Martyrdom of Saint Alexei

            It might seem sacrilegious to think of Alexei Navalny as a saint, or his likely murder at the hands of Putin to be martyrdom. But hear me out.

            The word “saint” comes from the Latin sanctus, evolving in old French to sacrer, meaning “to make sacred.” The way one became sacred originally was through sacrifice—another word with roots in sanctus—giving up oneself.

            In the new Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, the elegant travertine walls of the modern structure are draped with woven tapestries depicting the saints. There is quite a procession of them. They begin with the saints of the New Testament, Mathew, Mark and Luke, and then Peter, and then a whole line of medieval saints.

            Towards the end are more recent saintly figures, including Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul. But then the very last tapestries portray some surprising figures. There is a young Afro-American guy in jeans and tennis shoes. Nearby is an Asian girl in a comfortable skirt. There are some kids in shorts.

            All of them saints, even the ones that we didn’t expect. They sanctified themselves with their lives.

            In the early history of sainthood, one of the most certain paths to beatification was martyrdom. The term “martyr” come from the Greek martur, which means “witness.” Those who witness to their faith to the extent that they would rather die than renounce it are the prime exemplars of martyrdom.

            This leads us back to Navalny. There is no question that this definition of martyrdom fits his remarkably brave—some would say foolhardy—stance. The very fact that he would persist in returning to Russia, to the land controlled by the same person, presumably, who had shortly before tried to poison him, is amazing. Few of us would risk such a thing.

            Navalny’s hope was that he would be able to follow the path of his hero, Nelson Mandela, who spent decades rotting in the South African prison on Robben Island before the political winds shifted. When Mandela was finally released, he was hailed as a hero and made the first President of the post-apartheid country.

            That was Navalny’s hope. Though he was fully aware of the likelihood that it would not end like that, that it would end the way it did. Sooner or later, Putin would finish the job.

            Yet he persisted in his witness, even to his martyred death. But was he a saint?

            In Christianity, the exemplar of sainthood is Jesus Christ, who according to Christian belief, gave himself to save the world. That is, his martyrdom was not a selfish act, to valorize himself, but in some way to ennoble everyone.

            It is a singularly odd way to live, this stance of trying to live a life where the virtuousness of the cause rises above one’s personal interests, even one’s own personal security. Martin Luther King Jr. had it. Gandhi had it. And so did Navalny.

            In Saints and Virtues, a book on the comparative study of sainthood that came out of a ten-year Berkeley-Harvard project on Comparative Religion, for which I was co-director, we considered the hallmarks of sainthood. In all traditions where saints abounded, including Sufi Islam and Bhakti Hinduism as well as Christianity, there was something peculiar about those people that we consider saints.

            They were “sublimely wacky,” we concluded. We meant that in a nice way, to describe people who lived unconventional lives for the sake of their understanding of truth. We are not really meant to be like them—they are not exemplars—since they are so unusual. And those around them who for most people are the ones you want to protect, are often abandoned.

            Gandhi was a horrible father, and not a very good husband. ML King had imperfections of his own. And Navalny has left his teenage son and his college-aged daughter on their own, along with their mother, whom he also abandoned in his imprisonment and now in his death. Yet she had taken up his mantle of leadership.

            We cannot all be saints. But thank God there are such beings on the face of the earth. We are all better for having lived in a world touched by them, by those like Saint Alexei.

Ayodhya and the Rise of the Hindu Right

The blotches of red are flower petals scattered from an Indian Air Force helicopter during Prime Minister Modi’s consecration of the new temple.

Since I was in India shortly after an angry mob descended on an ancient mosque in 1992 in the town of Ayodhya, I thought I should go there and see it for myself. The old relic had been turned into rubble by club-wielding Hindus who believed the site to be the birthplace of the God Ram. So I didn’t expect much, but I thought it would be interesting to get a sense of the setting in which this drama had played out.

I went to the nearby major city, Lucknow, and rented a car with a driver, setting out for Ayodhya. It was a punishing trip. In the summer’s heat my only hope was air conditioning, and I was careful to pay extra for that convenience. As soon as we started out, however, the AC failed. It was too late to turn back. My choice then was one of two insufferable options.

One was to keep the window up, but it soon became much too hot and stuffy. So I would roll down the window to get some air. But then I was blasted with the hot dusty wind. I quickly rolled the window back up, and sat in the stultifying heat until I could take no more. I had to roll the window back down again. But then I immediately had to roll it back up.

It went on like that for what seemed an eternity. Eventually we arrived at Ayodhya. I was delighted just to know that the journey was over.

It was a sleepy little district town, I recall. No decent hotels and only a few restaurants. There were numerous temples, since Ayodhya for centuries had been a pilgrimage center associated with the location of Ram and the great epic, the Ramayana.

There was not much to see at the site of the former Babri Musjid, the old mosque that was stormed by Hindu mob with axes and clubs, battering the ancient walls into rubble. The police had cordoned off the whole area with a kind of no-man’s land around the location. Like me, other curious onlookers were there just to peer at the location.

It was not long before I told the driver to start the trek back to Lucknow. Heat be damned. But at least I had seen the site.

