All posts by Juergensmeyer

Twenty Years After Iraq

You’d think that 20 years after the military invasion that was supposed to bring freedom and prosperity to the country Iraq would be doing great. Alas, that’s not the case. Though it’s true that the country has greater press freedom and open elections, corruption is among the worst in the world. Most of the jobs available are with the government and you have to pay for them or have connections with a sectarian or political group. This means that the Sunnis are largely marginalized and the Shi’a parties compete fiercely with each other.

The quest for Sunni empowerment was the major reason for the growth of ISIS, and today the major Sunni cities, Fallujah and Mosul, are still in shambles from the effort to eradicate ISIS. I went to Iraq almost yearly after the invasion and watched the deterioration from fairly well-maintained modern cities and roads to crumbling infrastructure. Anarchy reigned in the weeks after the invasion and the subsequent squabbles among political contenders has not made governance much better.

The marginalization of Sunni Muslims in the Western region led to the rise of ISIS and a whole new war. In the twenty years since Saddam was toppled hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have perished, and thousands of American soldiers and contract militia also perished. The wounds of the wars remain.

So it is not surprising that many old timers think of life under Saddam as the good old days, as brutal as he was. Almost half of the population is too young to remember Saddam. They only remember the chaos of the American occupation and the corrupt sectarian political fights of the present. Alas, the time is ripe for another ISIS.

Some sectors of the society, however, have prospered post-Saddam. In the Kurdish region in the north, cities such as Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and others are thriving. The Kurds were treated badly by Saddam and they praise the US intervention for giving them a de facto independent state. Some Shi’a parties and their allies are also doing fine.

The big winner, of course, is Iran. It is still amazing to me that the geniuses in the White House and Pentagon at the time of the invasion did not see that coming. The toppling of the Sunni Saddam was a huge gift to Iran. After all, democracy means majority rule, and when sixty percent of the country is Shi’a Muslim, it’s their political parties that will dominate. Shi’a party ties are naturally with their Shi’a neighbor, Iran.

Considering all of the negative consequences of the invasion, why did the US get involved? I thought at the time, and still do, that it had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or even control of oil. Rather, remembering an article in the National Review a couple of years before the invasion, there was speculation that Iraq would be a great place for a US air base since Saudi Arabia was becoming increasingly unstable and uncertain regarding the support of the US base there.  The US wanted a military anchor in the Middle East to “stabilize” the region and provide support if needed for Israel. One of the first things the US military did in Iraq was indeed to construct a huge air base in the desert.

Saddam was such a cruel dictator the Bush advisors thought that no one would object if he were removed. Besides, the country was largely a secular regime, well-administered, so they thought it would run well without Saddam. What could possibly go wrong?

If it was true that there was always a long-term military goal you’d think more consideration would have been given to the governance of the occupation. At the time I happened to be teaching a class on global conflict with Barbara Bodine, who was an a year’s leave from her State Department duties that included being ambassador to Yemen during the USS Cole attack. She was initially supposed to be in charge of the reconstruction in Baghdad. She spoke Arabic, knew the region well, and I recall that she was full of great ideas about how to work with local groups, reconstitute the military and administration and gain support from neighboring Islamic countries. She was almost immediately ousted, however, in favor of Paul Bremer, who was junior to her in the State Dept, but who was willing to take orders from Pentagon and Cheney.

As we quickly discovered, the geniuses in the Bush administration hadn’t a clue about how to govern Iraq after Saddam. We have all suffered as a result.


Putin’s Cosmic War

In what has been described as an “unhinged rant,” Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of four regions of Ukraine that were purported to have voted in favor of joining Russia. In this wide-ranging and often incoherent talk, he blamed the West not just for supporting the rights of Ukraine to maintain their independence but also for what he described as a “satanic” view of the world.

This would appear to raise the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine to a whole new level of conflict. It was now not just a fight over territory but over righteousness and civilization itself.

Putin was not the first to cast the war in these religious terms. It was previously portrayed this way by his comrade and co-conspirator in bellicose language, Patriarch Kirill, the titular leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.

On March 5, 2022, at the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Patriarch delivered a sermon on what was Easter in the Russian Orthodox tradition. In it, he portrayed the battle in Ukraine as not just a mundane military encounter, but a conflict of “metaphysical significance,” in which the existential forces of good and darkness were contesting.

Kirill, and now Putin, have raised the stakes in what was initially described as a military operation. It now appears to be something of a holy war.

In my recent book, God at War, I have mused over the concept of war, especially as it has been used by a variety of groups engaged in terrorism that I have studied in the past thirty years. It strikes me that that there are different ways of conceiving war, even different ways of conceiving the relationship between religion and war.

Often priests and other clergy are brought in to bless the troops and to imply that God is on the side of one’s army during a military confrontation. But what many violent activists are asserting is that their war is more than that—it is part of God’s design in a transcendent confrontation of apocalyptic proportions.

This awesome view of war on a metaphysical level is what I have called cosmic war. It is more than just a religious affirmation of one’s military. It is lifting military combat into the high proscenium of spiritual battle.

This is what Patriarch Kirill and now Putin have done with their war in Ukraine. It is their cosmic war.

Such wars never end well. Like the notion of “absolute war” described by the 18th century Prussian General, Carl von Clausewitz, as long as a battle is conceived in cosmic terms there is no possibility for negotiation or easy abnegation of the struggle. There can only be absolute victory or absolute defeat.

