Is Russia a Terrorist State?

This essay is published by the Polish newsmagazine, Wszystko Co Najważniejsze, in English and in Polish translation, online and in print. 

In an impassioned speech to the United Nations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the Russian state had become a terrorist. His comments came shortly after the revelation of the killing of civilians in the town of Bucha, outside of Kyiv, during the month that Russian troops occupied the town.

The scene was indeed brutal. People on bicycles on the way to buy groceries were shot dead, the bodies lying next to their mangled vehicles. Others were shot execution style, their hands tied behind their backs with zip cords.

Following Zalensky’s speech in the UN, the Russian Ambassador read from what appeared to be a text sent from Moscow, claiming that the bodies were fake, placed there by the Ukrainian government after the troops had left, in order to make the Russian soldiers look bad. The New York Times, however, posted pictures on its front page showing a road where bodies lay, taken from a satellite during the occupation. The images matched precisely with the bodies that were discovered by returning Ukrainians on that same road following the troop withdrawal.

These were hideous acts, to be sure. But were they terrorism? The answer to that question depends on what one means by “terrorism,” and how that accusation can be proven.

Perhaps they were, instead, war crimes. This accusation is easier to prove since the conditions of what constitutes war crimes are set by international law. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has precise standards for determining war crimes, focusing on civilian and other non-military targets, and has prescribed penalties for those deemed guilty of them.

Both Ukrainian and international observers are busy cataloguing instances such as those at Bucha that can be raised in evidence of war crimes. But though the definition is clear—targeting innocent civilians–it is not an easy charge to succeed in court. Among other things, one has to identify who were the decision-makers in the criminal act, and provide evidence of their intention to act in such a criminal manner against innocent civilians.

Terrorism is an even more difficult charge to prove, in part because the term itself is vague. The United States’ Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

The problem with this definition is that it leaves open to interpretation what is “unlawful” and what “inculcates fear.” If a state promulgates laws that allow it to invade a neighboring country, as Russia has, then the military actions –whatever they may be—are by definition within the law.

My own definition of terrorism is a bit different, and focuses on the intention to raise fear. After many years of studying radical groups around the world that have used sudden and extreme violence as a tactic, I have defined terrorist acts as the intimidating public performances of violence. These are acts meant not to achieve a military goal but rather to frighten all those who witness the violence. The al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11 is a clear example of this kind of terrorist violence.

Using this definition of terrorism, then, it is possible to imagine not only rogue radical groups but established states utilizing violence in just this way. I once described the Islamic State (ISIS) during its reign in Iraq and Syria as a “terrorist state,” because it used violence not just to intimidate its enemies but to subdue its own citizens. In a central square in Mosul, for example, the severed heads of those accused of defying the ISIS regime were placed on fence poles for all passersby to see them. The message was clear: obey or your head may be next.

Few legitimate governments rule with the kind of terroristic violence of the Islamic State, however. They do not put heads on fence posts, and seldom adopt tactics that can be regarded as primarily intending to intimidate. War times, however, present a different situation where even usually moral regimes can act brutally in ways that use intimidation as part of a military strategy.

When the United States at the end of World War II dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obliterating the cities and killing hundreds of thousands, questions were raised about the moral legitimacy of these acts. To this day the debate continues regarding whether these bombings could be justified by military objectives or whether they were intended to intimidate the Japanese government, and perhaps also send a warning to the Soviet Union—emerging at the time as a Cold War rival—that the US possessed such devastating armaments. The intimidating message throughout the globe was to not mess with America’s military power, since it had the atomic bomb.

Does this mean that the US used methods of terrorism? A convicted terrorist told me that he thought that it did. When I went to a US maximum security prison and met with one of the jihadi organizers convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center – a precursor to the 9/11 attack  – he claimed that the US was the world’s biggest terrorist. When I told him that his attempt to bring down the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings would have killed 200,000 people if it had been successful, he challenged me. That, he said, was the number killed by the US in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in the US in what he described as its “acts of terrorism.”

Whether or not one regards the US bombings in Japan as acts of terrorism, the discussion does indicate that it is possible to speak of state terrorism. After all, the term “terrorism” came into use in a political context after the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror was one of the most brutal and savage moments in the revolutionary struggle.

Back to Bucha: if we can be persuaded that those horrible acts by Russian soldiers were acts of terrorism, who should be punished? During the Vietnam War, instances when American service men went on a rampage and started killing innocent villagers were regarded as criminal if not terrorist acts. The soldiers were brought to trial and in some cases convicted. But their superiors were not accused or tried.

Could this be the case with Bucha? If the Russian soldiers were badly trained and the leadership in the field was inept—as many observers have claimed—we can imagine that the young men in uniform could do all kinds of savage acts without fear of retaliation. When they witnessed their own comrades being killed in the missile strikes from Ukrainian forces that effectively stopped their lines of tanks, they might have felt emboldened to seek revenge on any Ukrainian they met, even innocent householders riding a bicycle on the way to the grocery store.

Such vengeful acts can be regarded as a kind of individual terrorism, if they were intended not only as revenge but as an attempt to intimidate the local citizens into fearing and obeying the occupying forces. Though to consider these acts in Bucha as part of a strategy of state terrorism, it would have to be demonstrated that the command came from up the chain of military command was not simply a reflex action of frightened young soldiers during stressful moments.

There are, however, other instances in the current Ukrainian invasion where the Russian military command is more clearly implicated in actions that would justify the term of state terrorism. In Mariupol and other cities, the world has witnessed scenes of apartment blocks, schools, nurseries, hospitals, and shopping malls that have been deliberately destroyed. These buildings are clearly for civilian use with no military functions, and yet these targets would have to be approved by a chain of command. They cannot be dismissed as the wanton acts of revengeful young soldiers.

These civilian targets are the basis for accusing Russia in general and Putin in particular with the claim of war crimes. Though the evidence continues to be collected, the picture seems clear and convincing that such crimes have been committed. Those making the decision to target civilian sites can and should be held accountable,

They can also be described as acts of state terrorism. The purpose of targeting apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, and shopping malls is clearly one of intimidation. They are meant to frighten Ukrainian citizens and their government and drive them into submission. In that sense, they are only a somewhat more sophisticated method than the one used by ISIS in Mosul when it posted severed heads on fence posts in the public square.

