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Sep/17

20

Palmyra’s Earlier Attackers

From The Spectator, a review of a new book, The Darkening Age, on Christianity’s early centuries.  I haven’t read the book itself (it’s not out in this country until next year), but judging by the review  it looks interesting, no least for the light it throws on the Christian cult of suffering, something still all too evident today in the widespread opposition—across denominations—to assisted suicide.

In the late years of [the Roman] Empire, and early days of Christianity, there were monks who didn’t wash for fear of being overcome by lust at the sight of their own bodies. Some concealed their nakedness in outfits woven from palm fronds. One designed a leather suit that also covered his head. There were holes for his mouth and nose, but not, apparently, his eyes.

There was a monk who spent three years with a stone in his mouth to remind him not to speak. Another wept so hard, his tears dug a hollow in his chest. There were those who went about on all fours. St Anthony, one of the founders of monasticism, chose to make his home in a pigsty. St Simeon Stylites stood on a pillar for 37 years until his feet burst open.

In the reviewer’s  opinion  this shows that “Christianity is a fundamentally masochistic religion”. Despite the cult of suffering (which is real enough) and the behavior of more recent grotesques such as Jean Vianney, that’s too simplistic, but this caught my eye:

[Christianity’s] self-punishing characteristics are a particular product of time and place: not only a reaction against Roman decadence but also, as Catherine Nixey points out in her clever, compelling book The Darkening Age, a response to the end of imperial persecution. The theory goes that, after the Empire adopted Christianity, some felt nostalgic for the enlivening fear of martyrdom, and compensated by metaphorically martyring themselves. This, then, is the essence of asceticism. It was a syndrome that St Jerome dubbed ‘white martyrdom’, to distinguish it from the red kind, which got you killed in front of a baying, paying crowd.

And then there was this (my emphasis added):

Nixey’s book presents the progress of Christianity as a triumph only in the military sense of a victory parade. Culturally, it was genocide: a kind of anti-Enlightenment, a darkening, during which, while annihilating the old religions, the rampaging evangelists carried out ‘the largest destruction of art that human history had ever seen’. This certainly isn’t the history we were taught in Sunday school. Readers raised in the milky Anglican tradition will be surprised to learn of the savagery of the early saints and their sledgehammer-swinging followers.

Here are some darkening dates: 312, the Emperor Constantine converts, after Christianity helps him defeat his enemies; 330, Christians begin desecrating pagan temples; 385, Christians sack the temple of Athena at Palmyra, decapitating the goddess’s statue; 392, Bishop Theophilus destroys the temple of Serapis in Alexandria; 415, the Greek mathematician Hypatia is murdered by Christians; 529, the Emperor Justinian bans non-Christians from teaching; 529, the Academy in Athens closes its doors, concluding a 900-year philosophical tradition…

It’s important not to be tempted into facile point-scoring comparisons between the Christians of the 4th Century and ISIS in the 21st. Nevertheless else, that ancient Christian attack on the temple of Athena is (yet) another reminder that the God of the Middle Eastern monotheisms is a jealous god, and thus someone who could not be added with any ease into the (fairly) relaxed polytheism of the Classical era.

Gibbon  (From The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire):

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

The refusal to play according to the rules  of that system goes, I imagine, a long way to explaining the persecution of the  early Church.

It’s also something of a mild corrective to the praise for the (not undeserved) praise for those monks who “saved civilization”. Their coreligionists destroyed quite a  bit of it too.

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Sep/16

21

The God of War

isis2Crux:

 Ahead of his day trip to Assisi to participate in a World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis said that the gathering of women and men religious from around the world is not a “spectacle” but simply a prayer for peace in a world at war.

“Today the world will have its center at Assisi, for a day of prayer, penitence and crying, because the world is at war,” he said on Tuesday. “God the father of all, Christians and not, wants peace. There’s no god of war, this is done by the devil.”

Well, that rather depends. God is, as I’ve noted before, in the eye of the beholder and if that beholder decides that his God wishes war, then a God of war is what He will be, much as that might embarrass the Pope.