Putin’s annexation of portions of Ukraine and his strident talk about fighting the “satanic” power of the West seem to be setting himself up for one or other of those two choices. But cosmic war can seldom be achieved by mortal means. It is one of these fantastic visions that ultimately must bend to reality and be abandoned.

This is what has happened in many of the religion-related violent struggles in recent history. Take ISIS, for instance. When I talked with former ISIS militants, most no longer believed they were engaged in a cosmic struggle. Some, however, told me they still believed in the caliphate and the metaphysical struggle against satanic enemies, but no longer believed that the ISIS organization was worthy of conducting it.

Cosmic war can be abandoned as quickly as it has descended. Or, in some cases, it is possible to retain a notion of cosmic war but detach it from earthly struggles.  This happens only when reality sets in, when it is clear that the cosmic struggle is not going to succeed on an earthly plane and there are other options for survival.

The hope is that Putin will realize that his imagined metaphysical war is a fantasy, or that it need not apply to his territorial ambitions in Ukraine. His cosmic war will end only when he is forced to accede to reality, including his increasingly likelihood of defeat.

Should You Visit Hawai’i?

This was the question raised in a recent television program in CNN’s United Shades of America Series. “Should you visit Hawai’i?” asked the genial host of the program, W. Kamau Bell.

My answer is “yes.” But I would add “with respect for the region’s culture and history.”

Bell raised the question with several Native Hawai’ian activists, whose answer was a resounding “no.” Their concern was that the state was being overwhelmed with outsiders who had little understanding of, or interest in, the history and culture of the islands. Moreover they were raising the living costs to a standard almost unobtainable for the locals.

I have a lot of respect for this position. Today I live half the year in Maui, and some years ago I was the founding dean of the School of Hawai’ian, Asian, and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawai’i. The issue of Hawai’ian sovereignty was a major issue at the Center for Hawai’ian Studies—now a separate School of Hawai’ian Studies—which was part of my school at the time.

But Hawai’ian sovereignty has meant different things to different people. Only some think it’s feasible to return to the kingdom of Queen Liliuokalani that was overthrown by a coup of American businessmen and their militia in 1893. For others reparations are in order, or increased assistance for those who can certify a significant percentage of Native Hawai’ian ancestry.

Moreover, it is difficult to determine who the outsiders are. All ethnic groups in Hawaii intermarry, and none more than Native Hawai’ians and Euro-Americans (White Caucasians).

Historically speaking, all ethnic groups in Hawai’i are outsiders. Originally the islands were uninhabited until Polynesians crossed the ocean on wooden rafts and began to settle in the islands in large numbers about 800 years ago. These constituted the Native Hawai’ian population, which was largely cut off from other Polynesian communities. Still, at a conference hosted when I was at the University of Hawai’i, I was impressed that a New Zealand delegate who spoke Maori could communicate with one of our faculty members who was speaking in Hawai’ian. The languages were similar enough to be intelligible.

After Captain Cook made the first European contact with the islands in 1778, Europeans and Euro-American missionaries and businessmen settled there, some intermarrying with Native Hawai’ians. They also began to exploit the island’s agricultural resources, especially through sugar cane plantations, but they needed cheap labor. That’s when workers from Asia and elsewhere were imported in large numbers.

The Chinese were first, but they soon moved on from the torturous work in the cane fields to shops and other businesses, many buying land themselves. The plantation owners then turned to Japan for laborers but in time they too resisted the cane fields and found other forms of employment, many in business and administrative positions. Portuguese from the Azore islands were brought as workers, and more recently large numbers of Filipinos and some Hispanics. In the 20th century, Euro- and African-Americans came to serve in the military and many stayed, often inter-marrying with other ethnic groups. New arrivals in this century include retired mainland Americans seeking a warm environment and an easy style of living.

Today the sugar plantations are no more, the last cane fields abandoned. They are no longer competitive in the global market. But the ethnic groups that were brought to service them over the decades, along with the arrival of mainland Americans after statehood, have made Hawai’i the most ethnically diverse state in the union.

The largest ethnic group in the islands today is “Asian,” according to the US census figures. But intermarriage makes precise figures difficult. The census figures claim that 37% of the population is “Asian alone” (not intermixed with another ethnic group), but that includes Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Koreans all lumped together. Other figures indicate that Filipinos are the largest Asian group, followed by Japanese and a relatively smaller number of Chinese and Korean.

Euro-American (aka White, Caucasian) constitute 25% “alone,” not intermarried with another group, and native Hawai’ian 10%. But these two communities are the most likely to intermarry, not only with each other, but with Filipino, Japanese, and other ethnic communities. A statement of Kamehameha Schools—which provides education for children of Native Hawai’ian background—claims that of the 400,000 people in the United States who can claim some Native Hawai’ian blood only 8000 are 100% Hawai’ian.

The elected officials of Hawai’i give some hint of the ethnic makeup. Currently the governor is David Ige, of Japanese background. The senators are Maize Hirono (Japanese) and Brian Schatz (Euro-American). The US Representatives are Ed Case (Euro-American) and Kaiali’i Kahele (Native Hawai’ian). The winner of the Democrat Primary election recently, and therefore likely to be the elected governor in November is Josh Green, a Jewish Euro-American who is married to a local woman of partial Hawai’ian ancestry.

