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Holy Disruption

God in the Tumult

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Boycotted BYU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Religion at BYU

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Mark Juergensmeyer

 

Letter to the University of Illinois

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

August 10, 2015

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

Dear Prof Basar:

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

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

Images of Refugees from ISIS

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It’s potato day at a refugee camp near Erbil, Kurdistan, for Muslim Arabs from Mosul, Iraq.

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A Sunni Arab refugee from a town near Mosul; at a refugee camp outside Erbil, Kurdistan

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A former advisor for the post-Saddam Iraq Army from Tikrit, Iraq; at a refugee camp near Erbil, Kurdistan.

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A Muslim from the town of Kawraban near Mosul with his son; in a refugee camp near Erbil, Kurdistan

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A Syrian Christian pharmacist showing off his cooking, meat dumplings, at a refugee caravan camp in a churchyard in Ankawa, near Erbil, Kurdistan.

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A Syrian Muslim from Qamishlo village near the town of Hassaka, with his wife and child and a friend; in Qustapa refugee camp outside Erbil, Kurdistan

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The mother of the man in the previous photo, whose husband had been killed; in a refugee camp outside Erbil, Kurdistan

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A refugee camp for members of the ancient Yazidi religion from the Iraqi town of Sinjar; the camp was near Diyarbakir, Southeastern Turkey

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Talking with Yazidi elders from Sinjar, in a park converted into a refugee camp outside Diyarbakir, Turkey

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Talking with Yazidi women from Sinjar at the Yazidi refugee camp outside Diyarbakir, Turkey.

[All pictures are by Mark Juergensmeyer in Kurdistan, Iraq, and Turkey on July 25-29, 2015]

For a brief report on these interviews see the essay, “Talking with Refugees from ISIS” on this website.

 

Talking with Refugees from ISIS

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“They believe in some strange religion, not Islam,” a Muslim refugee from the Iraq city of Ramadi told me when I talked with him recently in a refugee camp near the Kurdistan capital of Erbil in Northern Iraq. ISIS territory was some 40 miles away, but he spoke as if the extremists could return at any moment.

“They reject our religion and say we are not sufficiently Muslim, but they kill the men and rape the women. What kind of Islam is that?”

Though his religious affiliation was Sunni Muslim and his ethnic identity was Arab–the kind of people that ISIS regards as its preferred community–he had been a policeman in Ramadi and knew that he would be targeted. His neighbors were frightened as well, having heard stories about the harsh rule of the ISIS commanders and the loss of freedom under their control. As soon as he heard fighting at the edge of town he and other families quickly climbed into their cars at two o’clock in the morning and escaped. Most of the rest of the city joined them, he said. Now they are waiting in the camp, hoping for ISIS to leave the town so they can return.

It was a story repeated by dozens of refugees that I met in camps and makeshift shelters in Kurdistan and southeastern Turkey. They seemed puzzled about who ISIS was and what it wanted.

Most of the refugees used the term “Daesh” for ISIS, based on an acronym for the Arabic name for the movement, al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (“the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [wider Syria]”–ISIL or ISIS). By coincidence, the term daesh also means something like the Arabic word for “bullies,” and for that reason ISIS leaders are annoyed by its usage. Probably also for that reason the term persists among those victimized by it.

“The Daesh leaders are foreigners,” a Kurdish man from a village near the Iraqi city of Mosul told me, saying he didn’t know where they came from, since he didn’t recognize their form of Arabic. The local members of the movement, he said, were poor people forced into it, though some seemed to be true believers.

An automobile dealer from a town west of Mosul recognized one of the ISIS fighters who captured him as a neighbor man to whom he had sold a car. The car dealer was from the Kurdish ethnic community; the man who bought his car was an Arab.

