Dictator or Deliverer? Applying Shakespeare to Trump

“I stole all courtesy from heaven and dressed myself in such humility that I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts.”—Henry IV Part 1, Act 3, Scene 2.

American actors, as most of us know, are overwhelmingly liberal; one estimate is that only perhaps 1% of Hollywood’s entertainment industry is made up of conservatives. (Even the “NY Times” admits as much—although it tries mightily to prettify the reasons for such bias.)  Clint Eastwood is a legendary force in movie-making, as both actor and director; but even his unabashed, outspoken libertarian-conservatism gets lost amidst the PC rants of Tinseltown, epitomized by Robert Di Niro’s boorish and jejune tantrums.

What about British actors, particularly Shakespearean ones?  Checking the backgrounds of 15 well-known UK thespians famous for appearing in the Bard’s plays (a “top 14” list, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch), less than half–only six—give evidence of being decidedly Left: Mark Rylance, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Derek Jacobi, Vanessa Redgrave, and Cumberbatch.  So perhaps the London stage is not as politically tendentious as Los Angeles film sets.  It would seem the same is not true of young Americans doing Shakepeare, however—at least based on personal experience.  Some years ago I played Leonato in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the college where I taught at the time. Most of the cast was comprised of college students or young actors and actresses who had recently graduated.  Not surprisingly, many were—as I recall from conversations with them—quite liberal.  (In fact, some seemed shocked that a conservative faculty member liked Shakespeare, much less had the ability to memorize lines.)  In addition, my wife and I regularly attend the excellent versions of Shakepeare’s plays put on by Atlanta’s superb Shakespeare Tavern.  I’ve gotten used to the bio notes of actors—usually, but not only, the recent college grads—proclaiming that they “punch Nazis” or support LGBT.  (My automatic response to such virtue signalling is to order another ale and, while drinking, wonder bemusedly whether anyone who majored in theater arts has ever actually been in a real fight.)

So, then, actors are overwhelmingly liberal, Shakespearean ones arguably less so.  But what about those who write on Shakespeare? Well, college faculty overall are also overwhelmingly liberal or “progressive,” by a factor of over 11:1.  In English departments, where the Bard is still sometimes studied, at least 8 of 10 professors self-identify as liberals and fewer than 1 in 10 as conservative.  (At least that’s better than my own academic field, history—where “liberals outnumber conservatives by a 33 ½ to 1 ratio”).  And only about 7% of journalists are conservatives.  So when the greatest playwright in the history of the human race is adduced, in books or articles, to support a political agenda, one can safely predict that Will’s heroes will probably be Democrats, and his villains Republican—a tradition going back to the Left’s typecasting of Nixon as Richard III.

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The Tower of London Keep, from our trip there, spring 2018.  Bodies are buried about the grounds, although the building lacks a secret tape recording system.

Typical of the academy’s weaponizing of Shakespeare against conservatives is Stephen Greenblatt’s anti-Trump screed disguised as scholarship: Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (Norton, 2018).  Without even naming the current American President, the eminent Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor makes it clear that The Donald is Jack Cade,  who led a lower-class revolt in Henry VI’s time.  But wait! He’s really as depraved as Richard III. Or as murderous as Macbeth. Or as crazy as King Lear. Or as self-absorbed as Coriolanus. Or more likely, a million times worse than all of them put together (to paraphrase The SimpsonsKent Brockman, reporting on “Krisis at Kamp Krusty”). Herewith is a sampling of Greenblatt’s thinly-diluted venom. “Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation” (p. 35).  “[A]n effective demagogue” is “the master of voodoo economics” (p. 37).  Like Cade, the modern leader of fraudulent populism “promises to make England great again” (p. 41).  But like Richard III, “he can devote himself to bullying those who possess the natural endowments he lacks” (p. 58).  Macbeth, unlike Richard, finally realizes the emptiness of his deeds and life, but Greenblatt insists that “[i]t is difficult to picture the tyrants of our times having any such moment of truthful reckoning” (p. 111).  Trump, like Lear, is an “impulsive narcissist” who “should not have control even of a very small army” (p. 118).  Only the Fool—“the equivalent of a late-night comedian”—can speak truth to his power (p. 118). Coriolanus, like the other patricians of ancient Rome, only wants small amounts of wealth to “trickle down” (p. 161) to the scorned plebians. “In civilized states, we expect leaders to have achieved…a minimal level of self-control…. Not so Coriolanus: here we are dealing instead with and overgrown child’s narcissism, insecurity, cruelty, and folly…” (pp. 165-66). Is there any doubt whom Greenblatt sees as Coriolanus’ modern incarnation?  Or this, when dissecting Coriolanus’ defection to the Volscians after he is defeated for consul: “It is as if the leader of a political party long identified with hatred of Russia…should secretly make his way to Moscow and offer his services to the Kremlin” (p. 178).  It’s not just Shakespeare, it seems, who is “[m]aster of the oblique angle” (184).  But Greenblatt lets the mask slip—intentionally, no doubt—in his “Acknowledgments:” “Not so very long ago…I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election. My historian friend…asked me what I was doing about it. ‘What can I do?’ I asked. ‘You can write something,’ he said. And so I did” (p. 192).

