Au nom de quoi?

Daesh in its historical context of apocalyptic religious cults.

in-the-name-of-what_cropA fair question. But it’s not hard to answer. ISIS or ISIL or Daesh – Obama has settled on the last, and we might as well follow him – is quite clear about its goal: to establish by force of arms, starting now, a universal Sunni Islamic caliphate. This will be ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph according to an extreme Salafist version of shariah which even Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia think is over the top. What is more, unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the imperialist agenda is connected to apocalyptic prophecy. According to Graeme Wood, whose Atlantic article is basic reading on the movement:

Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
…Now that it has taken Dabiq [in northern Syria], the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

An Australian convert expanded on the scenario to Wood:

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

The fact that this is nuts – and mainstream Sunni and Shia leaders all concur in the assessment – does not make it unclear, any more than Mein Kampf was. Nor is it without precedent, in several religions.

I tried, shortly after 9/11, to inform my then employers in the Council of Europe about the rich historical tapestry of violent religious cults. The text is here, and I think it stands up pretty well. The one recommendation I really wish they had taken to heart was to read Norman Cohn’s great history of apocalyptic cults in mediaeval Europe, The Pursuit of the Millennium.

The best-known of many such episodes is surely the Anabaptist Jan of Leyden’s  takeover of the Westphalian city of Münster in 1534-35. Here is a portrait of him by Aldegrever:


It’s a fine but seriously creepy work. Here is dignified Jan, in royal robes, carrying the symbols of his insane Messianic claim to universal monarchy. But this portrait was not commissioned by him to celebrate his temporary power, but by his enemies after his defeat and capture – just before they dragged him into the square before the cathedral and tortured him to death with red-hot irons. (Sorry, but you need reminding that establishment Christians can be as vilely cruel as as any Daesh fanatic.)

Cohn’s book shows that Jan’s communistic dictatorship in Münster was not an isolated and freakish episode, but the last in a long series of movements led by popular prophets writing themselves into starring roles in apocalyptic scenarios loosely based on the Book of Revelations. The first he records is Eudes de l’Etoile or Eon, a Breton who started his movement in 1145 and described himself as the Son of God. He was captured in 1148 and starved to death by the Bishop of Rouen; a number of his unrepentant followers were burnt. Another leader, describing himself as Adam, arose in Bohemia in the fringes of the Hussite movement and wars:

These Adamites are said … to have lived in a state of community so unconditional that not only did nobody possess anything of his own but that exclusive marriage was regarded as a sin .. Blood, they declared, must flood the world to the height of a horse’s head; and despite their small numbers they did their best to achieve this aim.. They set the villages on fire and cut down or burnt alive every man, woman and child they could find; this too they justified with a quotation from the Scriptures ..

The Taborite general Jan Žižka took time out from fighting Catholic and Utraquist armies to destroy the Adamite cult without difficulty in 1421.

Among the examples I found in other religions of violent apocalyptic cults, the closest to Daesh and Jan of Leyden may be the Sikh radical Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who in 1983 seized and fortified the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhism. Indira Gandhi had the temple stormed in 1984, killing Bhindranwale. (She was later assassinated by some of her Sikh bodyguards, in retaliation for the sacrilege). The Wikipedia article  is uncritical and presents Bhindranwale as a conventional radical nationalist. This does not offer any real explanation for his extraordinary actions, and I suspect a far less conventional theological agenda, perhaps even a self-identification as an avatar of the Eleventh Sikh Guru. (Comments on these speculations welcome.)

How do cults like Daesh and Jan of Leyden’s end? The usual story is, I’m afraid, one of violence. A radical and violent challenge to established authority based on religious conviction cannot be negotiated, as can be those from secular groups like the IRA or the Tamil Tigers. Would containment work? The historical record is not helpful. The policy does not seem to have been tried, and the nature of the challenge makes it extremely difficult. Kennan’s containment policy for Soviet Communism depended on its specific features, including its long view and pragmatic tactics within the non-negotiable goal of world revolution. Kennan in effect pressed the United States to copy this patient world-view, against all its instincts for chasing quick results. Daesh is closer to Nazism in the reckless immediacy of its vaulting ambition.

