Islamic State’s Apocalyptic Vision

General Martin Dempsey stated recently that because the Islamic State group is motivated by an ‘apocalyptic, end of days strategic vision’ the United States and a coalition of partners must confront it ‘head on’ in Syria. ((Dempsey Hits Islamic Militant End of Days Vision. AP Aug. 22, 2014. Available: http://news.yahoo.com/dempsey-hits-islamic-militant-end-days-vision-120301204.html)) This has helped me to focus on a subject I’ve been wanting to talk about but didn’t know where to begin. This subject is probably the best illustration we will ever find for the importance of dialogue.

I think Dempsey is correct in despairing that IS will never engage in dialogue. I also agree with the general’s assessment of the danger of the Islamic State’s apocalyptic vision. I just don’t agree that this vision can be wiped out by military action. After all, Jihadism is only only one version of this phenomenon. Americans have their own ‘end of days’ beliefs, and apparently, so do Britons. The Jihadist who beheaded American Journalist, James Foley is believed to be a British born militant from London who calls himself John. ((Rayner, Gordon and Martin Evans, British Jihadist Who Beheaded Journalist is Londoner Called John, The Telegraph. 20 Aug. 2014. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/11047109/British-jihadist-who-beheaded-journalist-is-Londoner-called-John.html))

The Blood Moon Influence and the Christian Answer

This is a diversion from my main topic, but when I asked myself why so many Americans and Britons would be drawn to fight with the IS at this time, it led me in an interesting direction. It’s possible that at least part of the problem is an astronomical phenomenon, the ‘blood moon’. With the help of a growing industry that promotes end of days hysteria, apocalyptic beliefs in the West may be coinciding with IS’s apocalyptic jihadism.  Consider this article written in the UK in April of this year. ((Taylor, Jason, Apocalypse Now: Why a Rare Astrological Event Last Night Could Herald the End of Days. Express. April 9, 2014. Available: http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/469228/Four-blood-moons-Does-alignment-of-Mars-Earth-and-Sun-mean-the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh))

What is the blood moon? Sometimes during a lunar eclipse, the earth’s shadow on the moon takes on a red hue. Lunar eclipses aren’t unusual—there are about two per year. What is unusual this time is that there will be four blood moons within eighteen months. And well, certain parties have been whipping religious believers into a frenzy. Several books written for a Christian audience have been published about this event. They refer to an Old Testament verse in Joel 2:31 and its echo in Acts 2:20: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord.”

One author who is getting a large share of the attention is Texas megachurch pastor [intlink id=”689″ type=”post”]John Hagee[/intlink]. We’ve discussed him here before in relation to his belief in armageddon in Jerusalem. The book in question is “Four Blood Moons: Something is About to Change”.

Lest I add to the hysteria, I’ll begin with a discussion of dissenting views in the Christian community. A pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., Greg Boyd, has called this whole thing a waste of time—a very dangerous waste of time–and he warns that no congregation is immune to it.

Sam Storms, pastor of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City says, “We need to stop giving into some of these sensationalist speculations. Maybe Christians are more gullible. One has to twist the data to make it appear as if these are the fulfillment of some biblical prophecy. I thought in 2011 we all said we weren’t going to fall for this again, when Harold Camping twice missed the date of the Second Coming?” (( Sarah Pulliam Biley, Blood moon sets off apocalyptic debate among some Christians. Religion News Service, April 14, 2014. Available:http://www.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/blood-moon-sets-apocalyptic-debate-among-christians))

A Call for Dialogue

Even though IS seems more determined than ever to provoke an immediate reaction, I’m going to argue that this is really the time for intensive dialogue.

Characteristics and Tendencies of Apocalyptic Thinking

To begin with, it’s important that we understand the general characteristics and tendencies of apocalyptic thinking. I’ll begin with a discussion of Muslim apocalyptic beliefs and end with Christian and secular beliefs in the West.

Apocalyptic Jihadism

Richard Landes discussed Apocalyptic jihadism in a 2004 article: Jihad, Apocalypse and Anti-Semitism. I’m aware Landes is controversial, however the value of this article is the perspective it offers on Islamic apocryphal thinking. In hindsight, we should be so lucky to be dealing with the PLO and Hamas instead of IS. However, Landes says they both used apocalyptic rhetoric. The majority of Muslims are not yet apocalyptic, but Landes worries that both Arabs and Muslims worldwide could get swept up in ‘a fever of apocalyptic hope and violence’. All things considered, it’s hard to find fault with him on that point.