At the time the Ayodhya incident had created a huge public shock. The lawlessness of the mob and the vengeance with which they attacked the humble old mosque was breathtaking. Clearly, many people thought, the government would do something about it.

After all, the ruling Congress Party was dedicated to secularism. It was a term that in the Indian context meant equal treatment of all religious affiliations. The support of India’s fifteen percent Muslim population had been a major factor in the Congress Party’s continuing victories.

The assumption of many at the time was that the miscreants would be found and brought to justice and the old mosque restored. Or failing that, a new mosque would be built on the site.

Neither of these happened, in part for political reasons. The Babri mosque had become something of a cause célèbre on India’s political right. Hindu politics were gaining steam at the time. Support for replacing the Ayodhya mosque with a temple dedicated to Ram was a major plank in the platform of a new political party with religious leanings.

Hindu nationalism had been a feature of Indian politics since the early twentieth century. For over a hundred years it had been in the dark shadows of the secular politics of the Congress nationalist movement that emerged, after Independence, as India’s ruling party. The Congress was the party of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and it seemed like it would reign forever.

In the right wing shadows, however, the politics of Hindu nationalism maintained a looming presence. As early as 1909, Vinayak Damodar Savakar, regarded as the father of Hindu nationalism, engaged in debate with Gandhi in London over the efficacy of violence as a strategy in India’s independence movement.

In 1925 the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS) was founded as an organization to train young people and spread Hindu culture with the aim of making India a Hindu state. A member of the RSS was implicated in the assassination of Gandhi, and it has been a force in development of post-Independence Hindu parties such as the Jan Sangh. Hindu nationalism had  been a minority movement, however, marginalized by the democratic modernism of the ruling Congress Party.

Ayodhya in 1992 began to change that. The attack on the mosque and the subsequent demand for a new temple to honor Ram was heavily promoted by the new Hindu nationalist party that succeeded the Jan Sangh and was supported by the RSS. It was named the Bharatiya Janata Party, “Indian People’s Party” or simply “the BJP.” It garnered few seats before the 1992 attack, but in 1996 gained the largest number of parliament seats of any other party, though not enough to form a stable government.

By 1998, however, a BJP-led coalition came to power and its leader at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and old Jan Sangh figure, became Prime Minister. In 2004 the Congress Party returned to power. The Congress Party at the time was led by Sonya Gandhi, daughter in law of Indira Gandhi, who declined to accept the post of Prime Minister in favor of a skilled economist, a Sikh, Manmohan Singh.

In 2014 the BJP came roaring back into power with the former Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, as its Prime Minister. Indian national elections are held every five years, and in 2019 Modi and the BJP were resoundingly reelected. They continue to be in office.

Political observers have been trying to explain the remarkable and sudden growth of the BJP in the last decades. There are a number of factors that are distinctive to India related to its urban growth and efforts at economic development.

But the fact cannot be ignored that the rise of an authoritarian religious nationalism in India takes place at the same time when around the world there are new popularist authoritarian movements—many of them buttressed by religious xenophobia. It is an era of Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Trump in the United States, and Bolsonaro for a time in Brazil.

There is something emerging globally, a mounting distrust in the legitimacy of the secular nation-state, that has afflicted India as well. Like the MAGA Republicans in America, BJP-supporting Indians have embraced their leader with a religious zeal. In both cases, they have attributed to their political hero an almost divine power and an apocalyptic vision of their political reign.

Modi, like Putin and Trump, is not shy about hiding these religious ties.  He has proclaimed Hindu culture to be the dominant culture of the subcontinent, one that should be celebrated. Textbooks in public schools have been rewritten to minimalize the presence of the Moghul Empires and the influence of Muslim culture. Cities with Muslim names, like Allahabad, have been replaced with names that are either neutral or Hindu.

Modi arrived in Ayodhya in priestly garb on January 22, 2024 for the inauguration event of a new temple that had been built on the site of the destroyed mosque. He had endured eleven days of purification rituals to prepare him for taking on the sacral role of consecrating the granite stone image of Ram on the temple’s altar.

The Ayodhya that Modi came to was a vastly different city than the sleepy town I visited some thirty years earlier. The construction of the new temple attracted a number of gleaming new hotels and restaurants, and an impressive new airport was constructed to cater to the new crowds. Visitors would no longer have to endure hours of dusty travel in the summer without air conditioning.

The construction of the new temple had been allowed after an Indian Supreme Court decision in 2019 that settled the issue of what would be done with the site. In an unusual and controversial decision, the Court admitted that the mob’s destruction of the ancient mosque was indeed “an egregious violation” of the law. But nonetheless, it granted control over the site to a trust to be set up by the Government of India in order to have a Hindu temple built on the 2.77 acre location. It simultaneously allocated 5 acres in another “prominent location” to be given to the official Muslim charity foundation of Uttar Pradesh to have a new mosque built there.

By the time that Modi showed up to inaugurate the temple, the rupee equivalent of over 200 million dollars had been raised from non-government donations to create the mammoth artifice. Millions more were allocated from government funds for infrastructure requirements of roads, utilities, and the like.