When the town was surrounded by ISIS, the militants forcibly divided the population into its Kurdish and Arab groups. One of the Arabs suggested that representatives from both groups wave a white flag and go to the ISIS leaders to negotiate their way out of the situation. That’s when the car dealer recognized his former customer among the ISIS fighters. The customer-turned-ISIS-fighter looked down and tried to avert the gaze from his former neighbor.

The negotiations soon broke down and the Arabs were told that they would not be harmed as long as they did nothing to impede ISIS’ authority and if some of the men would volunteer to fight on their side. The Kurds were not given any assurances, and fearing the worst most of them slipped away that night in the darkness to safety. They heard that those who stayed were divided into men and women’s groups. The men were killed and the women were taken into slavery.

I talked with another fellow, a Syrian Christian pharmacist, who had in fact stayed in his village in Syria after it had been taken over by ISIS forces. When he became a refugee he was able to stay in a slightly more comfortable Arab Christian camp than the one for Arab Muslims; it was set up in what had formerly been a playground next to a Catholic church in the Erbil suburb of Ankawa. The camp consisted of one-room campers instead of tents, supplied by the Christian charity, the Good Samaritans.

The pharmacist told us that the Syrian Army had assured them that they would be safe as ISIS approached. But then they suddenly disappeared, and ISIS had taken the town. At first, the ISIS militants told them they would not be harmed as long as they gave them all their money and their cell phones. In other villages, they heard, an agreement to convert to Islam and a payment of $7 per month would allow them to survive. But initially they were not given those options. Moreover, his wife was taunted for wearing a Western-style dress, as many Christian women do, so she could not venture outside. They also kept their daughters hidden, fearing they would be captured by ISIS and sold into sex slavery.

They waited until the middle of the night and then they and their neighbors made a break for freedom. They piled into the back of trucks and with the lights out drove madly through checkpoints and down the road towards Iraq and Kurdistan. The pharmacist showed me a video he had made with his cell phone, which did indeed look like a cattle surge of vehicles illumined by a few eerie lights. Now the news from his town is “very bad”—there is no water or electricity or food in stores. Christians are forced to make payments to be allowed to survive and have to pretend to be Muslims and go to the mosque, and ISIS militants roam around the streets and do whatever they want.

When I asked several of the refugees whether ISIS was motivated by religion or by power, they said “power,” but that they used religion as an excuse for their authority. One Kurdish man from the Syrian town of Dierzor said that he had evidence that the ISIS fighters weren’t really religious.

The Kurd told a story that he had heard about a Christian Syrian who was arrested by ISIS soldier at check point. The ISIS soldier asked the Christian to state his religion. “Muslim,” the Christian said, trying to save himself. The ISIS fighter then asked the Christian to prove it by reciting the Qur’an. The Christian mumbled some verses from the Bible, the only scripture he knew. “Good enough,” said the ISIS militant, unaware that the verses were not Qur’anic, and let him through unharmed.

When I asked the Kurd what kind of people supported ISIS in his Syrian home town of Dierzor, he said only a few did; they were mostly poor people who received money if they joined the movement as fighters. ISIS, he said, pays their soldiers 1000 dollars a month, whereas the Syrian opposition groups pay only $500. And ISIS does pay in US dollars, interestingly, perhaps from money it receives from illicit oil sales.

The Kurd said that all of his Kurdish neighbors in Dierzor were gone. They were told by ISIS they could stay but then killing began. Now they have either escaped and are refugees, or have been killed.

My hosts in Erbil found this fellow, the Syrian Kurd, encamped in a vacant lot, where they took me to meet him. Though most of the two million refugees in Kurdistan—a fourth of the population of the region—were in orderly refugee camps living in tent cities or in clusters of pre-fab modular rooms, some, like the Syrian Kurd, had taken refuge in empty lots or unfinished buildings in the city of Erbil. Since the rise of ISIS has brought Erbil’s economic boom to a halt and stalled its construction frenzy, there are plenty of abandoned buildings to serve as shelters.

