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!


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.)











Apocalypse Row: Must Shi`is Fight Like It’s The End Of The World?

For most of this millennium–going back to writing my doctoral dissertation on Mahdism and Islamic eschatology at Ohio State in 2000-01–I’ve argued against the conventional (conservative and Evangelical Christian) “wisdom” that the leadership of Iran wants to start a regional, or global, war in order to usher in the appearance of the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi. This claim that the ayatollahs want to “hotwire the apocalypse”–probably with nuclear weapons–comes from either a vast ignorance, or a profound (and probably intentional) misrepresentation, of Twelver Shi`i theology.  Maybe both.

I won’t reiterate the entire argument here. See my 2011 paper for the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis; my book Ten Years Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps (particularly pages 103ff.); and my recent article “Do Iran’s Leaders Want to Hotwire the Apocalypse?

But am I wrong? Two months ago a member of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Assembly of Experts (which, at least on paper, is charged with choosing that system’s Supreme Leader), Ayatollah Mohammad Mehdi Mirbagheri, gave an interview on Iranian TV and stated that “we will never reach the age of the reappearance [of the Mahdi] unless we go into widespread fighting.” On its face, that certainly appears to vindicate the idea that the heirs of the Safavids believe holy violence will help persuade Allah to release his chosen one to take over the world.


Shi`i men praying in Jamkaran Mosque, Qom, Iran, during my 2008 visit.

But it’s not that simple. See two relevant publications of mine: “Appearance or Reappearance? Sunni Mahdism in History and in Theory and its Differences from Shi`i Mahdism” (in Imam Mahdi: Justice and Globalisation, Institute of Islamic Studies-London, 2004, pp. 113-131) and “Through A Glass Darkly,” the conference paper which I presented in Tehran in 2008 (and which the Iranian government took and published as its own, here).

In both of these I delved into Twelver Shi`i doctrines, past attempts to reify such Mahdist teachings, and views of modern Iranian religious leaders. My conclusion was that yes, there is a strain of thought in Iran’s brand of Islam which promotes activity to persuade, if you will, Allah to unleash the Twelfth Imam. Prayer is one such activity. But creating the Mahdist state “in microcosm” is the best and most efficacious way to gain Allah’s favor in this regard.  The Islamic Republic of Iran is itself, in this view, the proffered state–the “vanguard” of the coming eschatological realm, as the rulers deem it. As I observed in Ten Years’ Captivation, pp. 91-93, this is more a case of  lowjacking than hotwiring the apocalypse.

[Addendum, 10.5.19. My good Canadian friend, math professor Dr. Rob Craigen, asked me on Twitter the difference between “lowjacking” and “hotwiring” the apocalypse. Lowjack is a system that allows stolen cars to be recovered by police, hopefully without a shootout; the term was coined as the opposite of “hijack.” Since the idea of hotwiring the apocalypse means, in effect, to hijack it–to force Allah’s hand via, in particular, nuclear weapons’ use by Muslims–lowjack is a kindler, gentler means of cajoling the Deity to advance His eschatological timetable. I came up with the idea after reading the commentary on II Peter 3:10-12 in the Orthodox Study Bible, which says that Christians can “actually hasten the coming of that day [Christ’s return],” not by force, but by “evangelism, prayer, holy living, repentance and obedience.”]

And I maintain that Mirbagheri’s statement needs to be seen in this light. The “fighting” to which he refers is a matter of Shi`is demonstrating fervent dedication to their belief in that branch of Islam’s core tenet: the return of the Hidden Imam to lead them to global dominance. At the end of the interview, that ayatollah says “the same revolutionary spirit that prevailed among the believers at the advent of Islam, during the Ashura [when Ali’s son Husayn was killed at the Battle of Karbala, in 680 AD], and following the occultation of the Hidden Imam, should prevail now.”

(According to Twelver teachings, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the last of the line of 12 Imams that began with Ali, disappeared in 874 AD but maintained contact with his followers until 941 AD, when all communication ceased. This is the occultation that’s so important in Twelver Shi`ism.)

Of course, this approach dovetails nicely with Tehran’s modern geopolitical aims, as recently trumpeted by Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, that any Islamic resistance to Israel in the region–not just Shi`​i groups (in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen) but also Sunnis in “Palestine” and even heretical Alawis in Syria–is “part of Iran” and the “resistance.”  So rather like Vatican II’s idea of the “anonymous Christian,” Alamolhoda (who is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini) seems to be promoting the idea of an “anonymous Shi`i.”  This is novel in Twelver thought, and needs more examination–but not this day.

