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Islam And The Pursuit Of The Millennium, Redux

Last September, in a piece for this blog (“The Islamic State and the Joachite Prophecy”), we compared the current conflict within Islam – and with the Islamic State in particular – to medieval Christian millenarianism.  Specifically, we wrote:

[T]he Islamism that America is fighting today has its roots in a philosophy that is, in some ways, strikingly similar to those that prompted the millenarian fits of the Middle Ages.  Islam, too, has had its prophets of utopia.  And it, too, has seen the rise of reactionary movements envisioned as the means by which an idyllic state might be achieved on earth.  The differences between Christian eschatology and the Muslim version are, of course, both manifold and manifest.  Among other things, millenarian Islam seeks to establish – or re-establish – a paradigmatic global “caliphate” based on the order established by Mohammed and forged through violence and the conversion of non-believers.  Additionally, and more to the point, while Christianity’s spasm of overt utopianism was, by and large, a medieval phenomenon, Islam’s battle with millenarian reactionary ideologies is both contemporary and ongoing….

What this tells us, then, is that the Islamic State is most definitely Islamic.  About that there should be no question.

This past week, Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, penned a long, thoughtful, and well-researched piece about ISIS which, we think, tends to confirm this notion that we proposed last fall.  Wood put it this way:

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 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.  We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

We bring this up today not because we’d like a pat on the back (or not just because we’d like a pat on the back), but because all of this, taken together, provides a glimpse of a possible end to this seemingly interminable “war on terror” and a less bloody end than might seem possible today.

The current debate in Washington about the best means for dealing with the Islamic State is, we think, rather stilted and uninspired.  One party wishes to deal with the problem by obtaining a broad, wide-ranging, and global authorization for the use of force.  And the other party thinks that this unprecedented proposed authorization is woefully doveish.  All of which is to say that short of blowing up as many Islamic radicals as possible, no one in the nation’s political class has given much serious thought to what it will take to end and win this war.

The fact of the matter is that this is not the first time in modern history that the West has been faced with a challenge like this.  As we noted last September, much of what we know about medieval Millenarianism comes from the eminent British historian Norman Cohn, who made the study of such movements his life’s work.  Perhaps the most important and influential conclusions reached by Cohn are those he put forth in the final chapter of his opus, The Pursuit of the Millennium.  There, he argued as follows:

The story told in this book ended some four centuries ago, but is not without relevance to our own times.
The present writer has shown in another work [Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion] how closely the Nazi phantasy of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy of destruction is related to the phantasies that inspired Emico of Leningrad and the Master of Hungary; and how mass disorientation and insecurity have fostered the demonization of the Jew in this as in much earlier centuries.  The parallels and indeed the continuity are incontestable.

But one may also reflect on the leftwing revolutions and revolutionary movements of this century . . . Those who are fascinated by such ideas [egalitarian Millenarianism] are, on the one hand, the populations of certain technologically backward societies which are not only overpopulated and desperately poor but also involved in a problematic transition to the modern world, and are correspondingly dislocated and disoriented; and, on the other hand, certain politically marginal elements in technologically advanced societies – chiefly young and unemployed workers and a small minority of intellectuals and students . . .

During the half-century since 1917 there has been a constant repetition, and on an ever increasing scale, of the socio-psychological process which once joined the Taborite priests or Thomas Muntzer with the most disoriented and desperate of the poor, in phantasies of a final exterminatory struggle against “the great ones”; and of a perfect world from which self-seeking would be forever banished.

Now, this format is not exactly ideal for a long and exhaustive discussion of the quasi-religious millenarian nature of the 20th century’s totalitarian movements, but we would like to make one final point here, though we’ll do it no real justice.  Cohn was hardly alone in seeing both Nazism and Communism as the secular heirs of the Christian millenarian movements.  Of those who shared this conclusion, the great German-American political philosopher Erich Voegelin is likely the best known and the most respected.  Voegelin, who is most famous for his emphasis on leftist “Gnosticism,” argued that there was a pronounced spiritual void in the West created by the advance of secularism and the modernist attack on traditional religion.  This void, in turn, was filled quite nicely by the mass political movements of Communism and Nazism, which not only echoed the earlier fervor of mass religious movements, but mirrored one another quite nicely.

Given this, we think it is critical to remember that Soviet Communism was only defeated once the political and spiritual spheres of Western culture combined forces in pursuit of a common goal and attempted to fill the spiritual void.  Reagan and Thatcher were undoubtedly integral in the defeat of the Soviets, but their contributions would likely have meant considerably less without the equally – or more – important contribution made by Pope John Paul II, who experienced Communism first hand and therefore had an intimate and personal knowledge of the spiritual void that underpinned the Communist mindset.  It may not be true that the Cold War was won without a single shot being fired, but there can be little doubt that it was won less on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam than in the corridors of the Vatican and on the picket lines of Gdansk.

The point here, we suppose, is that it is equally likely in this case that the long, twilight struggle against a radical millenarian enemy will NOT be won exclusively on the battlefield.  In order to defeat the radical Islamists, the West will, at the very least, have to identify and address the spiritual nature of the conflict and the spiritual appeal that the Islamists provide to those who have come unmoored from the traditional social support structures in our profoundly secular world.  Pope Benedict XVI seemed to understand this and tried to make the point at Regensburg.  Pope Francis, too, seems to understand it and appears to be doing his best to call attention to the spiritual void exploited by the Islamic State and its ilk.

The question, however, is whether the political leaders in the West – and in Washington especially – will ever come to the same conclusion and concede perhaps that the path to victory in the war on terror need not – indeed CAN not – involve bombs and bullets alone.