Thursday, December 10, 2015

December 10, 2015--Islamic Eschatology: "The Blessed Invasion"

About 15 years ago, at a Ford Foundation meeting where I was serving as a senior director, because our new president wanted to shift some of the foundation's emphasis to cultural grantmaking that would include funding organizations devoted to religious tolerance and interfaith projects, senior staff gathered to discuss what that meant and how we should proceed.

For me it turned out to be a life-altering experience.

One staff member who attended was a Pakistani-born and raised colleague who, after hearing the rest of us flounder for half a day, struggling with how to think about our new president's challenge, out of exasperation with us, she said--

"The problem is that all of you are liberals and liberals look back to the Enlightenment for guidance on how to think about the world and its problems. You all believe that there are rational solutions to every problem. In fact, you abjure anything that isn't rational or evidence-based. Thus you are uncomfortable with much that has to do with the power of culture, especially belief systems, religions, that are not strictly speaking rational.

"In fact, they are decidedly not rational nor fact-based. None of them are. They are about belief. Derived from that. And thus you do not know how to respond to our new CEO's mandate--that we pay more attention to the power of culture as it shapes peoples' lives, again, especially how religious beliefs affect behavior. Even, perhaps especially behavior that doesn't make sense if viewed through only an Enlightenment lens."

The room grew hushed. None of us, very much including me, knew what to think, how to respond, most important what to do.

And over the next few years of funding cultural institutions and organizations devoted to religious diversity, very little that we supported had much impact.

Retrospectively, we funded groups that were pushing against the mainstream, against orthodoxies mainly in the Middle East, orthodoxies that limited diversity of thought and practice. We supported, for example, groups that were fighting for more gender equality within powerful religious institutions. But to them, not unlike how our government's interventions in the Muslim world are meeting with such fierce resistance, the organizations we funded may have done more unintended harm than good.

From an Enlightenment perspective, which still guided the foundation's work, we thought that all we needed to do was raise social justice issues and religious leaders would quickly see the light (pun intended) and embark upon campaigns of reform.

In fact, history is showing that various forms of Western intervention--from the cultural to governmental to military--most often contribute to the problem.

Out of arrogance, ignoring history, we may have caused harm with the best of intentions.

Thus, from that, for me, fateful meeting and our largely failed grantmaking, I have become convinced that national and ethnic and tribal culture derived from religious beliefs (from the arts to language to gender relations to governance structures) are more powerful than any other social force. Economics very much included.

In fact, people in the Islamic world (and for that matter, the rest of us) are not just longing to have access to Western consumer goods, Hollywood movies, rock and roll or, as too many of us back in the day metaphorically and literally thought, MTV.

Many, perhaps most reject the blandishments of the West--things that objectively-speaking would "improve" their lives--because belief systems and cultural practices teach them otherwise.

Thus, the power of culture and religion. Something my colleagues and I never fully came to understand.

Since that time I have attempted to learn more about belief systems, especially those that are so powerful and influential that they cause people frequently to act in ways that seemingly contribute to their own disadvantage.

Looking at the world and peoples' behavior that way, What's the Matter with Kansas can be extrapolated to most of the rest of the world.

I have been particularly interested in religious orthodoxies, especially those that are guided by an apocalyptic view of the world. That believe the End is near and that it is not too soon to be prepared to welcome it.

We find strong themes of this kind in all three Religions of the Book and those of you who have been following Behind know that this has for years been an ongoing topic for me, even to the point of obsession that runs the likely risk of boring you.

But during these dangerous times, I cannot resist applauding the New York Times, which two days ago, on the front page, ran a story about prophetic Islam and how an awareness of its wide-reaching power is guiding some of out best strategic behavior as we struggle to figure out culturally careful ways to limit and hopefully defeat ISIS.

Specifically, ISIS wants the United Staes to be drawn into a ground war in northern Syria.

ISIS leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi called our 2003 intervention in Iraq "the Blessed Invasion." A view based on Muslim prophetic texts that state that Islam will be victorious against the West after an apocalyptic battle that will be ignited once Western armies enter the region.

Jean-Pierre Filin, author of Apocalypse in Islam, says, "This is a very powerful and emotional narrative. It gives . . . [Islamic] fighters the feeling that they are not only part of the elite, they are part of the final battle."

These texts prophesize an apocalyptic battle in the small Syrian towns of Dabiq and al-Amaq. Last year Islamic State militants beheaded American hostage Peter Kassig in Dabiq. The executioner said, "Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly awaiting the remainder of your armies to arrive."

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