Category Archives: Essays and Web Posts

Holy Disruption

God in the Tumult

“A new book by UC Santa Barbara scholars explores the impact of globalization on religions around the world.” Article by Jim Logan published in the UCSB Current, November 3, 2015.

When we think of globalization, it’s usually in terms of commerce. Over the past several years, however, UC Santa Barbara’s Mark Juergensmeyer has come to see both its spiritual side and its impact on religions around the world.

In a new book, “God in the Tumult of the Global Square: Religion in Global Civil Society” (University of California Press, 2015), Juergensmeyer and UCSB co-authors Dinah Griego and John Soboslai explore, for the first time, how globalization has impinged on the world’s great faiths.

“We were trying to take the temperature of religions in public life around the world,” said Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology and of global studies at UCSB and the founding director and fellow of the campus’s Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. To survey the global role of religion, Juergensmeyer launched a project that involved “some of the best minds in places like China, Russia, India, Egypt and Argentina,” he said. “No one else had done something like this.”

What they found, through a series of workshops in multiple countries, is that globalization has had a profoundly disruptive impact on religion ¾ and may even be contributing to a new, cooperative faith centered on addressing many of the world’s pressing problems. It’s a movement that dismisses the status quo in favor of collective activism.

Globalization, Juergensmeyer explained, has touched every aspect of our lives, including religion. “The disruptive part of globalization involves taking away the center. There is a massive antiauthoritarianism, a massive kind of democratic movement; the Arab Spring is one manifestation of it. But so is contemporary politics where traditional political leaders are being rejected for outsiders, or perceived outsiders, whether it’s Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, somebody who’s not part of the traditional establishment.”

The seeds of the book were planted in 2008, when the Henry Luce Foundation funded a workshop on “Religion in Global Civil Society.” An international group of scholars met at UCSB to discuss religion in a changing world. That led to a five-year project hosted by the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at UCSB. Workshops at UCSB and in Delhi, Cairo, Shanghai, Buenos Aires and Moscow attracted scholars, religious leaders and public figures, who shared their observations on the ways religion is being shaped by globalization.

“God in the Tumult of the Global Square” is a distillation of those workshops, which became known as the Luce Project on the Role of Religion in Global Society. Griego is the Luce Project coordinator at UCSB and Soboslai, who worked with Juergensmeyer on the text of the book, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at UCSB.

From the project, Juergensmeyer explained, it became apparent that globalization has lent fluidity to religions and potentially even threatens the secular nation state by blurring borders and national identities in an age of instant communication and open borders. “The nation-state itself is a fragile artifice,” he said. “It’s challenged in the global era where everything is made everywhere and everybody can live everywhere. Just look at the problem of refugees in Europe right now. It’s a huge issue in international immigration and it’s huge issue in American politics. That’s a part of the fluid mobility of the global era, and one of the consequences of that is that is the challenge of thinking about who we are as a nation, as a community, and how we identify ourselves.”

As globalization leaks into every corner of our lives, religions will continue to react and adapt, Juergensmeyer observed. Some will embrace tolerance in the face of change while others will choose resistance. “I hope people would see that these expressions of religion in public life are a part of globalization. They’re responses to changes in global society. Particularly — and this was a discovery we made — the kind of antiauthoritarianism, the decentralization, the anti-institutionalization of all society also affects religion. And so both the expressions of religious defensiveness and religious openness and tolerance are appropriate responses, although opposite, but understandable responses to globalization.”

– See more at: http://www.news.ucsb.edu/2015/016112/holy-disruption#sthash.uDTTBu6y.dpuf

Why I Boycotted BYU

BYU

This essay was originally posted on Religion Dispatches, October 10, 2015.

 
Sometimes you find yourself in the spotlight when you least expect it. This happened to me this week when I decided that out of conscience I could not attend a conference dedicated in part to religious freedom on a campus that denied it to its own Mormon students.

