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Why We Need to Understand the Apocalyptic Worldview of a Small Group of Radical Muslims

If we want to understand the genesis of much Islamic terrorism by a small handful of Muslims, a speculative tour of their apocalyptic worldview may help us design a more effective response.
 
 
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People visit a make-shift memorial on Boylston Street on April 20, 2013, near the scene of the Boston Marathon explosions.
Photo Credit: AFP

 
 
 
 

Walk a mile in the shoes of those who claim to honor God and yet cheer the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

They represent only a tiny fraction of the Muslims on our planet, yet they see themselves as carrying out the will of God. Fanatics such as these can be found in many of the World’s religions. They shoot abortion providers in the United States; blast apart buses in Israel; and murder Muslims and Hindus in India.

These religious fanatics often combine a totalitarian political mindset with a belief in sacred prophecy that they are mandated by God to rule the world, and they must act now against their enemies because time is running out. In fact they believe that we are approaching the end of time itself, the literal end of the world as we know it. This worldview is call apocalypticism. Sketchy details are emerging that suggests one of the motives for the alleged suspects in the Boston bombing may have been a belief in an obscure and contested Muslim prophecy about the apocalyptic End Times.

We may never know the full details of what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers, but if we want to understand the genesis of much Islamic terrorism by a small handful of Muslims around the world, a speculative tour of their apocalyptic worldview may help us design a more effective response.

A YouTube page reportedly created by Tamerlan Tsarnaev reveals a fascination with apocalyptic Islamic prophecy. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a battle with police early Friday morning; his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested late Friday night. The two brothers were named as bombing suspects by authorities, but family and friends find it hard to believe they were implicated in the act of terrorism. Although at this stage it is just speculation, it is possible that one or both of the brothers learned how to be Islamic terrorists for God by using online resources.

Apocalypticism is the belief in an approaching confrontation between absolute good and absolute evil about which a select few have forewarning so they can make appropriate preparations. During this confrontation, hidden truths are revealed, and afterwards the earth is transformed in a significant way. Terrorism fueled by apocalyptic belief within Islam is a core element for the most aggressive and militant forms of Islam such as al Queda and Hamas, and it created one of the most ruthless resistance campaigns in Chechnya where the Tsarnaev elders lived during the equally brutal and murderous Russian invasions in the 1990s.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s YouTube page included a link to a 13 minute video, titled “The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags from Khorasan,” claiming that an Islamic holy war has already started. The apocalyptic video is by renegade cleric Shaykh Feiz Mohammed. The video begins with the statement that "The prophet said when you see the black flags coming from the direction of Khorasan, you will join their army. That army has already started its march."

Khorasan is the name of an ancient region, just to the south and east of Chechnya and incorporating parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. A rare old map illustrates its dimensions.

The brothers Tsarnaev were raised in a broader region bordering Khorasan among Muslims where the Black Flag prophecy says God will raise a mighty army. Straddling the territory from Chechnya to Iran and Afghanistan are the Caucasus, a mountain range from which the term Caucasian is derived.

The Black Flags from Khorasan prophecy tells of a massive army of non-Arab Muslims marching on Jerusalem to prepare the way for the return of the Mahdi, the figure in Islamic apocalyptic narrative who signals the end of time and the global triumph of Islam. The video claims that in the forthcoming End Times Allah “will rise up a group of people, which will give their allegiance to Imam Mahdi and Eesa (Jesus)...." Along with the Mahdi, Jesus of Nazareth is a prophet in Islamic religious tradition who precedes the Mahdi and tells of the forthcoming victory of Islam.

According to the video, "We now know that the army of Mahdi will come out of Khorasan with their black banners...." The text then claims that the "last hour would not come unless seventy thousand persons" from the region led an attack. The "last hour" also refers to the End Times in Islamic apocalyptic prophecy as well as Christian versions of the prophecy.

On the video a speaker appears who claims the lineage of these people from Khorasan traces to the early Israelites. A subtext here is that these Muslims from the Khorasan region are one of the lost tribes of Israel and thus have an original unbroken covenant with God. The text resumes, stating: "The appearance of Imam Mahdi...is that he has deep wheatish complexion, light stature, medium height, beautiful broad complexion, long straight nose, eyebrows round like a bow, big natural black eyes...." Following this there are video images of men and women with rifles and automatic weapons.

The video claims that “no power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Jerusalem where they will erect their flags." The narrator then says that the Jihad is already in process “across the Holy Land,” and that “nothing can stop that Jihad, No one can stop it....”

As of Friday night a copy of the video was still on You Tube.

The prophecy outlined in The Black Flags from Khorasan is part of a scary messianic and apocalyptic movement within Islam is called Mahdism. According to Professor Timothy R. Furnish, apocalyptic Mahdist 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.”-{1} Mahdist movements are tightly wound around apocalyptic frameworks giving form to the future of all humanity at the end of time.

