Category Archives: Essays and Web Posts

Destroying ISIS–and a Mindanao City

Marawi, Mindanao, May 4, 2018. Photo by the author.
Revised on July 27, 2018, to reflect the signing of the peace agreement. The updated version was posted on the Indian webmagazine, The Wire.

“There’s nothing left,” a former resident of Marawi told me, showing videos of what was left of his family home that he had taken several days earlier on his cell phone. He was right—there was only a pile of brick and stone rubble where once a multi-story had proudly stood.

“My mother built that home with her sweat and toil,” he said sadly. She had worked for years as a domestic housekeeper in Saudi Arabia, carefully sending the earnings back to her family in the Philippines. Part of the money was for their college education. The rest was for the house in Marawi.

Finally after forty years of domestic labor abroad, she returned to Marawi several years ago. Her plan was to spend her retirement years with her extended family in the house that she had lovingly built with her remittance funds over all those years. It had a stone façade and metal grillwork, her son told me. And it was located directly across from the main mosque in the center of the city.

That turned out to be its undoing. On May 23, 2017, a group of Muslim separatist rebels who had affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) barricaded themselves inside the mosque. Soon after they infiltrated throughout the inner city, making it virtually impossible for the Philippines army to quickly isolate and destroy them.

His mother, along with most of the residents of the city, fled as reinforcements came from both sides, and the roads were packed with terrified fleeing residents. The pitched battle between the militants and the Philippines armed forces went on for over five months. Heavy casualties were inflicted on both sides.  The official reports state that around a thousand militants were killed along with something under 200 government forces and 100 civilians. Local observers dispute those numbers, claiming many more army troops and civilians were killed, and that there were less militants involved in the standoff than the government claimed. Nonetheless, the human toll was considerable.

The physical damage to the city was equally as devastating. Not only was the mother’s house and the rest of the area immediately around the mosque destroyed, but virtually all of the inner city was left in ruins. Standing on the other side of the river from the city it appeared to me that at least a mile-long span of the heart of the city was in in ruins. It looked like the images of Mosul and Raqqa after those equally devastating attempts to scour the city of ISIS rebels.

The mother of the Marawi resident with whom I spoke was not an ISIS militant, of course. She was just a returning domestic worker. Her son, my conversation partner, benefitted from her education funds, finished college and earned a PhD. He was now a professor at Mindanao State University in Marawi. Though not a rebel, he was a Muslim and sympathetic with the goal of semi-autonomy for the Mindanao region and had played a role in the past in helping to negotiate between the government and rebel groups.

The Muslim extremists who had taken over the city of Marawi in 2017 were not, however, the usual activists associated with the main organizations of the movement, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Both groups have entered into peace agreement negotiations with the government. In 2014, after two decades of negotiations, a comprehensive Bangsamoro Peace Agreement was signed by both Muslim rebels and the Philippine government, but four years it languished and was not ratified by the Philippine legislature. Some blame the current President, Rodrigo Duterte, for not playing a more active role in securing the agreement’s implantation. It was only after the Marawi invasion that President Duterte on July 26, 2018, finally signed the agreement.

The stalemate over implementing the peace agreement led to widespread frustration within the Mindanao Muslim community, and eroded the credibility of the moderate rebel leaders involved in the negotiation. More dangerously, it encouraged the growth of extremist elements within the Muslim movement who were never supportive of the peace talks. The government’s failure to act gave them evidence that it could not be trusted.

In the months before the Marawi standoff, two of the extremist groups had joined forces. One was the group led by Isnilon Hapilon that was based in the Sulu Peninsula of Mindanao. He had broken from the Moro National Liberation Front in 1994 and helped to form a more militant movement, Abu Sayyaf. This movement—as much a criminal gang as a political organization—became wealthy through kidnapping and holding hostages for ransom. They gained international notoriety by kidnapping foreigners and beheading those for whom ransom was not secured. In 2016 Hapilon was said to have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, affiliating his group with the international ISIS movement.

Another group, led by two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute, had a history similar to Abu Sayyaf but in a different part of Mindanao. They were based in Lanao del Sur, the region surrounding Marawi, and they had broken off from the mainstream Moro movement that that was dominant in that area of central Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Like Abu Sayyaf, the Maute Brothers Group gained their income through extortion and threats. Sometime in 2015 or 2016 the brothers joined forces with ISIS, proclaiming their movement to be a branch of this international jihadi organization, and began working closely with Hapilon and his formerly Abu Sayyaf branch of ISIS.

Both movements were fueled by the frustration over the failure of the peace agreement to be ratified. The Maute Group was especially successful in using online social media to target young people for recruitment, including students at Mindanao State University. The international connections provided by declaring themselves affiliated with ISIS allowed the Maute Group and Hapilon’s organization to gain new recruits from abroad. They were said to be preparing for something big, perhaps a takeover of a part of central Mindanao as a kind of Philippines version of the Islamic State that had conquered large sections of Syria and Iraq.

All of this preparation came to a head in Marawi in May 2017. It is not clear how the fighting began, whether by design or by accident. Some local observers with whom I spoke thought that it was a miscalculation on both sides. They suggested that the militants only wanted to seize the center of the city briefly, for a day or two, simply to demonstrate that they could, then slip away before they were engaged in a major and protracted battle. The army, for its part, thought this would be an easy win—they could slip in and destroy two sets of outlaw bands in one simple strike.

If this was their reasoning, both sides got more than they bargained for. The ISIS forces could not easily escape from the city, and it is said that after the first day when Hapilon’s wife and child were killed in the assault on the mosque where they were sequestered, Hapilon was determined to fight until the end. On the government side, they discovered that they could not easily win against an enemy that knew the city intimately and who could retreat into the shadows as soon as they were approached.

One resident of Marawi told me that on the second day of the fighting the army chased the ISIS fighters out of a school that they had occupied, and then the army unit occupied it themselves in a kind of bivouac. Unknown to them, two ISIS fighters had not been chased away but were hiding under the floor. They emerged one night when the unit was sleeping and systematically killed them all. After that, it is said, the army decided to bring in air power to attack ISIS strongholds instead of using human personnel in door to door combat.

The decision to use air power had a devastating effect on the city. Building after building became the target for military air strikes, and as the siege turned into months, the Philippine military called for reinforcements. They requested the so-called “bunker-buster” bombs from the American military to strike deeply under the surface to kill militants who were hiding in basements and deep spaces underground. And they also requested drones with night-vision cameras to track the movements of the militant groups at night.

Eventually these augmented military measures helped, and on October 16, 2017, Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon were killed in a military operation to rescue hostages being held by the militants.  Soon after that the Philippine army raised the national flag and proclaimed the city was liberated.

It was liberated but destroyed. The mother of the Mindanao State University Professor who had lost her home in the fighting was heartbroken. “She doesn’t want to return to see what remains,” he said, adding that she was in a state of deep depression, staying with one of her children and refusing to talk with anyone about her experience.

