Russia’s Assault on Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He thinks silence from China is part of their deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is available wherever books are sold.

How Health Insurance Denial Saved My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Page 99 Test

The “Page 99 Test” asserts that if you open any book to that page you will get the gist of what the book is about. A website devoted to this idea asked me if it applied to my latest book, and here’s what I told them.

If readers randomly opened my book to page 99 they might indeed get a pretty good sense of what the book is about. The book tries to understand how religious-related violent movements come to an end, viewed from those inside the movements.

The book looks at three case studies—ISIS in Iraq, the Moro movement for Muslim separatism in the Philippines, and the Sikh Khalistan movement in India. On page 99, I’m describing how support for the Sikh uprising began to erode among the Indian villagers who previously had tolerated it:

“Accompanying the increase in violence was a general collapse of law and order, especially in rural areas near the Pakistani border. The young activists had intimidated the older Sikh leaders, who became virtual pawns of the militants. The only authority in some areas came from those who ruled by gun at night. This was due in part to the erosion of idealism in the Sikh movement and in part to the movement’s exploitation by what amounted to street gangs and roving bands of thugs. In time, the Sikh movement had failed to achieve whatever political goals it might have espoused, including the dream of an independent Khalistan, leaving a cynical and demoralized public in its wake.”

As I go on to explain in the book, the loss of support from the public was one of several critical factors in bringing violent movements to a close. Another factor was in-fighting and loss of confidence in the leadership.

Outside factors made a difference as well. Prominent among these was a sense of hope, alternatives to fighting that provided careers for the militants and some concessions to the movements’ demands that would allow the leaders to save face and convince their followers it was all worth while.

The role of police and military was ambivalent. On one hand, it was necessary to have an authoritative show of force so that violent people could be restricted in what they could do and were brought to justice when they committed crimes. On the other hand, all-out attempts to crush the movements through military force often backfired and made the militants more defensive.

Sometimes a military victory over a movement was in fact a coup de grace for a movement that had already essentially destroyed itself from within. The military destruction of ISIS quarters in Raqqa and Mosul, for example, may have been the final blow to a movement that was already badly weakened by infighting and demoralization, according to some of the old militants whom I met.

Many of them continued to believe in the ideals of a Muslim caliphate and would join the movement if it rose again. But for now, they capitulated to the reality that their war was over and the movement had ended.

How QAnon Might End

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

[This essay, based on my new book, When God Stops Fighting, was originally posted on the Religion Dispatches website.] 

QAnon will not last forever. Sooner or later conspiracy theories unravel and violent movements associated with them eventually end.

I make this prediction based on a study of the demise of recent violent religious-related movements around the world, including ISIS, which is the subject of my forthcoming book, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends (University of California Press). Often, I have found, they erode from within. They can vanish as quickly as they emerged.

The QAnon conspiracy and the extremist movements related to it are like summer storms. They boil up from the hot air with fierce intensity. Just as quickly, they can disappear, with only lingering gusts and gales to remind us of the turmoil that they have left behind.

Summer storms, however, are based on real meteorological phenomena. Conspiracy theories and the movements that promote them are even more fragile constructs, since they are based entirely on fiction. QAnon in an imagined reality that can deconstruct, though not necessarily easily.

By “being based on fiction” I mean not only the “big lie” that QAnon promotes, that the recent presidential election was stolen and that Donald Trump is still the president. Associated with this big lie is a quite remarkable imaginary world of alternative reality that proposes that there is a hidden cabal of manipulators in the government, the media, and in the motion picture industry. These Satan-worshippers are part of the “deep state” that runs the country for its own evil purposes. Among those evils are child trafficking and the molestation of innocent children. Donald Trump is a secret savior figure who during his second term of office will ride through the cataclysmic events of what QAnon calls “the storm,” and bring the evil-doers to justice.

Though not all of the rioters in the January 6 capital insurrection subscribed to all of the details of the QAnon conspiracy, most agreed with the main features: that there is an evil liberal plot to control the country and that Trump has been anointed to save the righteous from this liberal fate.

How such conspiracies emerge is an interesting subject of study and conjecture. In an online article, “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon,” Reed Berkowitz claims that the creation of the QAnon conspiracy is similar to the way computer games are designed. The process is something he calls “guided apophenia.” This refers to the ability of the human mind to take disconnected bits of information and attempt to put them into a related whole, even if the construct is illusory. This process can be “guided” by manipulators trying to create a computer game or a strident political ideology. Hence QAnon gives “drops” of information as clues to try to figure out, and those who do so feel that they are making discoveries due to their own powerful rational abilities. It provides the cognitive satisfaction of a treasure hunt or working on a crossword puzzle.

