Behind the Iran Nuclear Deal–the Fight against ISIS

Zarif

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of the Lone Wolf Terrorist

dylann roof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myanmar’s Buddhist Terrorist

wirathu

This essay was originally posted in Religion Dispatches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Charlie-Hebdo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion Was Not the Reason for the Paris Attack

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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

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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.

Fields of Blood

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This review by Mark Juergensmeyer appeared in the October 24, 2014 edition of The Washington Post.

The recent rise of religious images in political conflict around the globe has led to a surprising religiophobia, as if religion itself were inherently violent. To this simplistic point of view, Karen Armstrong has written an elegant and powerful response.

Fields of Blood is not just a defense of religion but also an exploration of the relation between religion and the history of violence over the centuries. It is a book both erudite and accurate, dazzling in its breadth of knowledge and historical detail. Though it does not give all of the answers to the curious relationship between religion and violence, it sets us on the right path.

She begins with the obvious truth that religion doesn’t do anything by itself. It’s not a thing, but simply a dimension of human experience. The modern notion of religion as something separate from mundane life was an invention of the European Enlightenment,
a counterpoint to the new notion of secularism. For most of world history, and for most of the world’s populations, the religious imagination has been a part of everything that humans do. Armstrong concludes that “the problem lies not in the multifaceted
activity that we call ‘religion’ but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state.”

She acknowledges that this violence is often cloaked in religious language. However, Armstrong seeks to demonstrate that it is not the bloody images and legends in sacred texts and holy history that are to blame, but the political contexts that frame religion as part of the messy pictures.

To make this point, Armstrong embarks on a historical journey from the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic to al-Qaeda in the present day. The first part of the book covers ancient societies: not just Babylonia but also classical India, China and Israel. In each case she sees the emergence of public violence as part of the formation of state power, and the justifications for violence were often stated in religious terms. In the second part, this theme is developed with relation to early Christianity, Byzantium and Muslim empires.

Armstrong is strongest on biblical history and the development of the Christian church. She shows that a major theme of the Old Testament is between an unruly free society and a stern political order that is imposed by force—by the structural violence of a state. When Christianity emerged, the political order that loomed over the fledgling church was the Roman Empire, and Christians defied the authorities with a pacifism that rejected the power of Rome. Later, however, in 325 CE, when Christianity became the de facto state religion of the empire, the situation was reversed, and church leaders scrambled to justify the military power of the state. One of the Church’s bishops, Saint Augustine, elaborated on an old Greek theory of “just war” to explain how Christianity could support acts of warfare in certain limited situations. Although earlier the Church had advocated a more pacifist position, Augustine argued that this kind of idealism was only meant for a heavenly “city of God.” Down on earth where mortals live in the “city of humans” a more realistic ethic is called for, one that occasionally accepts the use of violence to achieve social order. This Christian acceptance of the political reality that some violence can be justified has continued to be the dominant position of the church down to the present day. Throughout the history of Christianity, however, politicians have grasped onto this religious justification to excuse their own violent exercises of power.

The same religious acceptance of violence in certain political contexts, and the same misuse of it by politicians, is found in Islam. Armstrong shows that the peaceable early Muslims turned to fighting only to defend themselves, and that the notion of jihad is a minor and seldom-mentioned concept in the Qur’an. Later, the issue of state-supported violence for the sake of political order becomes a theme in Islam, as it had been in Christianity, when large empires were established. Though maintained by force, the empires kept the peace, preventing quarreling regions from being in constant warfare and allowing a diversity of cultures to flourish. Islamic leaders routinely protected “people of the book” – Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians – within their domains.

The third and last part of the book is the most interesting. Here Armstrong focuses on the past several hundred years of the modern period, when secularism and religion struggled with each other. Again, there are political issues at stake. Nowhere is this more clear than in recent years, when terrorism and global jihad have come into prominence, in large part as responses to the widespread perception in the Middle East that the United States and Europe have fostered economic exploitation and cultural colonialism in the region. Armstrong regards the war on terror of the George W. Bush administration to be itself a kind of terror and a battle waged with religious zeal.

Once again, Armstrong asserts, politics and human ambition are the culprits behind all forms of public violence. Yet the reader is left with a nagging question: What is there about religion, both historically and today, that makes it such an appealing cloak for the venal aspirations of power-hungry people? Religion may not cause violence – Armstrong is right – but why is there such a dark attraction between the two?

In her closing paragraphs, Armstrong asserts that religion at its best has been able, over the centuries, to “build a sense of global community.” It is a good statement and a true one. But that’s not the whole story. Religion – in the sense of what the theologian Paul Tillich called “the repository of symbols” – has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.

In wondering why violence and religion are so intimately intertwined, Armstrong comes close to some interesting answers in a meditation midway through the book on the curious attraction of people to warfare. Grand war, cosmic war, is an exercise of human imagination as well as politics. It is a thrilling alternative world that engages the passions of fighters in ways that no ordinary life experience can do by lifting ordinary conflict into a realm of existential and ultimate encounter. In other words there is a religiosity to war. And there may also be images of profound struggle at the heart of religious thought. When conflicts are seen as sacred, the encounters are even more intense.

Virtually every instance of terrorism in recent years has evoked a God who is perceived to be engaged in cosmic warfare. These imagined battles are about power and politics and more: about freedom and civilization and life itself. In trying to make sense of this remarkable vision of violence and the sacred, Karen Armstrong has done a great service by showing us how wrong some of the simplistic assumptions have been. But she also makes us aware of how much more there is to be known about the awesome dimension of religion in public life.

