Category Archives: Essays and Web Posts

Was ISIS Involved with Nice?

Nice truck attack

“He was more into women than religion,” remarked one of the neighbors of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, when asked about the driver of the rented truck that plowed into a celebratory crowd watching fireworks on the beach of the French Riviera city of Nice, killing more than 80 persons.

“He didn’t pray, and liked girls and salsa,” the neighbor continued, according to a press report in the British newspaper, The Independent. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a French citizen who lived in a town near Nice, had been convicted of petty theft on several occasions, and was never seen in a mosque, according to other informants.

But Lahouaiej-Bouhlel did have reasons to be angry at the world. He was recently divorced and fiercely critical of his former wife. He had difficulty holding a job as a delivery truck driver after having been convicted of falling asleep at the wheel. He was a member of an immigrant community of North Africans who have often felt marginalized in France.

At first glance, then, this would appear to be another case in which an angry and depressed person takes out his hostility (and it is invariably a “he”) in a violent way. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel joins the sad list of crazed attackers that includes the killers at the Columbine and Sandy Hook schools.

On the other hand, he was ethnically a Muslim, which automatically convicts him in some simplistic minds. And he is said to have shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) before the police opened fire on him at the end of his murderous rampage. This phrase, however, is somewhat like the English language expression, “Lord of mercy,” that can be expressed by anyone in a moment of travail regardless of the degree of their religiosity.

More interesting, the online community of ISIS supporters were quick to adopt him as their own. According to my research assistants who have been following jihadi-related Twitter feeds, there was online cheering minutes after the act. When the attacker’s identity was revealed, one tweet stated that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel must have been “a lone wolf that answered the call of jihad by attacking the kuffars (“blasphemers”).” Others conjectured that he had served as a jihadist in Syria before returning to France to commit the act.

No evidence has yet surfaced that would support these rumors. ISIS has not officially taken credit for what Lahouaiej-Bouhlel did. In the past they have praised individual acts that appeared to have been inspired by its ideology, such as the San Bernardino shootings, even if they were not directed by its organization. Initially after the Nice attack, however, ISIS was silent.

But the lack of clear connection between Lahouaiej-Bouhlel and ISIS has not deterred some politicians in France and the United States from capitalizing on the incident for their own ideological purposes, and branding it an ISIS act. Media commentators have also rushed to assume that it is ISIS-related.

Some of the ISIS followers have labeled it the same way. Why would ISIS followers want to be identified with a violent act that was not directed by their own movement?

Given the current situation where ISIS is rapidly losing territorial ground and international volunteer support for its cause, it needs these acts of terrorist violence—in Baghdad, Dacca, Istanbul, Paris, Brussels, and Orlando—to shore up its credibility as a global player and give the illusion of power. Its followers are taking credit for anything that might be construed as an ISIS-related assault.

Branding a terrorist act has become as important as what motivates it. Even if it turns out that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel did in fact have some jihadi connections, the initial evidence is that his motivations were largely personal rather than ideological. Like the Orlando shooter, however, he might have wanted to brand his actions as ISIS-related in order to give a degree of legitimacy to his actions. And ISIS followers were equally eager to give it their label. In terrorism, as in many other aspects of public life, branding is everything.

Thanks to my research assistant, Mufid Taha, for the Twitter quotes, and to the research support of the “Ending Jihadist Conflicts Project” at Uppsala University.

ISIS Inspired–or Branded?

orlando shooting

I’ve been thinking about how to characterize the ISIS-related aspects of the horrific massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub that killed fifty innocent people enjoying a night out on the town during the wee hours of June 12, 2016. “ISIS inspired” is one way of describing it. And yet it seems to me that this is a complicated case. It may have been one where the action was not so much inspired by ISIS but branded as ISIS related, both by the killer and by the ISIS press agency.

The term “ISIS inspired” implies an allegiance to the ideology of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL). It also implies that the primarily intention of undertaking an act of terrorism is to carry out the broad directive of the movement—in this case attacking unbelievers and enemies of the ISIS cause. An ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, had recently urged followers around the world to make the month of Ramadan in 2016 “a month of calamity everywhere.” Individuals were told that they did not need to check with ISIS headquarters in Raqqa but attack unbelievers in the name of ISIS wherever they were.

