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On Death and Dogs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fields of Blood


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell, Brother John


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say, John, did you put the cat out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran is Key to Ending ISIS

rohani 1

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

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

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

ISIS has wooed moderate Sunni supporters to their side in both Syria and Iraq. According to an insightful article by Graeme Wood in The New Republic, the ISIS supporters consist of three types—psychopaths, believers, and pragmatists. The psychopaths and believers are largely recruited from outside the region. The cruel executioner in the videos of the beheadings of Westerners is likely a 23-year old former rapper from West London who was lured to the region as a soldier of fortune in a grand imagined war.

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

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

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

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

Once again Sunnis have been lured by al Qaeda style of jihadi activists, now under the banner of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIL, since al Sham can be translated as Levant, the old name for greater Syria). More recently in a fit of megalomania it has called itself the Islamic State, as if there could be only one, but it does give a role to the local Sunni leaders. Once again a sense of alienation and disaffection has driven the Sunnis into the extremists hands.

Could these moderate Sunnis, the pragmatists in Graeme Wood’s words, be lured back as they were during the Awakening in 2008? That depends to a large measure on what happens in Damascus and Baghdad, whether the Shi’a governments there are open to shared governance.

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

Iran has recently shown that it understands the importance of shared governance in order to appease the Sunnis and keep ISIS support from growing. When the US said that it would not support the al Maliki government in Baghdad without a more open (that is, Sunni inclusive) policy, this position was echoed by Iran, and by the Shi’a clergy in Iraq most closely allied with Iran, Ali al-Sistani. Shortly after the ISIS incursion and the fall of Mosul, Baghdad received an important visitor in the person of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds force and the most powerful military strategist in the country.

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

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

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

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

Why Extreme Terror Works


The hideous images of orange-clad Westerners kneeling beside black-draped executioners that have been broadcast from ISIS-controlled Iraq recently are eerie reminders of similar scenes just ten years ago. At that time the terrorists were agents of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.

Why did they use such extreme measures then, and why do they now, and what is the difference between the two? The answers to these questions tell us much about how terrorism works, and how it plays a role in the present Sunni politics of Iraq.

As I argued in my book, Terror in the Mind of God, most acts of terror are instances of performance violence. They are dramatic events meant to shock, and to lure the viewer into the perpetrators’ worldviews. These are performances intended for very specific audiences, including the worldwide audience on television and the Internet.

Take 9/11, for example. Anyone seeing this on television –and that includes most of the developed world—would see an image of war. For the moments that they were stunned by such an image they would be drawn into the worldview of jihadi activists, a view of the world engaged in a great cosmic war. To the extent that they convinced us of the validity of this worldview, they were successful.

Most people in the Muslim world rejected the premises behind that image, and refused to accept the notion of cosmic war. They thought the attack was simply an extreme act of a small group of misfits, or possibly a conspiracy conjured up by the CIA or Israeli secret agents.
Alas, among those who took the image seriously as a valid assertion that great forces were combatting on a global scale were many in the Western media and many political leaders, including the inner circle of the George W. Bush presidency. Hence the “global war on terror” theme that dominated US foreign policy for the rest of the Bush presidency and that lingers on today.

Involving the US in active military engagement was useful for the jihadi ideology since it fulfilled its proposition that the US was the major force that was combatting Muslim politics. The ensuing US invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, were further signs that the al Qaeda prophecy of cosmic war was being fulfilled.

In 2004, after the invasion of Iraq, the al Qaeda strategy in Iraq itself also turned to extreme violence. In this case it was the beheadings of seemingly innocent American travelers and journalists.

These mesmerizing acts of terror had two effects. They pulled the US even deeper into military engagement with Sunni Iraqis, thereby alienating the general population of Sunni Iraqis even more than they had been. And these acts also had a chilling effect within the Sunni community —it showed that these forces meant business and were willing to take a life-and-death stance. As a result, it attracted many young Sunnis into the al Qaeda fold, especially after the US attacks and demolition of the city of Fallujah later that year.

For several years it seemed that al Qaeda in Iraq would be a permanent fixture of Sunni politics in the country. Then a remarkable thing happened. Sunni leadership became weary of the extremism, the killings, and the rigidity of al Qaeda, and were lured by a savvy project engineered by US General David Petraeus to remove US troops from the Sunni regions of Iraq and support the Sunni leadership in their efforts to rid themselves of the al Qaeda extremists. This was the so-called Awakening of 2008. Since then, al Qaeda in Iraq has stayed in the shadows.

