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Islamic Insurgency Returns to Iraq

iraq militants

The fall of Mosul and Fallujah—two prominent Iraq cities—to the radical Sunni forces of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a challenge to Iraq as a coherent unified country. It is also the resurgence of a pattern of radical Sunni anti-governmental activity that was a feature of the US military occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003. And it is partly a result of it.

Fallujah is an example of what happened then and what is happening now. The attempt by American forces to eradicate Fallujah of radical elements paradoxically hardened them, and spread its fighters throughout the country. The paradox is even more striking considering that the Sunni leaders of the region were not supporters of Saddam Hussein, and many were predisposed to welcome the US liberation of the country from his leadership.
“We hated Saddam,” a Sunni Muslim cleric from Fallujah told me, indicating that he and his colleagues in the Sunni triangle of an Anbar province had no use for the secular dictator. Nonetheless, he and his allies came to regard the American coalition authority that replaced Saddam’s government as an even worse choice. They saw the U.S. occupation as a repressive force, imposing a Western-style government into Muslim territory, much as America’s ally, Israel, also imposed itself on the Middle East. They identified with Hamas and the Muslim struggle in Palestine, and asserted that the Palestinian oppression was parallel to their own experience in Iraq.
Though the sectarian violence in Iraq was often described as Sunni-Shi’a civil war, there was very little support for the violence from mainstream religious leaders on either side. On the Sunni side, the Sunni Association of Muslim Clerics resisted the attempts of the Tawhid jihadis to coopt it, and the association often played a positive role in helping to moderate the violence. I talked with one Sunni cleric who told me that he had played a mediating role between extreme insurgents and the Iraqi government. He said it did it for the sake of Iraqi unity. The jihadi extremists became increasingly annoyed with this attitude, however, and by what they regarded as compromises by the nationalistic-minded Sunni leaders.
Beginning in 2005 a new movement, the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq—or simply the Iraq Awakening movement—mobilized the Sunni leadership in al Anbar province against the jihadi extremists. The movement was supported by the US military under a brilliant strategy of General David Petraeus to pit the modern Sunnis against the radical ones. By 2007 the tensions between moderate Iraqi Sunni leaders and the jihadi outsiders had erupted into dissention and violence between their factions. On the Shi’a side, leading clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani also distanced themselves from such Shi’a extremists as Muqtada. Sistani supported the leading Shi’a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.
For a time it appeared that the Shi’a and Sunni factions could live peaceably together in Iraq. I was assured that Iraqi Shi’ite and Sunni had an innate sense of hospitality toward one another by Nuri Kamal al Maliki, who later became Prime Minister of Iraq, but who at the time of my interview with him in 2004 was Deputy Director of the Shi’a Dawa Party. Al-Maliki told me that his own party was fifteen percent Sunni and that Shi’a-Sunni intermarriage was a common thing. He also told me that the threat of Muqtada al-Sadr—who was one of his primary supporters—was greatly exaggerated. Yet the threat of al-Sadr turned out in subsequent years to be quite real, though in 2007 al Maliki pledged to control the forces of Muqtada in order to support a troop surge strategy promoted by U.S. President George W. Bush. For a time Muqtada al-Sadr went into hiding and the violence temporarily subsided. Nonetheless rogue elements from the Shi’a side soon continued their acts of terror and reprisal, mimicking the acts of Sunni extremists.
Al Maliki’s openness to the Shi’a opposition also turned out to be a hollow gesture. Increasingly his government took a hard line against the Sunni leadership in al Anbar province, who felt betrayed by the US military who handed over control of their militia to al Maliki and then left the country entirely in 2011. Without the US military to support their interests they were totally dependent on the generosity of the Shi’a majority government led by al Maliki, who showed no interest in opening his government to their interests. Even worse, he regarded them as potential enemies, and tried to build his own leadership strength on the basis of his willingness to take a hard line against the Shi’a majority’s traditional rival, the Sunnis. The US administration under Barack Obama pleaded with al Maliki to be more conciliatory to the Sunnis, and even the most prominent Shi’a leader in Iraq, al Sistani, urged al Maliki to take a more democratic stance towards the Sunnis. The Iranian government also favored this approach, fearing a backlash from the Sunnis and political anarchy in the country. Al Maliki resisted, and the dark prophecy of anarchy begin to come true, and the rebels took over vast regions of the western part of the country. Under the ISIS leadership, whole cities fell to radical Sunni hands, though in this case the Sunni elders chose to support them rather than fight them, in part because they felt ostracized by the Baghdad regime led by al Maliki.
Thus the circle has turned again to radical Jihadi insurgency. Once again Fallujah is in the hands of the extremists, though this time there is no US military to rescue the Iraq government from the militants’ control, and no David Petraeus to moderate between warring factions to bring stability to the country. Iraq will have to mediate this crisis by itself, though a behind the scenes alliance between Iran and US military advisors may give material and tactical support. The insurgency in Iraq, it seems, is far from over.