Chechnya

The Chechen Republic, with a predominantly Muslim population, is a reluctant part of the Russian federation. Chechnya lies between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea along with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, all surrounded by the much larger territories of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

The repression and human rights atrocities committed in Chechnya by invading Russian troops were brutal and deadly. In 2002 Human Rights Watch issued a report stating that "Russian forces in Chechnya arbitrarily detain, torture, and kill civilians in a climate of lawlessness." Some Chechen Muslims suggest that Russia and the United States reached an understanding whereby the U.S. would not pay attention to human rights abuses in Chechnya as long as Russian forces were fighting radical Muslims.

Richard H. Schultz, Jr. and Andrea J. Dew in Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat, note "the growing significance of Sufi Islam in the social, political, cultural, and economic life of Chechnya."

The Sufi form of Islam around the world is a pacifist religious movement, and Sufis generally stay out of politics, and sometimes are persecuted by the more orthodox Muslims.

According to Schultz & Dew, in Chechnya an aberrant form of Sufism developed.

Schultz & Dew suggest that after the Russian invasion of the North Caucuses, the "idea of ghazzavat or holy war made it easier for Chechens to take on" the Russian invaders. "By labeling the Russians 'infidels,' the ghazzavat doctrine" infused the Muslim fighter with a "feeling of worthiness and moral supremacy." In addition, it "provided fighters with safe passage to the afterlife" by "eliminating fear of death and the unknown." The guarantee of entering the afterlife as heroes and martyrs to God’s just cause helps generate a constant flow of terrorists.

What began as a resistance by Chechen nationalists seeking independence from Russia eventually morphed into a religious campaign dominated by Muslims. According to Shultz & Dew, "radical Islamists from various Arab and Muslim countries" joined the Chechen resistance, and saw the fight as "part of the international holy war." In 2003, the authors note, "the U.S. State Department designated three Chechen groups as terrorist organizations and charged they had links to al-Qaeda." This has been disputed by some experts. Clearly, not all Chechen resistance fighters were Muslim; some were simply nationalists opposed to the vicious Russian campaign against Chechnya. And not all resistance fighters turned to terrorism.

Why Patriots Day?

Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, although celebrated on a Monday, is dedicated to the colonial Minutemen patriots of Lexington and Concord and surrounding towns who on April 19, 1775 launched the revolution that gave birth to the United States. This is an important date for right-wing movements in the United States, and there are numerous posts on the Internet explaining why. Early speculation as to the perpetrators of the bombing centered on domestic right-wing militants. As someone who for forty years has studied domestic right-wing militias and neonazi groups (not the same thing) I had trouble imagining how such groups would explain targeting Boston on a day that was an iconic part of their anti-regime philosophy.

What if you believe in the Islamic prophecy? Imagine that you are a devout Muslim who has been drawn into a fanatical totalitarian sociopolitical movement that sees the United States as the Great Satan. Attacking civilians on Patriots day is an act that glorifies God. Bombing the Boston Marathon punishes a country bent on crippling global Islam. A colleague who is a filmmaker pointed out that blowing the legs off of marathon bystanders was symbolically cutting off America at the knees. Boston, once heralded by devout Christians as the apocalyptic New Jerusalem is exposed as the wellspring of evil, not the location where Jesus of Nazareth returns in triumph with a Christian millennium.

Bombing a celebration of Patriots Day in Boston not only targets the claim that America stands for democracy, but also reveals the weakness and powerlessness of the imperial juggernaut helping despoil Muslim lands from Chechnya to Mecca and beyond. This doesn’t have to make sense to the average American, it just has to make sense to two young Muslim men on a mission for God and glory who perhaps are on their way to a hero’s welcome in the afterlife.

The Devil is in the Details

The prophecy about a mighty army of non-Arab Muslims under a sea of black flags storming Jerusalem from the region of Khorasan is very marginal within contemporary Islam. A hadîth is a saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad in one or more collections handed down over time within Islam. Some hadiths are concerned more reliable than others by experts within the faith. According to Sheikh Salman al-Oadah at Islam Today:

The hadîth about the army with black banners coming out of Khorasan has two chains of transmission [historic references and cites], but both are weak and cannot be authenticated.

If a Muslim believes in this hadîth, he believes in something false. Anyone who cares about his religion and belief should avoid heading towards falsehood.

Being an observant Muslim or even a "fundamentalist" Muslim who resents U.S. foreign policy actions in the Middle East and South Asia does not mean that one automatically supports theocracy, violence, or terrorism. The problem is maximized when Fundamentalism is tied to a totalitarian worldview, especially when mixed with apocalyptic or millennial excitement.

