Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Heavenly Kingdom of Jihad

Mark Twain is reputed to have said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Below are Wikipedia’s accounts of two nineteenth-century wars in the vast civilization of China, the Boxer and the Taiping:

The Boxer:

Boxer activity developed in Shandong province in March 1898, in response to both foreign influence in the region and the failure of the Imperial court's "self-strengthening" strategy of officially-directed development, whose shortcomings had been shown graphically by China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). One of the first signs of unrest appeared in a small village in Shandong province, where there had been a long dispute over the property rights of a temple between locals and the Catholic authorities. The Catholics claimed that the temple was originally a church abandoned decades previously after the Kangxi Emperor banned Christianity in China. The local court ruled in a favor of the Church, angering the villagers who claimed they needed the temple for various rituals and had traditionally used it to practice martial arts. After the local authorities seized the temple and gave it to the Catholics, villagers attacked the church under the leadership of the Boxers.

The conflict came to a head in June, 1900, when the Boxers, now joined by elements of the Imperial army, attacked foreign compounds within the cities of Tianjin and Peking. The legations of the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United States, Russia and Japan were all located on the same city block close to the Forbidden City, built there so that Chinese officials could keep an eye on the ministers - the legations themselves were strong structures surrounded by walls. The legations were hurriedly linked into a fortified compound and became a refuge for foreign citizens in Peking. However the Spanish, Belgian, and German legations were not in the same compound. Although the Spanish and Belgian legations were only a few streets away and their staff were able to arrive safely at the compound, the German legation was on the other side of the city and was stormed before the staff could escape. When the Envoy for the German Empire, Klemens Freiherr von Ketteler, was kidnapped and killed on June 20, the foreign powers declared open war against China.

The Chinese Court in turn proclaimed hostilities against those nations, who began to prepare military forces to relieve the besieged embassies. In Peking, the fortified legation compound remained under siege from Boxer forces from June 20 to August 14. Under the command of the British minister to China, Claude Maxwell MacDonald, the legation staff and security personnel defended the compound with one old muzzle-loaded cannon (it was nicknamed the "International Gun" because the barrel was British, the carriage was Italian, the shells were Russian, and the crew was American) and small arms.

Stories appeared in the foreign media describing the fighting going on in Peking. Some were mere rumour or exaggerated the nature of the conflict, but others more accurately described the torture and murder of captured foreigners. Chinese Christians suffered even more greatly, as there were more of them and most were not able to seek refuge in the legations, having to seek shelter elsewhere. Those that were caught were raped as well as tortured and murdered. As a result of these reports, a great deal of anti-Chinese sentiment was generated in Europe, America, and Japan.

The Taiping:

The country had suffered a series of natural disasters, economic problems and defeats at the hands of the Western powers, problems that the ruling Qing dynasty did little to lessen. Anti-Manchu sentiment was strongest in the south, and it was these disaffected that joined Hong. The sect extended into militarism in the 1840s, initially against banditry. The persecution of the sect was the spur for the struggle to develop into guerrilla warfare and then into full-blown war.

The revolt began in Guangxi Province. In early January 1851, a ten-thousand-strong rebel army routed the Imperial troops at the town of Jintian (Jintian Uprising). The Imperial forces attacked but were driven back. In August 1851, Hong then declared the establishment of the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping with himself as absolute ruler. The revolt spread northwards with great rapidity. 500,000 Taiping soldiers took Nanjing in March 1853, killing 30,000 Imperial soldiers and slaughtering thousands of civilians. The city became the movement's capital and was renamed Tianjing (in Wade-Giles: T'ang-chun) (Heavenly Capital).

The rebellion's army was its key strength. It was marked by a high level of discipline and fanaticism. They typically wore a uniform of red jackets with blue trousers and grew their hair long — in Chinese they were known as Chángmáo (長毛, meaning "long hair"). Large numbers of females serving in the army were also a unique feature that distinguished it from 19th century armies.

Based on his readings, Hong Xiuquan developed a literalist understanding of the Bible, which soon gave rise to a theology very different from the one encountered in the western world. For one, Hong Xiuquan rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. In his belief system, only the Father was truly God; Jesus Christ was the Father's firstborn Son, with Hong Xiuquan himself being the Father's second Son and the younger brother of Jesus (it was said that when foreign missionaries later explained to Hong Xiuquan that Jesus was the Father's only Son, he simply crossed out the word "only".) Hong Xiuquan did not consider the Holy Spirit to be God, or anything more than a "Holy Wind" (as Holy Spirit was formerly, and incorrectly, translated into Chinese by early missionaries). Hong Xiuquan had even bestowed the title "Holy Wind the Comforter" to one of his lieutenants.