Like many Euro-Americans in Hawai’i the likely next governor, Josh Green, was raised on the mainland. Green attended Swarthmore College and then medical school in Pennsylvania. He came to the big island of Hawaii to open up a clinic in the rural area where he identified with Hawai’is diverse population, and married a woman from Kane’ohe, O’ahu. The mother of his wife, Jaimi Ushiroda, was 50% native Hawai’ian.

To become kamaina—a local, in Hawai’ian parlance—you just have to show up and then integrate yourself in the local ethnically diverse population. If you get a Hawai’ian driver’s license you’ve passed the first step to being a local. After that it’s up to you and how you’re accepted.

In my case I’m still not quite local. After all, I keep my California driver’s license and my California connections. But in other ways I’ve become part of the local community. The Episcopal Church I attend in Wailuku is largely Filipino, and was founded in 1865 by King Kamehameha IV. Every Sunday we sing two hymns in Hawai’ian language written by the deposed Queen Liliuokalani, and often a hymn in the Filipino language, Ilokano.

I also purchased a couple of acres of rural land in ‘Iao Valley where I raise papaya, mango, banana, coffee and other crops, and I’m planning on growing the traditional taro (which is called kalo in Hawai’ian). I’ve built a bamboo retreat house on the site in Polynesian style. It has no walls or windows, only screens to keep out the bugs and shutters when the storms come. It’s off-grid and totally self-sustaining.

I’m aware that my property was ancient Hawai’ian farmland, and have had Hawai’ian blessings performed on the site by one of my neighbors of Hawai’ian ancestry who is a kahuna, a native priest. It was his father, a Filipino-Hawai’ian, who sold me the property. It was not passed down through his family, however. Previously the land had been part of a coffee plantation, and he just made a shrewd real estate investment buying up a sizable tract of farmland in the valley.

But we share a respect for native Hawai’ian culture and history. Lately I’ve been talking with Kainoa, his son (the kahuna) about starting in Maui a version of DeTour, which is a tour for tourists created by some faculty members of the University of Hawai’i on O’ahu island. The idea is to bring tourists to sites that illuminate the history of the ethnic groups and the exploitation of workers over the years by plantations, the military and the tourist industry itself.

The idea is to welcome people to the islands, and to enable them to enjoy the beauty and calm of the environment. But also to let them understand the history and culture of what makes this region so vital and remarkable. Tourism is the economic life blood of the islands, and without visitors many of my neighbors who work in the hospitality trade would be out of business.

During the strict lockdown period of the covid pandemic the islands were virtually empty of tourists. I have to admit it was a pleasure for us who lived there to feel like we had the islands to ourselves. At the same time, I watched as many of my neighbors struggled financially without a steady source of income. It was sad to see many small shops and restaurants that I had loved close their shutters forever. If this were to be a permanent condition, without tourism many locals would be forced to leave the islands, as many in the younger generation have done already, to seek viable employment.

So the paradox is that for Hawai’i to stay Hawai’i a certain amount of outsider presence is economically beneficial. It would be good, however, if our visitors regard themselves as guests in someone else’s home, and respect the land and the people while they are here. In Lahaina, in the center of Maui’s tourist area, a nightly historical drama in a graveyard tells much of Hawai’is tragic history. I wish more tourists would take the time and interest to watch it.

So for all who are contemplating a trip to Hawai’i: aloha- a wonderful word that means love and hospitality and toleration. Welcome to the islands. And when you hear aloha again when you leave, return refreshed but also, I hope, with memories of a unique culture and history and some quite remarkable and persistent people.



Why was Salman Rushdie Attacked?

Several years ago I happened to sit next to Salman Rushdie at dinner when he was at UC-Santa Barbara to give a talk. I asked him why he didn’t have any security guards around him.

“I have to live my life,” Rushdie answered. And after nine years of living in hiding under the pseudonym of Joseph Anton (Joseph for Joseph Conrad and Anton for Anton Chekhov, two of his favorite authors), it is understandable that he would want to celebrate his freedom. He moved to the US to do that– America supposedly is, after all, the land of the free and the brave.

But the fatwa remained. It had been proclaimed by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and ignored by the Iranian state in recent years. But it had never been retracted. Finally, it seemed, someone had carried it out. On August 12, at the historical Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, a young man leapt on the stage and stabbed the novelist ten times, seriously injuring him.

But why? The alleged attacker, Hadi Matar, was an American who was born in California and was living in New Jersey at the time of the attack. He came from a Lebanese family, and at age 24 he was born years after the original fatwa was proclaimed. It is surprising that he even knew about it, much less motivated to do something about it.

There were a few hints, however, that Matar was becoming more involved in radical Islamist circles. His mother said he abandoned his academic studies to focus on religious education. In 2018 he traveled back to his father’s village in southern Lebanon, a stronghold of the Shi’a Muslim movement, Hezbollah, and his mother claimed that this trip transformed him. I remember traveling through that region some years ago and being impressed with the many banners and posters portraying the Ayatollah Khomeini and other Iranian Shi’a leaders.

