16 March 2015

Eschatology and Violence

Written by 
“End of the World!” – A blog by Gordon King of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; the chart shown in the blog is similar to the scenario depicted by Wagner below. “End of the World!” – A blog by Gordon King of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; the chart shown in the blog is similar to the scenario depicted by Wagner below. https://endtimebibleprophecy.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/end-of-the-world/#more-15943

You can’t escape it. Watch the news on TV or look at any paper’s headlines these days and you’ll read about the latest atrocities committed by the “Islamic State,” ISIL, ISIS or Da’esh (Arabic acronym).

Before I dive into the heart of the issue, I want to recommend some good reading on “The Islamic State.” The glamorous Queen Rania of Jordan summarized what most Muslims have said the world over – “drop the ‘I’ in ISIS; there’s nothing Islamic about them.” President Obama said as much himself.

Enter Graeme Wood and his 10,000-word article in the Atlantic Monthly, “What ISIS Really Wants.” I’ll be referring to this article later, but let me say here that Wood’s quote that ISIS was “smack in the middle of the [Islamic] medieval tradition” caused quite a stir. That they (selectively) use lots of early Islamic texts – more so hadiths than the Qur’an – and consider themselves “the true Muslims” and those who disagree with them apostates (the action of takfir) is beyond question. And too, that Muslim scholars and leaders may not excommunicate them (i.e., engage in takfir against them) is also true. Muslims have done just that many times over the centuries, but the Amman Message (2005) signed by leaders representing over 90% of Muslims worldwide strictly forbids it (on this see my recent blog on the ulama). But they read the Islamic tradition is a way that is very different from the mainstream. That indeed is the point of using the term “extremism.”

For a short yet incisive statement of this point, see Boston University scholar Kecia Ali’s article. For a much more nuanced statement by the scholar Wood quotes from the most (“the leading expert”), see an interview with Princeton’s Bernard Haykel. For a substantive piece on how ISIS tramples on all the basic notions of religious authority in Islamic law, see Sohaira Sadidqqi’s contribution to Jadaliyya (a great resource for critical thinking on the Middle East, by the way). Finally, here’s an American imam (an anglo convert, Joe Bradford) who puts ISIS in Islamic historical perspective without an ounce of defensiveness or apologetic posturing.

One last remark by a former top-level CIA operative in the Middle East and respected analyst, Graham Fuller. At the start of the year he offered his five predictions for 2015 inthe Middle East. The first was about ISIS, about which he opines that it’s not a viable state and that for reasons both internal and external it will crumble on its own. He adds, “To be convincingly and decisively defeated, the idea of ISIS, as articulated and practiced, needs to demonstrably fail on its own and in the eyes of Muslims of the region.”

Now I want to get to the Islamic State’s eschatology, but with just one preliminary thought on violence. Jeffry R. Halverson, a young Islamicist at Carolina Coastal University, expanded on something I have mentioned in passing before. With all this hype about violence at the hands of ISIS, we forget the context out of which this violence emerged. Our 2003 invasion of Iraq helped to create the al-Qaeda branch led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which already was beheading hostages (remember Nick Berg?). The American assassination of Zarqawi didn’t stop that organization from evolving gradually from Iraq to Syria, when in time the vacuum created by the civil war gave rise to a new and more radical version of the original terrorist group. But there’s a wider lesson here:


“Human beings have a problem with violence. That’s the real truth. I know we like to think we’re advanced, especially in the developed world with its wealth and technology. But we’re still just as violent (sorry, Steven Pinker). The difference now is the developed world believes violence is “legitimate” only when performed by the official armies (or drones) of nation-states. The modern nation-state claims a monopoly on violence. Non-state actors, on the other hand, are illegitimate, abhorrent and barbaric. You have to follow proper channels.”


Eminent American theologian Stanley Hauerwas in his 2011 book, War and the American Difference, argues that WWI provided a kind of redemption for the American psyche from the horrors of its own civil war and since then has been addicted to war. In his words, “War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the ‘Unum’ that makes the ‘pluribus’ possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.” President Eisenhower, himself a warrior, also warned about the unholy alliance of capitalism and war in his expression, “the industrial-military complex.” That said, the USA is not unique in this. Violence is a human problem, ever since Cain killed his brother Abel.

So does it make a big difference if violence is committed in the name of a deity? In Syria and Iraq, where ISIS is located, violence is perpetrated by a ruthless and cruel dictator who uses chemical weapons and cluster bombs on his own people; by an international coalition which bombs ISIS on a daily basis; by the Kurds, Iraqi soldiers and Shia militia with Iranian support who engage ISIS with ground troops. Does the religious label make the violence any better or any worse? Halverson presses his point with irony:


“Within this framework, violence in the name of a deity is outrageous, but violence in the name of a flag, freedom, democracy and (let’s face it) capitalism is a sacred duty (with its own martyrs), or at the very least a pragmatic necessity in a dog-eat-dog world. And you can get medals. The close relationship between ‘legitimate’ violence and nationalism also skews or even absolves the role that religion plays in these acts of violence.”


Enough said. But there might be something ominous about religion focused on a particular view of how God is winding down human history, especially if people feel that God has called them and their people to help make that happen by any means necessary!


