Archive for June, 2008

Combat breathing and military occupation

June 21, 2008

In “Fear Factor”, his review of Amanda Ripley’s fascinating-sounding The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes, published in City Journal 21 June 2008, John Robb writes:

… in complex disasters, the biological-fear response can slow thinking so severely that it can kill you.

We can counter fear, however. The best method, FBI trainers say, is to get control of your breathing. “Combat breathing” is a simple variant on Lamaze or yoga training — breathe in four counts, hold four counts, exhale four counts, and repeat. It works because breathing is a combination of the somatic (which we control) and the autonomic (which we can’t easily control) nervous systems. Regulation of the autonomic system deescalates the biological-fear response and returns our higher-level brain functions to full capacity. So one of the best ways you can prepare yourself to overcome fear in a crisis is as simple as a meditation, Lamaze, or yoga class.

I find it fascinating and also sensible that yogic / meditative techniques are now taught by members of the law enforcement community:

Training under stress also will help officers learn to control their arousal level. As their physiological agitation escalates, so might their susceptibility to perceptual and memory distortions. Thus, learning to control arousal level can help reduce distortions. Therefore, officers should receive training in and regularly practice ways to control arousal levels in high-stress situations. One process, the combat breathing technique, has proven highly effective in this area.

Alexis Artwohl, “Perceptual and memory distortion during officer-involved shootings”, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Oct, 2002

This reminds me of Richard Strozzi Heckler’s In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Green Berets, now in its fourth edition.

What fascinates me even more, though, is the discovery that “combat breathing” is a term that was already in use before it was applied to breathing techniques for controlling one’s emotions in crisis conditions. Frantz Fanon coined the term, as far as I am able to determine, to describe the elevated level of frustration under which occupied peoples go through their daily lives.

In writing about Algeria in A Dying Colonialism, Fanon writes (p.65):

There is not occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of a final destruction. Under these conditions, the individual’s breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing.

From this point on, the real values of the occupied quickly tend to acquire a clandestine form of existence. In the presence of the occupier, the occupied learns to dissemble, to resort to trickery.

We might do well to consider Fanon’s words in relation to the occupation of Iraq, as perceived by those who have no cause to welcome it.


Again I am reminded — and this is peripheral to the issue of breathing techniques in combat, but germane to that of religious sanctions for violence — of Gary North’s comment in an appendix (p. 846) to R.J. Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law. North suggests that much of what Christ taught his disciples was intended to ease them through the Roman occupation, and would no longer have force once that occupation could be ended:

Nevertheless, this one fact should be apparent: turning the other cheek is a bribe. It is a valid form of action for only so long as the Christian is impotent politically or militarily. By turning the other cheek, the Christian provides the evil coercer with more peace and less temporal danger than he deserves. By any economic definition, such an act involves a gift: it is an extra bonus to the coercing individual that is given only in respect of his power. Remove his power, and he deserves punishment: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Remove his power, and the battered Christian should either bust him in the chops or haul him before the magistrate, and possibly both.

This “dominionist” strand of contemporary Christian thinking — of which Rushdoony’s book is the theological centerpiece, and which exerts some influence on the Christian right as a whole — thus holds Christianity to be a great deal fiercer and more intransigent than a reading of the Beatitudes might lead one to believe.

I somehow don’t think

Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who insult you and persecute you

makes a whole lot of sense if you tag on the words “and keep your fingers crossed” at the end.


Grace notes / addenda

June 16, 2008

Re: Obama for Mahdi?

I’d like to acknowledge here that, as my friend Dr. Timothy Furnish pointed out to me today, he already picked up on and addressed the “Obama for Mahdi” issue in a post on his MahdiWatch blog back on April 17th:

Mahd[i] about Obama

As we’re all painfully aware of by now, some of Barack Hussein Obama’s liberal legions of supporters harbor messianic expectations about him–and I’m not referring just to journalists.  Over on the other side of the political spectrum, there are evangelical Christians who have seasoned their eschatological stew with Mahdist spices, and in fact kicked things up a notch by claiming that the Mahdi of Islam will be the Antichrist of Christianity.  It was probably inevitable that these two ideological currents would eventually flow together, as evidenced by emails to this site recently:

“Barack HUSSEIN is probably Islam’s mahdi….. 1400 year old Islamic prophecy says this mahdi will be named HUSSEIN.. I have reference for this…The masses have called b. Obama the messiah… Say he walks on water, the chosen..etc..The entire world is for Obama…looks like anti Christ to me.. And the mahdi to muslims….

