Why Are You Christians So Selfish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Conversation with Fethullah Gulen

My meeting with Gulen at his retreat in Pennsylvania in December, 2016. A version of this essay was first posted by Religion Dispatches on January 12, 2017, under the heading, “Talking with the ‘Religious Terrorist’ that Turkey Wants to Extradite.”

Who would have thought that a Turkish cleric living in Eastern Pennsylvania would present the Trump administration with one of its first foreign policy challenges. But Turkey wants Fethullah Gulen extradited to face charges that he was involved in the failed coup attempt against the Turkish strong man, Recip Erdogan, several months ago. Trump’s short-lived national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, a former Turkish lobbyist, had suggested that this would be on the top of the agenda for the new foreign policy team. With Flynn gone, the outcome of the request is more uncertain.

But if Trump’s administration does extradite Gulen this will likely trigger a storm of protest from human rights activists around the world, since his conviction by Turkish courts will be seen as a sham justification for Erdogan’s attempt to purge Turkey of his political opponents. Since the coup Erdogan has rounded up tens of thousands of journalists, teachers, lawyers, police, and others thought to be sympathetic to the Gulen movement.

Gulen is in the center of this storm, and since I have made it my habit to study the intersection of religion and politics around the world, he was clearly someone I would like to meet. Recently, I had a chance to do just that.

My visit to Gulen in December 2016 was arranged by people in the movement associated with his teachings–the Hizmet (“service”) movement–who knew that I was interested in meeting him. Since I had already planned to be on the East Coast on that day, the movement did not provide for my airfare or any compensation for this visit, aside from an omelette at an I-Hop as we drove to the retreat from Newark airport. Three other scholars were also invited to the meeting; we were a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

When we were introduced to Fethullah Gulen he attempted to rise from his chair. He swayed and tottered a bit, and I was afraid that he would fall. His aides quickly were at his side, steadying him, and he shook my hand firmly. Though he was frail, I found him to be alert and attentive, and he closely followed the conversation as the comments were translated from English to Turkish. At an age somewhere between seventy-five and seventy-eight (the records are not clear about the precise years), he is dealing with the effects of diabetes and cardiovascular ailments.

The reason that I had come to meet Gulen was not to find out whether he was in fact implicated in the coup attempt—I would have no way of assessing whether that was the case. Rather I came out of curiosity, to try to understand the extraordinary magnetism of the man who has garnered such an incredible following of hundreds of thousands of middle class professionals in Turkey and around the world, and whose political power has threatened Turkey’s head of state. My initial impression was of a reserved, quiet gentleman who was respected by those around him but not fawned over as spiritual leaders sometimes are.

The meeting room in his quarters where we met was the size of a large living room with comfortable, overstuffed chairs and couches lining either side with one prominent chair at the head of the room, almost like a throne. Clearly it was his, since there was a TV remote and some reading material beside it. I stepped aside so he could take the chair but he insisted that as the guest, I should take the honored spot. He took a more modest seat by the side. Soon tea and Turkish sweets arrived, and the conversation began.

“Do you often wonder,” I said to him, “why, considering all the possible enemies that he might have, Erdogan would target you? Do you sometimes ask yourself, ‘why me?’”

Gulen thought for a moment, and then said that he had often asked himself that question, especially in recent months. He had come to the conclusion that he and Erdogan were cut from different cloth. They were both interested in relating religion to public life, but their approaches were not the same. Erdogan came from the perspective of “political Islam,” he said, which by its nature was autocratic. It could not tolerate any form of organization that challenged him, or that he could not control.

Gulen told us that he did not know Erdogan well—they had only met on two occasions. One was when Erdogan came to him to ask for his political support, explaining that like Gulen he wanted to bring moral values into public life. At the time Gulen thought that that was a good thing, and he supported him, as did many of those associated with his movement. Many observers have credited the Erdogan-Gulen alliance as a major factor in weakening Turkey’s secular Kemalist establishment.

The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen began to sour, however, when information surfaced about corruption within Erdogan’s inner circle, and about the president’s autocratic attempts to solidify power. Gulen supporters within the police, the judiciary, and the news media were leading the corruption charges. Soon Erdogan began rounding up the more vocal of his Gulen-related critics and shutting down Gulen-related newspapers.

Then came the July 15, 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan, and Gulen was immediately accused. Even when the coup was underway, however, Gulen himself had been quick to denounce the effort as undemocratic. He and his associates denied having anything to do with it. I have no way of verifying whether or not this was the case, though considering his relative isolation in his woodsy retreat with little or no organizational structure around him, it seems hard to imagine him plotting an intricate coup attempt involving high level military leaders in a country on the other side of the world.

It seems even less likely that the tens of thousands of teachers, journalists, lawyers, judges, businessmen, and social service providers who have been imprisoned in Turkey since the coup attempt have had anything to do with it. Coup plots are by their secretive nature privy only to a small inner circle of those directly engaged in the operations. Even if an inner circle of Gulen supporters were involved, it is unlikely that the tens of thousands of Gulen admirers would have had any advanced knowledge.

Yet it is likely that many of them were critical of Erdogan’s rule. The largest circulation newspaper in Istanbul, Zaman, was sympathetic to Gulen’s positions and though once a supporter of Erdogan, it increasingly became critical of what it regarded as a deeply corrupt regime. Even before the attempted coup, the government had raided the offices, imprisoned many of the journalists, and eventually closed down the paper. Gulen’s followers were becoming identified as the government’s foes.

It is difficult to say, however, just who is a follower of Gulen since I am told that the movement does not keep roles. There is no initiation, no membership as such. There may be inner circles and networks of which I am not aware, but it appears for the most part to be a broad movement of those who agree with the main ideas of Gulen’s teachings and are inspired by him. Just owning a book written by Gulen can implicate someone as a follower.

What Gulen teaches in in his published writings is an interesting mixture of Sufi mysticism, interfaith tolerance, civic virtues and entrepreneurship. What is attractive is a notion of a modern Islam compatible with those who live active lives in multicultural milieus. This ideal of an engaged Islam has led his followers to establish hundreds of schools, newspapers, hospitals, social service projects, interfaith councils, and professional associations. My sense is that most of these projects are decentralized, created by the ingenuity of those inspired by Gulen’s teachings, and not orchestrated by a central command. Assuming this is the case, it would be difficult to see the movement as an organizational threat.