Journalists and other progressive politicizers of the Bard who can’t afford to vacation in bucolic Mediterranean settings are less circumspect, but no less convinced, that Trump is a Shakespeare-level despot-villain.  Googling “Trump dicatator” produces 28.5 million results. (My hands-down favorite: “Trump’s Dictator Chic,” about how his taste in furnishings is somehow Mussolini-esque.) Peruse the many articles—some thoughtful, many not—on this topic and you’ll see that Greenblatt had already identified the primary possible Bardian analogs for President Trump: Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Coriolanus.  None of them—with the possible exception of Lear, who was of course insane—is a sympathetic figure. So the Left’s scribblers, who wield Shakespeare with all the subtlety of a broadsword, give us Trump as conniving, twisted pedicide; murderous usurper; mad monarch; infantile traitor—or some poisonous combination thereof.

Trump as Lear never really works, unless one subscribes to the ludicrous notion that the 45th President is indeed insane. Macbeth is a flat-out killer, a category which might suit Vladimir Putin (at least in his past KGB career) but not Trump. Richard III is a better fit—albeit in ways that the Left might not like—insofar as he, like Trump, “though…neither good nor merciful…is every endearing thing else. He is brave, witty, resourceful, gay, swift, disarmingly candid with himself, engagingly sly with his enemies” (as per John Palmer, Political and Comic Characters of Shakespeare, Macmillan & Co., 1965, p. 65; I will rely heavily upon this splendid work in the rest of this essay).  “He never sins, for sin implies a breach of the moral law accepted by the sinner. Richard has his own code. To that he is always faithful and so lives happy as the day is long” (p. 85).  Sound familiar?  Stormy Daniels may not be Lady Anne, but one might well see Trump’s “success” with the former in much the same register as Richard’s with the latter.  Of course, Richard’s (alleged) murder of his nephew Edward V’s young sons has no parallel in the career of Trump,  “a recognisable type of public person who wins our sympathy by conducting himself with a refreshing candour” but does not “kill little children in their beds” (p. 101).  “What we like and admire about Richard”—and Trump—“is that he knows, as the politicians seldom know, precisely what he is doing. He presents the situation for what it is and makes no bones about it. We relish his exposure of a truth which in various forms and disguises is a matter of common observation (p. 101).  Still, the differences between Richard III and Donald Trump are greater than the similarities.  Trump has no bodily deformity driving his psyche, and in the final analysis Richard III is simply evil—despite the “sinister magnificence” of his intelligence and eloquence—in a way that only the most infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome would ascribe to the President. Among recent Presidents, Bill Clinton would appear to be more of in the mold of Richard III than Trump, it might well be argued–with his roguish charm, keen intellect and total lack of a moral center.

The proud, arrogant yet adolescent Roman commander Caius Marcius Coriolanus is the other major Shakespeare political figure of whom Trump is often said to be an epigone.  Coriolanus is perhaps the Bard’s most overtly political play (Palmer, p. 250) and while “finely praised, but little loved” (p. 308) in England (and, presumably, the US) has proved popular in France (p. 307).  Of course, the protagonist (insofar as he fits that definition) is a war hero, quite unlike Trump—and the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius who oppose his election as consul “are not concerned with the motives of Marcius [Coriolanus]…but with the dangers inherent in his character…” (p. 260).  Coriolanus is incensed when he is rejected for the office, not in “protest against the political dishonesty of the course to which he is invited” but solely because of the affront to his “personal dignity” (p. 279).  The self-righteous general then defects to Rome’s mortal enemy Volsci, and to his antagonist Tullus Aufidius—who eventually has Coriolanus killed, after the Roman refuses to conquer his own city.  While Greenblatt and Bill Kristol might see Aufidius as Putin, the reality is that Trump has never betrayed his country in such fashion.  To find a Coriolanus analog in American history, we might have to go back to Benedict Arnold—for no President really exhibits such Shakespearean characteristics.

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Always talking of Crusading, but never doing it: Henry IV (from Wikipedia, public domain).

I propose another view of Trump, also mining Shakespeare, but one far less negative: as Henry IV.  But to grasp the logic of that, we must first examine his rival and erstwhile superior: Richard of Bordeaux, or Richard II.  Henry and Richard were cousins, each with a legitimate claim to the throne; the latter, who actually ruled for years before being deposed, was according to Shakespeare “unfitted to rule…coping ineffectually with men of the world who adapt themselves to the event” (p. 121).  Richard II “is concerned with public affairs and the kind of men [and women!] who in every generation delude themselves into the belief that they are making history” (p. 121).  The proximate cause for Henry’s rebellion is King Richard’s seizure of the former’s estate. But as John Julius Norwich explains at some length in Shakespeare’s Kings (Viking, 1999), Richard’s reign was marked by “quite alarming arrogance, self-indulgence and irresponsibility” (p. 73) and “blind devotion to his favourites” (p. 74), such as Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and, for a time, Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham—with whom Henry famously quarrels in the play.  Even the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 failed to change Richard’s behavior, epitomized by “continuing to spend money like water and resorting to tantrums at the first breath of criticism” (p. 78).  Richard banishes Henry, who then returns with an army to…what? At first, he “gives no sign of his purpose—and for an excellent reason. He is that most dangerous of all climbing politicans, the man who will go futher than his rivals because he never allows himself to know where he is going” (Palmer, p. 134).  But Henry and his forces move toward London, gaining supporters as they go, until he sees that “[h]is chance has come and he seizes it” (p. 161)—and thus the throne.  Richard, meanwhile, retreats into self-pity and victimhood, blaming everyone and everything but himself for the loss of the throne which was his by divine right. Ultimately, “Richard failed because he had no principles at all….(p. 177).  Richard is the most self-centered character in all the Bard’s canon, and the one least able to communicate with, and understand, the common man (p. 178).