Shortly before I was planning to go the conference this weekend I received an email from a group of present and former Mormon students who called themselves “Free BYU.” Because of a policy at Brigham Young University, which is supported by the Church of Latter Day Saints, Mormon students who lose their faith, convert to another religion, or leave the church are automatically expelled from the University. They also lose their housing, scholarship, and campus jobs. This seemed so counter to the spirit of academic freedom—and to the very issues of religious liberty that the conference was promoting—that in conscience I felt that I had to take a stand.

I had looked forward to the conference. The issue was important, the international roster of scholars participating was impressive, and my old friend and colleague, David Little, was to receive an award for his work on issues of religious tolerance around the world. He certainly deserved it. My schedule was tight but I could go for at least a day.

But then I received the Free BYU email and I knew I could not attend. All my adult life I have been a part of academic communities that have prized freedom of inquiry, intellectual openness and the life of the mind. I have been so grateful that in our society we have this one institution—the university—that preserves a domain for intellectual exchange and the marketplace of ideas. This is especially so in our current media climate that is so dominated by opinion masquerading as fact. More than ever, we need the intellectual freedom of the university.

But doesn’t a religious institution have the right to set its own rules, I was asked in one email that I received in response to my decision. I received dozens of emails from present and former Mormon students at BYU supporting my position, some of them telling heartbreaking stories about how their careers were ruined by being expelled for their beliefs just months before graduation. But I also received one or two emails defending the university’s position on expelling Mormon students who lose their faith.

Of course a church or a temple can limit membership and set its own standards of belief—within its own walls. But we bristle when those standards are imposed outside. I noted that BYU accepts non-Mormon students on campus and does not dissuade them from converting to the Mormon faith. But if a Mormon student rebels, he or she is axed. This is not just unfair, it seems to me, but contrary to the spirit of what a university is.

A university that calls itself a university is a public institution. It is not a Sunday school. Regardless of who sponsors it, the university is a public trust. It provides necessary skills to accredit individuals for jobs in the public arena, and just as important, it provides that social space that I referred to above—the arena for the free expression of ideas—that is important for an educated society and for an individual’s own intellectual growth.

But what about honor codes that many universities impose? These are usually attempts to regulate behavior—not thought. They attempt to prohibit, for example, alcohol and pot in student dorms. Prohibitions against thinking, against ideas that are counter to administrators’ beliefs, however, should have no place in a university.

Although I am not an expert in issues of religious freedom in American higher education, I do not know of many attempts to prohibit the free expression of thought. It would be as if one university expelled a student for accepting the scientific account of evolution, and another expelled a student for voting Democrat. Perhaps such cases exist, but I would be opposed to them as well.

And if a religious organization sponsors a university shouldn’t it be allowed to set the rules? Well, yes and no. When it comes to freedom of thought, I’d say no. If some rich donors come to our campus (as indeed they have) and want to create a position to promote their own ideas, we might thank them for their money but politely explain to them that the university is dedicated to the life of the mind and the free expression of views and they can’t control what our faculty and students think. Neither should the church or any other entity that wants to sponsor a university.

I’m one of those rare academics who is a practicing Christian. I love the church, but I also love the academic community and its standards of honest inquiry into the truth. I believe that the two, church and campus, should be free from each other’s meddling—for the sake of both.

Freedom of Religion at BYU

mormonsWith regrets to the organizers, I’ve cancelled my talk at a conference at Brigham Young University today in protest against the University’s policy of expelling any Mormon students who leave the faith. Here is the letter I sent explaining my position:

To: International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Brigham Young University

I regret that I will be unable to participate in the Law and Religion Symposium that is being held this week at BYU. It was an honor to be invited to speak at this event, and as you know I made every effort to make room in my schedule to be there on Tuesday. My decision not to participate is an act of conscience based on BYU’s policy of expelling any Mormon student who leaves the faith or converts to another religion.

Alas I was unaware of this policy until this weekend when it was brought to my attention. I have decided that it would be hypocritical of me to participate in a conference in which the issue of religious liberty is paramount when the institution sponsoring it fundamentally violates this principle in its policies towards Mormon students. As I understand it, non-Mormons are allowed to enroll in BYU, and they are welcome to convert to the Mormon faith if they wish, but if  Mormon students change their religious affiliation they lose their scholarship, their campus housing and jobs, and are expelled from school even if they are months away from graduation.