According to Landes, modern jihadism is a ‘cataclysmic, apocalyptic movement’. Its goal is Islam’s dominance over the world. Its promises have a millennial character, such as the claim that once Islam rules everywhere there will be world peace. Jihad’s millennial war operates on two major levels: The first is outright violence; the second is the invocation of civil society’s values to undermine that system from within.

In more general terms, apocalyptic thinking is a belief that a cosmic transformation is imminent. The transformation can take two forms. Either it will end entirely (eschatology), or the Messianic Age will begin. The second form is often called millennialism. Moderate millennialism exists everywhere in the hope that the world is going to improve.

Again, there are two alternative beliefs as to how this improvement will come to pass. The passive one says God will cause it. The activist approach says we are God’s agents. Therefore we have to bring it about. If activists believe cataclysmic destruction is necessary, it follows that they can save the world by destroying it. According to Landes, the Holocaust was an ‘apocalyptic deed’.

Landes returns us to the West’s participation in this chain of events when he talks about ‘Philo-Judaism’. There has been a change in Anglo-Christians’ millennial scenario to a view which says that the Jews have to return to Zion in order for the apocalypse to occur. Balfour was a believer in pre-millennial dispensationalism and held views similar to today’s Protestant Zionists. According to Landes, the present degree of Christian millennial theology has never before been seen among Christians at so popular a level. (Pre-millennialists believe Christ must return before the Millennium can begin while post-millennialists believe we must create the millennium here and now.)

The Mujaddid

Landes cites a book by David Cook, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic. According to Cook, there are a variety of apocalyptic traditions in Islam. One is called the Mujaddid. This tradition holds that every hundred years, a religious ‘renewer’ is expected. The Mujaddid is a Messianic figure. In 1300 of the Hajj (1881/2) the renewer was the Mahdi, who took over Khartoum and started a war against English imperialism. in 1400 (1979/80), Khomeini inspired apocalyptic thinking. That year there was a violent messianic outbreak in Muslim Nigeria, while the Shiites in Lebanon had a candidate for the renewer in the Imam Musa al Sadr of Lebanon.

Khomeini had the support of a large number of secular, as well as religious, supporters. Both fundamentalist and progressive millennialists shared a common hope.  Unfortunately, Khomeini’s program didn’t work, but it did legitimize Islamic extremism.

“Khomeini did for Muslims—even Sunnis—what Lenin did for Communists. No matter how bad the Sharia state, it served as a model of the possible. After Khomeini, apocalyptic Muslims could begin to imagine that Islam would eventually take over the whole world. The Taliban represented the first anti-modern Sunni millennial experiment.”

The Apocalyptic Rhetoric of War with Israel

The 1948 and 1967 Arab wars with Israel were accompanied by apocalyptic rhetoric. In the 1960s, the failure of Nasser’s ‘final war’ with Israel discredited secular Arab nationalism for many, leading back to religious fundamentalism and eventually to cataclysmic millennialism.”  (Of course, the Jews have millennialist beliefs as well, but Landes says these are passive.)  Islamic extremism has increased since that time.

“In the 1980s, Muslim apocalyptic discourse took a new turn. Whereas previously it had been very conservative, only compiling traditional hadiths on the subject, it now borrowed ideas and techniques from the Western world—especially Protestant millennialism—including more sophisticated use of means of communication, such as glossy pamphlets and cassettes of sermons. It even picked up Western themes, such as flying saucers or Biblical texts, and quoted these in addition to the Koran and the hadith.

“The approach of the end of the Christian era’s second millennium also influenced the Muslim world. It expected the classic Muslim version of the Anti-Christ, the Dajjal, to arrive in 2000. He would be a Jew and control most of the world according to the procedures outlined in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (According to Landes, the Protocols remain influential with Arab intellectuals and elites.)

“The most depressing aspect of current Islamic apocalyptic thought is that all its variants of cataclysmic events will bring immense destruction and death. This is why so much apocalyptic thought in the Arab world—secular and religious—focuses on death and martyrdom that kills indiscriminately. They think that God wants them to visit the destruction on the Jews that the Hebrew prophets warned about. Current Muslim apocalyptic thinking gives no support to the notion that Islam is a religion of peace.”

Was the year 2000 a turning point?