Yet even if he was enthralled with a politically extreme Shi’a Muslim position, there were many other imagined foes of Iran who could be targeted. It is not clear why Matar would see Salman Rushdie as the one to get. Some reports claim that Matar had been in contact with members of the Quds Force, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who might have given him specific instructions to attack the novelist. A similar operation by the Revolutionary Guard focusing on the former US national security advisor, John Bolton, as the proposed target was recently intercepted and the murder-for-hire figure was arrested.

Like the planned Bolton attacker, Matar could have been paid by the Revolutionary Guard to undertake his action. Or he might have done it gratis to impress them and receive what he imagined would be accolades from the Shi’a community.

Still, it was a daring act, especially for someone described by those who knew him as a shy loner. Why would he undertake such a risky operation that provided no easy escape, and that almost certainly would result in his injury, death, and/or a long period of incarceration?

What we know about Matar replicates the story of the Tsarnaev brothers who were convicted of terrorism in the Boston marathon bombings in 2013. The older brother especially was something of a loser, having failed at every attempt he made to succeed. In Matar’s case, he also had failed academically and was working at a Marshall’s clothing store in a job that did not inspire him. In the off-hours he worked out at a gym and was trying to learn how to box, though some of the other regulars at the boxing gym said he was not very good at it.

What did inspire him, apparently, was the lure of a great adventure. He was swept up in the scenario of a grand imagined battle between the forces of good and evil, where he had the opportunity of becoming a hero. He could enter into the fray and slay a demonic being and receive the applause of the faithful.

It was an imagined war not unlike the one that Ashli Babbitt thought she was fighting when she joined the insurrection that seized the United States capitol on January 6, 2021. In that moment prior to her death she was exhilarated to be a part of what she thought was a conquering army. Like Matar and the Tsarnaev brothers, she was willing to risk martyrdom for what she believed was a righteous war.

These are tragic illusions. They are double tragedies, in fact, for the victims are both the targets and the perpetrators of the attacks. Yet their assaults are not the actions of lone wolves. In their moments of glory they imagine themselves to be cheered by thousands of sympathizers who like them believe they are living in an age of cosmic wars.

But the costs of their illusions are massive. They are payments of irreparable damage that affect us all.

The End of al Qaeda

July 31, 2022 may go down in history as the day that al Qaeda died. This was  when Ayman al Zawahiri was killed by an American drone as he stood on the balcony of a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. The missile strike terminated not only the life of this partner and successor to Osama bin Laden, but also removed the last major symbol of al Qaeda leadership.

There are groups in Syria and Yemen and other places around the world that claim to be affiliated with al Qaeda that will continue to operate as they have in the past. But they were never really a part of the al Qaeda organizational structure. Though they subscribed to the movement’s ideology, they mostly used the name to give them a kind of street credibility.

The movement suffered a major blow with the killing of Osama bin Laden in a daring nighttime raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. Zawahiri, who had been at bin Laden’s side since 1998, soon proclaimed himself the leader of the movement, but in fact there was little to lead.

Al Qaeda soon became eclipsed by the Islamic State (ISIS) both in media attention and among radical Islamic militants. Unlike al Qaeda, ISIS showed that it could win over large swaths of territory and rule as if it were a caliphate. Al Qaeda had only the illusion of global power.

Nonetheless Zawahiri was good at propagating this illusion. Perhaps more than bin Laden he was the mastermind of the movement. Though he lacked charisma there were never serious rivals for his leadership. Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, who was a formidable contender and would have been a possible successor to Zawahiri, was killed by a U.S. counter-terrorism operation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2019.

It is hard to say exactly what Zawahiri’s contributions were. Some claim he was instrumental in helping to plan for the 9/11 attacks, though the official U.S. 9/11 Commission Report identifies Khalid Sheik Mohammed, imprisoned in Gauntanamo, as the prime organizer. This makes sense, since he and his nephew, Ramzi Youssef, had been involved in Jihadist plots earlier involving airplanes, and Youssef was convicted and imprisoned for his role in the unsuccessful 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

But bin Laden and Zawahiri seemed to know about the terrorist plot on 9/11 before it happened, took credit for it, and came to be the symbols of the attack. In that sense, President Biden can boast that he completed the mission begun by President Barack Obama in the US military raid that killed bin Laden.

There is no question that bin Laden and Zawahiri were close. They were the dual leaders of their shadowy operations. Though bin Laden was a Saudi and Zawahiri was Egyptian, they joined forces in 1998 in Afghanistan. Soon after they conducted the first terrorist operation that was clearly linked to al Qaeda—the dual attacks on American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed over two hundred.

It was to Afghanistan that Zawahiri recently returned after years of living in Pakistan. It is a testimony of the friendship of the Taliban’s ruling Haqqani network that they would allow Zawahiri to travel freely in the country. And it was a testimony to his sense of security that he could step out on a balcony for a bit of fresh air.

That turned out to be his undoing. Though the U.S. had located his Kabul residence a month earlier the camera on the drone now had a clear shot, and they took it. The Taliban leaders immediately closed off the area to allow Zawahiri’s family to leave safely. They also condemned the U.S. for violating the conditions of the Doha agreement that the Trump administration had signed, leading to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. They did not mention, however, that the very fact that Zawahiri was being sheltered in the country was the Taliban’s own violation of the Doha agreement.

But the deed was done. Zawahiri was gone. And with him the awful memories of al Qaeda.



Why Regulation is Good

The recent Supreme Court decision to limit the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency has been greeted with cheers from the far right. Many of them are Evangelical Christians, and they are convinced that freedom from governmental regulation is a God-given right.