The building is scheduled to be completed within a year or so, perhaps by early 2025. The incomplete condition of the new construction, however, did not deter Modi from inaugurating it early. It is, after all, right  before the national elections slated later in the Spring. Ignoring the unfinished details, he declared it functionally finished, consecrating the image of Ram that officially made it a sacred temple.

The crowds roared. It was estimated that over 300,000 people had crowded into Ayodhya from all over the country for the grand occasion. At the moment of the consecration, helicopters and airplanes from the Indian Air Force flew low overhead scattering thousands of flower petals on the joyful throng.

The Indian press, much of which was already in the BJP camp, were rapturous over the occasion. India Today, once a respected newsmagazine of India, proclaimed that the installation of the Ram image in the temple was “not just a religious ceremony.” They averred that it was “much more,” stating boldly that “the world is seeing in it the civilizational awakening, the rise of a nation that is finally shaken off the colonial shackles.”

A group of Indian human rights organizations, however, have taken a different position. They issued a statement saying that Modi’s consecration of the temple “set a dangerous precedent.” They accused the Prime Minister of a blatant political stunt in advance of the elections. Moreover, they said that it was a dark indication of “a disregard for the right to exist for religious minorities,” and the further erosion of secularism in public life.

In India, the temple has been consecrated, a monument not just to Lord Ram but also to a Hindu political regime. It signifies, as elsewhere in the world, a religious nationalism on the rise. The garish temple is also regarded for many observers to be a bad omen for democratic nationalism, and a dismal perversion of religion.

 

 

Three Questions About Hamas

 

We think we know all about Hamas. Our understanding of the movement is is shaped largely by the horrific images of sadistic terrorists ravaging a peaceful rock concert and settlements in Southern Israel when they breached the border and conducted a savage rampage on October 7. Since then this view of Hamas as unspeakable evil has been enhanced by the public pronouncements of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli press.

My own perception is somewhat more nuanced, based on my interviews with Hamas leaders, including the founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, some years ago when I was in Gaza. My information has been buttressed by more recent communications with Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.

What I know about Hamas complicates our picture of it, and raises several basic questions.

  1. Is Hamas is a united organization?

When I talked with leaders of Hamas some years ago I was struck by how disorganized the movement appeared to be, and how fluid were many of the loyalties. I was scheduled to meet with one high-ranking leader of Hamas, but by the time I met with him he had already jumped ship and become a supporter of its rival, the Palestinian Authority. Other leaders acknowledged that there was internal dissention and controversy, especially over some of the Hamas tactics at the time, including the use of suicide bombers.

Though the October 7 attack was extremely well planned, likely years in the making, and involved a complicated organizational support structure, it is also likely that many Hamas officials and supporters were unaware of what was going on. It is well known that Israeli intelligence has spies within the Hamas organization, though in this case they were not well enough placed to know about the secret plans of October 7. Hamas as a political organization includes hundreds of government employees who were probably not only unaware of the attack plans but also likely to have been opposed to them, knowing the reign of terror that this would unleash from Israel’s military defenses.

At the other extreme of the political spectrum were rogue groups of militants who thought that Hamas was too moderate, including members of the Islamic Jihad movement. Many of these non-Hamas militants seized on the opportunity of October 7 to join the attack and carry out their vicious wrath on Israelis unabated. Some of them were little more than sociopaths and street thugs, with no official links to Hamas. The planned attacks of Hamas were savage enough. But these fringe elements likely made a horrible situation even worse. Alas some of these rogue elements also took hostages, making the negotiations with Hamas for their release even more difficult.

If one could roll back to the calendar to the days immediately after October 7, these divisions within Hamas could have been exploited by Israel. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario where Israel could have worked with disaffected Hamas leaders to create an alternative Hamas council to run the Gaza territory. Stoking an internal battle within Hamas might have been as effective in countering the militant Hamas leadership as military engagement, though it would have been a difficult maneuver to achieve. It also would not have had the effect of providing a sense of retaliation to a traumatized public yearning for strong action in response to the October 7 massacre. Still, the military invasion could have been conducted in such a way as to protect and curry favor with the opposition within Hamas’ own ranks.

  1. Do all Palestinians in Gaza support Hamas?

            This brings up another question, regarding the degree of popular support Hamas had among the wider population in Gaza. Though the Israeli military operation treated all of Gaza residents as terrorist supporters, it seems unlikely that was the case.

In my recent conversations with people from Gaza, they claimed that a sizable percentage, perhaps the majority, despised the Hamas organization. It’s difficult to know the exact number, not only because of Hamas intimidation but also because there have been no elections in twelve years. It is true that the movement came to political power in Gaza through free elections in 2006, but it’s likely that this was due to disaffection with the ruling Palestinian Authority at the time as much as it was to an attraction for Hamas.

After years of Hamas’ mismanagement, authoritarian control and economic stagnation, many if not most of the Gaza population has been yearning for an alternative. Though Hamas did not allow opinion polls within Gaza, on the Palestinian West Bank the support for Hamas prior to October 7 was only 12%, though after the Israeli military invasion in Gaza the percentage has raised dramatically.

