up . . . not always clear, but whatever happens to them would not be pretty under an apocalyptic scenario.

Is modern Islam apocalyptic? For most non-Muslims here in the west, the notion of God coming down and establishing a righteous government to be populated solely with the good, while the wicked are be culled out and banished, is not what we commonly attribute to Islam. I myself have heard or read Islamic preachers talking about “the Last Day”, but it didn’t seem to be all that important to what we usually think the Islamic faith is all about. But for ISIS, the notion of an End Time is key to its existence.

After doing some quick research, I see that there clearly is a significant strain of apocalypticism in Islam. For the most part, however, there have been relatively few instances in modern Islam where a leader or movement foresees an immanent arrival of “the big event” (just as in modern Christianity, most Christians don’t take the notion of Jesus’ “second coming” too seriously). Well, it looks like ISIS is changing all that.

Apocalypticism can be said to come in two basic flavors. In the case of Jesus (and various small religious sects throughout history, even into modern day), there is your mostly peaceful notion that God is just about to kick off the festivities, but most of the work will be done on the divine level. The chief responsibilities of the preachers of this apocalyptic are to warn and prepare humans for what is soon to come. Basically, the message to the masses is to sin no more and repent; basically, start living right. For the most part, guns and political violence are not involved.

The end results are mostly positive – even though the end never seems to come, people are given a reason to examine their hearts and perhaps inspired to lead a better, more moral life. Some people have been harmed when they go too far in making preparations for an immanent end, such as quitting their jobs and selling their homes. However, most of the peaceful apocalypticists go on with their normal lives, under the rationale that only God knows the exact date and time. This was the predominate attitude in Christianity from the late First Century on, and is reflected to varying degrees in the biblical letters of Paul. Over time, peaceful apocalypticism is re-interpreted and becomes something of an “apocalypticism light”, i.e. a continued preaching of “the second coming”, but with greater and greater emphasis on practical daily concerns (such as love, marriage, children, death, politics and laws) and on personal salvation in a next-world.

The second variety is a bit more dangerous. And that is the political version, where a leader or group decides that must take up guns and commit violent acts against the old order, as to make an opening for the coming of the new divine way. In Jesus’ time, most apocalypticism was of the peaceful, “God will do the heavy lifting” variety. But in the two or three decades following his death, Jewish apocalypticism basically took a turn toward the more political version. The “zealots” banded into armed camps, and in 66 AD decided that it was time to attack the evil empire (i.e., the Romans who ruled Jerusalem and Galilee).

Well, that didn’t quite go as planned. Instead of God and the new messiah leading them to glorious victory, the Romans basically clobbered the militant factions, even though it took a few years. However, by 70 AD, the Romans had crushed the rebellion, and for good measure, destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. That clearly made the point to the Jews, i.e. that armed rebellion was not going to bring about God’s rule here on earth (even though about 60 years later another uprising led by Bar Kokhba tried again, and was similarly defeated).

Unfortunately, the ISIS rendition of Islamic apocalpyticism is of the second variety (there are Salifist versions of the first, however). In his article, Wood outlines the ISIS view of the future, and what role ISIS would play in all of this. According to Islamic doctrine, the return of the caliphate is needed to kick things off. Check, says ISIS; we got it covered. After that . . . well, a whole bunch of stuff will happen over time, including a big battle with western armies (the “army of Rome”) in an area of Syria currently controlled by ISIS (Dabiq); a messiah called the Mahdi will appear and help lead the Islamic fighters to victory; an anti-messiah from Iran known as Dajjal will follow, and will roll back the territorial gains won earlier by the new caliphate. Finally, a battle will take place in Jerusalem with the remaining Islamic forces at the end of their rope. Just as all seems lost, Jesus will make an earthly comeback and will kill the Dajjal, allowing the Muslims to rally and win. God will then start the Day of Judgment and establish the true kingdom, a paradise for those who make the cut.

And yes, ISIS is talking about Jesus, son of Mary. Yes, THAT Jesus. Most Christians would be astonished if not shocked to learn that Jesus plays a key role in ISIS’s master plan. But then again, Jesus is an important figure in Islam. Even though Muslims vehemently deny Christian teachings regarding Jesus’ divine nature, they generally consider him to be a highly revered prophet. Some say that Jesus is #2 right behind Mohammed.