The setting of Gulen’s quarters did not give the appearance of the control center for a vast international organization, let alone one that could threaten a major international power like Turkey. What we saw when we visited the retreat center was a former youth camp on twenty-six wooded acres on a quiet road near the town of Saylorsburg in eastern Pennsylvania. A large farmhouse has been renovated into guest quarters, and another building is used for conferences. It is in this building that we met with Gulen in the meeting room that was adjacent to his bedroom, his only place of privacy in the compound. The bedroom itself was perhaps only ten by twelve feet in size, just enough room for a desk and chair, a dresser, a prayer rug, and a narrow single bed on a low frame near the floor.

In the compound were several other cottages for visitors and students, but the place seemed empty when we were there. He taught a group of students every morning, we were told, but there were no permanent residents on the property aside from Gulen himself. I did meet one visitor who was staying there at the time, the former head of a university in Turkey who had escaped from the country in the recent purge of tens of thousands of Gulen supporters following the attempted coup against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a coup that Erdogan claims that Gulen masterminded, and for which Gulen’s followers were being punished.

From the appearance of the retreat center, it was hard to imagine the organization as a powerful threat. Yet any movement is a threat in that it is not easily controlled. If Gulen is right, and Erdogan fears anything that he cannot control, then the Gulen movement with its critical stance towards what it regards as abuses of the public trust, must seem threatening indeed. It is understandable, then, that the Erdogan regime has closed down all of the schools, universities, newspapers, and service projects related to Gulen throughout Turkey, and attempted to pressure governments elsewhere to do the same.

The question is whether Erdogan will be able to destroy the movement. Much of the rest of our conversation with Gulen was about that, how it can maintain itself in a time of persecution.

Gulen noted that the history of religious traditions is rife with cases of perseverance in the face of oppression, and in some instances the hardship seems to have made the movements more resilient. The history of Judaism is a case in point. But so is Christianity. I mentioned that when my wife and I visited Turkey’s Cappadocia region we stayed in rock caves where early Christians hid from Roman persecution. Christianity seems to have endured despite it, not only in Turkey but throughout the world, and Gulen affirmed that his following might as well.

When the Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet, many thought that his form of Tibetan Buddhism had been forever squashed. Yet in exile, the Dalai Lama has risen to a figure of global prominence, a spokesperson for a multicultural religiosity. Some in the room when I talked with Gulen mentioned that his teachings might have the same effect and also have a global impact, and he said that he hoped that that would be the case.

At the end of the forty-five minute conversation, Gulen rose to offer a gift of a nicely packaged Cross ballpoint pen and an elegant looking bottle of perfume. He was happy, his associates told me as we were leaving the room, to have had the chance to talk about broad issues and the future of the movement. Ordinarily these days, they said, he has been consumed with darker matters, about the fate of his many followers and the institutions they had created. He was pleased, they said, to turn again to his larger vision, that of a more just and tolerant society for Turkey and the world.

Anti-Globalism and the Rise of Trump

This essay was originally posted on Religion Dispatches on November 9, 2016

I hope my fellow Americans will not be offended by my comparing the support for ISIS to the rise of Trump. But I mean it in a good way.

In my interviews with refugees from ISIS-held regions in Iraq, they made it clear that their fellow villagers who supported ISIS were not bad people. They did not ascribe to all of the horrible things that ISIS said and did. They were simply looking for respect. They saw in ISIS a voice for their frustrations.

The Sunni Arabs in western Iraq and eastern Syria had been alienated by their own governments in Baghdad and Damascus. They felt marginalized and humiliated by being left out, by not having a voice in their own countries.

That brings us to the support of Trump. In a fast moving globalized world, there are a lot of people who are left out. They are left out of the global economy, and are picking through minimum wage jobs at WalMart as a sad alternative to the fine Union salaries and benefits they once had. No wonder they are bitter about today’s Union workers: they are the new “haves,” with the good jobs, and they, the abandoned ones, are the have-nots.

They are also left out of global civil society. Those of us who live in the plugged in, multicultural urban worlds of academia, especially on the far east and far west sections of the country, see the bright future of globalization. In other regions and in other communities, they see its desolation. They are the forgotten ones in the globalized world.

Recently I attended a family funeral in the area of the country where I was raised, in central Missouri and southern Illinois. One of my cousins, whom I had not seen in years, was told that I was a professor on one of the campuses of the University of California. She smiled, and then her face darkened with the realization of what that might mean. “You’re one of those liberals,” she muttered.

She may have been right. Not only one of those liberals, but someone in touch with a world that she had not seen. She could see the fast-talking city people on television and in the movies, but it was not her world. She was, as the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild has described her in a striking book based on interviews in America’s right-wing heartland, a stranger in her own land.

It is no surprise, then, that my cousin would want to see America great again. No surprise why she would see a blustery New York real estate developer as someone who could voice her own frustrations over a world that seemed to be spinning out of control.

One of the paradoxes of globalization is that it produces anti-globalism in its wake. The rise throughout the world of right-wing religious movements, many of them strident, some of them lethal, are one sign of the xenophobic backlash to the notion of global citizenship. Rejection of foreigners and foreign ties—think of Brexit—is another.

Anti-globalism also leads to another global phenomenon, the rise of demagogic popularist strong-men, and they are almost entirely men. Think of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. No surprise that one of the first responses around the world to Trump’s victory were scenes of cheering right-wing Hindus in India and admiring Russians in Moscow. One of the first notes congratulating Trump came from an enthusiastic Duterte in Manila who only weeks earlier called Barack Obama a “son of a whore.”

Now that the have-nots have become the new haves, and the forgotten masses have claimed a voice, where does this leave us, the forebears of a globalized multicultural world? It probably leaves us where we always have been, even though we may not have realized it, as part of a privileged minority with a vision of a better world to come.

This means that we still have work to do. As the dark side of xenophobia becomes apparent, our role as prophets and spokespersons for a multicultural, global world will become even more essential. It is not a happy task, but it is a necessary one. We need to do it for the sake of ourselves, our students, and our own global future.