The perpetrator of the Orlando attack, Omar Mateen, did exactly this—he declared his allegiance to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by telephone to 911 emergency operators minutes into his rampage. He was said to have been surfing ISIS sites on line in the weeks before the attack. And the ISIS news agency quickly proclaimed him a “fighter for ISIS.”

That sounds like his act was ISIS-inspired. But Mateen also praised the Tsarnaev brothers in their attack on the Boston Marathon, and they were not ISIS fighters, but supporters of Chechen separatism. Mateen in the past had also praised the al Nusra movement in Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon, both of which are in competition with ISIS and have fought against it. So his allegiance seems to be somewhat thin—not so much to a particular organization but to Islamic radicalism in general.

Moreover, there is other evidence that he harbored motives that were more personal, and that he was pursuing a homophobic cause. His ex-wife thought he was violent and mentally unstable, and his father said his motives had nothing to do with religion—he had seen two men kissing in Miami and went into a rage.

The information about the homophobic dimension of Mateen’s motives took an interesting twist several days after the massacre when several people who had frequented the Orlando bar claimed that they had seen Mateen there before, perhaps a dozen times, spending hours alone at the bar, sometimes flying into a drunken outburst. He had made sexual advances towards other men in the club, the witnesses said, though it is not clear whether they were ever accepted. One of his male co-workers in a security firm claimed that he had made advances towards him as well, which were spurned.

So it could be a case of homophobia—or perhaps a self-hatred of the killer’s own homosexual tendencies—that drove him into this act of vicious rage. Or perhaps he was angered over having been turned down in one of his overtures to another man, a case in which the insult of rejection was compounded by the perceived injury of having homosexual tendencies in the first place. A gay bar is not the usual target of Islamic extremists. Though many activists on the Christian right in the United States have attacked gay and Lesbian establishments, the targets of Islamic extremists have been symbols of American economic and military power, or challenges to its security on airplanes and transportation centers. The killer clearly had a vendetta against the gay aspect of this particular venue.

Whether his main inspiration was a jihadi ideology, then, is open to question. What is clear is that he branded his assault as an ISIS attack, and that the ISIS organization also branded it that way. All that we can say with certainty is simply that—that this act was ISIS-branded. It might also have been inspired by the ISIS ideology, though to what degree is uncertain.

If it is, in fact, only an ISIS-branded event, this would not be the only recent case in which a terrorist attack with mixed motives behind it was branded with the name of a jihadi organization and ideology. The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015 is another case in point. At the time of the incident, I had the same problem with terminology in trying to describe the relationship of jihadi ideologies to a situation in which the motives seemed so mixed, both personal and ideological.

In the Charlie Hebdo case, the two brothers who carried out the attacks, Said and Cherif Kouachi, also pledged allegiance to an Islamic extremist movement, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. Leaders of the AQAP took credit for this attack, even though the Kouachi brothers had spoken highly about other groups as well. Moreover, the attack was clearly an effort to appeal to their own community, the Algerian immigrants in France who had felt marginalized and insulted by the stereotypical cartoon displays of the Prophet Mohammad in the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine. It was also an effort for these two young men who had been unsuccessful in life to do something significant in the eyes of others. Like the Orlando attack, there was an ideological component to the incident, but again it seemed to be a matter of branding the attack as an AQAP assault, rather than one that was primarily ideologically inspired by the organization.

It is clear why the Kouachi brothers in the Paris attack, and Omar Mateen in the Orlando massacre, would want to give an ideological spin to their actions. It dignified their other, more personal motives, with something more political and religious. But why would AQAP or ISIS take credit for an attack that their organizations did not directly control or support? In both cases, these are organizations that are under siege and need symbolic displays of their strength and their geographic reach. Even though the connection to them might be something of a stretch, their leaders seemed willing to take credit for these symbolic acts of power.

