Was Afghanistan Necessary?

Picture: Taliban entering Kabul August 15, 2021

This essay was posted in English and Polish translation on the website of the Warsaw news magazine Najwazniejsze. 

In contrast to Iraq, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan beginning in October 2001 is often regarded as the good war. Iraq was the bad war, the unnecessary war in many people’s estimation.

But the sudden though inevitable collapse of the Afghan government and the resurgent Taliban control has raised new questions about why the U.S. military went into the country in the first place, and what in twenty years was accomplished. Was Afghanistan also an unnecessary war?

In the days after the tumultuous events of September 11, 2001, there seemed to be no question is the minds of most sensitive people around the world that the perpetrators of this hideous act needed to be caught and brought to justice. When it became clear that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had played a role in housing Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the global jihadi movement who had their base of operation in the country, it seemed obvious to many that the regime itself had to be confronted.

Though no one had ever accused the Afghan leaders of being directly involved in the planning and conduct of the terrorist act, they were presumed to be guilty of willingly harboring terrorists. Moreover, the Taliban was a harsh extremist regime with very little international support. Only three countries in the world had extended it official recognition before 9/11 – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan – and after the attacks even these few ties were severed. Thus, it seemed, no one was willing to come to Afghanistan’s defense as the U.S. military prepared to invade the country.

Yet the invasion of Afghanistan has raised some interesting questions. Was the invasion necessary, and did the U.S. expect that their presence would enable Afghanis to adopt a different kind of regime?

The Taliban was one of several contending Islamic parties in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet-backed regime that had ruled the country since the Saur Revolution brought a socialist form of government to power in 1978. After a long and debilitating struggle between the Soviet-backed Afghan socialist regime and the Islamic resistance forces – the mujahadin (“fighters”) – the Soviet Union withdrew its support in 1989. The regime of Mohammad Najibullah was soon toppled.

Fighters who had come to join the mujahadin from throughout the Islamic world returned to their own countries and to expatriate communities in Europe and the United States, having been trained in guerrilla warfare and fired with rebellious zeal. Some of these became the terrorists of the new jihadi struggle against the secular governments backed by Europe and the United States, and changed the course of international relations in the post-Cold War world. These mujahadin-hardened fighters included the Saudi militant Osama bin Laden whose organization, al Qaeda (“the base”) was formed during the Afghan-Soviet war.

In the vacuum of power in Afghanistan, a new militant group was taking shape. It was based on former mujahadin militia, but with a more hard-core and strident religious ideological framework. It was called the Taliban, and it quickly emerged as a significant new force.

Taliban literally means “student,” and refers to the origins of the movement: young men who had attended madrassas, or Muslim schools, in the Pashtun-dominated areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan and of the Baluchistan and North-West Frontier provinces of Pakistan. The leader of the movement, Mullah Mohammed Omar, came from a village near Kandahar, attended a religious school – a madrassa – and served as a mullah. He was missing one eye, which he lost in the resistance struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He is said to have never flown on a plane and was uneasy around foreigners.

Though the Taliban was best known outside of Afghanistan for its religious conservatism, the main differences between it and the other religiously conservative groups in the country, such as the Northern Alliance headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud, were ethnic. Massoud and most of his followers were Tajik, and Mullah Omar and his Taliban cadres were Pashtun (Pathan). Mullah Omar was also distinguished by his effective military strength, rumored to have been aided by elements of the Pakistan intelligence agency.

By 1995 Taliban forces were able to capture the capital, Kabul. In 1997 Omar renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In August 1998 almost all of the last outposts of opposition in northern Afghanistan crumbled to his control, though the forces of the Northern Alliance led by Massoud fought on. Massoud’s armies were at the forefront of the US-based military conquest of the Taliban in 2001, though Massoud himself had been killed, most likely by Osama bin Laden’s cadres, days before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is notable that in the August 2021 blitzkrieg that solidified the Taliban’s renewed power, they quickly captured the northern region, thereby diffusing the possibility of a Tajik-based opposition to the Pashtun Taliban militia.

Shortly after the Taliban had gained control of the country in 1996, bin Laden, along with his Egyptian colleague, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and some two hundred of their band of jihadi warriors returned to their old base in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had been abruptly asked to leave his headquarters in Sudan, and thought that the Taliban would provide a more hospitable field of operations. His hopes were fulfilled, and Afghanistan turned out to be a friendly platform for bin Laden and Zawahiri to launch a campaign of global jihadi warfare.

Bin Laden soon ingratiated himself with the leader, Mullah Omar, showering him with gifts and more – some say that he arranged the marriage of one of his daughters to the Taliban leader. Bin Laden and al Zawahiri provided training for their cadres in the old Tora Bora headquarters left-over from the Afghan-Soviet war. They were able to communicate with their operatives and supporters over the world by utilizing new communication devices such as radio telephones and the internet. One of bin Laden’s first acts in 1996 was to release a statement, “A Declaration of Jihad Against the American Occupation of the Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries.” The land of the two holy places referred to Saudi Arabia, where both Mecca and Medina are located, and the presence of American military bases amounted to an occupation, in bin Laden’s frame of reference.

Two years later, in 1998, bin Laden and Zawahiri, along with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and other militants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt, proclaimed a World Islamic Front against the “Crusaders and Zionists” – the United States, Europe, and Israel. Though the mujahidin struggle in the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s was arguably one of the first chapters in global jihad, the 1998 proclamation helped to launch an expanded international campaign of violence. The declaration was issued as a fatwa—a religious edict. It implored Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military,” as “an individual duty” in any country “in which it is possible to do it,” in order to liberate the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, to free the land of the holy places – Saudi Arabia – from foreign forces, and to remove the American military from all Islamic lands, “defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.” Hence this fatwa gave an ideological justification for an international network to respond to what it described as a global scheme of America and the West to control and denigrate Islamic society.

Within a few months of the proclamation, in August 1998, the al Qaeda network from its base in Afghanistan was able to carry out a spectacular pair of bombings almost simultaneously on U.S. embassies in two African countries, Kenya and Tanzania. Over 200 were killed and many more injured, many of them Africans speared by falling glass from high-rise buildings adjacent to the shattered embassies. Within days, U.S. President Bill Clinton proclaimed that bin Laden and the “Islamic Army Organization” were responsible for the bombings. He ordered a military raid on an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, seeking but failing to kill bin Laden and his inner circle. In October 2000, Bin Laden’s network was associated with a brazen attack on the American navy vessel, the U.S.S. Cole, by a suicide squad of jihadi activists as the U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer was docked in the Aden harbor in Yemen.

The attacks on 9/11, however, created a whole new level of engagement and reprisal. Almost immediately, members of the jihadi movement in general and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network in particular were the prime suspects. Mohammad Attah, who was on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center towers, was quickly identified as one of the leaders of the operation. Papers in his luggage, which did not make it on the transfer from his earlier flight from Portland Maine to Logan Airport in Boston, identified all nineteen of the hijackers. Most were from Saudi Arabia. Attah, however, was an Egyptian who had lived in Germany. He is said to have come under the influence of radical Islam in Europe and to have met Osama bin Laden in 1999. He then received his mission to participate in what was called by jihadi leaders as the “Planes Project.”

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush accused the Taliban of harboring al Qaeda terrorists. He delivered a non-negotiable ultimatum demanding that the Taliban government do five things: hand over Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to the United States for prosecution; release all foreign nationals, including Americans, “unjustly imprisoned” in Afghanistan; destroy bin Laden’s terrorist training camps in the country; allow US inspectors into Afghanistan to make sure that the camps were destroyed; and “protect all journalists, diplomats, and aid workers” in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the ultimatum included two items (the release of political prisoners and protection of journalists) that were not directly related to al Qaeda. But it is unlikely that the Taliban would have accepted the demands even if they were limited to what were regarded as terrorist operations. The Afghan government rejected Bush’s demands, saying that they would hold a trial for bin Laden if the US offered any evidence of his complicity in the attacks. At the same time, the Grand Islamic Council of Afghanistan – a convocation of the leading clerics in the country – met in response to the Taliban’s request for their advice on how the Afghan government should respond. The Taliban’s Mullah Omar was likely uncertain what to do in this situation, in part because he was almost completely ignorant of affairs outside his own country and did not understand what the collapse of some building far away had to do with him. Hence he sought his clerical convocation for guidance.

Perhaps to the Taliban leadership’s surprise, the convocation suggested that Osama bin Laden and his foreign militants immediately leave the country. News reports indicated that the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, was considering the recommendation and would likely have accepted it if he had an indication from Washington that this would be sufficient to keep the US from invading his country. The response from the White House was immediate and negative, however, saying that it would not be sufficient to allow bin Laden to leave Afghanistan only to slip into hiding in another country.

The Taliban government then offered another solution. It would remove bin Laden from Afghanistan under guard in order for him to stand trial in a neutral, third party country (not specified) if the United States would provide evidence that Osama bin Laden was indeed implicated in the attacks. Although this proposal seems reasonable, by the time the Taliban leadership suggested it the matter was moot, since the United States military had already attacked the country and were attempting to destroy bin Laden’s likely hideouts and forcibly remove the Taliban from office.

The combined efforts of American military air strikes and the revived forces of the Northern Alliance caused the Taliban regime to crumble at the end of 2001. The Taliban central regime fell quickly, in part because tribal war lords in Afghan’s regional outposts withdrew their support from what they perceived to be a losing situation—which is largely what happened in the August 2021 collapse of the American-supported Afghan regime. When the Taliban fled from Kabul on November 12, 2001, even members of the Taliban’s own ethnic community, Pushtun, celebrated as if the country had been liberated from an evil oppressive rule, though clearly no government since then has been able to gained the stable confidence of the Afghan people.

The Bush regime clearly had been determined to topple the Taliban regime regardless of whether or not they banished bin Laden from the country or released him into the hands of a third-party nation for a trial. It regarded the Taliban not only as an accomplice of Osama bin Laden but also as a kind of terrorist movement in its own right.

No matter that evidence was never given at the time for bin Laden’s complicity in the 9/11 attack. In fact it might have been difficult for the US to produce such documentation without revealing its intelligence sources. Besides, the official 9/11 Commission Report identified another jihadi militant, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, based in Pakistan, as the chief architect behind 9/11, not bin Laden. Nonetheless, at the time the dominant position within US leadership circles was that the Taliban was implicated in the 9/11 attack. The most important link in the minds of many who regarded the Afghan invasion as justified was a conceptual one: the notion that the Taliban and al Qaeda were essentially the same kind of thing.