No word yet on whether the Mahdi will accept these anonymous followers, once he returns. They might get cast into the fire, like us Christians.

But I think it’s clear that a close(r) look at Mirbagheri’s statements indicates that they don’t contradict my interpretation of political eschatology driving the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Whitewashing Terrorism

First, a quick definitional overview:


I’ve written before about those who employ the second meaning of “whitewash” when writing of Islam and Islamic terrorism–here, for example, elsewhere on this blog; or here, in another online venue.

But this past week I wrote a long piece for The Stream which deconstructs–demolishes, actually–the Left’s current campaign to, literally, make terrorism “white.”  It’s entitled “White Terrorists v. the Sultans of Slaughter.”  Check it out.

Of course, these aren’t the terrorists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is looking for–although they’re definitely white.

Rouhani Larijani Khameini

Iran’s top three leaders (credit).


The 2020 Democrat Presidential Field: Sovereigns of True Melancholy

A year ago I wrote a very long (and quite well-researched, if I may say so) post looking at Shakespeare’s plays and finding fitting analogs for both Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Since it was such fun, I did a similar one comparing the current crop of Democratic Presidential aspirants to characters in the Bard’s oeuvre. It published this past week over at The Stream, entitled “What Fools These Democrats Be.”  Check it out.  (And if you click on my photo there, it will take you to the other 11 articles of mine which they’ve run so far.)

By the way: the title of this post is from Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 9). 

I leave you with a picture of me as Elizabethan-era highwayman Robert Middleton from the play Thee & Thou put on by the Pumphouse Players, Cartersville, GA in February 2019.  (The excellent R. Clay Thompson as the Bard himself is berating me.) And yes–that’s a wig.



False, Red and Black Flags in Islam

This past week I did two radio interviews.  One was a 70″-long discussion with my good friend Pete Turner on his “Break It Down Show” about two topics: patriotism-nationalism and then the Middle East, focusing on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and whether the ayatollahs have any desire to use them to “hotwire the apocalypse.”  (The answer is “no,” as anyone who follows me will already know–which makes the attempt to paint Iran’s leadership as apocalyptically suicidal a false flag one).  The other was with my Colorado friend at KNUS AM 710, Denver, Peter Boyles.  He and I discussed the US’ forever war in Afghanistan.

Analyzing Iran and Afghanistan started me thinking about Khurasan (or Khorasan)–the ancient geographical region straddling modern Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan whence came the Abbasids, in 750 AD, bearing their black flags. These banners exploited eschatological hadiths and empowered the Abbasid movement to conquer the Umayyads and set up a caliphate that came to be known as the “Golden Age” of Islam.


Khurasan, c. 9th century AD, under the Tahirid Dynasty (from “Abdallah ibn Tahir al-Khurasani,” Wikipedia). 

The Abbasids’ original flag was, it seems, a purely black one.  Their successors, the Seljuks, added the shahadah (“there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”)–as shown in this illustration, center-right:


“A troop of spectators on horseback and with inscribed banners…from al-Hariri of Basra….” (from “Islamic Flags,” Wikipedia). 

Here’s the flag of the modern “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” (from “Flag of Afghanistan,” Wikipedia):


Here’s the top text, isolated.  It reads “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger;” and below that “Allahu akbar,” “God is great[est].”


Here’s the flag of the modern Islamic Republic of Iran (taken from “Flag of Iran,” Wikipedia):


That calligraphy in the green and red fields actually reads “Allahu akbar” (albeit with the second word in Arabic turned on its side):


And of course what’s on the ISIS flag? The same shahadah as on the Seljuk or Afghan (or Saudi) flags–but seemingly written by someone just starting madrasah:


From “Black Standard,” Wikipedia.

And in a more overtly eschatological vein, here’s the flag of the Mahdist State of the Sudan, 1881-1898 (from “Mahdist State,” Wikipedia):


An excellent close analysis of this and various other flags of the state established by the Sudanese Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, can be found here.  But I want to zero in on the last two lines of the one above:


The first line reads…wait for it…”there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”  Surprised? I think not.

The second one kicks things up a notch, eschatologically (and heretically), however: “Muhammad al-Mahdi [is] the khalifah of the messenger of Allah.” Of course, few outside Sudan in the late 19th century believed that. But it does show how seamlessly End Times belief in Islam can be grafted onto extant, established beliefs.

So is it a red flag day in the Islamic world, at present? Or a black flag one?  Both, it seems, as there is little difference between them.

