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.

Eldorado looking more like Waco by the day

April 17, 2008

I hadn’t seen these photos — the ones I had seen showed ladies in long dresses and their young children being shepherded into school buses…

These photos, obtained by The Associated Press from church attorney Rod Parker of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, were purportedly taken Thursday, April 3, by an unidentified member of the FDLS and released Tuesday, and show an armored personnel carrier on property neighboring the Yearning For Zion ranch near Eldorado, Texas. Photos of the state raid on a West Texas polygamist sect show law enforcement officers, looking for a teenage girl and evidence of sexual abuse, came prepared for an armed confrontation.

(Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints/AP Photo)

This really does begin to look uncomfortably like Waco, eh?

Meanwhile, the Russians have sent a priest familiar with the Book of Revelation to speak with the Orthodox group awaiting the Last Day in a cave…

Christianity observed

April 7, 2008

A peaceable post for once…

It doesn’t happen all that often, in the frequently malarial air of higher politics, but twice recently someone has commented, in a pleasantly surprised tone, at the genuine Christian spirit displayed by a presidential candidate — once it was Barack Obama, and once Mike Huckabee.

Here’s Leonard Pitts Jr., quoting and commenting on Mike Huckabee in a Miami Herald article entitled Huckabee’s empathy cools pundits’ hot air:

Huckabee, invited by MSNBC last week to condemn Wright’s bitter words, invoked instead the era of racial segregation that shaped Barack Obama’s former pastor. ”And you know what?” he said. ‘Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment, and you have to just say, ‘I probably would, too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder, had it been me.”’ It bears repeating: a black Mike Huckabee would be more angry than Jeremiah Wright, not less. It was an admission of startling, unexpected insight and, dare I say, Christian generosity. A conservative white man invited white men and women to project themselves into dark skin, to imagine how bitter they might be, had they come of age in an era where law, religion, media and custom said they were less than truly human beings.

And here’s Andrew Sullivan, blogging for the Atlantic, on Obama himself:

I do want to say that this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. … I have never felt more convinced that this man’s candidacy – not this man, his candidacy – and what he can bring us to achieve – is an historic opportunity. This was a testing; and he did not merely pass it by uttering safe bromides. He addressed the intimate, painful love he has for an imperfect and sometimes embittered man. And how that love enables him to see that man’s faults and pain as well as his promise. This is what my faith is about. It is what the Gospels are about. This is a candidate who does not merely speak as a Christian. He acts like a Christian.

All too often these days, Christianity is presented as a sort of lapel-pin, a badge of identity, a wink that’s as good as a nod — or, from the opposite perspective, as all crusades, inquisitions and televangelism without redemptive qualities. It is good to see it here viewed as a difficult talk that needs to be to be walked. Frankly, I’m impressed.

Kashmir and Tibet

April 3, 2008

Money quote from Philip Cunningham’s Informed Comment post a couple of days ago re the Dalai Lama:

The underlying key to the Dalai Lama’s appeal is rooted in Western perceptions and misperceptions about Buddhism. Given similar grievances, it’s hard to imagine the religious leader of a persecuted Muslim minority group, let’s say in Indian Kashmir, south Thailand or south Philippines, enjoying anything near the same degree of almost unquestioned Western support.

Western perceptions and misperceptions about Islam play a role there, too.

More on Iraqi Mahdism and its potential for terror

April 3, 2008

On my Hipbone Out Loud blog yesterday, I wrote:

The content which most interests me is the emotional and archetypal content of apocalyptic arousal, and (for practical reasons) its potential expression in jihad should the Mahdist (messianic) tendencies already visible in both Sunni and Shiite circles reach the tipping point and add their intensity to an already inflamed situation.

Today, MEMRI posted their Special Dispatch # 1886 as part of their Iraq / Jihad & Terrorism Studies Project, titled Iraqi Tells Bizarre Story of Recruitment to a Messianic Shi’ite Terror Group.

In an interview, “Abu Sajjad,” a military commander in the Ansar Al-Imam Al-Mahdi movement in Iraq, tells how he used to be a follower of Sayyid Muhammad Sadeq Al-Sadr but was persuaded by an Iraqi whom he met when he was “in a neighboring country” that the Mahdi, the Shi’ite Messiah, had appeared, as proven by TV cartoons.

Transcribed and translated excerpts from the interview, which aired on Al-Iraqiya TV on February 25, 2008, can be found here, while the clip itself can be viewed here.

Similarly important for gaining a vivid insight into contemporary Mahdism in Iraq is Tim Furnish’s interview with an Iraqi Mahdist and Ali A Allawi’s speech at the Jamestown Foundation a little over a year ago.

