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Is ISIS Over?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Three Illusions of the Digital Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I mean.

The illusion of connectivity.

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

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

The illusion of wisdom.

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

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

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

The illusion of personal power.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone’s an Expert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ainslie, a Personal Note


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 2009 videotaped interview with Ainslie can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeVxoqPDc-0.

How to Respond to North Korea’s Paranoia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Berger: Sociology’s Defender of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ainslie Embree’s Gift to Religious Studies

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester–Last Gasp of a Failing Movement?

People take part in a vigil in central Manchester. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The suicide attack by Salman Abedi outside the Manchester arena that killed 22 young people out on a fun evening on the town was claimed by ISIS to be one of its actions. On the other hand, the terrorist movement of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seems to claim credit for anything violent these days, and it is not yet clear whether Abedi was directed to carry out this mission by ISIS leaders in Syria or whether it was simply branded that way. Abedi may have just been sympathetic with their ideas and carried out the attack on his own.

Either way it may give the impression that ISIS is still in the game. By being connected with such a hideous act of carnage, the movement may seem to be a global player, a force to be reckoned with, and an organization worthy of recruiting new volunteers.

But appearances can be deceiving. The area controlled by ISIS is shrinking daily. The main cities of Fallujah and Ramadi have been liberated from ISIS, and most of Mosul is now free from ISIS control. Only the northern sections of the city are still dominated by ISIS holdouts and their area dwindles almost daily in house-to-house combat. The northern portion of Syria, near the Turkish border, has been freed by Syrian Kurdish forces, and a combination of military forces is closing in on the capital city of the ISIS caliphate, Rakka.

Perhaps more important, the ISIS troops have become demoralized in these military failures. The wages paid to its soldiers have shrunk to a fraction of what they were receiving just a year ago, and the once-steady stream of volunteers from expatriate Muslim communities around the world has decreased to a trickle. ISIS is no longer as cool as it once appeared to be.

So although the Manchester attack may have appeared to put ISIS back into the headlines and back into the terrorist limelight, the movement is floundering. One tragically dedicated person with a suicide belt is not the same as a flourishing militant organization.

But that raises the question of why someone like Salman Abedi would do such a thing. Was he motivated by a deep hatred of the Western culture that surrounded him as he grew up in Manchester? Was he brain washed into a religious ideology that made him think that his act would bring him instant salvation? Or was his motivation more personal, simply a longing to prove himself, to make a mark on history?

The motivations for Abedi are not yet clear. In my monitoring of on-line Twitter chats among young ISIS supporters, however, I have found a consistent theme, a longing for community. This idea of being part of a family is not just a feature of ordinary tweets, it is prominent in the memorial sites set up on line and included as tweet attachments. These commemorative sites that appear on the web-based magazines such as the former Dabiq, now renamed Rumiyah, talk about the dead soldier’s devotion to their comrades as much or more than it cites their devotion to their faith. In fact, the two seem to be intertwined.

It is understandable that a young person who felt alienated from the society in which was raised–perhaps feeling shunned from the kind of sociable crowd that would attend an Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena—might take out his resentment in a violent way. It is a common element in youth rampages from Columbine to Sandy Hook. But as much as ISIS might claim this one as an example of its vitality, the sad fact is that a single tragically misguided suicide attacker cannot rescue a failing movement in its persistently downward spiral to oblivion.

Fleeing Mosul

“We were constantly at war,” a young Sunni Arab man told me, describing life in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. He had lived in the eastern part of the city for three years, the whole time under the watchful control of the Islamic State. Just weeks before I met him, he seized an opportunity and had fled.

When I talked with him in February he was in a makeshift refugee camp near the town of Hassan Sham just outside East Mosul. The town, like most of Mosul, had been utterly destroyed in the fighting. Now he and his family were crowded into a city of 20,000 refugees, living in tents supplied by UNICEF and staffed by generous donors from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

I was brought to the refugee camp by colleagues associated with the Kurdistan university that had co-sponsored my trip to the country in February, 2017. They knew that I was interested in meeting refugees who had recently fled the control of the Islamic State, and through their contacts I was able to secure permission to one of the newest camps, constructed just a couple of months ago on territory that was formerly controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Daesh, an acronym for the Arabic phrase for the movement which happens to spell out a word similar to “bullies” in Arabic).