So, if you put your theology on hold and study Jesus from his historical perspective, the ISIS story makes a bit more sense (i.e., in the sense that it makes ANY sense – horrible violence ultimately makes no sense, whatever the context). ISIS is bringing back apocalypticism on a big-time basis — and who to better usher it in once the prophecies of the Final Days are complete than Jesus? Jesus was all about a future kingdom of God here on earth. Mohammed was more about the successful and immediate conquest of the unholy here on earth. So, you follow Mohammed into battle; but once the wars are over, there would be Jesus, leading you into the promised land.

In Jesus’ time, apocalypticism was a political response of the oppressed. Whether violent or peaceful, it expressed the desire for revolution against an occupying power, but admitted that the oppressed did not alone have the power to bring that about. Apocalypticism recruits a higher power to bring about change . . . i.e., God. In the First and Second Centuries CE, the Jews witnessed the political and theological failures of full-blown apocalpyticism; first the peaceful version by Jesus, and finally the violent version of the Zealots. And now here we are 20 centuries later, and a political force in the Middle East wants to give industrial-strength apocalpyticism another go. Unfortunately, they have chosen the bloody version of it. Ironically, Islamic apocalpyticism is of much less importance to al Qaeda, the West’s previous Islamist arch-enemy. Americans need to learn that ISIS is a VERY different animal than al Qaeda was (and still is). And probably a good bit more dangerous in the long run, even if it doesn’t immediately threaten our home shores as al Qaeda attempts to do. Wood hammers continually at this point in his article.

What can the US and its allies do about ISIS? Wood discusses this at length, and he makes a compelling case that addressing ISIS head-on militarily would only add fuel to their fires. Perhaps the best thing we can do (best of a set of bad options, that is) is to contain them. I.e., keep them from expanding, and hope that they eventually lose the loyalty of those living under their rule and attracted by their sense of destiny. How? Well, ISIS has set lofty goals . . . one of which is to provide compassionately for the needs of all who submit completely to its rule (as pointed out by various Islamist supporters who Wood interviewed in his article). This includes adequate food, shelter, jobs and health care for all families living in its territory. Over time, we can expect disillusionment with its ability to fulfill these goals. But for now, ISIS provides an exciting and inspiring story for many Muslims, a mission in life. And that can be a very powerful thing. If we fight them directly with western soldiers or Shiite surrogates (considered apostates by the radical Sunnis who support ISIS), we just feed that inspiration.

Wood closes his article with a 1940 quote from George Orwell regarding Hitler and the Nazis, who were then reaching the peak of accomplishment in their own attempt to enforce a vision upon humankind. Orwell said that fascism is “psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life . . . whereas socialism and even capitalism have said to people ‘I offer you a good time’, Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death’ . . . we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal”. Recall that after the 9-11 attack on New York and Washington, President Bush told America to keep on shopping. I.e., keep on having a capitalist good time. Zoom back to 1940, in the face of Hitler’s mortal threat to Britain and Europe, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said something quite different. He told his people that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat. Without a Churchill to rally and revitalize the old order, Hitler’s visions may not have been excised by 1945 . . . perhaps not at all. Not a pleasant thought.

Which approach is more powerful and ultimately successful? ISIS offers struggle, danger, blood and tears, and still seems to be growing. Nonetheless, ISIS itself will not trigger the collapse of modern, post-Enlightenment Western Civilization. But can the West ultimately survive, not to mention eventually win over the lands and people who ISIS now control, without asking something similar from its people?

Modern consumer techno-capitalism gives us a shoppers paradise, but leaves us in a spiritual vacuum. ISIS provides an economic and social hell (especially for women), but provides many people with a sense of purpose. We in the West generally reject apocalyptic eschatology despite the fact that it birthed the institution of Christianity, which has survived two millennium and is still popular amongst us (even if it’s not what it used to be in terms of social and political influence, given the ongoing decline of religion and the secularization of the west). And yet, apocalypticism remains powerful; it’s a highly concentrated and potent form of religious inspiration. Unless the West can find some alternative to apocalypticism (and to religion in general), one that can re-inspire a strong sense of mission amongst the masses, something more than “shop till you drop” . . . then we cannot guarantee our exemption from the historical cycle of rise and fall that have beset most of the major civilizations and empires throughout the course of human history.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:43 pm      

  1. Jim, I think I pretty well said what I had to say in my comment on your previous post on ISIS. But I do have a couple of comments.