Since 2000 the 12-year-old boy, Mohammed Al Dura has become a martyr and patron saint for both the intifada and global Jihad. (Unfortunately, this article is unnecessarily inflammatory when it claims the Al Dura affair was staged.) ((Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld, Jihad, Apocalypse, and Anti-Semitism. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Sept. 1, 2004. Available: http://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-24.htm))

The Western Contribution

According to an article on the TeacherServe website, apocalyptic thinking in the Americas began with Christopher Columbus who invested the discovery of the new world with millennial meaning. He thought he had found the new heaven and the new earth that God spoke ‘through the mouth of Isaiah’ and again in the Apocalypse of St. John. That said, it is more common for apocalyptic views to express the expectation that history will come to a complete halt. Protestant conservatives have been susceptible to this belief, especially evangelicals, because of their literal reading of the Bible. They focus on the book of Revelation in the new Testament, as well as the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible.

Evangelicals

Throughout American history, evangelicals have vacillated between pre and postmillennialism. The Puritans were premillennial. In other words, they knew Christ’s return could take place at any moment. Jonathan Edwards believed the millennium would begin in America.

The Shakers and John Humphrey Noyes

The Shakers thought Christ had already returned in the person of Mother Ann Lee and they were busy establishing the millennial kingdom. They forbade all private union between the sexes. On the other hand, John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community in western New York, believed Christ had returned in A.D. 70. For him the millennium provided sexual license.

The American Revolution

Many patriots in the eighteenth century fused millennial expectations with radical Whig ideology and thought the American Revolution was ‘the sacred cause of liberty’.

The Second Great Awakening and the Reform Movements it Inspired

During the Second Great Awakening there was optimism in the perfectibility of humanity and society. This complemented the Enlightenment’s appraisal of human potential and inspired many reform efforts such as temperance, abolitionism, prison and educational reform, and Christian missions, in other words, postmillennialism.

At the same time, some evangelicals had lost their optimism about human potential after the excesses of the French Revolution and they reverted to premillennialism. William Miller believed Jesus would return sometime between March 1843 and March 1844.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith thought the New Jerusalem would center in Jackson County, Missouri. His assassination interrupted the preparations, but in recent years a small band of Mormons has returned to resume the task.

Nat Turner

There was a conviction among antebellum blacks that God sanctioned rebellion against white slaveholders. On May 12, 1828, God appeared to Nat Turner, a slave preacher in Southampton County, Virginia. “I heard a loud noise in the Heavens,” he said, “and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” The rebellion he unleashed claimed the lives of fifty-five whites and two hundred blacks.

Reform Judaism

Even some Reform Jews caught the spirit and recognized America as the New Zion and Washington as the New Jerusalem.

From Postmillennialism to Premillennialism

After the Civil War, optimism about human perfectibility continued to dissipate. In addition, the evangelicals had lost their dominance due to European immigration. This caused an inward turn and eventual contempt for the culture that had spurned them. An alternative to postmillennialism was found in John Nelson Darby’s dispensational premillennialism. Believers saw a society careening toward judgment. Enter the influential [intlink id=”1074″ type=”post”]Dwight Moody[/intlink]. Subsequently, the Scofield Bible provided a dispensational template for their reading of the scriptures.((Balmer, Randall, Apocalypticism in American Culture. TeacherServe. Available: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/apocal.htm))

Apocalypticism, the Right Wing, and Popular Culture

According to another article on oldpubliceye.org (cited below) Apocalypticism and millennialism have influenced a variety of right-wing political and social movements, especially in the United States. Tim LaHaye in his 1980 book, The Battle for the Mind, stated: “tribulation is predestined and will surely come to pass.” But LaHay also teaches that there will be a pre-tribulation tribulation if the liberal, secular humanists are permitted to take control of our government. He says this not predestined, but it will happen if Christians fail to assert themselves in defense of morality and decency!

In the United States the apocalyptic worldview is influenced by religious and secular interpretations of the prophecies in the Biblical book of Revelation about the coming of a new millennium. Fundamentalist Christians believe the end of time will be preceded by a cataclysmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The period of peace and harmony begins when evil is vanquished. This period marks the return of Christ. Popular films like Rambo, Mad Max, the Terminator series, and Red Dawn reinterpret the vision without making its origins clear. The film Apocalypse Now and theTV series Millennium name the myth while secularizing and mainstreaming it as a paradigm.