In 2014, all that changed. After a bitter fight with al Qaeda leadership in Syria and in its central leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, one man came out on top: the Iraqi extremist leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The Syrian and Iraqi extremist Sunni forces were united under the banner of his Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (the Levant, greater Syria) — ISIS or ISIL. In a blitzkrieg across the region it seized vast reaches of Sunni territory in Iraq the size of Pennsylvania, including the second largest city in the country, Mosul.

Then the beheadings began. In some ways the purposes were the same as they were in 2004. The beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers were clearly meant to inflame the anger of America and the West, and to draw them into a war that would be seen (the jihadis hoped) as evidence of Western militancy against Islam in general. To some extent, that strategy is working.

But there were also large numbers of beheadings of recalcitrant local Sunnis—far more than the Westerners, in fact—that were carried out in hideously public ways, their severed heads displayed on fence posts for all to see. Clearly the point of these actions were meant to intimidate the local population, and to deter any movement towards counterrevolution similar to the Awakening project that had successfully turned the modern Sunni leadership against al Qaeda in Iraq ten years ago.

And there was one more effect of these public acts of horror. In an era of the Internet where Twitter, YouTube and countless other social networks are available to instantly project the power of terrorist acts, these events were meant for a global audience. Specifically they were meant for a global audience of disaffected young Muslim men around the world.

The videos of these beheadings were recruiting devices. As shocking as it might seem to most of us, they had an odd appeal to young men who felt alienated from society and eager to join a force that was bigger than themselves, one that was tough, determined, and took no prisoners. ISIS was for them, and in recent months they have joined in the thousands, streaming from Europe, Britain, US, Australia, Russia, China, even India.

This is new. The old al Qaeda in Iraq did not show much interest in involving foreigners, who would not be well trained for military service, after all, and often would have language barriers that would make them less than ideal soldiers. Moreover they would be coming to battle eager to fight and to kill; they would be loose cannons in a carefully controlled army.

That is probably al Baghdadi’s point. The bulwark of the ISIS military force in Iraq comes from Saddam Hussein’s old army, who were denied roles in the new army in Iraq. Now they have a place, and they are old, seasoned, disciplined soldiers. They likely are not disposed to extremism in any form, and probably are suspicious of the ISIS leadership and its rigid, violent methods. They are also probably the most likely to turn against ISIS some time in the future, should an Awakening kind of solution be offered from the government in Baghdad.

In other words, the old Iraq army stalwarts in ISIS need to be held in check. The intimidating public beheadings are certainly a deterrent. An even greater deterrent is the large number of passionate foreign fighters who would be more than eager to turn against any old army superior who was deemed to be soft or less than loyal to the ISIS regime.

So extreme terror can be a useful device. Whether it will be sufficient in time remains to be seen, especially since there are efforts in Baghdad to be more open and conciliatory to Sunni interests—in other words, to launch a new Awakening that would turn Sunni leadership against their ISIS rulers. That is probably the only thing that will turn the situation around. When that happens the counterrevolutionary Sunnis will have to fight against not only Iraqi extremists but impassioned foreigners willing to die with a vengeance. By luring the foreigners with terrorist images, the ISIS leaders have created a whole new complication to any easy solution in the region.

ISIS and Obama


Interview with Mark Juergensmeyer by Andrea Estrada

(Santa Barbara, Calif. Sept 10 2014) — When President Obama addressed the nation yesterday about his plan of action to deal with the terrorist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the most important part of his speech came at the beginning, according to global studies scholar Mark Juergensmeyer.

“What most people heard was, ‘we’re going to send in more troops and put together a military coalition,’ ” said Juergensmeyer, director of UCSB’s Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. “The important part of the speech came first, when he talked about the need for a new government in Iraq and called on the Iraqis to essentially fight this on their own. This has been Obama’s position all along.”

According to Juergensmeyer, who is also a professor of sociology and a scholar of global religion and of religious violence, forming a coalition of partners that includes Muslim countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is key to creating stability in the region and to address the threat of ISIS.

