Can Bad Dates Stop the Mahdi?

The nice folks at Wikistrat–the online analytical group for which I have done some work–sent out an announcement about my new book, in Q & A format. There’s also a link therein to the Amazon page where you can order it.

I explore how the Ottoman Empire, across space and time, fought off seven major groupings of insurgents. So this work is necessarily eclectic, canvassing not just Middle East and African (Sudanese) history, but military tactics, strategy, Islamic theology, Ottoman domestic politics and foreign relations, and–of course–eschatology and Mahdism. And where else would you learn that one Ottoman plan to take out an opponent involved…poisoned dates!? (No, this attempt was not thwarted by the trusty Egyptian side-kick.)

Also, on September 11, 2020 (fittingly enough), the PR department at Reinhardt University (where I teach) did a short article on this being the fifth book I’ve published.

Even Double Falsehoods Can Be Dangerous–If The Mahdi Is Involved

Having spent the previous three months immersed in how the Ottoman Empire dealt with rebels, to include apocalyptic ones, I now return to examining such movements in the modern world. One comes from Bangladesh, where a certain Mustak Muhammad Arman Khan has claimed to be the Mahdi. Or at least that is according to the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC) unit of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. Khan (insert Captain Kirk scene here) has been “claiming that he is a descendant of prophet Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) and that he has been nominated as Imam Mahdi in a dream….” He is said to have moved to Saudi Arabia in 2016, and that he “has served as the leaders of various organizations including [Ansar] Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) where he was previously a soldier.” Back in May of this year the CTTC had arrested 17 members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who “were trying to travel to Saudi Arabia to meet Mahadi [sic].” They were “inspired by his ideals” and “preparing to serve under him.”

Khan is a graduate of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. His videos are available in English and Bengali. The former lays out the usual Salafi litany of woes befalling the Muslim world, and blames most of them on the West. The latter, as near as I can ascertain from the visuals–which include the Qur’an and the written notes in Arabic–seems to take a numerological exegetical approach to the eschatological passages in the former. In neither video did I hear or read any overt claim by Khan to be the Mahdi, however. As for the two groups with which he is allegedly connected: AGH (“Helpers of the Battle of India”) is an apocalyptic-leaning jihadist group, affiliated with al-Qa`idah and the Taliban, which operates primarily in Kashmir; JMB (“Assembly of Muhajidin–Bangladesh”) is a 10,000-man strong jihadist organization that has been killing people in the name of an Islamic state since the early 21st century. It may be that the Dhaka authorities are simply trying to implicate Khan by association, in order to extradite and arrest him. But if seasoned terrorists from one or both of these groups are indeed flocking to the banner of this self-styled Mahdi, then not just South Asia and Saudi Arabia–but the whole world–has a major headache.

But an even bigger potential eschatological problem is brewing in NATO member Turkey. In January of this year, “the founder of Turkey’s influential government-linked private security firm SADAT…resigned from his role as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s adviser weeks after telling an audience…that his company was paving the way for the coming of the Mahdi….” Adnan Tanriverdi is a retired Turkish Army Brigadier General who heads up SADAT, a Turkish military “consulting” group that fills in for the Republic’s actual military in certain foreign operations and training roles. It has been described as the President’s “shadow army.” Another source reported that Tanriverdi, whose speech was delivered at the Islamic Union Congress meeting in Istanbul in December 2019, called for a “union of Muslim states,” as well–a theme that was also pushed by keynote speaker Ali Erbaş, head of Turkey’s Diyanet (religious affairs department). And of course the Turkish participants argue that their President should head up such a Union. The conference is sponsored by a quasi-governmental organization headed by Tanriverdi, called ASSAM–which in Turkish is an acronym for “Strategic Research Center for Defenders of Justice.”

ASSAM logo, from this Nordic Monitor article.

Back in 2013 I wrote an essay on how someone claiming to be the Mahdi might actually take power in the Sunni world. (It’s in my book Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdis’ Camps, pp. 76-83.) I posited that a self-styled Mahdi, in order to pose a viable political threat, would have to gain the support of a major transnational Islamic organization: the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir or Tablighi Jama`at. We can add the Turkish-dominated Islamic Union Congress to those possible platforms.