The prior disaffection with Hamas could have been a useful tool for Israel in its attempts to crush the militant leadership after the October 7 massacre. In my recent book on how religious terrorist movements end, When God Stops Fighting, I report on the inside perspective of three movements, including ISIS, that have been terminated. In each case, old militants in the movements told me that what destroyed the movements was the break-down of support from the general populations they tried to control.

In the Gaza situation, this disaffection could have been harnessed by Israel. It is likely that ordinary citizens of the region were disgusted with the savagery of the October 7 massacre and would have turned against those leaders of Hamas involved in it. Israel might have been able to collaborate with them to help to locate the Hamas bases and fighters. The Awakening movement engineered by US General David Petraeus in Iraq was able to do just that in turning local Sunni Arab leaders against a precursor to ISIS, al Qaeda in Iraq, and essentially defeating its power in the Anbar region of the country.

Though almost all Palestinians despise the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory they would not all have endorsed the cruelty of October 7, and many would likely have turned against the movement, especially if offered the promise of a long-range solution to Palestinian autonomy in the future.

Instead, the massive destruction of Gaza buildings in the weeks since October 7 and the tragic loss of life—overwhelmingly women and children–has likely turned even moderate Hamas-hating Gaza residents into bitter enemies of Israel and grudging supporters of Hamas.

  1. Do all Hamas supporters want to completely destroy Israel?

            One of the most common truths repeated about Hamas supporters is that they are dedicated to the total destruction of Israel and all Israelis. Certainly some are. Moreover the goal of Israel’s eradication is in the Hamas charter, which has never been repealed.

But when I talked with Dr Abdul Aziz Rantisi, one of the founders of Hamas and its political head, he repeatedly told me that he had nothing against Jews as a people or Judaism as a religion. He said that if the situation was reversed, and Palestinians were in charge of the whole Israel-Palestinian region, Jews would be welcome to stay and claim the territory as their homeland as long as they did not control it. Moreover, Rantisi talked about collaboration with Israel in a way that implied a tacit acceptance of the existence of the state of Israel.

Former President Jimmy Carter reported the same thing. He was told by Hamas leaders that they could live with the state of Israel limited to the 1967 borders if they allowed Palestinians to have their own independent state.

But as I said, the charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel, and this clause has never been revoked. Doing so would likely have set off a firestorm of controversy within the Hamas movement, where many members do indeed yearn for the total destruction of Israel. The leadership of the movement would like to avoid that kind of internal turmoil. Hence some have quietly interpreted the strident language of the charter in a way that is more realistic and opportunistic.

When Hamas organized as a political party twelve years ago and ran candidates for offices in Gaza and the West Bank, many members of the movement opposed this move. They thought that recognition of the political structures of Gaza and the West Bank was tacit acceptance of the state of Israel and its limitation of Palestinian control. Nonetheless, the decision at the time was to work within the existing political framework.

The October 7 attack clearly showed, however, that the militant wing of the Hamas movement would not accept the status quo and wanted to literally blow up the walls that kept it imprisoned. Some of them wanted to kill and maim and torture as many Israelis as they could find. Whether the rest of the Hamas movement and the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza supported this tactic is questionable.

Whether these dissenters could have been marshalled in opposition to Hamas and as a base of a more moderate leadership in the territory is unknown.

The reality at present is far different, however. The Israeli military blitzkrieg has created a population more bitterly opposed to the oppression from Israeli than from Hamas. And the future is far from certain.

 

 

 

I’m back

 

I’m back on my website after more than a month’s hiatus. It’s nothing that I did– I was shocked to see the words “suspended” where my site ordinarily would be, and it’s taken a long process to get it restored.

I won’t bore you with the details –but apparently it had nothing to do with my posts on Hamas (which is what I feared). But rather some malware that infected the site. It’s clean now, you’ll be pleased to know, so no need to wear surgical gloves and a mask when viewing this site.

My thanks to the great guy who originally helped me set up this site, Dustin Anglen, for getting to the bottom of this, even though it interrupted his engagement party in Montana. Thanks also to his friend Alex Marshall who also had a hand in creating the site, and to  Peter Giese who set up the predecessor site and tried to help track down the problem as well. Thanks to these guys I’m back up and running with all the boring content that you’re used to seeing.

There will be more to come! Aloha-

 

Defeating Hamas

If Israel wants to defeat Hamas, they’re going at it the wrong way. This is the conclusion made by my colleague from the University of Chicago, Robert Pape, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, with which I largely agree. My agreement with Pape is based on years of following the rise and fall of terrorist movements around the world.

Pape’s point is that a terrorist group should be separated and isolated from the general population in order to be targeted for defeat. Any strategy that includes attacks against the general population—including especially killing them and destroying their homes—simply creates more terrorism in response.

Pape gave several examples from recent history in the Middle East to make his point, including the rise of Hizbollah and Hamas. They emerged as direct responses from a broad Israeli attack on civilian populations that created anger and support for the new extremist movements.

The same happened in Iraq after the US invasion. But there was one bright moment in the counterinsurgency there that is worth recalling, since that offers a strategy that could be employed in the current situation with Hamas in Gaza.