The End Times in the ISIS ideology

Unlike other jihadi groups, the Islamic State is obsessed with the End Times. The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, already under the leadership of Zarqawi, was always talking eschatology. Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, now writing a book on this topic, tells of one of their members going to bin Laden in 2008 with the complaint that the leaders in Iraq were making strategic decisions based on when they thought the Mahdi (the messianic figure all Muslims, Shia and Sunni, believe will come in last days) will come. Bin Laden gave him a message to take back to the Iraqi militants: “Cut it out!”

The basic apocalyptic storyline includes the prediction that twelve legitimate caliphs will arise (al-Baghdadi sees himself as #8). One particular hadith says that a great battle will take place in Dabiq, Syria, which today is a small rural town not far from Aleppo. Da’esh conquered that whole area very intentionally and at great cost last year. It is said that the caliph’s enemy, “Rome,” will attack his army there.

If you think that’s far-fetched, this thinking is all over Da’esh’s social media presence. In fact, their online publication is entitled “Dabiq.” The masked executioner last December, just before beheading Peter Kassig, said, “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

Mind you, as Wood shows, even in Da’esh ranks, there are disagreements as to who this “Rome” might be. It might be a code word for the western Christian world, which of course includes the USA, but it might also be Rome’s western capital built by the Emperor Constantine, today’s Istanbul. Turkey’s Attatürk, after all, dissolved the last caliphate over ninety years ago. One scenario is that the caliphate would defeat the Turkish army and then move on to sack Istanbul and expand in a spectacular way from then on.

But Islamic eschatology also foresees the rise of the anti-Messiah, the dajjal, who will come from Iran and massacre many of the caliph’s soldiers outside of Jerusalem, leaving only 5,000 survivors. That is when Jesus returns to defeat the dajjal and lead the Muslim army to victory. Whichever scenario you choose, martyrdom likely awaits many of the Islamic State’s fighters.


Armageddon and Dabiq

In a book now a bit dated (1995), Donald E. Wagner tells his story – how after being raised a typical evangelical Zionist he was exposed to a different view in college and then in seminary. What made the difference, as is the case with so many, was the opportunity to visit Lebanon, Israel and its Occupied Territories. The book is entitled, “Anxious for Armageddon,” with the subtitle, “A Call for Partnership for Middle Eastern and Western Christians.” Wagner lays out the basic Christian Zionist scheme:


“According to the future premillennial scenario, once Israel became a nation in 1948, the movement toward the last days of history was set in motion. Israel would gradually attain international acclaim and become God’s chosen instrument to fight the Antichrist. Each modern war won by Israel (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982) provided sufficient evidence to me that Israel was becoming a significant military power and might play the predicted role in the prelude to Armageddon” (p. 25).


According to one popular scenario at the time, a confederation of ten nations will invade Israel and try to destroy her. Wagner explains,


“A long, bloody battle will be waged at Armageddon. Jesus will return to save Israel and establish his millennial kingdom [a literal 1,000 according to most interpretations] in Israel. Born-again Christians will be raptured out of history” (p. 25).


In 1985, Wagner and another visionary leader, Ray Bakke, made a trip together to the Middle East with the mission of listening to political and religious leaders and discovering how the American church could be of assistance. The next year a large consultation came together in the region under the auspices of the Middle East Council of Churches and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, which led to the founding of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU). Still today, EMEU remains a unique platform from which American Christians can hear the concerns of their coreligionists in that region, find ways to support them, and work for peace and justice for all.

Wagner’s book may now be twenty years old, but the theology and politics of Christian Zionism he depicted are very much alive today – so much so, that the outsized monetary and political influence of American evangelical Zionists on Israeli politics was covered in a documentary last month shown on Israel’s Channel 2 (watch it here with English subtitles). Christian Zionism is an international movement, as attested by Jerusalem’s International Christian Embassy. Just by looking at their website you can see how political the movement is: the first of several rotating pictures is a dark one with Hizbullah fighters, an ominous “danger” sign, and the slogan, “Not one bomb for Iran!” At one point in the documentary, you have Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee, also founder of the most influential Christian Zionist organization worldwide (Christians United for Israel) pointing to the Dome of the Rock and the Islamic Haram al-Sherif while saying, “There is no question that this is where the Temple of the Lord Jesus Christ will be.”

Just to be clear: these are my dear fellow Christians and it makes me very sad to have to write in this way. Yet I am compelled to do so: didn't Jesus our Lord and Savior call us to "turn the other cheek," "love our enemies"? Didn't he say "blessed are the peacemakers" and remind us that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword?

I'll be honest. That longing for Armageddon (which, admittedly is easier from two continents away!) doesn't seem all that different from the Da’esh rants about Dabiq to me. How is a thinly veiled call to destroy the third holiest Islamic site in the world not a Christian extremist collusion with Jewish extremists who dream of doing just that? And how is it not another way of saying, “Armageddon? Bring it on!”? In the case of ISIS, you have millenarian zealots breathing violence and martyrdom for their cause. As for Hagee and Christians of his ilk, they want to bring down the overwhelming firepower of the world’s superpower and its Israeli ally to engage the battle that will trigger Jesus Christ’s return.

Truly, there is something ominous about certain eschatologies and their potential for violence.