Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Final Battle

The dreams of the Islamic State go far beyond a caliphate. They're fighting for the End of the (Christian) World.

As Graeme Wood explained in his recent cover story for The Atlantic, ISIS holds “a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.” His use of the term 'apocalypse' is not hyperbole. ISIS believes their army is the vanguard of the End Times, ushering in the long-prophesied redeemer of Islam, a Messianic figure known as the Mahdi, who will finally appear to rid the world of evil and make the entire planet Muslim.
The prophecy of the Mahdi is believed by hundreds of millions of Muslims. Wood’s article in The Atlantic finally brought this to the attention of the mainstream press, but an American scholar named TimothyFurnish has been warning about the dangers of “Mahdism” for decades. He says belief in the Mahdi has a long history within Islam: 
“Apocalyptic traditions and movements, led by a Muslim claiming to be the End Time Mahdi ("rightly-guided one"), are not new with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusrah or any of the other modern groups proclaiming belief in such. They go back to the early days of Islam, and are intrinsically connected to the more general Muslim practice of jihad, or holy war against 'infidels.'"
Furnish holds a PhD in Islamic, World and African history, is a former US Army Arabic linguist and officer, and currently works as an author, Islamic World analyst and consultant to the US government and military. His informative website,, was a great resource for me in writing The Assassin Lotus, which involves a cult of Mahdist assassins seeking to trigger the "Final Battle." Here is Furnish explaining the religious basis for that fight:
“A very important point which no one in the analytical, and few in the journalistic, community wants to admit (hence State's Marie Harf adducing phantoms such as poverty-driven jihad): the ISIS Caliph and his minions refer to the United States of America as 'defender of the cross.' Not 'proponent of Ayn Rand,' 'guardian  of the Enlightenment' or 'warden of Jeffersonian democracy.' Caliph al-Baghdadi and his decapitating/immolating rank-and-file forthrightly (if inconveniently) spell out exactly why they hate us: because, in their eyes, we are a Christian nation. There are those who will dismiss this as a mere progagandistic trope. But they would be wrong to do so. IS, along with Boko Haram and al-Qa`ida and Jabhat al-Nusra and the Taliban (to name only a few of the Islamic legions), as well as the non-terrorist but Muslim fundamentalist movements such as Wahhabism, Deobandism and Salafism, all view the world through a simplistic but legitimately Islamic lens of Dar al-Islam v. Dar al-harb: the 'house of Islam' v. the 'house of war.'  And for 14 centuries the vanguard of the latter has been Christendom. Some decry pointing this out as crass  'Crusaderism.'
But as that combat veteran J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out--via his main female protagonist, Éowyn, 'it needs but one foe to breed a war, not two'--and when that enemy declares its war on us in religious terms, why should we pretend otherwise?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Unintelligible Truth

painting by Valerie Black
"What I really love about fairy tales is that they get us talking about matters that are just so vital to us. I think about the story of Little Red Riding Hood and how originally it was about the predator-prey relationship, and then it becomes a story about innocence and seduction for us. We use that story again and again to work out these very tough issues that we have to face. 
photo by Cristina Carra Caso
"Milan Kundera has this quote in 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' about painting that goes something like: Painting is an intelligible lie on the surface, but underneath is the unintelligible truth. Folktales are lies, they misrepresent things, and they seem so straightforward and so deceptively simple in a way. It’s the unintelligible truth beneath that’s so powerful, and that’s why we keep talking about them. They’re so complicated. We have a cultural compulsion about folklore. We keep retelling the stories because we can never get them right."
~Maria Tatar on The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics)
Read the full interview HERE.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Third Thoughts on Certainty