In making this decision I mean no disrespect to you, the Center with which you are affiliated, or the other participants in this week’s conference. I know that many faculty members at BYU are opposed to this policy and are quietly working to change it. I applaud them, and hope that my decision will be taken as a sign of support for those within BYU who are seeking change. I appreciation your dilemma and admire your persistence.

Again, thanks for the honor of the invitation. I hope that I will be invited back to BYU and will be able to accept some time in the future when this policy restricting religious freedom is lifted.

Sincerely,

Mark Juergensmeyer

 

Letter to the University of Illinois

slide-uiuc-1

The following is my letter to the University of Illinois requesting that my acceptance to give a presentation in its prestigious MillerComm lecture series be deferred until there is a resolution of the freedom-of-speech issue involving Prof Steven Salaita; his appointment was cancelled by the Chancellor after being pressured by donors unhappy with his political comments posted on Twitter.

August 10, 2015

Professor Tamer Basar, Director
Center for Advanced Study
University of Illinois

Dear Prof Basar:

I want to thank you and the Center for Advanced Study for the honor of inviting me to give a talk in the Center’s prestigious MillerComm lecture series in Fall, 2015, based on my work on the global rise of religious nationalism. The honor is enhanced by the fact that I am a U of I alum, and this will constitute something of a homecoming for me.

My acceptance, however, is contingent on a positive resolution to the freedom-of-speech issue involving Prof Steven Salaita. In making this decision I am guided by the advice of Mohandas Gandhi that “the first principle of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.” The denial of the basic right of freedom of speech is humiliating not only for those who are victims of it but also for the institutions that allow it to happen.

In requesting this deferral of my invitation, I mean no disrespect to you, the Center, or to the faculty of the University, many of whom have publicly voiced their opposition to the administration’s actions. I empathize with your dilemma. Moreover, I am encouraged by recent court decisions and the resignation of the Chancellor, which makes me hopeful that the situation may soon be resolved.

I look forward to a speedy resolution of this issue in favor of academic freedom. I hope that I will still be able to give my presentation at the U of I, if not on the date scheduled then soon after, assuming that you are willing to reschedule the event.

Thanks again for the honor of this invitation, and I hope that I will soon be able to join you on the Champaign-Urbana campus.

Sincerely,

Mark Juergensmeyer
Professor of Sociology and Global Studies
Fellow and Founding Director,
Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies

Behind the Iran Nuclear Deal–the Fight against ISIS

Zarif

The urbane, articular foreign minister of Iran—Javad Zarif—recently did a remarkable thing. He filmed a YouTube video in English to explain the importance and significance of the current negotiations with the US and other countries that would guarantee that Iran is free of nuclear weapons and would end the economic embargo of that country. And then he did something more.

You can watch the clip here: http://bit.ly/1ThePJ5

The video was remarkable not only because it was aimed at an English-speaking audience, most likely Americans, but also how the topic turned towards another subject midway through the brief clip. In the first two minutes Zarif focused on the crippling effects of the economic embargo, but then he morphed into quite a different topic. This subject was ISIS.

Zarif made the point that the world—implicitly the US and its allies—should join with Iran in confronting the new challenges of “extremism” in “the cradle of civilization,” the Babylonian heartland that is present-day Iraq. Zarif declared that Iran has always been against “extremism,” a point that many Americans would debate considering that country’s support of Lebanon’s Hizbollah militants over the years.

But few would debate the fact that on the subject of ISIS the US and Iran are thrown together in fighting the same foe. Iran has sent its top military strategist, Qassem Suleimani, to Baghdad to help the Iraq government in its efforts. The US has its own military advisors on the ground and have engaged in a series of air strikes on ISIS targets, including the recent battle to regain the city of Tikrit. No one can doubt that the US and Iranian military advisers were in communication with one another, if not directly coordinating their efforts together.

As long as the US and Iran are publically in opposition over the nuclear/embargo issue, however, it will be difficult to have more open and easy channels of communication between the two countries over ISIS, and to better coordinate their strategic efforts. Thus Zarif was correct in linking the battle against ISIS with the nuclear talks. As important as the nuclear issue is, a resolution of it will lead to a much more important goal: defeating ISIS.