And who is today’s Richard II? Why, Hillary Clinton, of course.  Her toxic mix of self-entitlement and political maladroitness is perfectly Richardian, even if she never actually achieved the pinnacle of power. Remember, most polls and much of the public expected her to demolish Trump in the 2016 election.  President Obama said that Hillary was “the most qualified Presidential candidate ever,” and while her divine right to the office was not quite articulated, we were told that those who voted for Trump would reserve themselves a “special place in hell.”  Hillary had barely lost the 2008 Democrat nomination, remember, to Obama. So by November 2016 “Narcissus [was] already absorbed in the contemplation of [her] royal image” (Palmer, p. 152).  Trump did not win due to Russian “collusion” but because Hillary, like Richard II, was “dangerously unpopular” with large segments of the population–including, most tellingly, many blue-collar Americans who had voted previously for Obama in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin–enabling Trump, like Henry, to “rally virtually the whole country to his banner” (Norwich, p. 3)–a major factor which the play Richard II really does not explain, leaving the readers/crowd to assume “Bolingbroke” was only motivated by the king’s unjust dispossession of his lands.

So Hillary’s coronation was stymied by Trump’s march to the Presidency, which unfolded very much in the mold of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, as his character is revealed in Richard II and in Henry IV Part I.  But which Henry of Lancaster presages Trump best? That of “a long-headed conspirator, consciously bent on obtaining the crown from the outset…deliberately advancing step by step to the achievement of his purpose?” Or, instead, “a man who…appears to be borne upwards by a power beyond his volition”—in whom “there is no premeditation…no indication of a deep design.” Rather, there is a third portrayal, even more apt: that of a “political opportunist” who “instinctively adapts himself to the moment.  His intentions remain obscure, even to himself, till they are in effect fulfilled. He thus conveys the impression that he is just as much the victim of necessity as master of the event….” (p. 136).  The fates, it seems, guided his steps, from the Trump Tower escalator to the Oval Office.

From real estate mogul to reality TV star to President of the most powerful country in human history—Trump has risen even further than Henry of Lancaster.  The two formidable characteristics that drove Henry’s political triumph are shared by Trump: an instinct for doing the right thing at the right time; and the ability to connect with those below his socioeconomic class.  What Norwich said about Henry vis-à-vis Richard equally applies to Trump in respect to Hillary : “his easy charm was a far cry from Richard’s cold and haughty majesty” (Shakespeare’s Kings, p. 118).

In the final analysis, one must admit, enlisting Shakespeare in any political cause is a quixotic quest, not least because “[h]is main concern was not so much with the politics as with the men who made them” (Palmer, p. viii).  Still, it’s a labor of love to turn the table on liberals who hack at conservative politicians with Shakespearean broadswords. I’ve tried to employ, on the contrary, a Bardian rapier against Hillary and the Left.  Let me know if I’ve succeeded.

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Stage combat weapons at The Globe, London (from our family trip there, spring 2018).  Note the abundance of exquisite Elizabethan rapiers!

Coda: 

Here’s a fun quiz on the “Shakespeare & Beyond” blog: “if Shakespeare characters were running for President, who would you vote for?” I got Henry V! Deus vult!

Losing Your Head For (Not Over) Islam

I was just pulling together links to some of my media appearances for a friend when I found one to the fall 2014 interview of yours truly by the inestimable Dr. Bill Bennett, when he still hosted his “Morning in America” radio show.  It’s on the place of beheadings in Islamic doctrine  and history, and whether ISIS was, and is, aberrant in its practice of decapitation. Here’s the link (I start at 28:17, after Hugh Hewitt’s intro).

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Ali (nephew and son-in-law of Muhammad) beheading the mocking poet al-Nadr b. al-Harith at “the Prophet’s” order.  This 14th c. Ottoman miniature is archived at zombietime.com .

 

The Sultan v. the Mahdi

Adnan Oktar, aka “Harun Yahya,” a well-known Turkish Mahdist sect leader based in Istanbul, was arrested yesterday by the security forces of President Recep Erdoğan’s government according to news outlets in both Turkey and the Arab world—seemingly part of Erdoğan’s liquidation of any potential opposition to his further consolidation of power in the wake of his recent electoral victory.  Turkish police are also said to be hunting down hundreds of Oktar’s followers, alleging that arms caches were found in the organization’s headquarters on the Asian side of the Bosporus.

Most news outlets highlight Oktar, accurately, as an Islamic creationist who scorns Darwin and the theory of evolution.  But two other aspects of his thought are just as prominent, and more problematic: extravagant neo-Ottomanism, and Mahdism.

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Turkish Mahdism as promoted by Oktar on his Pakistan blogspot.

Erdoğan has been accused of holding neo-Ottoman views; but even at his most megalomanical Turkey’s President probably doesn’t entertain this Oktarian vision:

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Oktar’s Ottoman Empire on steroids and HGH with a shaker of delusion. From his website

Likewise, Erdoğan may see himself as a modern Sultan—but there is no evidence that he’s harboring any Muslim messianic aspirations; Oktar, however, had headed up a personality cult with followers who see him as the Mahdi, even if he won’t openly verify it.

I actually interviewed Adnan Oktar in Istanbul back in 2008.  I posted the transcript over on my now-defunct Mahdiwatch site (and seem to have lost my interview notes, alas).

However, as I explained at some length in my 2015 book Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps (pp. 235-241), Oktar resembles the much more well-known and powerful Fethullah Gülen, who heads up a massive, global system of schools and has been accused by President Erdoğan of masterminding a Turkish “deep state” which was behind the failed 2016 coup attempt.  Both Oktar and Gülen are disciples of the late Turkish Sufi thinker Said Nursi (d. 1960), who posited Islam as totally compatible with science and advocated peaceful, educational—not martial—“jihad.” But whereas Nursi and Gülen, while believing in the eschatological Mahdi, saw themselves less grandiosely as mujaddids, or “renewers,” of Islam—Oktar almost certainly sees himself as the End Times “rightly-guided one” sent by Allah.