In the early 2000s, the US occupation forces in Iraq were confronted with a new terrorist organization, al Qaeda in Iraq. Led by a Jordan militant, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, this vicious movement utilized the most brutal of terrorist attacks, including beheading foreigners, to trying to drive away the occupying forces.

Initially the US-led military occupation attacked the resisters to the occupation in the conventional way. In 2004, for example, it launched a wholesale assault on the city of Fallujah, virtually destroying it. In response, however, Al Qaeda in Iraq just grew stronger. Even after locating the leader, Zarqawi, and killing him, the resistance movement expanded.

In 2007, under the leadership of General David Petraeus, the US adopted a new strategy. His idea was for the US military to largely withdraw from the Sunni areas of Western Iraq that were the heart of the resistance. Instead, he empowered the local Sunni leaders there to fight against the al Qaeda in Iraq movement, since it was undercutting their own leadership and creating havoc in the Sunni towns and villages. They hated Zarqawi’s movement, and given the chance and the military support, were eager to fight it.

This strategy, known as “the Awakening,” was largely successful. The movement was virtually destroyed and the region was relatively quiet for several years. After the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, however, the Shi’i led government in Baghdad abandoned the strategy and the Sunni leaders felt alienated. A new radical movement emerged led by some of the former activists associated with al Qaeda in Iraq. This new movement eventually changed its name to the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq—ISIS—that became an even greater force with which the region had to reckon.

This sequence of events indicates that the strategy of arming and supporting a local resistance to a terrorist movement has to be coupled with a long-term strategy of support for the local population. The local leaders have to be empowered to continue to resist extremist movements in the future.

Could this strategy work with Hamas? The situations are not entirely comparable; Gaza, for instance, is a concentrated mass of urban humanity. Still the majority of residents of Gaza before the October 7 attacks appeared to be hostile to Hamas, or at least noncommittal. There was, and is, the possibility of a Gaza-based insurrection against Hamas that could be supported and that might be far more effective in countering the militants.

The first step in this potential collaboration between anti-Hamas Gaza residents and Israeli forces is to stop targeting them as if they were the enemy. That might open the door to a productive engagement to defeat the militant forces, and it might be a step towards a more enduring peace.

 

 

 

 

Hymns for a Root Canal

I was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room waiting for a root canal. Then my ears perked up–I began to hear a familiar sound. It was a homey refrain from the solo guitar that was piped in as muzak in the waiting room to comfort us nervous root-canalers as we waited to be called to slaughter. Something about that tune struck a cultural memory as deep as the cavity my dentist was about to excavate.

Was it possible? I asked myself. I listened more intently to the soothing sounds. Yes, it certainly was; it was “Amazing Grace.”

It could have been a fluke, I thought. But then it was followed by another solo guitar riff, which I instantly recognized as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

I asked the woman at the counter whether they had deliberately chosen hymn music for the waiting room. She looked puzzled.

“Hymn music?” she asked. She had no idea what that was. They simply turned to a station that provided soothing music 24/7.

The music soon turned to something else, something non-hymn. It was clear that it not an explicitly Christian music station, of which there are a billion, but simply one that specialized in playing some nice comforting tunes.

There may have been more hymns on the play list but I didn’t have time to listen for them.  I was soon called in for my appointed destiny.

After the first shot of novocaine, when I was sitting in what I imagined had once been an electric chair, I tried to divert my attention away from whatever horrible things the dentist was preparing to do. I thought of all the other ways that religious music, hymnody in particular, has insinuated itself into what we regard as secular popular culture.

At Christmas time, of course, “Silent Night” sits comfortably beside “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and no one gives it a second thought. It’s all seasonal music.

The funeral tune for sailors, and increasingly all military and even elected officials is “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” When I hear it my mind goes back to the sad procession for Jack Kennedy after his awful assassination. I briefly entertained the notion that if I never recover from this dental assault, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” would be at my final service.

Just as Christian religious images and phrases have invaded the civil religion of America’s political life, the hymnody also has a role in our culture. It has firmly located itself in what might be called the cultural religion of everyday life.

I almost said that hymnody had invaded our secular culture, but I wondered about that term. The ubiquitous presence of hymns, along with the images of crusaders, charismatic leaders, covenantal communities and many other cultural features with biblical resonance gives witness to the role of religion in a culture that thinks it is secular. Our biggest holidays are religious ones, even Halloween and Mardi Gras. We can’t escape religion.

I don’t know whether that is good or bad. But it simply is.

We are often struck at the religiosity of other cultures, the somber piety of Muslim culture and the vibrant imagery of Hindu culture, for example. But it turns out that we have, whether we notice it or not, plenty of our own.

Eventually the dental attack, and my mental musings, came to an end. I was back in the waiting room scheduling the next appointment and listening for the solo guitar to play one more hymn. But the guitarist had moved on to other things, an Irish sea chanty, I recall.

Now my teeth are fine. The novocaine has worn off. But I’m still humming “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” And I listen for hymns in the musical background of every elevator and grocery store. I’m sure I’ll hear some more of them in our allegedly secular culture.