The Heaven’s Gate group merged prophetic themes with the dynamic of manipulative demagoguery in the setting of a totalitarian group with a charismatic leader. Three roots of key prophetic visions in the Heaven’s Gate group came from:

The Christian Bible
The prophecies of Nostradamus
Science Fiction

The science fiction theme often proposes that more advanced life forms and beings with higher consciousness from space will visit Earth and select humans for travel or transformation. A typical example is the book Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. These ideas are also embraced by people in the UFO movement.

The New Testament Book of Revelation has inspired a large number of myths, metaphors, images, symbols, phrases and icons for mass movements. It is the influence behind current right-wing movements such as the new Christian electoral right, Protestant and Catholic theocratic groups, survivalism, the patriot and armed militia movement, Christian patriot constitutionalists, and the Christian Identity religion. Some, but not all, Christian Identity members such as Aryan Nations, are racists.

This article lists six key ways the predictions of Revelations influence popular culture: Omens and Signs of the Times; Apocalyptic Doomsday Cataclysm; Subversion and Countersubversion; Armageddon and Holy War; Reign and Rule; and Transcendent Ascension and Rapture.

The Branch Davidians believed the end times were approaching and were studying the meaning of the seven wax seals on a scroll mentioned in Revelation. Law enforcement abuse of power against the Branch Davidian’s in Waco, Texas and other dissidents creates cascading echoes of apocalypse throughout the society. (Italics mine)

The survivalist movement, and in particular the Weaver family and the Montana Freemen, are influenced by a belief in apocalyptic doomsday cataclysm.

Those who take the subversion and counter-subversion route believe that humankind will be betrayed by a world leader who will eventually be exposed as Satan’s agent. In addition to this leader there will be a false prophet and global religion that supports him. They especially mistrust those who call for world cooperation and international intervention, like the United Nations. They thought at one time that the antichrist was based in the Soviet Union. This was the evil empire of the Star Wars trilogy. It is also partly the basis for the Montana Freeman rejecting government authority. It influences some, but not all, armed militia groups.

Believers of the Reign and Rule dogma think they must clean up secular society to prepare for the return of the Lord. Much of the violence against reproductive rights clinics and attacks on gay rights is based on this interpretation. This is called dominion theology. Its most theocratic and authoritarian version is Christian Reconstructionism.

Dialogue is the Only Way Out

“The millennium provides an opportunity for society to engage in a process of renewal and reconciliation, as well as an opportunity for demagogues, bigots, paranoids, and charlatans to spread messages of division and destruction. If a totalitarian group turns outward its members can engage in scapegoating with the most extreme outcome being homicide. If a totalitarian group turns inward its members can engage in scapegoating with the most extreme outcome being suicide. In a society where inequality and injustice is creating deep divisions and tensions, we need constructive ways to channel anger and alienation toward demands for social change rather than apocalyptic withdrawal or aggression. In societies suffering from economic and social stress, backlash movements take several forms: racial or ethnic nationalism; religious fundamentalism or spiritual alternative; and right-wing populism and conspiracist scapegoating. These forms can blend and interact.

“The more we all discuss the issues of millennial expectation, apocalyptic thinking, and scapegoating, the more likely the outcome will be positive rather than negative.”

Definitions

Apocalypticism: the belief in an approaching confrontation, cataclysmic event, or transformation of epochal proportion, about which a select few have forewarning so they can make appropriate preparations. From a Greek root word suggesting unveiling hidden information or revealing secret knowledge about unfolding human events. The dualist or demonized version involves a final showdown struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. In Christianity there are competing apocalyptic prophetic traditions based on demonization or liberation. Central to Christianity, the tradition also exists in Judaism, Islam, and other religions and secular belief structures. Believers can be passive or active in anticipation; and optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome. Sometimes used similarly to the term millenarianism.

Millennialism: A sense of expectation that a significant epochal transformation is imminent, marking either the end of a thousand year period, or signal its beginning, or both. Two major forms of millennialist response are passive waiting versus activist intervention. Can involve varying degrees of apocalypticism. In Christianity, the idea that the Second Coming of Christ marks a thousand year period.

Aggressive apocalypticism: the merger of conspiracism with apocalypticism often generates aggressive forms of dualism. Apocalyptic aggression occurs when demonized scapegoats are targeted as enemies of the ‘common good’, a dynamic that can lead to discrimination and attacks.((Apocalyptic Millennialism, Political Research Associates. Available: http://www.publiceye.org/tooclose/apoc.html))

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