Downing Reports: Hearts of darkness along the Tigris and Euphrates

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Behold! God sent me with a sword, just before the Hour, and placed my daily sustenance beneath the shadow of my spear.

– Islamic apocrypha

Dismissal [of apocalyptic thinking] leaves us deaf to the internal logic of people who believe they must shatter the world to make it whole.

– Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days, p. v

ISIL’s startling ascendance is both bewildering and shocking. The apocalyptic cult’s brutality has been matched by success on the battlefield. Many think that there has never been such a force in the region, and do so in horror. Many young people in the region think the same thing, though in wonder and admiration as a path to glory appears before them.

Norman Cohn would understand ISIL, perhaps better than the cult’s fighters themselves do.

They were a restless and violent horde, moving from province to province with a speed so great that it was attributed to demonic assistance and the armed bands sent against them were utterly confounded. They laid the land waste; wherever they passed many perished by the sword and many more died of starvation; above all they delighted in raiding and destroying. . . . (Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 39)

Cohn goes on to note the horde’s delight in slaughter, and its peculiar justifications of it. Grisly displays of executions attend their conquest and rule. Women were created to serve them. Sex with an initiate of the brethren, they held, was a transcending experience for the woman. (Cohn, p. 189)

Leaders had attained such a high state of perfection that laws and morals no longer bound them. Indeed, it was incumbent upon them to display their perfection to the world by shattering its laws and sensibilities, its expectations and comforts. They were “an elite of amoral supermen . . . the proof of salvation was to know nothing of conscience or remorse.” (Cohn, p. 186)

Cohn is not describing Islamist bands in the Maghreb or Levant, but medieval Christian ones in France and Germany. Their telos, like that of ISIL today, is not the extinction of life, but a new epoch of peace, justice, and piety. Cohn, were he here today, would nod in sorrow as he read of ISIL’s rise and deeds. So might Joseph Conrad.

ISIL, like Eudes de l’Etoile, the Free Spirits, the Taborites, and other apocalyptic armies of the West’s past, comes from a social context. Cohn’s insights drawn from medieval social history will be complemented here with present-day contexts.


New economic forces transformed medieval Europe. Serfs fled the manor for the town. Burghers stood up to feudal lords. Old ways were questioned, or put aside, or forced out.

Modernization has come to the Middle East and North Africa in the last few decades, though not with all the social and cultural changes that western observers once thought inevitable. The presence of automobiles, popular media, and the Internet have brought important change but not in government or religion. Older ways have shown remarkable resilience.

Young people see two worlds coexisting and for many this presents no conflict, only opportunity. Others, however, feel unease at even the partial giving way of the old ways and see change as sinful betrayal and cause of impending doom. Anomie sets in, as does a quest for justification and meaning.

Demographic boom

Rapid population increases preceded millenarian upheavals in medieval Europe. Population growth was especially pronounced after deadly plagues and sudden trade and manufacturing booms. Such was the case in the Low Countries and England as textile commerce expanded.

The Islamic world has experienced extraordinary population growth over the last twenty-five years as greater prosperity and better healthcare have increased fertility and decreased early deaths. Indeed, in most parts, fifty percent of the population are under the age of twenty-five, and facing futures that are clouded at best.

Disparity in wealth

The gap between rich and poor was a hallmark of medieval Europe as economies rose. Lord and peasant, burgher and worker. Resentment simmered, legitimacy dwindled – especially with economic downturns.

Today, that gap is broadening in many parts of the world, even in the US where egalitarianism and opportunity are prized. Unfortunately, many Middle Eastern countries are less than transparent regarding income distribution, leaving the World Bank and intelligence agencies without precise data.

Perceptions abound in the region, though, of the wealth from oil and telecom monopolies accruing in the hands of royal families and regime loyalists. Though disbursements to the public are substantial, it does little to ease the perception of rule by decadent, sybaritic, inbred cliques.

Eroding social relations

Feudal lords found their preeminence undermined by labor shortages from plagues and by urban patriarchs backed by armed townsmen. Power relations in the Islamic world fared better until recent years. Royal families and oligarchic cliques remain prominent; state disbursements to tribal elders keep many old social relations in place.

Education, nonetheless, has brought questioning of the legitimacy of powerholders. Western media show the attraction of an open society, though at least as many see an open society as something to oppose. News sources show elites as treating openly with western powers otherwise deemed conspiratorial oppressors and beyond the pale.

The Arab Spring broke down or called into question social relations in many countries. Some regimes have fallen, some have reasserted themselves. But things have changed, seemingly forever, and the lands from Morocco to Afghanistan have no stability or peace.

Change has opened doors for some. Others see it as  disruptive, chaotic, and cause of great injustices. Paths to career and marriage seem closed off. No remedy is in sight, at least not an ordinary one. Cultural tides exacerbate matters. Myths of past glories can offer hope, though hardly an ordinary one, and point to an heroic alternative to a shattered and dishonorable present.

Political failures

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the Caliphate are footnotes in western accounts of World War One’s aftermath, but they are still painful wounds among the umma. A unifying center was gone, replaced by a disappointing parade of kings and politicians and generals.