Though in the US the media often imply that the US can win the struggle against ISIS by itself, this is far from the case. The players in the immediate neighborhood are far more important. Along with the Iraq government’s army and Shi’a militia, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces play a critical role. But the long range solution to the problem depends on the action of a much larger player: Iran.

Thus if the US sees the defeat of ISIS as important in facilitating global peace, it needs Iran. In an earlier posting, I explained why Iran is so key to this solution. It is related to the Sunni-Shi’a divisions within both Iraq and Iran, and how Iran plays an influential role in Shi’a politics in the region.

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

The success of ISIS is due to the support of moderate Sunnis 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 British citizen who was lured to the region as a soldier of fortune in a grand imagined war.

But the largest group of followers are the pragmatists in the ISIS ranks, who 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 were 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). It also calls itself the Islamic State, as if there could be only one. Many outside the movement call it by the term “Daesh,” which spells out the acronym of the group’s Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham; and conveniently the term in Arabic means something akin to “bullies.”

But even though they are bullies, Daesh or ISIS does give a role to the local Sunni leaders who feel alienated under Shi’a rule. Could these moderate Sunnis 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.

Last year Iran showed 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.

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 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 some years ago 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, though the US can provide the military hardware, Iran holds the key to the political solution.

So Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif is right in his YouTube message to the world: behind the nuclear negotiations is a much bigger issue on which the US and Iran need to cooperate. It would be huge defeat in the united US-Iran struggle against ISIS if the two countries were unable to come together on a much more simple matter, the nuclear arms deal. Ultimately, we need Iran as partners in a much larger fight.

The Myth of the Lone Wolf Terrorist

dylann roof

The recent attack on a Charleston African-American church by a 21-year old white extremist, Dylann Roof, killing nine innocent worshipers at a Bible study meeting, raises the question of how to describe it. Was it a hate crime or an act of terrorism, or both? And if it was terrorism, was it part of an organized conspiracy or was it simply the act of a crazed individual—the so-called “lone wolf” terrorist?

Much of the news media and many politicians have quickly asserted that if it was terrorism, it was of the “lone wolf” type. This implies that we need not trouble ourselves with looking at the wider background, for this was simply a crazy act that could happen anywhere at any time for any reason. It also implies that there was no larger movement or audience to whom the killer was related, and for whom the act was intended to impress.

Yet this description seems woefully inadequate to describe the Charleston massacre, which was clearly meant to intimidate people—the basic definition of terrorism—and the racist apartheid patches on Roof’s jacket in his Facebook photo indicates that he identified with and wanted to impress other right-wing racists in the US, so he is hardly a lone wolf. Nor does the “lone wolf” characterization fit many of the other individual terrorist attacks in recent years.

Earlier this year it was the assault on the headquarters of a satirical magazine in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, by two Algerian brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, that was dubbed an act of “lone wolf” terrorism. Before that, there was the 2013 Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston marathon, the deadly assault on a Norwegian youth camp by Christian extremist Anders Breivik in 2011, the August 2012 attack on the Milwaukee Sikh Gurdwara by Wade Michael Page, the 2010 Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad, and even earlier, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic park by Eric Robert Rudolph and the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing by Timothy McVeigh.

Some of these were committed by Christians, some by Muslims, and some by those with no particular religious affiliation at all. Some had racist ideologies in mind, others were simply raging against society. In almost all cases, though, these have been instances where alienated individuals have struck back at a society that they thought had abandoned them. And they perpetrated their attacks in a way meant to impress a specific audience.

This is the most basic definition of terrorism, a public act of violence meant to be intimidating. What makes the terrorism of recent decades so striking is that they are seldom undertaken for strategic purposes—to gain territory or make demands—but are rather done for symbolic reasons. They are acts of violence meant to give the illusion of power, to intimidate one group of people and impress another.