 

 

 

 

What Hamas Wants

Some years ago I interviewed leaders of the Hamas movement in Gaza, including the founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and the chief operating manager of the organizations, Dr Abdel Aziz Rantisi. While Sheikh Yassin mostly spouted religious rhetoric and said little about the organization, Dr Rantisi was quite forthcoming. I have quoted him in my book, Terror in the Mind of God, and now have gone back to my notes from that interview to give a fuller account of it in an attempt to more fully understand the perspective of Hamas on the use of violence, the possibilities of living alongside Jews, and its prospects for the future.

We met in Dr Rantisi’s comfortable house in Khan Yunis, not far from the compound where Sheikh Yassin lived and taught. I had some trouble finding the location since my Gaza taxi driver spoke little English and I could not converse in Arabic, but we picked up some students at the Islamic University in Gaza who were Hamas supporters and were eager to join me and facilitate my meeting.

Rantisi was wearing a three-piece suit and greeted me at the door, and looked very much like the middle-class medical practitioner and professor that in fact he was. He greeted me with passable English, and invited me inside where he had prepared tea and biscuits.

We talked a bit about his background. His family home had been somewhere between what is now the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Tel Aviv, and was now obliterated. His grandfather, an uncle, and three cousins had died in their struggles with the Israeli occupation, though he didn’t say how.

But he did not hate Jews, Dr Rantisis was quick to reassure me. He only despised Zionism and the occupation of Palestinian land. He reminded me that Jews and Christians are “people of the book” in Islamic reckoning, and they could live amicably side by side.

“Even in Israel?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said, “as long as you didn’t call it Israel.” He said he could envision a single state solution where people could have common citizenship regardless of their religious affiliation.

I was a bit surprised by this since Hamas was organized around the idea of the political unity of Islam. When I had earlier met with Sheikh Yassin he said that Palestine would not be fully free until it was a Muslim Palestine.

“Yes,” Dr Rantisi said, as if there was no contradiction in the two positions. “But we are hospitable people,” he explained, “and we would welcome Jews and Christians to live in Palestine, just as they have before.”

Rantisi went to Egypt for medical studies, and when he was there he admired the Muslim Brotherhood movement. When he returned he was determined that a similar movement would give life to the floundering efforts at Palestinian liberation. It was then, in the late 1980s, that he met with Sheikh Yassin and others to form a union of activist Muslim groups in Palestine roughly patterned around the Muslim Brotherhood. It brought together a coalition under the common name, Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, better known by its acronym, Hamas.

Sheikh Yassin become the titular head of the movement even though he was severely disabled by a progressive neurological condition. Still he held daily discourses in his compound in Khan Yunis, as I observed. He was brought in via a wheelchair and propped up on a carpeted dais where he delivered homilies based on the Qur’an. When I was there he used me as the foil for his sermons. He would invite me to ask a question, and when I asked something that I thought was straightforword, such as how Hamas was founded, he would launch into a Qur’an based discourse that had little to do with my question.

Dr Rantisi, on the other hand, was more forthcoming. He was recognized as the true strategist and political leader of the movement, and was widely respected and careful in his plans.

For that reason, I told him, I was surprised that he would authorize the method of suicide bombings. At the time I met with him they were the most dramatic and visible signs of Hamas’ war on Israel.

He did not authorize them, he told me. His answer was certainly meant to avoid any legal responsibility for the acts, but it was also theologically correct, as he explained to me. Suicide is prohibited in Islam. But martyrdom is not. Quite the opposite, martyrdom is praised within the Islamic tradition. But you cannot be commanded to be a martyr. The act has to be chosen freely, as one’s own way of standing up to a perceived oppression.

“We did not allow such martyrdom before, when we thought that the Israelis were serious about negotiating a solution that would provide for Palestinian statehood,” he said. “But now that they have closed the door on that,” he averred, “we have decided to allow it again.”

I said I thought that the Qur’an prohibited the killing of innocent people. Dr Rantisi agreed that it did, but he said that it also allowed—indeed required—that there should be a response to such killing against Muslims, and that the response be in kind. Otherwise, he said, you would just allow the killing to go on.

He gave the example of Dr Goldstein, a Jewish settler in Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron. He attacked a group of innocent Muslim worshipers in a mosque at the cave of the Patriarchs, sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians as the resting place of Abraham, Sarah, and other early figures in biblical history. “We have a duty,” Dr Rantisi said, “to respond in kind.”

I challenged him about these acts of what we call suicide bombings and he called self-martyrdom. I pointed out that the Israeli military was one of the most fortified armies in the Middle East and that these sporadic violent acts were certainly painful to Israel, they would never tip the military equation. You cannot win your war with Israel this way, I said.

He looked at me as if speaking to small child and said, “perhaps not in my life time, or even in my children’s lifetime, nor my children’s children’s lifetime. But in my children’s children’s children’s lifetime we might succeed. This is not our struggle, he said, “this is God’s war, and we cannot lose.”

Then he added a telling afterthought. “Besides,” he said, “Israel must be reminded that we are in fact at war.”

It was a war that he experienced daily, he told me. And it was frustrating that Israelis could go about their daily lives nonchalantly, as if there was nothing amiss. A bomb in a market place, he implied, would wake them up to the reality of war that was always in his consciousness.