The problem with this process is that it gives the followers the illusion that they are finding out these patterns by themselves. Hence they must be true. The fact that they are then shared by a wider community buttresses this gnostic sense of being privy to a secret source of knowledge.

It is, in a sense, like religion. In their authoritative book on QAnon, Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon, Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko cite those who regard it as a kind of religion. This observation is affirmed by a Christian pastor, Mark Sayer, in an interview published in Christianity Today, “Why Someone You Love Might Join QAnon.” The ideas of QAnon are also merged with other forms of religion, particularly premillennial Evangelical Protestant Christianity. Anyone who believes that the Rapture will come and sweep righteous Christians into heaven before the cataclysmic events of the Book of Revelation and the coming of Christ will recognize a familiar theme in the QAnon prophecy of the “storm,” and the return of Donald Trump to save society.

All this means that this is a deeply entrenched alternative reality and not just a casual conspiracy. So when I said that it can vanish as quickly as a summer storm, I don’t mean to predict that it will.

Nonetheless, from what I have learned from studying how other violent religious movements have ended, including those like ISIS that are as deeply entrenched in their followers minds, I suggest that there are several things that could hasten the unravelling of the theories and the collapse of the movements. If ISIS can dissipate, so can QAnon.

Internal Dissention

I talked with a militant fighter for the Islamic State, whom I will call Muhammad, in a prison in Northern Iraq who told me that the defeat of Mosul was not the deciding moment in the demise of ISIS.

“It was dead before it was destroyed,” Muhammad told me, saying that infighting and bad leadership had corrupted the movement. To illustrate the point, Muhammad pulled up his shirt to show me the scar from where he had been stabbed in an encounter with a fellow ISIS militant. Increasingly, it had seemed to him that they were fighting as much among themselves as they were against their perceived enemies.

He was also frustrated with the movement’s leadership. Though Muhammad clung to the idea of a Caliph as a righteous ruler worth fighting for, he seemed uncertain about whether al-Baghdadi was a sufficiently strong leader to deserve that title. Faith in a movement can erode when its leader is seen as less than legitimate.

A similar loss of faith may be occurring in the QAnon community. The bona fides of Donald Trump seems increasingly to be in question in right-wing extremist circles. His encouragement of followers to be vaccinated against COVID at a recent rally was greeted with boos. Some have criticized his fund-raising and openly suspect that it is not really for legal defense purposes as described.

If greater dissention emerges within the ranks over what elements of QAnon to believe, and if Trump himself is seen as fallible, the conspiracy might begin to unravel. An HBO documentary implied that the figure of QAnon was not some deep state official, but Ron Watkins, the long-time administrator of the 8kun message board on which QAnon’s sayings were posted. Whether this revelation will cause disillusionment in the ranks is yet to be seen.

Resolute Reality

The final ending of the Khalistani uprising of militant Sikhs in India’s Punjab in the 1990s came with from a barrage of military and police repression. Although many of the former militants in the movement told me that the movement had already self-destructed from within, they admitted that the presence of the police had a chilling effect on the movement’s control of the countryside. When the police or military respond too strongly they can send the signal that the image of warfare that many militants project is legitimate, and they respond in kind with more violence. But if there are no boundaries set on what is acceptable behavior, then unbridled bloodshed is possible.

In the case of the Khalistan movement, as with many others that I have studied, the activists have to be reminded of social reality: that there are limits on what they can do in a civil society without repercussions. You can’t kill with impunity. Nor can you be involved in an insurrection against the state without the state taking action against you.

This is what many of the QAnon participants in the January 6 uprising on the U.S. capital are now discovering.  As of mid-November 2021 there were 650 cases being brought to the courts. Some have already resulted in sentences of multiple years in prison. The “QAnon Shaman,” Jacob Chansley, who famously ranted from the podium in the US Capital Senate chambers, is facing charges that may sentence him to 51 months in prison.

These court cases are chilling reminders that armed insurrection against the capital is not tolerated in proper society. The QAnon expectations about permissible public behavior have to be revised. For some in the movement these legal cases are the wakeup call that indicate that the movement has gone too far, and their behavior–if not their beliefs–will not be tolerated.