Gabriel Said Reynolds, writing in the Daily News in 2015 (my emphasis added):

A video shot earlier this month in which Libyan militants line up 21 Egyptians on a beach and cut their heads off provides a window into the killers’ motivations. This one, complete with dramatic music and images of the sea turned red from blood (it was likely shot elsewhere and manipulated to look like it took place by the sea) ends with one of the militants pointing a knife in the air and proclaiming in English: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”

…The militant movement imagines itself to be at the beginning of an apocalyptic battle with Christians. An anticipation of that fight is what has attracted thousands of young Muslims from around the world to take up arms.

….[When] the ISIS militant declares, “we will conquer Rome,” he has in mind an end-times scenario in which the forces of Islam will confront and defeat an army of Christians in an apocalyptic battle in Syria and then proceed to take Istanbul or Rome (there is some confusion here because classical Islamic traditions describe Constantinople — today Istanbul — as the capital of “Roman” territories).

ISIS’ obsession with this scenario explains why the fourth issue of Dabiq — the movement’s flashy online magazine — features an image of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome with the black flag of ISIS flying above it.

Yes, a God of war.

 

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Aug/16

4

ISIS, God and The Devil

ISISAusten Ivereigh’s defense of Pope Francis’ response to ISIS appears to be, well, evolving.

Just the other day, he was arguing this:

[ISIS] is a wholly modernistic creation, a vehicle of power, the “technocratic paradigm” of domination and exploitation, applied to an ancient faith. ISIS militants are engineers, IT experts, lawyers and literalists; they are utterly Western, utterly modern, utterly unreligious.

Now:

First, the Islamic State might recruit mentally-ill teenagers from the banlieus, but it is far from being a bunch of psychopaths. Islamism is a violent ideology drawn from a purist Islamic fundamentalism. It is a version of Islam which radically differs from, and is rejected by, most of the Muslim world.

Second, a war with Christianity is key to its worldview. The Islamic State awaits the army of “Rome,” whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse

Of course ISIS recruits far more than “mentally-ill” teenagers, but Ivereigh’s recognition that it is a religious movement (however repellent) is a welcome acceptance  of reality.

Ivereigh goes on to explain that Francis has a “six-fold strategy in response to the Islamic State provocation”. Apparently it’s “well thought out, and it is effective”. I’ll leave you to read the full piece and judge for yourselves, but this, well:

For the radicals, violence is sacred, sacrificial, divinely-sanctioned – it is precipitating Armaggedon and the celestial triumph of Islam.

So when Francis declares that its violence is, as well as being evil and abhorrent, “senseless,” as he described the Nice massacre, or “absurd” as he said of the violence that slayed Hamel, he is dealing Islamic State a significant blow: the world’s leading religious authority has denied them the legitimacy of a religious justification.

This is a strategy, but it is, also, genuinely, demonstrating what true religion is.

Well no. The idea that ISIS or, for that matter, many of the people inclined, however remotely, to sympathize with them will pay the slightest attention to the opinion of a “religious authority” for whom they have no respect is, to put it at its kindest, naïve.

As to what a  “true religion” is, well, let’s just to say that religion takes  many forms, not all of them benign.

And then:

As a longtime discerner of spirits, Francis has a keen awareness of the workings of the diabolos, the great divider, and the subtle ways evil can persuade ‘good’ people to set themselves over and against ‘bad’ people.

Did Ivereigh felt the need for a little Greek, with its suggestion of erudition, to conceal the primitive beliefs that it describes: The Devil. No less.

Superstition, wishful thinking and denial do not a good “strategy” make.

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Oct/15

3

On ISIS, Enchantment and Authoritarians against Totalitarians

DemocristianiOver on his blog, Sam Harris interviews Mark Riebling, the author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler. The historical ground covered is interesting—how could it not be?—but these passages, in particular, caught my attention:

Conservative, even authoritarian, religious structures can prove extremely helpful against revolutionaries who want to impose a far more radical, utopian political religion. If Sunni Islam had a hierarchy, we would see many of its leaders resist ISIS more effectively. By comparison, you are seeing the Shia capable of counteraction, not just because they are anti-Sunni, but because they have a clerical hierarchy.

The Sunni conservatives will at some point have to either fight the revolutionaries or obey them. It was similar in Cambodia under Pol Pot—finally the old-line communists in that part of the world couldn’t take it anymore. Likewise, who is now sending troops to prop up an authoritarian Assad to stop ISIS?