Yet the issue over whether Russia is a state terrorist will continue to be debated. The definition of what is terrorism and what is not is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder. If people feel frightened and intimidated, they are terrorized. In that sense, no further legal definition is necessary. But the term terrorism is seldom precisely codified into law.

Regardless of what one calls the acts in the hideous scene in Bucha, whether they were war crimes, genocide, massacre, or even terrorism, there is another word for them that Zalenskyy used in his speech in the United Nations that most sensible and humane people around the world can agree upon. They were absolute atrocities.


Russian Edition of Terror in the Mind of God

This the Preface to the Russian edition published  recently. It gave me the opportunity to summarize and update some of the ideas in the book.

It has been thirty years since I began chronicling the rise of religious violence around the world, and each year the situation changes. New cases emerge and old ones transform. No area of the world is immune from the rise of religious politics and protest, which is often expressed in strident ways. Every religious tradition—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh—have exhibited forms of religious violence. It is virtually a global phenomenon in the global age.

In many cases the movements are responses to globalization—or the perception that distinctive national cultures are losing their identities in a sea of secularism. Each case has its own set of causes and characteristics, but a common theme is the loss of faith in secular nationalism. Religion provides a basis for movements to claim legitimacy in asserting political power and critiquing authorities.

In the five years since the publication of the fourth edition of this book, the edition on which this translation is based, there have been significant changes. The territorial control of the Islamic State has been largely defeated, though the movement still exists as a guerilla fighting band.  Movements of xenophobic and anti-immigrant protest have expanded in the Christian cultures of Europe and the United States. In America, right-wing militant movements have become the major terrorist threat.

Other forms of religious-based violence have been perpetrated by state authorities. In general this kind of state terrorism is not covered in this book. It is a real phenomenon, however, and one related to movements of religious activism. The dismissive treatment of Uyghurs in China and the virtual genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are examples of the violence that states are capable of supporting or implicitly allowing to occur. The cases in this book, however, focus on non-state movements of antiauthoritarian protest.

The cases in this book also do not include movements that are secular or non-religiously nationalist. In Europe movements of neo-Nazism have emerged, hostile to multicultural societies formed by new patterns of immigration, especially from Muslim countries. In the United States, similar movements of right-wing nationalism are fiercely patriotic but often have few religious elements in them. While these movements are significant and often motivated by the same concerns that gave rise to religious-related movements, this book looks solely at the religious ones.

The purpose of this book is to try to understand the global phenomenon of religious violence in recent decades. It attempts to answer two basic questions: what does religion have to do with violent movements? And why are they happening now?

The answer to the first question is linked to the ability of religion to provide legitimation to alternative bases of political power. Religious leaders and texts can give moral credibility to movements of protest and provide symbols of empowerment. Perhaps no image from religious traditions is a more powerful resource than the idea of cosmic war. This notion, taken from the great wars depicted in religious texts, implies that some forms of warfare are not just between quarreling parties but between fundamental forces of existence—between right and wrong, religion and irreligion, order and chaos. If you believe that your struggle is God’s war, it is greatly empowering.

The answer to the second question regarding why these movements are occurring in recent years is related to the questioning of authority that comes with globalization. As regimes find themselves weakened through assaults on national identity and social control, movements based on religious authority rise up to challenge their very legitimacy. Hence it is no surprise that in this moment of global change all regions of the world are feeling the strains of social disruption. And in many cases, angry religious-based movements of resentment emerge.

This book explores the diversity of these new movements of challenge and change, and the incidents of violence that they have created. It is not meant to be comprehensive. There are many more movements and events that could have been included. Africa, for example, has witnessed the rise of movements such as Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army—a Muslim movement related to the Islamic State and a Christian militia. This book could have included those and many others, and in doing so easily expanded to two volumes, and perhaps a whole library, to cover the many forms of strident religious activism in the current age.

Still, this book tries to accomplish in a limited way the objective of showing that religious violence has erupted in public life throughout the world, in every religious tradition. There is no religion that is more prone to violence than others. Islam is not more violent by nature than, say, Christianity. And there is no religion that is so nonviolent by nature that it is devoid of examples of violent activism. Even Buddhist societies have had their violent religious aspects. Contemporary religious violence is truly global.

Will these movements last forever? I am sometimes asked whether this period in world history is a momentary eruption of social discord or whether these forms of unrest are here to stay. My answer is that specific movements rise and fall. Often they last no more than a few years. They are not able to carry the weight of their heady expectations of religious and social transformation, and their organizations often flounder in corruption and the infighting of internal  power struggles. Yet the larger issue of the erosion of confidence in secular nationalism is a matter that may be with us for some time. The trends that produce it—demographic shifts and transnational economic and social changes—will continue to challenge nation-states in ways that conduce to movements of neo-nationalism and opposition. Some of these will rely on religion for their legitimation.

The story of the rise of religious violence is therefore ongoing. The final chapters are yet to be written. My hope is that the ideas in this book and the perspectives that it brings to analyzing this phenomenon will continue to be useful in understanding new and continuing forms of religious violence in the years to come.


Russia’s Assault on Ukraine

KEYT-TV posted February 22/ 2022. Interview by Tracy Lehr

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Mark Juergensmeyer has a way of explaining complicated crises, such as the one on the Russia-Ukraine border.

“An assault on freedom anywhere is an assault on freedom everywhere, so we should always be concerned when there is an attempt to try to change the equation and take over people’s rights,” said Juergensmeyer.

As the founding director of the Global and International Studies Program and the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, he has visited Kyiv and parts of the region.

The professor who has a doctorate in political science said Russian leader Vladimir Putin wants the resources the Ukraine has.

“Ukraine is a very rich country it has these mineral resources, it has the largest number of rare earth minerals that are useful for making computers, ” said Juergensmeyer. “There is a huge coal deposits, so it is not just nostalgia that Putin wants, he wants money.”

The people of Ukraine have already fought a civil war to the be poised toward Europe, rather than towards the Soviet Union.

“They want to join the EU (European Union) they want to be a part of NATO (Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization) Russia doesn’t want that to happen, so this is really a struggle over the future of Europe.”

The professor said what could happen in Ukraine could also happen in other countries that used to be part of U.S.S.R.’s control.

When asked what former President Trump would be doing, he said Trump may have adopted the same position that its neighbor China has adopted right now.