I fear that there is no alternative to military action. But Cohn’s book does offer one useful tip. These cults are extremely authoritarian, and depend utterly on a charismatic leader. Kill or discredit him, and the movement quickly fades. The survival of Christianity after Jesus’ execution depended on the resurrection story (whether true or imagined or fabricated), itself connected to a reinterpretation of Jesus’ non-violent teaching in an other-worldly sense. The death of the leader has usually been enough to dishearten the followers, or to turn them pacific like the Mennonites.


After their execution in Münster, the bodies of Jan Bockelson and two other leading Anabaptists were exhibited in iron cages hung from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church. The cages are still there, a chilling reminder of the lengths to which both religious revolutionaries and the defenders, like us, of the established order will go.


Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

16 thoughts on “Au nom de quoi?”

  1. I think containment with Daesh is different than the decades of containment Kennan wrestled with in 1947. Keeping them bottled up and not expanding either in general or not expanding to non-Sunni areas for a few years seems to me to be doable, and something that gives time for other political operators to get their act together. I don't think Daesh has a good political model, so other organizations could outcompete them.

    In other words, the outside world should play a limited role, a containment role, for a few years, and this problem will solve itself.

    1. With regular repetitions of the Paris attack, videoed beheadings of Westerners, and – why not – crucifixions, which Daesh considers a proper punishment for apostates? I doubt if the already very unpopular Hollande would have long survived giving a speech counselling patience.

      Obama’s compromise of low-key intervention through local proxies may work sooner than many expect. The Kurdish peshmerga, not the New Model Army by any means, have recaptured the Yazidi town of Sinjar, which sits on one if the roads to Mosul, surely the Kurds’ real goal. Taking Mosul would deprive Daesh of much if its oil income, as well as inflicting a major symbolic defeat. But the Kurds have mercifully little interest in expanding beyond zones of their ethnic settlement, leaving Sunni Arab NW Iraq an anarchy in which Daesh can survive quite a while.

      1. I defer to nobody in my admiration for the capabilities of pesh merga, but I doubt if they have their eyes set on Mosul, because I rather think that's out of range. Bear in mind that they're the only competent military force in the region that is not in one way or another on the side of evil, that the Turks will stab them in the back at every opportunity and that their overriding priority has to be the security of Kurdistan. They haven't yet got sucked into a general Iraqi civil war, and I don't see why they should change their minds now.

        1. You may be right about Mosul. Peshmerga advanced in February to within 9 miles of the city, but said that retaking the predominantly Arab city was up to the Iraqi army. This has since been dithering. The Kurds must be wondering whether to take the large risk of going for it themselves.

          The same Wikipedia article cites a Guardian report that “al-Baghdadi was recovering from severe injuries he received from an 18 March 2015 airstrike, in a part of Mosul. In the meantime, Abu Alaa Afri had assumed control of ISIL as Deputy Leader. It was also reported that al-Baghdadi’s spinal injury, which left him incapacitated, means that he may never be able to fully resume direct command of ISIL.” How in the ideology can you be a bedridden caliph?

          1. This is good food for thought. I am not sure but lean strongly in the direction of thinking that if Daesh wants an all-out war, then that's exactly what we shouldn't give them.

            The opposite of Western direct warmaking doesn't have to be "patience," as I'm sure you know. Lots of stuff in between.

            (Oh btw have people seen this? I am more and more loving all things Kurdish. Plus… if we told them they could keep whatever they won in Syria (and Iraq?), wouldn't many of them leave Turkey, and would that make Turkish gov happy? Is there… room for a deal????)

            Kind of makes me wonder why Jesus was killed in the first place, since He wasn't violent and wasn't against tax paying. Was it a tactical error by Pilate?