Hence terrorist acts can be described as “performance violence.” A performance is done for an audience, or multiple audiences, to intimidate and impress. It makes no difference if the Kouachi brothers were members of an organized ISIS or al Qaeda network or not; they were clearly trying to impress their Algerian immigrant kinfolk and intimidate secular satirists over their portrayal of images thought to be humiliating to Muslims in general and French Algerians in particular.

Like the Kouachi brothers, the Tsarnaev brothers, Anders Breivik and others, Dylann Roof was part of a wider subculture of hatred. He likely thought of himself not as a terrorist but as a soldier in a great and hidden war, carrying out a mission on behalf of his support group. At age 15 Roof dropped out of high school and devoted his time to computer war games. Like many in his generation he thought of himself as a warrior in the fictitious wars of the computer games. But then he discovered another kind of secret war, one more real and deadly. One of Roof’s friends said that Roof had told him prior to the killings that he wanted to “start a race war.”

This sense of mission would help to explain why Roof told one of the women at the Charleston church that he “had to this,” to carry out this act of what he regarded as virtuous warfare and what we see as hideous terrorism. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Federal Building bomber, said almost the same thing in regretting that innocent children were there when he “had to” carry out his awful act of bombing. Like Roof, McVeigh never showed remorse for conducting what he thought was a soldier’s duty in a grand, invisible cosmic war.

So it makes no difference whether or not Dylann Roof was a card-carrying member of the Aryan Nations or any other racist organization. He felt that he was a part of a great social struggle in which his acts would receive approval as if he had been a triumphant warrior. The white racist subculture of South Carolina provided just such a social context. Despite the racial gains achieved elsewhere in the United States in recent years, in South Carolina racism is thriving—it is one state where political leaders have not been able to stifle the state’s official displays of the Confederate flag—and Roof knew that his act would have an appreciative audience.

The history of African-American church bombings in the US have set a pattern of intimidation that gives context and support for Roof’s act. Far from being a “lone wolf,” therefore, the perpetrator of the Charleston massacre was not isolated. This terrible event was part of a sad, established history of white Christian terrorism in America.

Ah, I Remember Pyongyang

The Interview

In watching the movie, “The Interview,” I found myself comparing the fictional sets of North Korea with what I saw when I was there some years ago in the early 1990s when I was a guest of Kim Il Sung University (yes, there is a Kim Il Sung University). I was there for ten days, helping to negotiate collaborative projects with the University of Hawai’i as dean of their School of Hawai’ian, Asian and Pacific Studies.

North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang, appeared much like the movie sets. I arrived at the airport terminal, which looked exactly as it did in the movie, and was whisked off on a beautiful multiple lane freeway to the heart of the city. The film accurately portrayed its skyscrapers, including a 105 story pyramid-shaped hotel, towering in the background.

The only odd thing about my initial impression was that the fancy freeway from the airport was almost empty. It seemed more a showcase for a modern highway than a functional one. The same can be said for the hotels, which looked terrific but were scarcely occupied.

We stayed in the twin-towered Koryo Hotel aimed, apparently, at businessmen since there was a glossy brochure on the coffee table, in English, trumpeting the export items that North Korea was prepared to offer. The month we were there they were featuring Russian style tractors and rabbit fur. I imagined a lovely combination of the two. The companion tower outside my window was completely dark at night, and there were only about twenty people at the mandatory breakfast in the morning. Not that many people wanted to vacation in Pyongyang, I guess.

Even so, we appeared to be in the glitzy area of Pyongyang, since outside the hotel was a block-long line of nightclubs and cafes, brightly lit on the outside. Since the streets were curiously empty, I was interested to know whether there were any customers inside, so I ventured downstairs and out into the sparkling street. Suddenly the lights went off—all of them, for all of the nightclubs and cafes—at the same time. Like one of the characters in the movie who discovered that a well-stocked vegetable store was a false front with fake food, I found that these cheerful bistros were only facades and there were, in fact, no cafes and nightclubs at all.

We had a similar experience in checking out the local stores. One was indeed well stocked with televisions and foreign motorcycles and myriad other modern amenities. But it was restricted to people who could buy things with foreign exchange, particularly Koreans from Japan whom the North Koreans were trying to lure back to the country. The stores that sold goods for Pyongyang’s residents were almost bare. They would sell things episodically, depending on what was available. When were there, it was plastic buckets and rice.