This 12th imam named HUSSEIN  will promise peace, unity, brotherhood hood and the kingdom of god on earth.. OBAMA HAS PROMISED THIS TO AMERICANS… while he gives all America’s money to the u.n. And Muslim nations.. Obama plans for USA to enforce the  U.N.s law forbidding defamation against  religions.. This will stop the real truth about Islam lies and will cause persecution and death among Christians, etc… This man is not what he appears to be and America will know it soon.. Not to mention the fact Obama was a Muslim when he was 6 to 10 years old … and even took the shahada recently in the presence of a newspaperman…. Taking the shahada is the only requirement to become Muslim. And Obama knows this … He wears Muslim garb.. And..  His so called  church is pro Islamic and and anti-white, anti-American and anti-Christian..”

There you have it.  A vote for BHO is a vote for the Mahdi.  Someone alert Ahmadinezhad — and the Clinton campaign!

Re: Literal and metaphorical hijackings

I’d also like to note that a commenter on a blog I follow recently used the word “hijack” to refer to the Sojourners trend within evangelical Christianity, writing of Rev. Tony Campolo:

Exactly what was the Lord’s reaction when faced with the mixture of warm and cold with regard to the Laodicean church? It’s about time we learned what the Lord was saying and stop allowing people like Campolo and his ilk to hijack Christianity.

And if that’s not enough, there’s always…

From the publicity materials:

The newest facet in the War on Terror involves a little known Islamic messianic figure ― ”the Mahdi.” A key earmark of this mysterious religious leader is “hiding” himself away.

Osama bin Laden, hidden away somewhere, directs worldwide terrorist operations against “infidels.” He has a seemingly endless army of Islamist followers. Likewise, the Iraqi Shi’ite rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr calls his followers the “al-Mahdi Army.”

The Twelfth Imam, the Shi’ite Mahdi, is hidden, right? He’s in what is termed ghayba, or occultation. He has been in ghayba since 864 CE, and entered what is called the greater ghayba in 940 CE, a little more than a thousand years ago. And Osama bin Laden has been hiding, too, right? And he has an army. Therefore Osama must be the Mahdi…

Or might it be Muqtada al Sadr?

It helps to know the difference between Sunni (al-Qaida and bin Laden are Sunni) and Shi’ite (the Twelfth Imam and Moqtada are Shi’ite), and between hiding out (for a few years) in the Pashtun areas astride the Pakistan-Afghan border, and going into occultation (for more than a millennium) in the ‘alam al-mithal, a world not of this world…

Obama for Mahdi?

June 15, 2008

Another diversion into the arcana of eschatology, with no particular violence implicated.

We’ve had discussions of Obama as Messiah:

Source URL here

and discussions of Obama as Antichrist:

Source URL here

That’s a nice “pair” of bookends, to be sure — but it by no means exhausts the possibilities. There are some legitimate concerns and more moderate positions that are intermediate between those two poles. And while the ones that seem perceptive to one group may seem obtuse to another, the territory they cover is worth examining through the lens of religious rhetoric.

There’s Paul Krugman in the New York Times suggesting that the Obama campaign back in February of this year seemed “dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality“(which is still quite far from a “messianic cult”). There’s Mark Morford’s recent San Francisco Chronicle article titled,perhaps by a whimsical editor, “Is Barak Obama an Enlightened being?” Morford suggests that “Barack Obama isn’t really one of us”, and indeed that “many enormously smart, wise, spiritually attuned people” have been “blown away” by Obama’s “sort of powerful luminosity, a unique high-vibration integrity” (which is coming a bit closer to the messianic cult bit).


What’s behind all this? There’s a para-religious phenomenon here, I’d argue, a translation of political content into religious vessels, perhaps — in a January news report in the Sacramento Bee, “one of the campaign’s key strategies” was described by an Obama team trainer as “telling potential voters personal stories of political conversion.” And that in turn reminds me of the remarkable description of working in the Obama campaign penned by Ginger Lapid-Bogda, which I received from Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute, a slightly different version of which can be found on the rio grand-i-o blog.

I wanted to share just a little of my experience working in the Obama campaign because it very much relates to OD [organizational development]. I don’t do anything so very important, yet there is a sense in the air that everything anyone does matters and is deeply appreciated. I do phone banking and help them with provisions for the West Los Angeles office. But anything I do is met with amazing gratitude from people there, and I feel deeply grateful for being able to contribute. This is a very resonant exchange: gratitude for gratitude with absolutely no fakeness or overly-sweet quality.