          2. Non-Biblical sources confirm that Pilate was a sleazebag. First, he got the procuratorship of Judaea from the loathsome Sejanus. Second, he was (according to Josephus) recalled to Rome in AD 37 after putting down a Samaritan rebellion with excessive force. Excessive by the standards of Imperial Rome, not ours. These data are consistent with the Gospel portrait of an unprincipled and brutal time-server. The Biblical Pilate knowingly lets himself be manoeuvred by the Jewish Temple party into executing Jesus on a phony charge of sedition, got up as proxy for the real charge of blasphemy, perfectly true but of no legal interest to Rome. His reasons are presented as a mixture of fear of riots and a desire to build up leverage with the Temple. I don't see why we need to speculate about additional motives.

          3. Thanks. I wish I knew more history.

            Funny to think of myself as a cult member. At least it is a (mostly) peaceful one. Or is it not a cult if you aren't a fundamentalist practitioner? (that was rhetorical… ; > )

    2. The problem with containment is that you can't contain ideologies.

      You could contain communism as a conventional military force, precisely because it relied on conventional military force to work it's will. We never did contain communism the ideology. People whose first loyalty were to communism were all over the place throughout the cold war, (Still are all over the place, amazingly!) the only reason they didn't cause more mischief was that they weren't told to create mischief.

      When faced with an ideology which is perfectly happy to engage in individual and small group acts of terror, the situation is rather different. The individual or small cell of people who've adopted the ideology really matters there.

      In this case, we really need to confront and defeat the ideology itself. Something we're not really very good at, it seems.

      1. Kennan understood that the conflict with the Soviet Union was a struggle of ideologies, not a conventional opposition of states. The end of the Cold War came about both because of the patent failure of socialist central planning after around 1960 to match the economic progress of mixed market systems, and the more mysterious implosion of Marxism, helped along (but not IMHO fully explained by) by the Soviet Union's mailed-fist interventions in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. It certainly wasn't "defeated" by CIA front magazines like Encounter or Fulbright scholarships. Name one really interesting Russian Marxist thinker after 1950. On second thoughts, after 1929. Stalinism suppressed independent thought on social matters, so perhaps the only Marxist intellectuals worth the name, like Gramsci and Hobsbawm, were in non-Communist countries.

        You do Marxism an injustice in comparing it to the jihadism of Daesh. It takes real intellectual effort to be a proper Marxist or traditional Catholic or Calvinist or Orthodox Jew. Jihadism, based on a very selective literalist reading of bits of the Koran, is more on a level with the ethnic nationalism an uneducated young Serb can pick up over a few weekends in a bar in Belgrade.

        1. Mostly our victory over communism wasn't a matter of convincing everybody to reject communism. Plenty of people still hold to that ideology. Rather, it was a result of holding back their military forces while waiting for the economic insanity of the system to bring it down. Both were necessary, because military victories could have permitted communism to spread even though it was a disastrous ideology economically.

          But, as I say, we didn't have to convince everybody that communism was a stupid belief system, (And good thing, too, because we didn't.) because individual communists aren't all that dangerous. Radical Islam is different from communism in that respect. We can militarily defeat every organized group, and still have a continuous low level war going on due to new converts staging attacks. It's like fighting an infection instead of a predator: It's not actually organized to kill off easily.

          And it's impossible to do Marxism an injustice, after the horrors of 20th century Marxism. What it actually takes to be a proper Marxist is rigorous ANTI-intellectual effort. Like antimatter, it looks like intellectual effort from a distance, but is actually it's categorical opposite.

          1. "We can militarily defeat every organized group, and still have a continuous low level war going on due to new converts staging attacks." Here you are stepping over from reasonable precaution into scapegoating paranoia. Jihadism is about jihad: holy war under the command of a legitimate Muslim authority. (He may be a nutjob in a cave, but he's still the leader.) You cannot be a jihadist or crusader by yourself, on the analogy with loner American psychos like Dylann Roof. There has to be a leader to follow, therefore an organization. Look at the decline of al-Qaeda after bin Laden's death; al-Zawahiri doesn't have the charisma. My claim is falsifiable. If I'm right, Daesh will collapse within a short period of al-Baghdadi's death or (improbable) capture.

