The Handwriting on the Wall Says
In the Bible story, the Babylonian king Belshazzar is feasting with his courtiers at a banquet, using the sacred golden goblets plundered from Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem as wine cups. Suddenly, out of nowhere a hand appears; it writes a cryptic message on the chamber wall. The king's counselors are unable to decipher it, so Daniel is called in to interpret its meaning. (Daniel is a Jew of the exile and a very wise man. Many years ago he had interpreted the dreams of the king's father Nebuchadnezzar.)
The handwriting on the wall, Daniel tells King Belshazzar, consists of the Aramaic words mene mene tekel upharsin (literally "numbered, numbered, weighed, divided"), a message which decoded means: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; your kingdom is divided . . . " The last word upharsin sounds like "Persia" in Aramaic, so Daniel adds that the divided kingdom of Babylonia will be "given to the Medes and Persians" (New Oxford Annotated Bible translation). It's among the most famous Bible puns.
Belshazzar's tenure in office was in fact short, according to Babylonian records; after three years on the throne he was toppled by Cyrus the Persian. Cyrus captured his capital, Babylon (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers south of today's Baghdad) in 530 BCE.
I think of this story when reading the warnings appearing in the US press addressed to Iraq's puppet prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. This is a man plainly uncomfortable on his throne, who's openly acknowledged a desire to step down. He's in a difficult position. Condi Rice warns him darkly that his government exists "on borrowed time," because America's "patience isn't unlimited" and "the Iraqi government needs to start to show results." Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador and kingmaker in occupied Iraq has just passed along to al-Maliki "a very good strong message" from President Bush "that the patience of the American people is running out."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells Congress that al-Maliki "has to face . . . the possibility that he'll lose his job." Most importantly, Bush announced in his speech last Wednesday that he's "made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people." Translation: We enthroned you, we can depose you. Meanwhile a bipartisan consensus has emerged in Congress that the Iraqi people haven't responded appropriately to the benign American invasion, but are rather causing needless pain to the invaders. They will therefore, if the invaders decide to (or have to) pull out, bear full responsibility for those invaders' failure to liberate them.
How would you feel, if you were President Nouri al-Maliki getting this message? The man's being weighed in the imperialists' balance and found wanting. His country is already divided between the Kurds and the Arab Shiites and the Sunnis. The Shiites are divided between the popularly-supported militias (including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army) and the forces that work closely with the occupiers and rely more heavily on them. Even the latter are riddled with militia members acting as fifth column agents and spies. Al-Maliki relies upon al-Sadr for conditional political support, but the US demands that al-Maliki cooperate in a massive effort aided by 17,500 new US troops to suppress Baghdad's Shiite militias. US journalists, in general, express doubt that al-Maliki can or wants to do that.
So it looks like his days are indeed numbered. And what will happen after him? The fundamental problem here is not one of personalities but the fact that 90% of Iraqis polled want the US out now. (It's already been a year since that number indicated they wanted the US out within a year's time.) These include Sunnis in the Triangle who formed Saddam's and the Baath Party's social base as well as Shiites in Baghdad and the south who are happy that Saddam's gone. The Shiite parties have stepped into the power vacuum created by the occupation to organize basic neighborhood activities such as trash collection and also to provide security through armed militias. These militias have been involved in conflicts with one another, "insurgent" activities, attacks on Shiite or Sunni mosques, maintenance of torture chambers, and all manner of sectarian horrors. The Americans are demanding that the Iraqi president crack down on these militias, which are in fact merely one of the evils emerging from the Pandora's Box that the US president himself decided to open!
Now George W. Bush publicly lectures the man heading what we're supposed to believe is a sovereign government, informing him in the name of the American people, no less, that he will lose the support of those people if he doesn't follow through on promises to cut off ties with Muqtada al-Sadr (one of the most popular men in the country). Al-Maliki might say, "Okay, do what you need to do to disarm Muqtada's boys here in Baghdad. I'll agree to whatever Iraqi backup you need, so you can say that this is a joint US- Iraqi operation to restore order." But this would permanently damage his reputation if not his self-esteem and he'd have to leave office after doing it.
If, as Gates put it, al-Maliki were to "lose his job" in the near future, his successor would inherit this problem of meeting US demands for militia control. But most likely, he'll have his own militia behind him. It's been reported that a new coalition organized by the Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iran (SCIRI) might be posed to replace the current administration. SCIRI has its own militia, the Badr Brigade, which has quarreled with al-Sadr's forces. SCIRI, founded in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq War and until recently based in Teheran, retains strong ties to the Iranian government.
Bush met with al-Hakim, whom he described as "one of the distinguished leaders of a free Iraq" in the White House last month. This was his second meeting with the Shiite cleric. "We talked about a lot of important issues," Bush told reporters. "We talked about the need to give the government of Iraq more capability, as quickly as possible, so that the elected government of Iraq can do that which the Iraqi people want, which is to secure their country from the extremists and murderers."