Many have assumed that a radical Islamic regime like the Taliban was terrorist by its very nature. Therefore, whether or not there was an al Qaeda link, toppling such a radical religious regime was morally warranted. It is an interesting moral assumption and a problematic one.

There is no question that Afghanistan was ruled by an unsavory band of leaders. What frightened people about the Taliban was not only its reliance on brutal exercises of violence as a way of controlling its citizenry but also the restrictions on civil liberties that gave the government the appearance of enslaving its populace. Even if the darkest assessments of the Taliban’s harsh rule were true, however, the question remains as to whether these would be sufficient reasons for an external invasion to liberate the country. Part of the answer to that question is the degree to which one thinks a religious regime of this sort is capable of internal change without the necessity for an invasion from outside.

The diversity of political positions within the Islamic Republic of Iran gives some indication that even a rather rigid religious regime is indeed capable of flexibility and perhaps significant change on its own. Muslim militants in other parts of the world – including Sheik Ahmed Yassin in Palestine and Qazi Turadqhonqodz in Tajikistan – have disagreed with Ayotollah Khomeini and rejected many of his positions. Other post-revolution leaders in Iran, including Mohammad Khatami, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani have been considerably more moderate than the extremists. Saudi Arabia is another hard-line autocratic country that seems to tolerate a certain degree of dissention and liberal lifestyles, at least in private.

The leaders of the Taliban claim that now that they are in charge they want to create a stable respectable government, albeit one with strong Muslim religious limitations. We will see if this promise is fulfilled. But if Afghanistan does turn out to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia or one of the Gulf State Emirates, the question is whether the US can live with it. And if so, whether it accepts that its twenty years of attempts to transform Afghanistan have at least in part succeeded.





Why Michael Jerryson Mattered

This essay was posted in Religion Dispatches with the title, “After Michael Jerryson Nobody Will Ever Look at Buddhism the Same”

It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that after Michael Jerryson no one will ever look at Buddhism the same way. Others have written about Buddhist violence and warfare, of course, but Jerryson brought it to public attention in a way that could not be ignored.

When he died this last week after over two years of struggling with ALS (the dreaded neurological Lou Gehrigs’s disease), Jerryson left a rich corpus of writings, including nine books. Among them were his solely authored works, including Buddhist Fury, and If You Meet the Buddha on the Road (quoting the famous line attributed to a Chinese Buddhist monk that ends with the words, “kill him”). He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, and the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (co-edited with Margo Kitts and myself).

The cover of a book that Jerryson and I co-edited on Buddhist Warfare portrayed a young monk holding a handgun. When this picture appeared accompanying a review of the book in the London Times Literary Supplement, readers were outraged. “How could this be?” several readers demanded to know, “since as everyone knows Buddhism is the religion of nonviolence?”

After Jerryson everyone now knows that Buddhism is like every other religious tradition on the planet. It is capable of inspiring great moments of insight and fomenting peace and toleration. But it can also accompany the angry attacks of Buddhists, goaded on by activist monks, in slaughtering Muslims in Myanmar, tsetting their houses on fire and burning the innocent victims alive. This too is Buddhism.

In writing about such matters, Jerryson makes clear that he is not out to trash the tradition. Quite the opposite. Because Jerryson has lived and worked with Buddhists in Mongolia, Thailand, and elsewhere, he felt a kinship with the Buddhist community and an admiration for its tradition.

But Jerryson was also a scholar with enormous intellectual curiosity. As he explained in an 2010 essay in Religion Dispatches, “Monks with Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence,” initially he came to Thailand to study Buddhist pacifism and social activism. But when violence broke out in Southern Thailand between Muslims and Buddhists, he wanted to go and see what the monks were doing there to bring about peace.

What he discovered was quite different. The Buddhist monks in the region had little interest in peace-making. Mostly they wanted to defend themselves and their Buddhist community, and many were armed in order to do so.

What Michael discovered, as he explained in his Religion Dispatches essay, was “not that Buddhists are angry, violent people. But rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.”

Since then we have seen an abundance of other examples of Buddhists acting violently—which is to say acting the way that all people can do. Some of the most virulent are the Buddhist riots against Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka where vitriolic monks have added to the climate of hate and ethnic anger.

It was this violent side of Buddhism that both troubled and interested Jerryson. It troubled him since he admired the tradition and cherished its attitudes towards peace and tolerance. But as a scholar he was also fascinated with the diversity within the Buddhist community and the degree to which ideas and images from the religious tradition could be employed in quite hostile ways.

Jerryson then began to ruminate over why we are surprised at discovering this dark side of Buddhism. Why should it be counterintuitive that Buddhist societies, just like all other societies around the world regardless of religious affiliation, have at times embraced violence?

This attitude of ours towards Buddhism, Jerryson reasoned, tells us more about ourselves than about the Buddhist tradition. There has been an image of pacific and reflective Buddhism that has been marketed in the West, often by itinerant Buddhist teachers. Not that this image is incorrect—there is much in Buddhism to admire and to share with peace-loving people everywhere.

It is not, however, the whole story. And for a scholar of Buddhism, what is left out of the popular image is as interesting as what is included.

Jerryson’s interest in Buddhist violence has come at a critical time in global history. Increasingly violence and religion have been associated together in movements of xenophobic religious nationalism, not just in Buddhist societies but around the world.

For this reason Jerryson began to turn his attention more broadly to religion and violence around the world. He saw the phenomenon of Buddhist political violence within a global framework. His more recent work has focused on comparative studies, including editing a two-volume comprehensive set of essays on Religious Violence Today: Faith and Conflict in the Modern World.

Jerryson had outlined a new book project that he wanted to write. It would expand on some of the concepts that I have developed in Terror in the Mind of God, and try to identify the critical occasions in which religion and violence become fused in a way that results in real attacks, not just symbolic expressions.

One of the central ideas in this new book was to be the concept of “sacred emergencies,” moments of existential fear that drive the faithful into thinking that the world as they know it is in ultimate danger. This leads to faith-driven assertions of power and control that are often expressed violently.

Michael was never able to write that book. But he did write an extensive essay encapsuling the major ideas. Shortly before his death he sent me the manuscript of this paper, which will now be published in the Journal of Religion and Violence, a journal which for a time he was co-editor, along with his frequent collaborator, Margo Kitts.

Kitts and I have co-edited a Festschrift for Jerryson, Buddhist Violence and Religious Authority, that is soon to be published. It includes articles by scholars exploring a wide range of Jerryson’s concepts, showing their relevance to continuing scholarship. Some of the essays from that volume are featured in a special issue of the Buddhist Studies Review devoted to Jerryson’s work. Fortunately he was able to see these manuscripts and comment on them before his death.

In our introduction to his Festschrift, Kitts and I conclude by saying that these essays show that his fertile ideas will continue to nourish the field for some time to come. Indeed they, along with the whole corpus of Jerryson’s influential work, provide an enduring legacy, a continuing contribution to our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and public life.

Letter to an Anti-Vaxxer

[The following letter was actually sent to someone I know who refuses to be vaccinated thinking it’s not sufficiently safe.]

Dear friend-

Yes, I found your admission that you are hesitating taking any of the available COVID-19 vaccines to be troubling. There are several reasons for this.

One is that I work in the field of higher education where we respect expertise. All of us in universities are experts in something, but none of us are experts in everything. So we rely on the knowledge of those who have devoted their intellectual resources to an area in which we seek information.

Yet we know that not all experts in the same field agree. That’s the nature of the scientific community, it thrives on discussion and counter-evidence. For that reason we seldom trust the outliers in the field who may take a contrary stand to the great majority of their colleagues. We rely on the preponderance of the evidence if it points in one direction, and we trust in the overwhelming consensus of experts in a field. This is abundantly the case in the reliability of the current COVID vaccines available.

But there are two other reasons that I have. These are more personal.

One is my connection with India. I lived there for a time and am in almost daily contact with friends there. In recent months India has gone through a tsunami of COVID cases related to the new Delta variant. It is more transmissible and lethal than other forms, and it has a tendency to strike younger victims, not just the elderly that has been the case with early forms of the disease.

In recent weeks I have heard of the tragic deaths of several people that I have known, healthy colleagues in the fullness of life, who were struck down with an evil disease that aims for the lungs, leaving the victims almost literally choking to death.

In all of these cases, they had tried in advance to get access to a vaccine to protect them. Alas, there is a severe shortage and long waiting lines. And for many, including these colleagues, the chance for a vaccine has come too late.

I feel helpless hearing this dark news about people I knew and admired. To know that they died for the lack of a vaccine is troubling. Even more disturbing is to know that otherwise sensible Americans are taking a cavalier attitude towards taking the vaccine. I feel that if they don’t want it, for God’s sake send their vaccines to India where people are literally dying to receive them.

The other reason is even more personal. It is literally close to home.

You see I’m married to a woman who had a viral disease in her childhood—polio—and is still suffering from the effects. It was called infantile paralysis because it frequently struck young people, cruelly, leaving them crippled or gasping for breath. In my wife’s case, for a lifetime she has had limited mobility and frequent pains. What a blessing it was when vaccines were developed to combat this horrible and crippling disease!

But that didn’t happen immediately. I’m old enough to remember that when the first polio vaccines came out there were deniers and those who hesitated. But ultimately they were won over, and now polio has been virtually eradicated from the face of the earth.

Without the overwhelming acceptance of the vaccine, polio would not have been defeated. If a large percentage of the population goes unvaccinated everyone suffers, since the virus remains in society, and has the opportunity to mutate into even more virulent strands.

So vaccination is not just for personal protection. It a matter of social responsibility.

Of course you are free to make your own decisions, that’s the wonderful thing about being in a free society. But decisions have consequences. Not only for yourself, but for others, as well.



