Letter to the University of Illinois

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

August 10, 2015

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

Dear Prof Basar:

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

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

Images of Refugees from ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Talking with Refugees from ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Behind the Iran Nuclear Deal–the Fight against ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of the Lone Wolf Terrorist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myanmar’s Buddhist Terrorist

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This essay was originally posted in Religion Dispatches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Charlie-Hebdo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion Was Not the Reason for the Paris Attack

1-7-FRENCH-NEWSPAPER-SHOOTIN_24136

A version of this essay was posted on the website of Religion Dispatches on January 9, 2015.

 

 

Now that the Paris attackers have been identified—one who turned himself in, and the two Kouachi brothers killed by the French police in a shootout north of Paris—the next question is why? Why did they do it, and did religion play a role?

 
As soon as it became clear that the military-style assault on the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were Muslim, and that they had shouted out as they raced from the scene of their massacre that this was in revenge for the insults levied by the cartoon portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, the die seemed to be cast. This was a case of Islamic terrorism, pure and simple.

 
Senator Lindsey Graham said so. The Paris attacks prove that we are “in a religious war” with radical Islam. The respected journalist, George Packer, hurriedly posted an opinion piece on the website of The New Yorker, proclaiming that this act had nothing to do with the ethnic tensions in France and it was simply a calculated attack on behalf of “Islamist ideology.” Twitter and Facebook were full of accusations that once again Islamic religion has propelled its faithful into violence.

 
But what we know about the attackers and their motives is still murky, and the truth may be more complicated than that.

 
One possibility is that this case may be similar to many of the other lone wolf terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States in recent years. Before Paris, there was the 2013 Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston massacre, the deadly assault on a Norwegian youth camp by Christian extremist Anders Breivik in 2011, the December 2012 Newtown massacre by Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook school, the July 2012 movie theater shootings by James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado, the August 2012 attack on the Milwaukee Sikh Gurdwara by Wade Michael Page, and before that, the 2010 Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad, and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic park by Eric Robert Rudolph, who was related to the Christian Identity movement.

 
Some of these were committed by Christians, some by Muslims, and some by those with no particular religious affiliation at all. In almost all cases, though, these have been instances where lonely, alienated individuals have raged against a society that they thought had abandoned them.

 
These lone wolf events are different from other instances in recent years where organized radical groups with religion as part of their ideology, such ISIS or the Christian militia, have plotted attacks and recruited participants to be involved in them. In the lone wolf cases, religious ideas, when they appeared at all, were more of an excuse than a reason for the violence.

 
The Paris incident may be a case in point. Though at least one of the brothers may at one time had ties to the Yemeni al Qaeda, there is no evidence that they were sent by some higher authority in the organization to commit this crime. The details of the background and motives of Said and Cherif Kouachi are not yet clear, and so religion seems to be a secondary aspect of their motivations. Like the other cases in recent years, it may be primarily an expression of the rage of angry young men.

 
The brothers Kouachi were hardly saints. In fact, they were scarcely religious. They were raised in a secular household and their youth was filled with petty theft and brawls. Neither held a solid job, though Cherif occasionally delivered pizzas. The lure of the jihadi ideology seemed primarily to be the call to warfare, coupled with a sense of bringing honor to their communities and to themselves, a dishonor they had earned through their vagabond lifestyles. According to the New York Times, Cherif Kouachi liked to smoke marijuana and listen to rap music; he described himself as “an occasional Muslim.” Neither brother seems to have had a very sophisticated notion of their faith nor of Islamic jihadi ideology. They simply wanted to join a fight.

 
It is true, however, that the target of their angry, vicious attack was related to religion, since the enemies in their military assault were satirists who had portrayed the Prophet Mohammad in cartoons. This is the kind of insult to religion that would offend all Muslims, not just the angry ones like the Kouachi brothers. It is one thing to make fun of real life leaders, quite another to belittle someone’s faith. The cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo magazine are analogous to the ethnic cartoons of Jews in Nazi Germany, or the bespeckled buck-toothed drawings of Japanese in American World War II posters. These images demean a whole race or culture, in the case of Muslims. Algerian Muslims in France already feel demeaned, and for many the cartoons were the last straw.