Putin could be seen in the stands during the Olympics in Beijing.

That is when Juergensmeyer believes Putin was cozying up to China’s leader Xi Jinping.

“There is no question that one of the things they talked about is how Russia would like to compare what is going on in Ukraine with what is going on in Xinjiang with the Uyghurs in China.”

He thinks silence from China is part of their deal.

“There have been crickets from China’s side, it hasn’t either condemned what Russia has done in Ukraine, nor has it condoned.”

He said the two critical counties to look at are Germany and China since Germany controls the pipeline that is going to be this natural resource for Russia.

The professor believes sanctions are necessary because Russia has a fragile economy.

“Russia has a terrible economy, it is lower than California,” said Juergensmeyer. “California would be a more powerful economy than Russia and the only thing they really have going for them is oil and gas and right now if Germany cuts off the gas pipeline it would be a huge impact and if the sanctions impact there sale of oil around the world that would be another huge impact.”

He said sanctions are moderate in response, as Russia takes over territory that is already in Russia’s hands, for all practical purposes.

Russia wants to say those areas are no longer part of Ukraine.

“In the short run this may affect our oil prices, we may have to pay a little bit more at the pump, but in the long run it is worth it because we have to fight for freedom everywhere.”

Dr. Juergensmeyer just completed his 30th book entitled “When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends.”

It is available wherever books are sold.

How Health Insurance Denial Saved My Life

Well that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Being denied a health insurance request didn’t actually save my life. But it did save me from an excruciating knee replacement surgery that I didn’t need. And it was also a sobering lesson in modern medical practices.

I was three days away from my total knee replacement surgery when I came to the orthopedic doctor’s office in Santa Barbara to get the final ok. I had flown in from Maui where my wife and I spend winters, a 2500 mile trip, because I assumed my medical care here would be superb. I was sort of right.

The week before, however, the health insurance company had contacted me with bad news. The doctor’s request to cover the knee replacement surgery was denied.

“No problem,” the doctor told me via a digital memo. He was sure that it was only because the old x-ray of the knee was out of date, and that a new x-ray would convince the insurance company that I really did need the knee replacement surgery.

The old x-ray on which the diagnosis was based was six months old. I had had problems with my right leg for over a year, with stiffness and pain. In the prior year I had fallen down a rocky embankment in Maui and that seemed to be the beginning of the problem.

When I went to the doctor six months ago, he found a tear in my knee’s meniscus cartilage, and he cleaned up the wound. My leg felt moderately better, but the stiffness remained. He said he saw some arthritis in the knee as well, and if it got worse, maybe I would have to have knee replacement surgery, one of his specialties.

It did get worse. Much worse. I could hardly walk. So I told him the time had come for the surgery.

That’s when he put in the request to the health insurance company. And that’s when they denied it.

So now we’re three days away from the surgery date, and my doctor has just taken a new x-ray. This is the one that he thinks will convince the health insurance company to cover the costs. He calls me into his office with a worried look on his face.

He shows me the x-ray. “Your knee looks fine,” he said. There was no sign of arthritis. “The insurance company will never approve this,” he added with a degree of disappointment.

“Well,” I said, “I can’t walk. Something is wrong.”

“Let me see your leg,” he said, reaching down to manipulate my leg. I think that this was the first time that he had done this. Thus far he had relied solely on my own statement that the pain was near my knee, and on the x-ray 6 months earlier that seemed to show arthritis, at least at that time.

He asked me to move my knee and it worked just fine. He asked me to lift up leg, and I said I can’t. “It won’t move,” I said.

“That’s your hip, not your knee,” he exclaimed. He then sent me back for another set of x-rays to check my hip.

The waiting room was full of patients waiting to see the doctor, and he didn’t have time to check the x-rays on that day, he said. He suggested that I come back two days later. But that would have been the day before the time allocated for the surgery—previously knee replacement now possibly hip replacement.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I told him. I said that I had flown here from Maui and took weeks out of my schedule for this surgery and if necessary I’d sleep in this waiting room until he saw me and we figure out what is going on.

He relented, and at the end of the afternoon when all the other patients were gone, he called me back in to look at the x-ray, “This is the most damaged hip I’ve ever seen,” he said. He showed where the cartilage had completely worn away, bone was grinding against bone, with cysts and bone spurs aggravating the joint.

How I could walk was beyond him. Why there was no pain in my hip itself was even more of a mystery, and that’s what threw him off, he said. Rarely did he see the pain from a damaged hip appear in the lower thigh near the knee. “But you definitely need hip replacement,” he said.

He apologized for the “misunderstanding” that he was about to replace a perfectly good knee. It was not, of course, a misunderstanding, but a bad diagnosis, albeit an understandable error for doctors that do not have time to  examine carefully their patients.

And that’s where the medical care situation is the larger issue. With the flood of patients seeking elective surgery after hospitals have been overwhelmed with covid care, it is no surprise that a couple of minutes in the doctor’s office is all that any patient gets, even for joint replacement surgery.

In my case, the story has a happy ending. Miraculously my insurance company – United Healthcare – was able to give a quick turn-around to approve the new request for hip replacement surgery based on the new x-rays. Marie, the surgery appointments person, got up at 6am to call and by the time I contacted them two hours later it was approved.

Three days later, in the same time slot that was reserved in the operating room for my knee replacement surgery, I received a total hip replacement. In this role, my doctor’s skill was superb. He entered the hip socket area from an incision in the front that is less painful and heals more quickly than posterior or side approaches.

Within hours after the surgery the anesthesia had worn off and I was able to walk. In the days since then I continue to exercise my leg. There is little to no pain, and I walk better after the surgery than I did before,

When I talked with the health insurance representative before the surgery I thanked her profusely for denying my claim. She said she was used to getting angry calls from people rejecting their requests. Never, however, was she thanked for a denial.

But in my case, I told her, it saved my life. Well, at least it saved my knee.




Page 99 Test

The “Page 99 Test” asserts that if you open any book to that page you will get the gist of what the book is about. A website devoted to this idea asked me if it applied to my latest book, and here’s what I told them.

If readers randomly opened my book to page 99 they might indeed get a pretty good sense of what the book is about. The book tries to understand how religious-related violent movements come to an end, viewed from those inside the movements.