Monarchies were established in conjunction with western powers, most of which were later ousted by military coups. The colonels were reasonably progressive, initially, but they failed to build enduring political institutions, tried to become popular men of the people, and became as corrupt as the men they’d ousted.

Oil-rich countries were better positioned to cultivate popular followings through largesse, but they too are widely deemed corrupt and reliant on western militaries. Their own armies are largely for show and internal repression.

After this litany of political failure comes growing recognition of the artificiality the political boundaries imposed by the West and a yearning for an inclusive polity that will provide unity and dignity.

Evil abounding

Part of nationalism is the perception of one’s nation and allies as good and most other nations as bad – and at least potentially dangerous. Religion will naturally attach evil to these outside forces; political and religious leaders will encourage it.

The West, beginning in the nineteenth century, has conquered, occupied, or intervened in much of the Islamic world, and left enduring hostility. From the mid-twentieth century on, outside forces have continued to intervene in a manner deemed aimed at humiliation and subjugation. Indigenous armies have often fared very poorly against western armies and those of Israel.

Foreign successes in battle are seen less as the result of superior technology or social discipline than as the result of the evil that pervades foreign countries and forms the basis of its power. This manifests itself in the network of military bases in the Middle East, including ones on sacred soil near Mecca and Medina, which are thought to be charged with fighting the mahdi one day; and Israeli control of Jerusalem and the land surrounding al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock – the Noble Sanctuary.

The present mastery of evil leads the faithful who believe that the heavens guide the unfolding of history to yearn for a messiah-warrior who will destroy oppressors and bring a new day of peace and justice and piety. And yearning to see that figure arrive may lead them to believe in one rather uncritically. (See Cohn, pp. 2-6)

War romance

Few cultures lack appealing war myths that inspire young people, chiefly young men. Such myths have formed the foundations of great states – David, Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon. The Islamic world has longstanding narratives of bold deeds, noble sacrifices, and wondrous outcomes that come from wars – past ones.

The Prophet himself won improbable victories over the elites and retinues of the Arabian peninsula. His successors swept across North Africa and the Middle East, establishing fabled empires. Saladin humbled the assembled hosts of all Europe, and avenged the honor of Islam.

The contrast between Saladin’s accomplishments and those of present-day Muslim armies is stark and embarrassing. Israel and the United States have devastated the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq – often in a matter of days. The bold propaganda of various leaders was held up to ridicule as their lavishly appointed armies bent, before fleeing in disarray and horror. Today, those same armies are fleeing from a new, attractive armed force and compounding their sins by seeking help from the West.

The search for reasons why looks to past glories and finds insufficient piety as root cause of failure. The medieval Almoravids blamed past defeats on impiety and with their new austere beliefs, they conquered an empire in North Africa and Spain. A century ago, the reformist Wahhabi religion inspired Saudi princes to arise, gather tribal bands, and conquer the Arabian peninsula, as it had in the eighteenth century as well.

Guerrilla bands have shown success. In the decades after World War Two, insurgents ended colonial rule. Insurgents in the colonial wars were chiefly secular in outlook, but the guerrillas who took on the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan were Islamists, often followers of Salafism – a well-funded offshoot of Wahhabism.

Salafism calls for defeating the West and restoring Islamic glory. It has inspired defeated soldiers of Iraq and young men across the region to take up arms against the West. (Ahmed Hashim, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, pp, 109-19). In more ardent forms, Salafism sees an impending, preordained conflict.

Apocalyptic expectations 

The Koran, like the Bible, contains many passages that describe in rich, captivating language the End of Times – a period not when the stars fall and all humans perish, but when a new age dawns.

A figure comes to the fore. He is not an instructive prophet or inspiring sage, but a bold warrior who leads the righteous to victory over unbelievers and oppressors. The latter’s minions fall, their cities are swept by great conflagrations, their deaths are horrify yet inspiring. The faithful of many religions yearn for the day when all wrongs are avenged and a new day dawns for the faithful.

Apocalyptic expectations are today quite strong in the Middle East. Clerics preach it. Bazaars sell pamphlets and videos promising its advent. (J-P Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam,  p. 155 and passim) The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 fueled apocalyptic thought and encouraged many to fight in “Khorosan” – an old name for Afghanistan and adjacent areas which has long been found in apocalyptic tracts.

It is in Khorosan that the armies of the righteous gather before sweeping into the Islamic heartlands of Mesopotamia and Arabia to gather the hosts and mete out justice. In some traditions, the mahdi arrives to lead them. In others, Jesus (an important prophet in Islam) descends from the heavens and leads the armies of Islam in a decisive battle for Damascus.

The Russian defeat did little to discourage such thinking. (Filiu, Apocalypse in Islam, p. 79) Nor did American failures in Khorosan and Mesopotamia. Veterans of those conflicts tell rapt youths of their deeds. The call is heard and a fresh cohort heads for glory





The Temple Mount, the Noble Sanctuary

In recent weeks there’ve been escalating skirmishes on and near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, site of the old Temple in Antiquity, site of the al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock today. Muslims and Jews and Christians argue about access to the hilltop and about who can visit and who can pray. The fighting is more dangerous than it seems to secular minds.

