Category Archives: religion

Polish Rebels Exiled to Siberia

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2746-2776:

The Polish rebels shared the republican ideas of the Decembrists; theirs was a political and cultural nationalism that saw itself working in concert with the progressive nations of Europe, especially France and Italy. They sought to replace the autocratic “Holy Alliance of Monarchs” born of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with a “Holy Alliance of Peoples.” Wysocki and his comrades rebelled under the slogan “For our freedom, and yours!”—making clear that their enemy was the Russian Empire, not its people. In Warsaw, the ceremonial dethronement of the Romanovs was preceded by a ceremony in honour of the Decembrists, organized by the Polish Patriotic Society. Five empty coffins, symbolizing the five executed ringleaders of 14 December 1825, were paraded through the streets of the Polish capital, and a religious service was held in the Orthodox Church, after which Wysocki addressed the crowd in front of the Royal Castle.

If the Poles had looked abroad for inspiration, their own insurrection catapulted them to the forefront of the European republican movement. There was an outpouring of support in the European press for the “French of the North” and calls (resisted by Louis Philippe I) for France to intervene in support of the rebels. French republicans, such as Godefroi Cavaignac and his fellow members of the Society of the Rights of Man, acknowledged their own debt to the Poles for having deflected Nicholas’s armies from intervention in France itself. The French general and hero of both the American War of Independence and the July Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, pushed unsuccessfully for France to recognize Poland. In Britain, there was a surge of indignation, followed by meetings and rallies in support of Poland, denouncing Russia and pushing for British intervention in the conflict. In July 1831, The Times fulminated: “How long will Russia be permitted, with impunity, to make war upon the ancient and noble nation of the Poles, the allies of France, the friends of England, the natural, and, centuries ago, the tried and victorious protectors of civilized Europe against the Turkish and Muscovite barbarians?” Across the Atlantic, there was also a tide of American public sympathy for the Polish rebels.

The November Insurrection, as it became known, quickly erupted into a full-scale military confrontation between the Poles and the Russians, with both sides fielding the largest armies Europe had witnessed since the Napoleonic Wars. The insurgents had, however, overplayed their hand. They faced the might of the Imperial Russian Army while they were internally divided and commanded by hesitant men who could not decide whether to fight the Russians or negotiate with them. On 25 February 1831, a Polish force of 40,000 repelled 60,000 Russians on the Vistula to save Warsaw but managed to secure not a decisive victory but only a postponement of defeat. As Russian reinforcements poured into Poland, the rebels found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. After months of stubborn Polish resistance, tsarist troops ground their way back towards Warsaw and finally retook the city in October 1831.

Russian retribution fell heavily on the prostrate Polish provinces. A government edict of 15 March 1833 reassigned 11,700 Polish officers and soldiers to penal battalions and fortress labour at a variety of remote and unattractive locations throughout the Russian Empire. Several thousand more were sentenced to penal labour and settlement in Siberia. The tsar was especially vengeful in the Western Borderlands of Russia, in today’s Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, which were better integrated into the empire than the Kingdom of Poland. The insurgents there, many of them Polish noblemen, were tried by field courts martial and summarily shot. Russian allies of the Poles were singled out for especially brutal treatment.

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Wild Young Geronimo

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 7351-7381:

MANY YEARS after the Apache Wars were over, Chatto, who was a rising Chokonen leader in the early 1880s, would declare, “I have known Geronimo all my life up to his death and have never known anything good about him.” The daughter of the Chokonen chief Naiche agreed. “Geronimo was not a great man at all. I never heard any good of him. People never say he [did] good.” A reliable interpreter and licensed trader who lived on good terms with the Chiricahuas for two decades said they distrusted and feared Geronimo, especially when he was inebriated. Once while hopelessly drunk, he berated a nephew, “for no reason at all,” so severely that the young man committed suicide. After sobering up, a shamed Geronimo packed up his family and bolted from the reservation for several months.

Army officers otherwise sympathetic to the Apaches detested Geronimo. Lieutenant Bourke found him “a depraved rascal whose neck I should like to stretch.” He was a “thoroughly vicious, intractable, and treacherous man,” agreed Lieutenant Britton Davis, who would come to know him all too well. “His only redeeming traits were courage and determination.”

