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Posted on Jun 22, 2011 in War College

Strategies to Defeat Sacred Causes

By John Sutherland

British soldiers clash with the Mahdi Army during the Battle of Omdurman.

“The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.”
– Eric Hoffer

During the summer of 1881 Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah declared himself Mahdi – the Muslim Messiah who would purge the world for Islam. The announcement came as anger against Sudan’s Egyptian rulers and their British masters was growing. Ahmad’s sacred cause was to cleanse Sudan of impure influences and form an Islamic state. Sound familiar? The call to arms inspired the masses and an army sprang up over night. From June 1881 to January 1885 the Mahdi Army racked up a series of impressive victories including the seizure of Khartoum. Not even the death of the divine Mahdi himself (typhus) dampened their enthusiasm; his deputy, Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, carried on as Khalifa of the Mahdiyah (Mahdi state).


In 1898 the Brits finally decided to assert their client-state, Egypt’s, claim to Sudan. General Horatio Herbert Kitchener received the task. Mahdist brutality and expansionism stirred public support for the enterprise. The newly formed Anglo-Egyptian Army was armed with the best equipment available to include the new Maxim machine-gun. Kitchener needed whatever advantages he could get given the 60,000+ size of the Mahdi Army.

Kitchener began the operation by wiping out a Mahdi fortress, foreshadowing things to come. Next he moved on to the capital, Omdurman. In response, the Mahdi horde attacked into Kitchener’s Maxim guns with predictable results; 10,000 dead, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 prisoners. Kitchener’s force suffered only 47 dead and 382 wounded. The Khalifa fled, only to be eventually cornered and killed – the Mahdi uprising died with him. The Anglo-Egyptian administration under British control lasted for 58 years until Sudan was granted independence.

Sacred Causes
The Mahdi’s sacred cause took an extraordinary defeat to end. A sacred cause is uncompromising. Negotiation, accommodation, or toleration is not acceptable. If pursued, it’s merely to buy time. Sacred warriors seek utopian perfection through absolute victory and nothing short of the loss of their mandate will stop them.

Sacred causes come in two flavors; sectarian and secular. The sectarian brand tends to be more persistent and more difficult to dissuade. A sectarian sacred cause is led by a prophet who has fashioned a theocratic worldview based on an esoteric interpretation of a given faith. Sectarian sacred warriors believe they are divinely entitled or compelled to impose their worldview on ‘unbelievers’ and/or ‘sinners’. These sacred warriors will relent only when they believe the almighty has withdrawn his blessing usually due to a lack of purity and fidelity.

The secular brand may be less persistent but is no less violent. The secular sacred cause is led by an ideologue who has fashioned a cultural worldview out of an esoteric interpretation of socio-political economic theories. Secular sacred warriors believe they are the intellectual vanguard leading the revolutionary reconstruction of society based on their utopian vision. For the secular sacred, the ends justify the means. They will only submit when they believe the world is unprepared for their progressive leap forward or if their followers are deemed unworthy.

The Kingdom of God
The Jewish-Roman wars were a series of revolts by the Jewish Zealots of Judea against Rome. They include the Great Jewish Revolt (66–73), Kitos War (115–117), and the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135). The Romans tried economic integration, political empowerment, and religious toleration to satisfy the Zealots but their efforts failed to suppress the desire to create a Heavenly Kingdom on Earth.

The final uprising was the final straw. It began when Simon Bar Kokhba identified himself as the ‘Messiah’. His name means "son of a star" and is derived from Numbers 24:17: "There shall come a star out of Jacob". The revolt quickly spread across the Judean Province. The Romans were caught napping and the Jerusalem garrison was isolated. Simon Bar Kokhba had restored the State of Israel announcing the "Era of the redemption of Israel".

Emperor Hadrian assigned Sextus Julius Severus to quell the unrest; it took 2 ½ years. Modern historians claim a half million Jews were killed and over a thousand villages were razed. Hadrian was tired of the repetitive uprisings so he decided to eliminate the source; Judaism. He banned Torah law, the Hebrew calendar, and executed Judaic scholars. He built statues of Jupiter on the Temple sanctuary and renamed Judea as Palaestina; after the Jews old enemy the Philistines. He banned to Jews from Jerusalem, allowing them yearly entry to mourn their defeat at the Western Wall. As a result, Judaism became mobile, focused on local synagogues instead of the national Temple. The Diaspora was born, Messianism was discredited, and Bar-Kokhba was denounced. Like the Sudanese Mahdi, the Judean Messiah led a multi-year revolt against the most powerful empire at the time. Both established sectarian states and required catastrophic defeat to end.

Napoleon gives orders during the Battle of AusterlitzThe French Empire
The French Revolution (1789 – 1799) turned Europe on its head. In the wake of the American Revolution, the French challenged King Louis XVI’s divine right to rule and took on the class system that placed the clergy and nobility above the law and exempt from taxes. The New Republic declared the Rights of Man and embarked upon a sacred cause to remake France. The revolution inspired Europe to form a series of coalitions to smother the movement in its infancy and preserve the monarchical system – they failed.