Some of the recent incidents of terrorism, then, are ones that are only branded with an ideological label, and are not directly tied to an activist group. But others are, and there are varying degrees of connection between what may appear to be lone wolf attacks and the organizations to which they have been linked, even tenuously. Adding the category of “branded” to the list, we can identify at least four degrees of relationship between a terrorist incident and an organization such as ISIS:

ISIS commanded.
Most of the acts of terrorism related to ISIS in Syria and Iraq appear to be carried out directly by the central command of ISIS in Raqqa and the movement’s regional leaders and are part of a continuing struggle to maintain territory and political power in the region. I say “appear to be” since the ISIS organizational structure is quite decentralized, and bombings in Baghdad and Damascus, for instance, could be carried out by individual cells within the movement that are not in close communication with the central leadership. In that case they were supported by ISIS leadership but not commanded or directed by them.

ISIS supported.
These are cases where the leaders of the movement have approved of the attacks and have been aware in advance that they would be carried out, but were not directly involved in the planning or conduct of the operations. In the case of the multiple attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015 and the assault on the Brussels airport and subway some months later, these attacks appear to have been independent operations coordinated in some way with ISIS leadership. Key members in the attacks had visited Syria in the months before the events. Again, however, the internal communications of the movement are not publically available, so it is possible that these attacks were independent operations that were not directly supported by ISIS leaders but inspired by them and their ideology.

ISIS inspired.
These are classic “lone wolf” operations that are conducted by individuals or a group in the spirit of the ideology of the organization without the advanced knowledge, direction, or support of the leaders of the movements with which the lone wolves claim affiliation. The ideology of the movement is the primary motivation and the organization associated with the ideology is eager to accept these acts as extensions of their own operations. The San Bernardino attack in California by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik is a case in point. The recently married couple carried out a mass shooting at a county public health agency event, killing 14, on December 2, 2015. Though there is some indication that the husband was a disgruntled employee, it is also clear that the couple had a long history of connection with jihadi ideology online and in visits to Saudi Arabia, and that they maintained a stockpile of weapons. Though their radical interests pre-dated the existence of ISIS and they made no direct pledge of support to it, soon after the attack the ISIS radio station described them as “soldiers of the caliphate,” a phrase that within the movement usually designates those who are a part of the ISIS network. The couple might have been responding to the encouragement of ISIS leaders to attack unbelievers wherever they were, throughout the world, and in that sense were inspired by ISIS.

ISIS branded.
Branding can be of two types—either organizational or ideological. In the first case organizations that share similar ideologies can claim to be associated with one another even though the connection is tenuous. This was the case of the professed allegiance of Boko Haram with ISIS. In March, 2015, leaders of Boko Haram declared their association with the ISIS organization and days later leaders of ISIS through their news agency accepted this profession of loyalty. Nothing had changed, however, regarding the organizational structure of the two groups. By branding themselves as ISIS, Boko Haram gained the status of being part of an international movement and not just a Nigerian rebel group. At the same time, ISIS leaders were happy to accept what they touted as the international expansion of their movement.

The connection between Libyan Islamic extremists and ISIS is also largely a matter of branding, though there has been some connection between the North African movement and the activists in Syria and Iraq. A previously-existing jihadi movement, Ansar al-Libya, had declared itself loyal to al Qaeda, and in 2014 leaders of the movement decided to switch their affiliation to ISIS, presumably because by that time ISIS was receiving greater international prominence than al Qaeda as the world’s leading jihadi organization. This shift was not accepted by all members of the movement, however, and the pro-al Qaeda members dominated the movement in the city of Derna, while the pro-ISIS members were strongest in the town of Sirte, the former hometown of Muammar Qaddafi. In both cases the connection between the Libyan movements and the international organizations to which they claimed affiliation is largely a matter of branding.

The other kind of branding is ideological—when a group or individual shares some ideological sentiments with an organization but otherwise has little or no connection to it. In the case of the San Bernardino shooting, for instance, if it was clear that the husband who was involved in the attack was a disgruntled employee who was primarily trying to even the score with his co-workers, then associations with jihadi groups and their rhetoric would be a complicating factor. It might be, as in the case of the Orlando and Charlie Hebdo shootings, an incident that was branded with the label of an ISIS or AQAP association, even though it was not directly controlled, supported, or even primarily inspired by one of those organizations.