Much of the other residents in Marawi felt the same way, even months after the end of the fighting when I visited the city and talked with them. They still seemed to be in a state of shock and anger, though it was not clear to them to whom the anger should be directed.

Some blamed ISIS. “They drew the army into our city,” one former resident told me, adding that they had used the whole city as a hostage. He pointed to the widely circulated rumor that during the first days of the fighting Isnilon Hapilon notified the Philippine government that if they provided the ISIS rebels with $10 million US dollars and safe passage from the city they would leave. Apparently the Philippine government was not willing to provide ransom for a whole city, nor did it want to lose the opportunity of destroying Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Brothers Group for good.

So the army stayed and fought, increasingly employing the kind of missiles and air power that would destroy most of the buildings in the older part of the city. For this reason, an even larger percent of the former residents with whom I spoke blamed the army for the destruction. They were bitter about the physical damage to their buildings, and even buildings that were not destroyed were often looted. Some of the looting was undoubtedly done by the ISIS militants, but some residents told me that even in areas that were not controlled by ISIS but where the army had required a mandatory evacuation there was looting that they blamed on the army. “We lost a computer and two televisions,” one Malawi resident told me.

It is not clear what will happen next. The professor at Mindanao State University said that it was up to the Philippine government. Regardless of who one might blame for causing the conflict it was clear that the damage to the property was inflicted primarily by army missile attacks. Several citizen committees were demanding immediate restitution. They were frustrated by the slow response of the government to the enormity of the devastation.

One of the professor’s colleagues was even angrier. He was actively engaged in protest movements and investigative reporting into what he claimed was widespread corruption among the fledgling restitution efforts that the government had provided. Very few people who lived in the destroyed areas of the old city had access to the documents that would prove their property rights—and in many cases they had passed on their property from generation to generation without any documentation. For this reason the government had provided funds to anyone who claimed to have lived in the city. This approach, the professor told me, was subject to abuse as the government officials were giving the money to friends of theirs who would give them a kickback. The professor wanted to know why the government didn’t use earlier versions of Google maps to identify properties that could be verified by the witness of neighbors if not by government documents to diminish the possibility of corruption.

Hence many residents resented the government—both for being the agent of destruction of their property and for what they felt was an inadequate response to their loss and their demands for restitution. But a deeper problem also lay in the wake of the army’s destruction of the city: the rise of a new militancy.

Already many young Muslims in the region were turning to a more militant expression of Muslim political power due to the frustration caused by the stalemate in the peace process. Now the destruction of Marawi by the military gave a new impetus to the anti-government sentiments and stoked the fires of radicalism. Not all of the members of the movement were killed in the encounter, and stories were circulating about how they had retreated to the mountains where their numbers were expanding. They were joined, I was told, by many young men from Marawi and the surrounding region.

“Older people like me can see both sides,” the first professor I met told me, explaining that he and others could see that the army was trapped and it was a lose-lose situation for both sides in the Marawi standoff. “But younger people,” he said, with concern in his voice, “they don’t see the broader picture.” He also said that the army’s recourse to air power rather than fighting man-to-man in a house-to-house combat gave them the appearance of being weak and unmanly in the eyes of many of the young men in the city who felt that they should have fought directly rather than behind the shield of technology.

The professor told me about talking with the son of one of his neighbors, a thirteen-year old boy whose house had been destroyed in the fighting. He was angry at the army, the boy said, adding that when he was older he planned to join ISIS. He wanted to get an M-14 rifle, he said, and hunt down the Philippine tank driver who had destroyed his home and kill him.

In telling this story, the professor cautioned that this was an initial response from an immature boy and as the boy became older he might see the world through calmer eyes. He also thought that it was unlikely that the Maute Brothers Group and Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf could survive intact without their charismatic leaders. Still, he thought it quite possible that a new extremist movement would emerge among the young people who were enraged over the destruction of Marawi. “It might be a new radical movement,” the professor said darkly, “one that is less concerned about religion and is instead fueled by a deeply anti-government sentiment.”

When I returned to Manila I had dinner with a former student who now works with the United Nation’s Children Emergency Fund, UNICEF, which had erected a number of relief camps in the area around Marawi to help the refugees. My former student had been there and met with many young people in their early teens, and in talking with them he tried to avoid any topics that were political or that would evoke traumatic memories. He would ask them about the future, what they would like to do when they grew up, he said.

“We want to join the militants,” a majority told him as my former student tried to hide his shocked look of surprise. He did not know whether this anger would last, he told me, or whether it would grow into active participation in a radical movement. But he was worried. It would appear that although the Philippines army has destroyed city, the war is far from over. It remains to be seen whether the official signing of the Bangsamoro Agreement will set a new tone and diffuse what has begun to be the stirrings of a new militancy in the region.


My thanks to Fr Francis Zabala OMI, President of Notre Dame University, Cotabato City, and the University’s Vice-President for Administration, Sheila Algabre, for their hospitality while I was in Mindanao and their assistance with arrangements; and for the research support from the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project based at Uppsala University.




The Moro Militants Who Abandoned Violence

“Do you still believe in the peace process?” a teenage boy asked cynically. He was accosting a former Muslim militant in the Southern Philippine province of Mindanao, who related this story to me when I was recently in the main town of the region, Cotabato City. The former militant had become a lawyer, and though he renounced violence he was still a member of the separatist movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. So he still considered himself an activist, but to the teenager, the son of one his friends, he was not activist enough.

“What peace process is there?” the young man hissed at the lawyer in what was more a judgement than a question. And then he added, “look at Marawi.”

For over six months from May to November 2017, the Philippine army attacked the city of Marawi, just north of Cotabato City, in an effort to destroy an ISIS-affiliated group of militants who had taken the city for ransom. Two militant forces, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Brothers Group, had joined forces under the banner of ISIS and were making a stand by taking over the central mosque and adjacent buildings in the center of the city. In the ensuing battle, Marawi was destroyed and many, including the teenager, blamed the army for the destruction, rather than ISIS.

Days after the conversation, the lawyer told me, the boy disappeared. His family feared that he had joined the ISIS-affiliated rebels. The lawyer blamed himself for not doing more to try to persuade the young man that the peace process between the Muslim separatists and the Philippine government was still worthwhile.

“But would you have listened to this when you were his age?” I asked him, knowing about his past. He had joined the most militant branch of the separatist movement when he was in college and for years he was wrapped up in spirit of confrontation with the Philippine government. He was engaged in a cosmic war of absolute enemies that led to violent conflicts, guerrilla war, and a fifteen-year trail of bloodshed.

The lawyer smiled at my question, and then began telling me the story of how he began to change his point of view. In time he began to see the negotiations with the government as trustworthy.