In the case of the Syrian Kurd, he and his family along with three other families had created a tent city on an unused site at a street crossing. They poured concrete slabs and illegally tapped into an adjacent power line for electricity. They dug into the ground and connected to the city’s water supply to have drinking water and dug a pit for a latrine. With television and a refrigerator, they managed to create a viable living space.

The residents of Erbil were remarkably tolerant—sympathetic, really—to the situation of such impromptu refugee camps, and the refugees in vacant lots received hand-outs and help from the neighbors. The government of Kurdistan, however, is trying to encourage all refugees to live in camps, and are rapidly building more to house them. But new refugees continue to pour in.

Many of the approved camps consisted of rows of modular houses, or tent roofs over one-room buildings with cinderblock walls. Many had water, electricity and toilets in each unit, with solar-powered satellite dishes for TV. In other cases, each family had only a tent and shared rows of common toilets with hundreds of other families. The canvas roofs bore the insignia of the United Nations, though private relief organizations, including many from Kurdistan itself, were donors as well. Though most refugees came when ISIS overran the region two years ago, some were war-weary Syrians who had been nomads for years. A few were new arrivals.

One of the newest refugees I talked with was the young Sunni Arab man and his family who had just arrived from the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, that fell to ISIS forces in May, 2015. He said that he and 90% of the population left on one side of the town as ISIS entered the other. There had been heavy fighting, he said, and his own nine-month daughter had been killed in the fighting. And then the Iraqi Army just gave up and left. The townspeople panicked. They drove their cars into the desert, and then towards Baghdad, but were turned away at the edge of the city because they were Sunni and Baghdad was controlled by Shi’a militia. For that reason they came back to the desert, and a few, such his family and himself, were able to fly to Erbil to stay in safer refugee camps.

The Ramadi man had heard reports that ISIS had set up a check point at the entrance to the town next to an open pit that served as a mass grave. When people tried to enter the city, the ISIS guards checked their computers to see if their names were on lists that would allow them to pass through, and if not they shot them on the spot and tossed their bodies into the open grave.

In Southeastern Turkey there are additional refugee camps for Kurds, including those Kurds who worship the ancient Yazidi religion. I went to the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir to visit a Yazidi camp where some 3500 were living in tents in what had been a municipal park.

I had to get special permission as a writer from government authorities to enter any refugee camp in Kurdistan or Turkey, though in this case I also had to gain the approval of local leaders who ran the camp. One of them joined in the conversations and urged the Yazidi refugees to tell me what had happened to them. Their stories were particularly harrowing.

A middle-aged Yazidi woman from the town of Sinjar told me her story about how they waited too long to make their escape. She said that initially the Kurdish troops, the peshmurga, assured them that they would be safe, and not to worry. When they heard that a nearby city, Tel Afar, had fallen to ISIS, they still stayed. The peshmurga troops, however, were overrun, and ISIS took control.

She knew that the Yazidi people would be targeted by ISIS since they were not Muslim. She had heard that they were killing Christians for not being Muslim, and Sunni Muslim Kurds for not being Arabs, so she knew that her people would be doubly damned since their religion was Yazidi and their ethnic community was Kurdish. The woman said that she and other Yazidis rushed through the main street and many of the men were killed, including her husband and his brothers, but she and her children kept going to safety. They fled to the Sinjar mountains along with thousands of other Yazidi refugees. After ten days the Kurdish militant movement, the PKK, opened a corridor of safety for them to escape.

She has heard reports that teenage girls were taken by ISIS to warehouses where they were auctioned off to old men who bought them as sex slaves. Some were bought for no more than a thousand Iraqi dinars, which amounts to less than a US dollar.

I asked her and several of the other refugees in her camp and in Erbil whether they thought that ISIS would stay in power long. Yes, they sadly affirmed, since “they were evil,” as one of them put it. They  they knew how to intimidate people through killing. At the same time they knew there was little future for them as refugees in Kurdistan or Turkey. They had no option but to hope that they could return to their villages and towns. “All we have left is hope,” one of the men said.