It is such a bottom-up system, essentially driven by the vision of what this country can be, much more than being centered solely around Obama, although his approach is deeply shared. It is an amazing example of a vision and principle-driven self managing structure and system in which everyone does whatever is needed. And what is needed can change every hour, yet nothing feels unfocused or chaotic. It is truly a self-organizing system. The big office provides some guidelines, a few protocols, some materials, a few suggested tactics that are highly strategic, but people in this office — and it is just one of many throughout the country — just figure out what to do and then do it amazingly.

Of course, it is a thrill but only because it feels important. Everyone is a volunteer, all supplies, furniture, etc, are donated, many are exhausted, but no one gets difficult or crabby. It is amazing what a sense of purpose does.

The volunteers are as diverse a group as I’ve ever seen working together — age, race, gender, social class, profession, education. That is a lot of what makes it so thrilling. It’s like experiencing the change we’re trying to create. We’re a virtual team in which parts of it are in one another’s physical presence, others are not, and the team members change from day to day. Most of the volunteers, no matter their age, have never been involved in any campaign before so this high-performance is not based on experience.

For me, the most important principle followed is that the end does not justify the means. It is akin to a transformation from the more Machiavellian era we have been operating in for many decades to one that is working from a high level of conscious awareness. They are very process oriented and believe that if the processes used (the means) are not consistent with the ends that are desired, the ends will never materialize because they will be too compromised and tarnished by the process.

Dr. Lapid-Bogda is describing the campaign in “organizational development” terms, but what comes across to me is the sense of what Victor Turner would call communitas — an exhilarating sense that hierarchy has been dissolved and that as a result the ideal is hovering in the atmosphere, in the room, so close as to be tangible. That feeling — and it is indeed a heady one — can be found in peace marches, in communes, it was present among the early Franciscans, and with it, great things are sometimes possible.

Having a leader also helps — someone who can plausibly be portrayed with a halo in an age that wears them lightly, a charismatic personality, to borrow Max Weber’s phrase.

And Obama is nothing if not charismatic… The London Telegraph introduced him to readers who might be unfamiliar with him in January 2007 as “the charismatic senator with near rock-star status” and “the new Jack Kennedy” — and short of messiah-status, JFK is hard to beat.

Still, it is important to note that Barack Obama acknowledges and makes light of this sort of thing himself — I’m assuming he spoke with a mixture of sophistication, self-deprecation and charm when he told and audience of Ivy Leaguers:

My job this morning is to be so persuasive … that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Barack.

In summarizing the above, I’d say the “Obama is Messiah” and “Obama is Antichrist” memes are almost parodistic exaggerations of an insight that does ring true of Obama — that he is a charismatic leader attracting followers through the hope of major changes in the way the world goes about its business, an almost-apocalyptic hope of better things to come.

Which is not necessarily any more apocalyptic, however, than George Bush Sr’s comments about a “New World Order” — which horrified evangelicals in its own day” — and his “thousand points of light”.


That might seem like quite enough — but I have saved the richest irony for last. Because out there in the same clash of rival apocalypticisms which gave us Sheikh Safar al-Hawali writing a book based on Hal Lindsey style Christian apocalyptic about the Mahdi and Joel Richardson writing a book about the Mahdi as antichrist, we now have one further level of rhetoric to contend with.

We now have to consider the implications of Obama as Mahdi —

Source URL here

This image, blending Obama’s features in along with thise of Osama, is intriguing and, I suggest, more than a little confused.

The Twelfth Imam is one of the specifically (“Twelver”) Shi’ites’ titles for the Mahdi, the messianic figure in much of Islam – identifying him with Abu’l-Kasim Muhammad, born 860 CE, the twelfth in the line of Shi’ite Imams, who is supposed to have gone into “occultation” while young, and whose re-appearance is widely expected and indeed longed for, eg by President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, like his erstwhile mentor Sheikh al-Hawali, would reject out of hand any Shi’ite Mahdist claimant to the role of Mahdi…

And so it goes.

Child soldiers, “brown-brown”, and intensity in combat

June 14, 2008

As the association of the word “assassin” with both the Ismaili sect of Islam and the word “hashishin” suggests, intoxicants and religion are not necessarily foreign to one another… nor to violence… even though our “disciplined” minds might tend to sort such things separately.

