Farewell, Brother John


Yesterday my brother John—my Republican brother—called me from our hometown in Southern Illinois as he was about to board his little plane. He was an experienced pilot and loved to fly, even though he had just turned eighty. Returning from a visit to our other brother who was in a long term care facility, he wanted to report on his progress. The phone connection was bad, and he said he’d give me another call when he reached Elgin, his home near Chicago.

The call never came. His little plane came down in a cornfield four miles short of the runway, and John did not survive the crash.

When his daughter reached me with the news this morning, it seemed simply impossible. He was so full of life and grit and optimism, and besides, I had just talked to him a few hours earlier. Is life such a fragile and fickle thing that it can just disappear, blown out like a candle in the wind?

Then the shock turned to a kind of internal sickness, as if a part of myself had been wrenched away. Which it had, after all.

I often called John my “Republican brother,” as if I had more than two—and both of them Republicans in fact. But John wore it on his sleeve, and his politics seemed to magnify what was different about the two of us. Whatever he was for, I was against; whatever I favored he found absolutely detestable. I used to joke that when I couldn’t decide what stand to take on a public issue I would consult with John, and then take the opposite position.

Often our political competition turned to humor. He would jab with a Hillary Clinton joke, and I would thrust back with a Sarah Palin to the heart. Other times it would be extended discussions on the causes of the national debt, and the reasons for the financial meltdown in 2008. His views seemed so wrongheaded, and at times outright daffy, and yet I learned from them. They conveyed a perspective that is easily ignored in a California academic community, and yet a huge part of the American political psyche. My brother gave me a window to that world.

It was not my world, I would affirm to myself, with a sigh of relief. What divided us—mostly politics—seemed so fundamental and irreconcilable.

For this reason it always startled me when other people would remark about how similar we were, our laugh, our tone of voice. John and I talked on the phone several times a week—we were the joint legal guardians of our bedridden older brother. And when I called his office his staff would sometimes think it was John, our voices were so similar.

So too was our wacky sense of humor. “Tell him it’s Juergensmeyer calling,” I would tell the woman on his office phone. And he would cut into the line and thunder back that he was in fact Juergensmeyer, and that clearly I was an imposter. This would go on for a while until the lady on his office staff, tiring of the stupid banter, would simply hang up. We, of course, thought it was hilarious.

Then there were the comedy routines we would run through at family gatherings.

“Say, John, did you put the cat out?”

“Put the cat out,” he would respond, “I didn’t know he was on fire.”

At this point people would quietly slip out of the back of the room.

“Say Mark, how do you know you have a carpenter dog?”

“Why just this morning,” I countered, “he made a bolt for the door.”

By this time there was no one left but us, and we were just warming up. We had dozens more where those came from.

It was not just the bad humor that made us similar. Some six and a half years older than me, John was both mentor and annoying role model. I pretended that I was independent. Yet after he became an Eagle Scout, I became an Eagle Scout. He went to the University of Illinois, and so did I. He pledged a fraternity, and I followed suit, the very same fraternity in fact. John got a PhD in political science from Princeton, and my PhD in political science was from Berkeley.

We came from a pious Protestant family, and both of us kept the faith, though his preference was more evangelical, mine more towards Christian social justice. Yet I recall that when we were both in college at Urbana-Champaign—when I was an undergraduate and he was in law school—he was the one who encouraged me to support the movement for racial equality. He may have been conservative, but he had a heart.

Sometimes his heart was so big it seemed that it would burst. Incurably sentimental, he would be moved easily to tears when talking about the love of our parents, or the distinct charms of his granddaughter. Truth to say, I’m capable of tears myself sometimes, and like him, my hard exterior hides a soft-hearted soul inside.

So as much as I wanted to distance myself from John, my Republican brother, ultimately it has become clear to me that there really was not much distance at all. He has been another side of myself, for good or for ill, and inside we were made much the same.

I suppose that is the remarkable thing about family relationships. We don’t ask for them; we can’t choose them. They are simply there, a part of our lives and a part of ourselves. And we don’t know how much we have treasured them until they are gone.