And “power,” Davis might have added, had he understood the concept. What the whites dismissed as superstition was quite real to the Chiricahuas. That Geronimo possessed mystic attributes uniquely valuable in raids and war, few Apaches doubted. Rifles were said to jam or misfire when aimed at him. Some warriors thought the mere act of riding with Geronimo would render them impervious to bullets, a belief this consummate troublemaker heartily encouraged. Many Chiricahuas also attributed to him the gift of divination. Others thought him able to make it rain or to prevent the sun from rising. Geronimo also enjoyed a reputation as a master herbalist and surgeon. Despite his supposed powers, he was too strongly disliked to ever become a chief. His baleful countenance, locked in a perpetual scowl, probably didn’t help. All told, Geronimo’s personal following never exceeded thirty warriors.

The minatory shaman of the Bedonkohe band was born Goyahkla, meaning “He Who Yawns,” in 1829. Because he was saddled with such a singularly uninspiring name, it is little wonder he assumed the name Geronimo, which the Mexicans had bestowed on him. The Spanish equivalent of Jerome, it lacked the verve of Victorio but certainly was a better name than Goyahkla. Unlike Victorio, Geronimo felt no compelling ties to the place of his birth. He fought not to defend a homeland but to avenge the murder of his mother, first wife, and children by Mexican soldiers and because he enjoyed taking lives. “I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many. Some of them were not worth counting,” he said shortly before his death. If he were young again, Geronimo added, “and followed the warpath, it would lead into Old Mexico.”

Geronimo’s forays into Mexico often led him to the Sierra Madre, home to the Nednhi Chiricahua band of Chief Juh, one of his few real friends. Although a better war leader than Geronimo, Juh lacked the shaman’s gift for oratory. When excited, particularly in battle, Juh stuttered so badly that he had to use hand signals to communicate or rely on Geronimo to make his intentions known. Both men were wary of Americans. Juh had had little contact with them; he was naturally suspicious of everyone. Geronimo’s distrust derived from personal experience—first the murderous betrayal of Mangas Coloradas in 1863, and then his own humiliating arrest at Ojo Caliente and lockup at San Carlos by Agent John Clum in 1877.

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Tame Old Geronimo

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 8022-8037:

Geronimo lived for twenty-three years after his surrender. In 1893, the government resettled Geronimo and the Chiricahuas—still prisoners of war—at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home to the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation. They received plots of land to farm, and the men were taught the techniques of the range cattle industry. Geronimo went through something of a metamorphosis, becoming a model farmer and impressing his growing circle of white friends as a “kind old man.” He said he had learned much of the whites during his long years of captivity, finding them to be “a very kind and peaceful people.” In his later years, Geronimo also enjoyed celebrity. He appeared regularly at fairs and festivals, including the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, where at age seventy-five he joined in calf-roping contests and sold signed photographs of himself. In 1905, Geronimo rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade and dictated his autobiography, which, over the army’s objection, was published with Roosevelt’s permission.

Although he never lost faith in his personal power, Geronimo embraced Christianity, more to supplement than to supplant traditional Apache beliefs. “Since my life as a prisoner has begun I have heard the teachings of the white man’s religion, and in many respects believe it to be better than the religion of my fathers. However, I have always prayed, and I believe that the Almighty has always protected me.”

Geronimo’s divine protection ran out on a cold day in February 1909, when he rode into Lawton, Oklahoma, alone to sell some bows and arrows. With the proceeds, the old shaman bought whiskey, for which he had never lost his fondness, and began the return ride after dark deeply intoxicated. He was almost home when he fell off his horse beside a creek. A neighbor found him the next morning, lying partially submerged in the freezing water. Four days later, at age seventy-nine, the man whom no bullet could ever kill died in bed of pneumonia.

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U.S. Grant’s New Indian Bureau, 1868

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2321-2341:

The election of Ulysses S. Grant as president in November 1868 seemingly boded well for the army. After all, as commanding general he had defended Sherman and Sheridan’s hardfisted approach to the Indian problem and decried civilian meddling. But President-elect Grant was not General Grant, and to the surprise of the generals he welcomed ideas from the reformers, particularly the Quakers. Embracing their suggestion that religious men replace spoilsmen as agents, Grant gave the Quakers control over the two most critical—and difficult—Indian Bureau field operations: the Northern Indian Superintendency, comprising six agencies in Nebraska, and the Central Superintendency, which embraced Kansas and the “uncivilized” portion of Indian Territory (that is to say, the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho, and the Kiowa and Comanche agencies). The apportionment of these superintendencies to the Society of Friends became known as Grant’s Quaker Policy. To run the remaining superintendencies and agencies in the West, Grant selected honest and reliable army officers.