The book looks at three case studies—ISIS in Iraq, the Moro movement for Muslim separatism in the Philippines, and the Sikh Khalistan movement in India. On page 99, I’m describing how support for the Sikh uprising began to erode among the Indian villagers who previously had tolerated it:

“Accompanying the increase in violence was a general collapse of law and order, especially in rural areas near the Pakistani border. The young activists had intimidated the older Sikh leaders, who became virtual pawns of the militants. The only authority in some areas came from those who ruled by gun at night. This was due in part to the erosion of idealism in the Sikh movement and in part to the movement’s exploitation by what amounted to street gangs and roving bands of thugs. In time, the Sikh movement had failed to achieve whatever political goals it might have espoused, including the dream of an independent Khalistan, leaving a cynical and demoralized public in its wake.”

As I go on to explain in the book, the loss of support from the public was one of several critical factors in bringing violent movements to a close. Another factor was in-fighting and loss of confidence in the leadership.

Outside factors made a difference as well. Prominent among these was a sense of hope, alternatives to fighting that provided careers for the militants and some concessions to the movements’ demands that would allow the leaders to save face and convince their followers it was all worth while.

The role of police and military was ambivalent. On one hand, it was necessary to have an authoritative show of force so that violent people could be restricted in what they could do and were brought to justice when they committed crimes. On the other hand, all-out attempts to crush the movements through military force often backfired and made the militants more defensive.

Sometimes a military victory over a movement was in fact a coup de grace for a movement that had already essentially destroyed itself from within. The military destruction of ISIS quarters in Raqqa and Mosul, for example, may have been the final blow to a movement that was already badly weakened by infighting and demoralization, according to some of the old militants whom I met.

Many of them continued to believe in the ideals of a Muslim caliphate and would join the movement if it rose again. But for now, they capitulated to the reality that their war was over and the movement had ended.

How QAnon Might End

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

[This essay, based on my new book, When God Stops Fighting, was originally posted on the Religion Dispatches website.] 

QAnon will not last forever. Sooner or later conspiracy theories unravel and violent movements associated with them eventually end.

I make this prediction based on a study of the demise of recent violent religious-related movements around the world, including ISIS, which is the subject of my forthcoming book, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends (University of California Press). Often, I have found, they erode from within. They can vanish as quickly as they emerged.

The QAnon conspiracy and the extremist movements related to it are like summer storms. They boil up from the hot air with fierce intensity. Just as quickly, they can disappear, with only lingering gusts and gales to remind us of the turmoil that they have left behind.

Summer storms, however, are based on real meteorological phenomena. Conspiracy theories and the movements that promote them are even more fragile constructs, since they are based entirely on fiction. QAnon in an imagined reality that can deconstruct, though not necessarily easily.

By “being based on fiction” I mean not only the “big lie” that QAnon promotes, that the recent presidential election was stolen and that Donald Trump is still the president. Associated with this big lie is a quite remarkable imaginary world of alternative reality that proposes that there is a hidden cabal of manipulators in the government, the media, and in the motion picture industry. These Satan-worshippers are part of the “deep state” that runs the country for its own evil purposes. Among those evils are child trafficking and the molestation of innocent children. Donald Trump is a secret savior figure who during his second term of office will ride through the cataclysmic events of what QAnon calls “the storm,” and bring the evil-doers to justice.

Though not all of the rioters in the January 6 capital insurrection subscribed to all of the details of the QAnon conspiracy, most agreed with the main features: that there is an evil liberal plot to control the country and that Trump has been anointed to save the righteous from this liberal fate.

How such conspiracies emerge is an interesting subject of study and conjecture. In an online article, “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon,” Reed Berkowitz claims that the creation of the QAnon conspiracy is similar to the way computer games are designed. The process is something he calls “guided apophenia.” This refers to the ability of the human mind to take disconnected bits of information and attempt to put them into a related whole, even if the construct is illusory. This process can be “guided” by manipulators trying to create a computer game or a strident political ideology. Hence QAnon gives “drops” of information as clues to try to figure out, and those who do so feel that they are making discoveries due to their own powerful rational abilities. It provides the cognitive satisfaction of a treasure hunt or working on a crossword puzzle.

The problem with this process is that it gives the followers the illusion that they are finding out these patterns by themselves. Hence they must be true. The fact that they are then shared by a wider community buttresses this gnostic sense of being privy to a secret source of knowledge.

It is, in a sense, like religion. In their authoritative book on QAnon, Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko cite those who regard it as a kind of religion. This observation is affirmed by a Christian pastor, Mark Sayer, in an interview published in Christianity Today, “Why Someone You Love Might Join QAnon.” The ideas of QAnon are also merged with other forms of religion, particularly premillennial Evangelical Protestant Christianity. Anyone who believes that the Rapture will come and sweep righteous Christians into heaven before the cataclysmic events of the Book of Revelation and the coming of Christ will recognize a familiar theme in the QAnon prophecy of the “storm,” and the return of Donald Trump to save society.

All this means that this is a deeply entrenched alternative reality and not just a casual conspiracy. So when I said that it can vanish as quickly as a summer storm, I don’t mean to predict that it will.

Nonetheless, from what I have learned from studying how other violent religious movements have ended, including those like ISIS that are as deeply entrenched in their followers minds, I suggest that there are several things that could hasten the unravelling of the theories and the collapse of the movements. If ISIS can dissipate, so can QAnon.

Internal Dissention

I talked with a militant fighter for the Islamic State, whom I will call Muhammad, in a prison in Northern Iraq who told me that the defeat of Mosul was not the deciding moment in the demise of ISIS.

“It was dead before it was destroyed,” Muhammad told me, saying that infighting and bad leadership had corrupted the movement. To illustrate the point, Muhammad pulled up his shirt to show me the scar from where he had been stabbed in an encounter with a fellow ISIS militant. Increasingly, it had seemed to him that they were fighting as much among themselves as they were against their perceived enemies.

He was also frustrated with the movement’s leadership. Though Muhammad clung to the idea of a Caliph as a righteous ruler worth fighting for, he seemed uncertain about whether al-Baghdadi was a sufficiently strong leader to deserve that title. Faith in a movement can erode when its leader is seen as less than legitimate.

A similar loss of faith may be occurring in the QAnon community. The bona fides of Donald Trump seems increasingly to be in question in right-wing extremist circles. His encouragement of followers to be vaccinated against COVID at a recent rally was greeted with boos. Some have criticized his fund-raising and openly suspect that it is not really for legal defense purposes as described.