Rumsfeld’s Legacy in Iraq

 The only time I met Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush,  was in a meeting in Washington where he briefly appeared. He was cocksure and jovial as always.
   It was one of Rumsfeld’s signature features that he never apologized for anything. And quite likely he never regretted anything he did, including the most devastating.
  The invasion and occupation of Iraq was one of those devastations. Perhaps worse than the invasion was the haphazard and irresponsible occupation.
  This was one of Rumsfeld’s baby. Apparently he and his staff had virtually no preparation for what would happen after the fall of Saddam. I think the assumption was that it was a secular government that could run on its own.
  In fact the country collapsed from chaos to anarchy to vicious ethnic rivalry. The emergence of ISIS was a product of this.
  The US policies in Iraq, largely crafted by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, helped to create this chaos. I know this because Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who was teaching with me at UCSB at the time, was called back by the State Department to go to Baghdad to be the first person to be in charge of the reconstruction efforts. This was a week or so before the invasion.
  She told me she asked for her staff and the plans for running the country after Saddam, She was told she’d have to create both. They didn’t have any.
  Also Ambassador Bodine didn’t last, since Rumsfeld wanted a more compliant sycophant in charge, and that’s how Paul Bremer got the job instead of Barbara. She knew Arabic and was developing a plan for reviving the army and the administrative structure and getting support of neighboring Arab countries. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney didn’t want any of that.
   So as a result, Rumsfeld’s policies helped to create the sectarian politics that has plagued Iraq ever since and led to the rise of ISIS, which fed on Sunni resentment at being made second-class citizens by the Shi’a majority government.
   So if you ask whether Iraq is better off now after Saddam, it depends on what ethnic group you’re in:
   Kurds- love it. They hated Saddam and the feeling was mutual. He tried to literally kill them off. Now Kurdistan in the northern region of Iraq is thriving. When you fly into the airport at Erbil, as I have frequently in recent years, working a book on how terrorist movements end that features conversations with old ISIS warriors, you see a big sign saying “welcome to Kurdistan” (no mention of Iraq).
   Shi-a – mixed feelings. Shi’a political leaders are pleased since they are now in charge of the country and are able to have an unbridled alliance with Iran (which was the big winner in the rise of Shi’a power). Shi’a militia have also grown enormously in part in opposition to US occupation (Muqtada el Sadr’s militia especially).
   Sunni – big losers. When I went to Baghdad some months after the invasion and met with Sunni religious leaders they all blamed the US for what they saw as a Shi’a takeover that was making them second-class citizens. And they were right. Access to jobs, military appointments, government support were all difficult under Shi’a regimes. This resentment led to the tacit support of ISIS when it rolled into the Sunni regions of western Iraq, essentially creating a united Sunnistan with the adjacent Sunni regions of eastern Syria, for a time empowering Sunnis in both countries.
   In my recent visits to refugee camps and prisons in northern Iraq, however, I have found the post-ISIS Sunnis to be deeply depressed. Their cities have been destroyed, their ISIS protectors no longer in power, and no change in their second-class status in either Syria or Iraq. The situation is ripe for the return of ISIS or the rise of another form of protest movement.
   All this is Rumsfeld’s legacy. And he departed as always, cocksure and jovial to the end.
   (My forthcoming book referenced in this post, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Terrorism Ends, will be published later this year by the University of California Press).

Is Religion Dead?

This is an abstract of the essay posted in the online journal, Global Perspectives at https://online.ucpress.edu/gp/article-abstract/2/1/24887/117619/Is-Religion-Dead?redirectedFrom=fulltext

[The full text follows this abstract]

The rise of strident movements of religious nationalism seems to signal a resurgence of religion. But such movements can also be read as the last gasp of religiosity as it succumbs to the inevitability of secular globalization.

Which is correct? Has religion revived, or is it in its death throes?

Part of the issue is statistical: adherence to religion seems to be on the rise in some parts of the world (Islam in Africa, for instance), though on the decline in others (Christianity in Europe and increasingly in the United States) and under attack in China.

But part of the issue is definitional: what is meant by religious
adherence—social identity or metaphysical belief? Scholarly attempts to define religion are various, though an interesting new definition is provided by the late sociologist Robert Bellah, who described religion as “alternative reality.” With that definition, one
can posit that religiosity is a fundamental part of the creative imagination, a constituent of culture as certain as art or music.

The question then becomes not whether religion will survive, but in what way it will survive. The popular religious choice of millennials,
“none,” may be consistent with the multicultural religiosity of the old Protestant liberals, a tradition now in decline. Liberal Protestants have not disappeared but have transformed into the bearers of a global morality and spiritual sensibility.

Hence we may be witnessing the emergence of new forms of spirituality and ethical community that resonate with the alternative reality of traditional religious experience but that have no name and no organization.

But these may become the global religion of the future.


Is Religion Dead?

Full text of the article published in Global Perspectives 2:1

Despite the dark predictions of religion’s future by such scholars as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietsche, religion at the beginning of the 21st century seems strangely alive. I say “strangely” since the forms of religiosity that come to public notice are indeed strange. The right-wing Christian militia in the United States and the terrorism of the Islamic State are only two examples of the extreme forms of religious nationalism and violent cults that have vaulted into public attention.

There is more to religion’s revival than that, of course. In areas of Latin America where evangelical Protestantism is flourishing and in the vast swaths of Africa where Islam is on the rise, the devout are neither weird nor vicious and their religion seems to be an amicable part of their personal and social lives.

Elsewhere, especially in the urban centers of Europe, Asia, and the Americas, religion is clearly on the decline. The once proud cathedrals of spirituality with their marvelous stained glass windows and ornate stone filigree are increasingly monuments to a religious past, relics of another age. What few faithful still attend can be seen as emitting the last gasps of religiosity before the phenomenon succumbs to the inevitability of secular globalization.

Which is it, has religion revived or is it in its death throes?


Dead or alive?

One way of answering the question of whether religion is reviving or dying is to look at the statistics. The statistical picture, however, is not consistent. Adherence to religion seems to be on the rise in some parts of the world (Islam in Africa, for instance), though on the decline in others (Christianity in Europe and increasingly in the US) and under attack in China.

Of the 7.3 billion people in the world the largest percentage, roughly 33%, are Christian. From 2010 to 2015 that percentage stayed the same even though the numbers of Christians rose slightly, especially in Africa and South America, while they declined elsewhere, though on balance they kept pace with the general rise of the population worldwide.

The numbers of Muslims are exploding. Islam is currently the second largest religion in the world, with some 24.1 percent of the world’s population. That percentage has continued to rise as the absolute number of Muslims expands both through large families (Muslims have the highest birth rate of any religious group in the world) and through conversion, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Pew research reports indicate that by 2035 the numbers of children born to Muslims will outnumber those born to Christians, and Islam is by far the fastest growing religious community in the world (Pew Research Center 2017).

Though in general Christianity continues to have the same 33% of the population it has had for some years, that percentage is not distributed equally. It has risen in Africa and South America. But Europe is one area of the world where Christianity is in decline. From 2010 to 2015, the numbers of Christians in Europe dropped by 5.6 million people (Hackett and McClendon 2017). One reason is that the numbers of deaths of older Christians outpaced the births of Christian parents; another reason is due to the changing demographics in Europe with the rise of new immigrant groups, especially from Muslim countries.

In the United States, the numbers of Christians is also in a decline. The erosion of Christian affiliation continues at what the Pew Research Center describes as “a rapid pace” (Pew Research Center 2019). According to the Pew study, in 2019 only 65% of Americans described themselves as Christian, down 12 percentage points in scarcely ten years. Part of this decline is due to the negative birthrate of American Christians compared to their death rates; part of is due to the rise of new immigrants with non-Christian faiths; and part is because of the abandonment of any religious affiliation by the rising number of young people who declare their religious faith as “none.”

Though European and American Christianity is declining in numbers it is not doing so evenly across all the Christian denominational affiliations. Internally within Europe and the U.S., there are dramatic shifts. At one time the mainstream Protestant denominations (such as Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalean, Presbyterian, Congregational, and the like) rivaled the Roman Catholic church in numbers, especially in the United States. But from 1972 to 2017, the numbers of mainstream Protestants in the US dropped precipitously from 28% to almost 10 percent (Stetzer 2017). The average age of the surviving mainstream Protestant members is 52, indicating that the denominations are quite literally dying out. The decline of mainstream Protestants has been in part due to the strength of Evangelical Protestantism, some 26% of the population, a number that has held fairly solidly even though the total number of Christian adherents have declined.


The decline of a liberal Protestant

What happened to the mainstream liberal Protestants? In the discipline of anthropology, scholars sometimes focus on one example of a general trend, and use the life story of that case study to illumine larger aspects of social change. In this spirit, I have searched for a good example of the decline of liberal Protestantism in the global era, and sought one person whose story might shed light on the larger transformation of the faith. After some effort, I have finally found a perfect case: me.

So bear with me for a moment while I tell you my story. I am doing so not to impress you with my own religiosity. Quite the opposite, since it is a story of the fall from religion, at least a certain kind of religion. And from my observation of fellow former liberal mainstream Protestants, I think my own pattern is not uncommon.

I am a child of the “silent generation,” growing up as a mainstream Methodist in the Eisenhower years. In the small farming community of Southern Illinois where I was raised, everyone went to church on Sunday morning, it seemed. My family was very pious and fiercely loyal to our congregation, where the message was a mix of mild social concerns and inspirational homilies. I was equally active in the Boy Scouts and the Methodist Youth Fellowship, and they seemed to me to be quite similar. Both urged us youths to do good and help others.

I served as a boy preacher when I was in High School, pastoring two small rural congregations. When I went to the University of Illinois I majored in philosophy, thinking it a good preparation for seminary. To the dismay of the local Methodist clergy in central Illinois, the seminary I chose was Union Theological Seminary in New York City, touted as the most liberal of liberal theological institutions, and the academic home of America’s best known theologian of the era, the staunch progressive Reinhold Niebuhr.

It was in fact Niebuhr with whom I wanted to study. In college increasingly my attention had turned to the aspects of religion that were related to ethics, especially social and political ethics. Niebuhr was the leading figure in this field. Featured on the cover of Time magazine as the “prophet to politicians,” he was known to have made a major influence on the thinking of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.

Niebuhr was a theologian, but as he himself described it, a religious thinker “with one hand on the Bible and the other on the New York Times.” Taking theologian Karl Barth’s insistence on the original sinfulness of all humanity, Niebuhr tried to explain how social ethics was possible given the inherent greediness of humans, an exploitative attitude especially evident when they joined in collectivities such as business corporations. In Niebuhr’s view corporations were definitely not “persons, my friend,” as Mitt Romney once said, since they lacked the capacity for agape, sacrificial love. They were incapable of forgiveness or mercy or even fundamental justice, since they were extensions of people’s acquisitive nature.

