Ottawa Citizen

How an­cient be­liefs are shap­ing the mod­ern world

ROBERT SI­B­LEY con­cludes his se­ries on the ‘apoc­a­lyp­tic era’ with a look at how re­li­gious prophe­cies af­fect to­day’s pol­i­tics — and the dan­gers of dis­miss­ing them out­right.

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“Mod­ern pol­i­tics is a chap­ter in the his­tory of re­li­gion.” — Philoso­pher John Gray

Nearly five cen­turies ago, in 1541, the Ot­toman Sul­tan Suleiman the Mag­nif­i­cent was de­ter­mined to pro­tect his Is­lamic faith when he sealed off the Golden Gate on the east­ern wall of Jerusalem’s Old City be­low Tem­ple Mount. Of­fi­cially, he did it for de­fen­sive rea­sons. But were there other mo­tives for the sul­tan’s tac­tics?

So it seems. Ac­cord­ing to the Jewish prophetic tra­di­tion, the Golden Gate is the en­trance through which the Mes­siah will en­ter Jerusalem when he ar­rives at the End of Days to lead Is­rael to do­min­ion over the na­tions of the world and ful­fils God’s prom­ise to Abra­ham. The sul­tan was think­ing apoc­a­lyp­ti­cally: Seal the Golden Gate, pre­vent the Mes­siah from en­ter­ing the city, and you make the prophecy im­pos­si­ble to ful­fil.

But Suleiman also put a few more ob­sta­cles in the Mes­siah’s way.

Af­ter be­ing in­formed that Jewish tra­di­tion doesn’t al­low rab­bis to en­ter ceme­ter­ies, the sul­tan or­dered a Mus­lim-only grave­yard to be built in front of the gate. That ac­tion was based on what he knew of an­other Jewish prophecy which says that the prophet Eli­jah will pre­cede the Mes­siah and he, too, will en­ter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate. Thus, Suleiman thought he could kill two prophe­cies with one ob­struc­tion, scut­tle the ar­rival of the End-Times (at least the Jewish ver­sion) and, thereby, keep Is­lam on top and the Jews down. (Never mind that Jewish priests can read­ily walk through grave­yards filled with non-Jews.)

Not much has changed in Jerusalem in the last half-mil­len­nium, at least in terms of it re­main­ing “the fo­cal point of the apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios of Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam,” as an­a­lyst Robert Leon­hard ob­serves in re­lat­ing the anec­dote about the sul­tan. The apoc­a­lyp­tic tra­di­tions of all three faiths claim that it is in Jerusalem where the End of Days will take place.

You might be tempted to dis­miss th­ese tra­di­tions, along with no­tions like apoc­a­lypse, Ar­maged­don, rev­e­la­tion, tribu­la­tion and rap­ture, as non­sense, the scare-story fan­tasies of a less sci­en­tific, less en­light­ened, less ra­tio­nal age. The prob­lem is that even in our sup­pos­edly ra­tio­nal­ist era a lot of peo­ple — bil­lions in fact — sub­scribe to apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios of one sort or an­other. And that makes apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing a po­lit­i­cal con­cern. As Leon­hard says: “The story of how th­ese three sys­tems of be­lief think about the end times and how those vi­sions of apoc­a­lypse af­fect our world un­der­lies much of what oc­curs in our world to­day.”

In­deed, much of the worst po­lit­i­cal tur­moil in the world — from the up­heavals of the Arab Spring and the end­less cri­sis be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans to the war on ter­ror­ism and the es­tab­lish­ment of Is­lamist en­claves in the cities of the West — has its ori­gins in re­li­gious prophe­cies that in some cases go back thou­sands of years. An­cient be­liefs about end-times sat­u­rate mod­ern pol­i­tics. In Leon­hard’s words: “Be­liev­ers and their views on prophe­cies in­dis­putably af­fect our world.”

Con­sider some of the ev­i­dence. The Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, Barack Obama, says he won’t al­low the Ira­nian theocrats to de­velop nu­clear weapons. In fig­ur­ing out how to do that you have to won­der whether the pres­i­dent has taken into ac­count Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad’s claim to “com­mu­ni­cate” with the 12th Hid­den Imam, a 9th-cen­tury Shia cleric, Muham­mad al-Mahdi, who, ac­cord­ing to be­liev­ers, is still alive and only wait­ing for a pro­pi­tious moment to re­veal him­self. Ac­cord­ing to this Is­lamic tra­di­tion, when the Hid­den Imam ap­pears, that’s the be­gin­ning of the end-times. Those who sub­scribe to this be­lief, in­clud­ing Ah­madine­jad, hold that in any nu­clear war Al­lah will pro­tect the Mus­lim faith­ful. Mus­lims, in the mean­time, must pre­pare them­selves for the apoc­a­lypse.