“Obama wants to get Jordan and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar directly involved in taking responsibility for this,” Juergensmeyer said. “It’s important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because he doesn’t want to continue America’s role of being the sole policeman in the world. This is a regional problem and the solution ultimately has to be a local and regional one.”

However, he continued, the U.S. helped to create the instability and has a responsibility to participate in finding that solution. “This is, in the case of Iraq anyway, a direct result of the instability we created by bringing down Saddam Hussein, admittedly a dictator, but the leader of an authoritarian government that held Iraq together as a nation,” Juergensmeyer said. “Following that, the U.S. was unable to successfully put together an enduring coalition of interests within the country, and allowed one sectarian group led by Nouri Al-Maliki to rule in favor of one group — the Shia — over another — the Sunnis.”

In Syria the situation is more complicated, he noted, because support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Asaad over the years by the U.S. as well as by Russia has created a situation in which Sunnis feel they have no voice. “Without the support of the moderate Sunni leadership in both Syria and Iraq, these wild renegade forces of ISIS would have no support whatsoever,” Juergensmeyer said.

“That’s a long way of saying that ultimately the solution has to be the region taking charge of their own area,” he continued, “but because a part of that is the political situation that is supported by outside powers — and by that I mean not only the U.S. in the case of Iraq and Russia and Iran in the case of Syria and Iran also in the case of Iraq — all those players have to be involved in the solution.”

Juergensmeyer described ISIS as “an opportunistic infection” that finds fertile soil among the oppressed majority in parts of Iraq and Syria. “Sunnis in Iraq are not a majority, but in the Al Anbar region and the regions that ISIS has moved into, they are a majority and they feel like they have no voice,” he said. “And the same is true in Syria. In the eastern regions where ISIS is strong, you have people who feel oppressed.

“The Sunnis in Al Anbar province and in Syria — and I’ve talked to a lot of them — are great people. They just want to live their lives like everyone else,” Juergensmeyer continued. “They’re extremely frustrated by this situation in which they feel they’ve been kept out of public life. And along comes this group that gives them a position of power and lets them rule, and they’re happy to take it.”

Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq is an example. According to Juergensmeyer, former Ba’ath Party administrators who were in charge under Saddam Hussein are running the city — quite efficiently. “They’re finally in power again. The army is run very effectively because the old generals, the old military from Saddam Hussein’s army is back to work again,” he said. “But if you offer the people there an alternative in a new Iraq, one they can trust, they’ll take it.”

Juergensmeyer noted that precedence exists to support Obama’s plan of adding 475 new troops to the roughly 1,000 already in place in Iraq. He cited the 2007 surge engineered by then-General David Petraeus, which increased the number of American troops in Baghdad but decreased forces in Al Anbar province — from Falluja, Ramadi and areas west of Baghdad that were heavily populated by Sunnis.

“The strategy was to use American forces to police the city of Baghdad and keep down sectarian violence, and to use money to support the Sunni leaders — provide funds and military weapons so they could fight the extremists of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the very people they had supported,” Juergensmeyer explained. “They were the predecessors of ISIS. And it worked. It turned things around in a matter of months.”

It happened before, he said, and it can happen again. “When Iraq initially asked for support, Obama told them to get their act together and change their government because they’re causing the problem — supporting the Shia government against the Sunnis is what created the problem in the first place,” said Juergensmeyer. “A lot of hope is resting on this new government in Iraq, and I hope that hope is warranted.”