I was interested in finding out what life was like under ISIS rule, and it was as harsh as I had expected. The Sunni Arab guy described it like living in a prison. Since he was not willing to join ISIS he was fired from his job in the government-controlled water works. For over two years he had been out of work, doing odd jobs and selling family mementos to make ends meet. Though he was in the preferred religious and ethnic group from the rulers’ perspective, he was not the image that they had in mind for a perfect Muslim. When he was caught smoking a cigarette, for instance, he was put in prison for forty days.

One of his friends joined our conversation and explained that he too had been out of work. He previously was in construction, but under ISIS no new buildings were erected, so he sold his car and then various articles of furniture to survive. But at least he was alive. When ISIS found out that he had previously worked as a security guard for the Iraqi army he was forced to march to an open field with twenty other men accused of various offenses. Then to their shock the ISIS guards started firing their weapons at them. People were killed right beside him, the young man told me. He fell down as if he was dead, lying still next to the corpses of those who had been shot. For hours he lay there until he thought it was safe to sneak away. He then hid until the liberation forces came and he was able to spirit his two wives and seven children away from Mosul and out of ISIS controlled territory.

Fleeing Mosul was not an easy thing, as it turned out. My ideas about how wars end come from old World War II footage where the troops triumphantly march down the middle of the street and the jubilant population cheers from sidelines, waving flags.

The war with ISIS is not ending like that. In fact, in many cases it is not clear exactly when or whether the fighting has ended, since ISIS fighters and supporters have infiltrated the houses of ordinary civilians, some of whom may have been tacit supporters and others not. Even their neighbors do not know. All the residents were intimidated by ISIS as long as it had control. When things changed, no one knew whom to trust.

The liberation troops entered the areas of Mosul carefully, taking fire from ISIS on all sides, and wary of landmines and booby traps. The liberation troops were Iraqi Army or Sunni tribal militia; Kurdish Peshmerga troops and Shi’a militia were also fighting ISIS in the region but were not supposed to be in the vanguard of combatants that enter into the inner city. When they thought that they had liberated an area—say a city block of apartment houses—they often retreated to their encampments for the night, only to find the next morning that ISIS had retaken the block. In some cases the ISIS fighters had never left; they had found secure hiding places or tunnels in the buildings and were waiting for the chance to reassert control.

This meant that those civilians who were desperate to leave, such as the two fellows with whom I spoke, had to make several split-second decisions. They had to decide whether their neighborhood was truly free of ISIS soldiers, and whether the time was right for them and their families to make their getaway.

In both cases, therefore, the two men with whom I spoke decided to sneak out in the middle of the night. They chose a time when they thought that the liberation forces were near and ISIS security guards would be busy fighting them. When they and their wives and small children escaped in the cover of darkness, carrying only as many family possessions as they could hold in their hands, they had only a vague sense of where to go. They headed east, towards Kurdistan and freedom.

Soon they encountered checkpoints, and these presented problems. They had to make quick decisions about whom to trust. A roadblock manned by what may have appeared to be Iraqi Army might in fact be ISIS loyalists pretending to be part of the Iraqi Army. Making the wrong calculation about whom to trust could lead to deportation back to Mosul. Or at worst they would be killed on the spot.

For this reason they avoided checkpoints, scurrying around them and behind houses, until they were far from the city. At that point, when they felt reasonably secure, they identified themselves as refugees to what they hoped were units of the Iraqi Army. Mercifully, they were safe. A truck then brought them to the refugee camp where they were assigned a tent and for the first time in years could breathe sighs of relief.