Presumably the president realizes al-Hakim's Badr militia link. But maybe he wishes to wean al-Hakim away from his ties to the Iranian mullahs. Even if he can do that, the confrontation the US wants to provoke with al-Sadr can only exacerbate intra-Shiite divisions. These in turn can only invite intervention by neighboring Shiite Iran on one side or the other. The Iranian mullahs have always been much closer to al-Hakim's group than to al-Sadr's. On the other hand al-Sadr has vowed to defend Iran in the event of a US attack. The Shiite political forces (the Dawa Party as well as SCIRI) that have agreed to work with the US and lend the occupation some legitimacy are difficult to detach from Iran. The Kurds also have cultivated friendly ties with Iran. Iran's star does seem to be rising.
Daniel is regarded by most Christians as a prophet. I'm not a prophet, but I'm having a vision. I see the Green Wall surrounding the command center of the US imperial project in Southwest Asia, an empire which in Bush's dreams will soon extend from Afghanistan to Syria, rivaling Nebuchadnezzar's. In glowing graffiti letters on that wall I see upharsin, which again means both division and Persian. (Persia of course changed its name to Iran in 1935.)
* * *
Rabbinical authorities have not placed Daniel on the prophet list but recognized him as an "upright man." He does not appear in the Qur'an. He was in any case probably the fictional creation of a Jewish writer living three and a half centuries after Balshazzar. Daniel is an historical novelette. I recommend it as a literary work, detailing how upright Jews during the Babylonian Captivity escaped terrible punishments due to divine intervention. For example, Shadrach, Meshach and Adenego, Jewish men to whom Nebuchadnezzar who for some reason "entrusted the affairs of the province of Babylon" are thrown into a fiery furnace after refusing to prostrate themselves before a great golden idol. But they emerge, after singing a long hymn, without any hairs singed or smell of smoke on their bodies, and the king continues to "shower favors" on them (Chapter 3). And, of course, there's the Daniel in the Lion's Den story (Chapter 6 and in a different version Chapter 14). Here Darius the Mede is forced against his will to enforce a law requiring that no person in the empire worship anyone but he himself. Daniel is thrown to the lions but survives; the delighted king has him released but sends his accusers, their wives and their children into the pit where the lions immediately seize them and crush their bones to pieces. The book errs on details: Babylonian sources identity Nabonidus, not Nebuchadnezzar, as Belshazzar's father. One of Nabonidus' wives was a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. This is creative writing, literature, not history.
Daniel's "prophecies" (about the Persian Empire, the struggles between the Seleucids and Ptolemies placed in the prophet's mouth) are mostly descriptions of events known to the work's main author. But in Chapters 11 and 12 there's some pretty powerful "end times" imagery. "At the time of the end," an angel tells Daniel, there will be "anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time, your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book" (Daniel 12:1). Many fundamentalist Christians integrate this prophecy into an apocalyptic scenario based on the New Testament Book of Revelation, which predicts a terrible war around Jerusalem prior to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the onset of the Rapture. Many who have embraced that notion are inclined to support Bush Middle East policy and Israel as a matter of course. They are the bedrock of Bush's political base. This is, therefore, powerful fiction affecting contemporary politics.
Richard Perle has recently declared that he "underestimated the depravity" of the Iraqis as he cheer-led the march to war. He couldn't have foreseen the sectarian religious quarrelling, lacking an understanding of the Muslim past! The abject ignorance of Islam of US politicians generally, so ably exposed by the Congressional Quarterly's Jeff Stein, as exploited by the neocons helped produce the disastrous de-Baathification policy in Iraq (a big step away from secularism), the Sunni "insurgency," and indeed the whole criminal enterprise of occupying Iraq itself. The American public is, in general, not well-informed about Islam, nor the complexity and divisions within Muslim societies, by the mainstream media. But those with some background on the relevant basic history (including the intelligence professionals who opposed the Iraq invasion) were prophesying disaster even before March 2003. Even Colin Powell, who buckled under neocon pressure and backed the attack on Iraq, cautioned Bush about the Pottery Barn rule that "If you break it, you bought it." You might say he prophesied a broken Iraq. (By the way, since the potter's wheel was invented in Iraq, Iraq must be one of the first places where pottery was broken.)
Who will fix, or fix and buy, today's broken Iraq? Will some modern incarnation of Cyrus the Persian take Babylon? But Tehran's on the defensive, worried about an American attack. I can't read the handwriting on the wall, but I do see Persia/Iran at the end of it.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Gary Leupp
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Reasonable Christian West vs. Irrational Violent Islam
* From Cana to
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* “Ideologies of
Hatred”? What Does Condi Mean?
Mao, and the Revolution in Nepal