Goodbye Maliki, Hello Iraq

Image: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Initially when I met Nouri al-Maliki I was disappointed. It was in Baghdad in 2004 some months after Saddam Hussein was toppled by invading US troops, and I was part of a small team of scholars led by Mary Kaldor from the London School of Economics who were trying to understand how broken societies could heal in times of conflict. My goal was to talk with Sunni and Shi’a political leaders. I had an interesting interview with Sunni leaders from al Anbar province who were engaged in the resistance against the US occupation, but the main figures in the dominate Shi’a party were too busy. So instead they referred me to the Dawa party, the second largest Shi’a political group. The top official in this party was also unavailable, so I had to settle with a lesser character, essentially the office manager of the Baghdad headquarters of the party. That was Nouri al Maliki.
When I arrived at the makeshift Dawa party headquarters in what had been the old ticket office of an abandoned airfield, al Maliki was waiting to meet with me—no staff, no receptionist, just al Maliki. He was wearing a brown suit with a white shirt and no tie, and he absent-mindedly fingered his wooden prayer beads as he waited for my questions. He was a less than imposing figure.
Going back over the transcripts, I find there was nothing remarkable about the interview. He was careful and cautious in his comments. If there was a dominant theme it was one of inclusiveness—an ironic sentiment, considering how narrowly sectarian he became when he ascended to a position in power. But in 2004, when he was a nobody talking with an American professor, al Maliki was all about pluralism. He thought the new government of Iraq should reach out to all quarters of society, and he regarded his own party as exemplary in this regard. Yes, it was largely Shi’a, as was most of Iraq. But the party included Sunnis and Christians, al Maliki claimed. Otherwise, the interview was quite formulaic.
This bland demeanor largely explains how he made it—how al Maliki was plucked from relative obscurity to the position of Prime Minister, a post that he held for eight years with an increasingly iron hand. Initially he was favored precisely because he was perceived as being not threatening. In a stand-off among contending political interests, the ideal leader seemed to be a second-rate functionary from a second-rate party with a personality that seemed to suggest a lack of political ambition.
This observation turned out to be dead wrong. Once he got into power al Maliki seemed to enjoy it. Rather than embrace all factions of the country, he focused on his base, the Shi’a professional class. Like Saddam Hussein before him, al Maliki showered political favors on his loyal followers, and claimed he was protecting their interests. “Their” in this case, referred to his Shi’a comrades. The Sunnis were left out in the cold. They feared they would be forever second class citizens in the new Iraq.
This was the fear that propelled Sunni leadership into supporting the insurgency against the US occupation. When I was in Iraq in 2004, the leaders told me that the US intended to support the Shi’a in the south and the Kurds in the north to the exclusion of the Sunnis in the west. The de-Baathification process supported by the Americans was an indication of this, since most of the functionaries in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party came from his own Sunni community. For this reason many young Sunnis joined forces with the extremists, the al Qaeda of Iraq led at that time by Abu Musab al Zarqawi. They were tacitly supported by their elders, who saw no other option for asserting Sunni interests in the country.
Perhaps the lowest moment came in 2004 when a protest in Fallujah against the killing of the Palestinian Hamas leader, Sheik Yassin, led to a confrontation with American troops posted nearby the city. When a convoy of American mercenary soldiers associated with the Blackwater security agency drove through town, a gang of young Sunni men attacked it, setting the cars on fire and brutally killing the occupants. The picture that stunned the world was as scene of charred American bodies hanging from the girders of a bridge over the Euphrates River.