Did he feel any remorse in allowing young people in the fullness of their youths to undertake these suicide missions and die in such a violent way?

No, he said, since there was something worse than death, and that was to live in constant humiliation. He said that Israel is fighting for land, but Hamas was fighting for pride; he used the Arabic term izzat, which means honor as well as pride. “You can’t understand the humiliation and frustration of the occupation, he said to me, adding that “the occupation is the worst kind of slavery.”

He asked if I had been to a Palestinian refugee camp. I had, I said, including Jabalia camp in Gaza. “It is even worse in Lebanon,” he said. “If you go there you will know what hell is like.”

I asked him about Fateh and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Rantisi said that he hoped that they would unite in the future, but he seemed skeptical since he thought Arafat and the Fateh leadership were too eager to compromise with the Israelis, and abandoned their principles. Palestine should not relinquish more land, he said.

What would a future solution look like, I asked him. “When Palestine is free,” he said. I took that to mean when the whole of the Israel-Palestine region was no longer controlled by Israel.

And what about the millions of Jews in Israel, I asked, must they leave or be destroyed? Rantisi seemed surprised at the question. “No,” he said, “they would be welcome to stay. When we are in power we will not treat them the way that they have treated us. But we must all be free.”

.

Why Hamas Persists

A conversation that I had some years ago in Gaza with one of the leaders of Hamas may help to explain why Hamas persists in what may seem to be quixotic and suicidal attacks on Israel.

By any objective standard these are battles that Hamas cannot win. The likelihood is that the hundreds of jubilant young Arab men who recently poured through a breach in the barrier separating Gaza from Israel and occupied Israeli towns, terrorizing and sometimes killing civilians,  will themselves be killed or captured.

Why do they persist in doing it?

I posed this question to Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, who at that time was the political head of Hamas.  The issue then was suicide bombings. Hamas and other extreme Palestinian Muslim groups had conducted them against Israeli targets, including marketplaces and ordinary buses.

“Israel has one of the largest armies in the Middle East,” I told him. “These bombings will not do anything to weaken their strength, and this is a war that you cannot win.”

He looked at me as if he was speaking to a naïve young child, and said “yes, maybe in my lifetime you are right. And maybe in my children’s lifetime. And even my children’s children’s lifetimes. But maybe in my children’s children’s children’s lifetimes we might prevail. We cannot lose. This is not our war, this is God’s war.”

I did not know how to respond to this  divine timeline of conflict. So I said nothing. But then he added,  “besides,” he said, “we need to show them that we’re still at war.”

That last sentence was telling. Sometimes, like many other acts throughout the world that we regard as terrorism, the display of war is in fact the point. As one of those who planned the 1993 attack on the world trade center told me, “you people need to be shaken awake to see the truth—the world is at war.”

Following the dramatic incursion of Hamas militants into Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaimed that Israel was “at war.” I suspect many activists associated with Hamas were nodding their heads. “Finally,” they may have said, “you’ve gotten the point.”

From their point of view, the war to reclaim Palestinian rights from Israel has been going on for decades. What may have appeared to be a peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians was hiding a deep and desperate conflict. Their recent attack on Israel brought it to light, and now all Israelis and all the world can see the war that they have been experiencing for some time.

It is, however, a tragic display of momentary power. It is not just the combatants on both sides who will be killed and injured, but the many innocent civilians in Israeli towns and in Gaza schools and apartments who are caught in the crossfire between Hamas attacks and the government’s militant response.

It will not end well. Netanyahu has pledged to destroy Hamas. This might mean leveling portions of Gaza and its inhabitants to oblivion.

But if both he and Hamas are right, and this is war, than it cries out for what is often the resolution of wars. It calls for explorations of solutions to the underlying conflict that will lead not just to a temporary stalemate but to an enduring peace.

 

 

Meeting Dianne Feinstein

Maybe everyone has a  Dianne Feinstein story but here’s mine.

After 9/11 when I was doing a lot of TV interviews about global terrorism, I was in the makeup room of the Washington DC studios of CNN preparing for an interview with Anderson Cooper. I happened to notice Dianne Feinstein sitting in the makeup chair next to me, and I introduced myself as a California constituent and an admirer.

Then I said to her “I guess you have to go through this makeup procedure every time.

“Yes,” she said, “it makes me look young and attractive.”

“Well then,” I said, “that’s a good reason for me to do it too.”

She looked over it me and smiled and said, “Dear boy, in your case it’s hardly necessary.”

Ah Dianne, I’d like to think you’re still correct. What a kind and decent lady, and an attractive one at that!

Canada and Khalistan

[An interview with the news website, The Conversation, regarding what Khalistan is, and why it has featured in Canadian politics, following the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions between Canada and India as part of an escalating row over the killing of a Sikh separatist leader on Canadian soil.]