Farewell, Brother John

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Yesterday my brother John—my Republican brother—called me from our hometown in Southern Illinois as he was about to board his little plane. He was an experienced pilot and loved to fly, even though he had just turned eighty. Returning from a visit to our other brother who was in a long term care facility, he wanted to report on his progress. The phone connection was bad, and he said he’d give me another call when he reached Elgin, his home near Chicago.

The call never came. His little plane came down in a cornfield four miles short of the runway, and John did not survive the crash.

When his daughter reached me with the news this morning, it seemed simply impossible. He was so full of life and grit and optimism, and besides, I had just talked to him a few hours earlier. Is life such a fragile and fickle thing that it can just disappear, blown out like a candle in the wind?

Then the shock turned to a kind of internal sickness, as if a part of myself had been wrenched away. Which it had, after all.

I often called John my “Republican brother,” as if I had more than two—and both of them Republicans in fact. But John wore it on his sleeve, and his politics seemed to magnify what was different about the two of us. Whatever he was for, I was against; whatever I favored he found absolutely detestable. I used to joke that when I couldn’t decide what stand to take on a public issue I would consult with John, and then take the opposite position.

Often our political competition turned to humor. He would jab with a Hillary Clinton joke, and I would thrust back with a Sarah Palin to the heart. Other times it would be extended discussions on the causes of the national debt, and the reasons for the financial meltdown in 2008. His views seemed so wrongheaded, and at times outright daffy, and yet I learned from them. They conveyed a perspective that is easily ignored in a California academic community, and yet a huge part of the American political psyche. My brother gave me a window to that world.

It was not my world, I would affirm to myself, with a sigh of relief. What divided us—mostly politics—seemed so fundamental and irreconcilable.

For this reason it always startled me when other people would remark about how similar we were, our laugh, our tone of voice. John and I talked on the phone several times a week—we were the joint legal guardians of our bedridden older brother. And when I called his office his staff would sometimes think it was John, our voices were so similar.

So too was our wacky sense of humor. “Tell him it’s Juergensmeyer calling,” I would tell the woman on his office phone. And he would cut into the line and thunder back that he was in fact Juergensmeyer, and that clearly I was an imposter. This would go on for a while until the lady on his office staff, tiring of the stupid banter, would simply hang up. We, of course, thought it was hilarious.

Then there were the comedy routines we would run through at family gatherings.

“Say, John, did you put the cat out?”

“Put the cat out,” he would respond, “I didn’t know he was on fire.”

At this point people would quietly slip out of the back of the room.

“Say Mark, how do you know you have a carpenter dog?”

“Why just this morning,” I countered, “he made a bolt for the door.”

By this time there was no one left but us, and we were just warming up. We had dozens more where those came from.

It was not just the bad humor that made us similar. Some six and a half years older than me, John was both mentor and annoying role model. I pretended that I was independent. Yet after he became an Eagle Scout, I became an Eagle Scout. He went to the University of Illinois, and so did I. He pledged a fraternity, and I followed suit, the very same fraternity in fact. John got a PhD in political science from Princeton, and my PhD in political science was from Berkeley.

We came from a pious Protestant family, and both of us kept the faith, though his preference was more evangelical, mine more towards Christian social justice. Yet I recall that when we were both in college at Urbana-Champaign—when I was an undergraduate and he was in law school—he was the one who encouraged me to support the movement for racial equality. He may have been conservative, but he had a heart.

Sometimes his heart was so big it seemed that it would burst. Incurably sentimental, he would be moved easily to tears when talking about the love of our parents, or the distinct charms of his granddaughter. Truth to say, I’m capable of tears myself sometimes, and like him, my hard exterior hides a soft-hearted soul inside.

So as much as I wanted to distance myself from John, my Republican brother, ultimately it has become clear to me that there really was not much distance at all. He has been another side of myself, for good or for ill, and inside we were made much the same.

I suppose that is the remarkable thing about family relationships. We don’t ask for them; we can’t choose them. They are simply there, a part of our lives and a part of ourselves. And we don’t know how much we have treasured them until they are gone.

Iran is Key to Ending ISIS

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Though US Secretary of State John Kerry is working hard in the Middle East to find Muslim countries to partner in the fight against ISIS, the ones he is courting may be counterproductive. The current regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for instance, are loathed by many Muslims, and not just by extremists. Cairo’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the patronage state of the Saud family are not wildly popular. A coalition that includes them would likely be ammunition for the ISIS recruiting efforts among disaffected Muslim youth.

The Iran leadership is also regarded with suspicion by many Sunni Muslim activists, but for a different reason. ISIS recruits are Sunni and Iran is Shi’a. But therein lies the importance of Iran. As the largest and most important Shi’a country in the world it has enormous influence over other Shi’a politicians in the region. And it just so happens that two sets of them are located in the seats of power in Syria and Iraq.

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

ISIS has wooed moderate Sunni supporters to their side 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 23-year old former rapper from West London who was lured to the region as a soldier of fortune in a grand imagined war.

The pragmatists in the ISIS ranks 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 have been 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). More recently in a fit of megalomania it has called itself the Islamic State, as if there could be only one, but it does give a role to the local Sunni leaders. Once again a sense of alienation and disaffection has driven the Sunnis into the extremists hands.

Could these moderate Sunnis, the pragmatists in Graeme Wood’s words, 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.

Iran has recently shown 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. Shortly after the ISIS incursion and the fall of Mosul, Baghdad received an important visitor in the person of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds force and the most powerful military strategist in the country.

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 has 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 he has already 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, Iran holds the key.