[ by Charles Cameron — how the “end times” aspect of the new “caliphate” gets buried somewhere under all the books, papers, and old burrito wrappings on my desk ]
Richard Barrett‘s report for The Soufan Group in June 2014, Foreign Fighters in Syria, runs 33 pages, but you’d have to get to page 18 to read:
Indeed, the Islamist narrative of Syria as a land of ‘jihad’ features prominently in the propaganda of extremist groups on both sides of the war, just as it does in the social media comments of their foreign recruits.  The opportunity and desire to witness and take part in a battle prophesized 1,400 years earlier is a strong motivator. And for some, so too is the opportunity to die as a ‘martyr’, with extremist sheikhs and other self-appointed religious pundits declaring that anyone who dies fighting the ‘infidel’ enemy, whoever that may be, will be particularly favored in the afterlife.
Then, buried in footnote 35 — burial is the right metaphor, isn’t it? — you’ll find this understated gem:
35 Several hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions) refer to Syria as the land of Jihad where an epic battle between Muslim armies will take place, leading to the end of times.
I am being more than a little unfair here, so let me offer a corrective of sorts. I may be keenly aware that Muslim eschatology is a powerful and often forgotten driver in contemporary jihadist recruitment, morale, and perhas strategy, but that doesn’t make it the necessary topic of any and every article on AQ, its various affiliates, or the new IS “caliphate”. And I’m pretty sure Barrett knows this too, since he is writing as a Senior Vice President in Ali Soufan‘s group, ancd Soufan was the man who named his book The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda — Soufan is very clear on the “end times” connection. So I am half nitpicking here, focusing in on just one footnote — and half in deadly earnest.
Look, Syria — or more precisely “greater Sham” — is at the heart of Abu Musab al-Suri‘s treatise on the apocalypse. Jean-Paul Filiu notes in Apocalypse in Islam that “the wandering jihadist is preoccupied above all by the central role reserved for his homeland at the end of the world”:
It is self-evident to him that the “country of Sham” — Greater Syria, including Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan – looms as the apocalyptic theater par excellence, and that al-Qaida’s strategic conception of global jihad must be reoriented to take into account this final clash.
Filiu also comments, as I have said before:
There is nothing in the least theoretical about this exercise in apocalyptic exegesis. It is meant instead as a guide for action.
I want to give you some background on all this — on our tendency to politely overlook apocalyptic signs, as if only Rorschach [in the Watchmen illustrations with which I bookend this post] and a few sandalled and long-haired crazies with “the end is nigh” signs on the pavement outside upscale stores or in cartoons ever really think about that stuff — and perhap the easiest way is to offer you the text of the relevant passage of an essay I wrote for the 2007 National Security Strategy Essay Contest sponsored by the Army-G3 and the Combating Terrorism Center, and wnich I kept on adding to but never quite finished…
My essay was titled How can the U.S. credibly and ethically deter adherents of extremist religious ideologies from engaging in terrorist activity? I’ll spare you the footnotes…
One of the greatest current risks we face in the Islamic world is that we will be blindsided by apocalyptic fervor, either in the form of a Mahdist movement, or in reaction to extremist Christian or Jewish messianic attacks on Temple Mount / the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. In view of this, the disdain in which “apocalyptic” is held is so great — and so significant from an analytic perspective — that I shall quote several authorities on the subject.
David Cook is our foremost scholar on apocalyptic movements within the Islamic world, quoted at length and with respect by Benjamin and Simon (senior director and director, respectively, in the Clinton NSC) in The Age of Sacred Terror. He writes:
Many monotheistic faiths encompass strains of belief that the end of the world is approaching, but such strains are not usually deemed “respectable.” The more specific these beliefs, the less respect they receive… The general disdain for such beliefs is so great that a scholar publishing on this subject is a source of acute embarrassment to any established religious institution of higher learning with which he — or very rarely she — is associated.
Cook is writing particularly about the treatment of scholarly works in (e.g.) Islamic countries, and mentions al-Azhar University, the leading Sunni seat of learning, in this context, and in fact al-Azhar banned his earlier work, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, on the grounds that it “violated Islamic principles and harmed Islam’s image.” The same type of academic disdain, however, was prevalent enough in European circles that the psychologist Carl Jung wrote, “I will not discuss the transparent prophecies of the Book of Revelation, because no one believes in them and the whole subject is felt to be an embarassing one.”
Disdain for the topic is easily conveyed by senior to junior scholars. Stephen O’Leary, now the author of the Oxford University Press classic, Arguing the Millennium, notes that “apocalyptic studies are or have been not reputable within the academy.” He says the most explicit attempt to dissuade him from such studies came from a faculty member a major university department where he was interviewing for a position: “The implication, if not the exact wording, was that a fascination with apocalyptic beliefs and movements was a waste of time, since these phenomena were marginal and unworthy of serious study.”
And that disdain only to easily leads to an underestimate of the strength of the feeling involved. As O’Leary notes in his book,
Apocalyptic arguments made by people of good and sincere faith have apparently succeeded in persuading millions; it is unfair and dangerous to dismiss these arguments as irrational and the audiences persuaded by them as ignorant fools. In a world where bright utopic visions compete with increasingly plausible scenarios of global catastrophe, it seems imperative to understand how our anticipations of the future may be both inspired and limited by the ancient logic of apocalypticism.
One of our finest recent scholars of religious violence, Jessica Stern, was initially taken aback by the apocalyptic intensity of the terrorists she studied:
I have come to see that apocalyptic violence intended to “cleanse” the world of “impurities” can create a transcendent state. All the terrorist groups examined in this book believe — or at least started out believing — that they are creating a more perfect world. From their perspective, they are purifying the world of injustice, cruelty, and all that is antihuman. When I began this project, I could not understand why the killers I met seemed spiritually intoxicated. Now, I think I understand. They seem that way because they are.
Now let’s put those quotes in the context of recent remarks by Tim Furnish:
As if ISIS is not bad enough with its jihadism, there are disturbing hints of eschatological thinking and Mahdism among that group and its allies. [ .. ]
No one has yet proclaimed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the Mahdi — but if Islamic history is any guide, it’s just a matter of time. Once the caliphate is firmly established, then the likelihood of a Mahdiyah being proclaimed increases. And as I noted in my book Holiest Wars, “Muslim messianic movements are to fundamentalist uprisings what nuclear weapons are to conventional ones: triggered by the same detonating agents, but far more powerful in scope and effect.”
Nobody may yet have proclaimed al-Baghdadi as the Mahdi, but he’s claimed the caliphate for himself since Tim wrote this. And even if you think “nuclear weapons” compared to “conventional ones” is a bit of a stretch, consider Khartoum — and then multiply by the increase in the destructive power of weaponry between the 1880s and today…