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Oktar’s (probably ghost-written) 1,000 page tome on Jesus & the Mahdi. Even I couldn’t wade through it. 

One can see why neo-Sultan Recep I would go after Gülen’s legions, and demand his extradition from Pennsylvania. But why would Oktar, with his small coterie of followers—as attractive and surgically-enhanced as the women might be—even show up on Erdoğan’s radar?

Here are my theories:

  • Oktar is too much like Gülen—Even if the former is merely a pale imitation of the latter in terms of real influence, he’s less circumspect in behavior and, as noted already, more pretentious in his personal claims. Turkish rulers going far back into Ottoman times are not exactly tolerant of those claiming to be the Mahdi (as I will detail in my forthcoming book Enemies of the Caliphs).  Besides: maybe Erdoğan is just jealous.
  • Alternatively, Oktar’s fawning support of Erdoğan and his ruling AK Party is embarrassing—When you’re a swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator, being spoken of approvingly and publicly on a regular basis by the head of an Islamic sex cult with delusions of, if not godhood, at least god-direction is not high on your list of priorities. With friends like that, the Turkish Presi…er, Sultan hardly needs enemies
  • Oktar is too pro-Israel—As the “Jerusalem Post” noted in its article on Oktar’s arrest, “[f]or years Oktar and his friends…sought to do outreach to Israel and Jewish religious leaders….as part of an attempt to promote peace and serve as a kind of model of coexistence in which Turkey would be a bridge between East and West.” This included “numerous visits to Turkey of appearances on Oktar’s programs with prominent Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum.” Needless to say, this is at loggerheads with the Turkish leader who, earlier this year, called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “terrorist” and Israel a “terrorist state.”
  • Because he can.

Erdoğan’s reasons for arresting Oktar and rolling up his organization are probably some combination of all of these.  Unlike Gülen, Oktar’s power seemed to lie more in silicone than schools and soldiers, and his Mahdism was wielded primarily as an aphrodisiac.  And his Mahdism, while eccentric and borderline lascivious, was at least non-jihdadist–unlike most manifestations of that belief in Islamic history.  But now he’s at the mercy of his Sultanic majesty, and if Ottoman Turkish history is any indication, that never ends well for folks like Oktar.

Where’s Your Führer Now? Fascism Claims Are Fake News.

Is there any more overused term in modern political discourse than “fascist?”  Googling the term produces 41,700,000 results. Adding  “Trump” gets over 8 million hits, the first three of which are “Madeline Albright Warns of a New Fascism—and Trump” (“The New Yorker”); “Yes, Trump is a Fascist” (“The New Republic”); “Donald Trump’s Fascist Week” (“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”).  To be fair, it’s not just the Left throwing the term around; “Obama fascist” brings up over 2 million hits, and not a few right-wingers apply the term to Leftists, as well.

But “fascist” is deployed far more by the Left—in fact, it’s become an axiom there.  Besides the aforementioned empirical data, many of us could adduce abundant anecdotal examples. This past year, in my college world history class, I had several students who wanted to write papers arguing that “Trump is Hitler.” I am not sure any of those students could have found Germany on a map prior to my lecturing on it; but they were certain Trump would soon be growing a small mustache and putting black Americans in camps. (Needless to say, I denied the paper requests.  But I did allow students to write about Trump as Julius Caesar, and Hillary as Cleopatra—just not together, in any sense. ) At the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta, which my wife and I attend often, some of the thespians include “I punch Nazis” in their stage bios. And just last week I got into a Twitter feud with Josh Gates, host of the show “Expedition Unknown” which my sons and I watch religiously.  Concluding the episode on “Nazis in Argentina,” Mr. Gates said: “sadly, the specter of fascism seems to be rising again around the world.”  I tweeted to him that I found that ridiculous, and that he should stick to adventuring.  I must have struck a nerve because, much to my surprise, Mr. Gates sarcastically responded several times before the exchange petered out.

At least he was polite and non-specific in his allegations; many celebrities on Twitter and other social media are downright nasty about their conviction the world is in the throes of Trump-led fascism.  (For examples, see multiple tweets by, say, actor Ron Perlman or “journalist” Soledad O’Brien.)  Even folks who should know better—like former CIA director, retired General Michael Hayden—played the Nazi card to criticize US immigration policy.

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Donald Duck is force-fed fascism in a 1943 Disney send-up of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. Full video is on youtube here

But is a Euro-American Fourth Reich really rising? Although I am a historian, I’ve learned from my political scientist colleagues that any honest and rational discussion requires defining terms first.  A concise and accurate list of “the 14 characteristics of fascism” by Dr. Lawrence Britt is a good paradigm to use.  Let’s examine each of these, honestly, and see whether they apply to Trump and conservatives or to Obama, Hillary and “progressives.”