Ji­hadis cer­tainly think this way, jus­ti­fy­ing their ter­ror­ism and killing — shoot­ing Pak­istani and Afghan girls on the way to school, for ex­am­ple — in terms of apoc­a­lyp­tic claims. “Not a few,” says Leon­hard, “be­lieve that their acts of ag­gres­sion against in­fi­dels con­trib­ute to a sort of ‘jump-start­ing’ the end-times pro­gram.”

For many Mus­lims, Leon­hard notes, the Arab-Is­raeli War of 1967 in which Is­rael rapidly de­stroyed the Arab armies ar­rayed against it marked the turn to­ward rad­i­cal­ism within Is­lam. In the af­ter­math of the Arab loss many Mus­lims looked to Is­lamic prophecy to ex­plain what had hap­pened, and to find a way to re­verse the de­feat, he says. “A gen­er­a­tion of rad­i­cals ... (have) com­posed a seem­ingly end­less stream of ex­cit­ing, in­no­va­tive, and com­pelling nar­ra­tives about the end times. Most agree that the apoc­a­lypse is hap­pen­ing now or in the very near fu­ture.” In short, apoc­a­lypse has be­come a “hand-maiden of ji­had.”

In­deed, some Mus­lim writ­ers con­sider re­cent wars in­volv­ing the West (a.k.a. the Byzan­tines) — the two world wars, the var­i­ous Gulf Wars, the con­flict in Bos­nia, and, of course, the in­va­sion of Iraq and Afghanista­n — as ev­i­dence of a vast Jewish con­spir­acy against Is­lam, and signs of the im­pend­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic clash be­tween the two.

“All of th­ese wars were incited by the se­cret Jewish world government un­der the lead­er­ship of the An­tichrist, with the aim of up­root­ing Is­lamic so­ci­eties or even Is­lamic blocs of peo­ples in Europe so that they would not have an in­de­pen­dent state,” says some­one named B. Ab­dulla in a 2008 col­lec­tion of Mus­lim apoc­a­lyp­tic writ­ing. “Since the Kuwaiti war be­tween the Byzan­tines and the Mus­lims was the first apoc­a­lyp­tic war, it was one of the signs.”

More re­cently, events in Syria, along with the Arab Spring and the resur­gence of Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ism, are also seen as a sign of the end­times. “There is huge con­stituency in the Mus­lim world that watches closely as events un­ravel in Syria and con­sider it to be a sign of the times,” says Hus­sein Shubok­shi, a colum­nist writ­ing in the panArab daily news­pa­per, Asharq Al-Awsat. He thinks the Book of Daniel in the Old Tes­ta­ment and the Book of Rev­e­la­tion in the New Tes­ta­ment re­veal the deeper di­men­sions of the down­fall of Syria’s As­sad regime. “The Dooms­day sce­nario is upon us and in Syria it is a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy.”

There are those who think sim­i­larly of the sit­u­a­tion in Is­rael. As Leon­hard points out, what Jews be­lieve about the end-times in­flu­ences both the domestic and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs of the state of Is­rael. When Is­rael adopts a hard line at­ti­tude on never shar­ing con­trol of its Jerusalem, it re­flects, in part at least, a prophetic tra­di­tion that goes back thou­sands of years to God’s prom­ise to Abra­ham that Is­rael will be pre­em­i­nent among na­tions and that the Mes­siah will rule with Jerusalem as His cap­i­tal.

Ev­ery time Is­rael an­nounces that it is build­ing set­tle­ments in the dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries, there are in­evitably an­gry re­sponses from Pales­tini­ans who claim to have been dis­pos­sessed. Euro­pean lead­ers, who tend to­ward si­lence when Ha­mas lobs mis­siles at Is­raeli ci­ti­zens, chas­tise Is­rael for un­der­min­ing the peace process. Per­haps, Leon­hard ob­serves, they aren’t aware that some Jewish groups see the set­tle­ments as has­ten­ing the Mes­siah’s ar­rival.

Leon­hard sums up Is­rael’s seem­ing in­tran­si­gence on the set­tle­ments (and many other is­sues, too) this way: “Prob­lems in the Mid­dle East that have seemed in­tractable for decades have roots in Jewish escha­tol­ogy (or, doc­trines of end-times). The ques­tions about Jewish set­tle­ment in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries and the fate of Jerusalem hinge upon an­cient prophe­cies and how var­i­ous sects within Ju­daism in­ter­pret those prophe­cies.”