Internecine arguments became self destructive bloodbaths requiring a changing of the guard from purists to pragmatics – thus Napoleon ascended to leadership in 1804, establishing the French Empire (1804 – 1815). Napoleon was a dictator and a true believer so he took the Revolution on the road.

The Napoleonic Wars imposed French influence over most of Western Europe and into Poland. By 1812 the Empire ruled over 44 million subjects and maintained a military presence in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Duchy of Warsaw, counting Prussia and Austria as allies. Napoleon’s victories exported the revolution’s ideology throughout Europe. Aristocratic privilege was all but eliminated and the Napoleonic Code codified legal equality, the jury system and legal divorce. Napoleons family occupied Europe’s thrones. After his victory over the Austrian Empire, Napoleon launched the invasion of Russia in 1812. It was an ill advised disaster. Shortly thereafter the Sixth Coalition kicked the French out of Germany in 1813. The pressure built and the Empire fell when Napoleon abdicated at Fontainebleau on 11 April 1814. But that wasn’t the end. After a brief exile on Elba, Napoleon returned to resurrect the Empire in the Hundred Days.

He was defeated yet again by the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo. The British captured him and re-exiled him, this time to Saint Helena, a remote island in the South Atlantic. He lived there until his death in 1821. he removal of Napoleon saw the end of the revolution and its gains. The Bourbon monarchy was restored and France lost the territories it had won between 1795 – 1810. It took Napoleon’s removal (leadership decapitation) to decisively end the hyper-secular French Revolution.

The Caliphate
The Siege of Vienna.The caliphate is literally the "dominion of a caliph” (successor). It’s the rule of Islam over the Muslim Nation (ummah). The first Caliphate was led by Mohammad’s closest followers and was known as the ‘Rashidun caliphate’. Sunnis believed the caliph should be selected by a Shura (council) while Shia’s believed the caliph should be a descendent of the Prophet – the source of a future Islamic Schism. The caliphates went from anointed leaders to familial dynasties; the Umayyad followed by the Abbasid, the Fatimid, and the Ottoman.

Mohammad expanded his rule from the city of Medina to the entire Arabian Peninsula driven by his sacred mandate to conquer the world for Islam. The Caliphate was a continuation of his sacred cause and so it embarked upon a 600 year Jihad (Holy War). The Rashiduns conquered Persia and most of Byzantium; the Umayyads took North Africa, Spain and expanded east to the Indian border; while the Abbasids added portions of southern Italy and pressed into modern day Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Ottomans capped it off by adding Anatolia, Greece and the Balkans. The Caliphate met resistance at the Battle of Tours (732), the Siege of Vienna (1529), the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571). Finally, the sacred cause stalled and began to recede in the late 1600’s as conquest became defeat and dynamism became stagnation. Sectarian apartheid, poor education, economic failure, and technological inferiority eroded Ottoman influence. The Caliphate began losing so often it earned the moniker of “the Sick Man of Europe”. They sealed their fate by siding with the Central Powers during World War I – a choice that led to their partition and eventual dissolution.

The Ottoman Caliphate collapsed with the occupation of Istanbul in November, 1918. They signed the Treaty of Sèvres but the final disposition of the empire was delayed by the Turkish War of Independence. The final agreement with the Grand National Assembly of Turkey came in 1923. The resulting imperial partition created the modern Middle East and the Republic of Turkey. France received mandates over Syria and Lebanon while Britain got Mesopotamia and Palestine. A year later (March 3, 1924) the President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the institution of the Caliphate and transferred its powers to the Grand National Assembly. With a few brief exceptions, the title has been dead ever since. The sacred cause of the Caliphate with its divine mission to spread Islamic rule died of exhaustion brought about by poor comparative performance.

Strategies to Defeat Sacred Causes
War, cold or hot, is a clash of wills. Resolution comes when one side finally acquiesces to the other. The question is, ‘how difficult is it going to be to get that acquiescence?’ The answer is based on commitment. A sacred cause inspires more commitment than a mundane one.

Committed leaders and followers. This represents the most toxic of sacred causes and is most often associated with an expeditionary cause such as Nazism and Islamism. Nazism was neo-Darwinist racism and Islamism is sectarian imperialism. These are viral sacred causes whose leaders are infected with ‘Holy Madness’ and whose adherents are fanatic disciples. These causes are not content with dominating their homelands; they are aggressive in their ‘mission’ to export their vision in search of regional and/or global domination.

Causes like these require catastrophic defeat to be quelled. Only an unambiguous and total defeat discredits the messenger and the message. The egregious abuses of Nazism, a racist form of Fascism, were so profound that total defeat was the only option. Today, racist fascism is so discredited that it is virtually extinct. The same can be said for Japanese militarism; another racial superiority based fascism.

Committed leaders with reluctant / lukewarm followers. Some sacred causes are almost wholly dependent upon a charismatic leader to carry them through. In these cases, the leader is the inspiration to the masses and is often the only influence able to control subordinate rivalries. These causes are dominated by the cult of personality. They can be deadly but are vulnerable.