Yet there was much grandeur in Pyongyang: sweeping plazas, massive monuments, imposing government offices, and everywhere statues of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who was still alive when I was there. Other statues portrayed the Beloved Comrade, Kim Jung Il. The poses were predictable: figures standing in the wind, pointing wisely towards the distance; sitting wisely like Abraham Lincoln in a throne-like chair; or standing with hands akimbo looking triumphantly—and wisely—at the less fortunate world. These were the large public statues. Little busts were legion, as where the ubiquitous red and gold pins with images of the Great Leader.

The North Koreans were proud of this over-built monument-packed city, and justly so. Frequently they would show us pictures of what Pyongyang looked like at the end of the Korean War, just a rubble-strewn desert of total disaster. It was the result, we were told knowingly, of the aggressive American military that had ruthlessly attacked the country. Only the brave defensive struggles of the North Korean soldiers allowed it to survive. Our hosts seemed unaware of the historical accounts that describe North Korea as the initiator of the war, and the role of the Chinese in helping it seize South Korea and prompting American troops to defend it. Their account placed all the blame on the bloodthirsty Americans and you could feel their paranoid fear about the likelihood that the US would attack again. Perhaps soon.

They credited their resilience to Juche thought, the ideas of Kim Il Sung. We visited an imposing tower in a pleasant setting beside the main river commemorating these ideas, an ideology of self reliance that was revered even more greatly than communism. They implicitly blamed both the Chinese and Russians for not helping them rebuild after the Korean War, and having to do it by themselves. So modern Pyongyang was a showcase of North Korean grit and pride.

Students in North Korean Universities, however, knew that the future lay in the wider world. They were eager to become connected with the international economy. Computer science was a popular topic, and though the computers in their classrooms appeared outmoded they were everywhere. English was the preferred foreign language, even more popular than Chinese, Russian, or Japanese.

Like the movie version of North Koreans, my hosts tried to repair their image of being a poverty-stricken dictatorship, and show that they lived well and were able to tolerate diversity. They were particularly proud of neighborhood health clinics that also included gyms and work-out facilities and beauty parlors. I don’t know how common these were, but the ones we saw were indeed serviceable and well used.

And there was a certain amount of religious freedom. I was eager to see if Christianity existed in North Korea, so on Saturday I announced that I would like to go to church the next day. “Which kind,” my hosts asked, “Catholic or Protestant?” Thinking quickly, I told them “both,” explaining that since I was such a devout Christian I had to go to both kinds of services. So the next day they took me to both, and there were indeed churches that looked like churches, pews full to the exact number of spaces available in the buildings, and everyone singing hymns without looking at the books, and kneeling and praying at appropriate times. In other words, it seemed unlikely the whole thing could have been entirely staged for my benefit, especially since I gave very little advanced notice. But how many churches there were I have no way of knowing.

Venturing out in the countryside was a relief from the artificial, monumental Pyongyang. We went on a full-day outing to the Kumgang mountains, the dramatic sugarloaf looking peaks near the South Korean border. Along the way we stopped at a small town that seemed reasonably well off and bathed in the hot spring pools that were the local attraction. We also passed by a mammoth dike built to keep out the ocean and reclaim land for farming, and a nuclear power plant.

We wanted to visit a farm, so our hosts took us to one that seemed to be on the visiting foreigners circuit. It seemed suspiciously prosperous. The whole family was inside the living room, watching programs on a shiny new television. We were impressed, until I went around the back in search of a bathroom and saw the cardboard box in which the television had arrived, most likely that morning, and to which it likely would soon return.

So the North Korea of my memory was much like the one portrayed in the movie, The Interview. The cityscape was much the same, and so was the paranoia and mindless devotion to the Great Leader. It seemed to me as if I had been visiting the precincts of some enormous religious cult. And in a way I was.

The day before I left, I went to a small shop in the lobby of the hotel, and amassed a large collection of Kim Il Sung buttons and pictures and statues to take home as souvenirs. But initially the North Korean lady at the cash register refused to let me purchase them.