Chris­tian escha­tol­ogy, too, has found po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion in re­cent years. In the af­ter­math of the Sept. 11, 2001 ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the United States, then-pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush sounded dis­tinctly apoc­a­lyp­ti­cal when he said “our re­spon­si­bil­ity to his­tory is al­ready clear: to an­swer th­ese at­tacks and rid the world of evil.” Bush con­tin­ued this apoc­a­lyp­tic tone in his sub­se­quent State of the Union Ad­dress: “Evil is real and it must be op­posed.”

Bush had the sup­port of Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ists and evan­gel­i­cals, Leon­hard ob­serves, many of whom sup­port Is­rael’s claim to the an­cient Jewish lands of Judea and Sa­maria — the bi­b­li­cal names of the land now com­monly known as the West Bank. They, too, hope to has­ten the Sec­ond Coming of Christ.

This type of apoc­a­lyp­tic ex­pec­ta­tion was ex­pressed most fa­mously in Hal Lind­sey’s 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth, which has sold more than 35 mil­lion copies and been trans­lated into more than 50 lan­guages. What Lind­sey did, his­to­rian Mervyn Ben­dle ar­gues, was put to­gether the “jig­saw puz­zle” of prophetic signs that he thought showed clear ev­i­dence that we were in the midst of the end-times. Th­ese signs of apoc­a­lypse in­cluded, among other items, the found­ing of Is­rael, the rise of the Soviet Union, the es­tab­lish­ment of the United Na­tions, the Euro­pean Union and NATO, Is­rael’s vic­tory against an Arab al­liance and its an­nex­a­tion of Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967. Never mind the rise of New Age and oc­cult be­liefs in the 1960s, which are widely re­garded as end-times sig­nals.

“Lind­sey came to pre­dict hor­ren­dous bat­tles in­volv­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of troops, nu­clear war and the death of a third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion,” says Ben­dle. He points out that this “politico-apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing” has been in­flu­en­tial through fig­ures such as former U.S. pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan — he was heard to re­mark in 1970 that “ev­ery­thing is in place for the bat­tle of Ar­maged­don and the Sec­ond Coming of Christ” — as well as evan­gel­i­cals like Jerry Fal­well and Pat Robert­son, who wielded a lot of po­lit­i­cal clout through their ex­ten­sive Chris­tian or­ga­ni­za­tions. (Robert­son once forecast April 29, 2007, as the last day for planet earth.)

“In the post­war pe­riod, a key sign of the ap­proach of the end times was be­lieved to be the re­turn of the Jews to Pales­tine and the found­ing of the state of Is­rael in 1948,” writes Ben­dle. “There have been in­nu­mer­able other signs iden­ti­fied since, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Cold War, but the sit­u­a­tion in Is­rael re­mains cen­tral (for those) who be­lieve that the great fi­nal bat­tle of Ar­maged­don will be fought in Is­rael. This ex­pec­ta­tion has been greatly height­ened by the 9/11 at­tacks and the ‘War on Ter­ror.’”

No won­der Leon­hard con­cludes: “In con­sid­er­ing the course of hu­man his­tory and the near-term and far-term fu­ture, it would be fool­ish to ig­nore the great prophetic writ­ings out of a sense of in­tel­lec­tual ar­ro­gance, the more so when those vi­sions of apoc­a­lypse are so deeply in­grained into the world-view of mil­lions of peo­ple.”

That is doubt­less the case. Still, the ques­tion re­mains: Why are so many tempted by apoc­a­lyp­ti­cal vi­sions?

His­to­rian Paul Boyer sug­gests apoc­a­lyp­ti­cal be­liefs serve a deep hu­man need for a sense of mean­ing­ful­ness in the face of a seem­ingly over­whelm­ing and of­ten in­co­her­ent world. “Prophetic be­lief gives mean­ing to his­tory. It gives an or­der and shape to hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.”

More specif­i­cally, be­lief in apoc­a­lypse im­poses some in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity on world-his­tor­i­cal is­sues that oth­er­wise of­ten seem in­tractable and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble — the con­flict be­tween the Is­raelis and the Pales­tini­ans be­ing an ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple. Apoc­a­lypse, in other words, pro­vides a struc­ture of co­her­ence to the events of our times. This struc­ture, says Boyer, pro­vides peo­ple with some re­as­sur­ance that some­one is in charge, that it is not all mean­ing­less one-damn-thing-af­ter-an­other chaos.

This need for things to make sense — even if what is be­lieved is it­self delu­sional — ap­pears fun­da­men­tal to hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence re­gard­less of the his­tor­i­cal era. As Boyer points out, most ev­ery pe­riod in his­tory has its share of in­di­vid­u­als who look at the world around them and con­clude that their time is the end-time. “Each gen­er­a­tion some­how has found cir­cum­stances that are con­vinc­ing to them that the end times are upon us.”