  • Nationalism: Trump and conservatives clearly tout this more, over against globalism and open borders. Right 1, Left 0.
  • Disdain for human rights: the Left likes to claim human rights as their exclusive domain, but the Trump administration has not abandoned these—it’s simply shifted the focus onto, for example, persecuted Middle East Christians from predominantly-Muslim refugees. Scoreless tie.
  • Finding and scapegoating enemies: Trump and conservatives do the former, and arguably the latter, to Muslim jihadists and militant-nihilist Leftists; but “progressives,” led by Obama and Hillary, have not just identified and scapegoated anyone with a Bible and a gun but vilified half the population as “deplorable.”  1-1.
  • Favoring and “glamorizing” the military, especially via “disproportionate” funding: not to wax (Bill) Clintonian, but this “depends on what your definition of ‘disproportionate’ spending is.” Under both Obama and Trump defense spending takes up about 16% of the US budget.  And the alleged “glamorization” of the military is entirely subjective.  Another scoreless tie.
  • Sexism, opposition to abortion and homosexuality : it’s true that Trump and his supporters (including 41% of women) passed on the first female POTUS; but UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, DHS director Kirstjen Nielsen and CIA chief Gina Haspel would not agree that this administration scorns women. Also, one might ask why it’s  “fascist” to see a fetus as a human being, considering the majority of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians do so.  And despite charges of Trump being “anti-homosexual,” there’s precious little empirical evidence of such.  A draw.
  • Media control: neither side “controls” the media, but the fawning sycophancy that passed for journalism during the Obama years, to include the Hillary campaign, coupled with the incessant hatred and negative coverage of Trump, clearly demonstrates that Obama and the Left come far closer to this than the other side. Obama 1, Trump less than 0.
  • National security “obsession:” Trump’s side gets the nod here, despite Obama’s global drone-fest of terrorists, as well as he and Hillary’s mania about fictional Russian “collusion” with Trump. Remember, however: the Preamble to the US Constitution lists providing for the common defense as one of the six reasons for its existence, so in this regard one person’s “obsession” is another’s duty. Trump 1, Obama 0 (barely).
  • Mixing religion and government: despite charges of theocracy, Trump’s administration, while talking more positively about Christianity, has not forced female Cabinet officials to don The Handmaid’s Tale-style garb; and indeed, Obama’s and Hillary’s obeisance to Islam, in policy and in rhetoric, makes this one a toss-up. Statistical tie.
  • Pro corporations: manufacturing loves Trump; Silicon Valley loved, and still loves, Obama. A draw.
  • Suppressing unions: they’re still here, even under a real-estate mogul POTUS. Unions are just continuing to go the way of the dinosaurs—except for government ones, which cling to life even more tenaciously than the Jurassic Park Dead heat.
  • Scorning intellectuals, arts: the only censoring of academics in America comes from the Left, since they can’t seem to abide even the miniscule number of conservative professors that exist. And while President Trump has proposed “slashing” funding for NPR and its ilk, Congress keeps restoring it.  0-0.
  • Preoccupation with crime and punishment via police with “limitless power:” contra Black Lives Matter cop hatred and, now, the larger Left’s vilification of ICE (Immigation and Customs Enforcement), police do not have “almost limitless power” in the US. (And indeed, the bulk of BLM’s complaints about police were during Obama’s second term.) Fantasy is not reality.  No winner.
  • Rampant corruption and cronyism: Obama, Hillary and the Left win this one in a landslide via the IRS targeting conservatives, Brennan and the CIA spying on Congress, half a BILLION dollars going to shore up a handful of “moderate” Syrian rebels—and, of course, the politicization of the entire leadership of the FBI and that agency’s collusion with the Hillary campaign in the 2016 election. Obama and the Dems shut out Trump and the GOP here.
  • Fraudulent elections with “smear campaigns” against opposition candidates and “judiciaries [that] manipulate or control elections:” the Obama administration wins this one hands-down, too. This is without even delving into the DNC’s rigging its own primaries to favor Hillary and disenfranchise Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Yes, Trump ultimately won—but that was in spite of the Obama administration’s attempts to put Hillary into the Oval Office. Obama 1, Trump 0.

So Trump and the Right manifest nationalism (#1), blaming enemies (#3) and being overly concerned with national security (#7); but Obama, Hillary and the Left also impugn opponents (#3), as well as manipulate the media (#6), use government institutions against enemies and to protect supporters (#13) and try to rig elections (#14).  That’s a 4-3 advantage for the Democrats in the fascism department.

Of course, in reality—where words mean things—neither Obama nor Trump is “fascist;” that would require manifesting many more characteristics of the ideology. So the Left’s incessant  attempts to portray conservatives as such simply highlights that side’s paucity of ideas and rank emotionalism.

What about the European leaders usually adduced as “fascist:” Polish President Andrzej Duda, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz?  As with President Trump, none of them qualifies as such; and in fact they and their political parties are all in the post-war European mainstream of center-right Christian Democrats—before the Western European elites moved far Left. Duda, Orbán and Kurz are all united, mainly, in their distaste for massive Middle Eastern migration and the problems such present for their countries; none of them wishes to employ blitzkrieg to impose Polish, Hungarian or Austrian practices on the rest of Europe.

Enough with the talismanic slandering of political opponents as “fascist” and “Nazi.” People’s desires to live in peace and preserve their own nation-state and culture is neither; it’s natural and logical.  Our President and these central European leaders understand this and are turning the globalist, “progressive” tide, which is why the Left has doubled down on its führer furor.  Trump them with the truth.

Muhammad (bin Salman) Radio

My attempts to finish my new book Enemies of the Caliphs: Jihad and Islamic Counterinsurgency, 12th-20th Centuries have been stymied recently by the low-grade “walking” pneumonia which I somehow contracted last month. But I have been able, between coughing fits, to do some analysis for two different radio stations: KFUO AM 850, St. Louis and KNUS 710 AM, Denver.  The former is the flagship station for my own denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and it produces “World Lutheran News Digest” on which I appeared discussing, at length, the historical and theological ramifications of President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  The latter is home to the inestimable Peter Boyles, for whom I have become something of a regular guest.  Peter has had me on four times in the last three weeks: once to cover the latest elections in Iraq and the powerful showing of Muqtada al-Sadr; and thrice–May 31, June 4, and June 6–to speculate on the abrupt disappearance from the world stage of Muhammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Thanks for your prayers as I wait for the steroids and antibiotics to restore my lungs to normal, God willing.  That (mainly) Ottoman COIN book isn’t writing itself.