 
This does not excuse the savage attack, however. There is a lot of satire that angers religious folk without causing violence—the 1989 photograph of a statue of Jesus on the cross immersed in a jar of urine comes to mind. It enraged many Catholic Christians at the time—just as the recent musical, The Book of Mormon, infuriated many Mormons. But the unhappy Catholics and Mormons did not storm the artists’ and writers’ homes with military-grade weaponry.

 
Neither did any other Muslim except the Kouachi brothers. Even though Muslims in general may have been displeased by these drawings of the Prophet Mohammad (or any attempt to picture someone who should not be portrayed at all) no other Muslim attacked the cartoonists’ office in Paris. This brings us back to the idiosyncratic nature of this terrorist act. It was not Muslims in general who attacked the Paris office, it was these guys. Hence no amount of thundering about Islam or Islamic radical ideology in general explains why these particular people did what they did. If they were not commanded by some radical organization to undertake the attack, then the relevant questions are why the Kouachi brothers were angry about the society around them, and why they used a religious pretext related to a religious issue (the cartoon portrayals of the Prophet) as a cover for their rage?

 
This raises an issue that George Packer, in his New Yorker essay, specifically said that we should ignore: the multicultural tensions of contemporary French society.

 
If we are looking for a link that connects a couple of individuals’ personal sense of anger and alienation to a public demonstration of how the immigrant community of which they are a part (Algerian Muslims) are angry and alienated in contemporary France, the cartoon issue is a perfect connection. Moreover, there is a prevailing radical Islamic ideology that presents an image of cosmic war between Islam and secular society that allows these individual angry frustrations to be vented. Hence Packer’s identification of the jihadi ideology as a factor is relevant, but the evidence does not indicate that it is the sole cause of the attack; rather it is the vehicle through which a personal and ethnic anger is expressed.

 
For the dead-beat, dead-end Kouachi brothers, the notion of being a part of a great jihadi battle may have seemed appealing for many reasons. For such people, real wars are exciting, and the imagined wars of great religious conflict are more than exhilarating. They also offer the promise of opportunity, of playing an ennobling role within that cosmic war. Perhaps most directly, such imagined wars provide a justification for doing something destructive to the very society that they think has shunned them and their community.

 
Hence the defense of religion provides a cover for violence. It gives moral license to something horrible that the perpetrators may have longed to do, to show the world how powerful they and their community really could be, and to demonstrate their importance in one terminal moment of violent glory. Religion doesn’t cause the violence, it is the excuse for it.

 
One does not need religion to do this, of course. After all, Adam Lanza shot up the Newtown School and John Holmes attacked the Aurora movie theater crowd without a nod towards religion.

 
But in the case of the Norwegian youth camp murderer, Anders Breivik, Atlanta Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph and the Sikh Gurdwara attacker, Wade Michael Page, their motivations appear to have included an imagined defense of Christian society. Times Square attempted bomber, Faisal Shahzad, Boston bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, justified their acts of rage as defending Islamic society, as did the Paris attackers, Said and Charif Kouachi.

 
It is not right, of course, to blame Christianity for the acts of angry young men who are Christian, even when they claim to be defending the Christian community. Similarly, Islam is not responsible for angry Muslims.

 
Sadly, by evoking faith as an element of their bloody rage, however, they compound their crimes. They cause religion to be one more injured victim of their awful actions

 

Ah, I Remember Pyongyang

The Interview

In watching the movie, “The Interview,” I found myself comparing the fictional sets of North Korea with what I saw when I was there some years ago in the early 1990s when I was a guest of Kim Il Sung University (yes, there is a Kim Il Sung University). I was there for ten days, helping to negotiate collaborative projects with the University of Hawai’i as dean of their School of Hawai’ian, Asian and Pacific Studies.

North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang, appeared much like the movie sets. I arrived at the airport terminal, which looked exactly as it did in the movie, and was whisked off on a beautiful multiple lane freeway to the heart of the city. The film accurately portrayed its skyscrapers, including a 105 story pyramid-shaped hotel, towering in the background.

The only odd thing about my initial impression was that the fancy freeway from the airport was almost empty. It seemed more a showcase for a modern highway than a functional one. The same can be said for the hotels, which looked terrific but were scarcely occupied.