But even though ideology might not have been the main motive, a terrorist act that is branded with the ideas and organization of a jihadi movement still might have been influenced by them, perhaps in a major way. Branding does not mean that ideology has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks with which they are associated, nor does it mean that the jihadi elements can be ignored. Radical ideologies can play a potent role in the complicated mix of motivations of those conducting terrorist attacks. After all, these acts might not have taken place without the extra incentive of the legitimization given by ideological rhetoric and organizational associations. Government authorities are right to be vigilant about the spread of ideas that can become a part of a lethal cocktail of motivations. But it is also inappropriate to focus solely on religious or political ideologies in cases of branding, where these ideologies are not the sole or primary motivating factor.

Orlando Massacre: ISIS Inspired or Homophobic Attack?


We don’t know all the facts – what connection that Orlando terrorist Omar Mateen may have had with ISIS or any other extremist Islamic movement – but what we do know is contradictory. His vicious assault on a Saturday night crowd in a gay bar either had nothing to do with Islam, or everything to do with it.

His father, Mir Seddique, told NBC news that his son’s actions “had nothing to do with religion.” His father did, however, suggest another motive: homophobia. The father said that Omar saw two men kissing when they were in Miami, and the son went into a rage.

Omar’s former wife confirmed that he had a short temper and was prone to violence. She told the Washington Post that he used to beat her, and was “mentally unstable.”

On the other hand, the Amaq Agency, the news outlet of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, in mentioning the incident stated that the shooting “was carried out by an Islamic State fighter.” Omar himself called 911 shortly after entering the bar in Orlando saying that he had pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Federal law enforcement officials added that in that brief call he also referenced the Tsarnaev brothers who exploded bombs during the 2013 Boston Marathon.

It is not clear why Omar referred to the Tsarnaev brothers although with our limited knowledge of the incident his attack and theirs seem eerily similar. Both were assaults on public spaces, soft targets, conducted without any notice. In both cases the perpetrators had personal reasons for undertaking the attacks—homophobia in the case of Omar and in the case of the older Tsarnaev brother, a resentment over governmental policies that deprived him of his goal to become a Golden Gloves champ.

And in both cases they turned to an extreme Islamic rhetoric to justify their acts. In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, it was an ideological support for the separatist movement in Russian-controlled Chechnya. In the case of Omar Mateen, he claimed to be carrying out a terrorist attack on behalf of ISIS. But was he?

ISIS is getting desperate. It would like to claim that it has the ability to conduct terrorist acts around the world. Yet in the area that it actually controls—eastern Syria and western Iraq—it is losing ground.

The movement known variously as the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or “the Levant”—wider Syria), or Daesh has been seriously degraded. Air strikes have killed many of their leaders, disrupted their supply routes, and destroyed their weapons caches.

Within the last year they have lost some of their major territorial conquests, including Palmyra in Syria, and Ramadi and Sinjar in Iraq. Currently the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah is under attack and seems destined to fall; their major outpost in Libya, Sirte, has been retaken by government forces, Syrian troops are moving towards their headquarters in Raqqa, and their largest trophy in Iraq, the city of Mosul, is slated for liberation.

Moreover, volunteers are not streaming to the region in the numbers that previously had supported the movement. Although their online presence continues to be active on Twitter and on secret sites on the dark web, volunteers seem hesitant to join a losing operation.

In this context ISIS needs the illusion of power. This is no doubt that this is what the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks were meant to achieve.

ISIS has also encouraged individuals to conduct their own acts of jihad against disbelievers. Such acts would give the appearance of a global terrorist operation, even though the central ISIS command did little to plan or conduct them. Is this what happened in Orlando?

Thus far, there is no evidence that Omar Mateen has had any connection with ISIS leadership. The ISIS news agency that boasted that he was an “ISIS fighter” did not, however, state that his was an ISIS operation. The agency did not imply that it had been planned and orchestrated by the central command in Syria.

