Saturday, March 21, 2009

Millenarian terrorism — an STA perspective (3 of 4): modern parallels to chiliasm, importance of spatial orientations

[UPDATE — August 30, 2009: See a very interesting post titled “Apocalyptic Vision: Guest Post by Charles Cameron” at Mark Safranski’s ZenPundit blog, August 27, 2009. The post, the first I’ve seen anywhere on this important topic for many months, focuses on the rise of Mahdism and other millenarian expectations, in the Middle East and around the world. A comment by Charles also points to some informative new writings. I thank Charles and Mark for their recognition of my own post’s efforts to contribute from here. And I note that I still intend to do Part 4, eventually, partly along the lines of the comment I left at the Zenpundit post.]

Prior posts laid out why, at least in European history, some fringe groups turned to violent, fanatical kinds of religious chiliasm or revolutionary millenarianism. These groups arose from a sense that absolute disaster had befallen people’s lives — that life had gone far more awry than frustration-aggression and relative-deprivation models capture.

Why is this interesting to revisit? Because some of the most dangerous terrorist groups of our times — such as Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, not to mention extreme right-wing American Christian patriot elements — resemble the millenarians of old.

For years I have occasionally tried to urge, in minor ways, that analysts and strategists inquire into the parallels between those old Christian and Jewish chiliasts and today’s Islamic jihadi radicals. At first, I was told that Islam had not generated true counterparts. But more recently, I have heard that some scholars do find parallels. The scholars I've learned of include R. Scott Appleby, David Cook, Hakim Hazim (with Robert Bunker), Richard Landes, Laurent Murawiec, James Rinehart, and Catherine Wessinger. I’ve scanned some writings that are easily accessible online, but only heard a bit about other writings. Rinehart’s book Apocalyptic Faith and Political Violence: Prophets of Terror (2006) is, I’m told, a particularly relevant read. [I thank Spencer Skaggs of New World Global Outlook for pointing Rinehart out.]

This is apparently a knotty, controversial, inconclusive area for scholars and other analysts. There are problems of comparing earlier situations and religions to contemporary Islam, and then within Islam, of separating Sunni and Shia strains. There are also problems of interpreting particular texts. And then there are further problems of determining where terms like jihadi, millenarian, and apocalyptic do and do not apply; for there are situations where one term may apply but not the other(s) — there are jihadis who are not truly millenarians or apocalyptics, and vice-versa.

Even so, I’m sticking with my presumption that not enough is being done in this vein.

One of my original inspirations, Barkun, wrote follow-up papers (1977, 1999, 2002) to deepen analysts’ understanding of disaster models, the overlaps between millenarian and terrorist mentalities, and some implications for policy and strategy. For example, he would point out that:
[T]argets that make sense to a millennialist may not make sense to someone else. The reverse is also true: what you or I might think would be a “natural” target might seem irrelevant to someone operating from within a millenarian belief system. . . . We need to be careful as well about making hard-and-fast distinctions between symbolic targets and infrastructural targets, since what may appear symbolic to one party may be part of the infrastructure to another. (Barkun, 1999)

The thinking I have just described recapitulates a process common among extremist and millenarian groups. The group develops a detailed picture of future developments, particularly those associated with the behavior of evil forces. The government, ignorant of these expectations, acts in ways that resemble what the group anticipates. The coincidence of behavior and ideology has two effects: First, it legitimizes the ideology by validating the predictions. Second, the group, now convinced that movement towards a final battle has accelerated, adopts what it considers essential defensive measures. If the cycle is not broken, the result will be a spiral of provocative action and violent response. (Barkun, 2002)
That’s insightful — and could be helpful for understanding Islamic millenarians. But Barkun would shift to focus on right-wing and other kinds of extremists here in America, notably in Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (1997).