Moreover, Hong Xiuquan added a third book, in addition to the Old Testament and the New Testament, to the Taiping regime's Bible.

Within the land that they controlled, a theocratic and highly militarised rule was established.

• The subject of study for the examinations for officials (formerly civil service exams) changed from the Confucian classics to the Christian Bible.

Sound familiar? There are a number of similarities between the Boxers and Taiping soldiers then and the jihadis now. Both had grievances against perceived foreign domination, and made the foreigners their primary targets. (Then, the Opium War and the unequal treaties, including extraterritorial jurisdiction for foreigners; now, support for Israel and the stationing of troops in Islamic lands.) Both showed little respect for whatever international law existed. The Boxers attacked the foreign compound in Beijing, the Iranian “students” sacked the U.S. embassy in 1979 and rioters attacked European embassies in the Mohammed cartoon affair in 2006. Both had extremist ideologies. The Boxers rejected Christianity as an alien threat and the Taiping adopted a heretical strain of Christianity. So too modern Islamists view Christians as heretical polytheists because of their belief in Christianity. Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (太平天國), of which he was the absolute ruler, sounded a lot like the revived Islamic caliphate that Bin Laden seeks to establish. Indeed Hong apparently used a form of self-reference that in traditional Chinese was reserved for the emperor himself, much as Bin Laden allegedly seeks to be some sort of caliph.

But the most striking similarity is how the ideology spread. The worldview of both rebellions, peculiarly mystical though it seems to modern eyes, spread like wildfire in their early days of success. I thought of this when I read this description in the Guardian (to which I was referred by The Belmont Club) of the way the jihad ideology spreads among European Muslims with no poverty or, since they came to the West rather than the West coming to them, "foreign domination" to hang their grievances on. Particularly noteworthy is the role of entrepreneurs for the jihadi ideology, something I have remarked on before:

On Thursday evening, the Guardian witnessed around 3,000 men from as far afield as Great Yarmouth and the Isle of Wight stream through the backstreets of Stratford to the meeting. There, at the gates of a seemingly derelict industrial site, men in fluorescent jackets waved those who are known to the Tablighi Jamaat hierarchy under a security barrier, and into one of three fields that surround a cluster of prefabricated buildings which form a temporary mosque.

As the Guardian entered the complex one person spoke admiringly about the "main man" for the south-east division of Tablighi Jamaat. "We can't call him a prophet," he said. "No one can be a prophet. But when you meet him you'll realise. He's helped a lot of people in Walthamstow to follow the right path, the path of the prophet. He'll talk to you openly this evening and everything will make sense."

The English-speaking room heaved as a sea of faces, white, black and Asian, spilled into the hallway. Most were teenagers and men in their 20s and 30s dressed in Islamic dress, caps and beards. Some came in suits and ties, others in jeans and hoodies. There were old men too, who weaved slowly through to the front of the room, and a few young boys.

After an hour the preacher concluded with a call for followers to join the effort and commit to a trip away. "We must leave our houses, our businesses, our families, for a short period of time, and follow the path of Allah and practise the ways of the prophet, going from mosque to mosque," said the interpreter. "Then [the behaviour] will become second nature to us. We shall go to India and Pakistan for four months to follow these ways."

What Tablighi followers call "the effort" - travelling around the country for three days or 10 days, depending on their level of commitment - is key to the organisation. Once they have completed the first stage, they may undertake a 40-day trip, which is likely to entail travel around Europe.

Finally, a Tablighi member will be given the opportunity to take a four-month journey to Pakistan or India. During their "efforts" members are encouraged to emulate the life of the prophet and show others "the path".

On domestic trips, members are sent to communities where they will have most leverage. In September, for example, students will be sent to universities throughout the country.

No historical comparison is perfect. In the territory they held the Taiping eliminated many of China’s practices with respect to slavery and the bondage of women, for example. The jihad in contrast is completely atavistic, seeking power in an idealized past. And there are two even more striking differences between then and now. The first is the nature of the jihadi ideology. While purely tribal (dividing the world into devout Muslims and everyone else), it seeks adherents all over the world, including and perhaps especially in Western societies. Second, the Chinese rebellions were ultimately crushed by overwhelming military force, by foreign forces in the Boxer case. In an age of nuclear weapons and declining Western ability and desire to use military means to solve international problems (not unreasonably, given what has happened in Iraq since 2003), such a response is almost unthinkable now, unless Islamists launch a strike far more devastating than Sept. 11. The ideology in the West will fade only when the appeal of integration is greater than the appeal of tribal solidarity against the infidel. For many European Muslims that inequality is already satisfied, but for all too many (and maybe more and more as people choose sides.


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