For a longer version of this essay, click here

Living and Healing in Isla Vista

Isla Vista memorial candle

I live in Isla Vista. It took me a long time to admit that, since when I bought a house at 6637 Del Playa twenty years ago it was supposed to be only a research office and a place to have meetings and receptions. I didn’t eat meals there, except for lunch, and I certainly didn’t stay overnight.
When I bought the house I was only vaguely aware that it was in a student area. I had lived in Berkeley for twenty years before that, so I thought I knew what that meant. But nothing could quite prepare me for the 6600 block of DP. Thank God I didn’t try to stay there overnight. I rented out rooms to students, and they had plenty of stories to tell.
At first I was suspicious of my neighbors, especially on the weekends when the trash cans in the dark corner of my parking lot became a urinal. I put up a new gate, and the guys in the house promised to secure it tightly during the street party nights. Halloween was a special problem. Once when I stayed in the house on Halloween evening to protect the property the whole fence came crashing down as hundreds of revelers poured into the parking lot and tried to escape over the fence. I set up a triage station in the living room to calm down people who were trampled in the mob.
But over time I felt more at home. My cape-cod style house on the ocean side of DP became known as the “professor’s house,” and people would wave as I drove by. They were good folks, the IV crowd, even if they did get a bit noisy at times. If I had meetings or functions at the house, the neighbors would turn down the sound, If it was a party, I’d invite them over to join us.
I tried to be a good neighbor. I helped to create a volleyball park on what was for some years a vacant lot next door. I attended meetings of the Park and Rec Board, the only elected body in Isla Vista, to show support for their plans for community improvement. For years I advocated for a community relations board for the IV Foot Patrol to help to ease the misunderstandings between the residents and police. I have tried to let students know that they have tenants’ rights. My house was provided as the organizing place for get-out-the-vote campaigns during election times.
Increasingly I became defensive about IV. Most of my faculty colleagues lived elsewhere and the administration often took a paternalistic stance. The local newspapers often demanded regulations to control what they thought of us an unruly mob.
But IV is not a mob. The people who live there, by and large, are friendly, responsible, pleasant folk. And nothing demonstrates this more than the IV community response in a time of crisis. I saw this first hand in 2001 when the community came together in unity after the tragic attack by a disturbed student who rammed his car into a crowded street a couple blocks from my house, killing four.
And again, this week, Isla Vista came together as a community in response to tragedy. Suddenly IV was not just a temporary residence for students in transition, it was a real community of sorrow, healing, and support.
Walking over to the soccer stadium on Tuesday I passed by the places not too far from my house where the tragic events unfolded. At each place memorials of flowers had emerged–outside the Capri apartments across from the Coop, next to the 7-11 in the new buildings on the Embarcadero loop, in front of the IV Deli on Pardall, and on the lawn of the Alpha Phi house down the street from Freebirds.
Each of these mounds of flowers and candles and notes constituted a shrine. They were holy sites for a community brought together in the spiritual bond created by suffering and reflection.
And as I passed by each of them, walking in silence with my fellow Isla Vistans to the memorial service, I realize that I did live there. And I was proud to call Isla Vista my home.

Elliot Rodger’s Private War

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Elliot Rodgers was at war. The troubled narcissistic young man who went on a rampage this weekend in Isla Vista, killing six and then himself, was armed with a small arsenal of automatic weapons.
In a 137 page autobiography that he titled “My Twisted World,” Rodger explained that he was “at war,” but he claimed that he was not the one who created it. Rather, he was responding as a soldier in combat, defending his honor. “Women’s rejection of me is a declaration of war,” he said, adding ominously that “if it’s war they want, then war they shall have.”
Rodger was referring to the fact that although he was obsessed with sexuality, he was still a virgin at age 22. He could not accept the idea that he was to blame for what he regarded as a social failing. He thought of himself as a “magnificent gentleman,” and “a god.” What is interesting, though, is that he thought of his rejection and his planned revenge not as a personal problem but as warfare.
“I am the true victim,” he cried out in the closing paragraph of his autobiography, most likely written hours before committing his savage attacks, his “day of retribution.”
“I didn’t start this war,” he said. “But I will finish it by striking back.”
Rodger had a lifetime of thinking about and acting out roles of combat. His favorite computer game was World of Warcraft, to which he achieved level 60, and to which he was committed for some 14 hours a day when he was in junior high school. The films he admired, including Alpha Dog and Hunger Games–which his father had helped to create as an assistant director–were also seeped in images of battle.
These images do not produce violence, necessarily. But it is striking that virtually all acts of terrorism in the contemporary world employ images of cosmic war that come from their cultural traditions. For Sikhs it has been the epic wars of Sikh princes against the Moghul Emperors; for Muslims it has been the struggles of jihad described in the Qur’an. For Jews and Christians the divine battles of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) are thought to come to life in contemporary struggles that are seen as skirmishes in a cosmic war.
Though Elliot Rodger was a lone wolf, in the sense that he acted alone, he can also be considered a terrorist informed by American culture. He is an American terrorist who employed the militant cultural images of contemporary American youth culture to inform his own imagined battles. Like other terrorists who have created performances of violence in order to create a momentary sense of social power, Rodger was a soldier in his own desperate and secret cosmic war.