Moreover, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida seems like a strange venue for an ISIS operation. Multiple targets in the heart of Paris and Brussels fit more closely to the modus operandi of the ISIS organization, showing the weakness of the government security apparatus. An attack on a gay bar would not have the same symbolic effect. Though ISIS has persecuted gays in the territory they control, there has not been any other case in which the movement has targeted gay culture in the West.

But gay culture was clearly an obsession of Omar Mateen, according to his father. Like the Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston Marathon, this sad tragedy appears to be one conducted by a lone wolf with a private motive who has cloaked his actions with the glamor of a global terrorist ideology.

Perhaps if Mateen had been a Christian he would have justified his homophobic rampage with right-wing Christian rhetoric. Or if he had been a Marxist, he might have justified his rage in Soviet-era homophobic language. But since he was a Muslim and linked himself with ISIS, we are left with the uncertainty about whether and to what degree this can be described as an Islamic extremist act.

Bellah on Global Religion


Posted on the website of the International Sociological Association, February 23, 2016

Religion has always been global, in the sense that religious communities and traditions have always maintained permeable boundaries. They have become part of the global transportation of peoples, producing diaspora communities that assimilate elements of the cultures with which people interact. They are also an element of the transnational diffusion of cultural practices and ideas, and for this reason Max Weber characterized certain traditions such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity as universal religions of salvation.

But religious expressions can also be responses to new situations, to the globalized, multicultural environments in which people express their spirituality and moral integrity in novel shared ways. It is this kind of global religion that may be the harbinger of the future, the religiosity of a global community.

In an interesting essay written shortly before his death in 2013, American sociologist Robert Bellah ruminated over the possibilities of a global civil religion for a Luce Foundation-supported project on Religion in Global Civil Society that I directed. His ideas were presented at one of our seminars at Santa Barbara and are summarized in a chapter of the book based on that project, God in the Tumult of the Global Square: Religion in Global Civil Society, co-written by Dinah Griego, John Soboslai, and myself, and published by the University of California Press in 2015.

Bellah’s Santa Barbara paper begins where his famous essay, “Civil Religion in America,” ends, with the possibility of what Bellah calls “a world civil religion.” Bellah, quoting his own words in “Civil Religion in America,” says that the time has come to consider global society as containing the elements of “a viable and coherent world order.”

Moreover, the cultural dimension of such a world order requires “a major new set of symbolic forms.” This sounds like he is anticipating a global religion, though in the earlier essay he did not go into any detail about what these “symbolic forms” might be, and how they would relate to traditional religion. His 2012 reflections in Santa Barbara began to elaborate on these two cryptic statements.

How could a global civil religion be constructed? As we interpret Bellah’s essay, he argued that there are at least three possibilities. One would be a kind of synthesis of some of the moral and spiritual elements of all the religious traditions of humankind such as Christianity, Islam, and the like, or if not a synthesis at least a repository of their shared values. The second would be as an extension of the civil religions of America, Russia, and other national societies. The third would be an expression of an emerging new global culture.

While Bellah focuses on the third—the embryonic cultural aspects of a new global society—he does talk about the possibility of traditional religion and nationalist civil religions participating in this emerging culture. All of this sounds optimistic, but Bellah was not by nature an optimist. For one thing, he saw the difficulties in getting parochially-minded people to look beyond their local and national interests to the profound economic, environmental, and social problems that confront humanity on this planet, and which might unite them morally into a global civil society. For another, he saw the possibility that the notion of common global identity and purpose could be formed around functional and utilitarian economic interests rather than moral and social concerns.

Bellah argued that the emergence of a global religion would be consistent with the history of religion, which has largely been a single story. His magesterial 2011 book, Religion in Human Evolution, charts the development of religiosity across the centuries as a single evolving planetary phenomenon, albeit one that is expressed in particular cultural identities such as Hinduism, Judaism, and Chinese. But the singularity of the world’s religious culture is not the same thing as global civil religion, Bellah argues, since this new kind of global religion is the expression of the new phenomenon of global civil society, the idea of a shared sense of citizenship. This is a recent notion, and the possibilities of a global religion in this sense, as an expression of global civil society, is just now emerging.