The esteemed American author Tobias Wolff gave a scintillating reading yesterday in Our Savior Church at the Caruso Catholic Center of USC. He read a brief short story ("In the Garden of the North American Martyrs") followed by an essay entitled "Second Thoughts on Certainty." The essay describes his encounter with the story of Saint Jean de Brebeuf, a French Jesuit missionary who lived and preached among the Huron Indians of Quebec in the early 1600s. It is a fascinating story of undaunted courage and unquestioning faith, with Brebeuf ultimately suffering an horrendous death at the hands of the Hurons' enemy, the Iroquois. Within a generation the Huron nation dispersed and went extinct, due in no small part to the missionary's inadvertently destructive influence on their culture.
It is Brebeuf's astounding certainty of belief that Wolff finds both awe-inspiring and disturbing. Although Wolff's essay was published back in 1994, well before 9/11 and our intermittent "War on Terror," his grappling with the difficult issues of doubt, faith, moral relativism and tolerance seem even more crucially pertinent today. His essay ends with this:
"Here is the problem. Is it possible to live a life of authentic faith without the kind of headlong conviction shown by Brebeuf? What else could have sustained him in his solitude and frustration and suffering? I envy him his certainty, until I think of the arrogance and blindness that came with it. We have learned to suspect such ardor. As I write these words, men of unbending principle and purity of motive are righteously herding people into camps and planting bombs on airplanes and firing artillery shells into crowded marketplaces. Our greatest murderers have been True Believers. And so, mindful of the evils done in faith’s name, we have learned to be wary of faith itself, and of the voice that speaks for any single faith. We’ve taught ourselves to listen for the truth in each competing voice, to extend recognition to every contender.
"But how much of this tolerance can we stand, without losing our way? If all things are true, then what particular thing is worth living for, let alone worth dying for? How unsatisfactory it is to be forever open to discussion, to see the other side of every argument, to give respect in so many directions at once. I know I am not alone in my disgust with the flaccidity of spirit that comes upon us as the consequence of trying always to accommodate the justice in each claim on our sympathy and understanding. I believe that this disgust is the greatest spiritual problem of our time. In its grip we long for certainty as for the clear streams and lush fields of a childhood home we never really had. How dangerous this longing is, what terrible things it makes us do for those who promise to satisfy it.
"And still I confess that I feel rebuked by such assurance as Brebeuf’s, Brebeuf who never hesitated, who went to his death without a second thought. The Lord Himself didn’t do that. He prayed for the cup to pass Him by. Even at the end, He doubted, for which I give thanks. His doubts are blessings. They pardon us for ours. I’d be lost without them."
We are indeed lost without doubts, but we must not allow ourselves to be lost with them, either. As Islamic State religious zealots slaughter their way across the Middle East while surrounding powers and Western leaders gaze on in horror, it is abundantly clear now who ventures into the unknown with certainty and who is hobbled by doubts. It seems to me the balance of faith and doubt has swung too far from brave Brebeuf. Like the Lord we need to find a way to move through our uncertainty, and with open eyes do what must be done.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Yazidi family fleeing ISIS
“I don’t believe in a fate that falls on men however they act. But I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”
~G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Shakespeare on ISIS

21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS in Libya
"Man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority --
Most ignorant of what he's most assured, 
His glassy essence -- like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep."

~William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Chandler on Shakespeare

"Shakespeare would have done well in any generation, because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over, he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men would have thought them incapable of. [...] If some people had called some of his work cheap (which some of it is), he wouldn't have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything."
~Raymond Chandler in a letter to Hamish Hamilton - April 22, 1949


“We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true. 
~Daniel Kahneman 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Mightier Than Armies

"The Associated Press reported on Monday that Islamic State fanatics have ravaged the Central Library of Mosul, the largest repository of learning in that ancient city. Militants smashed the library’s locks and overran its collections, removing thousands of volumes on philosophy, science, and law, along with books of poetry and children’s stories. Only Islamic texts were left behind.
“These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah,” one of the ISIS jihadists announced as the library’s holdings were emptied into sacks and loaded onto pickup trucks. “So they will be burned.”

As Jeff Jacoby concludes in his fascinating piece in JWR, "Any brute can burn parchment, or ransack a library, or blow up a mosque, or bulldoze cultural treasures. But not even mighty armies can destroy the ideas they embody."

This echoes the story recounted in The Assassin Lotus about Ulug Beg, the enlightened 15th-century Muslim ruler of the central Asian city of Samarkand: 
"When Ulug Beg built his hilltop observatory in the 1420’s, it was the biggest and best equipped in the world, with a colossal marble sextant hewn into the rock, a massive concave solar clock integrated with the sextant, and a scholars’ library consisting of some 15,000 books. A cutting-edge research facility, the Stanford or Scripps of its time.
Which is why it was torched and razed to the ground by the same fundamentalists who beheaded Ulug Beg. All that remains today is what was carved into the earth: the giant semicircular trench of the sextant, excavated in 1908. 
A tall, white-marble plaque nearby displays the astronomer-king’s epitaph:  
Religion disperses like a fog,
Kingdoms perish, 
But the works of scholars remain for an eternity."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Through a Glass Darkly

Aldous Huxley on the doctrine of Maya:
"The world is an illusion, but it is an illusion which must be taken seriously, because it is real as far as it goes, and in those aspects of the reality which we are capable of apprehending. Our business is to wake up. We have to find ways in which to detect the whole of reality in the one illusory part which our self-centered consciousness permits us to see. We must not live thoughtlessly, taking our illusions for the complete reality, but at the same time we must not live too thoughtfully in the sense of trying to escape from the dream state. We must continually be on our watch for ways in which we may enlarge our consciousness. We must not attempt to live outside the world, which is given us, but we must somehow learn how to transform it and transfigure it. Too much "wisdom" is as bad as too little wisdom... One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it. A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time."


from @dailyzen

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What is Worse Than War?

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."
--John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)