Are We Facing a Post-Truth Apocalypse?

Or, Lies, Damned Lies, and Mad Mystics

Luton, one apocalyptic summer evening (not photoshopped)

A five minute walk from my apartment, in a backwater suburb of Luton town, there is a church that lies empty. Two summers ago, it was the site of secret gatherings for up to eighty people. Once a week, the men brought along their children, to tell them of prophecies soon to be fulfilled. They envisioned bomb-laden trucks rolling down Oxford Street, explosions flickering night into day, and ash drifting like confetti on London’s ruins.

Among the attendees at these meetings was the schizophrenic delivery driver, Junead Khan, who began plotting to behead US airmen in the UK before fleeing the UK with his uncle Shazib to join Isis. He was jailed for life.

Another attendee was father of four Abu Rahin Aziz, who later stabbed someone in the eye for “insulting Muhammad” before skipping bail to become an Isis bombmaker in Syria, where he was killed in a drone strike.

Allegedly also present at the meetings was receptionist Khuram Butt, who would later stain London Bridge red with the blood of innocents.

Junead, Shazib, Aziz and Butt are only four of the 80 or so who attended the gatherings. Five more were jailed in February. The other 70 are still at large.

On the outside, they look much like you and me. You might catch them talking about football, or playing Angry Birds on their iPhone. But in their hearts, they are still waiting for their prophecies to be fulfilled, prophecies that foretell of “the Hour” (Yawm al-Qiyāmah — the Day of Resurrection).

Most terrorism experts will agree that, while jihadis clearly draw their inspiration from Islam, jihadism itself is not simply about Islam — theology is in fact used by Islamist leaders as a loose-fitting burqa to mask a much simpler rubric: a preordained sequence of military objectives disguised as a fairy-tale, whose fulfilled prophecies disguise past defeats, and unfulfilled prophecies promise future victories.

A jihadi calling himself “Abdullah” (“Slave of Allah”) once told me of the Signs of the Hour (Ashrat al-sa’a); they were a list of Western foreign policy failures, such as the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the War in Afghanistan.

Abdullah segued through these events to the current situation in Syria, and finally on to the future. Yet throughout it he seemed incapable of speaking in the subjunctive; it was never “if”, it was always “when”. He wasn’t simply cocky; he was a believer in destiny. In his world, scripture had predicted the West’s various “acts of oppression” against Muslims, and there was fated to be a final, violent reckoning between them.

His conviction is shared by almost all jihadis, and forms the basis of their narrative. Isis’s magazine is entitled Dabiq after a Syrian town presaged in a hadith (Muslim 41:9:6924) to host the final temporal battle between the “Medinans” (Muslims) and “Romans” (West). Even the black flag used by Isis was chosen to fit a prognostication (Sunan ibn Majah 5:36:4084).

Notably, many of these prophecies are not truly Islamic, either being ad-hoc mistranslations or considered da’if (untrustworthy) by Sunni scholars — the theological equivalent of fake news. But this hasn’t stopped the jihadis from tying the prophecies to real events such as the Invasion of Iraq and the Syrian Civil War, thereby crafting a story of a Jew-controlled West oppressing Muslims via geopolitical machinations, inadvertently paving the way for the emergence of the Mahdi (a kind of deputy messiah, who will herald the End).

Thus, the narrative actually has less in common with religion than it does with conspiracy theories. This is because conspiracy theories are better adapted than scripture to spread in today’s digitised era. The narrative’s vague ties to theology and current events give it an air of legitimacy, but its simplicity means that, unlike the Qur’an, it can be communicated through modern media to today’s attention-deficient audiences. The meaning of life, in 140 characters.

This fake news which forms the jihadi narrative does not just travel easily across the Internet. It is also simple enough to spread with town gossip in culturally isolated echo-chambers like my neighbourhood of Bury Park. Most young Muslims I’ve spoken to here believe that the invasion of Iraq was an attack on Islam, even though Saddam was actually a secular Arab nationalist. In their eyes, it is just another Sign of the Hour.

So, what is happening to convince people that normal earthly events are portents of the Apocalypse?

Firstly, here in the West, political culture has become polarised into two contrapuntal untruths. The left portrays Muslims as the West’s victims, and the right portrays Muslims as the West’s assailants. Both views dominate the topic, and, crucially, both echo the jihadi narrative, gifting terror groups with easily available confirmation bias.

But even this problem pales in comparison to the global phenomenon of apophenia, the tendency to see meaningful patterns in random data. When the world becomes filled with data, as has happened in our so-called Information Age, apophenia becomes epidemic.

To compound the problem, various trolls, marketers, jihadis, lobbyists and Putinist operatives have flooded the West with fake news through bots, sock accounts, and dummy news sites. As such, we are living in an unprecedented age of lies.

Some of these lies, if believed, can convince young Muslims the Hour is approaching. But even if a story is exposed as fake news, it can still serve as evidence of an impending apocalypse, because one of the key Signs of the Hour is that lies will reign supreme. According to Islamic eschatology, The End of Time will be heralded by the death of truth at the hands of the false messiah, the Dajjal, whose very name means “the Liar”.

Isis generally believes the Dajjal will not come until seven months after the conquest of Rome (the West). However, the jihadis who attended the secret church gatherings in Luton didn’t know this, and instead wondered if the Dajjal might be Bashar al-Assad (as he is purported to rise from Syria).

This conspiracy theory has since fallen out of fashion. But, inevitably, the Luton jihadis will now find an even more apt candidate for false messiah in the serial liar Donald Trump, whose cheap sensationalism and naked deceit exemplify our post-truth era, making him Isis’s perfect arch-villain (and recruiting agent).

Of course, Trump is not the false-messiah, he is just a very naughty man, stoking fears of globalists and Muslims purely for political gain. But his conspiracy theories pool into the general sense of unease created by the terrorists, and the trolls, and even the press, who in order to stay relevant must increasingly adorn news with hooks and cliffhangers.

This background of manufactured fear, this painting the world as worse than it really is, must surely be contributing to the spread of apocalyptic beliefs like Isis’s. And if enough people come to believe in Doomsday, then, by their crazed actions, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, is there any hope? As the left and right bicker, and the fake news spreads, the death of truth and the end of time seem to draw ever nearer. Community leaders in my hometown fight back with anti-Isis classes and Qur’an study sessions. But, for all their hard work, theology simply cannot hold the attention of today’s youths as well as Facebook-friendly fairy-tales.

I am reminded of verse 8:36, a Quranic prophecy stating that infidels will spend great wealth to avert people from Allah, only to have their wealth turned against them. Isis used the verse to explain their capture of materiel from fleeing Iraqi forces at Ramadi, but it could just as easily refer to the Information Age, which has backfired into a Misinformation Age. This article, which attempts to be balanced, and offers no easy answers, will soon be lost in the cacophony of the day’s news, while Signs of the Hour are endlessly retweeted to stain innumerable minds.

So perhaps the final paragraph should be more prophetic?

Crescents, crosses, and McDonald’s logos, huddled together under smoggy clouds congealed like the sprawling silhouette of a god. Luton is the real Dabiq, a dull unassuming town whose battles foreshadow a much wider war; not West vs Islam, or neocons vs revolutionaries, but knowledge vs ignorance, facts vs lies. The lies offer purpose, meaning, scapegoats, answers. The truth offers truth, and will only be able to win if it can offer something better.