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166 MIN READ TIME

Apocalypse Soon?

BY PHIL TORRES

THE NATURE OF TERRORISM HAS CHANGED OVER TIME. The earliest terrorist groups were intimately connected to religious worldviews, but the 19th and 20th centuries were dominated by secular terrorists who espoused nationalist, anarchist, and Marxist/Maoist goals. By the early 1990s, though, the pendulum began to swing back toward religious motives. Today, religious extremism has become the primary cause of terrorism around the world, as the 2014 Global Terrorism Index affirms. This is notable and worrisome, because as the Swedish scholar Magnus Ranstorp puts it, religiously motivated violence is “unprecedented, not only in its scope and the selection of targets, but also in its lethality and indiscriminate character.”1 While secular terrorists often saw violence in instrumental terms—as a means to an end (usually political or economic)—religious groups tend to see it as the end in and of itself.2 The point of religious terrorism is to engage in the great cosmic struggle between good and evil, and death in service of God’s will, or at least each group’s interpretation of it, is no deterrent for the true religious warrior.

But something else has happened in the past 15 years or so: not only has religious extremism become the dominant form of terrorism, but it has become increasingly apocalyptic as well. This is seen most clearly within the Islamic world after the 2003 U.S.-led preemptive invasion of Iraq. ISIS, for example, puts a far greater emphasis on eschatology than its parent group, al-Qaeda. Similarly, within Shia Islam, the apocalyptic turn can be found in the literature of Hezbollah, which only recently began to mention eschatological phenomena like the Mahdi; i.e., Islam’s end-of-days messianic figure.3 Even more, after the Iraq War began, several apocalyptic Shia militias were formed in Iraq, such as the revealingly-named Mahdi Army, founded by the influential Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army later spawned the Promised Day Brigade, which is reported to have received training and money from Iran. And while apocalyptic anticipation was exploited by Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian Revolution, it became even more conspicuous to the Western eye during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was fond of referencing the Mahdi in public speeches, including one to the UN General Assembly in 2012.

Beyond the plot of real estate called the Middle East, apocalyptic movements can be found on nearly every continent. In China, for example, the Eastern Lightning claims that a woman in central China is the reincarnation of Christ and that its followers are engaged in an apocalyptic struggle with the communist government. Just across the East China Sea, in Japan, one finds the now-inactive cult Aum Shinrikyo which believed that it had a special role to play in bringing about the end of the world. In the U.S., eschatological excitement gained a foothold in popular culture with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. Indeed, some scholars have used the term “Armageddon lobby” to refer to Christian dispensationalists who not only hope for the world’s imminent end, but have some influence over American politics.4 Ronald Reagan, for example, relied on Biblical prophecy to make sense of world events, and this has become a tradition among some Republican leaders, including George W. Bush, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Lindsey Graham. At the extreme there’s the shadowy Christian Identity movement, which believes that God commands it to use catastrophic violence to bring about the apocalypse and is associated with terrorist organizations in the U.S. like the Aryan Nation and The Order.

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