The Temple Mount is key in apocalyptic thought of all three faiths. Islamic thought foretells of al Dajjal, an anti-Christ-like figure who will desecrate the holy site. Muslims are to defend it then assemble the hosts for the Final Battle.

Jewish and Christian groups – few in number, happily – want to rebuild the Temple of Antiquity which will augur the coming of the Messiah or the return of Jesus. Naturally, that must be preceded by the destruction of the sites atop the Temple Mount today. This strand of Judeo-Christian thought is followed anxiously in the Islamic world, especially by those who live near and pray on the Noble Sanctuary. (Gorenberg, pp. 187-90)

Apocalyptic bands at war

Once assembled from the young men of the umma, the commitment of apocalyptic bands matches what military-centered societies and organizations have long instilled – in Sparta, Prussia, Cromwell’s Puritan army, Cheyenne Dog Men, and the austere communist insurgents of the previous century.

Adherents are more willing to accept the privations of military life, the authority of commanders, and the hardships of war. A monkish asceticism governs their lives.  As a passage from Islamic apocrypha puts it, “Behold! God sent me with a sword, just before the Hour, and placed my daily sustenance beneath the shadow of my spear.” They are also more likely to accept death in battle as the supreme act of faith and purification.

Believers share a sense of community based on common beliefs, outlooks, lifestyles, attire, and appearance. This breaks down or overrides familial, tribal, and ethnic antagonisms which have long weakened militaries and political systems in the Islamic world and which plague, say, the Afghan army today, where Pashtun officers and Tajik enlisted personnel serve together uneasily.

An ISIL fighter may be from the Bani Hareth of Saudi Arabia or the Murabtin of Libya, but parochial identities recede in significance while among the brethren, especially while in battle. To fight is to take part in a warrior movement preciously similar to that of the Prophet’s bands as they stormed out of Mecca and Medina and conquered a vast empire.

* * *

Apocalyptic armies, then, arise from certain contexts, whether in medieval Europe or the Middle East of today. The ability of regional leaders to remedy this is negligible. None can provide meaningful employment, most are adamantly opposed to expanding political participation. The ability of western powers to remedy this is nonexistent.

Demography offers little room for optimism. Over fifty percent of the Islamic world is under the age of twenty-five. Few will have bright job prospects or the opportunity to take part in political processes. America and the EU will allow only a fraction to immigrate.

If a minute fraction of this immense demographic bulge heeds the call to apocalyptic war, ISIL and its brethren will have eager recruits for decades or even generations. And though more states and empires will tremble and fall, the denouement will not be a new epoch of peace, justice, and piety, but interminable war, migration, and slaughter.

©2015 Brian M Downing

2 thoughts on “Downing Reports: Hearts of darkness along the Tigris and Euphrates

  1. Very insightful and helpful comparison between the Christian Brethren and the Muslim brothers of the Islamic State. Limitations are greatly reduced when your movement ignores all the rules in favor of their cause. The potency of the IS movement explains, I believe, the presence of Russia and Iran in Syria. Iran has a blood fued with IS while Russia’s southern region is just a several hundred miles form Syria. Of interest, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov announced that he was prepared to send substantial forces to support the Russian effort. In a very short time period, the stakes for Russia and Iran have been raised exponentially in a battle that they have to win against an enemy fueled by the beliefs well described in this article. I’m sure more than a few Millenarians will argue that this face off is a sign of the End Times. Maybe it’s just the end of the free pass IS has received from Turkey, in particular, and the rest of NATO.

  2. Good coverage. However, it does not elaborate on the responsibility of the West (led by the U.S) in encouraging Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf Sheikhdoms) in nurturing and financing ISIS and other Wahhabi outfits. The whole story of ISIS started when the American invaders were forced to conduct relatively free elections in Iraq! The Americans ( just like the British before them and for historical reasons) did not like the majority Shiites to hold the reins of power especially in Iraq). Also, the Saudis were extremely alarmed by the accession of Iraqi Shiites to power. This is due to two facts: The absolute rulers of the Saudi family consider democracy as anathema to their absolute rule. Democracy in an Arab country like Iraq can very well incite the ordinary citizens of the Saudi Kingdom to also demand free elections. The second reason, the Eastern Province which is the area of the oil wealth in Saudi Arabia is populated by Shiites who were historically part of southern Iraq and until before the First World War part of the Iraqi Province of Basra during Ottoman times!! The Saudis must have felt frightened out of their wits to anticipate that a strong Shiite government in Iraq may one day demand that the Eastern Province should be restored to Iraq!! Sadly, the Americans, despite their claim that they supported democracy in Iraq, conspired with the Saudis to destroy the budding democratic experiment in Iraq!! Their way in doing so was (and still is) to claim that the Sunni minority in Iraq (which monopolized power under the British and under Saddam) were not treated fairly by the Shiite majority!! The Saudis thus started a campaign of terror against the Shiite civilian population in Iraq which eventually culminated with the creation of ISIS and other Al-Qaeda outfits whose ultimate purpose was and still is to dismantle the results of the elections which the Americans did not really like to be held in Iraq

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