Wrong. The most famous Protestant theologian of the 20th century would beg to differ. Morality, he claimed, was on the side of those who would control corporate power. This remarkably influential theologian–Reinhold Niebuhr– laid the moral groundwork for much of the regulatory expansion of the US federal government during the years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.

Behind Niebuhr’s reasoning was a fundamental observation about human nature, corroborated with biblical insights. Individuals have a capacity for love and empathy. But when individuals band together into collectivities, they usually do so for a purpose. These purposes are often necessary for the full functioning of the social order, but they are limited. These utilitarian organizations are formed to make money, for example, or to achieve a military or political objective.

What these collectivities do not have is the ability to forgive and protect individual rights. Chase Bank will never grieve over your inability to pay your mortgage, for example, or to give you a break on the dates that your loans are due. Contrary to the famous statement of Mitt Romney in defending the Citizens United judicial decision, corporations are not “people, my friend.”

This means that if they are left to their own devices, corporations would exploit people as much as they could. The title of one of Niebuhr’s books aptly summarizes our dilemma: we are “moral men in an immoral society.” Moral leverage is needed, Niebuhr reasoned, to keep the potentially immoral power of corporations in check.

This is where government regulation comes in. It is one of two ways that people can contain the exploitive impulses of collectivities. The other is counter-vailing power. By this he means labor unions and peaceful protests, for example, as ways of countering the excesses of corporate control of public life.

But government regulations are the main vehicles for social control. For this reason it is no surprise that their main opponents are corporate entities. The lawsuit that was brought before the Supreme Court regarding the regulatory power of the EPA, for instance, was backed by large coal-producing companies in West Virginia. They were clearly annoyed by the financial limitations of the clean-air regulations of the EPA. Most of the rest of us, however, are grateful that such regulations exist, not only to provide safe atmospheric conditions for today’s society, but also to contribute to the control of greenhouse gasses and bridle global warming in ways that will affect generations to come.

Such regulations are in the scope of governments to provide, but only if the governments themselves are not in the grips of the very corporations that the regulations are meant to limit. This is why Niebuhr was so insistent on democracy, by which he meant not only a government freely elected by the people, but one that served and protected the people.

A truly democratic government is able to provide a voice for the people that enables it to control the worst excesses of corporate greed. Hence Niebuhr could proclaim, in the Forward to one of his books, Children of Light and Children of Darkness, that humanity’s “capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” and its “capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”

It is this ability to stifle injustices and promote justice that is a democratic government’s highest calling. It is not the enemy of corporate power, but it does provide a counter-weight and a moral channeling of its influence. Corporations may be a necessary and useful part of modern society. But they are not people, my friend.


Is Russia a Terrorist State?

This essay is published by the Polish newsmagazine, Wszystko Co Najważniejsze, in English and in Polish translation, online and in print. 

In an impassioned speech to the United Nations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the Russian state had become a terrorist. His comments came shortly after the revelation of the killing of civilians in the town of Bucha, outside of Kyiv, during the month that Russian troops occupied the town.

The scene was indeed brutal. People on bicycles on the way to buy groceries were shot dead, the bodies lying next to their mangled vehicles. Others were shot execution style, their hands tied behind their backs with zip cords.

Following Zalensky’s speech in the UN, the Russian Ambassador read from what appeared to be a text sent from Moscow, claiming that the bodies were fake, placed there by the Ukrainian government after the troops had left, in order to make the Russian soldiers look bad. The New York Times, however, posted pictures on its front page showing a road where bodies lay, taken from a satellite during the occupation. The images matched precisely with the bodies that were discovered by returning Ukrainians on that same road following the troop withdrawal.

These were hideous acts, to be sure. But were they terrorism? The answer to that question depends on what one means by “terrorism,” and how that accusation can be proven.

Perhaps they were, instead, war crimes. This accusation is easier to prove since the conditions of what constitutes war crimes are set by international law. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has precise standards for determining war crimes, focusing on civilian and other non-military targets, and has prescribed penalties for those deemed guilty of them.

Both Ukrainian and international observers are busy cataloguing instances such as those at Bucha that can be raised in evidence of war crimes. But though the definition is clear—targeting innocent civilians–it is not an easy charge to succeed in court. Among other things, one has to identify who were the decision-makers in the criminal act, and provide evidence of their intention to act in such a criminal manner against innocent civilians.

Terrorism is an even more difficult charge to prove, in part because the term itself is vague. The United States’ Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

The problem with this definition is that it leaves open to interpretation what is “unlawful” and what “inculcates fear.” If a state promulgates laws that allow it to invade a neighboring country, as Russia has, then the military actions –whatever they may be—are by definition within the law.

My own definition of terrorism is a bit different, and focuses on the intention to raise fear. After many years of studying radical groups around the world that have used sudden and extreme violence as a tactic, I have defined terrorist acts as the intimidating public performances of violence. These are acts meant not to achieve a military goal but rather to frighten all those who witness the violence. The al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11 is a clear example of this kind of terrorist violence.

Using this definition of terrorism, then, it is possible to imagine not only rogue radical groups but established states utilizing violence in just this way. I once described the Islamic State (ISIS) during its reign in Iraq and Syria as a “terrorist state,” because it used violence not just to intimidate its enemies but to subdue its own citizens. In a central square in Mosul, for example, the severed heads of those accused of defying the ISIS regime were placed on fence poles for all passersby to see them. The message was clear: obey or your head may be next.