Moqtada on relation of Jaysh to Mahdi

March 31, 2008

In an interview on Al-Jazeera, March 29, 2008, Moqtada al-Sadr said:

This will be the army of the Reformer [the Mahdi], Allah willing. At the end of time, the Mahdi will appear, and if by that time, we are still around, and if we are capable mentally, physically, militarily, and in terms of faith, we will all be his soldiers, Allah willing. Hence, the Al-Mahdi Army is a matter of faith, and it cannot be disbanded.

Source: Memri


March 20, 2008

As Uri Avnery pointed out in an article entitled Kill A Hundred Turks And Rest earlier this month, a retired Israeli general recently committed a gaffe by saying the Palestinians would face a Shoah if they didn’t stop their attacks on Israel:

A warning by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i to the Palestinians that they face a bigger “Shoah” if they increase rocket attacks from Gaza set off a diplomatic and public relations maelstrom, Israeli officials said Sunday. … “As the rocket fire grows, and the range increases… they are bringing upon themselves a greater ‘Shoah’ because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate,” Vilna’i told Army Radio. … Vilna’i’s spokesman, Eitan Ginzburg, subsequently clarified that the deputy defense minister had used the Hebrew word only to mean “disaster, ruin or destruction.” … “It could be that he should have picked another word,” Vilna’i’s spokesman conceded Sunday.

‘Shoah’ remark sparks uproar, Jerusalem Post, March 2, 2008

It’s clumsy phrasing, to be sure, and highly reminiscent of GW Bush’s remark about fighting a crusade against al Qaida in the early days after 9-11:

On Sunday, Bush warned Americans that “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.” … His use of the word “crusade,” said Soheib Bensheikh, Grand Mufti of the mosque in Marseille, France, “was most unfortunate”, “It recalled the barbarous and unjust military operations against the Muslim world,” by Christian knights, who launched repeated attempts to capture Jerusalem over the course of several hundred years.

Europe cringes at Bush ‘crusade’ against terrorists, Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 2001

You know, I googled the word “crusade” shortly after Bush used it, because I suspect he wasn’t intending to fan the flames of interfaith hatred any higher just at that moment, and the first use of “crusade” that Google offered me was something along the lines of a crusade for dental hygiene. So Bush used a word that has, shall we say, less inflammatory meanings, but which was liable to be highly inflammatory in Arab or Muslim ears.

I believe the same is true of Vilna’i. I think he intended “Shoah” in a milder sense, but should have been sensitive enough to avoid the term, given its close association with the Nazi Holocaust.


But then neither Bush nor Vilna’i was mistaking Shi’ite for Sunni — as McCain did more than once this week…

Tim Furnish posts significant Q&A on Iraqi Mahdism

March 16, 2008

My blog-friend Dr. Timothy Furnish, who wrote the book on Mahdism, has been in recent contact with representatives of Sayyid al-Yamani, the head of the Ansar al-Mahdi group which was involved in violent altercations (they were accused of instigating them) in Basra and Nasiriya around the commemoration of Muharram in late January of this year.

Mahdism tends to be “under the radar” but already plays a significant role in the region, which could become very significant indeed very quickly if a major Mahdist movement caught on.

His MahdiWatch blog article carries significant information not easily available elsewhere:

Background can be found at the sites of Reidar Visser and at the Jamestown Foundation:


I have a minor quibble with Tim Furnish’s post — he quotes his Ansar informant as writing, “Imam al Mahdi and Sayid al Yamani expect followers from all sects and religions. They’re for all and from all.” and comments:

This is a sort of universalism not normally seen in Mahdist thought.

It is found in the writings of the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, though. I’ve been fascinated by this passage since I first encountered it:

The Mahdi is not an embodiment of the Islamic belief but he is also the symbol of an aspiration cherished by mankind irrespective of its divergent religious doctrines. He is also the crystallization of an instructive inspiration through which all people, regardless of their religious affiliations, have learnt to await a day when heavenly missions, with all their implications, will achieve their final goal and the tiring march of humanity across history will culminate satisfactory in peace and tranquility. This consciousness of the expected future has not been confined to those who believe in the supernatural phenomenon but has also been reflected in the ideologies and cult which totally deny the existence of what is imperceptible. For example, the dialectical materialism which interprets history on the basis of contradiction believes that a day will come when all contradictions will disappear and complete peace and tranquility will prevail.


Furnish has already posted a couple of other important notices, one about a Mahdist claim from Sunni Palestine, this month.