Terrorism in Isla Vista

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We are still in shock– the attacks this weekend were literally in front of my house in Isla Vista. But now that the candlelight vigil is over and the yellow tape taken from sidewalks, the question turns to why? Who was Elliot Rodger and why did he engage in this private act of terrorism?
In reading Elliot Rodger’s writings a portrait emerges of a disturbed narcissistic young man of privilege who was consumed with envy and blamed everyone else for his social failings. He saw his life like a movie (Alpha Dog was one of his favorites) and computer games, which he played incessantly (especially World of Warcraft), and gained the illusion of power in his arsenal of weapons including three semi-automatic pistols and 400 rounds of ammunition.
When he was in junior high school he played computer games 14 hours in a day, determined to reach level 60. It was the only skill in which he had a measure of success. In everything else from sports to classes to social conquests he was hounded by a sense of failure even though he was convinced he was “destined for greatness.” In high school and then college, sex was his obsession, though clearly his failing, since at the time of his death he had not even kissed a girl. He blamed the beautiful women who ignored him, and the socially adept young men to whom they were attracted, for his own failings. His 137 page autobiography details how he would like to take revenge on the “Day of Retribution” which was to begin with stabbing and killing his roommates, then shooting up a whole sorority, driving down the coast to kill his stepmother and younger brother, before heading back to IV to plow his car into as many attractive young bystanders as he could. Fortunately he was only partly successful in this savage fantasy.
Who is at fault for creating this cold young monster? Clearly the violence of American society permeated his life and informed his sinister project. He was living in a movie or a computer game. The easy accessibility of guns gave him the illusion of power.
His was an act of terrorism since it was a public performance of violence meant to spread fear and give him a sense of control. I would be tempted to call him a Christian terrorist even though he was not remotely religious since he would have been called a Muslim terrorist if his name was Abdul rather than Elliot. But it would be more accurate to call him an American terrorist. Like most “lone wolf” terrorists in recent incidents around the country and the world, he is a private actor; but he is also a part of a larger cultural momentum that valorizes extreme acts and convinces ordinary persons that they are failures if they do not live up to the lives of the culture’s successful and sexually powerful personae. It is a cultural failing and an American terrorism for which we can all take some blame.

Religious Dimensions of the Ukraine-Russian Conflict


Ukrainian priests

When I asked the official in charge of religious affairs in the Ukrainian government why it and so many of its neighboring states turned to religion in their rejection of Soviet control, he explained that “it is due to a failure of ideology.” Marxist and other secular ideologies have “failed,” he explained, for they are not able to “touch the heart” the way ethnic and religious identities do.
Whether or not Marxist ideology “failed,” it is clear that it became unhappily tied to what was perceived as Russian imperialism. The liberalization of Soviet policies in the 1980s opened the floodgates for a lively expression of ethnic loyalties in Eastern Europe that only intensified after the end of the Soviet Union on New Year’s Day in 1992. In such diverse locations as Lithuania, Armenia, East Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, religious movements were at the forefront of opposition to Soviet control and the emergence of new nationalisms. In a sense, these were old nationalisms; they traced their identities at least to the nineteenth century and in most cases much earlier. In their post-socialist form, however, these national identities were new: their combination of democratic popularism and cultural nationalism was a distinctive feature of the modern age.
In many of these countries, Catholic Christianity was a rallying point for nationalists eager to separate themselves from the Russian cultural domination symbolized by the Russian Orthodox Church. This was the case in Ukraine, where the Catholic Church in the western part of the country continues to be at the forefront of nationalist causes. The religious culture of Ukraine is more complicated than simply a Catholic-Orthodox split, however, since there is a form of Ukrainian orthodoxy that is distinctively Ukrainian and stridently anti-Russian. The statement declaring Ukraine’s independence on August 24, 1991, claimed “a thousand-year-old tradition of building statehood,” which originated in the tenth century, when Vladimir the Great created a separate Ukrainian Church.
This link between Ukrainian nationalism and religion persisted in the post-Soviet period, especially in Western Ukraine. The eastern part of the country contained a large percentage of ethnic Russians, most of whom were Russian Orthodox. The residents of Western Ukraine have been Catholics—members of the Uniate Church, a Ukrainian branch of Catholicism—or members of a distinctly Ukrainian form of Orthodoxy that defies the authority of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. The conflict in Ukraine, therefore, is not just an ethic and political split, but a contest of competing visions of religious nationalism.

You can see the complete essay here