“How did that happen?” I asked him. How did he turn from thinking in terms of cosmic war to civil engagement that could lead to a peace agreement?

When he was in college, he said, studying at Mindanao State University in Marawi, recruiters came to campus to tell Muslim students about the oppression against Muslims around the world. At that time, in 1992, it was the conflict in Bosnia that attracted global attention, and he volunteered to join the struggle. As luck would have it, the recruiter failed to show up at the appointed time, so the lawyer never ended up going to Bosnia, where, he said, he likely would have been killed.

Instead, he said, he joined the Muslim separatist movement at home. He was at first attracted to the Moro National Liberation Front, but when a new and more strident movement was formed, he joined this movement instead–the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. What attracted him about the movement, he said, was that it was more militant and more directly religious in its ideology. It also appealed especially to people from his area of central Mindanao, so he felt that he was fighting in a struggle for his own community.

It was a life and death struggle, he said. When he was young and most active in the movement, he said that he was willing to die and to kill on behalf of movement. He saw himself as a soldier in a war, a conflict of absolute right versus absolute wrong, against an enemy that did not deserve to live.

I asked him what changed, how he began to see the situation differently. He did not change his basic attitude about the need for self-government for Musim Mindanao, he said, and he continues to be a leader in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to this day. He is one of its leading thinkers and a negotiator in the peace process with the Philippine government.

Two things changed his attitude towards violence, he told me. One was simply the domestic demands of life later in his 20s as he got married, began to raise a family, and was busy with law school and an emerging career as a lawyer. Though not a combatant at this time, his basic outlook had not changed. He was still emotionally at war with the Philippine state.

This view changed after he met a remarkable leader, Brigadier General Victor Corpus, a Philippine army official who had defected from the army and joined the Communist militants who were fighting the Philippine government early in the 1970s. In 1976, however, he soured on the Communist insurrection and surrendered to the army. After a period of prison detention, he was allowed to rejoin the army. Hence when the lawyer met him in Mindanao the general could speak to him and other militant Muslim separatist leaders with the credibility of a former militant who had been reformed.

He understood us, the lawyer said. He could see how we would mistrust the government and want to embrace a new way of looking at politics. Yet he also was realistic. He could explain the futility of guerrilla warfare, and he told us how many of our goals could be met by negotiating a settlement with government officials.

When the lawyer and other Muslim separatist leaders accepted General Corpus’ offer to meet with government officials, the lawyer said he was surprised at how sensitive they were to the Muslim separatists concerns. “They treated us with respect,” he said.

This attitude of respect threw him off guard. It made it difficult to see the other side as the evil enemy that deserved to be killed, and the image of intractable absolute war began to dissolve.

A somewhat similar story was related to me by a general in the militant Muslim forces. When I talked with him recently in Cotabato City, he was still nominally the head of the combat forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the region. These days, however, his main role was to be the spokesperson for the militants in the joint militant-government organization, the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities, which is a key component of the peace process.

The militant general told me that several years ago when the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front told him that they were going to stop fighting the government and begin to negotiate with them, he couldn’t believe it. “We didn’t trust them,” he said.

Still, he obediently followed the orders of his militant leaders. But for a year, he said, he had difficulty sleeping at night. He was constantly on edge, not knowing whether the negotiations would suddenly break off, and again they would be in a war mode. He was emotionally prepared for that possibility.

In time, however, his attitude changed. What made a difference, again, was respect. He felt that the government negotiators were genuinely concerned about the Muslim concerns, and trying to come to an agreement that would benefit them within the framework of the existing structure. He now says that it is too late to turn back. He is committed to a peaceful resolution.

Even so, however, the general says he understands the hot-headedness of the young people who are frustrated with the slow pace of the peace process. After the ISIS-army conflict that destroyed the nearby town of Marawi, he thinks that many young people will join the extreme militant side. He said that many already have.

For this reason, the mainstream Moro Islamic Liberation Front has tried to use counter measures. Accompanying the former general when we met in Cotabato City was a young college-age man who had joined the Liberation Front with the explicit task of trying to talk down his fellow young Muslim militants and keep them from joining ISIS.

“I try to talk to them about the future,” he said. He pointed out that Muslim morality does not sanction indiscriminate killing. He told them that defending the community is better carried out by negotiations rather than militant confrontations that often end in even more violence against the community, as it did in the case of the destruction of the town of Marawi. He also talked about the individuals’ own future, and how they could be more effective leaders as spokesmen for the community rather than as soldiers in a fruitless suicide struggle.

I asked him whether he had persuaded anyone. “Some,” he said quietly. He went on to say that he was engaging in these conversations not just for the sake of the goals of the Liberation Front, but also as attempts to save their lives.

The sad truth is that many of the brave warriors never return. Alas, it was a message that did not arrive soon enough, or was not heeded, by the teenager who challenged the formerly militant Muslim lawyer to abandon the peace process. Though the teenager has disappeared from view, his fate is still unknown.


            Hospitality and arrangements for my recent visit to Mindanao were provided by Fr Francis Zabala OMI, President of Notre Dame University, Cotabato City, and the Vice-President for Administration, Sheila Algabre; research support came from the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project at Uppsala University.



Who’s Cheering at ISIS’ End?

When the Iraq government announced the end of ISIS control over its territory on December 9, 2017, there were a few celebrations in Baghdad. December 10 was proclaimed a public holiday, and a military parade marched down the main streets.

But that was about it. The event was scarcely reported elsewhere. In the New York Times the report about the event was a small item obscured by more salacious reports related to Trump-dominated domestic politics.

ISIS was over. But no one seemed to notice.

Perhaps part of the reason is that few people are persuaded that ISIS is really over. They know that pockets of ISIS control have survived along the Euphrates River border between Iraq and Syria, and that sporatic violence continues in formerly ISIS-controlled regions; that areas in both countries that have been liberated from ISIS lie in rubble and their angry and restless residents are susceptible to returning to ISIS or turning towards other radical ideologies; and that individuals and groups self-identified with the movement are actively engaged in violent acts throughout the world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, and from Belgium to Manhattan.

The reason why ISIS survives in these different forms is that it was never a single thing. As I have argued elsewhere, ISIS has been both an organization and a movement, a network of political control as well as a decentralized popularist uprising.

The collapse of the political network associated with the geographic control of the Islamic State has liberated those areas of Syria and Iraq that it held. People who lived in Mosul are able to move freely, but they don’t have anywhere to go. The city is in shambles, and those trying to go elsewhere are herded into massive camps housing tens of thousands of refugees set up by the UN High Commission for Refugees in neighboring Kurdistan.

I visited some of these camps in recent months. I talked with a group of young men who were hanging out in front of their tents, smoking cigarettes in an act of defiance against the ISIS regime that would jail anyone caught smoking. They told me that they were relieved to be free from the region’s control—it was like “living in a prison,” they told me. At the same time, however, they were concerned that their city has been destroyed and their own futures were uncertain.