That un­der­lines the paradoxica­l na­ture of apoc­a­lyp­tic be­liefs. Apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism is a re­sponse to the ex­pe­ri­ence of the world as with­out mean­ing or pur­pose. Yet, strangely enough, it as­serts a be­lief in the in­trin­sic mean­ing­ful­ness of his­tory. His­tory has a di­vinely or­dered sig­nif­i­cance, ac­cord­ing to the apoc­a­lyp­tic faith­ful, and this sig­nif­i­cance can be dis­cerned through the proper in­ter­pre­ta­tion of sa­cred books. In the­ory, a truth­ful un­der­stand­ing of the Bi­ble, the To­rah or the Qur’an re­veals not only the pat­tern of past his­tory, but the pat­tern of his­tory to come. Of course, what is to come, aw­ful as will be for some, is jus­tice for the right­eous. Thus, apoc­a­lyp­ti­cism re­flects a long­ing for a bet­ter and more mean­ing­ful world.

“The vi­sion of the fu­ture that’s em­bed­ded in the apoc­a­lyp­tic world view is really a fright­en­ing one,” says Boyer. “But yet, com­bined with the fear, is a sense of mean­ing, and also the sense that as in­di­vid­u­als we can es­cape the true ter­rors that lie ahead.”

This de­sire for his­tory to be mean­ing­ful, more than one damn thing af­ter an­other, high­lights an­other di­men­sion to the apoc­a­lyp­tic mind­set — the need for won­der, for the world to be en­chanted. This seems par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to our tech­no­log­i­cal age. As an­thro­pol­o­gists Kath­leen Stew­ard and Su­san Hard­ing ob­serve: “A per­va­sive apoc­a­lyp­tic sen­si­bil­ity (can be) at­trib­uted to the state of un­ease that comes with the end of an era or a cen­tury, or with rapid so­cial and cul­tural change. Its ap­peal is of­ten at­trib­uted to the se­duc­tions of a co­her­ent and com­pre­hen­sive world view that is at once or­dered and charged with drama and ur­gency.”

Sci­ence has taught us that the uni­verse came from noth­ing and is go­ing nowhere in par­tic­u­lar. It is made up of mat­ter with no par­tic­u­lar pur­pose be­yond its own ex­is­tence. And hu­mans are merely the in­hab­i­tants of a small ob­scure planet in an equally ob­scure so­lar sys­tem cir­cling a ho-hum star on the mar­gins of a galaxy that is one of bil­lions of gal­ax­ies. We are in­signif­i­cant ex­cept to our­selves.

This is a hard re­al­ity to bear, and hu­mans, as the poet T.S. Eliot once re­marked, can’t take too much re­al­ity. We need our il­lu­sions, in­clud­ing the il­lu­sion of our im­por­tance in the scheme of things. For all their cat­a­strophic imag­in­ings apoc­a­lyp­tic be­liefs in­sert drama into our oth­er­wise tech­no­log­i­cally-de­ter­mined lives, at­tach­ing sig­nif­i­cance to our ex­is­tence and, thereby, en­chant us with a sense of our own im­por­tance.

The tragedy of hu­man his­tory is that we too of­ten use our self-im­por­tance as a li­cence for vi­o­lence against those who don’t share our il­lu­sions. As scholar Elana Gomel re­marks, “the ‘delir­ium’ of the ap­proach­ing cat­a­clysm has mo­ti­vated some of the most de­struc­tive re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal events in his­tory, from the Cru­sades and the ex­pul­sion of the Jews from Spain to Nazism and Stal­in­ism.”

The only end-times pre­dic­tion that can be made with any rea­son­able cer­tainty, at least ac­cord­ing to sci­ence, is that a few bil­lion years from now the sun will go nova and bal­loon into a red gi­ant and turn the planet into a cin­der. Long be­fore then we, as a species, will ei­ther have dis­ap­peared through our own folly — sur­ren­der to some apoc­a­lyp­tic delu­sion? — or evolved into en­ti­ties that will take us home to the stars.

In the mean­time, the earth abides and we are granted a short time to abide with it. That is surely a bless­ing, di­vine or not.

 ?? HATEM MOUSSA, AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Smoke rises fol­low­ing an Is­raeli strike on Gaza City in Novem­ber, above, as pro­test­ers, be­low, clash with Egyp­tian riot po­lice in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that same month. Much of the worst po­lit­i­cal tur­moil in the world to­day, from the end­less cri­sis...
HATEM MOUSSA, AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO Smoke rises fol­low­ing an Is­raeli strike on Gaza City in Novem­ber, above, as pro­test­ers, be­low, clash with Egyp­tian riot po­lice in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that same month. Much of the worst po­lit­i­cal tur­moil in the world to­day, from the end­less cri­sis...

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