Iran is Key to Ending ISIS

rohani 1

Though US Secretary of State John Kerry is working hard in the Middle East to find Muslim countries to partner in the fight against ISIS, the ones he is courting may be counterproductive. The current regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for instance, are loathed by many Muslims, and not just by extremists. Cairo’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the patronage state of the Saud family are not wildly popular. A coalition that includes them would likely be ammunition for the ISIS recruiting efforts among disaffected Muslim youth.

The Iran leadership is also regarded with suspicion by many Sunni Muslim activists, but for a different reason. ISIS recruits are Sunni and Iran is Shi’a. But therein lies the importance of Iran. As the largest and most important Shi’a country in the world it has enormous influence over other Shi’a politicians in the region. And it just so happens that two sets of them are located in the seats of power in Syria and Iraq.

To understand the importance of Iran in solving the ISIS problem, therefore, it is important to remind ourselves how ISIS came to power in the first place. Though they are extremists, and portrayed in the Western media as crazy bloodthirsty fanatics, that alone would not have allowed them to ascend to the heights of power that they have now attained.

ISIS has wooed moderate Sunni supporters to their side in both Syria and Iraq. According to an insightful article by Graeme Wood in The New Republic, the ISIS supporters consist of three types—psychopaths, believers, and pragmatists. The psychopaths and believers are largely recruited from outside the region. The cruel executioner in the videos of the beheadings of Westerners is likely a 23-year old former rapper from West London who was lured to the region as a soldier of fortune in a grand imagined war.

The pragmatists in the ISIS ranks are local Sunni Syrians and Iraqis who see the movement as their best hope for getting ahead. In both countries, the Sunnis have regarded themselves as oppressed by Shi’a political leaders—Nouri al Maliki in Iraq and Bashir Assad in Syria. In both cases the large Sunni population had lost hope that they would ever be treated as more than second class citizens in their own countries.

This is where ISIS entered the picture. In Syria, they rescued a failing Sunni insurgency against the Shi’a Alawite regime of Bashir Assad. In Iraq, they employed old army personnel and government administrators from the days of Saddam Hussein. In both cases they gave Sunnis hope and a role to play in public life.

But unlike the psychopaths and the believers, these pragmatic Sunnis could easily get tired of an ISIS regime run on beheadings, rigid social restrictions and strident ideology. They could turn away from the extremists if they were given a chance to become equals in the Syrian and Iraqi society.

This is exactly what happened in 2008 during the Awakening—a period in the US occupation of Iraq in which General David Petraeus called for a surge of troops in the city of Baghdad to maintain order, and a decrease of US military in the Sunni areas of Western Iraq where they had become an irritant and had driven young Sunni men into the hands of al Qaeda of Iraq—the predecessor of ISIS. With money and weapons from the US, the Sunni leadership not only turned away from al Qaeda but also turned on them with a vengeance, effectively keeping al Qaeda out of the spotlight—until 2014.

Once again Sunnis have been lured by al Qaeda style of jihadi activists, now under the banner of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIL, since al Sham can be translated as Levant, the old name for greater Syria). More recently in a fit of megalomania it has called itself the Islamic State, as if there could be only one, but it does give a role to the local Sunni leaders. Once again a sense of alienation and disaffection has driven the Sunnis into the extremists hands.

Could these moderate Sunnis, the pragmatists in Graeme Wood’s words, be lured back as they were during the Awakening in 2008? That depends to a large measure on what happens in Damascus and Baghdad, whether the Shi’a governments there are open to shared governance.

This is where Iran comes in. As a kindred Shi’a government it is more than a neighborly spectator on the trials of Iraq and Syria. The leaders of both of these countries are known to bow to the wisdom of Tehran, from which they get considerable amount of counsel and military support. And Iran has a vested interest in keeping calm within the region, and more importantly, keeping a strident, hostile anti-Shi’a crowd like ISIS from its doorstep.