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The “Iran Deal” Exit Debate: Much Ado About Very Little

At 2 pm ET today, President Trump is scheduled to announce whether the US will stay in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–commonly known as the “Iran Deal,” which the Obama Administration, UN Security Council members and Germans negotiated to, theoretically (and hopefully), slow down the Islamic Republic’s quest for nuclear power and, few doubt, nuclear weapons.

Having studied the nexus between Iranian politics and its Twelver Shi`ism for years–and having spent some time in that country–I believe that no amount of signed paperwork will deter Iran’s ayatollate from pursuing nuclear weapons.  Having them would not only give Iran even greater regional clout; it would provide “regime insurance,” such as the North Koreans obtained by developing such bombs.  And make no mistake: preservation of their vilayet-i faqih, along with attendant wealth, status and power, is what Khameini, Rouhani and the other regime supporters fervently desire.  They have absolutely no intention of using nukes against Israel in order “hotwire the apocalypse” and spark the coming of the Mahdi.  Anyone who thinks otherwise should read my still-relevant, 16-pp. 2011 paper on this topic.  Do Iranian leaders lie? Of course. It was the Twelvers, after all, who invented taqiyyah.  But short of invading the country, we really have no way of stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons–and that would be even stupider than invading Iraq turned out to be.

MeJamkarancropped

Yours truly at Jamkaran Mosque, Qom, 2008. No nukes or Mahdis were found in the course of that trip–although by now the former are probably extant. 

Mossad Recruits the Mahdi!

Media in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia report that two Palestinians are on trial for working with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency,  and also for supporting “Daesh” (ISIS).  Besides allegedly “planning terrorist activities during the upcoming Hajj,” “[o]ne of them has also been accused of claiming to be Al-Mahdi.” Furthermore, “[t]he Mahdi claimant has also been accused of using illegal drugs, violating the Kingdom’s laws by overstaying after Hajj and giving false information about himself.” (This version of the story, dated yesterday, is up at riyadhvision.com.sa.  The one at arabnews.com originally was exactly the same–but today the information about the Mahdi claimant has been edited out.)

For anyone unfamiliar with Islamic eschatology, the Mahdi is the “divinely-guided one” described in hadiths (alleged sayings of Islam’s founder Muhammad)–not in the Qur’an–who will appear before the end of time to make the entire world Muslim via both conversion and conquest.  Dozens of major, and hundreds of minor, Muslim personalities have claimed to be the Mahdi over the last 14 centuries–as I discuss in two books on the subject: Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads, and Osama Bin Laden (2005) and Ten Years Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps: Essays on Muslim Eschatology, 2005-2015 (2015). And this doctrine is not some arcane one, limited only to the fringes of Islam: hundreds of millions of Muslims, Sunni as well as Twelver Shi`i, profess belief in the coming of the Mahdi.

SeizureofGrandMosque1979smokerising

Smoke is always rising from…Mecca.  At least when it’s under apocalyptic assault. (Wikipedia, public domain).

Many Muslim rulers are wary, to put it mildly, of Mahdism because the doctrine has been the motivation for many of the most violent jihads in history–many, if not most, of them rebellions directed at extant Islamic authorities. The Saudis, in particular, detest Mahdist manifestations because one of them almost overthrew the House of Saud in 1979.

Observations:

Any hint of Mahdism–however deluded the person claiming it might be–causes the royal family major thawb bunching, since only Allah knows whether such might herald another Juhayman al-Utaybi, who along with his brother-in-law, the Mahdi claimant Muhammad al-Qahtani and a legion of followers, took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 for several weeks.  The obvious vacillation over reporting the Mahdist dimension of this trial is evidence of that–but, I suspect, also demonstrates that one of the accused did indeed make such a claim, because it’s extremely doubtful that Saudi authorities would inject this element simply to highlight ISIS’ actual apocalyptic aspects.

Utaybi_001

Portrait of a failed Mahdi: Juhayman al-Utaybi, before his beheading in Jan. 1980. (Wikipedia, public domain).

In addition, the charge that Palestinians are spying for Israel has several dimensions.  The Saudis’ historical support for the former over against the latter seems to be waning with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman [MbS], who just recently told the Palestinians to either negotiate with the Jewish state or “shut up and stop complaining.”  Bin Salman has also been moving the Kingdom toward cooperation, if not quite alliance, with Israel over against what both of them consider the greater threat: the militantly-Shi`i Islamic Republic of Iran.  So arresting two Palestinians on charges of helping Israel might represent both a warning shot to the former and an olive branch vis-a-vis Saudis who blanch at rapproachement with the “Zionists,” insofar as it implies that the Israelis are, if not stirring, at least spicing the ISIS pot.

Finally: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent public announcement that Iran had been lying about not trying to develop nuclear weapons (sure to overjoy the Saudis–or at least the supporters of MbS) was based on a massive trove of documents which Mossad stole out from under the ayatollahs’ noses in Tehran.  But of course if the Mahdi, now revealed to be a Palestinian Arab Sunni and not a Persian Twelver Shi`i, was working with Israeli intelligence–it all now makes sense!