The former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Which should remind us that in the former Soviet Union, glasnost and perestroika did not come from “the Russian people.” They began within the most elite ranks of the Party—the KGB. I think the pope’s secret war against Hitler should be grouped with this family of phenomena—authoritarian resistance to totalitarianism.

And this (my emphasis added):

For half a century, the Marxist myth of the New Man was fairly successful in supplanting the old stories—but the magic’s gone out of that, too. So you have, unless you are mindful, a banalization of human experience. This banality is going to tempt some people to join ISIS for excitement, for re-enchantment, for remythification.

If you join ISIS, you have a story! Your life is numinous—it’s as if you’re living in the Iliad instead of, say, just playing soccer in the dust in a Bauhaus housing project in Basra. Or you’re channeling the Teutonic Knights while you’re horsewhipping Jews in 1930s Nuremburg—I think the personal hunger is the same.

As C.G. Jung said, you can chase out the devil, but he shows up somewhere else. Which is one reason why, when Jung was an agent for US intelligence in 1944, he urged propping up political Catholicism—in fact, through the Christian-socialist parties that came to dominate Cold War Europe, whose exiled leaders Pius sheltered in the Vatican. Jung was an atheist, but he preferred Christian socialism to the atheist communism he saw coming. He predicted that the freethinking atheist would fare better under the frowning brow of the Christian myth than under the trampling boot of the communist one.

Jung was a nut, but he had moments of clarity.

Link
http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/rethinking-hitlers-pope

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May/15

24

Palmyra

PalmyraJanice Turner:

In eliminating ancient architecture, ISIS is also destroying the architecture of minds. Until there is nothing between you and your judging, revengeful God. Not a single joyous distraction – of art or music or history or dance – to fill your heart. The work of 2,000 years gone in minutes. Nothing left but blood and sand.

Link: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article4448785.ece

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Feb/15

19

ISIS: Looking to the North

ISISCross-posted on the Corner:

Over in the Financial Times, there’s an interesting piece on Putin’s friends abroad, but this passage in particular caught my eye:

The current Egyptian government believes that the Obama administration’s failure to support former President Hosni Mubarak, during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, revealed the US to be both duplicitous and naive.

Hold that thought, now read this (from the Daily Telegraph) (my emphasis added):

Islamic State militants are planning a takeover of Libya as a “gateway” to wage war across the whole of southern Europe, letters written by the group’s supporters have revealed. The jihadists hope to flood the north African state with militiamen from Syria and Iraq, who will then sail across the Mediterranean posing as migrants on people trafficking vessels, according to plans seen by Quilliam, the British anti-extremist group. The fighters would then run amok in southern European cities and also try to attack maritime shipping.

The document is written by an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) propagandist who is believed to be an important online recruiter for the terror in Libya, where security has collapsed in the wake of the revolution that unseated Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 . . .

[British] security officials also share Isil’s view about the possibility of using people trafficking boats to smuggle fighters into Europe. Thanks to its vast, porous desert borders with Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya has long been a key operating hub for trafficking boats heading into Europe, but numbers have escalated dramatically since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Italy’s interior ministry estimates that at least 200,000 refugees and immigrants are poised to make the crossing from Libya to Sicily or the tiny island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory. Last year more than 170,000 arrived in Italy by boat, including tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the civil war in their home country. . . .

Nasser Kamel, Egypt’s ambassador to London, warned Britain brace itself for ‘boats full of terrorists’ unless action was taken in Libya. He spoke after 2,164 migrants were rescued at sea in a 24-hour period over the weekend in what has been described as an ‘exodus without precedent’.

“Those boat people who go for immigration purposes and try to cross the Mediterranean … in the next few weeks, if we do not act together, they will be boats full of terrorists also,” he said. . . .

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isil’s leader, has since laid claim to Libya as part of his “Caliphate”. Whilst on the whole that remains more rhetoric than reality, support for the group in this war ravaged state is growing. In September, Abu Nabil, an Iraqi and key leader within Isil, travelled to the country to build support for the group. His men took control of much of Derna, a traditionally conservative city in the east of the country, that is now being run according to the extremist group’s strict Shariah law. Hundreds of Libyans who had travelled to fight alongside Isil in Syria have started to return to fight for the group on home turf, residents say. They have expanded the group’s influence into the east of the country, taking controlling of parts of Sirte, a former Gaddafi stronghold.