 [My thanks to those who helped with arrangements and translation while I was in Kurdistan, Iraq, and Southeast Turkey, including Ibrahim Barlas of the Pacifica Institute; Ibrahim Anli of the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul; Ardalan Jalal of Erbil’s Dialogue Middle East; and Hasan Yilmaz of the Diyarbakir Entrepreneurs and Businesspeople’s Association.]

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The woman in the center is from the Yazidi religious community in Sinjar Iraq whose husband was killed by ISIS. The interview was in a refugee camp in Diyarbakir, Southeastern Turkey on July 28, 2015.

 

Behind the Iran Nuclear Deal–the Fight against ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The success of ISIS is due to the support of moderate Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq. According to an insightful article by Graeme Wood in The New Republic, the ISIS supporters consist of three types—psychopaths, believers, and pragmatists. The psychopaths and believers are largely recruited from outside the region. The cruel executioner in the videos of the beheadings of Westerners is likely a British citizen who was lured to the region as a soldier of fortune in a grand imagined war.

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

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

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

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

Once again Sunnis were lured by al Qaeda style of jihadi activists, now under the banner of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIL, since al Sham can be translated as Levant, the old name for greater Syria). It also calls itself the Islamic State, as if there could be only one. Many outside the movement call it by the term “Daesh,” which spells out the acronym of the group’s Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham; and conveniently the term in Arabic means something akin to “bullies.”

But even though they are bullies, Daesh or ISIS does give a role to the local Sunni leaders who feel alienated under Shi’a rule. Could these moderate Sunnis be lured back as they were during the Awakening in 2008? That depends to a large measure on what happens in Damascus and Baghdad, whether the Shi’a governments there are open to shared governance.

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

Last year Iran showed that it understands the importance of shared governance in order to appease the Sunnis and keep ISIS support from growing. When the US said that it would not support the al Maliki government in Baghdad without a more open (that is, Sunni inclusive) policy, this position was echoed by Iran, and by the Shi’a clergy in Iraq most closely allied with Iran, Ali al-Sistani.

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of the Lone Wolf Terrorist

dylann roof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myanmar’s Buddhist Terrorist

wirathu

This essay was originally posted in Religion Dispatches.

“Do I look like a terrorist?” the orange-robed monk asked me, jovially confident that I would see the question as absurd.

The monk, Ashin Wirathu, had recently been portrayed on the cover of Time magazine’s international edition over the caption, “the face of Buddhist terror.” He was credited with inciting angry Buddhists in Myanmar to riot against the Muslim minority, burning mosques and Muslim-owned shops and houses, and attacking Muslims who dared to challenge them. In 2013 and 2014, scores were killed and thousands were displaced from their homes. In the town of Meiktila, a Buddhist mob surrounded a Muslim man and set him on fire.

Wirathu was blamed for fanning the flames of ethnic hatred. He is the most well-known spokesman for the “969 Movement” —named after the nine special attributes of the Buddha, the six distinctive features of his teachings, and the nine characteristics of monks—which was formed to defend the purity of Burmese Buddhist culture against its adulteration from outside influences, primarily Muslim. Hence it was widely regarded as an anti-Islamic hate movement.

When I talked with Wirathu recently in his comfortable office in the Ma Soe Yein monastery in the central Burmese city of Mandalay he was prepared to defend himself against the terrorism label branded him by Time magazine and many other journalists. Buddhism is all about peace, he kept reminding me.

“If we support Buddhism we are creating peace in the world,” he said repeatedly. So far, nothing terrorist about that.

His monastic office radiated spiritual authority. Though Wirathu is only one of 14 senior monks on the governing body of the 2500-man monastic complex, he clearly occupied a leading position within it. Only the framed pictures on his wall—mostly newspaper clippings and pictures of himself—were indications of his charismatic, rabble-rousing reputation.