He suggested that two things could provide “countervailing power” over the dominance of corporations. One was government regulations—which gave philosophical legitimacy to the expanded role of government during FDR’s administration. The other was the countervailing power of collective action—among workers this meant the legitimation of labor unions, which during Niebuhr’s day were becoming a major force in American economic and political life. Niebuhr also suggested as early as 1932 that collective protest could be an effective means of bringing racial justice in the United States (Niebuhr 1932). It was this reading of Niebuhr that made a striking impact on another young seminarian, Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote about Niebuhr and corresponded with him.

Niebuhr was a lifelong socialist. He once supported communism as many left-wing thinkers in the United States did, but like them he became disillusioned with Stalin and became fiercely anticommunist, at least regarding the Soviet variation of the ideology. He remained supportive of socialist causes, however, and helped to found the Liberal Party in New York as the progressive alternative to mainstream democrats.

I studied with Niebuhr all three years that I was at Union Seminary, and wrote two long papers for him. One was on the way automation was changing the nature of work, creating even greater alienation than before. The other paper was on “Sin in the Civil Rights Movement,” based on my own observation of being involved in movements for racial justice at the time, and seeing how some leaders could use the platforms for personal power and petty infighting. Niebuhr liked both papers, and I still prize his comments, “you have surveyed the whole field,” and “perceptive analysis.” My autographed copy of his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man, where he scrawled, “with great respects,” is among my cherished possessions (Niebuhr 1939).

With Niebuhr’s blessing I became deeply involved in the civil rights struggle of the day, working for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, and helping to organize a Seminarians Movement for Civil Rights. I also helped to produce a radio program on social ethics for WOR radio station in New York City exploring a range of contemporary issues. Increasingly we progressive Christians were becoming concerned about the expanding war in Vietnam.

The summer after I graduated from seminary I became ordained in the United Methodist Church, an event that thrilled my mother, though it was unclear what that would mean for my future. At the time my main concern was on how to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. I took the opportunity of accepting a two-year study and service project abroad, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, as a way of applying my newly minted ministerial deferment.

I had never been outside the United States at that point in my life, and when the program suggested that there was a slot available in India, teaching political ethics at Punjab University, it seemed an interesting opportunity. Because India and Pakistan were at war at the time, and the place to which I was assigned, the Punjab, was at the heart of the fighting, I delayed my arrival in India for three months. Initially I was based on Hong Kong, teaching English, but I took the opportunity of going to nearby Vietnam to see firsthand what the war was about. In Saigon I produced a series of radio programs for my old New York City station, WOR, on the Buddhist and student rejection of both sides in the war, and their own movements for peace.

When I finally arrived in India it was a revelation to be immersed in another culture, one so different in some ways and yet so humanly similar in others. I loved the vibrant religiosity of Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras, and Muslim mosques. My Midwestern American morality and spirituality seemed to adapt easily to these new milieu. I also found a form of progressive Hinduism with which I could identify. I joined a Gandhian ashram in the state of Bihar and became involved in famine relief. It was a form of social service for me, but also a direct education on the social ethics of Gandhi and his understanding of Hinduism.

After India I still needed to find a way to keep from being drafted into the military, so I sought a new student deferral as a graduate student in political science. I chose Berkeley as a place where I could study political ethics, religion, and South Asia studies in the same place, and from which I could launch my academic career. It was also attractive because it was, well… Berkeley. And this was in the mid-60s, shortly after the “summer of love.”

It was also a center of political activism, and for a time my studies took second place to helping to organize protests against the Vietnam War. I continued to have connections with progressive activists in the campus ministry programs and at the adjacent Graduate Theological Union. But church attendance increasingly fell by the wayside. I married a fellow graduate student, one whose family was Chinese Buddhist, though she had little interest in religion of any kind. So for years church was not a factor in my life.

I can’t say that I ever turned away from church religion. It just did not seem very important to me. And besides, the kind of moral urgency and resolute spirituality of my progressive Protestant past could be expressed in myriad forms of social activism and cultural appreciation. I had not changed; but increasingly the organization of religion seemed unimportant. Later in life I have started attending church again, perhaps out of nostalgia, perhaps out of appreciation for the insights that it provided me when I was young. But I can understand why many of my peers have fallen away from the church and not looked back.

Recently I returned to Union Seminary for the fiftieth reunion of my old class. I was a bit shocked how old everyone else had become (though I noticed some looking strangely at me as well). But I was also surprised at how few of my fellow classmates had maintained connections with organized religion. Only a handful had become clergy, and many of them who did had left after a while to take up positions in social work or as organizers with service organizations. Like me, none appeared to be hostile to the church. It was just not a necessary part of our lives.

We were also somewhat uncomfortable to be called “Christians.” We certainly were, in that we came from a Christian background, studied theology, and for a time were closely involved with the liturgical roles of ministry. But we bristled with a term that has been largely coopted by Evangelical Protestants. These strident right-wing Christian enthusiasts with their demands that one be “born again” and “saved” did not represent the sort of socially concerned religion of our pasts. We were not that kind of Christian.


Religion as alternative reality

The reluctance of my generation of progressive Protestants to be called “Christians” brings up a more basic issue—what the words associated with religion signify. Our hesitation in being labeled Christian, and perhaps also the disinterest that many of us have had in the organized Church, was in part to make clear that we were not Christian in the same way that the Evangelicals were Christian. Our religion was something different.

Not all religion is the same. In the multicultural era of globalization, religion has often been used as a badge of identity politics. It has been used by extremist Muslims to demarcate what they regard as the true definition of the faith, and with it a clear distinction between those who are legitimately Muslim and those who are not. It creates a religious in-group. Exactly the same phenomenon is at work among right-wing Evangelical Christians who want to assert the social and political primacy for their kind of people—an identity that is partly defined by race and ethnicity, and partly by religious affiliation.

We old progressive Protestants, however, do not want to build walls; we want to tear them down. We feel quite comfortable in the multicultural societies of the globalized world. We see in the better features of other faiths—Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, among others—a resonance with our own religiosity. It is easy for us to embrace the idea of the commonality of all people in a global civil society. This means that we are uncomfortable with being labelled with one religious identity, especially one that has been coopted by a xenophobic right-wing segment of society.

Are we still religious? That depends on what you mean.

Scholarly attempts to define religion are various, though an interesting new definition is provided by the late sociologist, Robert Bellah, in his magnum opus, Religion in Human Evolution (Bellah, 2011). It is a huge book, as impressive in its scope as it is rich in detail and insight. In it he takes the long view, beginning 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang and the creation of stars and planets, including our own, and then the emergence of living cells in the primal ooze, and the beginning of animate life forms. He ends the book at the Axial Age, the rise of new modes of conceptual activity in the 6th century BCE, a period when intellectualism was sprouting around the world, from Greek thought to philosophical developments at the end of India’s Vedic period.

It is in this grand historical narrative that he addresses the idea of what religion is, and relates it to the development of living species, an idea that I explore in a recent book (Juergensmeyer 2020). Early life forms, Bellah suggests, are focused on material things, survival and procreation. But later in the evolutionary process more evolved life forms have the leisure of spare time. Freed from the necessities of existence they can do whatever they want. And what they often do is unstructured and arbitrarily structured activity, doing things for no apparent purpose. They are like school children finally released from their boring classrooms for a few precious moments for recess. What they do during recess time is to run around and have fun and explore the world. It is something that we call “play.”

Following the lead of the Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, Bellah affirms that play is the beginning of all forms of culture, including religion (Huizinga 1944). It is the ability for humans to be creative, to roam and discover. Initially it is primarily an activity. This is true of religion as well. The early forms of religiosity—such as the rituals described in Leviticus and the rites detailed in the Vedas of ancient India—are focused on activity, on what priests do to interact with God or the gods. It is only later, in the Axial Age of the 6th century BCE that religion becomes more introspective and cerebral, and this is when we can describe religion as a product not just of creative activity but of creative thought: the religious imagination

Though it is currently popular in the scholarly community to question whether religion is a thing, something that has agency on its own, Bellah demurs somewhat. In his understanding religion is something, or rather some perception. It is an imagined world of being, “a general order of existence,” as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes it. Bellah goes further in labelling it “religious reality,” one of various multiple realities that “calls the world of daily life into question” (Bellah 2011, 5). Here Bellah is relying on a whole school of sociology associated with the Austrian philosopher, Alfred Schütz, regarding the notion that reality is socially constructed (Schütz 1967), and before him the American philosopher, William James, who thought about cultural forms as constructions of the social imagination (James 1902). According to this point of view, made popular by the book, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, what we perceive as everyday reality is a social construction of what things are and what they mean (Berger and Luckmann 1966). A wooden table, to most humans, is a place to put books and plates of food, but to a termite it is an edible feast. It all depends on your point of view. What Bellah adds to this conversation—aided by the thinking of the pioneering French sociologist, Émile Durkheim—is the insistence that religious perceptions are one of these constructions of reality (Durkheim 1912). The table might be, for instance, an altar in a religious reality. These religious realities are among the various multiple realities that most people navigate among every day. These multiple realities are often overlapping views, and sometimes contesting ones, but they can present levels of meaning and reality that are quite different from one another even though they relate to the same thing, just as we and termites see tables differently though the table remains the same.

Thinking about this–thinking about religion as alternative reality—provides a way of accepting religiosity as a part of human creativity that may come in myriad forms, and adopt many names. With that definition one can posit that religiosity is a fundamental part of the creative imagination, a constituent of culture as certain as art or music. The question then becomes not whether religion will survive, but in what way will it survive?


The religion of the “nones”

This question brings us back to the dilemma that we old liberal Protestants have when confronted with a request to describe our religion. We hesitate being called Christian, in the way that Evangelical Protestants have possessed that term. But we are certainly not atheists, or even agnostics. We are like the “nones.”

Though a couple generations older, we are similar to the young Millennials of today who register their religious preference as “none.” They do not regard themselves as atheists or agnostics, but they do not see any need for religious organizations or affiliations. They describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.”

In the Pew Research Center’s 2019 survey that indicated that affiliation to Christianity had dropped 12 percentage points to 65% of the population over the previous ten years, it indicated that the percentage of those describing their religion as “none” or “nothing in particular” rose from 12 percent to 16 percent. The numbers are even more dramatic when one factors in age. Among the Millennials born between 1981 and 1996, only 49% regard themselves as Christian, 9% adherents of other faiths, and forty percent unaffiliated, so so-called “nones” (Pew Research Center, 2019). Among those in this generation, the “nones” are the largest single religious category—more than Catholics, Mainstream Protestant, Evangelical Protestants or Jews. And their numbers are growing.