Grant also wanted to establish independent oversight of the Indian Bureau. To achieve it, he persuaded Congress to create the Board of Indian Commissioners. Composed of wealthy philanthropists, the board was given wide authority to scrutinize the operations of the Indian Bureau in Washington and in the field. And then Grant did something even more remarkable: he appointed an Indian to be commissioner of Indian affairs.

The new commissioner was Ely S. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Iroquois sachem from upstate New York and a civil engineer who had risen to the rank of brevet brigadier general on Grant’s staff during the Civil War. Parker was a man of proven integrity. Although he subscribed to the prevailing view that the Indians’ future lay in acculturation, he nonetheless could be counted on to make it as painless as possible. In June 1869, Parker instructed his staff on their duties under the Grant administration: Indian agents and their superintendents were to assemble Indians in their jurisdictions on permanent reservations, get them started on the road to civilization, and above all treat them with kindness and patience. Indians who refused to settle on reservations would be turned over to military control, however, and treated as “friendly or hostile as circumstances might justify.”

Grant saw no humane alternative to his administration’s carrot-and-stick body of principles that the press labeled the “Peace Policy” and its concomitant policies of concentrating the Indians on reservations far from whites and of consolidating small reservations into larger ones populated by two or more tribes, which meant that tribes promised exclusive homes stood to lose them regardless of treaty guarantees.

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Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

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Numerology of 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4676-4704:

Many of the events of 1979 are linked with the mysterious power of anniversaries. The Communist Party in Poland feared the incendiary potential of the nine-hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of a saint. The thirtieth anniversary of the Communist takeover in China was shrewdly exploited by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues to reinforce the sense of a new beginning. The forty-day Islamic mourning cycle proved a crucial dynamic for the revolution in Iran—as did the millennial expectations of Khomeini’s followers, whose habit of referring to him as the “imam” fanned a longing for the realm of justice promised by the reappearance of the Hidden Imam. Indeed, the Islamic calendar itself was one of the many issues that fueled the discontent of Iranian believers. The shah’s decision to introduce a new, non-Islamic calendar in the mid-1970s served as yet another bit of evidence to good Shiites that the monarch was an enemy of their religion—and gave Khomeini’s supporters yet another potent argument.

In the Julian calendar of the West, 1979 is not an especially evocative date. But this was not true for Muslims. In the Islamic calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and takes as its start the Prophet’s exile from Mecca in 622, the Western month of November 1979 coincides with the dawning of the new year of 1400. According to certain traditions, that is the year that the Mahdi, the Islamic messiah, is supposed to reveal himself to the faithful and usher in a new age of eternal justice. For Iranians, this is the moment when historical time and the forces of eternity coincide, and this apocalyptic expectation fueled the fervor with which Khomeini was greeted as the country’s new savior. Some demonstrators wondered whether he might, indeed, turn out to be the Imam of the Age himself; some of the faithful even claimed to have seen his face on the moon.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a group of provincial zealots came up with a particularly fateful reading of the Mahdi myth. Like the majority of Saudis, they were not Shiite but Sunni, and they hailed from a remote corner of the kingdom that had largely missed out on the new prosperity. In November 1979, as pilgrims were arriving for the annual hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, heavily armed members of the group took over the al-Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, and took thousands of pilgrims from around the world hostage. They then announced that one of their leaders, a young man named Abdullah Hamid Mohammed al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, the long-prophesied redeemer of Islam. All Muslims, they said, were religiously obligated to obey his commands. The Saudi authorities declined to do this and immediately set about the task of clearing the mosque. It took them weeks, covertly assisted by a team of commandos lent to the kingdom by the French government, to kill or capture the hostage takers. In the end, according to official Saudi figures, 270 people—hostages, hostage takers, and members of the assault force—lost their lives. Foreign diplomats who managed to get access to local hospitals concluded that the actual death toll was much higher, closer to 1,000.