Iran has recently shown that it understands the importance of shared governance in order to appease the Sunnis and keep ISIS support from growing. When the US said that it would not support the al Maliki government in Baghdad without a more open (that is, Sunni inclusive) policy, this position was echoed by Iran, and by the Shi’a clergy in Iraq most closely allied with Iran, Ali al-Sistani. Shortly after the ISIS incursion and the fall of Mosul, Baghdad received an important visitor in the person of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds force and the most powerful military strategist in the country.

With weeks, al Maliki was gone. In September, 2014, the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, took office and pledged to take a more open stance to the Sunni minority. The BBC has dubbed his regime “a new era in Iraq.” But it will take some massive changes, including redrawing the pro-Shi’a constitution, to make Iraq as inviting to the Sunnis as it did during the Awakening period. A great deal of mistrust will have to be overcome on both sides.

Syria faces perhaps an even more difficult challenge in finding a solution that will be agreeable to the Sunni minority as well as to the Alawite and Christian minorities that support the Assad regime. Assad is adamant, and he has already turned down the best opportunity for reconciliation a couple of years ago with a UN proposal for a shared governance peace settlement.

So neither Baghdad or Damascus want to change. But Tehran could make all the difference. The Iranian government is probably the only credible influence on both the Syrian and Iraqi regimes that could persuade them that radical change is essential to stave off the threat of ISIS and the specter of a permanent Islamic State carved out of the hind quarters of both of those countries.

The US can bomb all it wants to. But the only thing that will really make a difference is the erosion of Sunni support for ISIS. This will probably not happen until there is a change in attitude in both Syrian and Iraqi capitals. And in both cases, Iran holds the key.

Why Extreme Terror Works


The hideous images of orange-clad Westerners kneeling beside black-draped executioners that have been broadcast from ISIS-controlled Iraq recently are eerie reminders of similar scenes just ten years ago. At that time the terrorists were agents of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.

Why did they use such extreme measures then, and why do they now, and what is the difference between the two? The answers to these questions tell us much about how terrorism works, and how it plays a role in the present Sunni politics of Iraq.

As I argued in my book, Terror in the Mind of God, most acts of terror are instances of performance violence. They are dramatic events meant to shock, and to lure the viewer into the perpetrators’ worldviews. These are performances intended for very specific audiences, including the worldwide audience on television and the Internet.

Take 9/11, for example. Anyone seeing this on television –and that includes most of the developed world—would see an image of war. For the moments that they were stunned by such an image they would be drawn into the worldview of jihadi activists, a view of the world engaged in a great cosmic war. To the extent that they convinced us of the validity of this worldview, they were successful.

Most people in the Muslim world rejected the premises behind that image, and refused to accept the notion of cosmic war. They thought the attack was simply an extreme act of a small group of misfits, or possibly a conspiracy conjured up by the CIA or Israeli secret agents.
Alas, among those who took the image seriously as a valid assertion that great forces were combatting on a global scale were many in the Western media and many political leaders, including the inner circle of the George W. Bush presidency. Hence the “global war on terror” theme that dominated US foreign policy for the rest of the Bush presidency and that lingers on today.

Involving the US in active military engagement was useful for the jihadi ideology since it fulfilled its proposition that the US was the major force that was combatting Muslim politics. The ensuing US invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, were further signs that the al Qaeda prophecy of cosmic war was being fulfilled.

In 2004, after the invasion of Iraq, the al Qaeda strategy in Iraq itself also turned to extreme violence. In this case it was the beheadings of seemingly innocent American travelers and journalists.

These mesmerizing acts of terror had two effects. They pulled the US even deeper into military engagement with Sunni Iraqis, thereby alienating the general population of Sunni Iraqis even more than they had been. And these acts also had a chilling effect within the Sunni community —it showed that these forces meant business and were willing to take a life-and-death stance. As a result, it attracted many young Sunnis into the al Qaeda fold, especially after the US attacks and demolition of the city of Fallujah later that year.