This Turkish movement is far more serious than a deluded Bangladeshi to whom a handful of jihadists have sworn loyalty. Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO, enormous cachet in the Dar al-Islam as the heir to the Ottoman Empire, and the largest non-petro-dollar empowered economy in the Middle East. At least one of Erdoğan’s Ottoman predecessors had Mahdist aspirations. “Süleyman very likely believed, at least until his last years, in his own messianic identity.” Such a figure can be either “the protector of right religion” or “the messianic general who extends its sway over the whole earth” (Cornell H. Fleischer, “Mahdi and Millennium: Messianic Dimensions in the Development of Ottoman Imperial Ideology,” in Ottoman Philosophy, Science and Institutions (Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, 2000), pp. 49, 51). Perhaps the Turkish President sees himself as (merely) the protector of Islam–but what if his advisors convince him he’s the End of Times Muslim warlord? Tanriverdi was forced out of his public role–but was that because of disagreement with his stated eschatological beliefs, or because he simply jumped the gun in revealing them? According to Pew data, 68% of Turks expect the Mahdi to come in their current lifetime; only Afghans and Iraqis believe that at a higher rate (and the latter are Twelver Shi`is, for whom that belief is central).

It might well be that “religious faith in the ‘Mahdi’ could bring catastrophe to Turkey“–but not before bringing the same to the Middle East, and perhaps the entire world.

The Pen is Mightier than the Plague…Lockdown

I went into “China Virus”/book-writing hermit mode this past March (as per my previous post). But in that five months I did also write and publish 14 articles (as of today, 8.19.2020) over at The Stream :

The Virtue of Plagues: How Epidemics Can Change the Course of History

The Prince of Peace v. the False Prophets of Islam

Atheist NYC Mayor De Blasio Feeds Muslims, Forgets Christians and Jews

Out Like Flynn

Bringing the Gospel to Pakistan: A Lutheran Missionary’s Story

How Middle-earth Can Help Us Deal with the Middle Kingdom

A Byzantine Approach to Antifa

Who’s Your Messiah Now, Democrats?”

A More Perfect Union May Not be Good Enough

Martin Luther Writes against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Antifa

Trumplandia v. Antifistant: What If the US Breaks Up?

Who Can Blame Erdogan for Going Back to the Future?

Mumbling toward Mecca

From Eastern Arabia with Love: the UAE Makes Peace with Israel

Yours truly during “China Virus” Lockdown–Not.
Try “Luther at Erfurt” (Wiki public domain)

Nobody’s Fault But Mine…

I haven’t blogged in five months–for two main reasons. First, the “China Virus” hit in the spring, and like many professors I had to move all my classes online–with the extra, unexpected work that that entailed. Second, once the spring university term ended, I committed myself to finally finishing that book on the Ottoman Empire’s counterinsurgency–which I did! It’s now available on Amazon, in both Kindle and paperback versions. And the paperback checks in at 289 pages, available for the reasonable price of $24.99 (while the e-book is only $9.99). If you’re at all interested in Middle Eastern, especially Ottoman, history; counterterrorism, Muslim v. Muslim jihad, and of course Islamic apocalyptic movements–this is the book for you!

From the Middle East to Middle-earth

As my periodic posts pulling in Middle-earth politics indicate, I’m a Tolkien fan(atic). Back in 2016 Oloris Publishing put out my intensely-researched book High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth. But not long after, Oloris ceased operations and High Towers became unavailable except to those as rich as Smaug.

Well, I finally decided to do a hard day’s work–actually, a number of them–and republish the book myself on Amazon. And much of the heavy lifting of editing, as well as all of the formatting, was done by my wife Davina–to whom I owe (yet again) a great deal of thanks.