They had arrived at the camp only weeks before I talked with them, and what was surprising was how ordinary it all seemed, how manner-of-factly they told their stories of escape. Part of the reason was that they have not had much time to reflect on their ordeal, since they have had to adjust to a new life, and figuring out how to survive in a refugee camp with tens of thousands of others.

One of the first things one of the men did was to trim his beard. He did not become smooth shaven, since the style for men in Iraq is often to keep some semblance of beard. But he did not want the bushy Muslim beard that ISIS required of all men. He also began to listen to rock music on the little portable radio he carried with him, blasting its tunes from a Kurdistan radio station. In Mosul he also had the tiny portable radio, but he kept it hidden. Now he could listen to rock music in the open, and smoke cigarettes whenever he wanted to. These were small symbols of freedom, but important ones to him.

Both men wanted to return to Mosul to rebuild their lives. That is not possible at present, of course, since the city is still a war zone. Moreover, even when the last ISIS fighter has been killed or captured, the city will be left in shambles. I passed by several villages that on the outskirts of Mosul which, like many parts of the city itself, have been utterly destroyed. In the villages I saw, not a single building was still habitable. And even if they could rebuild, the infrastructure of water, electricity and sewer lines will take months if not years to reconstruct. And then there is the fear of landmines and booby traps that the ISIS fighters have left behind.

To rebuild all of this will take money and civic will. Without monetary support from the Iraq government or from the international community, the civic resolve may wither as well. Already there are reports that the Iraq city of Fallujah, only recently liberated from ISIS control, may again slip into the hands of ISIS given the frustration and desperation of the residents of the city who are having great difficulty in rebuilding their lives. As horrible as ISIS control may be, it has provided a kind of civic order and funding to maintain a city’s infrastructure.

To the fellows with whom I spoke in the refugee camp at Hassan Sham, these were problems for the future. Right now they were happy to breathe freely and imagine the possibilities of an improved life, even if that road to rehabilitation will be as perilous as the journey that they had just made in fleeing Mosul.

My thanks to Rebeen Fadhil, a journalist and social activist with the Harmony project in Erbil, Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq, for arrangements and translation assistance.

Why Are You Christians So Selfish?


With fellow speakers at a conference on countering religious extremism held by the Muslim Clerics Association of Kurdistan, in Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan in February, 2017

“Why are you Christians so selfish?,” I was asked by a bearded Mullah in the city of Sulaimaniya in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. I had gone there to give the keynote address to a conference of 400 Muslim scholars and clergy from the region who were convening on the topic of religious extremists and what to do about them. For “extremist” they used the Arabic term, taqfiri, which refers to any pompous religious person who accuses others of heresy, thereby pretending to be better than they are.

With the presence of the Islamic State just a few miles from the conference site, they had plenty of examples of taqfiri to worry about. In my keynote address, however, I could assure them that this taqfiri attitude was not just a problem for Islam. All religious traditions have their taqfiri, I said, and the recent presidential elections in the United States brought out the Christian taqfiri in droves.

This brings us back to the question that he raised, about why so many Christians seem so selfish. What he had in mind was the refusal of Americans to take in refugees from Iraq and Syria who were fleeing from the persecution of the Islamic State (also known in the West as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and called Daesh by Iraqis who despised them, since this word that is an acronym of the Arab phrase for the movement also sounds like the Arabic word for bullies or thugs).

The Mullah’s question was followed by a diatribe against the ban that had recently been proclaimed by the newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump, prohibiting people from trying to enter the US, many of them refugees, from seven Muslim countries. Though I agreed that it was a pointless and insulting policy, I said, it can also be seen as part of a larger mood of nationalism around the world. I tried to explain this fear of refugees by the global mood of anti-globalism, linking the vote for Brexit in the UK to the nationalist xenophobia in the US. In both cases immigration and entangling trade alliances were issues that voters pointed to in their surprise upset votes for Brexit and Trump, respectively.