          2. Marxism the theory is just a way of analyzing the world, and I think it retains a good bit of legitimacy. (This doesn't make me a Marxist though, so please let's not go down the rabbit hole. One can find it a useful way to think about things without agreeing that one wants a Marxist government. Marx was brilliant. Even you can't front on that.)

            The mistake was in forcing it on people. Even democracy – which most of us agree is a good idea (I hope?) – shouldn't really be forced. Intent matters.

            And we could (but I won't) have an argument on how well capitalism "works." It wouldn't be as much of a slam dunk as you would think though again, I don't have the time or energy. Or, a much better alternative than whatever we're calling Western Europe circa 15 years ago.

  2. If I understand correctly, the chief motivation for the "Daesh" label is that the people to whom it applies are thought to dislike it intensely. This in in effect the snide-insult theory of statecraft. Is Western Civilization great or what? On another point, I take great comfort in observing that various religious millennialists have been wrong a thousand times before; but then again, they only have to be right once.

  3. John Gray wrote about Al Qaeda and its kinship not with medievalism but modernism, especially that of the nineteenth century anarchists (and later Bolsheviks) whose ideology looked for a grand world transformation through spectacular acts of violence; he asserts that such a notion is not to be found in medieval Islam. He thinks that linking Al Qaeda to the middle ages missed an important affinity between it and the Leninist ideal of a revolutionary vanguard whose efforts will lead history to its final destination in the shape of universal justice.

    I would welcome anyone's insights into (1) whether Gray had a point about Al Qaeda's being more modern than medieval, and (2) whether Daesh, for all its Quranic eschatology, owes an unacknowledged debt to Leon Trotsky.

    1. Cohn implies that modern secular revolutionary movements of both left (the People's Will, the Bolsheviks) and right (the Nazis) owe a debt to the tradition of Christian and Jewish apocalyptic: certainly a stronger factor in these religions than in mediaeval Islam. IIRC after the fall of the Temple (in which the apocalyptic Zealots played a major role), apocalyptic ideas rather faded from the rabbinical Judaism of the diaspora. Sabbatai Zevi was a rare messiah, and a pacific one. But the book of Daniel was reinforced in Christianity by Revelations, and apocalyptic cults thrived in mediaeval Christianity. Daesh may have got its apocalyptic from Leninism, or directly from Christian heresies, or they could have emerged entirely within Islam.

      Compare the Ghost Dance movement among 19th-century American Indians faced with the unstoppable assault of white America on their way of life. Compare also the Taiping: the Chinese tradition of popular revolt against a failed Emperor was long, but the apocalyptic elements of the Taiping came from Christianity.

      Given the strange appearance of a spear-wielding Jesus in the Daesh eschatology, perhaps we should see the cult as kdaptist Muslim heretics. Larry Niven’s Kzin sect emerges in his world from the constant defeats of kzinti by humans, and holds that Man was made in the image of God. The conceit is far from the least likely feature of his Known Space universe.

      Sadly Norman Cohn, who could have helped us see more clearly though this phantasmagoric tangle, died in 2007.

  4. Daesh is several things: an apocalyptic cult, a revolt by aggrieved Sunnis, a Ba'athist revenge party, a looting expedition by opportunistic tribes, a refuge for militant exiles (Chechens and others), a magnet for marginalised rural youth. It's on the back foot militarily (Kobane, Tel Abyad, Tikrit, Baiji, Sinjar, Hasakah, Ramadi…), and is starting to separate into its components. Some tribes have defected, some youth surrendered, the exiles have been at the forefront of the battle and suffered heavily, some Sunnis are seeking an alternative politcs in Baghdad. If it loses Mosul and Raqqa it will fade back into a violent undercurrent, much as its predecessor in Algeria (the GIA) did. A sore but not a threat. Syria will be a harder problem than Iraq, but it's all one war.

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