Few legitimate governments rule with the kind of terroristic violence of the Islamic State, however. They do not put heads on fence posts, and seldom adopt tactics that can be regarded as primarily intending to intimidate. War times, however, present a different situation where even usually moral regimes can act brutally in ways that use intimidation as part of a military strategy.

When the United States at the end of World War II dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obliterating the cities and killing hundreds of thousands, questions were raised about the moral legitimacy of these acts. To this day the debate continues regarding whether these bombings could be justified by military objectives or whether they were intended to intimidate the Japanese government, and perhaps also send a warning to the Soviet Union—emerging at the time as a Cold War rival—that the US possessed such devastating armaments. The intimidating message throughout the globe was to not mess with America’s military power, since it had the atomic bomb.

Does this mean that the US used methods of terrorism? A convicted terrorist told me that he thought that it did. When I went to a US maximum security prison and met with one of the jihadi organizers convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center – a precursor to the 9/11 attack  – he claimed that the US was the world’s biggest terrorist. When I told him that his attempt to bring down the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings would have killed 200,000 people if it had been successful, he challenged me. That, he said, was the number killed by the US in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in the US in what he described as its “acts of terrorism.”

Whether or not one regards the US bombings in Japan as acts of terrorism, the discussion does indicate that it is possible to speak of state terrorism. After all, the term “terrorism” came into use in a political context after the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror was one of the most brutal and savage moments in the revolutionary struggle.

Back to Bucha: if we can be persuaded that those horrible acts by Russian soldiers were acts of terrorism, who should be punished? During the Vietnam War, instances when American service men went on a rampage and started killing innocent villagers were regarded as criminal if not terrorist acts. The soldiers were brought to trial and in some cases convicted. But their superiors were not accused or tried.

Could this be the case with Bucha? If the Russian soldiers were badly trained and the leadership in the field was inept—as many observers have claimed—we can imagine that the young men in uniform could do all kinds of savage acts without fear of retaliation. When they witnessed their own comrades being killed in the missile strikes from Ukrainian forces that effectively stopped their lines of tanks, they might have felt emboldened to seek revenge on any Ukrainian they met, even innocent householders riding a bicycle on the way to the grocery store.

Such vengeful acts can be regarded as a kind of individual terrorism, if they were intended not only as revenge but as an attempt to intimidate the local citizens into fearing and obeying the occupying forces. Though to consider these acts in Bucha as part of a strategy of state terrorism, it would have to be demonstrated that the command came from up the chain of military command was not simply a reflex action of frightened young soldiers during stressful moments.

There are, however, other instances in the current Ukrainian invasion where the Russian military command is more clearly implicated in actions that would justify the term of state terrorism. In Mariupol and other cities, the world has witnessed scenes of apartment blocks, schools, nurseries, hospitals, and shopping malls that have been deliberately destroyed. These buildings are clearly for civilian use with no military functions, and yet these targets would have to be approved by a chain of command. They cannot be dismissed as the wanton acts of revengeful young soldiers.

These civilian targets are the basis for accusing Russia in general and Putin in particular with the claim of war crimes. Though the evidence continues to be collected, the picture seems clear and convincing that such crimes have been committed. Those making the decision to target civilian sites can and should be held accountable,

They can also be described as acts of state terrorism. The purpose of targeting apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, and shopping malls is clearly one of intimidation. They are meant to frighten Ukrainian citizens and their government and drive them into submission. In that sense, they are only a somewhat more sophisticated method than the one used by ISIS in Mosul when it posted severed heads on fence posts in the public square.

Yet the issue over whether Russia is a state terrorist will continue to be debated. The definition of what is terrorism and what is not is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder. If people feel frightened and intimidated, they are terrorized. In that sense, no further legal definition is necessary. But the term terrorism is seldom precisely codified into law.

Regardless of what one calls the acts in the hideous scene in Bucha, whether they were war crimes, genocide, massacre, or even terrorism, there is another word for them that Zalenskyy used in his speech in the United Nations that most sensible and humane people around the world can agree upon. They were absolute atrocities.


Russian Edition of Terror in the Mind of God

This the Preface to the Russian edition published  recently. It gave me the opportunity to summarize and update some of the ideas in the book.

It has been thirty years since I began chronicling the rise of religious violence around the world, and each year the situation changes. New cases emerge and old ones transform. No area of the world is immune from the rise of religious politics and protest, which is often expressed in strident ways. Every religious tradition—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh—have exhibited forms of religious violence. It is virtually a global phenomenon in the global age.

In many cases the movements are responses to globalization—or the perception that distinctive national cultures are losing their identities in a sea of secularism. Each case has its own set of causes and characteristics, but a common theme is the loss of faith in secular nationalism. Religion provides a basis for movements to claim legitimacy in asserting political power and critiquing authorities.

In the five years since the publication of the fourth edition of this book, the edition on which this translation is based, there have been significant changes. The territorial control of the Islamic State has been largely defeated, though the movement still exists as a guerilla fighting band.  Movements of xenophobic and anti-immigrant protest have expanded in the Christian cultures of Europe and the United States. In America, right-wing militant movements have become the major terrorist threat.