Meanwhile, the scholar who gained the lead in writing about religious terrorism — Mark Juergensmeyer, in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2000) — was articulate about terrorists thinking they were engaged in a “cosmic battle.” But he seemed to be unaware of the disaster model, and to prefer frustration-aggression and deprivation explanations. Elsewhere, a scholar-strategist who offered valuable insights about jihadi mindsets — Michael Vlahos, notably in a study about Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam (2002) — turned to claim it is U.S. policy that has been so messianic, millenarian, and apocalyptic.

Since my knowledge about religious terrorism remains spotty, my presumption may be flawed that the Cohn-Barkun view deserves renewed, expanded attention. Nonetheless, I proceed here as though my thinking is on track. The earlier posts benefited from the fact I drafted most of the text years ago, based on a deliberate reading-and-writing effort. But I never did more then than make notes about contemporary parallels and their implications. So, what I’m posting now is sketchy by comparison — less finished, informed, and thorough. But hey, this is a blog.

Instructive parallels between old and new manifestations

The parallels, though imprecise, are impressive. In keeping with the classic model of millenarianism, Al Qaedans believe that the world — the world of Islam, the Middle East in particular — is in a state of disaster, owing largely to the overweening power and presence of the infidel United States. Al Q and its ilk hold to a vision of achieving an apocalyptic (or nearly so) upheaval through devastating deeds. They wish to inflict on America the experience of multiple disasters that they believe has been inflicted on the Arab Muslim world. The end goals include the creation of a new caliphate and ultimately the welcoming of the Mahdi — a breakthrough to a new era of salvation, purification, and righteous domination.

Al Qaeda does not quite promise what chiliasm promised: “imminent, this-worldly, collective transformation” (Barkun, 1974, p. 181). And its leaders do not constantly harp in millenarian tones. But its eschatological imagery is similar, and its vision of martyrdom — that an Islamic paradise awaits the sacrificed warrior — amounts to an apt other-worldly substitution, in that it fuses an apocalyptic into a utopian moment, modulated by an insistence that “this world” and the “other world” are not all that separate anyway.

The parallels extend to the nature of leaders and followers. Al Qaeda’s leaders correspond to chiliasm’s self-appointed, itinerant prophetae who aimed to be profound but proved to be lesser intellectuals. And AQ’s jihadi followers exhibit many of the socio-economic, cultural, and psychological traits that Cohn and Barkun stressed: they feel beset, blocked, displaced, estranged, aggrieved, humiliated — they are wandering in search of new meaning and connection, looking for a way to be angry and righteous. They feel worse than deprived; they’re lives — and the milieus connected to them — are disasters awaiting redemption. I would not be surprised if many of today’s recruits are more millenarian than the leaders.

And once these leaders and followers join together, a charismatic relationship binds them all. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have shown they can organize and execute tactical operations in a methodical manner that may look more corporate and managerial than charismatic and chiliastic. But the driving vision is indeed millenarian: to commit deeds that rend the evil world asunder, striking down unbelievers and breaching the way to a salvationist new world order.

Further in keeping with Mannheim’s, Cohn’s, and Barkun’s analyses, this rise in millenarian terrorism is occurring not in isolation but as part of a culture in deep ferment — this time, the Arab Islamic culture — whose people are under great stress, having difficulty with ideas of modernity and progress, and groping for conceptual reformations of their own making. Al Qaeda and its like are not the fleeting, anomalous products of particular episodes of paranoid delusion and narcissistic rage among folks who fall under the spell of charismatic leaders. AQ and its affiliates have arisen as expressions of a sense of disaster, on the fringes of larger yearnings for change.

Role of space-time-action orientations — space in particular

Again, my main interest is STA analysis. I see a lot of material here for advancing it. But since I’ve already gone on and on about that, I’m going to focus here on three specific points.

My first point is that many analyses of terrorism — millenarian terrorism included — tend to emphasize just one of the three STA dimensions. But the more an analyst elaborates, the more it becomes clear that all three STA dimensions are embedded in his or her analysis.