How ISIS Will End

[This essay was published in The Cairo Review in December 2016.]

Almost daily its beleaguered leaders of the Islamic State group (commonly known by the acronym ISIS) receive bad news. It is rapidly losing territory. After the fall of Fallujah and Ramadi, the city of Mosul is next on the target of government forces in Iraq, and in Syria the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa is increasingly under siege. In the northern part of Syria and Iraq, from Kobani to the strategic town of Sinjar, the region has been liberated by Kurdish forces. The vast territorial reach of ISIS in 2015 that encompassed much of eastern Syria and western Iraq has shrunk to a smaller network of outposts with the intervening landscape under questionable control.

Moreover it is losing support both within and outside its territory of control. Military strikes from the United States military and its coalition, along with Russian efforts, have crippled the movement’s transportation infrastructure and economic power. The numbers of foreign volunteers have dwindled, in part because they have been killed off in military encounters, in suicide attacks, and by missile strikes. Two of their most famous recruits, notorious around the world for beheading ISIS captives, have themselves been killed by targeted strikes. Scores, perhaps hundreds, have been trying to return home, the men weary of being used as cannon fodder, the women desperate from being used as sex slaves.

The terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Paris and Brussels have been meant to contradict this bad publicity, to portray an illusion of power. The acts were intended to bolster the morale of the ISIS stalwarts and to show potential young Muslim volunteers from around the world that it is still capable of making a global impact. Yet ISIS, it appears, is on a downward slide.

How, then, will ISIS end? And what will come in its place? To answer these questions we have to look at what ISIS is—not just one movement but at least three different sorts of groups in an uneasy coalition, each with its own agenda and its own possibilities for long-term continuity even after the fall of ISIS’ territorial claims. ISIS is simultaneously a movement for Sunni Muslim empowerment, a global jihadi movement, and an apocalyptic cult. Each of these groups may be around in one form or another long after the roads from Baghdad to Mosul and from Damascus to Raqqa have been secured.

ISIS as Sunni Empowerment
Though ISIS seemed to come out of nowhere its territorial claims were very specific: the Arab Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Before the leaders of the movement shortened its name to “the Islamic State” (or “Caliphate”) it called itself al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham, an Arabic phrase that can be translated into English as “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.” The term al-Sham, or “greater Syria,” includes the present nation states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, the region that the French called “the Levant” which is why its initials in English are sometimes given as ISIL rather than ISIS. It is also called “Da’ish or Daesh,” a word that based on the acronym for the Arabic name for the movement. By coincidence, in Arabic the term daesh also means something like the word for “bullies,” and for that reason ISIS leaders are annoyed by its usage. Probably also for that reason the term persists among those victimized by it.

Though newly empowered in 2014, the origins of the movement date back to the social unrest that developed in Iraq after the invasion and occupation by coalition troops led by the United States military in 2003. At that time the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was greeted by a certain degree of apprehension within al Anbar province and other areas of western Iraq where Arab Sunni Muslim communities dominated. When I spoke with Sunni leaders from al Anbar province in Iraq in 2004, they told me that they did not mourn the loss of Saddam Hussein, but what they feared was the loss of Sunni power. Even though Saddam’s rule was secular it had favored his own minority Sunni community. In the post-Saddam Iraq the Shi’a majority in the rich river valleys stretching from Baghdad to Basra had begun to claim power and marginalize the Sunnis.

For this reason any movement that promised power to Sunnis in the region was appealing. The Sunni shining knight that appeared on the scene in 2004 was a militant jihadi from Jordan, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Born into a refugee Palestinian family, the young Zarqawi turned to a life of drugs and petty theft in his youth, but later underwent a conversion into a strict form of Islam influenced by the rigid moral codes of the Wahhabi form of Islam prominent in Saudi Arabia. Among other things, it allowed for beheading as an acceptable punishment for those who threatened the faith.

The movement he created in Iraq was based on these teachings and on the longing of Sunnis in the western region of the country to be free of both American military occupation and Shi’a political domination. He named his movement al Qaeda in Iraq, hoping to receive support from the international organization headed by Osama bin Laden and Aymen al Zawahiri, at that time hiding out in Pakistan after the U.S,. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Relations between Zarqarwi and bin Laden were never good, however, since Zarqawi insisted on his own priorities and his own leadership style. The al Qaeda leaders were uncomfortable with Zaraqawi’s extreme anti-Shi’a stance, and his easy adoption of beheading as an intimidating tactic, which bin Laden and Zawahiri thought would alienate the population.

The al Qaeda leaders were right, and though al Qaeda in Iraq flourished for a time with support from young radical Arab Sunnis especially after the U.S. destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004, the Sunni tribal elders were increasingly wary of Zarqawi’s authoritarian leadership and his rigid Islamic policies. In 2006 Zarqawi was killed by U.S. military forces. The new head of al Qaeda in Iraq was an Egyptian, Abu Ayyub al Masri, who kept the name of al Qaeda but announced that the organization would be creating an Islamic state in the region, headed by an Iraqi Caliph, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Al Masri and al Baghdadi were killed by a U.S. military strike in 2010 and their movement turned to another Iraqi as leader; he took the name of the fallen al Baghdadi, naming himself Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is this Baghdadi who later proclaimed himself the Caliph of the Islamic State.

For a time, however, the predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq, was defeated. In 2007 under the leadership of U.S. General David Petraeus, U.S. troops were withdrawn from the Sunni regions of western Iraq and local tribal militias were empowered to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually restored the region to traditional tribal and religious leadership control. The operation was dubbed the “Awakening.”

This solution worked well while the U.S. was still the occupying force in Iraq, but when the U.S. military withrew its troops in 2011, the responsibility for maintaining the support of the Sunni tribal leaders fell on the shoulders of al Maliki and the Shi’a dominated government in Baghdad. Alas, al Maliki abandoned the Arab Sunni leaders, choosing to shore up his political support largely from his own Shi’a base by using government funding and positions as payouts to his political supporters. Once again, the Arab Sunnis regarded themselves as marginal and disenfranchised.