For several years it seemed that al Qaeda in Iraq would be a permanent fixture of Sunni politics in the country. Then a remarkable thing happened. Sunni leadership became weary of the extremism, the killings, and the rigidity of al Qaeda, and were lured by a savvy project engineered by US General David Petraeus to remove US troops from the Sunni regions of Iraq and support the Sunni leadership in their efforts to rid themselves of the al Qaeda extremists. This was the so-called Awakening of 2008. Since then, al Qaeda in Iraq has stayed in the shadows.

In 2014, all that changed. After a bitter fight with al Qaeda leadership in Syria and in its central leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, one man came out on top: the Iraqi extremist leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The Syrian and Iraqi extremist Sunni forces were united under the banner of his Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (the Levant, greater Syria) — ISIS or ISIL. In a blitzkrieg across the region it seized vast reaches of Sunni territory in Iraq the size of Pennsylvania, including the second largest city in the country, Mosul.

Then the beheadings began. In some ways the purposes were the same as they were in 2004. The beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers were clearly meant to inflame the anger of America and the West, and to draw them into a war that would be seen (the jihadis hoped) as evidence of Western militancy against Islam in general. To some extent, that strategy is working.

But there were also large numbers of beheadings of recalcitrant local Sunnis—far more than the Westerners, in fact—that were carried out in hideously public ways, their severed heads displayed on fence posts for all to see. Clearly the point of these actions were meant to intimidate the local population, and to deter any movement towards counterrevolution similar to the Awakening project that had successfully turned the modern Sunni leadership against al Qaeda in Iraq ten years ago.

And there was one more effect of these public acts of horror. In an era of the Internet where Twitter, YouTube and countless other social networks are available to instantly project the power of terrorist acts, these events were meant for a global audience. Specifically they were meant for a global audience of disaffected young Muslim men around the world.

The videos of these beheadings were recruiting devices. As shocking as it might seem to most of us, they had an odd appeal to young men who felt alienated from society and eager to join a force that was bigger than themselves, one that was tough, determined, and took no prisoners. ISIS was for them, and in recent months they have joined in the thousands, streaming from Europe, Britain, US, Australia, Russia, China, even India.

This is new. The old al Qaeda in Iraq did not show much interest in involving foreigners, who would not be well trained for military service, after all, and often would have language barriers that would make them less than ideal soldiers. Moreover they would be coming to battle eager to fight and to kill; they would be loose cannons in a carefully controlled army.

That is probably al Baghdadi’s point. The bulwark of the ISIS military force in Iraq comes from Saddam Hussein’s old army, who were denied roles in the new army in Iraq. Now they have a place, and they are old, seasoned, disciplined soldiers. They likely are not disposed to extremism in any form, and probably are suspicious of the ISIS leadership and its rigid, violent methods. They are also probably the most likely to turn against ISIS some time in the future, should an Awakening kind of solution be offered from the government in Baghdad.

In other words, the old Iraq army stalwarts in ISIS need to be held in check. The intimidating public beheadings are certainly a deterrent. An even greater deterrent is the large number of passionate foreign fighters who would be more than eager to turn against any old army superior who was deemed to be soft or less than loyal to the ISIS regime.

So extreme terror can be a useful device. Whether it will be sufficient in time remains to be seen, especially since there are efforts in Baghdad to be more open and conciliatory to Sunni interests—in other words, to launch a new Awakening that would turn Sunni leadership against their ISIS rulers. That is probably the only thing that will turn the situation around. When that happens the counterrevolutionary Sunnis will have to fight against not only Iraqi extremists but impassioned foreigners willing to die with a vengeance. By luring the foreigners with terrorist images, the ISIS leaders have created a whole new complication to any easy solution in the region.

ISIS and Obama


Interview with Mark Juergensmeyer by Andrea Estrada

(Santa Barbara, Calif. Sept 10 2014) — When President Obama addressed the nation yesterday about his plan of action to deal with the terrorist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the most important part of his speech came at the beginning, according to global studies scholar Mark Juergensmeyer.