    Maybe my comments are simply a matter of semantics, but I am not sure that Graeme Wood says that the ISIS’ interpretation of Islam is “legitimate” interpretation of Islam. I think what he says is that ISIS has theologians who are well studied in their religion, are very informed regarding details most non-Islamic Westerners have no clue about (for that matter how many Christians and Muslims themselves are completely educated in their chosen religion?), ISIS members have gone back to the beginning ideas of their religion, and are trying to live those ideas that prevailed in the early days of Islam.

    Thus, he was able to compare ISIS to the early Christians. I doubt that these days there are a lot of Christians who tend to return to the early days of Christianity, waiting for the apocalypse.

    Again, I may be fussing with semantics here, but I have to disagree with your statement in paragraph 11 that, “This [apocalypticism] was the predominate attitude in Christianity from the late First Century on”. From what I understand, this idea of waiting for the apocalypse was predominate in the mid-First Century to about 100 C.E.; from the 100s on the idea started fading; much less about apocalypse is read in the 200s, and in the 300s Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the state. Nobody says it in so many words (that I’ve read), but by the 300s Christians were so elated to be the “official” religion of the state that apocalypse was not really too forefront in their minds.

    True, the apocalypse idea is still “around” in Christianity as Christians are supposed to all be waiting for the “Last Judgment”, which who knows when that will happen, just that we will all get our bodies back and God will judge us, sending us to heaven or hell. (I’m not going into the inconsistencies that idea brings up; nor am I going to go into how many Christians actually believe that.)

    So it would seem to me that ISIS is much *less* like the early Christians than it is much more like groups that are waiting for “the Rapture”; e.g., Jim Jones, the cult leader of the late 1970s who convinced his followers to move to Guyana and all take cyanide when they tho’t they were confronted by U.S. agents and David Koresch in the 1990s most of whose followers died in the resulting fire when they were confronted by Federal agents, to mention 2 groups.

    You *do* have an important point considering the caliphate, which is very important to ISIS. Without it ISIS has no political power (even little religious power); but with the caliphate they immediately acquire political power and standing as a religious power. Whether or not that political and religious power will actually give ISIS some “say” among world political governments or not may be another question. Yet, the caliphate *does*, if nothing else, give them both a psychological foundation and a theological foundation on which to base their group. From the standpoint of establishing a caliphate they may influence some more radical Muslims to join their group, but I’d seriously doubt that the majority of Muslims would flock to ISIS because it has established a caliphate.

    Looking at the history of such apocalyptic groups through the centuries, I would doubt that ISIS in the end will be successful – none of the others have lasted long. On the other hand that does not mean that it may take two or three generations for ISIS to lose its hold on those who have and seek apocalyptic aspects in Islam. Then again, there seems to be something about apocalyptic groups that suddenly implode. If I were ISIS, or a member of ISIS, I’d be giving that idea of implosion some serious thought. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 24, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

  2. Mary, just a minor correction to your interpretation regarding paragraph 11. You read my comment about Christianity’s predominant attitude from the late 1st Century on as referring to apocalypticism in general. Given your (mis)reading of what I was actually referring to, your next sentence is absolutely correct. But what I was in fact referring to was Christianity’s diminishing emphasis on an immanent eschatological expectation. I was clearly referring to the previous sentence, where I said that “peaceful apocalypticists go on with their normal lives”. I.e., in contrast to those who sell their possessions and leave their families — as Jesus himself urged of his followers. As more and more time passed from Jesus’ death, and his immanent “second coming” was seeming less and less likely to the earliest Christians, they became increasingly ‘peaceful’ and ‘normal’. We’re both in complete agreement about that.

    Comment by Jim G — March 24, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

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