This is where al Baghdadi and his Islamic State came back into the picture. The uprising in neighboring Syria that began in 2011 gave him a nearby base of operations as his cadres infiltrated the resistence fighters and built their own jihad army, eventually controlling large sections of Sunni Arab dominated sections of eastern Syria. Their main competition in that battle weary country was another movement affiliated with al Qaeda, the al Nusra Front, with which the al Qaeda leader, Zawahiri, urged al Baghdadi to collaborate. Al Baghdadi was determined to go his own way, however, rejecting al Nusra and the name “al Qaeda,” and proclaiming an Islamic State. In 2014 the movement roared over the borders between Syria and Iraq, and even conquering Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which it plundered for its wealth and military armament.

The complicity of the Sunni Arab population in the ISIS administration in Syria and Iraq has been largely opportunistic, not ideological. When I interviewed villagers in 2015 in Iraq’s Kurdisan who had fled ISIS control they told me that the only people in their villages who supported ISIS did so for opportunistic political and economic reasons. These Sunnis and their tribal leaders could as easily turn against ISIS as they have supported it, if they were given other options for participation in public life. This is what happened during the Awakening movement, and al Baghdadi remembers how fickle the Sunni followers were in abandoning al Qaeda in Iraq at that time. For this reason he has instituted a reign of terror in ISIS controlled areas to intimidate the Sunni populace into compliance.

It’s fair to describe ISIS as a terrorist regime, since it uses extreme acts of violence to intimidate both its enemies and its own population. The savage beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers that were posted on the Internet were matched by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of beheadings of recalcitrant Sunnis under ISIS’ control who refused to go along with its demands or who dared to be identified as Christians, Yazidis and other minorities—or even as modern people who liked to dress in a Western style. For ISIS, terror has been an instrument of governance.

But even terror can go only so far in controlling people against their will. So when cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah are liberated, most of the population is relieved to see ISIS go. They are not, however, necessarily pleased to see a Shi’a based government take charge, or to subject themselves to marauding bands of Shi’a militia. Hence the long-range future of eastern Syria and western Iraq is open to question. I see three possibilities for resolving the dilemma of Sunni empowerment:

Integration: Return to Syria and Iraq.
The governments of Syria and Iraq could exert massive control over the region after the fall of ISIS and forcefully reintegrate eastern Syria into Syria and western Iraq into Iraq. The degree to which the Sunni population will be acquiescent to this reintegration depends on two things: whether the governments in Damascus and Baghdad will be able to force their control on the region, and whether they will be willing and able to change their Shi’a – dominant power structure and allow full Sunni participation in public life. Ideally they would have the wisdom to open up their government to more Sunni involvement which would lessen the resentment of Sunnis about being left out of the governments in both countries.

There is some indication that the Iraq government recognizes that it has to include Sunnis in leadership roles, especially in those areas of western Iraq that are Sunni majority. The invasion strategy undertaken by the Iraq government in Ramadi and Fallujah recognized the problem of Sunni resentment, and in both places the forces that were the vanguard in liberating the inner cities were Sunni tribal militia. In the case of Ramadi, the Sunni tribal leaders were involved in reconstructing the political infrastructure of the city, and although they have quarreled with one another, they have at least provided the impression of Sunni leadership rather than Shi’a occupation of their city. Whether this support for Sunni leadership will continue in ISIS-liberated areas remains to be seen.

Alas, however, both the Iraqi and Syrian governments seem to have resisted any suggestion of change or power-sharing, even as the Sunni resistance has mounted. When early in 2016, Haider al Abadi, Iraq’s Prime Minister, suggested that constitutional reforms should be considered to allow for greater Sunni participation, the government’s headquarters in Baghdad’s Green Zone were invaded by Shi’a militia loyal to the firebrand anti-Sunni cleric, Muqtada al Sadr, where Muqtada’s supporters staged a protest in the Iraq parliament, temporarily shutting it down. As the riots by Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia show, there is huge Shi’a pressure against any attempt to restructure the government to be more open to Sunnis.

In Syria, Bashar al Assad has been similarly intransigent, ignoring the plans presented by United Nations envoys for power-sharing governmental change that might have prevented much of the ethnic strife within his country. Instead he has doubled down on the resistance against what he regards as simply terrorism. Iran could play a key role, however, in changing the minds of leaders in both Damascus and Baghdad. So could Russia, in the case of Syria; the US still has some influence in Iraq. Whether these global powers will be exert their influence to try to find a long-range solution to the integration of Sunnis within Syrian and Iraqi political society remains to be scene. Without a solution, insurgent movements such as ISIS will continue to find a safe haven in the region.

Separation: The Emergence of Sunnistan.
A more radical solution would be the creation of a separate state. The contiguous areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq currently controlled by ISIS do indeed demarcate a cohesive ethnic region which had some autonomy in the Ottoman period and could again be a separate political entity. Since Kurdistan in northern Iraq is already de facto a separate state, there is already a move towards the disintegration of Iraq. When I arrived at the airport in Erbil in 2015, for instance, I saw large banners that said “Welcome to Kurdistan” with no mention of Iraq; while I was there I had dinner with a member of the Kurdistan “foreign ministry,” as they called it, although it is officially the office of external affairs of the regional government of Iraq. So in a similar way, Fallujah could become the gateway to Sunnistan.

It is conceivable, however, that a Shi’a government in Baghdad would be relieved to be free from the headaches of western Iraq, especially if there were security guarantees and financial incentives for doing so. It is also possible to see Assad being pressured into shuffling off the eastern region of Syria that has caused such headaches for him as long as he could reassert control over the rich and populous western region. At the same time, elites within the countries want to maintain united control, and there is also pressure from outside against any fragmentation of the two countries. This pressure comes in part from the United States and neighboring states in the Middle East that fear the possible devolution of power if separation ensues. So it’s not clear whether this scenario would get official sanction from either Damascus or Bahgdad.