It depends on your version of your religion as to whether or not you see the return of the Messiah in the End Times as requiring some earthly assistance, including the use of force to “hasten the end.” Most of the devout pray to hasten the return of the Messiah…but a few use bombs such as those that exploded in Boston.

In his masterful and terrifying book, The End of Days, my colleague Gershom Gorenberg traces the way in which small groups of Jews, Christians, and Muslims seek to control the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as a landing pad for global Godliness. Alas, for the most fanatic, this means converting or killing all of us who refuse to join in the purification of the planet in anticipation of the end of time and the return of the prophesied Messiah.

  • For Jews, the Messiah has not yet arrived. Jesus was not a true Messiah. When the true Messiah returns, he will return to the rebuilt Temple of Solomon, the site of which is in Jerusalem.
  • For Christians, it is Jesus, the true Messiah, who was executed and rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, who is the true Messiah. Some believe Jesus will return to the Temple Mount
  • For Muslims, the actual Messiah is called the Mahdi. Muslims know this is correct because Jesus—who is a revered prophet in Islam—returns and tells the world that he was indeed a prophet of God, but that the real Messiah (the Mahdi) returns to establish Islam as the ruler of earth.

Each religion expects the true Messiah to return to the same small hill in Jerusalem. For Jews and Christians it is the Temple Mount. For Muslims, who currently control the land, the same hill is called al-Haram al-Sharif. In anticipation of the return of the Messiah—in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—some engage in rituals of purification to cleanse Earth and hasten the return of the Messiah. In rare instances this includes violence as a part of the ritual of purification.

The bombing of the Boston Marathon may be a horrid example of a totalitarian tendency dubbed “political religion” and popularized as a concept by theorist Eric Voegelin in the 1930s.-{2} Examples of political religions include Hitlerism, Stalinism, and the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. All are forms of totalitarianism that demonized and scapegoat a named enemy for all problems in a society. Other scholars use terms such as “the sacralization of politics” (Gentile) and palingenesis (Griffin) to analyze such movements.

The term “political religion” does not mean a religion that has become politicized; it means a political movement that raises the stakes for its program so that obedience and action are raised to the level of a religious or metaphysical obligation. You are either on the bus or you will be thrown under the bus. Obedience to the end goals of the political movement are an absolutist requirement. Having arrived at this totalitarian worldview, it is quite possible to attach it to a religious motive, especially one based in apocalyptic prophecy.

This is the worldview of the militant “Jihadists” who engage in acts of terrorism. Most Muslims see Jihad within Islam as a term that means a struggle to find truth and not justifying acts of terrorism. According to an essay in the Islamic magazine The Fountain,Jihadists:

…cannot fight those who do not oppose them, cannot engage in indiscriminate killing and pillage, and must remain honorable while fighting (no deliberate killing of women, children, or the elderly, mutilation of corpses, and destruction of land and crops). Force is to be used only when there is no other choice (2:190).-{3}

Islamic fundamentalism

In Islam there was a series of reformations in the 1700s, similar to Martin Luther's reformation of Catholicism into Protestantism, but the decentralized nature of Islam was an issue, and there were several separate reform movements. One was led by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), that became the Wahhabi movement-the theology behind the Saudi government. Think of the Wahhabist Saudi government as similar to the theocratic government created by John Calvin in Geneva. Both are based on the idea of the sovereignty of God administered by righteous men.

Now there is a second reformation going on within Islam that is more global-theocratic Islamic fundamentalism. Jamal Malik, who studies Muslim identity, explains that with Islamic fundamentalism "Islamic tradition is modernized, since the imagined Islamic society is to compete and correspond with Western achievements. This would only be possible in a centralized Islamic state over which they would wield control as the agents of God's sovereignty on earth. . . ." {4}

This explanation of Islamic fundamentalism describes a form of theocracy-a system where the only appropriate political leaders are persons who see themselves as devoted to carrying out the will of God as interpreted by a common religion. Some scholars, however, argue that not all forms of fundamentalism are necessarily theocratic, at least in practice.

Contemporary Islamic fundamentalism has its roots in the theological/political theories of Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) and the emergence of a theological outlook called Salafism that is complimentary to Wahhabism. As Khaled Abou El Fadl explains:

Wahhabi thought exercised its greatest influence not under its own label, but under the rubric of Salafism. In their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis, and not Wahhabis....

Salafism is a creed founded in the late nineteenth century by Muslim reformers such as Muhammad 'Abduh, al-Afghani and Rashid Rida. Salafism appealed to a very basic concept in Islam: Muslims ought to follow the precedent of the Prophet and his companions (al-salaf al-salih).