“You don’t really believe in this,” she said, “you just want to make fun of us.”

“No,” I protested, saying that I had great respect for the North Korean people and their leadership. All I wanted to do was to take back home some symbols of their devotion to let my friends in America so they could experience what I had discovered about North Korean sensibilities.

She looked at me suspiciously and eventually relented and let me buy the trinkets. But, although I didn’t quite lie to her, it is also true that her initial reaction was correct.

On Death and Dogs

dog

It happened so quickly in the dark—a sudden image in my headlights of something, an animal maybe, it could have been a goat or a sheep—and before I could react I felt the sickening thud. I had been driving in the high desert at night, west of Yucca Valley, having set my cruise control to a comfortable 60 for the two-lane rural road, trying to be careful. And now this.

When the car came to a stop I turned around to look for what I had hit. In the headlights I saw two guys at the side of the road, huddled over something. I stopped.

They didn’t say anything when I approached them, since there was nothing to be said. Their flashlights illumined the dying body of a dog. It was an old German Shepherd.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, explaining that I was the one who had hit the dog, and they nodded, apparently not surprised since it had wandered off before. They assured me that I was not at fault. I offered to take it to the vet, but we examined the body. There was a bad head wound. Nothing to be done. I gave the guys some money, my contribution if they decided to take it to the vet anyway, which I knew they wouldn’t do, but I wanted to do something. All I could do was to look down at that old German Shepherd body, oozing life.

She reminded me of our own German Shepherd, Rajah, a dog that we had years ago. He was a wonderful dog, a dog of dogs. When we found him and took him in, we were uncertain whether Brandenburg, our Cocker-Retriever mix would allow such a huge and fierce-looking rival into the house. But Rajah knew how to be deferential when needed, and how to be protective when required. He used to guard Sucheng like a sentinel, showing his ferocious teeth if anyone seemed to threaten her in the least. But in affectionate moments, he could be such a lamb.

I miss Rajah. I miss not having a dog in my life.

Years after he was gone we talked about him and about Brandenburg as if they were still alive. It is strange how sometimes death can bring you closer to someone than when they were living.

I feel that way about my brother John, who weeks ago was yanked from us by a tragic airplane accident. Now I think of him all the time, wondering how he would respond to this or that, wanting to share some amusing trivia with him.

I think of my sister Carolyn, who died several years ago of Parkinson’s disease. I still talk to her as if she were here. And I think often of my fallen colleagues, including Bob Bellah and Ninian Smart, and of my parents, and my wife’s parents. It is strange how close we can be to those who are, in a sense, as far away as time and space can be.

And now I think of that poor dog beside the highway tonight. I wonder whether she had a happy life, whether she was coming to her master when she crossed the fateful highway, whether in her old age she could not see the oncoming car.

I think about her, and am close to her, and I don’t even know her name. But once again, in an odd and twisted way, I have a dog.

Fields of Blood

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This review by Mark Juergensmeyer appeared in the October 24, 2014 edition of The Washington Post.

The recent rise of religious images in political conflict around the globe has led to a surprising religiophobia, as if religion itself were inherently violent. To this simplistic point of view, Karen Armstrong has written an elegant and powerful response.

Fields of Blood is not just a defense of religion but also an exploration of the relation between religion and the history of violence over the centuries. It is a book both erudite and accurate, dazzling in its breadth of knowledge and historical detail. Though it does not give all of the answers to the curious relationship between religion and violence, it sets us on the right path.

She begins with the obvious truth that religion doesn’t do anything by itself. It’s not a thing, but simply a dimension of human experience. The modern notion of religion as something separate from mundane life was an invention of the European Enlightenment,
a counterpoint to the new notion of secularism. For most of world history, and for most of the world’s populations, the religious imagination has been a part of everything that humans do. Armstrong concludes that “the problem lies not in the multifaceted
activity that we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state.”

She acknowledges that this violence is often cloaked in religious language. However, Armstrong seeks to demonstrate that it is not the bloody images and legends in sacred texts and holy history that are to blame, but the political contexts that frame religion as part of the messy pictures.