Dissolution: Sunni Control in the Failed States.
But a kind of unravelling may occur whether it is officially sanctioned or not. Both Syria and Iraq exhibit some aspect of failed states—an inability to maintain control much beyond their capitals and centers of support. If they are able to uproot ISIS and not dramatically change the politics of the Sunni regions and gain their voluntary support—or if neither Damascus nor Baghdad maintains sufficient strength to force compliance—then de facto control will revert to Sunni tribal leadership. This is the most likely scenario, the result of doing nothing. In the Sunni heartland of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

ISIS as a Global Jihadi Movement
But ISIS is more than territory, and more than a Sunni Arab enterprise. Al Baghdadi’s strategy of recruiting young people from around the world to participate in a glorious struggle has succeeded perhaps far beyond his expectations. The ISIS-related attackers in San Bernardino were from Saudi Arabia; the Paris nightclub and Brussels airport bombers were Belgian of Moroccan descent; the Orlando shooter was an American of Afghan descent; the attackers at the Istanbul airport in June 2016 were from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Dagestan. None were Syrian or Iraqi, the areas where ISIS has its territorial base, yet in those areas foreigners from around the world have come to join the Caliphate’s army. “They are all foreigners,” one refugee told me in describing the ISIS soldiers who captured his village in northern Iraq.

This far flung network is maintained through Internet communication, through Twitter and closed websites, and through glossy online magazines such as Dabiq that amounts to something of a Cyber Caliphate. The young people who were lured to this network and who maintain it came with a variety of motives. Perhaps the strongest was the desire to be involved in a great war, a cosmic struggle that allowed them to play out all of their computer game fantasies of warcraft, valor and gore. But some also came out of a sense of history and piety, a conviction that they were laying their lives on the line for something of transcendent importance for Islamic civilization.

Some of the young volunteers from around the world were attracted to the dramatic vision of apocalyptic cosmic war that animated the inner circle of the movement; others also joined the movement to gain a sense of identity and to be a part of a community. For young people of Middle Eastern parentage who were living in the UK, Europe, and the United States, their experience of being alienated and marginalized immigrant youth was overcome by the acceptance offered by ISIS. Initially their main form of participation was through online chat rooms and Twitter feeds.

My own student research assistants have monitored these Twitter accounts and found that the conversation was dominated by a sense of the importance of the cause, and the sharp we-they distinction between members of the movement’s community and all outsiders, whether or not they were Muslim. A Canadian research scholar, Amarnath Amarsingam, who has interacted with many young Canadian volunteers on Twitter, concurs that community is a dominant part of the appeal. Many of the Twitter called themselves members of the Baqiyah family, using the Arabic term for “enduring” that ISIS employed as one of hallmarks.

“Trust me, I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged anywhere until I met the brothers and sisters on line,” one young volunteer told Amarsingam. “The Internet keeps us connected, keeps us a family,” he added. Then Amarsingam asked the young man to say more about the sense of belonging he felt in the Baqiyah family, and he responded saying that he felt more authentic as a person within the Internet community: “sometimes it’s like the person on line is the real you.” Another Canadian research scholar, Marc-André Argentino, who has also been monitoring ISIS-related Twitter accounts, agrees with Charlie Winter’s analysis of the “Virtual Caliphate” that the category of “belonging” is one of the most important themes. “Regularly,” Argentino reports, “images and video are published depicting brothers praying together and eating together, listening to sermons online, of brothers in arms hugging each other after combat operations, or huddled together hands in the middle (an image reminiscent of a sports team).” The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq have been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’ territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS controlled cities of Raqqa and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

Indeed, the passion of belonging to the ISIS cyber community might even intensify in the period after the fall of territorial control. Perhaps nothing brings together a community as the sense of being under siege and needing to band together for strength. The Twitter feeds in mid-2016, for instance, were buzzing with the assaults on Fallujah, Raqqa and Mosul, with rallying cries to defend the Caliphate.

One of the strategies employed by ISIS was to use terrorist attacks against the far enemies of the movement—the countries of the United States, France, Turkey and elsewhere that it regarded as being in league with those local forces that were trying to defeat the Islamic State. For this reason, messages went out early in 2016 for young followers around the world to undertake terrorist actions on their own wherever they were. An ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, urged followers around the world to make the month of Ramadan in 2016 “a month of calamity everywhere.” Individuals were told that they did not need to check with ISIS headquarters in Raqqa but attack unbelievers in the name of ISIS wherever they were.

The attacks by ISIS sympathizers in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul certainly seemed to be well coordinated multiple attacks of the sort that the ISIS central command would support and perhaps even help to plan. Attacks in the American cities of San Bernardino and Orlando appear to be less well organized, conducted by one or two people inspired by ISIS ideology. The perpetrator of the Orlando attack, Omar Mateen, did exactly this—he declared his allegiance to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by telephone to 911 emergency operators minutes into his rampage. He was said to have been surfing ISIS sites on line in the weeks before the attack. And the ISIS news agency quickly proclaimed him a “fighter for ISIS.”

The term “ISIS inspired,” however, might not be quite fitting for the Orlando attack, and for some of the others as well, since “ISIS inspired” implies motives that were primarily related to an allegiance to the ideology of the Islamic State. It also implies that the primarily intention of undertaking an act of terrorism is to carry out the broad directive of movement—in this case attacking unbelievers and enemies of the ISIS cause. There is some evidence that the perpetrator of the Orlando attacks, Omar Mateen, also had personal motivates, and attacked a gay bar out of a homophobic rage. In this case, what we can say is that is acts were “ISIS branded,” both by Mateen and by the ISIS leadership, whether or not it was directly inspired by ISIS ideology.

This may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadi network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

ISIS as an Apocalyptic Cult
The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few of the ordinary Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This “ISIS apocalypse,” as William McCants describes it in a perceptive book with that title, is a kind of extreme variant of Wahhabi Muslim apocalyptic thinking. Soon after the fiery leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, was killed in 2006, his successor, Abu Ayyad al-Masri, turned to apocalyptic thinking to characterize the movement as the Caliphate that would emerge at the end times. He thought that the Mahdi would be coming soon and that the faithful had to act quickly to establish a Caliphate to receive him. His successor and self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, shared that view. The name of the ISIS online magazine, Dabiq, refers to a town in northern Syria that was the location of the battle of Marj Dabiq between the Ottoman Empire and the Mamluk Sultanate in 1516. It is an ISIS belief that this town will be the location of the final battle between true believers and infidels that will usher in the apocalypse.