In response, Pentagon officials ordered US troops to march on Fallujah, and in two successive skirmishes during that year the city was virtually destroyed. Many of the citizens left. The traditional social structure of the city was severed, and whatever control the elders had over the fiery youth of the city was weakened. Many of the young men fanned out over Iraq, joining forces with Zarqarwi’s al Qaeda extremists, clashing with both the American occupying troops and the Shi’a paramilitary groups, such as the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Then a remarkable thing happened. The Americans stopped battling with the Sunni leadership in al Anbar province and provided them money and arms to fight against the al Qaeda extremists. They promised the Sunnis a greater role in Iraq’s future and freedom from extremists who were annoying the elders with their aggressive, Islamist posturing. This was the Awakening movement in 2007 that was part of the so-called “surge” engineered by General David Petraeus. It did involve a surge of US troups, but they were mostly deployed to the city of Baghdad where they helped to police the neighborhoods and contain the sectarian fighting. Out in the western hinterlands of al Anbar province it was an anti-surge, a decrease in US presence and a support for local leadership.
It was a brilliant strategy and worked well as long as the Americans were in the country. When the US troops left in 2011, it was up to the Iraq government to insure that the Sunni interests were supported and its leadership was respected. This task fell on the Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, who proved himself to be woefully short of both tasks. Maliki was busy shoring up his own power by catering to his Shi’a base and, like Saddam Hussein before him, handing out government appointments as rewards for personal loyalty.
So in a tragic way, the situation in 2014 has reverted to that of 2004 in a post-Fallujah state of hostility between the Sunni population in the West and the Baghdad government exclusively concerned with the interests of the Shi’a in the South. Once again the Sunnis, left out of the new Iraq, have joined forces with the extremists who promise to free them from the control of Baghdad. In 2014 the extremists are the jihadi forces associated with ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It is a movement that has taken over the Syrian resistance movement, much to the chagrin of those Syrian rebels who are simply anti-Assad and not ideologically extreme. In fact, the ISIS forces are so extreme in their anti-Shi’a ideology and their savage methods—including public beheadings—that the old al Qaeda leadership has denounced them. Yet with the complicity of the Sunni community in western Iraq they have seized vast stretches of the country, including the city of Mosul, second largest in the country.
Iraq seems to be on the verge of splitting up. The Kurds in the north are anxiously protecting their turf, and have expressed an eagerness to be autonomous. ISIS has proclaimed itself the Islamic State, and wants to create a new country out of western Iraq and eastern Syria. This would leave The Shi’a with the city of Basra and the rest of Iraq, presumably also with the capital city of Baghdad. The only thing that might keep Iraq from falling apart would be a reversal of Maliki’s pro-Shi’a style of leadership and encouragement for a new Awakening movement that would give Sunni leaders a role in the government. This might undercut their support for ISIS, and even—as during the earlier period of the Surge—encourage them them to turn against their extremist comrades. But the only thing that has kept this kind of political pluralism from happening is al Maliki.
This explains why he has become such a reviled figure in Iraqi politics. US President Barack Obama made it clear that American support for Iraq was contingent on a change of leadership that would make the government more open. Even Iran, the Shi’a protector, has indicated that it is time for Maliki to leave. The major Shi’a cleric in Iraq, al Sistani, has withdrawn his support. Al-Maliki’s own Dawa party was divided in its support for him.
This is where Haider al-Abadi has entered the picture as the new Prime Minister designate. The Iraq President, Fuad Masum, a Kurd, snubbed al Maliki and asked another member of his Dawa party, al-Abadi, to form a government instead. After several days of threatening legal action and possible force to keep in power, al Maliki acceded to the inevitable and al-Abadi is slated to be Prime Minister at the beginning of September.
Now that al Maliki is on his way out, does Iraq have a chance of surviving? The answer to this question depends in part on Abadi, whether he is willing to be sufficiently open to Sunni representation to make them interested in participating in a united Iraq. If so, they will turn away from ISIS as easily as they turned against Zarqawi’s al Qaeda forces seven years ago. As terrifying as they are, the hard core ISIS fighters number only in the thousands and without local Sunni support their tenuous political hold will fall like a house of cards. With al Maliki out, therefore, Iraq may have a future after all.