More seriously: traditional Islamic eschatology, both Sunni and Twelver Shi`i, says that the Mahdi and the returned prophet Muslim Jesus will join forces to defeat the Dajjal, “Deceiver,” and his minions of unbelief (non-Muslims). Modern Sunni books often add that the Shia Mahdi will in reality be this very Dajjal, while books by the Shia make the same exact claim about the Mahdi whom the Sunnis will follow.  Sunni exegetes may have the upper hand, however, as they can point to hadiths to the effect that the false Shia Mahdi–really the Dajjal–will have as his main body of supporters “70,000 Jews from Isfahan.”

Eschatological prognostication, contra  what many journalists maintain, is not only–or even primarily–the province of American Evangelical Protestants; based on my two decades of study, it’s far more prevalent in the Islamic world. And Muslim eschatologists add a strong element of conspiracy theorizing, which usually blames “the Jews”–sometimes aided by their Christian, “Crusader” allies–for any negative development in the ummah, whether real or perceived. There were Muslims who claimed that the US invaded Iraq in 2003 in order to track down and stymie the Mahdi.   So you can be sure that linking Mossad with the Mahdi was not done by accident–whether MbS approved or not.

ArabicEschatologybooks

My shelf of Arabic books on the Mahdi, Dajjal, etc.  Don’t wait for the movies!

Blinded by the Right on the Road to Damascus?

This morning I was interviewed by the intrepid Peter Boyles on his KNUS AM 710 Denver radio show. We discussed the geopolitical situation in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons and the US airstrikes, as well as why President Trump seems so eager to attack al-Assad.

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Ottoman Syria, from Wikipedia (public domain)

Also: I’m finishing my new book Enemies of the Caliphs: Jihad and Islamic Counterinsurgency, 12th-20th Centuries.  A trip to England, a horrible cold, and the end of the spring university semester have all conspired to slow me down.  Insha’allah, it will be out by late May.

 

 

Twin Interpretations of Different Ummahs

Last week, for the “history and politics of terrorism” course which I am teaching this term, I re-read Rudolph Peters’ book Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam (Markus Wiener, 1996).  This short volume should be required background for anyone in any government agency interacting with any parts of the Islamic world.  Officials like former National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster, in particular—noted for claiming that groups espousing and waging jihad are “unIslamic”—would benefit from Peters’ concise expositions of jihad, drawing upon the Qur’an, the hadiths (alleged sayings of Islam’s founder), and Muslim scholars across the centuries.

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A Qur’an page in Arabic, with Ottoman glosses, which I purchased in Istanbul.

As Peters points out right off the bat, “the Koran frequently mentions jihad and fighting (qital) against the unbelievers” and “[c]lassical Muslim Koran interpretation….regarded the Sword Verses, with the unconditional command to fight the unbelievers, as having abrogated all previous verses concerning the intercourse with non-Muslims” (p. 2).  (Peters, like many European scholars, uses “Koran” instead of “Qur’an.”) He also provides copious citations to the Islamic holy book, and does not simply assert that it supports jihad.  Classical interpreters also believed that jihad’s ultimate purpose is “to bring the whole earth under the sway of Islam…” (p. 3).  Sunnis and Twelver Shi`is differ in this regard insofar as the latter believe that only defensive jihad can be waged in the absence of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi (p. 4).  Early modernist Muslim intellectuals like the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), a Sunni, also argued that defensive jihad is the only kind permitted—but in that definition included fighting to remove colonial rulers of Islamic territory (p. 6) and, by extrapolation, to any situation where Muslims are seen as oppressed.

Classical (pre-modern) Islamic thought assumed that the normal state of affairs between the dar al-Islam and the non-Muslim dar al-harb was that aptly described in the latter term: “the domain of war.”  Many 20th century Muslim scholars, however, see peace as the default position and thus make jihad something that must be justified and declared, instead of simply assumed.  Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963), another Egyptian Sunni thinker, wrote that “’the Messenger [Muhammad] only fought those who fought him….’” (p. 113).  Whether that’s exactly true, historically, is debatable—but any limitation of Islamic holy war is better than none.  Of course, no work on jihad would be complete without discussion of the concept of “greater” v. “lesser” types thereof—the ubiquitous, in our time, claim that violent holy war is the latter, and “exerting onself for some praisworthy aim” is the former.  However, as Peters points out, the problem here is that the hadith whence this formulation comes “is not included in one of the authoritative compilations” (p. 116).  In fact, this alleged hadith does not occur in any of the six respected Sunni compilations, and many Muslim scholars deem it a a fabricated one.  And 20th century fundamentalist thinkers like the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949), and the Indian Islamic theorist Abu A`la Mawdudi (d. 1979), condemned this “greater v. lesser jihad” trope as one “spread on purpose to weaken Muslim combativeness” (p. 118).

Regarding the issue of whether jihad is Islamic or not, Peters is clear that it most defintely is—with the caveat that “modernist authors underline the defensive aspect” thereof (p. 122), while “[f]undamentalist writers on the other hand do not depart…from the classical doctrine and emphasize the expansionist aspect” (p. 123).  Peters’ observation, writing in the mid-1990s, that “[a]t the present, most authors on jihad follow this defensive tendency, although…there seems to take place a certain radicalization towards a more fundamentalist approach” (p. 125) proved prescient, with the rise of al-Qa`idah, ISIS, and their ilk who “are of the opinion that one cannot apply the categories ‘offensive’ or ‘defensive’ to jihad” at all.  It is, rather, a “universal revolutionary struggle” (p. 130).