They were bitter towards the Iraqi government and its Shi’ite militia that were at the forefront of the military actions against Mosul. They felt that the liberating military forces did little to try to preserve the city in their eagerness to destroy ISIS, and that the Shi’a liberators treated the local Sunnis like “dirt.” “They think that we are all ISIS sympathizers,” they told me.

Many were, especially at the beginning of ISIS control, when they were seen as a Sunni vanguard that would provide dignity and jobs for the largely Sunni population of Mosul and other parts of western Iraq. Even now, the young men told me, there were many ISIS sympathizers embedded among the refugees, ready to reorganize and rise up when the time was ripe.

The time could become ripe soon if the Iraq government and international relief agencies do little to help repair and restore the city. Elsewhere in Iraq, in the Sunni-dominated cities of Fallujah and Ramadi that were liberated from ISIS control over a year ago, the movement has regained influence as the voice of Sunni protest against the Shi’a dominated Iraq government. It may be only a matter of months before an ISIS-influenced resistance movement rises in Mosul and in the large refugee camps nearby.

Then there are the ISIS-related incidents elsewhere in the world. Shortly after New Year’s Day in 2018, a suicide attack in a market in central Kabul, Afghanistan, killed 20. The Amaq News Agency of ISIS said that the movement claimed credit.  They also gave ISIS credit for attacks in Nigeria and in Egypt a few days before. Earlier in the year a group of Muslim separatists said to be associated with ISIS took over a town in Mindanao, the insurgent region of Southern Philippines, and controlled it for months in a stand-off with the Filipono army. In November, 2017, a rented truck veered down a bicycle path in lower Manhattan, killing eight; the driver, as he abandoned the vehicle, left behind a note in Arabic that said, “ISIS lives!”

Whether or not ISIS lives is a debatable point. The fact that various groups and individuals around the world have identified with the ISIS brand name and its extremist ideology does not mean that there is an organizational connection between the old ISIS infrastructure and these various individuals and entities. When I interviewed Muslim resistance leaders in Philippines’ Mindanao, they told me that the groups using the name of ISIS were all local Filipino activists who were using the ISIS brand to make themselves look more formidable.

There is a fear that escaping ISIS operatives from Iraq and Syria might be headed to Mindanao and other parts of the world to continue their mischief, but there is no indication that they were involved in any of these recent incidents in the Philippines, Nigeria, and Egypt. So far these far-flung terrorist acts have all been linked with groups and individuals that have been well established in these local regions for some time, and the ISIS brand simply gives them a kind of extremist credibility.

What gives the illusion of a continuing global ISIS command is publicity. The Amaq News Agency has survived the downfall of Raqqa and Mosul, the main two centers of ISIS control. Since the agency exists in cyberspace, its creators could live anywhere—in France or California, for example. The agency continues to deliver press reports as if there were a continuing ISIS central command, and claims that all these disparate acts of violence are related. The glossy online magazine, Rumiyah, continued to be published as recently at September, 2017, and in January 2018 a new video posted by ISIS called on assassinations of world leaders from Putin and Erdogan to Trump and the Pope. My student assistants who have been monitoring ISIS-related chats in Twitter and Telegram tell me that the postings are as frequent and dedicated as ever, vowing to continue the struggle against the kafir anywhere in the world.

So in that sense, ISIS lives, since it never really died. It is the label for a virulent movement of resistance and unrest throughout the world, and will live as long as its brand name continues to inspire activists and strike fear in the hearts of those who oppose it.

Is ISIS Over?


Just when we thought the Islamic State was dead, Sayfullo Saipov drove his rented Home Depot truck down a bicycle path in lower Manhattan, killing eight and injuring far more. When his truck ground to a stop after ramming a school bus and Saipov fled on foot, only to be caught moments later, a note left inside the truck cab said that the Islamic State “would endure.”

What was jarring about this note, aside from the link it made with radical Islamic ideology, was its proclamation of the movement’s endurance. This is precisely what seems to be challenged by recent events. Given the military collapse of ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or al Sham, greater Syria, commonly known as the Levant)—in Syria and Iraq in recent months, the movement does not seem to have much endurance left. After a long siege and a horrific house-to-house battle, the largest city controlled by ISIS, Mosul, was retaken by a combination of Iraq and Kurdish forces along with U.S. military air power. More recently the capital of ISIS, Raqqa, has been liberated by Syrian and Kurdish forces, and soon after the last remaining town held by, Deir ez-Zor, has fallen. There remain pockets of resistance along the Iraq-Syrian border, but in general it is fair to say that ISIS days of territorial control are over.

But ISIS has never been a movement that is defined solely by territorial control. The enormous cyber network of participants in online chats on Twitter and Telegram, and the global audience for the slick online publications such as Inspire, Dabiq, and Rumiyah have constituted an alternative movement rivaling the size and significance of the Arab Sunni-based Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The global network was nourished in part to gain recruits to come to the Middle East battlefields where they provided a stockpile of suicide bombers willing to destroy themselves in savage attacks against ISIS’ imagined enemies.

Some 30,000 young fighters came from all over the world to Syria and Iraq during the movement’s heyday in 2015 and 2016. But a much larger group were also involved, though primarily on line, on the animated chats of the online social networks and as readers of the online ISIS literature.

This online network constituted a separate movement. In the Twitter chats they often would call themselves baqiyah, a term that means something that survives or endures, and in this case refers to the enduring online ISIS community. In one of a series of tweets from a teenager in Canada, he said that his parents found some of his messages and were trying to take his computer away, but that they would not be successful, he said. He had other ways to get on line. Besides, he confessed, he had no other friends than the ISIS baqiyah, the online community, and without them, he said poignantly, he was nothing,

It is this cyber network that endures, and will continue to endure, long after the territorial control of the movement has been obliterated. Some journalists and pundits have commented that ISIS is now metastasizing and changing. But in fact it was always a diverse and decentralized organization, loosely organized around two different kinds of movements, one on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the other in cyberspace throughout the world. Though the headquarters in Raqqa were important–since someone had to produce the glossy online magazines somewhere, presumably there–nonetheless the social networks on twitter and Telegram, which are the real locations for the cyber community to exist, can continue indefinitely with no center organization needed.

The way these social networks lead to actions is illustrated by the recent Saipov attack in New York City. Saipov was Muslim of Uzbek ancestry, but had lived in the United States since 2010 and did not appear to have any direct contact with the ISIS organization. He did talk with other Uzbek Muslims about religious and political matters, it appears, and he likely had connections with the ISIS online community, the baqiyah, through Twitter and Telegram. He likely read the online magazines. In fact, an article in one of the online ISIS magazines, Rumiyah, had some months ago given specific instructions on how to carry out a truck-based attack on a crowd of Westerners. The attacker need not seek or receive ISIS approval, the article said, indicating that it could be conducted by anyone who believed in the ISIS cause. And it said a note should be left to indicate that the attack was being conducted in the name of ISIS.

