The Persistence of Wishful Thinking

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Americans — well, some of them, anyway — spend a lot of time thinking wishfully about the Middle East, projecting our hopes and fears on the place and the people who live there, thinking that we can redeem them and make their lives better.

It’s what motivated the Bush regime’s invasion of Iraq, the hope that "liberating" Iraqis, ending the tyranny of the Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussein, would free Iraqis, changing their conditions to allow them — and through their example, the whole region — to flourish. (The invasion of Iraq would have very likely happened and failed, for all the same reasons, had Al Gore been president after September 11, 2001.) It’s what motivated Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, and continues to motivate liberal/progressive, conservative/neocon and nationalist/internationalist approaches to the region. We Americans have progress and civilization on our side, the region is plagued by cruel government, the situation demands action, and we Americans possess the wisdom and intelligence to act.

None of this is new, of course, nor is any of this limited to the Middle East. The world has been a playground of sorts for American moralists and planners for more than 100 years, and our worst impulses to meddle abroad derive from the presidency of that great racist Woodrow Wilson. As the pinnacle of Western (and thus world) civilization, the United States is uniquely endowed with the ability to save the world from its sin and evil. After all, if everyone can come here and become an American, doesn’t it make sense that one could equally export Americanism to the entire world?

Anyway, this infatuation with the Middle East, with wiping out corrupt power and freeing the region’s people is not new. I recently came across an ancient example of such thinking in the form of a crumbling old book The Eastern Question in Prophecy: Six Lectures on the Rise and Decline of Mahometanism, and the Events to Follow, as Presented in the Prophesies of St. John by Rev. Samuel J. Niccolls, pastor at the Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri, published in 1877. By the "Prophesies of St. John," Niccolls means Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. He is especially focused on chapters 9 (which he believes foretells the rise of Islam) and 16 (which then tells of the end of the Ottoman Empire, and thus the fall of Islam).

These sermons were not just an intellectual exercise, they were timely for 1877 — that was the year that Russia responded to Ottoman massacres in Bulgaria (themselves a response to the Bulgarian uprising of the previous year) by attacking the Ottoman Empire on two fronts — through the Balkans and in the Caucasus Mountains. Russian would win that war fairly easily, and in the following year, imposed a fairly humiliating peace on Turkey that stripped it of most of its Balkan territories. (That peace was quickly redone by the Congress of Berlin.) So, Niccolls has what are for him current events in mind as he considers "biblical prophesy."

About the rise of Islam, consider the images of Revelation 9 — a great pit belching smoke and locusts "like horses prepared for battle" (v.7, ESV) that roam the earth; the "mounted troops" (v.16, ESV) released by the four angels bound at the "great river Euphrates" (v.14, ESV) through which "a third of mankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths" (v.18, ESV). So, with Edward Gibbon as his primary source, Niccolls preached the following:

He [the Prophet Muhammad] stands forth pre-eminently as the false prophet of the Christian centuries; and still, after the lapse of twelve hundred years, he is revered by millions as the apostle of God. The Koran, a strange mixture of imposture and fanaticism, of Arabian and Jewish traditions, and truths taken from the Scriptures, in a comparatively brief space of time became the accepted revelation of God, to at least the third part of the then known world. Like "smoke" filling the air, it darkened the minds of men and shut out the true light of the Divine Word. It was indeed a revelation from the pit of darkness, a representation of the living God, and of the truth necessary for salvation that well might have been conceived in hell, in order to destroy the souls of men. If the historian of the present, were to search for an emblem to describe the mental and spiritual condition of those who accept the Koran, he could find nothing more appropriate than to say "that they are covered with a cloud of smoke that shuts out all true light."