The strict code of behavior and extreme brutality in dealing with perceived enemies are aspects of the ISIS movement are grounded in some instances of medieval Islamic history and practice. The relation between this kind of reign of terror and religion is problematic, however. One can claim that the ISIS policies are vicious because their religious understanding requires the faithful to act this way, or one can say that their need for an intimidating form of extreme violence needs to be justified, and they have found recourse in ancient tradition to do so. Either way it is an eerie relationship between religion and extreme violence.

Many have challenged whether ISIS should be called Islamic. Muslims around the world have risen up to protest against what they describe as the non-Muslim attitudes and actions of ISIS. Iyad Ameen Madani, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group that represents 57 countries and 1.4 billion Muslims, said ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam and its principles.” Similar denunciations have come from leading Muslim clergy in Egypt, Turkey, and around the world. Still, the leaders of ISIS claim Muslim authority for their actions, strict Shari’a law as the basis of their jurisprudence, and the promise of salvation for those recruited into its ranks.

The religious credentials of al Baghdadi gives some credibility to this religious appeal. He is a cleric whose family can claim ancestry to the family of the Prophet. He received a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and knows the scriptures and the tradition of Islam better than most jihadists. Osama bin Laden had no religious credentials, and though he pretended to be an engineer, his college training was in business management; Ayman al Zawahiri was a medical doctor; and al Baghdadi’s predecessor in leading al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was a street thug from Jordan. By contrast, al Baghdadi looks fairly legitimate. His credentials do not make the movement Islamic, however. Nor do the Islamic whitewashing of the regime’s terrorist actions and cruel restrictions make them Muslim. The judgment is in the eye of the beholder. And to most Muslims, ISIS represents the antipathy of the faith.

Still, every religious tradition has its peculiar extremists. Often these are marginal cults that communicate largely among themselves and do not surface to public attention unless they are involved in some kind of bizarre behavior. The Heaven’s Gate cult in the United States, for instance, believed that they would be taken up into outer space by UFOs in the last days of the world, a prophecy that was ignored by most people until they committed mass suicide in an attempt to collectively hasten their salvation. Similarly, it is quite possible that the apocalyptic ideas of ISIS will live on in small cults that cherish their ideas but do not have the means nor the need to force them on others in a violent way.

Transformation of Cosmic War
The key question in the transformation of the inner circle of true believers in the ISIS apocalyptic ideas from a terrorist regime to a benign cult is whether the image of cosmic war can be contained. Every religious tradition has such images of dramatic existential battle between the forces of good and evil, order and chaos. They have been a part of virtually every religious tradition from early times to the present. The sacred writings of the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an and the Hindu epics are rife with them, and the histories of Sikhism and Theravada Buddhism abound in glorified warfare for religious purposes. Yet for most believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, these images of warfare are symbolic and metaphorical. For most Muslims, the true jihad is the battle between good and evil within one’s own soul.

But once these images of cosmic war are applied to real situations of territorial struggle and guerilla warfare can they ever be put back in the metaphorical box? The history of extreme movements, such as the Khalistani movement of Sikhs in northern India that erupted into violence in the 1980s and then became quiescent, shows that it is possible. At the same time, some people within the movements will be convinced that the battles have to be conducted in real time and space in order to be a legitimate form of the cosmic war in which they believe. They will continue to plot schemes of attack, and occasionally conduct them in sporadic, uncoordinated terrorist assaults.

Hence ISIS may end. It may lose its territorial control, and it may not be able to manage the entire communications infrastructure that made it for a time such an imposing force around the world. But aspects of it may remain in forms of Sunni empowerment and in small cells of true believers. For the most part these may be benign. But as recently history has aptly demonstrated, it does not take many activists with an extreme agenda and a willingness to lose their own lives in suicide assaults to do a horrendous degree of damage. Thus the specter of ISIS may continue to haunt the world for some time to come.

Research support for this project has come from the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project of the department of Peace and Conflict Resolution Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. I appreciate the help from my research assistants, Saba Sadri and Mufid Taha, and from the Pacifica Institute for arrangements assistance in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Inside the Moro Movement for Muslim Mindanao

“Abu Sayyaf has nothing to do with Islam or the Moro movement,” one of the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front told me when I recently talked with him in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Just because Abu Sayyaf claimed to be Muslim, had affiliated itself with the movement known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and had adopted its distinctive black flag, he said, that did not mean that it was anything other than a gang of thieves.

This was interesting, since the Abu Sayyaf connection to ISIS has often been given as an example of the worldwide reach of the movement, extending even to the Philippines. It is often regarded as the extreme face of Muslim separatism there, centered in the island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Or at least that is the general perception of it outside the region. In Mindanao, the Abu Sayyaf cadres are regarded as thugs.

On September 21, 2015, a motorboat with a dozen or so armed Abu Sayyaf militants arrived at night at the upscale Holiday Ocean View resort on the tiny island of Samal off of the southern shore of Mindanao. Like other resorts on Samal, it caters to Europeans and North Americans seeking a sun-soaked vacation of tropical forests and golden beaches, and were unprepared for a militant attack. Apparently at random the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers nabbed the first foreigners they encountered: two middle-aged Canadian men and a Norwegian man, along with the Filipina girlfriend of one of the Canadians. They were then taken back to the boat and whisked off to the group’s headquarters near the town of Jolo in the Sulu archipelago, where monetary demands were made for the release of the hostages. In May, 2016, when there was no positive response, one of the Canadians was beheaded and his head left in a bag on the main street of Jolo. In June 2016 the other Canadian was beheaded, and the Filipina girlfriend was released. The Norwegian remained captive until September 2016, when he was released after a ransom was paid.

When I went to Mindanao two months after the second beheading, therefore, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. I flew from Manila to Cotabato City in central Mindanao, not far from where the Samal island kidnappings had taken place. Despite the recent attacks the region seemed calm, rural and sleepy, with pockmarked roads winding through lush tropical forests. Needless to say, however, there were no other foreigners on my flight, nor did I see any during my stay.