Islamic Insurgency Returns to Iraq

iraq militants

The fall of Mosul and Fallujah—two prominent Iraq cities—to the radical Sunni forces of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a challenge to Iraq as a coherent unified country. It is also the resurgence of a pattern of radical Sunni anti-governmental activity that was a feature of the US military occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003. And it is partly a result of it.

Fallujah is an example of what happened then and what is happening now. The attempt by American forces to eradicate Fallujah of radical elements paradoxically hardened them, and spread its fighters throughout the country. The paradox is even more striking considering that the Sunni leaders of the region were not supporters of Saddam Hussein, and many were predisposed to welcome the US liberation of the country from his leadership.
“We hated Saddam,” a Sunni Muslim cleric from Fallujah told me, indicating that he and his colleagues in the Sunni triangle of an Anbar province had no use for the secular dictator. Nonetheless, he and his allies came to regard the American coalition authority that replaced Saddam’s government as an even worse choice. They saw the U.S. occupation as a repressive force, imposing a Western-style government into Muslim territory, much as America’s ally, Israel, also imposed itself on the Middle East. They identified with Hamas and the Muslim struggle in Palestine, and asserted that the Palestinian oppression was parallel to their own experience in Iraq.
Though the sectarian violence in Iraq was often described as Sunni-Shi’a civil war, there was very little support for the violence from mainstream religious leaders on either side. On the Sunni side, the Sunni Association of Muslim Clerics resisted the attempts of the Tawhid jihadis to coopt it, and the association often played a positive role in helping to moderate the violence. I talked with one Sunni cleric who told me that he had played a mediating role between extreme insurgents and the Iraqi government. He said it did it for the sake of Iraqi unity. The jihadi extremists became increasingly annoyed with this attitude, however, and by what they regarded as compromises by the nationalistic-minded Sunni leaders.
Beginning in 2005 a new movement, the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq—or simply the Iraq Awakening movement—mobilized the Sunni leadership in al Anbar province against the jihadi extremists. The movement was supported by the US military under a brilliant strategy of General David Petraeus to pit the modern Sunnis against the radical ones. By 2007 the tensions between moderate Iraqi Sunni leaders and the jihadi outsiders had erupted into dissention and violence between their factions. On the Shi’a side, leading clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani also distanced themselves from such Shi’a extremists as Muqtada. Sistani supported the leading Shi’a political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.
For a time it appeared that the Shi’a and Sunni factions could live peaceably together in Iraq. I was assured that Iraqi Shi’ite and Sunni had an innate sense of hospitality toward one another by Nuri Kamal al Maliki, who later became Prime Minister of Iraq, but who at the time of my interview with him in 2004 was Deputy Director of the Shi’a Dawa Party. Al-Maliki told me that his own party was fifteen percent Sunni and that Shi’a-Sunni intermarriage was a common thing. He also told me that the threat of Muqtada al-Sadr—who was one of his primary supporters—was greatly exaggerated. Yet the threat of al-Sadr turned out in subsequent years to be quite real, though in 2007 al Maliki pledged to control the forces of Muqtada in order to support a troop surge strategy promoted by U.S. President George W. Bush. For a time Muqtada al-Sadr went into hiding and the violence temporarily subsided. Nonetheless rogue elements from the Shi’a side soon continued their acts of terror and reprisal, mimicking the acts of Sunni extremists.
Al Maliki’s openness to the Shi’a opposition also turned out to be a hollow gesture. Increasingly his government took a hard line against the Sunni leadership in al Anbar province, who felt betrayed by the US military who handed over control of their militia to al Maliki and then left the country entirely in 2011. Without the US military to support their interests they were totally dependent on the generosity of the Shi’a majority government led by al Maliki, who showed no interest in opening his government to their interests. Even worse, he regarded them as potential enemies, and tried to build his own leadership strength on the basis of his willingness to take a hard line against the Shi’a majority’s traditional rival, the Sunnis. The US administration under Barack Obama pleaded with al Maliki to be more conciliatory to the Sunnis, and even the most prominent Shi’a leader in Iraq, al Sistani, urged al Maliki to take a more democratic stance towards the Sunnis. The Iranian government also favored this approach, fearing a backlash from the Sunnis and political anarchy in the country. Al Maliki resisted, and the dark prophecy of anarchy begin to come true, and the rebels took over vast regions of the western part of the country. Under the ISIS leadership, whole cities fell to radical Sunni hands, though in this case the Sunni elders chose to support them rather than fight them, in part because they felt ostracized by the Baghdad regime led by al Maliki.
Thus the circle has turned again to radical Jihadi insurgency. Once again Fallujah is in the hands of the extremists, though this time there is no US military to rescue the Iraq government from the militants’ control, and no David Petraeus to moderate between warring factions to bring stability to the country. Iraq will have to mediate this crisis by itself, though a behind the scenes alliance between Iran and US military advisors may give material and tactical support. The insurgency in Iraq, it seems, is far from over.