But the Mullah in Sulaimaniya was having none of it. This was not a universal response, he thundered. He pointed out that Kurdistan was a tiny little country (everyone in Kurdistan describes it as if it were already independent from Iraq), and a poor one at that. It is now overflowing with perhaps two million refugees, a third of its population, the Mullah said, adding that there is not a whimper of rejection of them from the Kurdish Muslim population. Just the opposite, he explained, the Muslim Kurds are eager to help however they can.

I knew what he meant. I had visited several refugee camps in the region where tens of thousands were encamped. Though UNICEF and other international agencies provided much of the material support, the relief centers were run by Kurdish NGOs with funds provided from the region itself. Though most people in the Kurdistan region were Sunni Muslims by religious affiliation and Kurdish by ethnicity, the people in the camps were Christian and Yazidi as well as Muslim, Arab as well as Kurdish. They were all treated with respect in the camps.

In addition to the established refugee facilities, I also saw makeshift huts in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where refugees were crowded into vacant lots and half-built buildings. At one of these impromptu settlements I found that the Kurdish neighbors in comfortable middle-class houses were helping the refugees set up their tents. They helped them tap into the power lines so they could have electricity, and they provided them with water, food and blankets.

Millions more refugees from Syria and Iraq have flooded into Turkey. That Muslim country, poor by European standards, has welcomed the same people who then tried to move onward to European Christians countries and were often rudely rebuffed.

The Mullah I met wanted to link these two contrasting attitudes to religion–the Muslim theme of hospitality and service, compared with what he saw as Christian selfishness and individualism. “No Muslim,” he said, “would turn away a stranger in need.”

I was tempted to argue with him. After all it was the intolerance of ISIS taqfiri that created the refugees in Iraq and Syria in the first place. And Turks have hardly been the world’s model of hospitality for all ethnic groups–surely Kurds of all people should be aware of that. The current regime in Turkey has resisted the Kurds from having a voice in the nation’s political life and is waging war against Kurdish militants in the eastern areas of the country. In the past hundred years, ever since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of Turkey as an independent nation, Armenians and Alawites as well as Kurds have been treated as second class citizens.

But I didn’t argue with the Mullah, not only because I didn’t want to enter into a sparring match, but also because he had struck a sensitive chord. I felt that he was, in part, right. Some of the most vicious inhospitality of Islamophobia and anti-refugee attitudes in the United States have come from within the Bible belt of America’s Midwestern and Southern states. It has sometimes been Christian church leaders who have raised the anti-immigrant slogans most loudly. It as if they had never read the biblical words commanding the faithful to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and admonishing those who have not loved their neighbor whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.

But as a sociologist I know that religion is not just about belief and creeds, it is about how people think of their relationship to specific communities and cultures, and how they defend them with religious zeal. My own experience of being raised in the religious milieu of the American Midwest taught me that much of the Sunday morning identities of church were about establishing we-they communities of faith, the religious clubs of small town American churches that are exclusive by their very definitions. Taqfiri attitudes are built into the very social fabric of American religiosity.

That is not the whole story, fortunately. My family’s religiosity is testimony to another strand of Midwestern religion that comes from an immigrant past, a more hospitable and tolerant attitude reflected in the 19th century missionary movement that was largely about world service rather than simply saving souls. The several missionaries in my own family would return on furlough with great stories about the schools and hospitals they had established, and the poor they had helped to lift up to better roles within society. Our house was open to people from other countries whom we regarded as very special guests. My older sister brought home three Iranian women she met in college, and I remember thinking of them like Magi from the East, wise people from foreign cultures who could teach us something special about the world.

So yes, we Christians can be selfish. But like the Muslim tradition that can embrace both hospitality and taqfiri, the story is complicated. The same religious tradition that can be a resource for intolerance can be a basis for acceptance as well. Though Christianity can become the shield of clubbish and nationalist sentiments there is still the haunting image of the legendary birth events of a child who was born into a refugee family who could not find a room to accept them. It’s good to know today that at least some Christians would have taken them in.

My thanks to the Union of Islamic Clerics in Kurdistan for the invitation to the conference and to Prof Ibrahim Anli of Ishik University, Erbil, for arrangements and translation assistance.