Under the teachings and inspiration of this new faith, grew up those formidable bands of armed fanatics, who came from Arabia to spread themselves like swarms of locusts over the Eastern World. Gibbon describes those who flocked to the banner of the false prophet, allured by the prospect of conquest and plunder, of compelled by the sword, as "myriads." These hosts of bearded and turbaned horsemen, known as the Saracens, passing rapidly to and fro, as though carried on wings, were irresistible in the power. (p.20—21)

The emergence of Islam, described in the first 11 verses of chapter 9, culminates in the rise of the Ottoman Turkish state in the remaining verses. But it is a corrupt, violent and quickly expiring power. And he ties it directly to scripture. After all, Niccolls asks, haven’t the Turks, in massacring Bulgarians and other Christian Slavs (and non-Slavic Christians) within their empire killed "a third of mankind?" Turkey’s power is declining, and will soon end, largely because of the empire’s barbarism, decadence and corruption:

Read the accounts of Turkish barbarities, of their robberies and oppressions, practiced upon their own subjects in these later days, and you may have some faint conception of what their rule has been for ages; and you may understand, also, why under long centuries of oppression, the populace of Turkey has decreased and become abject and base. (p.53—54)

The fanaticism of Islam (it is not real religion, according to Niccolls), the lack of civil law, the legal inequality of Christians within the Ottoman lands, and polygamy, which destroys the family, have all contributed to the degeneracy of Ottoman government and society. These wouldn’t be matters for biblical prophesy, but Niccolls is convinced that Revelation 16, particularly v.12 describes the coming end of the Ottoman regime:

The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. (Rev.16:12, ESV)

Like many preachers trying to explain prophesy on the basis of current events, Niccolls ignores the context of v.12, what comes before and after. Indeed, like many of his ilk, he completely ignores Revelation as a narrative and story, and instead fixates on specific verses that seem pertinent given the events in the Balkans that he, and his congregation, are reading about in the newspapers.

The next act in the great drama, is the "preparation of the way." Something is to transpire, which shall not only remove the curse of Mahometan rule from the Euphrates to the Nile, but it will also open up the way for another glorious event — a new rule, a new kingdom — that of the "Kings of the East." (p.56—57)

European diplomacy can forestall the fulfillment of prophesy, but cannot prevent it. He has some harsh words for Britain, France and Austria — states that have, in the past, acted to preserve the Ottoman Empire against Russian encroachment (such as in the Crimean War). But he is, at the same time, dismissive. Ottoman power is doomed, so he can speculate on what the future will look like:

But, the Mahometan power removed, what next? What power will take its place? What is the nature of that strife which makes it necessary for Turkish rule to be out of the way? … If the crescent and the cross meet, who can doubt the issue? But it is not by the sword, that the true gospel triumphs. Sword and battle may prepare the way; they are God’s pioneers to remove barriers, aad [sic] take away hindrances, but the gospel is something essentially different in its workings.

Imagine the oppression of Turkish rule taken off the region that it now occupies, the crescent supplanted by the cross, on the dome of St. Sophia, and the Mosque of Omar — what wonderful and beneficent changes must follow? A land, by nature one of the richest and most fertile on earth, a land which draws its pilgrims from every quarter of the earth, to visit the ruins of its former greatness, would soon be redeemed and made to bloom like a garden. "The Kings of the East," the new power that is to take the place of the old, who are they? This is the question the future is to answer. Prophesy gives us hints concerning it, which we will consider on a future occasion. I can only say now, it is not Russia. The latter may be God’s chosen pioneer to open the way for the "Kings of the East," but it is not the power destined to rule over the land of promise. (p.58—60)

The "land of promise." Niccolls celebrates the increased Jewish presence in the Middle East, but this is more than 20 years before the Zionist Congress, and that Jewish presence is not central to his theology. There is no whiff of Darbyism here, no rapture or great war and tribulation. He is more post-millenialist than pre — the progress and power of the West are evidence enough that the time of Jesus coming back is drawing nigh. There are also elements here that are typical of both religious and secular ideas of liberation: people captive to corrupt and evil power, living in a land of potential wealth who, if simply freed from that evil by outsiders noble and well-intentioned, could be the people God intends them to be.

As an aside for those Lutherans among you, if Niccolls, a 19th century progressive Presbyterian, sounds like he’s preaching a theology of glory — and was there any other theology in the 19th century? — this ought to confirm it:

The power of Christ is daily becoming more manifest in the world, and his enemies are more bitter and outspoken. The hour also seems to be at hand, when He shall make a still more glorious revelation of his power. Who among you can rejoice in the triumph of his cross, and look with eager hope for the day of his appearing. (p.60)

I will grant Niccolls some sense of humility. He makes no predictions as to who the "kings of the east" are. He places some, but not many, of his hopes in Russia. But like many 19th Western Christians (and his brethren in the 20th and 21st), Niccolls tends to confuse gospel, civilization and progress into One Great and Wonderful Thing that reason, and reason alone, can and ought to grasp.