Often the initial emphasis is on time perceptions— e.g., loss of hope, a new vision of the future. But it could be on space or action perceptions. Here, for example, a scholar emphasizes an action orientation — the loss of power:
It is this sense of a personal loss of power in the face of chaotic political and religious authorities that is common, and I believe critical, to Abouhalima’s al Gamaa-i Islamiya, Timonthy McVeigh’s circle of militia activists, and most other movements for Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, and Hindu nationalism around the world. The syndrome begins with the perception that the public world has gone awry, and the suspicion that behind this social confusion lies a great spiritual and moral conflict, a cosmic battle between the forces of order and chaos, good and evil. Such a conflict is understandably violent, and this violence is often felt by the victimized activist as powerlessness, either individually or in association with others of his gender, race, or ethnicity. The government — already delegitimized — is perceived to be in league with the forces of chaos and evil. (Juergensmeyer, 2000, p. 224)
But look at the details. There is chaos, a separation of good and evil, an association of one kind, a league of another kind — all spatial factors. Moreover, the world is awry, heading into a cosmic battle — time notions (and if not quite, there are temporal criteria elsewhere in the book, as I recall). In short, one STA dimension is stressed, but all three show up, in a rather jumbled fashion.

Which leads to my second point: All three STA dimensions are important. Scholars and other analysts could do a better job of analyzing mindsets if they attended to all three in a systematic manner, so as to dissect — deconstruct, disassemble, reverse engineer — them in detail. This could also help clarify what other kinds of models work best, including the relative-deprivation and absolute-disaster models discussed in my initial post on this topic.

And that brings us to my third point: While all three STA orientations are significant, the space orientation — the orientation that often gets the least attention — may be key to understanding the appeal of terrorism. This may be particularly so for disaster-driven millenarian terrorism, even though it is defined by/as a time orientation.

Consider this: People who have made statements about becoming a terrorist refer to having lacked an identity, feeling small and humiliated, facing obstacles and barriers, and feeling lost after moving abroad. Then they gain a new sense of worth from finding new connections. They see better how the world is split between good and evil — in a duality that must be overcome. They view an outside power’s presence as an invasion that must be expelled. They want to regain what was lost or stolen. They want to extend the borders of Islam — as God’s soldiers, not an organization’s. They want the sacred to rule over the secular — indeed, to deny any such dichotomy. And whereas they used to feel marginal, now they are part of something that has cosmic importance.

These are all spatial referents. I could list time and action referents as well. But my point is that the number and variety of spatial referents is really quite large — larger than I have seen analysts notice. Thus, spatial orientations may deserve a lot more attention than they have received. The keys to understanding terrorism’s attraction to some mindsets may lie more in their space than in their time or action orientations. (This may also apply more broadly to the tribal mindset, which is so emphatic about upholding solidarity, respect, pride, honor, and dignity — all spatial values.)

[I have altered the titles of the preceding posts on this theme, so that it is more evident they all fit together. I have one post to go — on implications for policy and strategy. I do not regard these posts as written in stone; if I see a need to edit, I will do so even after the post is up. But I will add a notice if I make a major edit.]



Jay Taber said...

Chris Rodda and Bruce Wilson, writing for the blog Talk to Action, have over the last year documented and examined the apocalyptic Christian milieu leadership, agenda, and infiltration of the U.S. armed forces.

Unknown said...


I'm glad you've taken an interest in this subject. Radicalization is an underexplored issue and one that has serious implications for the international community.


David Ronfeldt said...

hakim -- i appreciate your note. i've been awfully slow about doing the 4th post on this complicated matter, for various reasons. but in preparation, i'd be pleased to try out a few ideas for discussion, if you (and/or others) are still stopping by this comments section.

i couldn't find an email address for you. if you see this comment, let me know here. at last, i'm able to post comments in my own blog. -- david

Unknown said...


I dropped you my email address and some sources that may be of use.

H. Hazim