Two days after the New York City attack, the ISIS weekly newsletter did indeed praise Saipov as “a soldier of the Caliphate.” Yet it is not clear what motivated the 29 year old Saipov to undertake the act. Clearly his career was not going anywhere. He was licensed as a truck driver, but recently the only work he could get was driving his own car as an Uber driver, and whatever financial problems he may have had were compounded by his wife’s pregnancy and growing economic obligations. So he might have been another example of a marginalized young man who was angry at the world and wanted to attack someone and take his own life in the process, and turned to radical Islamic ideology as a legitimating shield. These are cases in which the acts are branded with the ISIS name rather than being directed or even inspired by them.

It is not clear what ideological connection Saipov had with ISIS. But it seems clear than he had no organizational connection with the movement. And in fact the organization of the movement in Syria and Iraq is in turmoil and disorder following the destruction of their main bases in Raqqa and Mosul, and not in a position to direct attacks around the world. Yet even though the territorial ISIS has been defeated, the cyber ISIS remains as a potent network, a virtual community, across channels of cyber space. So when Saipov’s note talks about the endurance of ISIS, it is this cyber movement that truly endures.


Three Illusions of the Digital Self

Outside the lecture hall where I arrived recently to give a presentation in one of my classes I found perhaps a hundred students milling around, waiting for the previous class to be over so they could go inside. To my surprise there was an eerie silence among the crowd. None of them were talking to each other. Almost all were staring intently at the tiny screens of their cell phones, though a few were chatting away on ear-plug microphones, appearing to be oddly talking to themselves.

This has become the new normal in any crowd under, say, age 30. On campus, a student sent me a text message that required a long and complicated response, one that my inept thumb-typing could not easily master. Perhaps, I texted back to the student, we could meet sometime, and wondered where he was at the moment. “In the next room,” he cheerfully responded, and came bounding into my office. It had never occurred to him to confront me directly when a text message could easily suffice.

What, I began to wonder, is changing in the digital age? Is it simply a matter of new technology and our habits of communication that are changing or is it something more? I began to wonder whether we are witnessing some subtle transformations, not only in how we interact with each other, but also in how we think about ourselves.

After all, one aspect of the modern era was the emergence of what has been called the modern person. The all-encompassing changes of the period of modernity that dominated public life in the West from the 18th through the 20th centuries were not only technological, economic, and political. They also shaped the modern person whose traits were individualistic, inquisitive and ambitious–quite different from the communitarian and obedient patterns of the medieval masses.

If we are now living in a post-modern age, an era in which global forces are shaping our social, economic, and cultural lives, wouldn’t it be understandable if these also affected our sense of selfhood? In other words, could it be possible that we are witnessing the emergence of a digital self?

I tried to imagine what the features of this digital self might be. And what I came up with are several understandings of the self–traits that include a sense of being globally connected, informed, and confident. But as I thought about it, it seemed to me that each of these characteristics were deeply ambivalent. Though they are based on real changes there are aspects of them that are illusory, aspects of the self that are internally contradictory, or not fully realized.

This is what I mean.

The illusion of connectivity.

The ability to instantly contact and interact with almost anyone anywhere on the global is one of the most startling features of the digital age. I have seen hikers in Ladakh and adventurers in Machu Picchu who are able to connect with their cell phones to get on line and send selfies of their rare experiences to thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers around the planet.

This is connectivity. Or at least it is the appearance of it. Like the crowd of students waiting to get into my class who said scarcely a word to each other as they perused their instance communications from far-flung friends, this kind of connectivity can be strangely alienating. It is, on the one hand, a way of being in touch immediately with anyone that you know (and many that you hardly remember ever having met). But on the other hand it is a way of preventing the sustained social interactions that build friendship and trust. It is like cocktail party chatter that seems so entertaining and yet appears so vacuous when compared with a deep one-on-one conversation with an old friend. And yet there is something vibrant about these digital connections and the webs of networks that they create.

The illusion of wisdom.

Want to know who were kings in 15th century France? Want to know the quantity of beef annually raised in Argentina? No worries—the answers are as close as your hand held device or your computer tablet. You can Google virtually everything. The ubiquitous hand-held devices also provide easy access to social networks such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, to the Internet web pages that span the universe of knowledge, and to video clips and essays representing every interest imaginable. It is a vast and extraordinary access to information, one that would have left the 18th century European Enlightenment thinkers in awe. They were the ones who first devised the encyclopedia—the idea that the universe of human knowledge could be contained in a few volumes on a library shelf. Now it turns out that their dream has come true in an even smaller receptacle, the tiny device you hold in your hand, where the infinitely expanding Wikipedia replaces the medieval shelf of stored data.

All of this knowledge at one’s fingertips gives the illusion of wisdom, of being at the crest of a great wave of information. The problem is that it is selective information. After all, we are the ones who decide what words or phrases to put into the Google search engine, and it is Google’s algorithms that determine what responses come up first. One might think that with all of the “friends” that you “like” on Facebook you would have a great diversity of points of view with which to contend. But no, Facebook has a way of reading your mind, or at least determining your political, cultural, and consumer tastes, and adjusts the feed of Facebook postings to your Facebook wall accordingly. In these ways the information that you get simply confirms and reinforces your own values and opinions.

So in a curious way, all of this avalanche of information is filtered in a way that actually makes you less informed, in the sense of seeing a variety of points of view and encouraging you to make some judgement among them. We have seen the results of this kind of silo-effect of media information in recent elections where one’s information about candidates you liked were valorized, and the competitor demonized, in a way that guaranteed a divisive and angry outcome to the elections. It also provided opportunities for media manipulation and the purveying of misleading and outright false reports that would be rapidly recirculated simply because they reinforced the biases and assumptions of the senders. And yet, the basic fact of improved information access is a part of the digital age, a resource to be channeled and potentially utilized for the improvement of human wisdom.

The illusion of personal power.

The instant connectivity and information access of the digital age leads to a third characteristic—a sense of self-confidence. This is the impression gained by individuals, with all these resources at their fingertips, that they know as much or more than anyone else.

I have experienced this directly in my role as a “terrorism expert,” as the media sometimes calls me. I put that term in quotes since I’ve never felt comfortable with that label. I am keenly aware of the limits of my own knowledge, and feel uncomfortable being described as an expert in anything. Still, religious terrorism is something that I have studied and written about over the past thirty some years, so I should know something about it. Recently, however, I have found that when people ask for my opinion, either privately or in an on-air interview, I am quickly interrupted to be given their opinion about the subject. “Well this is what I think,” the questioner will say. And then they’re off on a lengthy diatribe that often echoes comments that they have read on line, heard on radio, or seen on television. If the expert posts his or her authoritative voice on Wikipedia, it can be erased in a moment’s notice by virtually anyone who has a different take on the topic, without have to demonstrate a shred of expertise in that field.