For a longer version of this essay, click here

Living and Healing in Isla Vista

Isla Vista memorial candle

I live in Isla Vista. It took me a long time to admit that, since when I bought a house at 6637 Del Playa twenty years ago it was supposed to be only a research office and a place to have meetings and receptions. I didn’t eat meals there, except for lunch, and I certainly didn’t stay overnight.
When I bought the house I was only vaguely aware that it was in a student area. I had lived in Berkeley for twenty years before that, so I thought I knew what that meant. But nothing could quite prepare me for the 6600 block of DP. Thank God I didn’t try to stay there overnight. I rented out rooms to students, and they had plenty of stories to tell.
At first I was suspicious of my neighbors, especially on the weekends when the trash cans in the dark corner of my parking lot became a urinal. I put up a new gate, and the guys in the house promised to secure it tightly during the street party nights. Halloween was a special problem. Once when I stayed in the house on Halloween evening to protect the property the whole fence came crashing down as hundreds of revelers poured into the parking lot and tried to escape over the fence. I set up a triage station in the living room to calm down people who were trampled in the mob.
But over time I felt more at home. My cape-cod style house on the ocean side of DP became known as the “professor’s house,” and people would wave as I drove by. They were good folks, the IV crowd, even if they did get a bit noisy at times. If I had meetings or functions at the house, the neighbors would turn down the sound, If it was a party, I’d invite them over to join us.
I tried to be a good neighbor. I helped to create a volleyball park on what was for some years a vacant lot next door. I attended meetings of the Park and Rec Board, the only elected body in Isla Vista, to show support for their plans for community improvement. For years I advocated for a community relations board for the IV Foot Patrol to help to ease the misunderstandings between the residents and police. I have tried to let students know that they have tenants’ rights. My house was provided as the organizing place for get-out-the-vote campaigns during election times.
Increasingly I became defensive about IV. Most of my faculty colleagues lived elsewhere and the administration often took a paternalistic stance. The local newspapers often demanded regulations to control what they thought of us an unruly mob.
But IV is not a mob. The people who live there, by and large, are friendly, responsible, pleasant folk. And nothing demonstrates this more than the IV community response in a time of crisis. I saw this first hand in 2001 when the community came together in unity after the tragic attack by a disturbed student who rammed his car into a crowded street a couple blocks from my house, killing four.
And again, this week, Isla Vista came together as a community in response to tragedy. Suddenly IV was not just a temporary residence for students in transition, it was a real community of sorrow, healing, and support.
Walking over to the soccer stadium on Tuesday I passed by the places not too far from my house where the tragic events unfolded. At each place memorials of flowers had emerged–outside the Capri apartments across from the Coop, next to the 7-11 in the new buildings on the Embarcadero loop, in front of the IV Deli on Pardall, and on the lawn of the Alpha Phi house down the street from Freebirds.
Each of these mounds of flowers and candles and notes constituted a shrine. They were holy sites for a community brought together in the spiritual bond created by suffering and reflection.
And as I passed by each of them, walking in silence with my fellow Isla Vistans to the memorial service, I realize that I did live there. And I was proud to call Isla Vista my home.

Elliot Rodger’s Private War

Elliot Rodgers was at war. The troubled narcissistic young man who went on a rampage this weekend in Isla Vista, killing six and then himself, was armed with a small arsenal of automatic weapons.
In a 137 page autobiography that he titled “My Twisted World,” Rodger explained that he was “at war,” but he claimed that he was not the one who created it. Rather, he was responding as a soldier in combat, defending his honor. “Women’s rejection of me is a declaration of war,” he said, adding ominously that “if it’s war they want, then war they shall have.”
Rodger was referring to the fact that although he was obsessed with sexuality, he was still a virgin at age 22. He could not accept the idea that he was to blame for what he regarded as a social failing. He thought of himself as a “magnificent gentleman,” and “a god.” What is interesting, though, is that he thought of his rejection and his planned revenge not as a personal problem but as warfare.
“I am the true victim,” he cried out in the closing paragraph of his autobiography, most likely written hours before committing his savage attacks, his “day of retribution.”
“I didn’t start this war,” he said. “But I will finish it by striking back.”
Rodger had a lifetime of thinking about and acting out roles of combat. His favorite computer game was World of Warcraft, to which he achieved level 60, and to which he was committed for some 14 hours a day when he was in junior high school. The films he admired, including Alpha Dog and Hunger Games–which his father had helped to create as an assistant director–were also seeped in images of battle.
These images do not produce violence, necessarily. But it is striking that virtually all acts of terrorism in the contemporary world employ images of cosmic war that come from their cultural traditions. Follow this link to know about sexy cam chat. For Sikhs it has been the epic wars of Sikh princes against the Moghul Emperors; for Muslims it has been the struggles of jihad described in the Qur’an. For Jews and Christians the divine battles of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) are thought to come to life in contemporary struggles that are seen as skirmishes in a cosmic war.
Though Elliot Rodger was a lone wolf, in the sense that he acted alone, he can also be considered a terrorist informed by American culture. He is an American terrorist who employed the militant cultural images of contemporary American youth culture to inform his own imagined battles. Like other terrorists who have created performances of violence in order to create a momentary sense of social power, Rodger was a soldier in his own desperate and secret cosmic war.