Decapitation can bring a cultist cause to a rapid end if the leader can be removed before dedication and unity emerge among the vanguard and/or the masses. Frederick Barbarossa led the largest and most dangerous contingent of the Third Crusade. His army turned back when Frederick fell from his horse and drowned during a river crossing. Some believe Barbarossa’s local scouts led them to the river on purpose. Attila’s Huns disintegrated after he died on his wedding night. Some believe he was poisoned. Arminius’ assassination ended German unity against Rome and the capture and exile of Napoleon ended the French Empire.

Entrenched leaders with indifferent followers. Causes like these are usually mature. They achieved their initial goals and settled into lassitude and/or ossification. While the leaders and their followers my still believe in their system, they no longer feel compelled to ‘fight’ or ‘sacrifice’ for it.

The communists conquered Russia, successfully defended themselves in a three way civil war, and then failed in their attempt to spread the contagion into Poland. Under Stalin they became content to pursue ‘Socialism in one Country’, repudiating the ‘Permanent Revolution’ philosophy of founding father Leon Trotsky. The communist war with capitalism became a Cold War until final exhaustion caused the Soviet economy to collapse and precipitated its disintegration. The USSR voluntarily faded away just as the Ottoman Caliphate had in the face of a western world that outpaced it.

Islamist/Jihadism – Islamic Revanchism
So what path do we take to roll back the medieval jihadist impulse emanating from the Muslim world – state and stateless? Jihadi motivation is clear; to recapture the ancient Caliphate which includes conquering Spain (Al Andulus), North Africa, parts of Italy numerous Mediterranean Islands, much of India. They want to restore their perceived medieval dominance and return the infidels to dhimmitude. The most overtly aggressive Islamist state is Iran. The most covertly aggressive state is Saudi Arabia. The pantheon of non-state Islamist/Jihadists is too numerous to account for here.

With Iran seeking an Islamic bomb, Turkey resurrecting the Ottoman Empire and Saudi Arabia subverting the west with a petro-dollar tidal wave – all backed by steady drumbeat of stateless Jihadi terrorism – what is our approach?

Decapitation? Probably not – there are too many chiefs. There is no single charismatic leader. There are many: Ahmadenejad, Khameini, Erdogan, Nasrallah, Qardawi, Abbas, Meshaal, Asaad, Gaddafi. Some lead Sunnis, some lead Shia, some are nationalist and some are theocrats. All extol Islamic triumphalism. It’s a hydra so whose head do you choose?

Exhaustion? Again, probably not – there’s not enough time. Iran could have a bomb any day; Saudi Arabia builds a new Mosque or Madrassa every day; Erdogan’s party was re-elected June 12; Palestine is going to declare statehood any day; and Gaddafi seems to be holding on versus NATO’s fearsome offensive. It’s hard to exhaust an opponent who is convinced he has the wind to his back.

Catastrophic Defeat? The above leads us to the conclusion that catastrophic defeat is the only path available today. The problem is will – does the west have what it takes to follow this path? Given the west’s current self destructive trend of self loathing bolstered by the twin pillars of political correctness/Islamophobia and multiculturalism/moral relativism, it seems unlikely. The west will not challenge Islamism until it regains its confidence or it is so grievously provoked that the masses are moved to action.

Until then, the west must tolerate the intolerable: religious apartheid, medieval morality, misogyny, cultural bigotry, and virtual dhimmitude – all in the name of western enlightenment. It seems odd to embrace eastern regressive ideology in order to reinforce western progressive ideology.

John Sutherland is the author of several acclaimed articles published in Armchair General magazine, including “iGuerrilla: The New Model Techno-Insurgent” (May 2008) and “Persian Arrows: America’s Winning Iran Strategy” (March 2011).


  1. Depressing but accurate.

  2. Depressing? Your on a site dealing with warfare and death, and you find *that* depressing? *facepalm*

  3. “Given the west’s current self destructive trend of self loathing bolstered by the twin pillars of political correctness/Islamophobia and multiculturalism/moral relativism, it seems unlikely. The west will not challenge Islamism until it regains its confidence or it is so grievously provoked that the masses are moved to action.”

    Here, I profoundly disagree with you. To be self-critical and is not self-destructive or self-loathing. It is what makes us different from the destructive sacred causes in history. Institutionalized self-criticism in the form of democracy and science are the very basics of what the post-renaissance Western world is all about. It is what makes us different and better than them.

    With this democracy and self-criticism comes naturally an unwillingness to go to war unless very clearly provoked. This is not a weakness or a loss of confidence. This is what we are. This is what makes us better than them.


  4. Regarding the Mahdist Wars in the Sudan. You are incorrect when you state “In 1898 the Brits finally decided to assert their client-state, Egypt’s, claim to Sudan.”

    The re-conquest of the Sudan started in 1896 with the Dongola Campaign, and gradually worked its way along the Nile – with the support of the Sudan Military Railway and the Nile Steamers.

    Interestingly, the opportunity for re-conquest was triggered by the Italian defeat by the Abyssinians at Adowa. Italy asked Britain to relieve Kassala, with a diversion up the Nile.