Other forms of religious-based violence have been perpetrated by state authorities. In general this kind of state terrorism is not covered in this book. It is a real phenomenon, however, and one related to movements of religious activism. The dismissive treatment of Uyghurs in China and the virtual genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are examples of the violence that states are capable of supporting or implicitly allowing to occur. The cases in this book, however, focus on non-state movements of antiauthoritarian protest.

The cases in this book also do not include movements that are secular or non-religiously nationalist. In Europe movements of neo-Nazism have emerged, hostile to multicultural societies formed by new patterns of immigration, especially from Muslim countries. In the United States, similar movements of right-wing nationalism are fiercely patriotic but often have few religious elements in them. While these movements are significant and often motivated by the same concerns that gave rise to religious-related movements, this book looks solely at the religious ones.

The purpose of this book is to try to understand the global phenomenon of religious violence in recent decades. It attempts to answer two basic questions: what does religion have to do with violent movements? And why are they happening now?

The answer to the first question is linked to the ability of religion to provide legitimation to alternative bases of political power. Religious leaders and texts can give moral credibility to movements of protest and provide symbols of empowerment. Perhaps no image from religious traditions is a more powerful resource than the idea of cosmic war. This notion, taken from the great wars depicted in religious texts, implies that some forms of warfare are not just between quarreling parties but between fundamental forces of existence—between right and wrong, religion and irreligion, order and chaos. If you believe that your struggle is God’s war, it is greatly empowering.

The answer to the second question regarding why these movements are occurring in recent years is related to the questioning of authority that comes with globalization. As regimes find themselves weakened through assaults on national identity and social control, movements based on religious authority rise up to challenge their very legitimacy. Hence it is no surprise that in this moment of global change all regions of the world are feeling the strains of social disruption. And in many cases, angry religious-based movements of resentment emerge.

This book explores the diversity of these new movements of challenge and change, and the incidents of violence that they have created. It is not meant to be comprehensive. There are many more movements and events that could have been included. Africa, for example, has witnessed the rise of movements such as Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army—a Muslim movement related to the Islamic State and a Christian militia. This book could have included those and many others, and in doing so easily expanded to two volumes, and perhaps a whole library, to cover the many forms of strident religious activism in the current age.

Still, this book tries to accomplish in a limited way the objective of showing that religious violence has erupted in public life throughout the world, in every religious tradition. There is no religion that is more prone to violence than others. Islam is not more violent by nature than, say, Christianity. And there is no religion that is so nonviolent by nature that it is devoid of examples of violent activism. Even Buddhist societies have had their violent religious aspects. Contemporary religious violence is truly global.

Will these movements last forever? I am sometimes asked whether this period in world history is a momentary eruption of social discord or whether these forms of unrest are here to stay. My answer is that specific movements rise and fall. Often they last no more than a few years. They are not able to carry the weight of their heady expectations of religious and social transformation, and their organizations often flounder in corruption and the infighting of internal  power struggles. Yet the larger issue of the erosion of confidence in secular nationalism is a matter that may be with us for some time. The trends that produce it—demographic shifts and transnational economic and social changes—will continue to challenge nation-states in ways that conduce to movements of neo-nationalism and opposition. Some of these will rely on religion for their legitimation.

The story of the rise of religious violence is therefore ongoing. The final chapters are yet to be written. My hope is that the ideas in this book and the perspectives that it brings to analyzing this phenomenon will continue to be useful in understanding new and continuing forms of religious violence in the years to come.


Russia’s Assault on Ukraine

KEYT-TV posted February 22/ 2022. Interview by Tracy Lehr

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Mark Juergensmeyer has a way of explaining complicated crises, such as the one on the Russia-Ukraine border.

“An assault on freedom anywhere is an assault on freedom everywhere, so we should always be concerned when there is an attempt to try to change the equation and take over people’s rights,” said Juergensmeyer.

As the founding director of the Global and International Studies Program and the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, he has visited Kyiv and parts of the region.

The professor who has a doctorate in political science said Russian leader Vladimir Putin wants the resources the Ukraine has.

“Ukraine is a very rich country it has these mineral resources, it has the largest number of rare earth minerals that are useful for making computers, ” said Juergensmeyer. “There is a huge coal deposits, so it is not just nostalgia that Putin wants, he wants money.”

The people of Ukraine have already fought a civil war to the be poised toward Europe, rather than towards the Soviet Union.

“They want to join the EU (European Union) they want to be a part of NATO (Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization) Russia doesn’t want that to happen, so this is really a struggle over the future of Europe.”

The professor said what could happen in Ukraine could also happen in other countries that used to be part of U.S.S.R.’s control.

When asked what former President Trump would be doing, he said Trump may have adopted the same position that its neighbor China has adopted right now.

Putin could be seen in the stands during the Olympics in Beijing.

That is when Juergensmeyer believes Putin was cozying up to China’s leader Xi Jinping.

“There is no question that one of the things they talked about is how Russia would like to compare what is going on in Ukraine with what is going on in Xinjiang with the Uyghurs in China.”

He thinks silence from China is part of their deal.

“There have been crickets from China’s side, it hasn’t either condemned what Russia has done in Ukraine, nor has it condoned.”

He said the two critical counties to look at are Germany and China since Germany controls the pipeline that is going to be this natural resource for Russia.