“What most people heard was, ‘we’re going to send in more troops and put together a military coalition,’ ” said Juergensmeyer, director of UCSB’s Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. “The important part of the speech came first, when he talked about the need for a new government in Iraq and called on the Iraqis to essentially fight this on their own. This has been Obama’s position all along.”

According to Juergensmeyer, who is also a professor of sociology and a scholar of global religion and of religious violence, forming a coalition of partners that includes Muslim countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is key to creating stability in the region and to address the threat of ISIS.

“Obama wants to get Jordan and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar directly involved in taking responsibility for this,” Juergensmeyer said. “It’s important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because he doesn’t want to continue America’s role of being the sole policeman in the world. This is a regional problem and the solution ultimately has to be a local and regional one.”

However, he continued, the U.S. helped to create the instability and has a responsibility to participate in finding that solution. “This is, in the case of Iraq anyway, a direct result of the instability we created by bringing down Saddam Hussein, admittedly a dictator, but the leader of an authoritarian government that held Iraq together as a nation,” Juergensmeyer said. “Following that, the U.S. was unable to successfully put together an enduring coalition of interests within the country, and allowed one sectarian group led by Nouri Al-Maliki to rule in favor of one group — the Shia — over another — the Sunnis.”

In Syria the situation is more complicated, he noted, because support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Asaad over the years by the U.S. as well as by Russia has created a situation in which Sunnis feel they have no voice. “Without the support of the moderate Sunni leadership in both Syria and Iraq, these wild renegade forces of ISIS would have no support whatsoever,” Juergensmeyer said.

“That’s a long way of saying that ultimately the solution has to be the region taking charge of their own area,” he continued, “but because a part of that is the political situation that is supported by outside powers — and by that I mean not only the U.S. in the case of Iraq and Russia and Iran in the case of Syria and Iran also in the case of Iraq — all those players have to be involved in the solution.”

Juergensmeyer described ISIS as “an opportunistic infection” that finds fertile soil among the oppressed majority in parts of Iraq and Syria. “Sunnis in Iraq are not a majority, but in the Al Anbar region and the regions that ISIS has moved into, they are a majority and they feel like they have no voice,” he said. “And the same is true in Syria. In the eastern regions where ISIS is strong, you have people who feel oppressed.

“The Sunnis in Al Anbar province and in Syria — and I’ve talked to a lot of them — are great people. They just want to live their lives like everyone else,” Juergensmeyer continued. “They’re extremely frustrated by this situation in which they feel they’ve been kept out of public life. And along comes this group that gives them a position of power and lets them rule, and they’re happy to take it.”

Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq is an example. According to Juergensmeyer, former Ba’ath Party administrators who were in charge under Saddam Hussein are running the city — quite efficiently. “They’re finally in power again. The army is run very effectively because the old generals, the old military from Saddam Hussein’s army is back to work again,” he said. “But if you offer the people there an alternative in a new Iraq, one they can trust, they’ll take it.”

Juergensmeyer noted that precedence exists to support Obama’s plan of adding 475 new troops to the roughly 1,000 already in place in Iraq. He cited the 2007 surge engineered by then-General David Petraeus, which increased the number of American troops in Baghdad but decreased forces in Al Anbar province — from Falluja, Ramadi and areas west of Baghdad that were heavily populated by Sunnis.

“The strategy was to use American forces to police the city of Baghdad and keep down sectarian violence, and to use money to support the Sunni leaders — provide funds and military weapons so they could fight the extremists of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the very people they had supported,” Juergensmeyer explained. “They were the predecessors of ISIS. And it worked. It turned things around in a matter of months.”

It happened before, he said, and it can happen again. “When Iraq initially asked for support, Obama told them to get their act together and change their government because they’re causing the problem — supporting the Shia government against the Sunnis is what created the problem in the first place,” said Juergensmeyer. “A lot of hope is resting on this new government in Iraq, and I hope that hope is warranted.”