Apocalyptic Islam and Bin Laden


Most Americans ask themselves, "How could someone do this? What madness?" The more prone to self-criticism and reflection then ask, "What have we done that might provoke such anger. Palestinians and other Muslims and Arabs explain that it is our support of Israel that prompts this hatred. We do not understand the misery that Palestinians live in under Israeli occupation, the rage and frustration they feel. It is a terrible thing, what happened, but if you westerners want to know why so many hate you around the world, consider that the Palestinians suffer under this threat daily.

We need to consider both issues Š the motivations of Bin Laden and the Arab-Israeli conflict in light of Islamism and its apocalyptic world view. Bin Laden is a central player in a cosmic battle that pits the warriors for truth against the agents of Satan and evil in this world. (For a good idea of what this vision consists of, see the web site named in honor of Abdullah Azzam, Bin Laden's (now dead) mentor and the founder of MAK, the predecessor to Al Qa'ida, http://www.azzam.com, especially the apocalyptic reading of the present world situation by a respected Saudi theologian, Sifr al-Hawali (http://www.azzam.com/html/dayofwrath.htm.) He uses Daniel to prove that the second intifada began the "Day of Rage of the Lord." See also al-qiyamah.org/al-qiyamah/surah_20-21.htm, by a moderate theologian who dislikes the fundamentalists, but nonetheless reads Sura 57 of the Koran as an apocalyptic prophecy fulfilled in the Trade Center bombing.

Islamism represents what we might call a "fundamentalist" reaction to the inroads of modernity. Assaulted by a multi-cultural, multi-religious and secular world, with all that implies about the "relativity" of both scripture and claims to absolute truth, as well as to the laxities of observance and morality that seem so much a part of modernity, Islam has, like Judaism and Christianity, generated revival movements that seek to return to the "fundamentals" of the faith Š Sharia (Islamic law), strict observances and purity concerns, and an implacably hostile attitude towards the secular world that undermines such efforts. In the case of Islam these revival efforts align closely with political efforts to impose religious uniformity Š the veil for women and public prayer for men Š and ultimately connect with theocratic notions of state-sponsored Sharia (including the mutilation of thieves and the execution of adulterers). This latter tendency is directly related to the earliest development of Islam in which military conquest prepared the ground for religious dominion (and only later mass conversions), and it has intensified in both Sunni and ShiÕi circles since KhoumeiniÕs revolution in Iran in 1979. Islamism represents the more intense and coercive elements of this fundamentalist Islamic revival, holding out as a solution to the whole worldÕs problems the vision of a global culture under Sharia.

The relative failure of these "utopian" religious ideologies (what we generically call millennialism) in places like Iran, and their devolution into terrible civil wars with devastating civilian casualties (Sudan, Algeria) has, rather than give Islamicists pause, only served to intensify the belief that, if only these things were properly done, they would work (i.e., Sunni Taliban rather than ShiÕi Iranians). The political aspect of these conflicts has further intensified around the unbearable blow to Islamic pride and identity brought on by the existence of an autonomous (and modernizing) Jewish state in the midst of territories under Islamic dominion since the first generations of the religion. The vision of a world successively brought under the peaceful dominion of Islam (conquered areas known as Dar el Salaam, the realm of peace), while it might have been halted by the West, was rolled back by Israel in 1948, and again in 1967.

Such developments have sharpened the sense of assault by the modern West and have come together in a ferocious apocalyptic narrative of the final battle between good and evil in radical Islamist circles of the Middle East. For these radicals, the failure of Islam in the modern world comes from corrupt monarchies and rapidly corrupting secular revolutionary regimes. The West at a distance may have presented a threat, but Israel represents a desecrating cultural invasion. The Islamist narrative is not a story of the tides of civilization, but relentlessly cosmic in scope and urgent in rhetoric. Now rages the battle between cosmic good (we warriors for Allah) and evil (the West, especially its most Satanic forces, Israel and the USA).