The professor believes sanctions are necessary because Russia has a fragile economy.

“Russia has a terrible economy, it is lower than California,” said Juergensmeyer. “California would be a more powerful economy than Russia and the only thing they really have going for them is oil and gas and right now if Germany cuts off the gas pipeline it would be a huge impact and if the sanctions impact there sale of oil around the world that would be another huge impact.”

He said sanctions are moderate in response, as Russia takes over territory that is already in Russia’s hands, for all practical purposes.

Russia wants to say those areas are no longer part of Ukraine.

“In the short run this may affect our oil prices, we may have to pay a little bit more at the pump, but in the long run it is worth it because we have to fight for freedom everywhere.”

Dr. Juergensmeyer just completed his 30th book entitled “When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends.”

It is available wherever books are sold.

How Health Insurance Denial Saved My Life

Well that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Being denied a health insurance request didn’t actually save my life. But it did save me from an excruciating knee replacement surgery that I didn’t need. And it was also a sobering lesson in modern medical practices.

I was three days away from my total knee replacement surgery when I came to the orthopedic doctor’s office in Santa Barbara to get the final ok. I had flown in from Maui where my wife and I spend winters, a 2500 mile trip, because I assumed my medical care here would be superb. I was sort of right.

The week before, however, the health insurance company had contacted me with bad news. The doctor’s request to cover the knee replacement surgery was denied.

“No problem,” the doctor told me via a digital memo. He was sure that it was only because the old x-ray of the knee was out of date, and that a new x-ray would convince the insurance company that I really did need the knee replacement surgery.

The old x-ray on which the diagnosis was based was six months old. I had had problems with my right leg for over a year, with stiffness and pain. In the prior year I had fallen down a rocky embankment in Maui and that seemed to be the beginning of the problem.

When I went to the doctor six months ago, he found a tear in my knee’s meniscus cartilage, and he cleaned up the wound. My leg felt moderately better, but the stiffness remained. He said he saw some arthritis in the knee as well, and if it got worse, maybe I would have to have knee replacement surgery, one of his specialties.

It did get worse. Much worse. I could hardly walk. So I told him the time had come for the surgery.

That’s when he put in the request to the health insurance company. And that’s when they denied it.

So now we’re three days away from the surgery date, and my doctor has just taken a new x-ray. This is the one that he thinks will convince the health insurance company to cover the costs. He calls me into his office with a worried look on his face.

He shows me the x-ray. “Your knee looks fine,” he said. There was no sign of arthritis. “The insurance company will never approve this,” he added with a degree of disappointment.

“Well,” I said, “I can’t walk. Something is wrong.”

“Let me see your leg,” he said, reaching down to manipulate my leg. I think that this was the first time that he had done this. Thus far he had relied solely on my own statement that the pain was near my knee, and on the x-ray 6 months earlier that seemed to show arthritis, at least at that time.

He asked me to move my knee and it worked just fine. He asked me to lift up leg, and I said I can’t. “It won’t move,” I said.

“That’s your hip, not your knee,” he exclaimed. He then sent me back for another set of x-rays to check my hip.

The waiting room was full of patients waiting to see the doctor, and he didn’t have time to check the x-rays on that day, he said. He suggested that I come back two days later. But that would have been the day before the time allocated for the surgery—previously knee replacement now possibly hip replacement.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I told him. I said that I had flown here from Maui and took weeks out of my schedule for this surgery and if necessary I’d sleep in this waiting room until he saw me and we figure out what is going on.

He relented, and at the end of the afternoon when all the other patients were gone, he called me back in to look at the x-ray, “This is the most damaged hip I’ve ever seen,” he said. He showed where the cartilage had completely worn away, bone was grinding against bone, with cysts and bone spurs aggravating the joint.

How I could walk was beyond him. Why there was no pain in my hip itself was even more of a mystery, and that’s what threw him off, he said. Rarely did he see the pain from a damaged hip appear in the lower thigh near the knee. “But you definitely need hip replacement,” he said.

He apologized for the “misunderstanding” that he was about to replace a perfectly good knee. It was not, of course, a misunderstanding, but a bad diagnosis, albeit an understandable error for doctors that do not have time to  examine carefully their patients.

And that’s where the medical care situation is the larger issue. With the flood of patients seeking elective surgery after hospitals have been overwhelmed with covid care, it is no surprise that a couple of minutes in the doctor’s office is all that any patient gets, even for joint replacement surgery.

In my case, the story has a happy ending. Miraculously my insurance company – United Healthcare – was able to give a quick turn-around to approve the new request for hip replacement surgery based on the new x-rays. Marie, the surgery appointments person, got up at 6am to call and by the time I contacted them two hours later it was approved.

Three days later, in the same time slot that was reserved in the operating room for my knee replacement surgery, I received a total hip replacement. In this role, my doctor’s skill was superb. He entered the hip socket area from an incision in the front that is less painful and heals more quickly than posterior or side approaches.

Within hours after the surgery the anesthesia had worn off and I was able to walk. In the days since then I continue to exercise my leg. There is little to no pain, and I walk better after the surgery than I did before,

When I talked with the health insurance representative before the surgery I thanked her profusely for denying my claim. She said she was used to getting angry calls from people rejecting their requests. Never, however, was she thanked for a denial.

But in my case, I told her, it saved my life. Well, at least it saved my knee.