To make this point, Armstrong embarks on a historical journey from the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic to al-Qaeda in the present day. The first part of the book covers ancient societies: not just Babylonia but also classical India, China and Israel. In each case she sees the emergence of public violence as part of the formation of state power, and the justifications for violence were often stated in religious terms. In the second part, this theme is developed with relation to early Christianity, Byzantium and Muslim empires.

Armstrong is strongest on biblical history and the development of the Christian church. She shows that a major theme of the Old Testament is between an unruly free society and a stern political order that is imposed by force—by the structural violence of a state. When Christianity emerged, the political order that loomed over the fledgling church was the Roman Empire, and Christians defied the authorities with a pacifism that rejected the power of Rome. Later, however, in 325 CE, when Christianity became the de facto state religion of the empire, the situation was reversed, and church leaders scrambled to justify the military power of the state. One of the Church’s bishops, Saint Augustine, elaborated on an old Greek theory of “just war” to explain how Christianity could support acts of warfare in certain limited situations. Although earlier the Church had advocated a more pacifist position, Augustine argued that this kind of idealism was only meant for a heavenly “city of God.” Down on earth where mortals live in the “city of humans” a more realistic ethic is called for, one that occasionally accepts the use of violence to achieve social order. This Christian acceptance of the political reality that some violence can be justified has continued to be the dominant position of the church down to the present day. Throughout the history of Christianity, however, politicians have grasped onto this religious justification to excuse their own violent exercises of power.

The same religious acceptance of violence in certain political contexts, and the same misuse of it by politicians, is found in Islam. Armstrong shows that the peaceable early Muslims turned to fighting only to defend themselves, and that the notion of jihad is a minor and seldom-mentioned concept in the Qur’an. Later, the issue of state-supported violence for the sake of political order becomes a theme in Islam, as it had been in Christianity, when large empires were established. Though maintained by force, the empires kept the peace, preventing quarreling regions from being in constant warfare and allowing a diversity of cultures to flourish. Islamic leaders routinely protected “people of the book” – Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians – within their domains.

The third and last part of the book is the most interesting. Here Armstrong focuses on the past several hundred years of the modern period, when secularism and religion struggled with each other. Again, there are political issues at stake. Nowhere is this more clear than in recent years, when terrorism and global jihad have come into prominence, in large part as responses to the widespread perception in the Middle East that the United States and Europe have fostered economic exploitation and cultural colonialism in the region. Armstrong regards the war on terror of the George W. Bush administration to be itself a kind of terror and a battle waged with religious zeal.

Once again, Armstrong asserts, politics and human ambition are the culprits behind all forms of public violence. Yet the reader is left with a nagging question: What is there about religion, both historically and today, that makes it such an appealing cloak for the venal aspirations of power-hungry people? Religion may not cause violence – Armstrong is right – but why is there such a dark attraction between the two?

In her closing paragraphs, Armstrong asserts that religion at its best has been able, over the centuries, to “build a sense of global community.” It is a good statement and a true one. But that’s not the whole story. Religion – in the sense of what the theologian Paul Tillich called “the repository of symbols” – has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.

In wondering why violence and religion are so intimately intertwined, Armstrong comes close to some interesting answers in a meditation midway through the book on the curious attraction of people to warfare. Grand war, cosmic war, is an exercise of human imagination as well as politics. It is a thrilling alternative world that engages the passions of fighters in ways that no ordinary life experience can do by lifting ordinary conflict into a realm of existential and ultimate encounter. In other words there is a religiosity to war. And there may also be images of profound struggle at the heart of religious thought. When conflicts are seen as sacred, the encounters are even more intense.

Virtually every instance of terrorism in recent years has evoked a God who is perceived to be engaged in cosmic warfare. These imagined battles are about power and politics and more: about freedom and civilization and life itself. In trying to make sense of this remarkable vision of violence and the sacred, Karen Armstrong has done a great service by showing us how wrong some of the simplistic assumptions have been. But she also makes us aware of how much more there is to be known about the awesome dimension of religion in public life.

Farewell, Brother John

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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.