Though our conversation began cheerfully, Wirathu’s demeanor darkened when the conversation shifted to the vulnerability of Myanmar’s Buddhist culture to attacks from outside. He frowned and said, “we have to protect our people.”

“From whom?” I asked. He implied that there were a host of people out to destroy Buddhism, and I kept pressing him to tell me whom they were.

“Muslims,” he said, finally. Or more precisely, “Islamic extremists,” as he called them, people who denigrated Buddhism. Not all Muslims were extremists, he said, though most were under their influence, so virtually all Muslims in Myanmar were suspect.

I asked him for examples of how the tiny Muslim minority in Myanmar—some four percent of the population—could possibly threaten the Buddhist majority. The first thing that came to his mind was the case of Muslim men wanting to marry Buddhist women. After marrying them, he said, the Muslim men would force their wives to convert to Islam and step on statues of the Buddha. It was not clear how frequently he thought this sort of thing happened. When I asked others in Mandalay they could only think of a handful of cases of ethnic intermarriage.

Wirathu also thought that Muslims were secretive, since their mosques were not open to everyone. (When I mentioned this to a local Muslim leader, he said that the mosques were closed solely to prevent people from coming inside with their shoes on and desecrating the worship space.)

Then Wirathu warmed up to his main concern, which was the penchant of “Islamic extremists” for violence, and their desire to rule the world. He cited the atrocities of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS as examples. He also thought that their numbers were greatly expanding in Myanmar through immigration and having relatively larger families, and that this was a purposeful design to dilute the purity of Buddhist culture in the country and eventually take control.

“They are trying to transform Myanmar into a Muslim state,” Wirathu said. He claimed that this was the reason that he and the 969 movement are trying to protect Burmese Buddhism from what he regards as a kind of cultural annihilation.

Wirathu insisted that his only role was to preach the truth. Though his fiery sermons have been reported as inciting violence, Wirathu disassociated himself from such acts, saying that his own followers were under his control. He told me that Buddhists had the right “to defend themselves” and if at that time they “inflict injury,” then that can be excused. Thus violence could be justified in a context of defense. But Buddhist ethics, he said, would not allow the faithful to intend to be violent, since, he reminded me, Buddhism is all about peace.

Representatives of the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights, however, have identified Wirathu as one of the main figures in Myanmar’s pattern of human rights abuse against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya who live in the northern portion of Rakhine province adjacent to Bangladesh. Though the Rohingya people claim to have lived in the region for centuries, many Burmese regard them as aliens, and the most recent government census refused to let them identify themselves on the rolls as Rohingya rather than Bengalis. Wirathu has been outspoken in his insistence that the Rohingya are not legitimately native to the country but are interlopers.

This dismissal of the rights of Rohingya in Myanmar is one of the things that has been criticized by the UN Human Rights Commission. According to Wirathu, rich Muslim countries have bought off the UN, and its human rights accusations were part of a Muslim plot. “It is not the United Nations,” Wirathu told me, “but the United Muslim Nations.” Wirathu claimed that President Obama was also duped by these influences, and this is the reason why he spoke about the rights of Rohingya people in his recent visit to the country.

The conspiracy was even broader, Wirathu said, since the world’s news media were also under control of Islamic extremists. It was for this reason that magazines such as Time could label him a terrorist. In fact, he claimed, it was the media that was in league with terrorists by branding him and other outspoken Buddhist leaders as the foe.

The other well-known Buddhist activist in the region was Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena movement in Sri Lanka, which Time, Economist, and other international news media have also criticized. Much like Wirathu, he has railed against the imagined threat of a small Muslim minority in his country, and like Wirathu was accused of inciting riots against it. I asked Wirathu if he and the BBS were working together, and he admitted that he had met with Gnanasara, but insisted that their agendas were separate. Nonetheless, a number of news reports claim that Wirathu’s 969 and Gnanasaara’s BBS movements are in league, and there are reports that Wirathu has been in contact with Buddhist monks from Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia, where pitched battles have been taking place between Buddhists and the Muslim majority in that locale.