In this regard we may be witnessing the emergence of a new form of global spirituality and moral community that resonates with the alternative reality of traditional religious experience, but which has no name and no organization. This no-name religion is increasingly, however, a major form of religiosity, especially in multicultural societies.

In a five year Luce Foundation-supported project on the role of religion in global civil society that I directed, one of our tasks was to look at where religion was going, how it was becoming transformed in global society. We saw both tendencies that I have described in this paper. On the one hand adherents of religion have become more defensive and stridently protective about their identities. On the other hand there are the multiculturally religious, old liberal Protestants like myself and the young new “nones” who affirm spirituality but do not give it a name or suggest that it needs a formal organization.

It is this latter form of spirituality that intrigued us. Would it be possible if two new developments on the planet, global civil society and global religion, could be linked? The latter could be the cultural expression of the former.

To probe this idea we turned again to Robert Bellah, who had been a colleague of mine in the religious studies program at Berkeley years earlier and was intrigued by our project. Bellah had just finished his magisterial book, Religion in Human Evolution, and was thinking about how religion had continued to change since the period at the end of that book, the Axial Age in 6th century BCE. In particular, Bellah was interested in the way that religion has become linked with individualism in the years since the European Enlightenment. But he was also interested in how religion might be transformed in the global age, in the context of a global community.

We invited Bellah to Santa Barbara to discuss the possibilities of a global civil religion. Typical of Bellah, he had prepared a paper that laid out his ideas. Though never published, I have summarized much of the paper in a chapter of my co-authored book that reports on the Luce project, God in the Tumult of the Global Square (Juergensmeyer, Griego and Soboslai, 2015). The full paper is onlined in our project’s digital archive (Bellah 2012). What we wanted to know was whether the idea of “civil religion” that Bellah advanced in a widely-discussed essay in 1967 could characterize not only national civil societies but also global civil society (Bellah 1967).

To respond to this, Bellah first explained how global civil society was possible. In Bellah’s paper he traced the development of the idea of civil society from its inception in 18th century Europe, when it was a part of the complex of ideas related to Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. “Civil society” in the Enlightenment context described what Bellah calls “the public sphere, a realm of thought, argument, and association independent of the state, but leading to the formation of what came to be called public opinion.”

It is this notion of citizenship that is explored more recently by Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1989). The concepts of freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression are essential to the sense of citizenship in the public sphere, and they were enshrined in all of the leading Enlightenment documents, including those of the American Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. The idea of universal human rights also became a part of the shared values of the civil society of the public sphere.

The Enlightenment thinkers had particular national communities in mind when they discussed this notion of civil society, but it can be more generally applied. Civil society is not necessarily the province only of national societies. Increasingly in recent years the notion of civil society has gone global, and the phrase, global civil society, has gained acceptance by scholars and social activists around the world. One of the reasons for this is the presumed universality of human rights. Another has been the pervasive growth of international NGOs, especially in the last twenty years. Yet another has been the rise of transnational social movements around such issues as economic equality, women’s rights, equality of sexual orientation, and environmental protection. At the same time the advent of instantaneous mass communication through cell phones and the Internet has brought individuals together in an unparalleled way on a global plane. In the 21st century, there is a global economy, global legal norms, global communications, and global festivals such as the Olympics and the World Cup. During the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 people around the world were learning to connect together digitally through zoom and other online platforms.

All of these developments have led towards networks of interaction not just among national elites but also among ordinary citizens—a global civil society. Increasingly nation-state borders do not restrict whom or what we may contact, nor do they define our sense of community. At the same time, economic interaction on a global scale is creating another kind of global community, one that is very much focused on the transnational elites that control and profit from these flows of capital. This elite form of global economic activity is not conducive to global civil society, from Bellah’s point of view. The question is whether the decentralized form of global citizenry can grow despite the attempts of a global elite to control it.

This is where Habermas’ speculation about transnational governance comes into play. The emergence of a global civil society is a challenge to nationalist power and to global elite power, and requires its own forms of power creation in response. Mass movements and international NGOs provide one kind of counterweight. Global public opinion as voiced over the Internet is by far the most democratic of new communications media. And other challenges to national and elite power come from newly developed transnational agencies in dealing with problems of the environment, global communications, and the world-wide diasporas of peoples and cultures. Some of these agencies are supported by the UN, others have been formed on their own with support from interstate or transnational social movements. Habermas is buoyed by these developments, and about regional entities such as the European Union, which he regards as the first step to moving beyond narrow nationalism.

Bellah, however, is less sanguine about the efficacy of these developments in creating a sense of global citizenship on their own, and returns to the idea of building a moral consensus that can provide the basis for transnational institutions of accountability. Though he appreciates Habermas’ attempts to think about a sense of citizenship beyond narrow nationalism, Bellah thinks that Habermas’ notion of an “abstract constitutional patriotism” is an insufficient base for creating a global civil society. For that you need moral commitment. And this is where religion comes in.

Bellah admits that the passions of religious commitment do not always run towards a spirit of open tolerance and interfaith harmony. Quite the opposite is often the case. As the rise of strident nationalist religious movements around the world has demonstrated, religious fervor, as Bellah puts it, has “often been used for evil as well as good purposes.” Still, Bellah believes that the potency of religious passions can be harnessed for good—by which he means a more inclusive sense of religiosity.

Moreover, global society needs this kind of religious zeal. “Only such powerful motivation could make human rights genuinely practical” on a global scale, Bellah insists. And he goes on to point out that every religious tradition contains within it the reverence for life and the appreciation for human dignity that is at the basis of universal human rights—not only Christianity, but also Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese religion. The Analects of Confucius, Bellah reminds us, states that “all within the four seas are brothers.” Buddhism regards all human life (and for that matter all animate life) as having within it the Buddha nature. Thus religious traditions are sources for a world-wide appreciation of the universality of the principles underlying human rights. So are the instincts of a new generation of global citizens whose sense of spirituality and morality know no traditionally national or culturally limited bounds.

Hence the sensibilities of the old liberal Protestants like myself and the young Millennial nones coalesce. We share a common sense of the underlying values of morality and spirituality in all religious traditions and in the vitality of a global human society that is not signified by any one religious community or name. We admire the multicultural acceptance of a global heart to humanity that makes global civil society possible. Liberal Protestants have not disappeared; we have been transformed into the citizens of a global era and the bearers of its global morality and spiritual sensibility.

We are not alone. Ours is essentially Gandhi’s religion. His understanding of Hinduism was informed by Islam, Christianity and many other faiths; it was a religiosity for all people. Some of the world’s leading religious spokespersons, including Gandhi, Bishop Tutu, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, and the Aga Khan IV, speak not just to their own religious communities but touch the spiritual pulse of the wider world. They are the saints of the global age.

In thinking about this emerging global religious community, I am reminded of the many good-hearted religious activists I have known over the years. These are people who are tirelessly working for the good of all humanity. Though inspired by their own religious backgrounds, they welcome people of all faiths and no faiths to join in their efforts at creating more just and inclusive societies. I think of Sulak Sivaraksa, the Buddhist civil rights activist in Thailand, and another Buddhist leader, A.K. Ariyaratne, whose Sarvodaya movement for village uplift I visited in Sri Lanka. I think of the Gandhians I knew in India, especially my mentor, Jayaprakash Narayan, the leader of India’s Sarvodaya movement and a tireless champion for social justice. I think of the women and men who have been part of the Jewish-Muslim peace movements in Israel and Palestine whom I have met, and who have worked together not just for cooperation between their religious communities but for a more just an inclusive society as a whole.

I also think of others, of Sister Maria Antonia Aranda in Mexico ministering to Central American migrants trapped at the U.S. border, Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker Movement and the Jewish-Christian philosopher and activist, Simone Weil. I think of Bishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador and Gustavo Gutiérrez in Peru and the many nuns and priests and other Catholic activists associated with liberation theology who merged the analysis of Karl Marx with the peaceful message of Jesus. And I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and my own teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Protestant Christianity was never an exclusive teaching, but a message of harmony for the world.

These are good people who have been speaking to the best of their religious traditions for decades. And at the same time they continue to speak to us all. They usually work side by side with those from other faiths, and for the “nones” who confess no particular religious affiliation, but affirm a moral and spiritual connection with all of humanity. Their spirituality, their moral courage, spans religious divides and responds to the best in everyone. Thus they are keeping religion alive, but not only for their own traditions. They may also be harbingers of the global religion of the future.










Bellah, Robert. 1967.” Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96:1, Winter 1967), pp. 1-21. Reprinted in The Robert Bellah Reader, Robert N. Bellah and Steven M. Tipton, eds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. pp. 225-245.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762. The Social Contract (1762), especially book 4, chapter 8.


Bellah, Robert. 2012. “Is Global Civil Society Possible?” Unpublished paper presented at the University of California, Santa Barbara on February 2, 2012. The paper is summarized in chap 4 of Mark The full text of the paper is available on line at: http://www.global.ucsb.edu/luceproject/papers/pdf/RobertBellah.pdf.  For the video of his presentation of the paper please see: http://vimeo.com/40404248. (3 parts)


Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, of Harvard University Press, 2011.


Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality, New York: Penguin Random House.


Durkheim, Émile. 1912. Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995 [1912]).


Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Hackett, Conrad and David McClendon. 2017. “Christiants Remain World’s Largest Religious Group, but They are Declining in Europe.” FactTank, Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/


Huizinga, Johan. 1944. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, London: Routledge, 1949; first published in German in Switzerland in 1944.


James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Penguin Classics, 1985 (first published in 1902).


Juergensmeyer, Mark, Dinah Griego, and John Soboslai. 2015. God in the Tumult of the Global Square: Religion in Global Civil Society, New York: Oxford University Press.


Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2020. God at War: A Mediation on Religion and Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press.


Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1932. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Simon Schuster.


Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1939. The Nature and Destiny of Man. New York: Simon Schuster.


Pew Research Center. 2015. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/


Pew Research Center. 2017. “The Changing Global Religious Landscape.” https://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/


Pew Research Center. 2019. “In U.S., the Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace.” https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/


Schütz, Alfred. 1967. Phenomenology of the Social World (George Walsh, translator), Evanston: Northwestern University Press.