If greater dissention emerges within the ranks over what elements of QAnon to believe, and if Trump himself is seen as fallible, the conspiracy might begin to unravel. An HBO documentary implied that the figure of QAnon was not some deep state official, but Ron Watkins, the long-time administrator of the 8kun message board on which QAnon’s sayings were posted. Whether this revelation will cause disillusionment in the ranks is yet to be seen.

Resolute Reality

The final ending of the Khalistani uprising of militant Sikhs in India’s Punjab in the 1990s came with from a barrage of military and police repression. Although many of the former militants in the movement told me that the movement had already self-destructed from within, they admitted that the presence of the police had a chilling effect on the movement’s control of the countryside. When the police or military respond too strongly they can send the signal that the image of warfare that many militants project is legitimate, and they respond in kind with more violence. But if there are no boundaries set on what is acceptable behavior, then unbridled bloodshed is possible.

In the case of the Khalistan movement, as with many others that I have studied, the activists have to be reminded of social reality: that there are limits on what they can do in a civil society without repercussions. You can’t kill with impunity. Nor can you be involved in an insurrection against the state without the state taking action against you.

This is what many of the QAnon participants in the January 6 uprising on the U.S. capital are now discovering.  As of mid-November 2021 there were 650 cases being brought to the courts. Some have already resulted in sentences of multiple years in prison. The “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, who famously ranted from the podium in the US Capital Senate chambers, is facing charges that may sentence him to 51 months in prison.

These court cases are chilling reminders that armed insurrection against the capital is not tolerated in proper society. The QAnon expectations about permissible public behavior have to be revised. For some in the movement these legal cases are the wakeup call that indicate that the movement has gone too far, and their behavior–if not their beliefs–will not be tolerated.

Face-saving Options

When the Philippine authorities were negotiating in earnest with the Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao, they determined that simply requiring the fighters to lay down their arms was not sufficient. Many of the militants had been guerilla soldiers since they were teenage boys, and now some ten or twenty years later, fighting was the only skill that they knew how to do. For that reason, re-training camps were set up to provide vocational skills such as carpentry, mechanics, and other marketable forms of labor. The authorities wanted to provide the militants not only with reasons to reject what they had been doing but to look forward to a new future by finding alternative ways of rejoining society.

In the case of QAnon, most of those who subscribe to those beliefs do not need new jobs; they already have them. But they do need a face-saving way of re-entering society after stridently identifying themselves with a conspiratorial ideology that many of their former friends and neighbors regard at best as bizarre and at worst demented and quite possibly dangerous. Studies of true believers of any form of extremist religion or ideology show that once one has adopted that position it is very difficult to leave it without losing face.

This is where the religious aspects of the QAnon movement might become useful. Since for many, as Bloom and Moskalenko have stated, QAnon is a religion, and for many more it is closely intertwined with their religious affiliation to Evangelical Protestantism, the two could be combined. It could be fairly easy to maintain at least some of elements of the QAnon worldview and merge them with religious apocalypticism, thereby de-politicizing the ideology. It might not be difficult to persuade former QAnon advocates that the alternative world of evil that they imagine is a spiritual rather than a political one. They might return to the notion that the savior who will rescue them is the Christ that they have proclaimed for years, rather than Donald Trump.

Another option would be the one chosen by many former followers of ISIS. They are no longer warriors. They grudgingly accept the legitimacy of the secular state in Iraq and Syria, but they secretly long for the Caliphate that they once tried to create through militancy. They repress their desires for a religious state, and usually refrain from talking about it in public. But among their old comrades they can still discuss the glory days and share their longing for the Caliphate to rise again.

This may be the fate of the QAnon of the future. Old radicals may convene at each other’s homes and share stories of the great insurrection on January 6, 2021. They may share visions of the future “storm” and the cleansing of pedophiles and satanic powers from government, and the eventual return of Donald Trump. And then they will go back to work the next day as if nothing had happened. And no one will be the wiser.

QAnon will not last forever. Sooner or later conspiracy theories unravel and violent movements associated with them eventually end.



How Religious Violence Ends

An excerpt from the preface of my forthcoming book, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends (University of California Press, 2022).

“The war is over,” the former ISIS fighter told me. When I talked with him he was incarcerated in a prison in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He had been convicted of being a jihadi warrior with the Islamic State, but now he expressed disillusionment with the movement and its leadership.

I had asked him whether the ISIS struggle was still attractive to some people. He looked at me in disbelief, and then said quietly, “the war is over.” Without admitting that he ever was fully in it, he was acknowledging that this battle was now a thing of the past. What he did not admit, however, was that the apocalyptic imagery of conflict at the end times and the rise of a Caliphate was no longer valid. The battle was over, but for some the ideas remained. It was a sentiment that he shared with many of the old ISIS fighters, as I was to discover in other conversations. Yet for now, he sadly acknowledged, the war was over.

It is not an easy thing to slip out of war. Perhaps it is more difficult than slipping into it, considering all of the personal, social, and spiritual aspects of a commitment to a struggle that have to be abandoned. Yet war ends. Violent movements, even those informed by religious visions of great warfare, terminate, or are transformed into more peaceful elements within the broader society.

In this book I want to try to understand how this happens. My motive is to complete my own understanding of the rise of movements of religious nationalism and religion-related violence around the world, a project in which I have been engaged for decades. The natural conclusion of these studies is to understand how such movements end. As it turns out, it is also a timely one.

As I prepared this book for publication, the news media fixated on the assault on the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021, provoked by then-president Donald Trump. Though not overtly religious, the White supremacists who were among the most ardent members of that insurrection privileged Christian culture. The conspiratorial mythology of the QAnon movement to which many of the participants adhered borrowed heavily from the imagery and end-times rhetoric of millenarian evangelical Protestant Christianity. Many of the participants regarded their involvement as part of a godly crusade—the kind of cosmic war that is in the minds of similar religious activists of various faiths around the world who see worldly confrontations as expressions of a metaphysical struggle between good and evil, right and wrong.

It is of timely importance then, to understand not only how such movements arise—the mood of alienation and marginalization that has propelled people to imagine themselves in a great righteous war—but also how they might end. As the case studies in this book will indicate, the way that governmental authorities respond to these movements can make all the difference. It can exacerbate the situation or alleviate it. But such movements do end.