A very interesting point in Peters’ book is the status of the doctrine of naskh, “abrogation,” by which “it was assumed that the unconditional command to fight the unbelievers, to be found in those verses that were revealed in the latest stages of Muhammad’s life, had abrogated all other prescriptions.  The modernists, however, [or at least some of them] have rejected this method of interpretation.” (p. 125).  Thus, for example, the most famous Sword Verse, Sura al-Tawbah [IX]:5—“when the sacred months are passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them….”—must be read contextually, in light of the immediately previous verse, as well as v. 29 of the same chapter, to the effect that the “idolaters” to be attacked are “only those Jews and Christians…that had violated their pledges and assailed the propagation of the Islamic mission” (p. 127).

In the final analysis, says Peters, “the modernist and the fundamentalist tendency represent two different reactions to Western penetration. The modernists have reacted in a defensive manner, by adopting Western values and reforming their religion in the light of these…. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, have reacted in a self-assertive manner, by rejecting everything Western and emphasizing the real Islamic values” (p. 133).

Peters’ book, for all its brevity (only 204 pages), effectively demolishes, via solid and irrefutable evidence from the Islamic sources themselves, twin canards of the Left and the Right about Islam.  On the one hand, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that jihad is part-and-parcel of Islam’s sacred texts, going back to its provenance, and is by no means a “hijacking” or “perversion” of that faith.  On the other hand, his showcase of relevant Islamic thinkers severely undermines the “scimitar syndrome” (p. 108), which holds that Islam is ONLY a “violent and fanatical creed”—for many (albeit not yet enough) maintain that their faith is not bound solely to the dead, and deadly, letter of the Qur’an and hadiths, as per the classical jurists.  Rudolph Peters’ Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam provides hope that Islam’s problematic literalist strain might eventually be abrogated itself by those who hold that the religion’s sacred texts, while true, do not have to be adhered to, and acted upon, exactly as written some 14 centuries ago.

Addendum (3.29.18):  It was remiss of me not to mention that Peters deals almost exclusively with Sunni expositors on jihad–and usually Egyptian ones, at that.  He says very little about Shi`ism at all, except for the mention that in the Twelfth Imam’s absence only defensive jihad is permitted.  But what about the doctrines of the other major sects, notably the Isma’ilis and Zaydis? The former, as the medieval Assassins (non-state) and Fatimid caliphate (state), have been very influential in Islamic circles; and the latter largely are coterminous with Yemen’s Houthis, who are fighting jihad currently against not just Sunnis in their own country but against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Talking Turkey about the Mahdi

Last week, MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) reported on a story from several months earlier, which had appeared in the pro-Erdoğan newspaper Yeni Şafak (“New Dawn”), calling for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to form a massive Muslim military front against Israel.

New Dawn is the semi-official voice of President Erdoğan and his ruling AK Party, so ideas advanced there are, if not approved by, certainly popular within Turkey’s power elites.  Abandoning its former (pre-AK) de facto alliance with the Jewish state, Israel is now described as “an outpost of the Crusade and a dagger in the heart of Islam” which spies on Muslims for the Christian world.  In order to “liberate Palestine” the OIC, led by Turkey, could cooperate to field over 5 million men, far more than the “occupation forces” of a mere 160.000, and use them for a siege.  Turkey, with its huge army, and Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, would serve as the leaders of this alliance.

Besides Israel’s nefarious anti-Muslim status, President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is presented as an affront to Muslims worldwide, lending impetus to this Islamic military alliance.

Ottomanarmy1900Wikipublicdomain

Ottoman Imperial Army, 1900 (Wikipedia, public domain).

Observations:

This development echoes two broad points which I have made in previous writings.  Most recently in these pages (“In God’s Countries,” January 16, 2018), I discussed the OIC as being the only religion-based geopolitical entity on the planet, there being no equivalent organization for the other two transnational faiths, Christianity and Buddhism.  Perhaps more saliently–and eschatologically–back in 2013 I analyzed how the OIC (and other pan-Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood [MB], Tablighi Jama`at [TJ] and Hizb al-Tahrir [HT]) might be leveraged into a platform for an Islamic leader to proclaim himself the Mahdi (“Days of Future Mahdism Have Not Passed”–available here and in my book Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps, pp. 76-83).

Erdoğan has not expressed overtly Mahdist pretensions (yet), but as many know he certainly harbors neo-Ottoman ideas about his and Turkey’s role in the region and the world.  (Ottoman sultans often also claimed to be caliphs–and the latter title, as “successors” to Muhammad, included aspects of Islamic legitimacy which the former designation lacked.) And thus when New Dawn, in this article on creating an Army of Islam, adduces an eschatological hadith about the End Time battles between Muslims and Jews–the latter “owners of Jersualem” being unable to “find a single tree to hide behind”–we know that the formerly secular rulers of Turkey are operating in a distinctly apocalyptic register.

Heretofore I had been convinced (“Days of Future Mahdism….”) that a Muslim leader with the effrontery to try to claim not just the caliphate but the Mahdiyah would likely emerge from the ranks of a non-state, probably Arab Salafi group–a Bin Ladin, or al-Baghdadi–and piece together support from a pietist organization (like TJ) sufficient to create a “virtual caliphate” with cells of supporters across the Islamic world, but, at least initially, no official state support.

But if powerful members in the party of the President of Turkey–with its large population, modern military and distinct claim to the mantle of the Ottoman Empire–are now trying to rally the larger entire ummah around the goal of defeating, if not destroying, Israel and invoking apocalyptic imagery to do so, then Israel and the West don’t just have a political problem: we have an Islamic eschatological one.  Instead of obsession about what American Evangelical Protestants think about the End Times in the age of Trump, the media might want to examine MUSLIM beliefs about such matters.