Richard Landes: Comparative History - Millennialism And Terrorism

Roundup: Historians' Take

Leonard Stern, Ottawa Citizen, 21 Sept. 2004

One consequence of Sept. 11 was the emergence of an academic industry, which for lack of a better term can be called jihad studies. You'd have thought such a speciality would already exist, yet for decades students of Islam and Arabia recoiled from the subject. At scholarly conferences there would be two dozen lectures with titles such as"The problem of Ottoman heroic narratives," but not a peep about the problem of holy warriors.

Scholars are playing catch-up, and not just Middle East specialists. Militant Islam is now being studied in departments of political science, psychology and international affairs. It's an interdisciplinary affair. One widely circulated paper,"Genesis of Suicide Terrorism," was written by an anthropologist and appeared in the journal Science.

If you ask me, though, the most compelling analysis of the current threat belongs to a professor of medieval history, of all people. Richard Landes teaches at Boston University where, as director of the Center for Millennial Studies, he has become a leading authority on apocalyptic religious thinking.

Although his expertise is Christianity, it occurred to him that Islamism, whose adherents seek to create utopic Islamic societies, is best understood as an apocalyptic phenomenon. He spelled out his ideas in a long interview earlier this month with a Jerusalem-based think tank. Apocalyptic theology, he says, is characterized by"a belief that a cosmic transformation is imminent." And when this belief sweeps up"groups, movements and whole populations," we have an apocalyptic moment in history.

Since Sept. 11, the foreign-policy set has agreed that Islamism has expansionist goals and a totalitarian structure. Some analysts have even used the term Islamofascism. Mr. Landes spells out the connections. Osama bin Laden, Iran's mullahs and an untold number of clerics across the Middle East are apocalyptic activists, just as Hitler and his disciples were. The Nazi's"thousand-year Reich" was literally a millennial kingdom.

"Nazism exploded from a toxic cocktail of conspiracism (and) rage at a perceived humiliation of the German people," says Mr. Landes. The Arab-Muslim world is today the epicentre of conspiracy thinking, its inhabitants also consumed with their own perceived humiliation.

Nazism required followers to have" complete contempt for human life." The cult of the suicide bomber -- the fetishizing of death -- suggests a similar pathology in parts of the Arab-Muslim world. The Nazis promised salvation, embodied in the worldwide triumph of the Aryan race; Islamists promise salvation, embodied in the establishment of Allah's rule on earth. Both movements sought -- or seek -- to harness modern technology in the effort to re-make the world. Nazi death camps were models of industrial efficiency; Islamists teach themselves to fly jet planes and use encoded computer programs.

In each, the figure of the Jew plays a starring role. The Nazis saw the destruction of the Jews as a necessary, purifying step on the path to victory. Mr. Landes calls the Holocaust an"apocalyptic deed."

Meanwhile, the creation of Israel is known across the Muslim world as the Naqba, an apocalyptic-type catastrophe. This explains why the genocidal anti-Jewish propaganda in the Arabic mass media mirrors Nazi literature. Islamists, too, see themselves as engaged in cosmic battle, and in this battle the Jews (or Zionists) are"Satan's agents in the world."

Mr. Landes finds further parallels."As Hitler screamed about Jewish plots to conquer the world and enslave mankind, he was hatching precisely those plans." Today, Arab leaders accuse Israel of practising collective punishment by destroying the homes of suicide bombers when in fact it is suicide bombings that represent"the most heinous form of collective punishment -- the random killing of innocent civilians."

Apocalyptic yearnings are not inherently dangerous. Many religions envision a better world. Even secular political movements (who among us was not an idealist in university?) can have a tinge of messianism. Apocalyptic thinking becomes deadly when it supposes that" cataclysmic destruction" is necessary to bring about the messianic age.

The Sept. 11 attacks were an effort to spark cataclysmic destruction. A nuclear bomb smuggled into Tel Aviv, or London, could be another such spark.

Traditional political terrorism was easier to fight because the perpetrators had demands that, at least in theory, could be addressed. Those who are motivated by an apocalyptic vision have non-negotiable aims, as the world learned from Hitler. It's significant that the Sept. 11 hijackers never bothered to make demands, presumably knowing that no mortal being could meet them.

There's another lesson. Marginal ideas tend to stay on the margins. That's why the flat-earth society and the temperance movement never really got anywhere. But introduce apocalyptic elements and everything changes.

"Successful millennial movements, like the Nazis, spread from the fringes to the centre," says Mr. Landes."And in cultures that are vulnerable to apocalyptic messages -- e.g., the conspiracist and disoriented Arab world -- technology greatly amplifies its impact."

It's interesting that a historian of the Middle Ages is able to articulate, better than any professional security strategist, exactly what is at stake in this global conflict.

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