Wirathu said it was not just Buddhists who were concerned about Islamic extremists. He said that his fears were shared by some Muslims, and gave the name of a leader of the Muslim community in Mandalay who he said was in agreement with him. Later that day I talked with the Muslim leader, and he said that of course he was concerned about al Qaeda and ISIS worldwide, but that the Muslims in Myanmar were of no threat to anyone. He implied that Wirathu was playing into the hands of politicians who wanted to use the Muslim scare for political purposes.

This was an analysis that I had heard from others in Myanmar, including journalists and political leaders. The ruling party had undertaken a great risk to their power by opening the government to a greater degree of democratic rule. Even though the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party swept the 2012 elections, its leaders were apprehensive about the 2015 elections and the likely candidacy of Nobel Prize-winning Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Some thought that by creating an artificial threat the military’s party would be seen as strong defenders of the nation, and they would gain in the upcoming elections as a result.

Wirathu has been ranting against Muslims for some time and in 2003 was put in prison for inciting violence against them. He was released in 2010, about the time of the democratic reforms, so some have speculated that his release was motivated by political considerations, like unleashing a tiger. But whether or not Wirathu was a pawn in this political calculation—and whether he was aware of it, if so—is unclear.

What is apparent is that he has convinced himself, and perhaps his angry following, that there has been a great but hidden struggle going on behind the quiet Buddhist civility and lush tropical landscape of the ancient Burma that is now the rapidly economically developing Myanmar. It is a battle between good and evil, between Buddhist morality and the Muslim hordes he imagines to be poised to conquer Burma’s soul. And Wirathu would like to be its savior.

The interview was conducted with the translation assistance of Thein Toe Win.

Further Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Charlie-Hebdo

These comments were posted on the SSRC blog, The Imminent Frame, on Feb 18, 2015, as part of a panel discussion on “Values and Violence: Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo.”

In the aftermath of the terrible shootings in Paris and the horrific burning of a captured Jordanian by ISIS, once again religion is in the news, and bad news at that. Religion seems so clearly implicated: after all, the perpetrators cloaked themselves in religious language and appealed to the faithful to justify their acts. What in fact does religion have to do with such things?

Possibly everything, many public commenters have said. More likely, I think, only a bit. Let me explain, beginning with a parallel.

When right-wing patriots almost literally wrap themselves in flags as they plot to assassinate the President of the United States—which they have—few people blame nationalism itself. Rather, they look at the mixture of psychological and political motives that may have brought the conspirators to their savage plans. When a whole group or culture adopts a vicious form of extreme nationalism—Nazism comes to mind—again it is not nationalism itself that we blame, but a perverted form of it crafted to buttress the power-hungry designs of a political junta.

The role of religion in public violence is like that. For this reason, it is lazy thinking to blame religious beliefs and scriptures without looking at the socio-political and historical contexts. It excuses us from probing more deeply into the alienation and humiliation experienced by the Algerian immigrant community in France, in the case of the Paris attacks, or the marginalization of the Sunni Muslim tribal communities in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, in the case of ISIS.

But religion is not totally off the hook. After all, religious traditions provide ethical justifications for killing that can be exploited, and images of cosmic war that can magnify a worldly conflict into one of transcendent importance. Ideologues have utilized these religious images in crafting worldviews of grand warfare. These take on a life of their own, promoted by demagogues, and spread through compelling Internet videos. Religious ideas and legendary stories that are swept into these scenarios give them the illusion of religious legitimacy.

Hence the role of religion can be problematic. Though it doesn’t cause violence, it is often the excuse for it. But religion can’t “do” anything—motivate actions or sway thinking—by itself. It is not a disembodied thing that has power of its own. It is simply a part of culture, something that people can use and abuse, for good or for ill. And lately much of it has been for ill indeed.