So everyone’s an expert, as I have pointed out in a recent blog post on this topic. But it’s not just terrorism on which they have the illusion of expertise, but also politics, the economy, religion, education, international affairs—in brief, everything. This challenges the whole range of established authority, not just in academia, where we sense this mounting disrespect almost daily, but also in the social and political institutions that lead our societies. Recent elections in the United States and Europe demonstrate that the outside politician, the Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron, has an appeal simply by virtue of not being part of an established political party. The same phenomenon is seen in the cultural sphere, where the rise of new religious movements and demagogic preachers in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, as well as in Christianity, are part of the anti-authoritarian mood of the global age of self-confident self-empowered individuals.

This self-confidence is illusory, since it is not based on any real power or is channeled through democratic process of social and political change. It is rebellion that has no hope of becoming a revolution, and is easily exploited by demagogues who pretend to represent the voices of the populace. The dark side of this illusion of power is anarchy, a devolution of social institutions that are felled by the rise of a deep distrust of authority based solely on one’s own imagined power. Short of that, however, is a different possibility: that the challenge to authority can create opportunities for change and empowerment that do have credibility given the possibility of mass social mobilization in the global age, a coordination of interests that can be harnessed for positive social purposes as well as for venal ones.

The digital self of the global age, therefore, is lonely but widely connected, limited in understanding but able to access vast resources of knowledge, impotent in an ability to act but empowered with a brazen self-confidence. It is a contradictory self, but one that is not without promise. After all, despite the illusions of connection, wisdom and power, there is an extent to which each of the three of these have an authentic basis in the new realities of the global era. We do have an ability to communicate with large numbers of people easily; we do have access to more information and an ability to create our own platforms of information; and we do have the confidence sense that we have the power to change things. And for these reasons, the global future is one that is open to be shaped in myriad ways. One can only hope that at least some of these will be positive.

Everyone’s an Expert

When people find out that my research field is the global rise of religious violence they often start to ask questions. “What do I think of ISIS?” they may ask. Or, “do you think that religion causes terrorism?”

I suppose such questions are understandable, even though I hesitate to answer them. Even though I am sometimes interviewed on television or on radio with the descriptor that I am a “terrorism expert,” I’ve never felt comfortable with that label. I am keenly aware of the limits of my own knowledge, and feel uncomfortable being described as an expert in anything.

Still, religious terrorism is something that I study. And I’ve done it for over 30 years. I’ve written several books and scores of articles about the topic, and have interviewed dozens of people directly involved in terrorist acts or supporters of them. I’ve interviewed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Doctor Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, leaders of Hamas; Mahmud Abouhalima, one of the key organizers of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center; Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the anti-Palestinian Koch Party; Rev Michael Bray, convicted of bombing clinics that provide abortions on the East Coast of the United States, and Ashin Wirathu, the Buddhist anti-Muslim activist whom Time magazine called “the Buddhist face of terror.”

So yes, I should know something about the subject of religious terrorism. For this reason, against my better judgement, I often try to answer these simple questions. Hesitantly, in words that I think are uncomplicated and relevant, I try to give a common sense response about what is for me a very complicated subject without sounding like I’m giving an academic lecture.

But often before I can utter more than a word or two, I’m interrupted. “Well this is what I think,” the questioner will say. And then they’re off on a lengthy diatribe that often echoes comments that they have read or seen on television.

Sometimes they have decided that a particular religious tradition is at fault, invariably Islam. At other times it is religion in general that is the cause, regardless of the degree of religiosity expressed by the perpetrators of particular terrorists acts. You may also be interested in free homemade sex. And occasionally they aver that the problem is political leadership and cowardice in “getting tough” with evil doers.

My attempts at correcting, nuancing, or qualifying their opinions are to no avail. They know what they know, and they want me to know it.

Why, I wonder, did they bother asking me if they were not interested in my analysis? I’ve given some thought to this interesting situation, and tried to make sense of it.

Part of the problem, I think, is the proliferation of talk-shows on radio and television—sometimes in a daily 24-hour format—that is all about opinion. Everyone has one, everyone has the right to express theirs, and talk shows are the way to do it. Real expertise is simply not a part of the talk show equation. Asking an expert something is simply an excuse to give one’s own opinion on the topic.

I discovered how this format affects conversation when, soon after 9/11, I was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, a talk show host on Fox news. When he opined that Islam produced terrorism, I tried to politely point out that the 9/11 attackers were a minute number of a very marginal fringe of an extremist branch of Islam that virtually all Muslims would disparage what they did.

“That’s an interesting opinion,” O’Reilly said. I tried to explain to him that this was not just “an opinion,” it was a fact based on evidence and a part of my analytic judgement as someone who studies the relationship between religion and violence comparatively around the world. But then I realized that I was speaking into a dead microphone, he had already cut me off and was on to something else.

So part of the problem is that an expert is just someone else with an opinion, no better and probably worse, than opinions expressed by people whom others trust. Some of these opinion setters are media hosts like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Others are authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They present convincing templates of reality that are difficult to penetrate by people such as me who actually study some of the things that these opinion setters have pontificated about.

Another problem is related to globalization. We live in an era in which increasingly information is decentralized and divorced from structures of authority. Encyclopedias are an example. When during the European Enlightenment, Denis Diderot produced an Encyclopédie, the idea was that the most authoritative versions of knowledge would be available in one place. In the 21st century, the most commonly consulted encyclopedia is Wikipedia, which anyone can alter and amend at will. It is only as authoritative as the last person to edit the entries.

The problem is even more pronounced in reporting on the world’s news. In the United States, as in most countries, news information was disseminated to the general public through very limited sources, usually ones in which the public had great trust. During the later decades of the 20th century the nightly news of the major networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—were the arbiters of the received knowledge of daily events. At that time, Walter Cronkite, the anchor for CBS-television news, was regarded as “the most trusted man in America.”

In the 21st century everyone is trusted and no one is trusted. We can pick our own version of the news, and viewers of MSNBC and Fox News seem to inhabit different planets. If one does not trust any of the televised variants of current events, the Internet provides abundant fora for alternate views, some of which are downright bizarre.

No wonder, then, that experts don’t count. In these media realms independent experts simply do not exist, or are deeply suspect. If they offer counter narratives they are presumed to be speaking from an opinionated position that cannot be trusted.

“Are you one of those liberal professors?” This was the question posed by a Mid-West relative of mine who admitted that her main source of information came from Fox News. No matter that I was a once-trusted relative and that I had spent years in the University presumably becoming accomplished in some arena of knowledge, the very fact that I spoke outside her media box was cause for suspicion.

