The promised messiah

In Society on 31. January 2017 at 17:26

ISLAMIC ESCHATOLOGY IS a part of theology that is prone to more deductions and loose translations than perhaps any other field. The coming of a messiah, the second coming of Jesus, or the awaited reformer – there are several figures who make their rounds when some clerics tries to tell of the events that leads up to judgements day.

This interest in the days before the end has led to a worldview among certain believers of signs of the end, or the confirmation of events foretold in the real politics of our realities. The same stories are understood though differently, and they touch upon central doctrines among the majoritarian sectarian families among Muslims. These thoughts seem to flourish in times of crisis, great distress or popular resentment.


One interesting consequence of this is the concept of searching for real-time popular leaders who somehow have the semblance of messiah like figures, and whose agenda is linked to greater prospects of one’s own social and political conditions.

Truly it is not limited to Muslims alone that segments resort to strongmen, but isolated it is a strong link between the belief that more piety will give success, and that of a strong leader who address issues with the same idiom. In other words, there is also among Muslims certain movements that are tribalistic, with strong identities and strong leaders. What is emerging and witnessed with far-right populists in the western world, is also a political scale among Muslims.

While there is little or no study on these messiah-like strongmen among Muslims, there are several historic and current movements that have or had strongmen and where the differences between politics and religion was almost non-existing. Some managed to become powerful political icons, with admirers throughout what’s called the Islamic world – their names topped statistics for newborns, and their words, slogans and ideals were emulated.

Others managed to rather focus on the spiritual part and hence became either loose currents within the wider Muslim sectarian divisions or became themselves separate sectarian groupings. The late-colonial Mahdist and messiah movements among Muslims did give birth to new religions, sects and currents that infused a sense of political and religious revival among the so-called mainstream.

A name that stands out quite clearly in the field of politics these days is the Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His supporters are not only found among a sizeable majority within Turkey, but also outside among different set of social classes, ethnic groupings and even transcend to some degree sectarian preference among Muslims – though predominant among Sunni-Muslims.

Erdogan is a populist, and a political strongman. He is not unique to the trained eyes of one who sees the global trends, but as with other strongmen who become autocratic riding on the popular wave through democratic means, he paints a picture of his and his movements uniqueness – the mission being one for glory, and only successful if the leader is given his sought after powers.

In this sense, there are few things that separates an anti-Muslim far-right populist in Europe and US, from the religious conservativism and far-right nationalism of Erdogan and his peers. Both groupings do base a chunk of their support on being the counter-voice and reaction to their enemy, and with a homegrown narrative of being exclusive, inflicted historic injustice, and a glorious past to emulate, they raise a banner of future to come success through the leadership of a beloved leader.

In recent history, another Turk-leader did enjoy similar – yet different – popularity during early 20th century. Enver Pasha, one of the three Pashas responsible for the Armenian genocide, became hugely popular during his stints and political ambitions throughout the Muslim world. Many a son’s were named after him, notably the strongman of Albania Enver Hoxha and the likeminded strongman of Egypt President Anwar el-Sadat.

The mentioned three Pashas though lost to the skilled Pasha Mustafa Kemal, later dubbed the Ataturk. Being a controversial figure, his political success was inspiring for many a young folks throughout the Muslim world, inspiring and creating a new generation of political leaders with strong emphasis on modernism, secularism with the cost of shedding personal freedoms and democracy.

Erdogan seeks to be the new Ataturk – but with a religious garb in addition to the nationalistic one. If he remains in power till 2023 he will preside over the century mark of the Republic the original Ataturk laid foundations to. Now Erdogan’s approach could have been predicted – marrying religion with nationalism is the new formula, as the popular Nasserism got its try and declined, with the following Baathism, which turned to faith too late.

The focus of Muslim leaders who turn hugely popular on either religion or nationalism can vary from time to time. The Mahdist movements in Northern-Africa from Sudan and Somalia, till Libya and the Maghreb were purely faith centered. The awaited Messiah was their dear leader, one foretold about, and one who would get the promised success. It did not matter if his policies failed or deviated from what was prophesied It became a part of an identity.

The Ahmadi Jamaat in South-Asia is such a legacy. From being a reformist movement, its founder laid foundations to its uniqueness through declaring him being the awaited messiah. Even though experiencing massive persecution, it still survives as a religious movement. In the same time in the neighboring Persia the movement of what later became Bahai faith too erupted, it is today a syncretistic Universalist religious movement spread world over.

But Erdogan could not be a theocrat, he had to emulate another set of leaders in his cocktail of popular support. During the 90s, the Southeast Asian states enjoyed huge growth following structural and political reforms. Though scoring low on political rights, countries as Malaysia could witness a massive boom in its economy.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia thus became a figure to admire among Muslims throughout the world, his economic success and him being a Muslim gave the hopes for their own betterment – and what more he had already laid foundations for an ideology which hooked on to conspiracy theories of hidden Jewish powers which needs to be weeded out. It was popular to say that him being a pious Muslim was part of key to his country experiencing economic growth.

This formula of increased piety automatically giving economic success has been preached from time to time, in recent times infamously by Sayyid Qutb, who envisaged an just leader with having the criteria of being pious. The radicals who later turned jihadists used this doctrine to make elected leaders and non-elected dictators illegitimate, as they were apparently not pious enough.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was vetted even before being elected notably on this criteria. Surely, the Supreme leader saw a loyal in him, but Iranian vetting system does judge piety as one criteria – not fulfilling it, and one is out. Such criterias can be found in many a Muslim countries, making a subjective criteria of piety, hugely ambitious in the hands of those who can measure it. Ironic as second Caliph among Muslims initiated a similar system, but had to scrap it when his community protested.

Erdogan will remain popular, even after leaving power – same will any other leader with a cult of personality, be it in Russia, Hungary, Poland, the far-right families of Western Europe, or the Donald. Their destructive tendencies and policies will be defended, and it failing will be blamed on the promised enemy. In this process democratic rights and freedoms will erode, and with it stability.

The magic flute President in Ankara is playing can hinder any form of criticism on his attacks on press-freedom, freedom of expression, civil rights movements, independence of judiciary, to the central bank and the parliamentary system. As long as the flute plays, the song will be of more importance for segments of his supporters than the system that gave the voiceless its power.

When tide turns, another popular leader will erupt, and play the fiddle to a new tune, give the promise of revenge, and a new dawn of success and glory – the awaited messiah is always to be relied upon. What will suffer is the people’s self-confidence in knowing that they have to care of their issues themselves – that one leader, or one policy, or one ideology alone will not solve it.

Although, even with the recent setbacks, the world is moving towards more transparency. If more people turn to easy politics, then more people also turn to claim rights and be heard. Authoritarian tendencies seems to fall on their own doings, leaving a mess for the pluralistic progressives to take care of. Might well be, that the promised messiah is the concept of plural work for progress through debate and council.


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