The leader of the group, Juhayman al-Otaibi, was captured and executed a few weeks after the end of the siege. But his ideas would prove prophetic. He had categorically denounced the corruption of the Saudi regime and rejected the presence of infidel foreigners in a country that was supposed to be the undefiled home to Mecca and Medina, two of the three most holy places in Islam. (The third is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.) A subsequent generation of Saudi radicals—Osama bin Laden among them—would not forget.

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Media Manipulation, Poland, 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4181-4218:

The Polish secret police, the SB, and its Politburo masters created a special operation called LATO ’79. (Lato means “summer.”) As archbishop of Kraków, Wojtyła had already spent nearly twenty years as the focus of a considerable intelligence-gathering effort by the SB as well as, intermittently, the KGB, the East German Stasi, and other East-bloc secret services. LATO ’79 drew most of its operational intelligence from seven moles who had served in the archbishop’s immediate entourage over the years. They included both priests and laymen; one of them, code-named JUREK, was a member of the church organizing committee. Every possible measure to limit the effects of the pope’s visit was considered. Tens of thousands of police would be deployed in the course of the nine days. The SB informants who were involved in trip planning were advised, for example, to express worries about safety wherever possible (in the hope that this calculated disinformation would reduce the number of pilgrims). No effort was spared. In the event, 480 SB agents were deployed during the four days the pope spent in Kraków during the visit.

Presumably because a large number of East German Catholics also expressed a desire to see the pope, the East German secret police, the Stasi, deployed hundreds of its own agents to cover the event. The East Germans even set up a special headquarters post on the Polish border to coordinate their operations. The famous Stasi master spy Markus Wolf had planted his own mole inside the Vatican, a German Benedictine monk whose identity was not even known to the Stasi man in charge of the operation.

The apparatchiks were especially intent on managing the media coverage. In the weeks leading up to the visit, official media issued a stream of warnings. People should stay away from the pope’s events, the government urged: chaos and hysteria were sure to reign, and spectators could almost certainly count on being trampled to death. Foreign reporters were charged exorbitant accreditation fees, which excited a great deal of angry complaint and undoubtedly boosted the country’s desperately needed hard-currency reserves. But it doesn’t seem to have kept many journalists away. Domestic reporters were easier to deal with. The party issued reams of carefully considered guidelines and talking points. TV cameramen attended special training sessions. Their instructors told them to avoid shots of large crowds. Instead, they were supposed to point their cameras toward the sky while leaving a few people at the bottom of the frame. Shots of elderly people, nuns, and priests were to be preferred; young people, families, and laypeople should be avoided. The idea was to make it appear as though the pope’s supporters were a marginal, backward bunch, and certainly nothing like a cross-section of society.

Meanwhile, the party was taking no chances. In the weeks before John Paul II’s arrival, the Polish police arrested 150 dissidents—including Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, one of the founders of KOR [Workers’ Defence Committee]. (A few weeks earlier a gang of toughs had attacked Kuron on the street and beaten him badly. No one was charged in the assault—a fact that suggested the complicity of the security services.) Another one of those detained was a Catholic activist named Kazimierz Switon, who was sentenced to a year in jail for the peculiar crime of attempting to set up an independent trade union. This was an intolerable offense in a country that claimed to be run with the interests of the workers at its heart. Surely, the dictatorship of the proletariat obviated the need for any new labor movements outside of the state.

But appearances were deceptive. In fact, by the end of the 1970s, the essential schizophrenia of life was firmly established. Publicly, officially, there was the Poland of Communist Party rule: a place of grandiose slogans, lockstep marches, and central planning. This nation coexisted with an alternative Poland defined by opposition-organized “flying universities,” underground publications from dissident groups like KOR, and the parallel moral universe embodied by the Catholic Church, long linked with the struggle to assert Polish nationhood. Poles of this era had grown up in a society were life was split into two parallel realms, the public and the private, each with its own versions of language and history. As in so many other authoritarian states, citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland learned from early on to parrot their allegiance to official ideology in public while keeping their real opinions to themselves and their families. Communist rule depended on ensuring that people persisted in paying public tribute to the official version of truth, thus preventing them from seeing how many of them actually rejected it. But what would happen when they were allowed to make their private feelings manifest, on a mass scale?

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