So I supposed in an era of media opinions and the globalized decentralization of information, I should not feel insulted if no one trusts me to be an expert. I can live with that. I’m more disturbed, however, by what this says about the diffusion of knowledge and the lack of public consensus in the global era. That is an issue about which we should all be concerned.

Ainslie, a Personal Note

Ainslie Embree (1926-2017) was chair of Columbia University’s history department, interim dean of the School of International and Public Policy, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and editor of the Encyclopedia of Asian History.

Once when Ainslie was striding along in his usual brisk, authoritative way on the sidewalks of Manhattan’s upper West Side near the Columbia campus, I had almost to trot to keep up with him. Why, I asked, did he walk so fast?

“In this city,” Ainslie proclaimed, “you have to move quickly, keep your eyes straight ahead, and act like you know what you’re doing.”

That struck me as good advice, not just for surviving in the city but in life in general. And I took it as one of many of Ainslie’s words of wisdom.

Yet in many ways, what I learned most from Ainslie in the forty-five years that I have known him as a friend and mentor, was quite different. It was his patience and attentiveness that made him such a striking presence in the academic world in which he reigned.

Take, for instance, his role at conferences. He would install himself at the lobby bar in the main conference hotel and hold court. Friends and colleagues would pass by, pause, and then share some news or simply acknowledge his presence.

To see him function there or at the faculty club or the Cosmos Club was to watch the master of networking. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone wanted to bend his ear, share some political gossip or international intrigue, or gain some advice on their careers. He had a way of making each person feel that he was listening only to them, and listening carefully.

He was patient in scholarship as well. I helped him edit his essays into two books, and at times it seemed that he would not let go. He wanted to rewrite one more time, add another reference, tweak another sentence so it was just right. And he succeeded; his essays are masterpieces of careful and precise scholarship.

And yet, if one looks back at the whole of a long and productive career that lasted almost a century, one sees a different arc. Though the details are slow and precise, the overall effect is transforming, shifting from academia to public service, from history to current affairs, from local issues to global concerns, bearing loyalties that could at once be Canadian, American, and South Asian. And the cumulative effect is a well-crafted life, one of purpose and product that will long endure.

So he was right, what he said that day on the busy streets of New York City. He survived because he moved quickly, kept his eyes straight ahead, and acted like he knew what he was doing.

My 2009 videotaped interview with Ainslie can be found on YouTube at

How to Respond to North Korea’s Paranoia

This essay was published in the Huffington Post on July 7, 2017

I spent a week in North Korea in the 1990s and went away from my interviews with government leaders with the sense that they were in a profound grip of paranoia. From one office to the next I was shown pictures of how the city of Pyongyang was destroyed during “America’s War of Aggression,” which was their name for what we call the Korean War. In their collective memory it was the US who started it with the sole purpose of obliterating their country, a goal that they think we still harbor.

Considering their distrust of Americans it was a bit of surprise when I was invited to go there along with several of my colleagues at the University of Hawaii where I was serving as dean of the University’s School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies at the time. The idea was for our team to negotiate the possibility of scholarly exchanges and mutual academic projects with Kim Il Sung University and the leading research center in the country, the Institute for Juche Thought (juche is the term for the ideas of Kim Il Sun that are treated as if they were a blueprint for all of humanity).

So although at least some of the government officials with whom we spoke had a goal of joint academic ventures, it also became clear that not all of them were enthusiastic about the idea. As their hostile comments to us implied, the United States was a belligerent, evil power with only one goal in mind: the destruction of North Korea.

It is this paranoia that continues to be the dominant point of view in Pyongyang. If anything the attitude has gotten even worse under the present leader, Kim Jung Un. Behind the killing of his uncle and his half-brother was an ideological difference between those like Kim who persist in a kind of siege mentality and those who would prefer to open up their society’s doors to the wider world.

When we were in Pyongyang, we saw plenty of examples of how students in North Korean universities were preparing themselves for the global arena. English was a surprisingly popular foreign language, even more than Chinese or Russian. Computer literacy was required, and although the access to personal computers was limited, the computers in the college classrooms were in heavy demand. When we visited classrooms in the universities our presence was consistently warmly greeted.

The issue, then, is how the West—especially the United States, which looms so large in the North Korean imagination—can respond to North Korea’s actions in a way that will encourage the progressive, globally-minded elements within the country and undermine the paranoia of those leaders who rule as if a new Korean War was just around the corner.

Clearly the way not to respond is to stoke their paranoid fears. When US President George W. Bush listed North Korea among the three evil enemies in the “axis of evil” mentioned in his 2002 State of the Union speech, North Korean leaders were terrified. It was as if their worst fears were coming to life. The yearly joint military exercises between the US and South Korea off the shores of North Korea are also annual reminders of the enormous military might that is poised against them.

It is understandable, then, that North Korean leaders have responded defensively. They have convinced themselves that the only thing that can prevent the nuclear annihilation of North Korea is deterrence. By creating their own nuclear weapons capacity, they think, they will forestall an American invasion.

The paradox of this position is that the development of North Korean nuclear weapons capability is precisely what frightens political leaders in the United States. Responding in kind, with increased sanctions and threats of military intervention, is likely to increase the paranoia of North Koreans and lead to even more frantic attempts to shore up their deterrent nuclear weapons capability.

What to do? It turns out that North Korean leaders are hungry for any sign of respect from the West. Witness the pathetic fawning over the aging former basketball star, Dennis Rodman, by Kim Jung Un. Or the incident during the regime of the present leader’s father, Kim Jung Il, when in 2009 he demanded that former President Bill Clinton come to Pyongyang personally for an audience with Kim Jung Il before he would release two American journalists who had been taken hostage. Clinton made the journey, and it turned out that what Kim Jung Il wanted most of all was a formal picture of him standing next to the former U.S. President in the ornate meeting room of a Pyongyang governmental palace, proving that Clinton had come to his quarters.

So as distasteful as the idea might seem to those who think that taking a “hard line” against North Korea is the most effective tactic, in fact it might be the worst option available. It might hasten the mounting spiral of paranoia and trigger the possibility of devastating preemptive strikes, possibly with nuclear warheads that could obliterate whole cities, including Seoul and Tokyo. What might begin to de-escalate the crisis would be a surprising openness of America to meetings and conversation, perhaps returning to the idea of US support for peaceful nuclear energy projects, as has been negotiated in the past.

Such a strategy of openness would probably not transform North Korea overnight. But it would be a welcome change from the freight trains of war that we hear rumbling these days on both sides. What is at stake is not only the future of US relations with North Korea, but the assurance of peace in a nuclear-charged world.

Peter Berger: Sociology’s Defender of God

10/26/2006 – 5:15 PM — Boston, Massachusetts
Religion in New Europe event with Boston University Professor Peter Berger.
Photo by Patrice Flesch for Boston University Photography

Peter Berger died on June 27, 2017, at age 88. He was a professor emeritus of sociology and founder of the Center for Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.