Let’s just hope we don’t see a Mahdist flag day any time soon. We won’t in Iran–but we might from ISIS or elsewhere in the Sunni world.

(And if you’ve not yet done so: listen to U2’s “Red Flag Day” from their latest album, Songs of Experience.)



Formics & Muslims & Crows–No Lies.

Ender’s Game is one of the greatest science-fiction novels ever written.  Don’t let the mediocre 2013 movie version, which even Harrison Ford couldn’t save, fool you.  There’s a reason the book (which came out in 1985) is on the suggested reading list by the Commandant of the Marine Corps University.  Set a century or so in the future, the book describes how humanity barely survived an attack by intelligent insectoid aliens, then turned the tables and waged interstellar war to take the fight to the Formics, or “Buggers.”  Desperate for innovative leadership, Earth starts training young boys and girls as soldiers and commanders–eventually producing Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a military genius who leads not just the defeat of the aliens, but (unwittingly) the destruction of their home planet and entire species.

Orson Scott Card, the author, wrote several sequels; but in recent years, he has worked with Aaron Johnston on several prequels.  The latest, The HiveVolume Two of the Second Formic War came out last month–and I read it in two days.  The insights into warfare in these books are staggering (hence it making the USMCU reading list).  One in particular in this latest volume struck me:  “The first rule of war is to understand your enemy. Not just her supplies and weapons and objectives, everything we can see and calculate. But also her psyche, her motivations, her fears. Everything that is in her mind. For it is only in the pursuit of that understanding that armies can identify the enemy’s weakness and vulnerabilities” (p. 115). [“She” is used because the astute protagonists of the book correctly figured out–in the face of official military intelligence opposition–that the aliens were led, indeed controlled, by a Hive Queen.]

I observed something quite similar in a 2014 blogpost on my old website, which wound up in my book Sects, Lies and the Caliphate, pp. 145-146: “One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1972 atypical Western Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford.  Johnson is a mountain man somewhere in the Rocky Mountains…in the mid-19th century, fighting the elements, bears, wolves and of course Indians…. At one point Johnson is asked to guide a U.S. Cavalry unit and a Protestant minister through a sacred Crow Indian burial ground, in order to relieve a band of trapped American settlers. Johnson replies that doing so could be dangerous because the area is “big medicine.” Reverend Lindquist sneers “you don’t believe that!?” To which the mountain man retorts “it doesn’t matter; THEY do!” Of course, Sun Tzu said much the same 2500 years ago: “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.” And the Chinese strategist’s The Art of War is on the recommended reading list of the aforementioned USMCU, West Point and the Chief of Naval Operations.

Yet here we are, 18 years after Islamic terrorists carried out the worst attack on the US since Pearl Harbor, and much of the military brass (and even more of the intelligence community) still acts as if Islam has nothing to do with jihad.  Just a few years ago the head of US Special Operations Command, MG (then) Michael Nagata, said regarding ISIS: “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.” More recently, in 2018, former Trump Administration National Security Adviser (and Army Lieutenant General) H.R. MacMaster stated that ISIS and other such terrorists were actually “irreligious criminals” who had “perverted” Islam. Such willful blindness, alas, did not end with the dhimmistic Obama Administration.


The first translation of the Qur’an into French, 1647; this was the basis of the first English translation, two years later.  So for 370 years we’ve had the Muslim holy book available–yet some STILL don’t understand what motivates ISIS? [Source: Wikipedia, “Orientalism in Early Modern France.”]

President Trump, to his credit, bucks this trend–to a certain extent.  In his administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism, Trump’s writer(s) at least mention “radical Islamist terrorism” some 16 times.  Obama’s analogous document has only one reference to Islam at all–and that is to disparage al-Qa`idah as a “distorted interpretation” thereof (p. 3).  This is why, in a long analysis of Trump’s NSCT, I refer to him as the one-eyed man being, nonetheless, king.  Some grudging acknowledgement of reality is better than total blindness.

In the “Enderverse,” humans–and particularly the institution of CentCom, which heads the war defending Earth–must learn, first and foremost, to accept that one entity controls the invaders. In Jeremiah Johnson, the Army unit’s refusal to heed the warnings of the mountain man who understands, even if he does not agree with, the Crow Indians’ beliefs leads to death.  (Watch the movie, if you’ve never done so).  And as long as US government officials, military and civilian, insist that we can learn nothing about the psyche and mind of Muslim terrorists from the very sources they constantly proclaim as their authorities–the Qur’an, the Hadiths, the career of Muhammad, and Islam’s history of violence–we might continue to win battles, but we will not triumph in the overall war.