According to numerous apocalyptic pamphlets circulating in Palestinian and other Muslim circles, notably Bin Laden and similar jihadist circles, Israel, and especially Jerusalem is the center of this apocalyptic struggle. JerusalemÕs (pre-Zionist) significance in Islam derived primarily from its eschatological significance, the role that it played on the day of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgment. According to a popular eschatological hadith, the Kaabah stone itself will come from Mecca to Jerusalem on that day. In this world view, the West, with its secularism and materialism represents a cosmic enemy that must be destroyed, and Israel, with its control of the holy city of Jerusalem, the insufferable advance column of that assault. As the rest of the world succumbs to Western blandishments and corruption, Islam alone has resisted, at least that element of Islam that has renewed and purified itself in recent times in Islamism. The larger vision, championed by Bin Laden, however goes beyond this fundamentalist revivalism so familiar to historians of American culture, itself one of the most fertile soils for revival movements in the world. For Bin Laden this is no see-saw battle between two sides, this is the ultimate struggle.

For him, Sharia should rule the entire world, a project he believes that Muhammed commanded almost 1500 years ago. "Behold!" claims an early and oft-repeated Muslim text, "God sent me [the Prophet Muhammad] with a sword, just before the Hour [of Judgment], and placed my daily sustenance beneath the shadow of my spear, and humiliation and contempt upon those who oppose me." But as opposed to (what we can reconstruct so far) of Islamic history, this time the battle is not merely conquest, but annihilation of the enemy. This is the apocalyptic world of "convert to the true faith or die."

These are the characteristics of the most virulent forms apocalyptic violence. As with the "first" Crusaders (1096-99), the enemy, demonized, has no human traits; if they refuse to convert they deserve mass slaughter. The massacre of Jews at home, of Muslims, Jews, and even of the strange Christians in the Levant, were all signs of the LordÕs Day, the day of Vindication for his faithful crusaders. Similarly, the 5-10, 000 dead Š for Bin Laden better it were 50,000 Š are a down payment. This is the first real blow of Armageddon.

So why the Trade Center and the Pentagon? Why attack symbols when you risk, as the Japanese did, awaking the slumbering giant? Why the mad disregard for the realities of the situation? Because Bin Laden lives in a symbolic universe which he reads apocalyptically. Reflective apocalyptic violence, whether it comes from an individual like Buford Thomas or Timothy McVeigh, or the leader of a "new religious movement" like Shinohara and his Aum Shin Rikyo, views the current (socio-political) world as great tectonic plates in immense tension, and if the agent of apocalyptic destruction can only set off an explosion at the very site where that tension is greatest, they can free the fault line to completely realign the world.

How new is this Islamic apocalyptic reading? Significant recent mutations in Muslim apocalyptic date back to 1979 (when, in the year 1400 A.H., Khoumeini took over Iran with millennial plans for a perfect theocracy). In the last two decades, as this active eschatology passed from ShiÕi to Sunni circles in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this apocalyptic discourse has taken on many of the traits and techniques of Western apocalyptic (Biblical themes, sophisticated communication technologies). Al HalawiÕs book The Day of Wrath, for example, is posted on the Web and its content is enormously sophisticated and eclectic in its use of Jewish and Christian sources. At the approach of 2000, the Christian year became increasingly significant for Muslim apocalyptic writers, who mixed conspiracy theory, UFOs, and classic Muslim and Christian apocalyptic to target Israel, and especially their control of the Temple Mount as the center of the cosmic battle. A Zionist coalition of Christians and Jews, led by al Dajjal (IslamÕs "Antichrist" figure), would trample Al Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem, triggering the final battle. The "Al Aqsa" intifada, started in the year 2000 in reaction to the desecrating visit of Sharon. It set in motion the attack of Muslim forces against the apocalyptic enemy of Israel. The attack on the US strikes at the other "twin tower" of Western evil.