Years ago when I was co-directing the Berkeley-Harvard program in comparative religion our conference in Cambridge had divided into two camps, the ethical relativists and the ethical absolutists. Peter Berger was on the side of the absolutists.

The discussion came to the case of sati, the practice in India of widow-burning, where the grieving widow was supposed to throw herself onto the funeral pyre of her departed husband and achieve a kind of divine immortality as a result. Berger listened to the cultural defenses of the practice for a moment or two, and then he had had enough.

Berger stood up, his voice thundering as he pointed an accusing finger at each of us. “If the funeral pyre was burning in the midst of this room and an old lady started climbing on it, who among you moral relativists,” he said, his words reverberating through the ornate hall of the old Harvard seminar room, “would pause even a second in keeping her alive?”

Whatever else was said that day, Berger’s image of the old lady on the funeral pyre in the seminar room lingered in our minds and framed much of the rest of the debate. That was Berger—he had a powerful way with words, enhanced by striking images from a fertile imagination.

It was not just his own, but the social imagination of whole societies that was the subject that Berger pursued throughout his career. A whole generation of young scholars became excited about the importance of the social sciences through his co-authored Social Construction of Reality, which taught us that all of the realities of everyday life are in some way socially constructed. The point was not to trivialize what we think of as reality, but to demonstrate the power of the social imagination in informing our sense of what we think of as real in the world. It is a point that he expanded on in a charming way in what is often thought of as a textbook, Invitation to Sociology, but which is largely Berger’s ruminations on the sociological imagination.

It is the power of this imagination that attracted Berger to religion. Like another great late sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, he thought of religion as “alternative reality,” the suggestion of transcendence that lay behind the fractured constructions of reality that provide us with the day-to-day world around us. The book of his that makes the best connection between religion and the social construction of reality is likely The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Social Theory of Religion. His regard for religion as a cultural resource for thinking of ultimate matters led him to become a well-known defender of religion. His prominence as a champion for God rose during the era of the “God is dead” mentality, and a series of books, perhaps most notably, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, defended the possibility of religious thinking and its challenges from an aggressive atheism.

His form of religiosity was an old-fashioned Lutheran variety that left little room for social activism and the cultural compromises with modernity that many liberal Christian congregations have adopted. For that reason he was often regarded as politically conservative, though in Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change, he tried to be as critical of capitalism as he was of radical socialism.

Later in life he returned to the idea of the social construction of reality in an interesting book, Redeeming Laughter, which set out to understand why things are funny. A clash of conceptions of reality are at the heart of it, which is why religious humor is particularly interesting. Berger himself loved to tell humorous stories, and he regarded this as one of his most interesting books. He told me he was disappointed that the book did not have more of an impact in the United States. He felt that it had a better reception in Europe.

In his last years he became increasingly interested in religion in a global context. His Center for Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University became an important arena for scholars from different religious traditions to interact, and Berger became involved in trying to understand commonalities among the different faiths. He was also trying to understand the role of religion in an era of globalization.

Berger wrote the introduction to a book co-edited with Samuel Huntington, Many Globalizations, which argued that economic globalization is only one aspect of a series of different kinds of globalization. He added that globalization itself looked different from different parts of the world. Hence the project of understanding the global era is one requiring multiple perspectives, which the essays in the book attempt to provide.

Again, religion was at the heart of Berger’s thinking about the world, including the global world of our 21st century era. In the lead essay for a book on Religion in Global Civil Society that I edited, Berger notes that “whether civil or uncivil, there can be no doubt that religion today is being globalized to an unprecedented degree” (p15). Trying to make sense of this new reality, like the many social realities that fascinated him over his enormously prolific career, continued to challenge Berger, and at heart there was the moral issue: was religion used for civil or uncivil ends?

This brings me back to the story with which I began these comments, the image that Berger raised of the hapless Hindu widow about to mount her husband’s funeral pyre that Berger imagined to be blazing away incongruously in the middle of a Harvard seminar room. “Would any one pause for even a second,” he demanded to know, in keeping her from carrying out her grisly mission?

After a bit of a silence, all of us cultural relativists had to admit that despite our efforts to give the social and religious context to such an event and to understand why she might be propelled to commit such a deed, Berger was right. We would have tried to stop her. There is, he demonstrated to us—not just in this story but in all of his incredibly prodigious output in a long and productive career–still a deep moral compass in our modern globalized world. We can challenge and we can question, but when it comes to action, who among us would let someone burn?

Ainslie Embree’s Gift to Religious Studies

When the preeminent historian, Ainslie Embree, died this week at age 96, he was lauded for his contributions to our understanding of South Asian history and politics, but what was sometimes overlooked was what he offered to the study of religion. Arguably it was Embree who helped to launch programs in the study of South Asian religious culture in the United States, and who first recognized the seriousness of the secular-religious split in South Asian nationalism.

He came by the study of religion naturally. A Canadian pacifist who somehow got swept up in World War II as an air force navigator, he then turned to religion at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Afterwards, in 1947, he accepted an assignment from the United Church of Canada to go to India where he and his wife taught at Indore Christian College. On returning to New York in 1957 he completed a PhD in history at Columbia University. It remained his academic home for most of the rest of his rich career as a professor, dean, department chair, and member of the US diplomatic service in Delhi.

Columbia had created a Western Civilization requirement and Embree, along with the China expert Theodore deBary, were determined to make it a global civilization requirement. Embree created the textbook, Sources of Indian Tradition, that became standard for courses in Hinduism and South Asian Islam. He also helped to establish the South Asian Institute, an early model for the new research field of South Asian Studies throughout the Western world. It is hard to imagine now how novel it was then, this idea of studying cultural regions, especially seemingly arcane ones like Asia. But Embree was a pioneer.

He also forged new paths in the study of religion and nationalism long before the rest of the academic community realized how important this topic would become. In a remarkable book of essays, Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in India (University of California Press, 1990), Embree showed how secular and religious visions of the Indian nation were fundamentally in competition, though he understood that the religious versions had their own political motivations. In a separate essay, he ruminated over the partition of India in 1948 and the creation of Pakistan. Though ostensibly an attempt to keep Muslim and Hindu communities separate, Embree thought that issue was never about religious identity but about religious politics, the aspiration of competing political leaders, and wondered how history might have been different if the British had not conceived the issue in communal religious terms.

The case of South Asia, Embree thought, was a good example of why politics and religion should never mix. Like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, with whom he had studied at Union Seminary, Embree thought that religion did much to enrich the culture and vitality of a national community, but not its politics, where it could be misused in the hands of ambitious politicians. Like Niebuhr, Embree was a realist in seeing that the “sublime madness” of the religious vision could be not only an inspiration for greatness but also a tool for venal political aspirations.