The book runs to 294 pages (actually 20 more than my doctoral dissertation on Islamic eschatology!) and contains almost 900 endnotes referring to over 200 sources, both primary and secondary. It’s intended for a popular audience, but academic enough to have served as a source (along with the author) for a Master’s degree at Signum University. I am still working on the successor volume: Bright Swords and Glorious Warriors: A Military History of Middle-earth. 

The paperback version is available on Amazon here. The Kindle version should be up soon.

High Towers Cover 2020 Amazon edition paperback

Back cover High Towers 2020

 

Who’s Your Messiah Now, Netflix?

As some folks who follow my blog probably already know, Netflix recently put out the first season of a show called Messiah. It’s about a modern-day messianic leader who arises in the Middle East, comes to the US and develops a devoted following. I watched all 10 episodes and wrote a lengthy review/analysis of the show, which is available here. (If you do go read it, please be kind enough to leave a comment over the at The Stream. Thanks!)

Jesus and Muhammad Islsamic art

Figure 3. Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8. Edinburgh University Library.EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY LIBRARY–published in “The Koran Does Not Forbid Images of the Prophet” by Christiane Gruber, “Newsweek,” 1.9.15.

 

 

Breaking Down “Islamophobia”

As I’ve noted before, I’m privileged to appear periodically on Pete Turner’s excellent radio program, the “Break It Down Show.” Often this is as a commentator for album fights. (And here’s the latest one of those). But every so often Pete gets me on to discuss some aspect of Islamic civilization/history/affairs. This he did again recently, using yours truly as a foil (or actually more of an echo chamber) over against Dr. Boris Havel, a fellow Islam scholar from the University of Zagreb.

The entire show runs about 66 minutes, but it’s worth it!

MeandGordon

With one of my Orientalist heroes in London: General

Charles Gordon, killed by Mahdists in Khartoum, 1885.

“Deradicalized” Means Never Having to Say You’re Muslim

At the end of last year, Mr. John Zmirak of “The Stream” put me in contact with Tania Joya, an ex-Muslim and, more notably, ex-ISIS wife. I interviewed her and wrote it up, at length. That piece published yesterday (Saturday, January 11, 2020).  Here’s the link.

Ms. Joya has been interviewed dozens of times.  The vast majority of journalists who did so know little to nothing about Islam. The lone exception was probably Graeme Wood. Mr. Wood, famous for being honest enough to admit that ISIS was (and still is) actually Islamic, does know quite a bit about Islamic theology and how that translates into jihad. (Although he was nine months behind me in figuring this out–see my Sects, Lies, and the Caliphate, pp. 21-31; an essay originally published on my old Mahdiwatch site in June 2014.)

However, Mr. Wood never questions the truth claims and veracity of Islam itself–just its “extremist” groups. In this article I delve into that issue with Ms. Joya. Her conclusion? “If you’re properly deradicalized, you’re not even going to want to be a Muslim.”

Read it all.

And here’s a photo courtesy of Wikipedia (public domain), “Niqab.”

Niqab Monterey CA

No, it’s not from Yemen, ISIS territory or Iran. It’s from Monterey, California. (Where, incidentally, I learned Arabic at the Army’s Defense Language Institute in the 1980s. I’d be willing to bet this is a relative, perhaps wife, of an Arabic instructor there.)

The Fifth of November & the Eleventh of September

Remember, remember, today is the fifth of November. That means Guy Fawkes is trending on social media. As is V for Vendetta, since many public school products think that the Gunpowder Plot was an anarchist-liberation movement.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as we discuss at some length in the history of terrorism class which I teach. And probably the best recent source on this topic is Marc Nicholls, “Strategy and Motivation in the Gunpowder Plot” from The Historical Journal, 50, 4 (2007), pp. 787-807.

One of the first things Nicholls makes clear is that we should probably be remembering  it as “Robert Catesby Day,” as he was the mastermind of the plot.  Fawkes was (merely) the trigger man, as it were. He had the most military experience of any involved, having fought with the Spanish in the Netherlands. But since Catesby and the other leaders were killed fighting the English after the plot had been uncovered, Fawkes–captured with the barrels of gunpowder beneath Parliament–became the main source for, and symbol of, this terrorist attempt.