Though I saw no reason to be threatened, I felt secure in the hospitality provided by the local educational institution, Notre Dame University, run by a Roman Catholic monastic order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). The president of the University, Fr Charlie Inzon, OMI, was my gracious host and provided a room for me in the priests’ house on campus. His administrative assistant helped make arrangements to talk with people involved with the Moro movement, Muslim leaders as well as government officials.

What I discovered was that the movement was much more complicated than Abu Sayyaf, and that it has been around for quite a while. Although most of the Philippines is Christian, Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago of islands stretching towards Indonesia and Malaysia has been Muslim for centuries. There were Muslim Sultanates on Mindanao prior to the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in the sixteenth century, and it was the Spanish who called the Muslims “Moros,” thinking they were much like the Moors of Spain.

So the Moros have always thought of themselves as different from the rest of the Philippines. The United States colonized the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898, and after it granted the Philippines independence in 1946 the movement for an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao picked up steam. For some decades, however, their protests were violent. After decades of armed encounters between armed militia associated with the Moro movement and the armed forces and armed police of the Philippine government, negotiations in recent years have led to a peace process with a good chance that the major issues in the conflict will be resolved.

This does not mean that all elements within the Moro movement are happy about the negotiations with the Philippine government, however. Nor are they all willing to put down their arms. The Abu Sayyaf is one of these die-hard militant movements, which began as a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and has degenerated into a brigand gang with no purpose other than to gain money extracted through extortion in taking hostages. Estimates of their profits in recent years have ranged from twenty to thirty million dollars. The Canadian government refused to provide the twenty-eight million dollars initially demanded for each of the Samal island hostages, or the amount to which it was later lowered, eight million dollars. After Abu Sayyaf responded by killing them, it is not clear what amount the Norwegian government was willing to offer for the release of the remaining Norwegian hostage.

Abu Sayyaf started as more than a kidnapping band, however. It was founded in 1991 by Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, who had studied Islamic theology and was determined to give a more religious character to the movement than the secular MNLF had provided. Janjalani went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to join the Mujahadeen, and he was said to have received an infusion of cash and a mandate from Osama bin Laden to organize a more militant al Qaeda- style movement in the Philippines. The name, Abu Sayyaf, reflects this militant posture, since it means “father of the swordsman.”

After Janjalani’s death in 1998, one of his successors, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, swore an oath of loyalty in 2014 to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called Caliph of the Islamic State. Hapilon regarded ISIS as giving a religious credibility to the movement’s violence, including beheadings, and, like ISIS, taking captive women into sex slavery as temporary “wives.” Today there are only a few hundred militants remaining in the movement, though villages near the areas where they are encamped are said to be paid for their silent support with the profits that the group has accrued through hostage-taking and extortion.

Abu Sayyaf was not the only movement to split off from the MNLF and to seek a religious justification for the cause. Earlier, in the 1970s, a much larger and more influential faction of the MNLF created the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is known by its initials, MILF.

When I was in Mindanao, I sought out leaders of the Moro movement, and one of the most articulate leaders I encountered was a young lawyer, Naguib Sinarimbo, who was a strategist and negotiator for the MILF. When I met with him in the offices of the UN Development Program, where he worked as an advisor on the Moro peace process, Sinarimbo was wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a V-neck sweater, and spoke articulately about the history and goals of the movement. Rather than looking like a Muslim militant—whatever that might be—he looked like the young lawyer and bureaucrat that he in fact was. He told me stories about how in his previous work with the government when he went on work-related trips to Manila he became annoyed when co-workers in the government did not realize that he was Muslim, and he would listen as they denigrated the Moros and their political goals. That made him determined to leave government service and join the movement.

The specific movement that he joined was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. I asked him why he did not join the MNLF instead, and he explained that it was partly a matter of ethnicity and location, and partly a matter of ideology. The MNLF was based in the Sulu archipelago which tends to speak a Visayan language; the MILF was based in West-Central Mindanao where people in the Cotabato City vicinity spoke Maguindanao. For Naguib Sinarimbo, the MILF was the dominant movement in his region.

But there were also religious reasons that made it appealing, and nationalist ones. Sinarimbo thought that the MILF took a stronger stand for Moro rights and did not as easily capitulate to the government’s demands. It was able to do this, in part, because of its insistence that Muslim identity and culture were at the core of the Moro demands, and in part because the movement had stronger leadership, Sinarimbo felt, than did the MNLF.

The MNLF, which had been founded in 1969 by a professor from the University of the Philippines, entered into peace negotiations with the Philippine government. These resulted in the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, brokered by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, which eventually led to the creation in 1989 of an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Though it sounded like an effective resolution to the conflict, ARMM was in fact a fairly ineffective administrative demarcation without much power, and with very little economic impact.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is known by its initials, MILF, was a reaction to the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, and was founded the year afterwards by Hashim Salamat, a religious teacher who had studied at the premier Muslim educational institution in Cairo, Al Azhar University, where he was influenced by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Salamat believed that Muslim principles, including a ban on alcohol and tobacco, should be requisite for an autonomous Muslim state. He and the MILF movement rejected the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that was negotiated between the MNLF and Philippine officials and for a time proclaimed a jihad against the government. The movement collaborated on several military campaigns against the government with Abu Sayyaf during the earlier, more idealistic stages of the movement, before it turned to kidnappings and pledged its support to ISIS.

In recent years the MILF has become more conciliatory even as Abu Sayyaf has become more violent. The MILF has entered into its own negotiations with the Philippine government for a comprehensive peace settlement that would create Bangsamoro—a Moro State—in the Mindanao region to replace ARMM. One of the significant features of the negotiated deal is an elaborate sharing of government funds raised from taxes and sales of natural resources. In 2014, the Bangsamoro agreement was signed, with high hopes that the new entity would bring the region the identity and tranquility for which the movement had sought over many years.

There was a hitch, however. Before being implemented, the Philippines Congress had to pass a law enacting the provisions of the agreement. Before the bill was slated to be approved, an armed encounter between the Philippines National Police and militia units related to the MILF at the village of Mamasapano in Mindanao resulted in over sixty deaths. Investigations after the incident blamed poor communications between the police and officials in the MILF for the confusion that led to the clash, but the public blamed the Moros. The time was not ripe for Congressional approval and 2015 ended without a vote on the issue.