Methodologically, Salafism was nearly identical to Wahhabism except that Wahhabism is far less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinion. The founders of Salafism maintained that on all issues Muslims ought to return to the Qur'an and the sunna (precedent) of the Prophet. In doing so, Muslims ought to reinterpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands, without being slavishly bound to the interpretations of earlier Muslim generations. {5}

The result is a form of Islamic fundamentalism that is very repressive. Mawdudi argued that his ideal Islamic State "would be totalitarian, because it subjected everything to the rule of God. . ." notes Karen Armstrong. {6}

Some observers use the term “fundamentalist” to describe all militant totalitarian apocalyptic religious movements. This is not accurate. The term fundamentalism, originally used to describe a form of Christianity, is properly used to describe similar but not identical religious revitalization movements in various religious traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Fundamentalism is often confused with orthodoxy and traditionalism. Fundamentalists claim to be restoring the "true" religion by returning to "traditional" beliefs and enforcing orthodox beliefs-the set of theological doctrines approved of as sound and correct by a faith's religious leaders. In fact, while fundamentalist movements claim to be restoring tradition and orthodoxy, they actually create a new version of an existing religion based on a mythic and romanticized past. This thesis was a central argument in Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God, a comparative study of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. {7}

So, while fundamentalism is a reaction against the Enlightenment and modernity, it is ironically a distinctly modern phenomenon. Jamal Malik, who studies Muslim identity, explains that with Islamic fundamentalism "Islamic tradition is modernized, since the imagined Islamic society is to compete and correspond with Western achievements. This would only be possible in a centralized Islamic state over which they would wield control as the agents of God's sovereignty on earth. . . ." {8} This explanation of Islamic fundamentalism describes a form of theocracy-a system where the only appropriate political leaders are persons who see themselves as devoted to carrying out the will of God as interpreted by a common religion. Some scholars, however, argue that not all forms of fundamentalism are necessarily theocratic, at least in practice.

Furthermore, fundamentalist religious movements seldom turn to violence, even when they are wound up tighter than a clock spring with apocalyptic excitement and anticipation. The response to apocalyptic belief systems anticipating the End of Days can be passive, defensive, or aggressive.

Professor Lee Quinby takes a dim view of apocalypticism. In her book Anti–Apocalypse, Quinby argues that “Apocalypticism in each of its modes fuels discord, breeds anxiety or apathy, and sometimes causes panic,” and that “this process can occur at the individual, community, national, or international level.” What makes apocalypse so compelling,” argues Quinby,” is its promise of future perfection, eternal happiness, and godlike understanding of life, but it is that very will to absolute power and knowledge that produces its compulsions of violence, hatred, and oppression.” {9} Quinby also published a study titled “Coercive Purity: The Dangerous Promise of Apocalyptic Masculinity.” Scholar Carol Mason has written in Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politicsof the religious justifications used by those who murder abortion provider in the United States.

Sociologist of religion Brenda Brasher argues that apocalypticism “is potentially beneficent or potentially destructive. A crucial distinction,” she says is, “in the definition of the status of the 'Other' in the anticipated confrontation. If the 'Other' is constructed as wholly evil, then the ramifications are really horrendous. In this form, apocalypticism leaves no room for ambiguity in the stories told about the 'Other.' There is a real hardening of sides. We are good, they are evil. This is not a disagreement, but a struggle with evil incarnate, so there is no structure for a peaceful reconciliation.” In this scenario, Brasher says that people “are cast in their roles as either enemy or friend and there is no such thing as middle ground. In the battle with evil, can you really say you are neutral?”

On the other hand, Brasher points out that “apocalyptic themes have been drawn upon by people who are in distress”:

…people faced with horrific conditions and who are trying to sustain themselves, provide dignity, and preserve a sense of community. An example would be the role of apocalyptic Christianity among African slaves brought to the United States. This is also true of the anti-slavery abolition movements and the Civil Rights movement. In this beneficent form apocalyptic belief provides a moral framework that resists the effects of chaos and provides a means by which communities can survive and endure.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For those whose lives were tragically altered forever on April 15, 2013 in Boston, none of this really matters. Yet if we are to fight terrorism, it best be on the basis of understanding what motivates terrorism. Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University, has found through extensive research that the single most common aspect of terrorists is a deep sense of having been humiliated. What then is the effectiveness of a “War on Terrorism” using bombs and drones? This need to punish our enemies in acts of revenge only adds fuel to the flames that return home to engulf us in terrorist acts.

Chip Berlet, an investigative reporter and scholar, has studied repression, right-wing movements, and political violence for over forty years. He was an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements and recently authored the study “The United States: Messianism, Apocalypticism, and Political Religion” collected in The Sacred in Twentieth Century Politics. Berlet also coordinated and co-authored the revisions for the entry on “Neo-Nazism” in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.

For a lengthy study on apocalypticism by the author, see Dances with Devils: How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism

 
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