We stayed in the twin-towered Koryo Hotel aimed, apparently, at businessmen since there was a glossy brochure on the coffee table, in English, trumpeting the export items that North Korea was prepared to offer. The month we were there they were featuring Russian style tractors and rabbit fur. I imagined a lovely combination of the two. The companion tower outside my window was completely dark at night, and there were only about twenty people at the mandatory breakfast in the morning. Not that many people wanted to vacation in Pyongyang, I guess.

Even so, we appeared to be in the glitzy area of Pyongyang, since outside the hotel was a block-long line of nightclubs and cafes, brightly lit on the outside. Since the streets were curiously empty, I was interested to know whether there were any customers inside, so I ventured downstairs and out into the sparkling street. Suddenly the lights went off—all of them, for all of the nightclubs and cafes—at the same time. Like one of the characters in the movie who discovered that a well-stocked vegetable store was a false front with fake food, I found that these cheerful bistros were only facades and there were, in fact, no cafes and nightclubs at all.

We had a similar experience in checking out the local stores. One was indeed well stocked with televisions and foreign motorcycles and myriad other modern amenities. But it was restricted to people who could buy things with foreign exchange, particularly Koreans from Japan whom the North Koreans were trying to lure back to the country. The stores that sold goods for Pyongyang’s residents were almost bare. They would sell things episodically, depending on what was available. When were there, it was plastic buckets and rice.

Yet there was much grandeur in Pyongyang: sweeping plazas, massive monuments, imposing government offices, and everywhere statues of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who was still alive when I was there. Other statues portrayed the Beloved Comrade, Kim Jung Il. The poses were predictable: figures standing in the wind, pointing wisely towards the distance; sitting wisely like Abraham Lincoln in a throne-like chair; or standing with hands akimbo looking triumphantly—and wisely—at the less fortunate world. These were the large public statues. Little busts were legion, as where the ubiquitous red and gold pins with images of the Great Leader.

The North Koreans were proud of this over-built monument-packed city, and justly so. Frequently they would show us pictures of what Pyongyang looked like at the end of the Korean War, just a rubble-strewn desert of total disaster. It was the result, we were told knowingly, of the aggressive American military that had ruthlessly attacked the country. Only the brave defensive struggles of the North Korean soldiers allowed it to survive. Our hosts seemed unaware of the historical accounts that describe North Korea as the initiator of the war, and the role of the Chinese in helping it seize South Korea and prompting American troops to defend it. Their account placed all the blame on the bloodthirsty Americans and you could feel their paranoid fear about the likelihood that the US would attack again. Perhaps soon.

They credited their resilience to Juche thought, the ideas of Kim Il Sung. We visited an imposing tower in a pleasant setting beside the main river commemorating these ideas, an ideology of self reliance that was revered even more greatly than communism. They implicitly blamed both the Chinese and Russians for not helping them rebuild after the Korean War, and having to do it by themselves. So modern Pyongyang was a showcase of North Korean grit and pride.

Students in North Korean Universities, however, knew that the future lay in the wider world. They were eager to become connected with the international economy. Computer science was a popular topic, and though the computers in their classrooms appeared outmoded they were everywhere. English was the preferred foreign language, even more popular than Chinese, Russian, or Japanese.

Like the movie version of North Koreans, my hosts tried to repair their image of being a poverty-stricken dictatorship, and show that they lived well and were able to tolerate diversity. They were particularly proud of neighborhood health clinics that also included gyms and work-out facilities and beauty parlors. I don’t know how common these were, but the ones we saw were indeed serviceable and well used.

And there was a certain amount of religious freedom. I was eager to see if Christianity existed in North Korea, so on Saturday I announced that I would like to go to church the next day. “Which kind,” my hosts asked, “Catholic or Protestant?” Thinking quickly, I told them “both,” explaining that since I was such a devout Christian I had to go to both kinds of services. So the next day they took me to both, and there were indeed churches that looked like churches, pews full to the exact number of spaces available in the buildings, and everyone singing hymns without looking at the books, and kneeling and praying at appropriate times. In other words, it seemed unlikely the whole thing could have been entirely staged for my benefit, especially since I gave very little advanced notice. But how many churches there were I have no way of knowing.