In 2016, the Philippines elected a new President, Rodrigo Duterte, a colorful politician from the Mindanao city of Davao. When I was in Manila, I talked with staff members of the Presidential advisory office that monitors the peace process, and they were optimistic. One of the directors, Pamela Padila, told me that Duterte had pledged to bring the Bangsamoro implementation bill up for a vote, though not until some revisions were made. She suggested that maybe next year the agreement would finally be implemented, and she showed me a chart indicating June, 2017, as the date for formal approval. Other political observers were more skeptical. For the MILF cadres, even a year meant more waiting and frustration.

“I give the government two years at most,” Naguib Sinarimbo told me. He explained that the young members of the movement were impatient and wary of the compromises that the movement had to make already. If the agreement were to be watered down further, or delayed for an indefinite period of time, their restlessness might lead to renewed militant action. Moreover, the credibility of the MILF leadership would be undermined and negotiations with the government would be mistrusted. The situation would be fertile for violence.

One of the persons most concerned about the renewal of military confrontation from elements of the MILF was one of its area commanders, Butch Malang, with whom I spoke in Cotabato City, Mindanao. Though he had led his Moro fighters on a number of campaigns against the government in the past, Malang had now renounced violence in favor of the 2014 peace agreement, and was serving as Vice Chair of the MILF panel on the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities, a joint government-Moro movement organization that was charged with overseeing the demilitarization of the Moro militias and coordinating between the police and the movement to keep incidents such as the bloody encounter last year at Mamasapano from occurring.

Butch Malang knew his fighters, and he knew that the younger ones especially were easily lured into more violent organizations than MILF if they were frustrated. One such group, a faction that had split off from MILF, was organized as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). They had already been involved, along with MILF militia, in the Mamasapano incident, and were ready to mobilize and attract new recruits as soon as the peace agreement seemed to be faltering.

This assessment was supported by Major Carlos Sol, a former Philippines army official who was appointed director of the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities. Major Sol was raised in central Mindanao and though he was Christian he knew the players in the Muslim movements well. When I talked with him about the situation in his map-lined office in Cotabato City, Major Sol explained some of the internal politics within the movements. He also told me that there were three other small groups of Moro fighters beside Abu Sayyaf that had pledged their support to ISIS. One, created by the nephew of the founder of BIFF, called itself ISIS of Mindanao.

All of these allegedly ISIS-related groups, including Abu Sayyaf, were examples of what I have called ISIS-branding: they had no real connection to the ISIS movement but had adopted its name—its brand—to give them international militant credibility. Nonetheless, the movements in their own locales are just as lethal as ISIS is in Syria and Iraq. Any of these movements in Mindanao could quickly erupt in violence if they sensed that the mood of frustration in the Muslim regions would support them.

In the meantime, leaders like Naguib Sinaringo were planning to create a political party. They were getting ready for the next stage of the movement, the implementation of Bangsamoro as a political entity. This means that leaders and fighters in the movement that have lead an armed struggle over many years will have to adjust to peace. They will have to treat the government like an ally rather than a foe, and learn the art of compromise and negotiation that all politicians have to adopt.

This also means that the militants will have to abandon the vision of a cosmic war between good and evil that had animated much of their struggle, and made mortal enemies out of those with whom they differed, including the government and other branches of the movement. Butch Malang admitted that might be difficult.

“Some of our fighters know only how to fight,” he said, somewhat sadly. In his case, however, the old commander himself had willingly taken on a new role of facilitator in the cessation of hostilities. So new circumstances—the hope of a settlement—can make old fighters look differently at a struggle, and even imagine the possibilities of reconciliation and peace.

Religion has been playing a role in the transition from conflict to peace, and it is a good role rather than a destructive one. Since the MILF has influence over all of the mosques in the area, Sinaringo told me, they have given the imams in each of the mosques instructions on what to include in the sermons about the peace process. The imams have encouraged the faithful in the area to embrace the plan and not militantly reject it the way that the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf have urged them to do.

Back at the campus of Notre Dame University, I found that President Charlie Inzon and his faculty members had found other ways to use religion in the healing process. He has set up a peace research center in the University, and has helped to create an interfaith council in the community. He has also used the curriculum itself as a means of reconciliation.

Mindanao is a mixed Christian-Muslim population, and the student body in the university is 65 percent Muslim and 35 percent Christian. Since it is a Catholic institution, the Christian students are required to take Bible and Christian theology courses. But the Muslim students are also required to take courses in religion, though in the Qur’an and Muslim theology. Then all students, regardless of religious background, are required to take courses in peace studies and interfaith dialogue to make sure they understand each other’s culture.

A Muslim professor in the university told me that teaching Islamic studies in a Catholic university had been a positive influence on his faith. “By learning more about Christianity I have become a better Muslim,” he said.

For someone like me, who has made a career out of studying the dark side of religiosity and its relationship to violence, it was good to see an instance in which religion was not just playing its familiar divisive role in social conflict. At least at some moments in Mindanao, it could be an agent of healing as well as harm.

My thanks to Mike Saycon and staff members of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process in Manila for their assistance in making contacts in Mindanao, and to Fr. Charlie Inzon OMI and his faculty and staff for their hospitality. The research for this essay was supported by the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project based at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Was ISIS Involved with Nice?

Nice truck attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS Inspired–or Branded?

orlando shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orlando Massacre: ISIS Inspired or Homophobic Attack?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bellah on Global Religion


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juergensmeyer videos

Juergensmeyer’s Boycott of BYU for Religious Discrimination 2015

Intro to the book, God in the Tumult of the Global Square 2015

Interview on religious violence, Uppsala Sweden, Oct 2015

Comments on the Hizmet Movement Dec 2015

“Old Wars, New Methods,” Interview on Straits Times Television, Singapore 2014

Fox News the day after 9/11- Juergensmeyer interviewed by Neil Caputo Sept 12, 2001

What is Global Studies? Panel moderated by Mark Juergensmeyer 2012