To understand how this happens, I’ve tried to get inside the minds and mindsets of individuals involved in specific cases. I have chosen case studies where violent movements have largely come to a close. In deciding which cases to focus on I considered a range of possibilities. I could have chosen the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, though I have already analyzed how this conflict ended. Or I could have examined the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, though that movement, even in a diminished state, continues its savage warfare in the region. The list goes on, though many imagined wars are still continuing and it is too early to examine how they might end.

Out of the range of possibilities I have chosen three case studies. One of them is the Islamic State, based in Iraq and Syria, which reigned over large sections of both countries from 2015 to 2017 and was territorially defeated by 2018. This is a movement that I have studied since its inception, through multiple visits to the region, and is an example of attempts to crush such uprisings through military destruction.

The second case is the Moro Movement for a Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines, a Muslim separatist movement that persisted from 1969 to 2019, when a peace agreement was finally ratified by a plebiscite in the region. This was a new movement for me to study, but I chose it in part because it showed the possibilities of the transition from violence to nonviolence through skillful negotiation—much like the Northern Ireland case.

The third case I have chosen is the Khalistan movement for Sikh separatism in the north Indian state of Punjab. The Sikh movement was involved in a deadly conflict with the Indian government throughout the 1980s and finally came to an end in 1993 for a variety of reasons, including an all-out assault by the Indian police. This is a movement that I know well, since I lived for a time in the region, and it was the rise of religious nationalism in the 1980s in the Punjab that first sparked my interest in studying the relationship between religion and nationalism in strident new movements of opposition. It also interested me because it was an example, like ISIS, of militant suppression, but also of the collapse of popular support for the uprising. Hence these three cases provided me with a range of ways in which violent movements end.

I realize that in choosing two Muslim cases out of the three I may be giving a false impression that Islam is more prone to violence and movements of religious nationalism than other religious traditions. This is not the case. For a more balanced view of the rise of religious violence that occurs in all religious traditions one may consult my earlier books, Global Rebellion: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. For this book, I have chosen these two cases because they provide an interesting comparison with each other and the Khalistan case about how such movements end.

I say that each of these movements came to an end, though in each case aspects of the struggle linger on. Occasional acts of violence associated with them continue. Moreover, like the former ISIS soldier I met, the sense of militancy, the vision of great war, that animated each of them has endured among some supporters. Among many others, however, the idea of war was over long before the hostilities ended. That loss of faith in the war effort may have been a major factor in the ending of each of these movements.

How much of a factor was it? This is what I wanted to find out by looking more closely at each of these cases. I have traveled to these three regions on several occasions and talked with a variety of former supporters and others knowledgeable about the situation. By looking at different cases I hoped to find elements that were common to all three, as well as those that were not. I hoped to develop the range of patterns regarding how visions of warfare come to an end. I also wanted to understand what factors propelled the movements towards abandoning the idea of war, factors that were both internal to the movements and that came from outside, including the actions of government authorities who were trying to control or crush the movements. Which of these actions were helpful in bringing an end to the hostilities and which were counter-productive?

In this book I want to bring the reader with me into the worlds imagined by supporters of each of these three movements. We will try to understand how sensible people could be drawn into a state of remarkable war, and how in time they lost faith in that vision and found ways to extricate themselves from the movements that had fostered it. It will be a remarkable journey to three quite different locales, but in each case the end will be the promise of enduring peace.


Further information on the book may be found at the UC Press website:



Michael Was Not Ordinary

This was given as the eulogy at the memorial for Michael Jerryson at Youngstown State University on September 15, 2021

Michael Jerryson was not very successful….at being ordinary. He tried, but he was just not very good at it.

For example, he joined the Peace Corps after college. What could be more ordinary than that? He was stationed in Mongolia. There he just wanted to be an ordinary Peace Corps worker, out in the field helping with agriculture development projects and helping villagers improve their public health.

He did all that, which is the ordinary thing to do. But Michael’s mind kept working. He saw that Mongolian society was beginning to change, and the role of the Buddhist sangha, the monks, was taking on increased social and political power.

So in between his other Peace Corps tasks he studied the Buddhist sangha in Mongolia, and ended up publishing it as a book. That is not an ordinary thing to do in the Peace Corps.

He came to graduate school at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He just wanted to be an ordinary graduate student. But he kept winning scholarships and receiving awards for being the best teaching assistant. One of the undergraduate students in his classes told me that he was first attracted to Michael because he seemed such an ordinary guy, someone you could easily relate to. And he was. “But then,” the student added, “he changed my life. He opened my eyes in ways no teacher had done before.”

Michael was not an ordinary graduate student. He challenged his professors. I was one of them who soon realized that this guy was not just an ordinary student. He was a colleague. And we ended up co-editing three book projects together. That is not ordinary.

Michael’s research work was not ordinary either. Oh, he chose an ordinary subject—the role of peace making by Buddhist monks. What could be more ordinary than that? Everyone knows that Buddhism is nonviolent, the religion of peace.

So Michael went to Thailand to study the Buddhist monks and their role in peacemaking. He knew there was conflict at the southern border between Buddhist and Muslim groups, and Michael immediately went there to see what the monks were doing to bring about peace. That would be what you ordinarily expect.

But that’s not what Michael found. He discovered that the monks were not trying to bring peace but some had guns under their robes and they were joining the fight. So Michael changed his topic, and began to explore how even Buddhists could at times justify violence.

This is not the ordinary way of looking at Buddhism. But it showed that Buddhist people are in fact people, and like everyone else in the world they use their religion for good and at times to support conflict. Michael meant no disrespect towards Buddhism, a tradition that he greatly admired, but intellectual honesty led him to probe more deeply into the dark side of the tradition. It was not the ordinary approach; but it has made Michael internationally famous in the fields of Buddhist studies and of religion and violence. As I recently wrote about him, “after Michael Jerryson no one will look at Buddhism the same way.” This is not an ordinary scholarly impact on a field of studies.

Now whether Michael was an ordinary husband and father is not for me to say. But you can see the evidence before you—Fawn and Siena and Parker, this is not your ordinary family. Each is special, and has become so, I believe, in part because Michael has encouraged them to not just be ordinary.