Stetzer, Ed. 2017. “If It Doesn’t Stem Its Decline, Mainline Protestantism Has Just 23 Easters Left. Washington Post, April 28, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/04/28/if-it-doesnt-stem-its-decline-mainline-protestantism-has-just-23-easters-left/




This book contains essays on my contribution to several academic fields, written by my colleagues, for which I am grateful and honored. You can download the book on the website of the Danish Institute for International Studies.


From the announcement of the book:

On the occasion of Mark Juergensmeyer’s retirement Mona Kanwal Sheikh (DIIS) and Isak Svensson (Uppsala University) have compiled an edited volume highlighting central debates and concepts within the fields of religious violence, conflict studies and global studies.

Twenty-two leading scholars from around the world, and with a range of different disciplinary backgrounds, provide broadly accessible overviews of scholarly debates and institutional processes where Juergensmeyer has contributed major insights and made an important impact.

The book is not only a celebration of Mark Juergensmeyer’s lifetime achievements, but also a warranted tool for students and scholars, who want an insight into major conceptual debates on topics such as secularism, cosmic warfare, worldviews, and the globalization of global studies.


  • Manfred Steger: theories of globalization
  • Saskia Sassen: global societies
  • Changgang Guo, The globalization of global studies
  • Dominic  Sachsenmaier: global history
  • Hagen Schulz-Forberg: transnational studies
  • Matthias Middel, Leipzig:  global studies consortium
  • Julie Ingersoll, Univ of North Florida — radical religion
  • Ronki Ram, Punjab University: Dalit social movements
  • Kathleen Moore, UC- Santa Barbara: Global religion
  • Inger Furseth: sociology of religion
  • Michael K Jerryson – Religious Violence, Comparative religion
  • Mia Bloom – Terrorism research
  • Margo Kitts – Religious studies, religious nationalism
  • Monica Toft: International Relations and religion
  • Manoranjan Mohanty – Gandhian peace, peace studies
  • Helmut Anheier – Sociology, Civil society
  • Ron E. Hassner – Religious conflicts
  • Rich Appelbaum – Global studies, globalization
  • Gurinder Singh Mann – Sikh Studies, South Asia
  • Isak Svensson – Conflict resolution
  • Mona Kanwal Sheikh –Worldview analysis
  • Reza Aslan: Cosmic War
  • Giles Gunn: Secularism

The Fragile Power of Populists in a Pandemic

These comments were posted on the International Relations -e website on May 2, 2021. 

The American populist president, Donald Trump, came to his downfall largely due to the ineptitude of his administration’s ability to handle, or perhaps more correctly, mishandle the country’s response to the covid pandemic. What angered voters was not just his apparent inability to take the situation seriously, but also his cheerful optimism that consistently belied the facts of the growing crisis.

In the beginning months of the pandemic crisis, Trump assured the American public that the disease was no worse than the common flu, and that it would quickly vanish away. When it didn’t, rather than double down on mitigating factors that might control it, he consistently promised that things were getting better. In September 2020, at an election rally in North Carolina when he stood maskless before a packed and largely mask-free crowd, he proclaimed that “we’re rounding the corner of the pandemic.” Unfortunately for him, the crisis was simply getting worse.

That is a problem with populists. They gain their following by weaving hopeful though often fictitious images of the future, and promoting vaunted characterizations of their ability to handle crises. This was the peril of America’s Trump, and to some extent also of Turkey’s Erdogan, Brazil’s Bolsanaro, the UK’s Boris Johnson, the Philippine’s Duterte, and India’s Modi.

Narendra Modi seems to have followed the same covid play-book of Donald Trump. Early on he downplayed its seriousness. As recently as March 2021, as the recent rise of cases began to spiral precipitously, he was claiming that India would serve as “the world’s pharmacy,” now that the pandemic was, he implied, well under control. Ignoring the disturbing spike in cases, his government allowed the massive kumbh mela gathering in April on the banks of the Ganges river at Haridwar. Modi himself traveled to Bengal to appear maskless before crowds in that state’s election campaigns.

Only when the world’s media began to spotlight the growing covid catastrophe in the nation did Modi return to warn of a covid virus “storm” overtaking the country and vowing to increase production of oxygen tanks and other needed supplies. He also faced a storm of criticism of his inattentiveness to the seriousness of the crisis. Like Trump, his popularity plunged in relationship to his handling of the situation.

Modi is not Trump, however, and the politics of India is not the same as in the United States. Trump’s popularity poll numbers were never higher than his unpopularity ones, while Modi has consistently stayed a well-liked politician. Despite the current critique of Modi’s command of this crisis, the likelihood is that he will politically survive.

Still, the current disillusionment over his persistent optimism is characteristic of how populist leaders around the world are vulnerable. The era of globalization has helped to produce such leaders, and global crises can greatly diminish or even undo them.

In the last thirty years, the rise of globalization has been a challenge to the artifact of the nation-state and to the nationalism that sustains it. In a world of global economics—when everything is made everywhere—and global media and demographic shifts, the legitimacy of the nation-state has been called into question. One way of shoring up the idea of the nation is through a fierce nationalism. These neo-nationalisms are often based on ethnic or religious homogeneity and stoked by the fiery rhetoric of strong politicians.

The illusion of strength is a large part of their success. Like Trump, they never admit a mistake and never concede to failure. They are boundlessly optimistic and self-assured about their abilities to solve any problem, even the most intractable ones. During the 2016 Republican convention that nominated Trump for the presidency, he listed America’s difficulties and confidently proclaimed, “I alone can fix them.”

Though there is no evidence that Trump fixed any of these problems is beside the point. His followers were spirited by the fact that he appeared to have the supreme confidence to solve them. Moreover, his only somewhat muted messages of White supremacy gave them the assurance that he was on their side in the racial and cultural wars in contemporary globalized society, and that he would “make America great again,” in an image that many felt would privilege them.

This is a familiar message of neo-nationalist populist leaders around the world who appeal to an ethnic and religious base in their constituency, including America’s Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan and to some extent India’s Modi. They offer a positive unified image to counter the more complicated one of a multicultural global world, and these visions have a powerful political appeal. Alas they do not stand up so well when crises emerge, often global in scope, that rip the cover off of the cheerful optimism of populist leaders.


Insurrection of the Digital Self

Shortly after the January 6 right-wing insurrection at the United States capitol building spurred on by then President Donald Trump, FBI agents came to the suburban home of Guy Reffitt in Wylie, Texas, and arrested him for being part of the mob. The person who had tipped off the FBI about Reffitt was his own son, 18-year old Jackson Reffitt.

When young Jackson was interviewed on CNN by Chris Cuomo after his father’s arrest, Jackson said he turned in his father because he thought it was the “right thing” to do. The young man explained that he thought that his father had become a danger to himself and others, including his own family, whom he threatened to shoot if they snitched on him. Unknown to his father, Jackson had already informed the FBI that his father had become dangerous. When Jackson was pressed by Chris Cuomo about whether the elder Reffitt had always been a conspiratorial extremist, the son said that he had not, but that he had changed in recent years, specifically the last four years.

What had happened in the previous four years was, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump, who was a fount of extremist and conspiratorial rantings. Jackson confirmed that this was part of what had happened with his father, saying that Trump “had manipulated him.”

But Jackson also mentioned another factor. He said that his father had become “more active on the internet.” He began talking about things that that went far beyond the personal and political rhetoric of Trump. The elder Reffitt said that this country is on “the end of times,” mirroring the apocalyptic language of the QAnon conspiracy movement.

Likely borrowing from the Christian Evangelical ideas of millenarian prophets, the QAnon ideas promoted a view of history that would culminate in President Trump’s second term of office. The anonymous person who calls him or herself Q began posting messages in 2017 claiming that the United States was controlled by an evil cabal of Satanic devil-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles involving liberal politicians and Hollywood celebrities. According to the conspiracy theory Donald Trump knew about this sinister regime and was sent as a messiah to abolish it. The theory concluded that the cabal would end shortly after Trump’s second inauguration in a catastrophic event known as “the storm,” when a military coup would take control and the evildoers would be banished to Guantanamo prison. Then the world would be at peace.

Hence to QAnon followers there was no way that Trump could lose the election—he was ordained to have a second term. Only the evil cabal could have prevented him from taking office and fulfilling his messianic duties. That is why the counting of ballots that would certify Joe Biden’s election had to be stopped. Faithful followers like Guy Reffitt felt called to duty. As he prepared to leave for Washington before that fateful day, his son said that he told his family, “I’m about to do something big.”

Conspiracy theories like those of QAnon and other far right extremist movements are able to spread like wildfire on the internet. They often begin on obscure message boards, such as 4chan, which was replaced by 8chan, which in turn has been rebranded as 8kun. These are the preferred outlets of Q’s messages to his or her followers. But the messages and the ideas contained in them are quickly repeated on more widely accessible formats, such as Facebook and Twitter. Trump has included QAnon related messages hundreds of times on his own Twitter account. By 2020 the numbers of followers of QAnon have been estimated to be in the millions.

As the size of the movement grew and the dangers of its messages became more obvious, social media has moved to limit its use of their platforms. The 4chan and 8chan sites were closed down. Facebook began cracking down on QAnon sites and messages. In July 2020 Twitter began to remove the accounts of 7000 QAnon-related groups and individuals, later expanding that to 150,000 such accounts. By August 2020 Facebook said it had taken down 1500 QAnon-related user groups that had a combined following of four million. In October of that year it banned all QAnon-related groups and material.

The QAnon messages and communication among adherents continue, however, on other platforms, notably on 8kun and Endchan. They have also migrated to the dark web, such as Tor, “the onion router,” which is an alternative to the world wide web that is familiar to most internet users. The onion router has multiple encryption layers that make it difficult for those posting or using the sites to be tracked. Though they limit the wide accessibility of the conspiracy ideas they allow for even more free expression among the true believers, thus strengthening the cult-like nature of the movement.

Could Jackson Reffitt’s father have been a QAnon loyalist? Quite possibility. Or he might have been a fellow traveler, one of many right-wing enthusiasts who accept some of the conspiratorial thinking as true. According to a Pew Foundation poll, some forty percent of registered Republicans think that Democratic politicians are covering up a pedophile ring and that Donald Trump was trying to combat it. Neither of those statements are true, but they are central to the QAnon message.