Venturing out in the countryside was a relief from the artificial, monumental Pyongyang. We went on a full-day outing to the Kumgang mountains, the dramatic sugarloaf looking peaks near the South Korean border. Along the way we stopped at a small town that seemed reasonably well off and bathed in the hot spring pools that were the local attraction. We also passed by a mammoth dike built to keep out the ocean and reclaim land for farming, and a nuclear power plant.

We wanted to visit a farm, so our hosts took us to one that seemed to be on the visiting foreigners circuit. It seemed suspiciously prosperous. The whole family was inside the living room, watching programs on a shiny new television. We were impressed, until I went around the back in search of a bathroom and saw the cardboard box in which the television had arrived, most likely that morning, and to which it likely would soon return.

So the North Korea of my memory was much like the one portrayed in the movie, The Interview. The cityscape was much the same, and so was the paranoia and mindless devotion to the Great Leader. It seemed to me as if I had been visiting the precincts of some enormous religious cult. And in a way I was.

The day before I left, I went to a small shop in the lobby of the hotel, and amassed a large collection of Kim Il Sung buttons and pictures and statues to take home as souvenirs. But initially the North Korean lady at the cash register refused to let me purchase them.

“You don’t really believe in this,” she said, “you just want to make fun of us.”

“No,” I protested, saying that I had great respect for the North Korean people and their leadership. All I wanted to do was to take back home some symbols of their devotion to let my friends in America so they could experience what I had discovered about North Korean sensibilities.

She looked at me suspiciously and eventually relented and let me buy the trinkets. But, although I didn’t quite lie to her, it is also true that her initial reaction was correct.

On Death and Dogs

dog

It happened so quickly in the dark—a sudden image in my headlights of something, an animal maybe, it could have been a goat or a sheep—and before I could react I felt the sickening thud. I had been driving in the high desert at night, west of Yucca Valley, having set my cruise control to a comfortable 60 for the two-lane rural road, trying to be careful. And now this.

When the car came to a stop I turned around to look for what I had hit. In the headlights I saw two guys at the side of the road, huddled over something. I stopped.

They didn’t say anything when I approached them, since there was nothing to be said. Their flashlights illumined the dying body of a dog. It was an old German Shepherd.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, explaining that I was the one who had hit the dog, and they nodded, apparently not surprised since it had wandered off before. They assured me that I was not at fault. I offered to take it to the vet, but we examined the body. There was a bad head wound. Nothing to be done. I gave the guys some money, my contribution if they decided to take it to the vet anyway, which I knew they wouldn’t do, but I wanted to do something. All I could do was to look down at that old German Shepherd body, oozing life.

She reminded me of our own German Shepherd, Rajah, a dog that we had years ago. He was a wonderful dog, a dog of dogs. When we found him and took him in, we were uncertain whether Brandenburg, our Cocker-Retriever mix would allow such a huge and fierce-looking rival into the house. But Rajah knew how to be deferential when needed, and how to be protective when required. He used to guard Sucheng like a sentinel, showing his ferocious teeth if anyone seemed to threaten her in the least. But in affectionate moments, he could be such a lamb.

I miss Rajah. I miss not having a dog in my life.

Years after he was gone we talked about him and about Brandenburg as if they were still alive. It is strange how sometimes death can bring you closer to someone than when they were living.

I feel that way about my brother John, who weeks ago was yanked from us by a tragic airplane accident. Now I think of him all the time, wondering how he would respond to this or that, wanting to share some amusing trivia with him.

I think of my sister Carolyn, who died several years ago of Parkinson’s disease. I still talk to her as if she were here. And I think often of my fallen colleagues, including Bob Bellah and Ninian Smart, and of my parents, and my wife’s parents. It is strange how close we can be to those who are, in a sense, as far away as time and space can be.

And now I think of that poor dog beside the highway tonight. I wonder whether she had a happy life, whether she was coming to her master when she crossed the fateful highway, whether in her old age she could not see the oncoming car.

I think about her, and am close to her, and I don’t even know her name. But once again, in an odd and twisted way, I have a dog.