These old kingdoms and dynasties, so long cursed with oppression, ignorance, and superstition, would feel the power of a new life among them, consequent upon the introduction of Christian civilization. The removal of Turkish power would prepare the way for the evangelization of the kingdoms of the East.

All this is undoubtedly true. The Turkish rule, the embodiment of Islamism, has been a curse to Asia as well as a plague to Europe. It has spread like a flood over the great highway of the world’s trade and commerce, and for 800 years made it impassable. Europe had to seek Asia by the Cape of Good Hope. The social life and the government established by the Mahometans have been a "hindrance" to the nations of the East; Mahometanism more than heathenism, has been an obstacle to the spread of the Gospel. It is death for any of its adherents to embrace Christianity. All of the essential conditions of its rule are hostile to the Gospel, for the latter does not thrive in an atmosphere of tyranny and immorality. Unquestionably, the removal of the Turkish rule would be a blessing to civilization, to humanity and to religion. It would open the old channel of trade and commerce to the heart of Asia, so long blocked up, and along this highway would go the influences that would renew the lands of the East. The manhood of oppressed Christians would be developed, the blessings of a just rule and stable laws be brought to them, education would displace ignorance and superstition, and thus, all working together, would prepare the way for the triumph of Christianity. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the utter downfall of the Turkish Empire would mark the beginning of new and better days for Asia. (p.63—64)

We have the fortune of living 140 years after Niccolls preached (as I recall, he died about a century ago). He never lived to see the end of the Ottoman Empire, and whether he would have seen the League of Nations mandate system for the Arab states of the Ottoman Empire, as well as Ataturk’s militant secularism and the founding of the nation-state of Israel, as "Christian civilization," is a question that can never be answered.

Niccolls saw the sweeping away of the Ottoman Empire, something that would take a simple exercise of power, as opening the world to all sorts of new and wonderful possibilities. His image of the Middle East is that of the blank slate, the people oppressed who once freed of their oppression can become what the holder of the slate (and the chalk) wants them to become. They are mere objects in Niccolls’ drama, not subjects creating their own future. They are not really free, because they cannot be anything more than Niccolls wants them to be (indeed, I suspect he thought them incapable). I am willing to bet his notion of the "Kings of the East" did not include Hashemites, Aal Sauds, Baa’athists, Naserists, Palestinian revolutionaries or the Ikhwan al-Muslimin. There is no messiness, no struggle, no self-definition, just wonderful potential waiting to be unlocked by an act of will undertaken by a properly motivated outsider. Raise your hand if any of this sounds familiar.

And by failing to appreciate Islam on its own terms, he can see it as nothing that anyone could honestly embrace, believe and live. Thus, ending corrupt "Mahometan" state power ends Islam, because no honest and decent human being could truly believe in it unless they were compelled in the first place. He would have been utterly befuddled, and perhaps apoplectic, about the "persistence" of Islam in much the same way Antonio Gramsci was about the "persistence" of capitalism.

Or the way I am sometimes aggravated by the persistence of this kind of wishful thinking.

Because the thinking Niccolls exemplifies is still with us, present in liberal democracy advocates and conservative nationalists who celebrate "colored" revolutions, who believe that Iranians ache to bid rid of their state, if only Americans would act. One push, the evil is done for and people can be free to flourish. It doesn’t work that way, of course. Such thinking, which animated Niccolls and later Woodrow Wilson, who saw in German militarism a similar evil (is there something about late 19th century Presbyterians?), leaves no room for unintended consequences and the limits of human power and abilities. And yet those limits and those consequences are very, very real. Thus, one act of meddling begets another act of meddling in order to secure the desired outcome, and for nearly 100 years, the West has been trying fruitlessly to secure this better future for the Middle East that Niccolls dreamed of.

I suspect few would agree with Niccolls these days when he preached: "Unquestionably, the removal of the Turkish rule would be a blessing to civilization, to humanity and to religion." Which ought to give anyone pause the next time anyone speaks such words about any people in any part of the world.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian who lives in Chicago, where he loves and cares for his wife, Jennifer, and spends too much time thinking about the state, power and the gathering of God’s people called “the church.”

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