Archive for January, 2008

Belated Response to Dave at The Glittering Eye

January 9, 2008

Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye (after some kind words I don’t need to repeat here) commented re: my paper on the religious and apocalyptic background to nuclear policy making as follows:

In none of the countries that are major players in nuclear weapons (Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel) are policy makers with a primary focus on eschatology a dominant factor.

Before getting into my comments on this list, I would like to say that religious drivers can be of considerable impact even when they’re not apocalyptic, and to note too that apocalyptic itself is a “brush fire” phenomenon, by which I mean that it can erupt unexpectedly, sweeping a population with it, when the right spark meets the right dry tinder.

So even if the policy makers in question aren’t driven by apocalyptic fervor, they may have to deal with it at short notice, and it’s often “under the radar” — a point made tellingly by Ali Allawi in his Jamestown Foundation talk, vieweable [1 hr plus of fascinating video] here


Just for the record, and tackling Dave’s list in order:


Dr. Marat Shterin, a sociologist of religion at Kings College London, recently told the BBC, “millenarian beliefs are fairly widespread in Russian Orthodoxy, both within the formal structures of the Church and outside it.” One of a number of Russian apocalyptic groups is currently waiting out the end of the world in May this year, in a cave 400 miles from Moscow.

The United States:

It has not been easy to determine quite how deeply George W Bush is influenced by apocalyptic thinking — Ronald Reagan fairly clearly was — but recent remarks by Huckabee’s Iowa campaign manager, Bob Vander Plaats, on Tucker on MSNBC to the effect that “we’re fighting a radical religion in Islam” and that “the war on terror is a theological war” suggests that evangelical theopolitics is alive and well in the present Presidential campaign.

France, United Kingdom:

Nothing much to report that concerns me at present unless we approach an Islamization tipping point.


Falun Gong is an instance of a group that grew rapidly, took the CP by surprise, and seems to have terrified them because it reminded them of the rapid growth of the Taiping rebellion, another apocalyptic movement (which claimed 20 million plus lives before it ended). The FG leader believes the current world crisis is that aliens are taking over human bodies, and that the practice of Falun Dafa is urgently needed to defeat this effort.

Let’s just say China *could* be swept by a messianic movement, it has happened before with tragic outcome.

India:Nothing explicitly apocalyptic here, but the Hindutva movement, represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party and allied religious movement, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, seemed infatuated with their bomb after the 1998 Pokhran texts:

On May 11th 1998, within days of the BJP-led government coming to power, India declared itself to be an overt SNW (State with Nuclear Weapons), by detonating nuclear devices at Pokhran. “The decision to conduct the blasts was not taken in the cabinet, following a ‘strategic review’ or consultations with the defence services. As RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan boasted, it was taken by the Sangh. Only a handful of RSS-loyal ministers were privy to it.Thus, the VHP’s (Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s) first response to Pokhran was to declare that the Hindus had finally “awakened” with the “Shakti” series of tests, and to demand that India be formally, constitutionally, declared a “Hindu State”. … the VHP announced it would build a temple to a new national goddess, “Atomic Shakti”, and carry Pokhran’s radioactive sands in a rath yatra to each corner of India.”

BJP – The Saffron Years


Here the risk is of “loose” nuclear materials coming into the possession of Islamist sympathizers, an outcome that Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, discussed recently, commenting “I do not know the answers. Nobody does.”

Popular superstition in Pakistan, too, tends towards the miraculous in ways that can void our “rational actor” expectations.

In Pakistan the Jamaat-I-Islami transported a cardboard “Islamic Bomb” around the country, while right-wing Urdu magazines like Zindagi wrote about the wondrous miracles of Chaghi. They told stories of divine intervention that protected the mard-e-momin from poison-spitting snakes as they prepared the nuclear test-site, of four chickens that sufficed to feast a thousand of the faithful after the tests, and of Prophet Mohammed taking personal charge of protecting the centrifuges of Kahuta.


Here the government isn’t messianic / apocalyptic, to be sure, but nuclear weapons do exist and Iran might make a tempting target at some point.

My major concern here, however, would be an attempt on the part of a Jewish or Christian Zionist radical to blow up the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary, so that the Third Temple could be built there in anticipation of the coming of Moshiach / Second Coming of Christ, an event which would radically alter Israel and US relations with the entire Islamic community worldwide — and which has already been attempted more than once.


That concludes Dave’s list of “countries that are major players in nuclear weapons” — but surely we shouldn’t forget Iran, which *doesz* have an apocalyptic / Mahdist streak in government, and which *has* had a nuclear weapons program even if it is currently on hiatus.

Nor should we ignore al-Qaeda, a non-state actor with strong religious drivers and some apocalyptic tendencies which has also (like Aum Shinrikyo) attempted to obtain nuclear weapons — bin Laden told Time magazine in 1998:

If I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims.


Where I go from here:

Dave wrote:

While we need to take the outliers and rogues into account, I think it would be pretty imprudent to make the countries who can or might produce a handful of nuclear weapons the central factor in our policy other than to take steps to reduce the likelihood that they’ll be able to do so and to reduce the utility of the weapons should they obtain them.

I’m not so much disagreeing as noting that there can be more going on in the apocalyptic and religious realms than we are aware of — and in line with my consistent interest in finding possible blind spots and concentrating on them, I believe the “outliers and rogues” deserve closer attention than we often give them.

Which is therefore where I put much of my own focus.


Pakistan and nuclear safety

January 7, 2008

Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of nuclear and high-energy physics, and chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, responding to a question from Stefania Maurizi of Il Venerdi, the Friday supplement of La Repubblica:

The government says there is absolutely no danger of loose nukes. Pakistan has been sending serving officers of the Strategic Plans Division, which is the agency responsible for handling nuclear weapons, to the United States for training in safety measures (PAL’s locking devices, storing procedures, etc). But there’s no way of telling if this will be effective. Extremists have already penetrated deep into the army and the intelligence agencies. We now see repeated evidence: for example, last month an unmarked bus carrying employees of the Inter Services Intelligence [Pakistan’s secret intelligence], was collecting employees early in the morning. It was boarded by a suicide bomber who blew himself up killing 25. It was an inside job.

And now there are many other such examples, such as that of an army man killing 16 Special Services Group commandos in a suicide attack at Ghazi Barotha. A part of the establishment is clearly at war with another part. There are also scientists, as well as military people, who are radical Islamists. Many questions come to mind: can there be collusion between different field-level commanders, resulting in the hijacking of a nuclear weapon? Could outsider groups develop links with insiders? Given the absence of accurate records of fissile material production, can one be certain that small quantities of highly enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium have not already been diverted? I do not know the answers. Nobody does.

For the full interview, see “Pakistan After the Assassijation”: Interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy on Juan Cole’s ICGA blog.