Bellah concludes his paper by saying that he is convinced that “religious motivation is a necessary factor” in transforming the growing global moral consensus into effective forms of civil society. He engages with Habermas in envisioning the possibility of world law and global governance that will be created in response to an “actually existing global civil society.” This will be the bases of the shared experiences that constitute on a global scale the civil religion of national societies, one that uniquely expresses the character of the emerging global community but that also has “a spiritual dimension drawing from all the great religions of the world.”

Why ISIS Attacked Paris

paris attacks

When I heard that the French government had identified ISIS as the group behind the horrible multiple attacks on Paris that have left over 120 dead and hundreds wounded, I wondered why. Why would this attack be useful to ISIS? After all, it is an organization that is primarily focused on Syria and Iraq. And they have been having enough trouble just maintaining the area that they control.

In fact, ISIS has not been doing well these days. On the day before the attacks the strategic town of Sinjar has been retaken by Kurdish and Yazidi forces, cutting off the ISIS supply line between their main town in Syria, Rakka, and Mosul, their largest conquest in Iraq. The amount of territory controlled by ISIS has shrunk considerably in recent months.

They are also not as attractive to young Muslims activists as they used to be. Two of their most famous recruits, notorious around the world for beheading ISIS captives, have themselves been killed by target strikes. The number of young people volunteering to join the ISIS forces have dwindled and scores, perhaps hundreds, have been trying to return home, weary of being used as cannon fodder. ISIS, it appears, is on a downward slide.

But perhaps this is precisely what explains the Paris attacks. ISIS is desperate. It needs a victory, a vivid show of force to bolster the morale of its supporters, attract new volunteers, and with luck, intimidate its foes.

The attacks in Paris may have been calculated to achieve all of these goals. Moreover, if its actions could goad the French and other Western powers into further military action against them, this would fit perfectly into the image of the Western Crusaders waging war against the forces of Islam. No matter that the Islamic forces of ISIS are terrorists and despised by most Muslims around the world, to their supporters and potential volunteers, they are able to project an image of Muslim resiliency if Western forces do in fact become more militarily engaged in Syria and Iraq.

Most acts of terrorism are performances of power by groups that often have very little power. As with all performances, the critical question is who is the intended audience? In the case of the Paris attacks it appears to be ISIS’ own demoralized supporters and the French public who could easily be whipped up into enthusiasm for a military attack on ISIS, which is what ISIS wants.

This is why the response to ISIS is such a critical matter. A knee-jerk Islamophobic response that accuses Islam of violence will help ISIS by alienating Muslims and reinforcing the notion that the Islamic world is under siege and needs to be defended. Similarly, policies that will restrict Syrian refugees—themselves victims of ISIS—will only enhance the anti-Muslim image of the West. And military action might make matters worse, much worse.

President Francois Hollande has already proclaimed that ISIS is at war with France. If he were to say that France should also be at war with ISIS, and propose French troops engaging with ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq, this would fulfill one of ISIS’ goals. It knows that with the current support of Arab Sunni Muslims in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq a ground war is one that would favor their side.

If the Sunni Arabs in those parts of Syria and Iraq were to turn against ISIS, however, their game would be over. Their support would fall like a house of cards.

The Sunni Arabs in Iraq were once before lured away from the extremism of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor of ISIS) when they were empowered by the American-supported Iraqi government. If the government today in Iraq –and in Syria—were to politically embrace the Sunni Arabs in their countries ISIS would began to crumble from within.

This is what US Secretary of State John Kerry meant when he said, soon after the Paris attacks, said that it was a wakeup call for even more vigorous attempts at a diplomatic solution. It is time to defeat ISIS, but not by the military actions that will only enlarge their support. It is time to defeat them by undercutting their support with political changes in Syria and Iraq.

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:

Why I Boycotted 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.


Mark Juergensmeyer


Letter to the University of Illinois


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.


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


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:

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.