The same can be said, I suspect, regarding his interaction with students and colleagues at YSU. You will hear from many of them in a moment. And what they will tell you, I think, is that Michael was not an ordinary professor and colleague.

He was not your ordinary obedient faculty member. Even before he received tenure he began pointing out to the administration the institutional injustices of the university. He fought for more equitable treatment of faculty and students, just as he has fought for equal justice in issues of gender, race, and sexuality. He has never been willing to accept the ordinary when human rights have been imperiled.

Michael, as my undergraduate student said, seemed like such an ordinary guy, so warm and friendly, full of humor and good common sense. So ordinary. And yet when you got to know him you discovered how much more than ordinary he could be.

Michael was able to transform institutions, just he has transformed his subjects and those around him at every stage of life he has lived. He had a Midas touch for social and personal transformation. What a guy.

So we remember Michael Jerryson. In all that he taught, in all that he studied, and in all the lives he touched, he made the ordinary extraordinary.


How 9/11 Launched a War

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 11 (Photo by Anthony Correia/Getty Images)

This essay was published on September 11, 2021 in the Los Angeles Review of Books in a special issue on the impact of 9/11 twenty years later. 

Before the second tower fell, I was already on national television trying to give a credible answer regarding whom the perpetrators might be and why they did it. I had just published a book on religious terrorism based on interviews with activists around the world, so I was on the rolodex of television producers when the towers were attacked.

“If they were Muslim, it was just a small group,” I explained. “You can’t blame the entire Muslim world.”

“That’s an interesting opinion,” the Fox News host said, quickly cutting off my microphone. This was not the analysis he wanted to hear.

At the time, it seemed no one wanted to hear that. Though President George W. Bush also admonished the country not to blame all Muslims, clearly he and his neocon cohort had a larger agenda in mind, one that targeted the Muslim world. Responding to 9/11 was not just the obligation to round up the perpetrators — it was a chance to reset US policy in the Middle East.

This became clear on September 12, 2001, which in some ways was an even more fateful day than 9/11. Bush announced on television that this attack was not just a terrorist incident, it was “war.” Soon the banner of the War on Terror, a.k.a. the Global War on Terror — GWOT, was the persistent slogan creeping along the bottom of television screens.

Arguably GWOT was the fourth world war, following the Cold War that was preceded by World Wars I and II. It dominated US foreign policy for all of the Bush administration years and to some extent long afterward, and it resulted in the US invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. As of this writing, some two decades later, President Joe Biden is still trying to extricate the last of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the turmoil created by those invasions will not soon subside.

But why did the 9/11 attack indicate that we were at war? This is a question that I raised to a group of students in my classes shortly after the attack. They were uniformly convinced that it was an act of war.

What if the towers had fallen down at night when no one was there, I asked? They seemed puzzled, but agreed that that would not have been sufficient for war. What if the perpetrators were simply a small band of extremists, a suggestion that many of them knew was in fact the case. Still, they said, there must have been a larger force behind them. I pointed out that jihadi extremists had targeted America for some 10 years and the American public did not see itself at war.

“But September 11 was different,” the students argued, “because it worked.”

“Besides,” one of the women in the class said, breaking the silence, “it was such a crazy thing, those towers falling. It had to be war.”

Her comment was striking, since it was irrational, and yet totally convincing. 9/11 was war, she was saying, because it was the only thing that made sense of such a senseless situation.

For some years since then, I have been thinking about her response. It was echoed in a similar way by Sunni Arabs in Iraq who supported ISIS, and it was the sentiment of Sikh separatists in India and angry Buddhists in Myanmar. The many activist movements that I have studied in the last 30 years have had a common theme of believing that they were engaged in great wars.

Last year my thinking about this came to fruition in a book, God at War, where I concluded that in each case the idea of war started the same way. It was a response to an existential fear that the world had gone awry, and some evil force must be behind it.

This is a justifiable fear in many cases — it is clear who the enemy is. But in some cases the enemy is mystery, and one has a vague, inchoate sense of being under attack by an amorphous unseen force. This was the case in 9/11. The students in my class knew viscerally that it was war, though they couldn’t quite identify who did it or why we were the target. But they knew that Muslims were somehow involved.

The idea of war has consequences, and in the case of the Global War on Terror, the Muslim connection turned out to be troublesome on several levels. For one thing, it has led to a rash of Islamophobia in the United States that has still not subsided. For another, it has fueled the justifications for the invasion and occupation of two Muslim nations.

In both instances, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were ostensibly about things other than religion. The assault on Afghanistan was supposed to enable the US military to capture the al-Qaeda headquarters and rid the world of terrorism, though neither of those things happened. And the war in Iraq was sold to the American people as the means to find and destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Those were not found either.

Still, to buttress the case for invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that Saddam and Osama bin Laden had been conspiring together. It was an unlikely possibility, considering that the Iraq ruler was a secular socialist with no previous ties to religiosity. But in the minds of many Americans the invasion of Iraq, like Afghanistan, was a response to the Muslim attack on 9/11.

One of the first dramatic moments of the US occupation of Iraq came when a statue of Saddam was toppled in Fardous Square in Baghdad. As the ropes were tied on the statue to bring it down a young marine climbed to the top to put an American flag over Saddam’s face, rather like an execution hood.

His marine superiors immediately had him take it down since this was supposed to be an Iraq people’s moment, not an American celebration. But when asked by a Reuters reporter why he did it, the marine explained that this was not just any flag, it was an American flag that flew over the Pentagon the day that it was attacked by the jihadi activists on 9/11.

When the marine was told that Saddam did not have any connection to bin Laden or the 9/11 jihadis, the marine was persistent. “I know,” he said, “but in my heart I felt we were getting even for 9/11.”

Some 20 years later there are still those Americans who feel that we should be “getting even” with the Muslim world. It was only a small radical fringe that perpetrated 9/11, but once the notion of war invaded our minds it required an enemy of grand proportions. It is a devious myth, one that has not easily been dispelled.


Will the Taliban Remain Moderate?

This essay was posted August 24 in Religion Dispatches

Some ten days after the fall of Kabul it’s still not clear how the Taliban will rule. There are several reports of reprisal killings and brutal enforcement of their strict interpretation of Islamic law. But there are also statements of support for women’s rights, protection from reprisals, and overtures of the Taliban leadership to former Afghan leaders like Hamid Karzai to create a coalition government. More significantly, for over a week the Taliban stood aside while 50,000 foreigners and their Afghan supporters were airlifted from the Kabul airport.