Barack Obama (January 7, 2014) on ISIS:

I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

And since then there has been the claim that ISIS is somehow “not Islamic.”

The term “out of his depth” comes to mind.

In this context, this lengthy, intriguing piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic on ISIS is very well worth your time. Its implications are terrifying.

Some extracts:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

The millennialist temptation takes many forms, is perennial and, at its worst, very, very dangerous, but it is not something that a president wrapped up in the soft certainties of the end of history can be expected to understand.

Wood:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it….

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute . . .

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State.

The incredulity and denial are true enough, and, ironically, Wood’s history (at this point) in a sense reflects very similar thinking. Contrary to his assertion, wars of religion (even if largely unacknowledged as such) did very nicely for themselves in Europe during the last century. Both communism and Nazism were, in many respects, millennialist cults (think of that “thousand year” Reich), and, as such cults can do, they killed millions.

ISIS may well try the same.

As for ISIS attacks on southern Europe (and in the end it would not just be southern Europe), it’s important to remember that the writings of one propagandist do not necessarily translate into deeds, but . . .

As the atrocities in France and Denmark remind us, Europe’s intertwined immigration and Islamist crises are already bad enough. They may well be about to get much worse.

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Sep/14

8

ISIS: Making the Trains Run on Time (Apparently)

ISISThe Independent

In the cities and towns across the desert plains of north-east Syria, the ultra-hardline al-Qa’ida offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) has insinuated itself into nearly every aspect of daily life.

The ‘Islamic State’ group, infamous for its beheadings, crucifixions and mass executions, provides electricity and water, pays salaries, controls traffic, and runs nearly everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques. While its merciless battlefield tactics and the imposition of its austere vision of Islamic law made headlines, residents say much of its power lies in its efficient and often deeply pragmatic ability to govern…

The Independent’s jokey headline: Life under Isis: For residents of Raqqa is this really a caliphate worse than death?

The idea that fanatacism and a certain degree of efficiency are incompatible is nonsene, and this report is not a bad reminder of that, but there’s something about the language in which it is written…

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Aug/14

24

Saudi Arabia, a Reminder

Execution by beheading in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1985Writing in the New York Times, Ed Husain:

Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe….

Unlike a majority of Sunnis, Salafis are evangelicals who wish to convert Muslims and others to their “purer” form of Islam — unpolluted, as they see it, by modernity. In this effort, they have been lavishly supported by the Saudi government, which has appointed emissaries to its embassies in Muslim countries who proselytize for Salafism. The kingdom also grants compliant imams V.I.P. access for the annual hajj, and bankrolls ultraconservative Islamic organizations like the Muslim World League and World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

After 9/11, under American pressure, much of this global financial support dried up, but the bastion of Salafism remains strong in the kingdom, enforcing the hard-line application of outdated Shariah punishments long abandoned by a majority of Muslims. Just since Aug. 4, 19 people have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia, nearly half for nonviolent crimes.

We are rightly outraged at the beheading of James Foley by Islamist militants, and by ISIS’ other atrocities, but we overlook the public executions by beheading permitted by Saudi Arabia. By licensing such barbarity, the kingdom normalizes and indirectly encourages such punishments elsewhere. When the country that does so is the birthplace of Islam, that message resonates…

Salafi intolerance has led to the destruction of Islamic heritage in Mecca and Medina. If ISIS is detonating shrines, it learned to do so from the precedent set in 1925 by the House of Saud with the Wahhabi-inspired demolition of 1,400-year-old tombs in the Jannat Al Baqi cemetery in Medina. In the last two years, violent Salafis have carried out similar sectarian vandalism, blowing up shrines from Libya to Pakistan, from Mali to Iraq. Fighters from Hezbollah have even entered Syria to protect holy sites.

Textbooks in Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities teach this brand of Islam. The University of Medina recruits students from around the world, trains them in the bigotry of Salafism and sends them to Muslim communities in places like the Balkans, Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Egypt, where these Saudi-trained hard-liners work to eradicate the local, harmonious forms of Islam.

What is religious extremism but this aim to apply Shariah as state law? This is exactly what ISIS (Islamic State) is attempting do with its caliphate…

Saudi Arabia an ally? No.

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