With that in mind, I am permitting myself to stray a little farther that usual in this post…


I was intrigued to take a look at Paul Kan’s Drug Intoxicated Irregular Fighters: Complications, Dangers and Responses today. It’s an important and easily overlooked issue he’s raising, but I want to zero in on one point.

In his paper, Kan mentions “white powder” in connection with a child soldier’s statement on p.13:

Before battles, I was given white powder which was mixed with rice. It made me brave; it made me think I could do anything.

Kan doesn’t mention what the white powder was at that point, but he’d earlier mentioned the use of “brown-brown” on p.9 in connection with RUF forces in Sierra Leone — simply noting in parenthesis “(heroin)”.

I don’t believe “brown-brown” does in fact refer to heroin. In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law Hearing on “Casualties of War: Child Soldiers and the Law,” April 24, 2007, Ishmael Beah, the author of “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier”, stated:

Our commanders gave us drugs – marijuana, cocaine, and Brown Brown: a concoction of cocaine and gunpowder — before battles to anaesthetize us to what we had to do.

In an interview with UN Radio, Beah told Derrick Mbatha:

You mix cocaine with gun powder. When you sniff it at first it hurts inside of our nose but as time goes on you get used to it. But the potency is greater than just cocaine itself. And these things altogether numb you to everything. You have no have no sympathy. You actually begin to enjoy what was happening once you are in.

That’s a discrepancy worth clearing up.

[It is perhaps worth noting here that the RUF which Kan mentions in connection with brown-brown are the very forces which had killed Beah’s parents and against which he himself was fighting.]


That said, I welcome Kan’s paper, believing that intensity in mind-and-heart is a key element in the understanding of conflict — and hence of conflict-resolution.

I am, however, left wondering whether the “greater potency” which Beah claims for cocaine mixed with gunpowder is pharmacological in nature, or primarily the result of magical thinking — such that the ingestion of gunpowder confers “explosive” power in the same way that in some cultures, eating the flesh of a brave enemy (or ancestor) imbues a warrior with their courage.

We are close to the issues of ritual and sacrament here, and the territories of the cultural anthropologist and depth psychologist, as well as the student of comparative religion.

And paradoxical though it might seem, I take “you have no sympathy” to be a deeply religious statement.

A tip of the hat to Zenpundit, whose blogpost Addicted to War: Armed to the Teeth and High as a Kite alerted me to Kan’s paper.

Literal and metaphorical hijackings

June 11, 2008

We have just been discussing some recent uses of the word “hijack” in a religious studies listserv I’m on, and this is an extended version of a post I made there today.


There seem to be several usages and issues here that need to be considered separately.

The word itself as applied metaphorically to contemporary, violent Islam may have been “close to the tip of the tongue” because its literal referent was in fact the method used in 9/11, viz the hijacking of commercial aircraft.

Rudi Giuliani implied as much when he said at the Republican Convention:

We stood face to face with those people and forces who hijacked not just airplanes but a religion and turned it into a creed of terrorism dedicated to eradicating us and our way of life.

quoted by Robert Spencer, Rudy Giuliani and the ‘hijacking’ of Islam, WorldNetDaily, September 02, 2004.

The “central” use is that in which alQ or the wider jihadist movement is described as “hijacking” Islam.

This motif of “hijacked Islam” is frequently used, it appears to myself and others, to suggest that “real Islam” isn’t “like that” — when from shortly after the Hijra, it has in fact included fighting (Badr, eg), as prescribed in the Qur’an. Indeed, both Yusuf Ali and Shakir translate Anfal 8.2 to indicate that God inspired angels fighting alongside Islamic forces by saying he would put “terror” (Pickthall has “fear”) into their enemies’ hearts — in retrospect, an interesting choice of words.

Qur’an, Anfal 8.12:

I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers…” (Yusuf Ali )
I will throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve. (Pickthall)
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. (Shakir)

That usage to describe jihadists as “hijacking Islam” does seem to make an assumption about what Islam is or should be, and whereas Muslims of various persuasions may find it fits their narratives, it seems a somewhat presumptuous and possibly misleading usage when somewhat casually uttered by non-Muslims as a catch-phrase.

Then there’s the (more accurate, I suspect) usage with which the BBC reports that “Extremists ‘hijack Islam’s image'” — emphasis here on the image:

The West’s image of Islam has been hijacked by extremists, delegates at the recent News Xchange broadcasting conference in Amsterdam heard.