What this reveals is the power of social media to disseminate false information. But more important, it shows their power not only to spread the ideas, but also to do so in a way that limits alternative, more objective, views of reality. A recent video documentary aired on Netflex, The Social Dilemma, describes the tunnel-like vision that is created purposely by the algorithms of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They reinforce the users’ view of the world by identifying the kind of content they like, and then pushing similar content towards them and blocking alternative perspectives in an attempt to get the users to spend more time on their site. The goal of the social networks is to get more people to spend more time using the network and thus being susceptible to the advertising on it that monetizes their communication services.

While this may make good business sense in that it brings in a staggering flow of profits to Mark Zuckerberg and other owners of sites like Facebook and Twitter, it is not good for society. It enhances the trend towards what I have described elsewhere as the emergence of the digital self.

This digital self is new, in that it is a product of the digital age, especially the recent decade in which social media has become dominant, and is shaped by and responds to their power. The effect is to create three dangerous illusions.

The illusion of connectivity.

One is the illusion of connectivity. All of us who teach in a classroom experience the strange silence at the beginning of classes when students do not talk with one another but stare at their cell phones. They think they are connecting with others, and perhaps they are. But this kind of connectivity can be strangely alienating, a way of preventing the sustained social interactions that build friendship and trust. It can create a false sense connection without the hard work of really knowing others and creating authentic communities. One cartoon by Bizarro succinctly states the problem: a grieving widow looks over the empty audience prior to the funeral and says, “I expected more people—he had 2000 friends on Facebook.”

The illusion of wisdom.

There is also an illusion of knowledge created by the instantaneous availability of information on Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and all the other purveyors of information at our fingertips. Yet 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. Facebook has a way of reading our minds, or at least determining our political, cultural, and consumer tastes, and adjusts the postings to our Facebook wall accordingly. In these ways the information that we get simply confirms and reinforces our own values and opinions. So in a curious way, all of this avalanche of information is filtered in a way that actually makes us less informed. At the same time it discourages us from exploring alternative points of view or honing analytic skills since we are led to believe we already know what there is to know.

The illusion of power.

This leads to the most dangerous of the illusions of the digital sense: a false sense of empowerment. With all these resources of information at one’s fingertips (even though it might be fake information), we have the illusion that we know as much or more than anyone else. This is empowering. It leads to a distrust of expertise and authority, and the rise of an “opinion culture,” where everyone’s opinion is equally valid.

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. An outside politician like Trump 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 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.

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. These illusions of connection, wisdom and power in the global era contribute to the profound dichotomies that have emerged in societies around the world. They lead to an absence of trust in any form of shared truth, and as Jackson Reffitt discovered, they can lead one’s own father to an insurrection.


Why the Capitol Assault was Terrorism

While the horrific scenes of the invasion and occupation of the US Capitol building were played out on television, I happened to be in a radio interview for my new book, God at War. The reporter asked if there were similarities between the Trump-incited rioters and the terrorists I have studied. I quickly responded “yes.”

Here’s why. Though it is true that the reasons for insurrections are different—supporters of the Islamic State are not the same as militant Buddhists in Myanmar, for example. Yet all the violent extra-legal acts of force aimed against public order that I have studied have some common features: symbolic empowerment, performance violence, and cosmic war.

Symbolic empowerment

            When MAGA-hat wearing rioters carrying confederate flags climbed through broken windows of the US Capitol, they were asserting that they rather than elected officials had the right to claim that space. Even more striking were pictures of a bare-chested protestor with a Viking hat sitting in the Speaker’s chair of the House of Representatives and a grinning rioter sitting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, his feet propped on her desk.

It is the same portrayal of power exhibited by Timothy McVeigh in destroying a federal building in Oklahoma City. A similar show of force was made by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in installing himself on the balcony of the most important mosque of the city of Mosul and proclaiming himself to be Caliph of the Islamic State. Similarly, acts of political assassination are frequent devices of terrorists since they not only remove a perceived enemy but also symbolically present themselves as more powerful than the leaders they kill.

These are symbolic demonstrations of power; but they are not real power. Within a couple hours the Capitol rioters were driven out of the Capitol. Before the end of the day of his attack, Timothy McVeigh was apprehended and brought to justice. Assassins are often killed on the spot. Al Baghdadi took longer to overcome, but eventually he and his ISIS were destroyed.

Yet in the moments they dominated the news and occupied public spaces, people without power asserted that they had it. In the case of ISIS, the movement appealed to the Sunni Arabs of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria who felt disenfranchised by the Shi’a dominated governments of Baghdad and Damascus. In the case of Trump’s stormtroopers who invaded the Capitol, many of them were white heterosexual Christians disturbed at the increasing multiculturalism of American society and the attempts to expand governmental power to provide welfare benefits to all. For a variety of reasons they felt alienated and humiliated in a new world order that seem to leave them behind. For a moment, however, sitting in the Speaker’s chair in the US Capitol, they imagined themselves to be in charge.

Performance violence 

The fact that the whole world was watching this assault on the US citadel of democracy was part of the point. The young bare-chested man with the Viking hat must have known that his picture was being taken and soon would be displayed on television and in newspapers and repeated on social media on the internet.

The intention of terrorism is to terrorize. It is those who witness acts of violence and are terrified by them who give definition to the term. Certainly the members of Congress who lay shaking on the floor of the House chambers felt the terror of the moment, as did all of us watching the moments from a distance on television. Without an audience, such intimidating displays of violence would not have any effect.

If the orders to march on the Capitol were given by Donald Trump in the evening and the agitators tramped down the street to occupy the building in the dead of night, it would not have been much of an issue. It is unlikely that television cameras would be there, and the lighting would have been insufficient. Trump and his followers chose the fullness of daytime, during a moment when all Senators and Representatives were meeting on the most fateful moment of the ascension of a new President, the ritual tallying of electoral votes that would proclaim Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as leaders of the new administration.

If terrorism is theater, then timing and staging are significant. And in this case the timing of the electoral vote tally was perfect and the Capitol stage set could not have been better. As soon as the reserve forces of police and the National Guard came to the Capitol with smoke bombs and strength in numbers, the drama was over. The actors—many of whom seemed appropriately costumed for militant theater—meekly left the stage.

It is a frequent characteristic of terrorist acts to choose a time and place of significance. Timothy McVeigh chose a date with various meanings, including the execution date of the leader of a Christian militant group with which McVeigh had some association. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon could not have had a more apt set of locations for an assault meant to show the vulnerability of America’s economic and military power. In a similar way the organizers of the Trump riot chose a date and place that maximized their attempts to portray a symbolic power to the whole nation, and beyond that, to the entire world. Fortunately, however, the symbols fade quickly and what remains is the image of a sad failed coup by what seemed to be a crazed mob.

Cosmic War

From the point of view of the activists engaged in the Capitol assault, however, there was nothing crazy about it. The one person who was killed by a Capitol policeman as she tried to climb on a ledge leading to the Speaker’s Lobby was a woman who had served with distinction in the US Air Force. According to the New York Times, she was wrapped in a Make America Great Again flag and shot as she tried to climb through a window that would have enabled her and other rioters to access the room where the members of the House of Representatives were sequestered.

The 35-year old woman, Ashli Babbitt, had flown to Washington from her home in San Diego at the behest of Donald Trump for his supporters to protest the electoral vote tally. She had served for twelve years, including being a security guard for US Air Force bases, and had risen to the rank of Senior Airman. Her husband, who did not come with her from San Diego, described her as an enthusiastic supporter of the President, but not emotionally unstable.

Like Timothy McVeigh, who had also served in the military—in his case, in the first conflict with Iraq, Desert Storm—Ashli Babbitt may have considered herself to be engaged in another military struggle. They may have seen themselves as warriors in a great mission, certain to be dangerous, likely to be violent, but justified by the nobility of its cause.

It may seem strange that what appear to be ordinary and sensible persons can be drawn into a situation where they commit the most hideous of violent acts. But this is precisely what the image of war allows. Warfare provides an alternative worldview to normal public order in which almost anything is permitted in order to conquer those perceived to be enemies. In warfare enemies are things with which you cannot reason or negotiate; they can only be destroyed.

Most wars are conducted for political purposes that are authorized by a state regime that is accountable to laws and the moral constraints of the people that support it. The great theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, reasoned that these forms of war are diluted versions of the most basic kind of war, absolute war, in which there can be no hostages or peace treaties. These wars are sometimes conducted not for political purposes but because they are perceived as protecting civilization itself, an existential war between good and evil, right and wrong. These are cosmic wars, in that they touch on a transcendent sense of moral and spiritual struggle. They are often therefore imbued with religious significance.

Most of the terrorist acts that I have studied are products of these cosmic wars. When I interviewed one of the jihadi activists associated with al Qaeda who was involved in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center he told me that he was not a terrorist, but a soldier. Though I didn’t recognize the army of which he was a part or see the battle that he imagined, they were real in his mind. He leaned over and whispered to me, “you don’t see it, Mr. Mark, but there’s a war going on, a battle of good and evil, religion and irreligion—and your government is the enemy.”

In a similar way Ashli Babbitt may have thought that there was a war going on, and that she was called to serve in it. Just as she did in the military, she took orders from her commander, and tried to faithfully execute them. At the Capitol on that fateful day she was able to be active in a real scene of battle in the way that her twelve years of military service as a security guard probably had not allowed her to do. In the struggle for control of the capitol, Ashli Babbitt was a soldier again. Though she broke laws and windows and eventually lost her life in the process, for a time she was a warrior in a great cosmic war.









This interview with Mona Sheikh, co-editor of Religion, Conflict and Global Society, a festschrift honoring me, was posted on the website of the Danish Institute of International Studies on November 13, 2020

Tribute to a pioneer of the academic fields of religious violence and Global Studies: Mark Juergensmeyer turns 80

Mark Juergensmeyer seemed to stumble on to one of the most important research fields today: religious violence. 27 years after publishing a groundbreaking book on religion, secularism and violence, his work, and not least his approach, has influenced many researchers, including DIIS researcher Mona Sheikh. Together with Isak Svensson of Uppsala University she is editing a festschrift celebrating his contributions to academia.

When the book The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State came out in 1993, its topic seemed slightly peripheral to the public debate as that was looking at the time.