This kind of apocalyptic violence is hardly new. Indeed Western European Christianity in its "middle ages" engaged in just this kind of thinking, producing crusading massacres both against infidels abroad and dissidents at home, as well as the totalitarian institutions of inquisitorial Christendom. One of the most important steps towards modern civil society was to abandon such narcissistic, megalomanic self-perceptions, and restrain religion from using coercion to articulate its message. Unfortunately, we seem to have repressed the apocalyptic so firmly in the West, that we donÕt seem capable of recognizing it when it reappears elsewhere. And we donÕt know how to deal with the religious expressions of such overwhelmingly anti-modern hostility to the demands of civil society.

How do we confront such a terrifying and zealous enemy?

By minimizing his fanaticism, and telling ourselves, without further investigation, that such insanity is really marginal, the work of a madman? One shudders at the cost of underestimating such implacable and urgent hatred.

By telling ourselves that our own sins have aroused his regrettable but understandable hatred? It makes sense to take apocalyptic hatred seriously; it is folly to imagine that our sins, however numerous deserve this hatred.

By imagining that if we could just get Bin Laden and some of his associates, we could also atone to the rest of the Muslim world by sacrificing the sin offering that their Islamists demand Š Israel? The Palestinians, after all do not really partake of this mad vision, and would settle for satisfaction in their cause. (As one European put it to an American friend: "When are your Jews going to realize that it is their support for Israel that is bringing this misery upon you?") Such thinking, as admirably self-flagellating or despicably hypocritical and treacherous as it might be to the cause of civil society, is in any case willfully self-deceptive and ultimately self-destructive.

And if we look more closely and see how widespread this virulent form of demonizing apocalyptic has become in global Islam, from its fanatic core to a widespread Muslim sympathy with its world view, how do we deal with it? No civil society can tolerate active cataclysmic apocalyptic religiosity, with its dualistic demonizing and totalizing violence against any dissent. And any viable civil society must confront the less visible passive forms such belief takes and which, under conditions of stress, generates its more violent manifestations. The USA has those tendencies (hence the fearful symmetry of Robertson and FalwellÕs reading of the attack as punishment for our sins of secularism), and we weathered them at the approach of Y2K. That is the sign of a healthy civil society.

If we would rather not sacrifice Israel to the apocalyptic rage of Islamism the way we sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the colder but no less ambitious appetite of the Nazis, and we also do not want to tar all of Islam with the brush of apocalyptic Islamism, thus joining in their dualistc thinking, if we want to build a global community that has a chance for peace, then we must begin to ask ourselves, and our Muslim moderate friends, both political and personal, some very hard questions about their apocalyptic visions.

This forces us to confront secular modernityÕs schizophrenic attitude towards religion. On the one hand, Bin LadenÕs kind of religiosity represents the worst of what we, as a culture, renounced in the shift to modern civil societies Š religion as a wielder of power in the name of a dogmatic theology that cannot tolerate anyone elseÕs religious freedoms. The denunciations of religion as superstition, infantile neurosis, totalitarian oppression, all stem from our horror at the inquisitorial institutions and religious wars such fanaticism engendered. On the other hand, modern culture is rightly proud of its capaciousness and tolerance of religions, religions willing to renounce the claim to force others to follow their precepts. Our secular culture, however, has never really recovered from its anti-religious sentiments that first inaugurated the age of civil societies (18th-19th century Enlightenment). Hence we are in a very poor position to distinguish between the religiosities that support and enhance civil societies, and those that despise them and seek their destruction. It will not help to pretend that elements of Islam that have yet to make the step into the civic agreement of voluntarism have already done so (the liberal "theyÕre just like us" tendency); nor will it help to brand all of Islam with the brush of its anti-modern tendencies (the conservative culture-war tendency). To distinguish will take maturity, discernment, and an honest dialogue with Muslims of genuine good will who may not yet understand the problems plaguing their troubled religion.

Richard Landes

Director, Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University