Dancing the Apocalypso


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Oct 10, 2009
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Reality Check: Dancing the Apocalypso
Millions of religious believers around the world share a passionate belief in the coming of doomsday -- and that means that the End of Days will remain a factor in politics at least until, well, the end of humankind.

As a year and a decade draw to a close, it seems to be an appropriate moment to contemplate the end of time itself. Then again, maybe it's just that Hollywood focuses the mind on last things. This year, Roland Emmerich's 2012 upped the cataclysmic ante by flooding the Himalayas and tipping cities into the ocean. The filmed version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road took the micro view, following a father and son on a journey through a post-apocalyptic world. In January we'll get Denzel Washington as Mad Max squared in The Book of Eli, another movie that takes the end of civilization as we know it as an excuse for some really cool fight scenes.

These sorts of disaster movies have been around for a while, of course. Over the past few decades, the apocalypse has given moviemakers a perfect opportunity to indulge in humongous spectacle and wallow in the darker aspects of the human character. (If you can't deal with the idea of people eating other people, don't buy a ticket for The Road.) A pity we can't just leave it at that. Current events would suggest that the persistent popularity of Götterdämmerung scenarios speaks to something deep in our psyche, and that our interest in the End of Days goes a lot farther than the multiplex.

Just take modern-day Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a firm believer in the second coming of the Mahdi, Islam's version of the messiah. Ahmadinejad and his followers have allocated millions of dollars from the Iranian government budget for renovating the city of Jamkaran. That's where Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam, once appeared and offered prayers before disappearing into the supernatural realm from which he will one day re-emerge when history comes to its end. To Israelis, unsurprisingly, the prospect of a passionate Shiite millenarian at the helm of the Iranian state is not exactly inspiring. "You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told an American interviewer in March 2009. "When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran."

Netanyahu's remark about the "wide-eyed believer" may have been based on moments like the one in 2005, when Ahmadinejad concluded a speech at the United Nations with a prayer to hasten the "emergence of the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace." And ironically enough, it's that longing for justice and peace that appears most dangerous in religious readings of the apocalypse. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity share the notion that a messianic figure will appear at the end of time to wash away the muddle, violence, and injustice of the world we live in now and usher in a new era of utopian purity. (Sadly for most of us, most of the scenarios require a cleansing fury of war and cataclysm before the age of sweet holiness can be achieved.) As a result, the appeal of Judgment Day seems to be at its greatest among groups who seethe with feelings of victimization. That, of course, can be particularly inviting for politicians and religious leaders, who are happy to play on such a potent mixture of longing and fear.

As a result, even the craziest eschatologies can have very specific real-world effects. Cult leaders have repeatedly used apocalyptic views to goad their followers into violence (as in the Jonestown mass suicide that took 918 lives in 1978 or the 1995 subway gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Tokyo that left 12 commuters dead). The American terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he bombed a government building in Oklahoma City in 1995, claimed to have drawn his motivation from a millenarian racist novel, popular among U.S. right-wing extremists, called The Turner Diaries.

The French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu, author of a book on Islamic theories of the apocalypse, says that grassroots doomsday scenarios have tended to proliferate throughout the Muslim world at moments of particular crisis. Many Iraqis who resisted the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 did so for reasons that would be entirely understandable to guerillas and partisans in conflicts elsewhere. Yet the fight against the Coalition presence also inspired a dramatic revival of homegrown apocalyptic ideas -- with the United States usually cast in the role of the dajjal, Islam's version of the Antichrist. It was not for nothing, of course, that the Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr called his militia "the Mahdi Army." In his speeches Sadr has frequently alluded to the notion that the war in Iraq is setting the stage for the Mahdi's imminent reappearance -- echoing the Iranian revolutionaries who made similar claims back in 1979.

In fact, in November of 1979, a group of Saudi religious extremists took over the Great Mosque in Mecca, claiming to usher in the age of righteousness on behalf of a man they believed to be the Mahdi. The fighting that resulted, as Saudi government forces moved in to retake the mosque, left hundreds dead. As the journalist Yaroslav Trofimov has shown in his study of the mosque seizure, that event also triggered a wave of Islamic revivalism around the world and prompted the shocked Saudi royal family to curb its Westernizing ways and fund Islamic activism abroad in the hope of thwarting religiously motivated rebellion at home. The hostage-takers in the Grand Mosque would also offer inspiration to a later generation of Sunni millenarians whose ranks include Osama bin Laden.

Yet visions of the end times don't have to inspire violence to in order to affect politics. Take the city of Jerusalem, where the doomsday scenarios of the world's three great monotheistic religions overlap and, in some cases, compete. For Jewish, Christian, and Islamic messianists, control of the Temple Mount -- where Solomon's Temple presumably once stood and where the Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven -- is about competing visions of the sacred future as well as the past. The Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg, in his remarkable book The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, explores how members of all three religions posit doomsday scenarios that pivot around the site. Gorenberg shows how visions of the end of time can subtly color this-worldly intrigue as groups around the world maneuver for a piece of the holy real estate.

Perhaps the most intriguing case in Gershom's book involves the Christian fundamentalists who believe that their own messiah won't be able to appear until the Third Temple has been constructed on the spot where Jews now pray at the Wailing Wall and Muslims worship in the Dome of the Rock. Prominent among these Christian "dispensationalist" groups are the Assemblies of God, the church of potential presidential candidate Sarah Palin (who proudly displayed an Israeli flag in her gubernatorial office in Alaska). It would be stretching things to say that believers in the Rapture control U.S. politics, but the alliance between Zionists and born-again U.S. Christians whose own eschatological views give prominent place to the "regathering" of Jews in the Holy Land has undeniably exerted a disproportionate influence on Washington's policy toward the Middle East in recent years.

Still, of all the places where politicians thematize ideas of apocalypse, Iran offers a particularly vivid example of the benefits for those who invoke the Second Coming. Ahmadinejad's enthusiasm for mahdaviat -- the need to make all necessary preparations for hastening the Mahdi's return -- dovetails nicely with his own populist claim to leadership of the Iranian nation. It's an approach that has opened him up to criticism even from within the country. He has been accused of manipulating religion to political ends by no less than Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the recently deceased senior cleric who was once designated as Khomeini's successor before becoming a dissident later on. "One objection [to the government] is they take advantage of Islamic religion and Imam Zaman [Mahdi] - they exploit them," Montazeri told The Christian Science Monitor in a 2005 interview. "If the government uses religious slogans and religion as a tool [to gain power], this makes people fed up with religion and is wrong."

Some political scientists, like Michael Desch, argue, meanwhile, that even an Iranian leader who sincerely adheres to messianic beliefs will still find good reason to adhere to the dictates of realpolitik. These analysts argue that Israel's large nuclear arsenal is enough to deter Iranian leaders from unleashing a first strike on the Jewish state -- just as the prospect of megadeaths dissuaded even marginally rational leaders like Mao Zedong from launching nuclear conflicts. Still, given the dark rhetoric from Tehran, it's hard to blame Israelis for wondering whether Iran's leaders might take it upon themselves to speed up the coming of the apocalypse by a few years.

Reality Check: Dancing the Apocalypso | Foreign Policy

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