The question is whether the Taliban has changed. Will it be the same hard line Islamic state that it tried to create the last time it was in power, twenty years ago? Many are, quite justifiably, skeptical of what Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr called a “charm offensive” in an article noting that while there will be no “discrimination” against women they will be living within the “framework” of Islam, which of course has numerous interpretations.

But even if the Taliban doesn’t want to change it might have to. For one thing, Afghanistan isn’t the same place as it was twenty years ago when ruling it was more of a pushover. Now it’ll have to adapt to some degree to its new freedom-loving urban constituency. Throughout Afghanistan people have cell phones and access to the internet. It’ll be difficult to have the same kind of social control two decades later.

Another factor is the way the Taliban came to power in recent months. In February 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo represented President Donald Trump in meetings with Taliban representatives in Qatar. Trump essentially surrendered to the Taliban in exchange for assurances that the US would withdraw peaceably. The US. then drew down its military presence to a tiny fraction of what it had been before, and with no assurances given to the Afghan government (which wasn’t even a party to the negotiations), the US agreed to withdraw all of its troops by mid-2021.

This was an enormously generous gift to the Taliban. They knew that Biden’s hands would be tied to the Trump decision—if he didn’t pull out the last US troops in mid-2021 as promised, the Taliban would militarily attack the paltry 2500 remaining troops and, assuming that the Afghan military wasn’t capable of resisting the Taliban (as was clearly demonstrated in the final weeks before the fall of Kabul) Biden’s only choice would be to ramp up the US military presence to a fighting force of 100,000 or so to protect the remaining 2500. There was very little stomach among the American people for yet more war in Afghanistan, an opinion shared by Biden himself. So he bit the bullet and withdrew the last remaining troops, and the world has witnessed the consequence.

For the Taliban, however, the Trump deal was a godsend. Not only did it hand them the country without needing to fight the US, but also it gave them time to make deals with regional warlords, tribal leaders, and Afghan military commanders to allow them safe harbor (and in some cases plum positions) if they agreed to change sides at the appropriate moment.

That moment came in August, when the new American President, Joe Biden, announced the withdrawal of the last troops. Methodically, region by region, the resistance fell within days like a house of cards, virtually without firing a shot. At the end, the Taliban simply marched into Kabul and took over.

This patient pattern of negotiation and coalition-building, however, has changed the Taliban. Although the movement continues to give voice to the extremist Islamic ideology for which it is justly infamous, it has also tempered its talk, in part to mollify its coalition partners. It remains to be seen if their support will be dropped as soon as the Taliban has secured its hold on the political apparatus of the country, but assuming they continue to need this support their extreme position will be at least partially checked.

One reason why it would be in the Taliban’s interest to maintain good relations with its internal coalition and with international connections such as Russia and Pakistan is that it remembers what happened twenty years ago. At that time an intensive US military assault was able to destroy the Taliban’s control as quickly as the American-supported Afghan government collapsed in 2021. In both cases the critical issue was a withdrawal of support from tribal warlords and regional leaders in what had been tacit support. The Taliban is mindful that this could happen again.

An indication that the Taliban leaders are taking a more prudent course is its approach to the US evacuations at the Kabul airport. They appear to have been in no mood to confront the might of the US military, especially since they’d been assured that it was going to leave. Instead, the Taliban leaders adopted a position of patience. They proclaimed that there would be no reprisals and free access to the airport. With some truly unfortunate exceptions, this promise was largely met.

Compare this to the last time the US lost a war and had to suddenly retreat during the fall of Saigon. During that memorable scramble in 1975, US diplomats had to evacuate the embassy via helicopters that landed on the roof as the North Vietnamese army tanks literally broke down the Embassy gates. The airport was out of commission since the North Vietnamese military had attacked it, and in fact the last American soldiers to lose their lives in the war were defending the airport. After that last helicopter flight not a single person was evacuated by the US military. The “boat people” who fled Vietnam did so on their own.

By contrast the Taliban has been remarkably patient. The airport hasn’t been bombarded, and tens of thousands of Afghan people have been able to board US military cargo planes. Though some Taliban soldiers have made the exit difficult, others have helped to control the crowds and check their documents to make certain that the papers of those trying to leave were in order. Understandably, however, tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who would like to leave the country simply to have a better life abroad were not able to do so.

For many of them, especially those who have come to enjoy the secular lifestyle that’s developed in Afghanistan’s cities in the past twenty years, the question is whether the Taliban will rule like another Islamic State (ISIS). In this regard it is interesting to note that there is in fact an indigenous movement in Afghanistan that calls itself ISIS-Khorasan (Khorasan is the 6th century designation for a region that stretched from Eastern Iran through Afghanistan to Central Asia). But this ISIS-K is led by renegade former Taliban militants, and is a rival of the Taliban, so they will likely try to co-opt or destroy it.

So the Taliban will not become ISIS, but it could rule like ISIS, as it did twenty years ago, or it could change along the lines that it has professed it would, and which its coalition and urban centers might welcome. Whether one thinks that that’s possible depends in part on whether one thinks a religious regime of this sort is capable of internal change without the necessity for an invasion from outside.

The diversity of political positions within the Islamic Republic of Iran give some indication that even a rather rigid religious regime is indeed capable of flexibility and perhaps significant change on its own. Muslim militants in other parts of the world have disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini and rejected many of his positions. Post-revolution leaders in Iran, including Mohammad Khatami, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani have been considerably more moderate than the extremists. Saudi Arabia is another hardline autocratic country that seems to tolerate a certain degree of dissention and liberal lifestyles—at least in private.

The leaders of the Taliban claim that now that they’re in charge they want a new leadership style, one that will create a stable respectable government, albeit one with strong Muslim religious limitations. We’ll see if this promise is fulfilled. But if Afghanistan does turn out to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia, then there’s another question: whether the US can live with it, and if so, whether it accepts that its twenty years of attempts to transform Afghanistan have at least in part succeeded.

That may be the enduring legacy of the long US occupation: a more moderate Taliban. Whether this was worth the trillions of dollars spent and lives lost in maintaining the occupation all these years will be debated for some time to come. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether this moderate stance will last.

Mark Juergensmeyer