All posts by Juergensmeyer

Mark Juergensmeyer is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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.


Hawaii’s Religious History in Flames

The day that we left Maui the wind was so strong I could scarcely close the front door. The sheer ferocity of the hurricane-induced gale signaled trouble.

On arriving on the mainland the next morning my text messages reported fire at the Historic town of Lahaina near our condo at Maalaea Harbor. Later that night the town was totally decimated. Our place was saved, but what was lost was incalculable.

It was not just the horrible loss of life and the upended tragedy of thousands of evacuees that we all mourned. We also lost some of the important symbols of Hawaii’s history.

Lahaina had once been the capital of the islands, and the old courthouse reminded us of its former political importance, as did the Baldwin house and Pioneer Inn. A banyan tree imported from India and planted in the 19th century was the second largest in the world, incorporating a whole city block. Front street shops and the boardwalk along the ocean front were magnets for tourists. Zoning laws kept huge hotels away from the center of the city which provided small wooden homes for 13,000 workers and other permanent local residents.

It’s all gone. In a few hours the storm of fire thundered through the town, catapulted by hurricane-force winds, consuming everything in its reach. Dozens of people perished and thousands are homeless. Property destruction is in the multi-millions.

The loss included some elements of Hawaii’s religious history as well. Before European contact, the Lahaina region was regarded as the home of Kihawahini, a goddess who had the ability to transform into a lizard that lived in a local pond. In part because of its sacred significance, and because of its good harbor, King Kamehameha I made it the islands’ first capital after he managed to unite them under his military power in 1810.

With the influx of British and then American settlers later in the century, missionaries brought Christianity to the region. In 1823 William Richards, a Congregational missionary from Massachusetts, came to Lahaina and in a predatory move erected a thatch hut next to the sacred pond of Kihawahini, hoping to attract native Hawaiians to the religion. He succeeded, and in 1828 a more permanent building was erected from stone and wood on the site, the Waine’e Church (renamed the Waiola Church). It is the oldest in Maui, though the structure destroyed in the fire was a version rebuilt in 1953.

The church became the hub for Hawaiian Protestant Christianity in the islands. Though the history of Christianity in Hawaii is deeply intertwined with colonialism and the Euro-American control of land, the faith was also promoted by its native Hawaiian royal supporters. The graveyard of the church is testimony to its influence. In it are buried Queen Keopuolani, the wife of Kamehameha I, and the first Hawaiian to be baptized as a Christian, ushering in a tradition of royal acceptance of the faith and providing the stage for intermarriage with British and American Christians. The body of the last king of Kauai is buried there; his island was the only one not conquered by force by Kamehameha I. The list of royalty goes on, and the cemetery has been used as a location for presentations about Hawaii’s history.

It is impossible to know exactly why the native Hawaiian royals so eagerly embraced Christianity. Perhaps they were trying to curry favor with the British, who after all had provided the weapons that allowed Kamehameha to seize control of all of the islands. Or perhaps they wanted to cement their power by undercutting the influence of local kahuna (Hawaiian priests) and provide the islands with a common culture. Or maybe they simply found the fellowship and beliefs of the faith to be appealing.

Whatever the reason, the Christian missionaries found a willing acceptance from the local citizenry. When the first missionary chose the sacred pond as the site for his church he was setting a pattern for many missionaries to come, constructing churches near or actually on the stone ritual platforms (heiau) of native Hawaiian religion. The point was to obscure native Hawaiian religion, of course,  but it also proclaimed that it could be absorbed into a kind of Hawaiian Christianity. Since many mainlanders and children of missionaries married native Hawaiians, a Christian-Hawaiian religious syncretism can still be found especially in Congregational and Episcopal churches.

For instance, in the Episcopal Church in Wailuku where I am a parishioner, the stained glass windows portray King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma (of mixed British-Hawaiian heritage) who provided the land for the establishment of the church in 1866. Today the church is a very Hawaiian ethnic mix of Filipinos, native Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Haole (mainland White people like myself) and others. Every Sunday two of the hymns are in Hawaiian language, including a sad prayer written by the last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, while she was imprisoned in Iolani Palace after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893. Our church service also includes frequently prayers in Ilocano, the language of the region of the Philippines from which many of the parishioners originated. They were part of an independent Catholic Church that broke away from the official church in the Philippines that was in league with the colonial rulers, and in Maui have joined the Episcopal congregation.

When I started to developed a two-acre plot for a fruit orchard in Iao Valley to raise bananas, papayas, mangos, guavas and the like, I asked a local Episcopalian priest to give the blessings. Since he was partly native Hawaiian and also served as a kahuna, a Hawaiian religious priest, he was able to perform chants and blessings in Hawaiian language. Evacuees from the fire are now camped out in the orchard.

But native Hawaiian and Christian religions were not the only emblems of religion that were destroyed in the Lahaina fire. Japanese immigrants brought Jodo Shinshu Buddhism to Maui, where it has flourished. Temples are found throughout the island, including a magnificent one in Lahaina punctuated by an elegant pagoda and a giant statue of the Buddha.

They are all gone now, whisked away in moments by fiery winds. Remarkably the Roman Catholic Church, though badly scorched, is still standing. But not our sister Episcopalian parish. I talked with my priest about our fellow Episcopalians in Lahaina, inquiring whether they were all right. Some did not survive he said, and most are now homeless. But they are determined to rebuild and continue the fellowship in a renewed Lahaina. Developers are eager to move in and snatch up the burned parcels for high rise hotels, but the county planning commission vows that the rebuilding will be solely for the benefit of the working-class community that lost their homes, and provide space for the religious institutions that served them.

There are tough times ahead for Lahaina. But the local residents have faith that their town can ultimately be restored. Buildings are burned and lives are lost. But the spirit of Hawaii, though charred, will surely endure.




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.