The expulsions follow claims by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that there are “credible allegations” linking the Indian government of Narendra Modi with the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Nijjar — a prominent member of the Khalistan movement seeking to create an independent Sikh homeland in the Indian state of Punjab — who was shot dead on June 18 outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia._

With tensions between the two countries rising, The Conversation reached out to Mark Juergensmeyer, an expert on religious violence and Sikh nationalism at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to bring context to a diplomatic spat few saw coming._

## 1. What is the Khalistan movement?

“Khalistan” means “the land of the pure,” though in this context the term “khalsa” refers broadly to the religious community of Sikhs, and the term Khalistan implies that they should have their own nation. The likely location for this nation would be in Punjab state in northern India where 18 of the 26 million Sikhs in the world live. Another 8 million live elsewhere in India and abroad, mainly in the UK, the US, and Canada.

The idea for an independent land for Sikhs goes back to pre-partition India, when the concept of a separate land for Muslims in India was being considered.

Some Sikhs at that time thought that if Muslims could have “Pakistan” — the state that emerged through partition in 1947 — then there should also be a “Sikhistan,” or “Khalistan.” That idea was rejected by the Indian government and instead the Sikhs became a part of the state of Punjab. At that time the boundaries of the Punjab were drawn in such a way that the Sikhs were not in the majority.

But Sikhs persisted, in part because one of the central tenets of the faith is “miri-piri,” the idea that religious and political leadership are merged. In their 500 year history, Sikhs have had their own kingdom, have fought against  Moghul rule, and comprised the backbone of the army under India’s colonial and independent rule.

In the 1960s the idea of a separate homeland for Sikhs re-emerged and formed part of the demand for redrawing the boundaries of Punjab state so so that Sikhs would be in the majority. The protests were successful, and the Indian government created Punjabi Suba, a state whose boundaries included speakers of the Punjabi language used by most Sikhs. They now comprise 58% of the population of the revised Punjab.

The notion of a Khalistan separate from India resurfaced in a dramatic way in the large-scale militant uprising that erupted in the Punjab in the 1980s. Many of those Sikhs who joined the militant movement did so because they wanted an independent Sikh nation, not just a Sikh-majority Indian state.

## 2. Why is the Indian government especially concerned about it now?

The Sikh uprising in the 1980s was a violent encounter between the Indian armed police and militant young Sikhs, many of whom still harbored a yearning for a separate state in Punjab, a Khalistan.

Thousands of lives were lost on both sides in violent encounters between the Sikh militants and security forces. The conflict came to a head in 1984 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Operation Blue Star to liberate the Sikh’s Golden Temple in the pilgrimage center of Amritsar in order to capture or kill the figurehead of the Khalistan movement, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He was killed in the attack on the Golden Temple, though Sikhs around the world were incensed that their sacred place was violated by police action. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in retaliation by Sikh members of her own bodyguards.

In recent years, several firebrand Sikh activists in India have reasserted the idea of Khalistan, and the Indian government fears a return of the violence and militancy of the 1980s. The government of Narendra Modi wants to nip the movement in the bud before it gets too large and extreme.

## What is the connection between the Khalistan movement and Canada?

After the Sikh uprising was crushed in the early 1990s, many Sikh activists fled India and came to Canada, where they were welcomed by a large Sikh community — many of whom had been sympathetic to the Khalistan idea. A sizable expatriot community of Sikhs has been growing in the country since the early 20th century, especially in British Columbia and Ontario.

Sikhs have been attracted to Canada not only because of its economic opportunities but also because of the freedom to develop their own ideas of Sikh community. Though support for Khalistan is illegal in India, in Canada Sikh activists are able to speak freely and organize for the cause.

Though Khalistan would be in India, the Canadian movement in favor of it helps to cement the diaspora Sikh identity, and give the Canadian activists a sense of connection to the Indian homeland.

## 3. Has the Canadian government been sympathetic to the Khalistan movement?

The diaspora community of Sikhs constitute 2.1% of Canada’s population — a higher percentage of the total population than in India. They comprise a significant voting block in the country and carry political clout. In fact, there are more Sikhs in Canada’s cabinet than in India’s.

Although Prime Minister Trudeau has assured the Indian government that any acts of violence will be punished, he also has reassured Canadians that he respects free speech and the rights of Sikhs to speak and organize freely as long as they do not violate Canadian laws.

## 4. What is the broader context of Canada-India relations?

The Bharata Janata Party (BJP) of India’s Prime Minister Modi tends to support Hindu nationalism, as indicated by Modi’s recent use of the term “Bharat” rather than “India” as his place name at the G20 conference. Bharat is the region cited in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, and many non-Hindu minority communities in India, including Sikhs and Muslims, have taken Modi’s use of it as another example of the BJP privileging Hinduism and disrespecting their traditions.

Considering the high percentage of Sikhs in Canada’s population, Prime Minister Trudeau understandably wants to assert the rights of Sikhs and show disapproval of the drift towards Hindu nationalism in India.

And this isn’t the only time that Trudeau and Modi have clashed over the issue. In 2018 Trudeau was condemned in India for his friendship with Jaspal Singh Atwal, a Khalistani supporter in Canada who was convicted of attempting to assassinate the Chief Minister of Punjab.

Yet both countries have reasons to try and move on from the current diplomatic contretemps. India and Canada have close trading ties and common strategic concerns with relationship to China. It is likely that in time both sides will find ways to cool down the tensions from this difficult incident.

 

Mark Juergensmeyer