Peter Feuilherade, Extremists ‘hijack Islam’s image’, BBC Monitoring, in Amsterdam, 15 November 2005

The term can also be used to refer to specific doctrines, such as suicide bombing — as in the case of the Ihsanic Intelligence monograph, The Hijacked Caravan: Refuting Suicide Bombings as Martyrdom Operations in Contemporary Jihad Strategy, which notes, relevantly:

… prior to 1989, the issue of suicide bombing was never debated amongst Sunni scholars due to the absolute illegitimacy of the acts …

Ihsanic Intelligence, The Hijacked Caravan, (July?) 2005

It seems to me that the issue of which specific doctrines are “mainstream”, which “arguable” and which “illegitimate” — from a variety of perspectives — is a topic we should be monitoring, along with the more general issue of the hijacking of Islam as a faith.

And speaking of faith, I also think it’s worth noting that Barack Obama has used the word in yet another and wider context. At the 50th UCC General Synod, as reported by Laurie Goodstein in the NYT,

Mr. Obama used his 45-minute speech to recall the church’s and many others’ proud history of involvement in the American Revolution and the abolition and civil rights movements. “But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together,” Mr. Obama said. “Faith started being used to drive us apart. Faith got hijacked.”

Laurie Goodstein, Faith Has Role in Politics, Obama Tells Church, New York Times, June 24, 2007
Senator Obama’s UCC General Synod speech


Each of us may “red flag” certain words that alert us to potential quibbles and hidden meanings. The DOD, for instance, recently flagged “jihad” and “jihadist”:

In dealing with Islamic extremists, the West may be giving them the advantage due to cultural ignorance, maintain Dr. Douglas E. Streusand and Army Lt. Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV. The men work at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C.

The two believe the right words can help fight the global war on terror. “American leaders misuse language to such a degree that they unintentionally wind up promoting the ideology of the groups the United States is fighting,” the men wrote in an article titled “Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism.”

A case in point is the term “jihadist.” Many leaders use the term jihadist or jihadi as a synonym for Islamic extremist. Jihad has been commonly adapted in English as meaning “holy war.” But to Muslims it means much more. In their article, Steusand and Tunnell said in Arabic – the language of the Koran – jihad “literally means striving and generally occurs as part of the expression ‘jihad fi sabil illah,’ striving in the path of God.”

This is a good thing for all Muslims. “Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad thus indicates that we recognize their doctrines and actions as being in the path of God and, for Muslims, legitimate,” they wrote. By countering jihadis, the West and moderate Muslims are enemies of true Islam.

Jim Garamone, Loosely Interpreted Arabic Terms Can Promote Enemy Ideology, American Forces Press Service, June 22, 2006

I see the idea here, but don’t subscribe to it because terms of opprobrium are so often appropriated by groups under attack — Quaker, Shaker, Unitarian, Yankee, Tory, Whig and Queer being examples. In this case, the suggested alternative to “jihad”, “irhab” (unholy war, terrorism) has already been appropriated in this way by Younes Tsouli, the online jihadist / irhabist whose net nics included Irhabi007 — with a tip of the hat to Bond, James Bond, shaken not stirred.

So I don’t put much stock in outsiders triumphantly meddling with the way languages they don’t speak are used.

But “hijack” — that’s an American word, and this Limey feels close enough to the Cousins in spirit to red flag it, in non-literal use in discussing terrorism and Islam, as a word worth surveilling — erm, watching.

Osama against fanaticism

June 4, 2008


Statements made by bin Laden in an October 2007 audio recording provide further evidence that the notion of infallibility has taken root among the jihadis. Bin Laden condemns this new trend, saying:

I [address] the jihad fighters [in Iraq] in order to oppose the growing [tendency] that has appeared among them, [namely the tendency] to assign great weight to the orders of the group and its commanders, to the extent that some of them have come to regard these orders as [representing absolute] truth. In practice, they regard [these orders] as infallible, even though they believe, in theory, that infallibility is a virtue that only Allah’s Messenger possesses. A person [who holds such a view] becomes a fanatical [follower] of his group and its commanders, instead of obeying a Koranic verse or a hadith from the Sunna of Allah’s Messenger., p. 9.


Note that this is in effect a call for religious obedience, which is promoted as more significant than [military] obedience to the orders of a superior officer.

Theocratic command and control.