Capture of Guy Fawkes

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the Taking of Guy Fawkes” (Wikipedia, public domain).

Nicholls, overall, makes a compelling case that from from being “unthinking [Catholic] fanatics,” Catesby & company’s plan had “pragmatic coherence” and a chance of success–albeit small–and by no means entailed the certainly of death. The 13 plotters (assisted by about 70 more men) hoped to restore Catholicism as the official religion of England by blowing up Parliament with King James I in session, kidnapping his 9-yr. old daughter Elizabeth, and declaring her Queen. They did not expect foreign (Spanish, that is) assistance and hoped (and prayed) that the still-substantial minority of English Catholics would rally, armed, to their cause. “Though long, the odds against them were not impossible,” writes Nicholls.

But there was a strong non-rational, indeed emotional, aspect to the plan: revenge against the King for his (alleged) betrayal of toleration for Catholics, as well as against the remaining Catholic nobility who had failed to stand up for their lower-class co-religionists. Catesby, according to the survivors interrogated, saw himself as an “instrument of providence” who believed that “innocent blood must lawfully flow with the guilty.” Catesby had an apocalyptic vision, says Nicholls, who “aimed at a religious upheaval”–while being at the same time pragmatic, as a profoundly “political creature.”

“To understand the Gunpowder Plot, it is thus necessary to look beyond Fawkes and his barrels…and see the enterprise for what it was, a failed rebellion. The Plot may have been the work of desperate men, but however desperate those men never really constituted the ‘idiot fringe’ of extremist fanaticism, represented in popular and much academic opinion” (p. 806).  And “if the plotters actions perhaps have a modern resonance” it is because “they regarded the destruction of Westminster as the first strike in a coup, not as an end in itself” (Ibid.).

Gunpowder Plotters

A contemporary engraving of eight of the 13 conspirators,” (Wikipedia, public domain). 

I would argue that, beyond setting the record straight about Guy Fawkes and the folks he worked for, these observations about the Gunpowder Plot give us some insights into the most prevalent brand of modern religious terrorism–that of Islam. Jihadists are regularly–indeed, axiomatically–presented as an idiot, fanatical fringe who fail to understand their own religion. Just last week, after American Special Forces had chased down ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and caused him to kill himself, noted Islam expert Karl Rove (is my sarcasm thick enough?) stated that the former “caliph” had “hijacked a great religion.” No, most of what ISIS does–jihad, beheadings, sex slavery of non-Muslims–stems from the Qur’an and Hadiths and can be deemed marginal only in that most Muslims do not personally engage in such activities; that, however, does not negate the fact that Islamic doctrines undergird them. And, indeed, the idea of reconstituting the caliphate is shared by a huge percentage, perhaps even a majority, of the world’s second-largest religion.

Note: I am not saying both Catholic Christianity and Islam are equally violent, but rather that commentators don’t get to define what constitutes “fringe,” based on their own personal preferences. So in the same way that historians have tended to scorn the Gunpowder Plotters as irrational and hopeless, modern analysts have made a cottage industry (as per Rove, above) of purporting to explain how even scholars of Islam, such as the houri-meeting former caliph, cannot seem to understand they belong to a peaceful religion. Large numbers of Muslims in many places also support shari`ah (Islamic law), ulama (religious leaders) involved in politics, and polygamy (as per Pew, 2013); at the same time, large minorities believe in the Mahdi’s imminent return (as per Pew, 2012)–each of these a staple of alleged hijackers of Islam such as ISIS.

At root, it’s quite plausible to see the ubiquitous phenomenon of growing Islamic fundamentalism and violence as a rebellion against the global order that the West imposed beginning in the 16th century. Whether that will fail, as the much smaller in scope 1605 one did, remains to be seen. But until then, expect plenty of gunpowder to be expended in the process.

(To see folks in Fawkes masks and kaffiyahs, and read a bit about how the trope came to the Middle East, take a look at this article from 2016.)