After the end of the Cold War, religion didn’t excactly seem like a very important fault line in international politics, and the book’s author, Mark Juergensmeyer, a scholar especially of Gandhi’s thought and Sikh extremism, among other subjects, wasn’t a traditional expert on either the Middle East or terrorism.

These two subjects did gain some attention, when in the same year a group of Islamists tried to blow up the World Trade Center, failing to do so, but in the process still killing seven people and alerting the world to the rise of Islamist terrorism.

The book acquired quite a lot of academic traction, and when seven years later Juergensmeyer published another book on the confrontation between religious extremism and the modern state, Terror in the Mind of God, the book seemed almost prophetic in explaining an event that would come to define the coming years.

All major religions have potential for violence

A few months later, two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and turned Juergensmeyer’s subject into the topic that overshadowed practically everything else on the planet.

“His ambition was to show that all major religions of the world has the potential for violence, that they are upheld by mythological imaginations, and that they are very much alike in that sense,” explains Mona Sheikh, head of the Global Security and World Views unit at DIIS.

“And then 9/11 happened, and he had a chapter on al-Qaeda. At the time not many people knew anything about al-Qaeda, and not much had been published. For that book he had actually interviewed one of the perpetrators behind the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993,” she adds.

”Already back then he wrote about the conflict lines in a new Cold War. Now it was religious nationalism versus secular nationalism. In a way, it became quite prophetic compared to populist currents that arose in many countries, and the way religion increasingly became a visible force in politics,” continues Sheikh, a former Ph D student of Juergensmeyer’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and today the leader of the ERC-funded project on Transnational Jihad and Containment and one of the instigators of a Festschrift celebrating Juergensmeyer’s 80th birthday today, to be published at the beginning of 2021.

About Mark Juergensmeyer:

Juergensmeyer is distinguished professor of sociology and global studies, and affiliate professor of religious studies, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the founding director of global studies and the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. He is a pioneer in the global studies field, focusing on global religion, religious violence, conflict resolution and South Asian religion and politics. He has published more than three hundred articles and twenty books, including the revised and expanded fourth edition of the award-winning Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2017)

“Right after the Cold War, there was this widespread notion that a secular model of society could also solve the problems of Muslim countries. There was great opposition to that mindset in parts of the Muslim world. Movements such as the Taliban – which have been a large part of my research – were strongly opposed to that notion, and other Islamist movements as well. In his writings, Mark challenged this standard thinking, that secularism was the victorious idea. He was also critical of the universalist way of thinking about  secularism.”

Large influence

9/11 would have terrorism and security-experts jumping out of practically every cupboard to explain the new threat to Western civilisation, focusing in a narrow way on security, networks or and the interpretation of religious doctrines.

Although an inspiration to many, and with an obligatory presence on the curriculum of the field of religious violence, Juergensmeyer would take a different path. This consisted in not focusing narrowly on Islam when analysing religiously motivated violence, but looking, for instance, at the Christian sectarians of Waco in much the same way and drawing on many different fields of research when researching instigators of religious violence.

“His perspective has always been comparative, showing that there are some of the same mechanisms that apply in different forms of religious violence. There is, of course, something particular in each tradition that we must understand, but often there are some similar mechanisms that mobilize people. In a way he represents a very unique blend of focusing on texts and myths as theologians often do, but at the same time insisting on meeting and talking to the people that his research centers on, as anthropologists often do. And then he invented the concept of ‘cosmic war’. This is the concept of a struggle between good and evil, and how earthly conflicts are often elevated to this ‘sacred drama’, as he calls it. Most world religions have a concept of good and evil, and many of the world’s conflicts are seen through that prism, including by the secular parties that might be involved. He talks about the religious mobilization of violence, but has also made significant contributions to peace and conflict research,” she explains and continues:

I had heard so much from him about the importance of being in the field and talking to those you are actually studying and trying to explain. There is also a tendency in some scholarship to look first and foremost at the doctrines of these religions and conclude solely from them, without taking into account that it is people who read these texts and interpret them

Mona Sheikh

“His contribution is in explaining why most of the world’s religions have also spawned militant movements. What he is looking at are these mythological tales in the religious traditions. Not because he explains it causally – that because there are those notions, then they are violent per se – but he explains that there is a potential for violence in the religious imageries”.

Not just one explanation

– I guess it must also mean something having a different background from many other modern researchers of religious violence; having studying Gandhi, Sikhism etc. before arriving in the world of jihadist terrorism?

“”Yes, he also trained as a theologian and a political scientist, and worked as professor in the sociology of religion. He has always worked in a very multidisciplinary way, which defines  his approach, but his method is basically very anthropological, exactly because he has been out interviewing many of these religious and militant leaders”.

– What does the multidisciplinary approach mean when working in these fields?

“It means that you do not find the explanation in one place, but that it is a combination. We humans are not just characterized or driven by one meta-identity; we are many things at once – we are political beings, we are also religious beings, we are family people, and one has to take this into account. There is a tendency in terrorism research to look for a singular explanation‚” she explains.

If one concludes that these people are not just out of reach, then it opens up a space for dialogue, reconciliation, compromises – to speak to each other. Much of the counterterrorism discourse after 9/11 has insisted that you cannot talk to these people

Mona Sheikh

“Political scientists are looking for political explanations for why people act the way they do; with religious scholars it is, of course, about faith, and anthropologists have gone out and tried to understand people’s life worlds. He has always combined these methods and factors. He also analyzes religious texts – what kinds of conceptions and imagery they facilitate. Complemented by many, many hours of interviews with militant actors, which have given him a high degree of credibility. I have personally been very inspired by this and have taken that approach with me in my work interviewing the Taliban, because I had heard so much from him about the importance of being in the field and talking to those you are actually studying and trying to explain. There is also a tendency in some scholarship to look first and foremost at the doctrines of these religions and conclude solely from them, without taking into account that it is people who read these texts and interpret them, and that these interpretations can change over time according to context‚” Sheikh explains.

Creating a new field of research

Juergensmeyer is also a partner in the Explaining Transnational Jihad project at DIIS, is involved in a large project at Uppsala University and is Honorary Professor  at Roskilde University Centre. At the latter, his work in establishing a whole new discipline of research, Global Studies, has led to the creation of a department specialising in the effects of globalisation from a multidisciplinary and transnational perspective, seeking to understand the dynamics from many different cultural standpoints.

About the Festschrift:

The book “Religion, Conflict and Global Society – A Festschrift celebrating Mark Juergensmeyer” (Edited by Mona Kanwal Sheikh and Isak Svensson) will be published in 2021 with contribution from scholars from different disciplines: Giles Gunn, Gurinder Singh Mann, Helmut Anheier, Isak Svensson, Manoranjan Mohanty, Margo Kitts, Mia Bloom, Michael K Jerryson,  Mona Kanwal Sheikh, Monica Toft, Reza Azlan, Rich Appelbaum, and Ron E. Hassner.

Mona Sheikh talks affectionately about an icon who, both personally and professionally, has clearly meant quite a lot to her – and she also readily admits to being influenced a lot by his approach.

“We have looked a lot at his way of working. After all, our approach is also very much about understanding jihadism from an insider perspective; what kind of world view is being projected? What are the kinds of religious beliefs characterizing transnational jihadism that make them stand out against previous generations’ jihadism or Islamism? What I have tried to develop in collaboration with Mark is a method of understanding the link between the sociological and the theological,” she says.

“When I was in the United States, we started working on what we called a sociotheological approach to the study of religious violence, which combines a focus on people’s world views with a focus on their social vocation. One must understand how people interpret the religious notions in the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves.”

The idea of good and evil

– In the Introduction to ’Terror in the Mind of God’, he mentions feeling a certain kinship with these strongly religious militants in their social activism and desire to create change through religion – without, of course, endorsing the violence. Does that differentiate him from other researchers, that he doesn’t necessarily start out from a point of condemnation?

“That is an important point and reflects his method of emphatetic immersion into the worldviews of those he his studying. Both within and beyond academia, there is often a demonization of these movements, especially when it comes to militant movements that draw on religious imaginaries to justify acts of violence. His point is that these people can also be driven by the idea of the good and the righteous – they also  want a just society, but people disagree about what the just society is. The Taliban are characterized by the ambition to create order and justice – but they connect it with a vision of the divine, while in our part of the world we often connect justice and law and order and equality before the law with secularism. It is an important point that these people are not necessarily evil per se. If you open yourself up to a more nuanced portrayal, it also means that you can talk to these people. And that’s where his research is heading these days, more towards peace research and conflict resolution,” she adds.

Terrorism research is still very focused on individual explanatory models, where one follows the individual’s radicalization and network, which people they have been influenced by, a microsociological approach in one sense or another, very focused on individual processes

Mona Sheikh

“If one concludes that these people are not just out of reach, then it opens up a space for dialogue, reconciliation, compromises – to speak to each other. Much of the counterterrorism discourse after 9/11 has insisted that you cannot talk to these people, they are driven by evil and hatred towards the West. That narrative is altered if you put a face on these people and tell their story in terms of their own premises and thus provide access to their world view”.

– A more holistic approach to religious violence, and also putting Christian fundamentalists in the same box as jihadists, I guess, would also be a tad provocative to many people?

“Yes, and it only became that way after 2001. Until then, terrorist research was not about jihadism and Islam in the same way at all. There was a more equitable distribution, and much of the research was about secular militant ideological movements or Christian evangelists in the United States. But Mark has also been in the field for so long that he can demonstrate that there is no natural connection between any one single denomination and its violent expression, but that it occurs in many different variants”.

– Is there more room for that way of understanding terror and jihadist movements today than there was ten or fifteen years ago?

“Probably among parts of academia there is a countertrend that wants to challenge simple causality models, or the essentialism in the study of religion. But it requires more multidisciplinary work. Terrorism research is still very focused on individual explanatory models, where one follows the individual’s radicalization and network, which people they have been influenced by, a microsociological approach in one sense or another, very focused on individual processes. What Mark also contributes is to lift the gaze a little from that and look at some ideational structures and how they relate to the feeling of being misrepresented in the world. And that this  is also a universal mechanism,” she replies.

“In a way, it is becoming more common, because we are also seeing a globalization in academic fields. We do not think as sectarians as we did before 9/11 in the field of terrorism. Disciplinary borders do not mean that much anymore. And I think to a large extent that this development is part of Mark’s legacy over the years.”


Mark Juergensmeyer