Face-saving Options

When the Philippine authorities were negotiating in earnest with the Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao, they determined that simply requiring the fighters to lay down their arms was not sufficient. Many of the militants had been guerilla soldiers since they were teenage boys, and now some ten or twenty years later, fighting was the only skill that they knew how to do. For that reason, re-training camps were set up to provide vocational skills such as carpentry, mechanics, and other marketable forms of labor. The authorities wanted to provide the militants not only with reasons to reject what they had been doing but to look forward to a new future by finding alternative ways of rejoining society.

In the case of QAnon, most of those who subscribe to those beliefs do not need new jobs; they already have them. But they do need a face-saving way of re-entering society after stridently identifying themselves with a conspiratorial ideology that many of their former friends and neighbors regard at best as bizarre and at worst demented and quite possibly dangerous. Studies of true believers of any form of extremist religion or ideology show that once one has adopted that position it is very difficult to leave it without losing face.

This is where the religious aspects of the QAnon movement might become useful. Since for many, as Bloom and Moskalenko have stated, QAnon is a religion, and for many more it is closely intertwined with their religious affiliation to Evangelical Protestantism, the two could be combined. It could be fairly easy to maintain at least some of elements of the QAnon worldview and merge them with religious apocalypticism, thereby de-politicizing the ideology. It might not be difficult to persuade former QAnon advocates that the alternative world of evil that they imagine is a spiritual rather than a political one. They might return to the notion that the savior who will rescue them is the Christ that they have proclaimed for years, rather than Donald Trump.

Another option would be the one chosen by many former followers of ISIS. They are no longer warriors. They grudgingly accept the legitimacy of the secular state in Iraq and Syria, but they secretly long for the Caliphate that they once tried to create through militancy. They repress their desires for a religious state, and usually refrain from talking about it in public. But among their old comrades they can still discuss the glory days and share their longing for the Caliphate to rise again.

This may be the fate of the QAnon of the future. Old radicals may convene at each other’s homes and share stories of the great insurrection on January 6, 2021. They may share visions of the future “storm” and the cleansing of pedophiles and satanic powers from government, and the eventual return of Donald Trump. And then they will go back to work the next day as if nothing had happened. And no one will be the wiser.

QAnon will not last forever. Sooner or later conspiracy theories unravel and violent movements associated with them eventually end.



How Religious Violence Ends

An excerpt from the preface of my forthcoming book, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends (University of California Press, 2022).

“The war is over,” the former ISIS fighter told me. When I talked with him he was incarcerated in a prison in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He had been convicted of being a jihadi warrior with the Islamic State, but now he expressed disillusionment with the movement and its leadership.

I had asked him whether the ISIS struggle was still attractive to some people. He looked at me in disbelief, and then said quietly, “the war is over.” Without admitting that he ever was fully in it, he was acknowledging that this battle was now a thing of the past. What he did not admit, however, was that the apocalyptic imagery of conflict at the end times and the rise of a Caliphate was no longer valid. The battle was over, but for some the ideas remained. It was a sentiment that he shared with many of the old ISIS fighters, as I was to discover in other conversations. Yet for now, he sadly acknowledged, the war was over.

It is not an easy thing to slip out of war. Perhaps it is more difficult than slipping into it, considering all of the personal, social, and spiritual aspects of a commitment to a struggle that have to be abandoned. Yet war ends. Violent movements, even those informed by religious visions of great warfare, terminate, or are transformed into more peaceful elements within the broader society.

In this book I want to try to understand how this happens. My motive is to complete my own understanding of the rise of movements of religious nationalism and religion-related violence around the world, a project in which I have been engaged for decades. The natural conclusion of these studies is to understand how such movements end. As it turns out, it is also a timely one.

As I prepared this book for publication, the news media fixated on the assault on the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021, provoked by then-president Donald Trump. Though not overtly religious, the White supremacists who were among the most ardent members of that insurrection privileged Christian culture. The conspiratorial mythology of the QAnon movement to which many of the participants adhered borrowed heavily from the imagery and end-times rhetoric of millenarian evangelical Protestant Christianity. Many of the participants regarded their involvement as part of a godly crusade—the kind of cosmic war that is in the minds of similar religious activists of various faiths around the world who see worldly confrontations as expressions of a metaphysical struggle between good and evil, right and wrong.

It is of timely importance then, to understand not only how such movements arise—the mood of alienation and marginalization that has propelled people to imagine themselves in a great righteous war—but also how they might end. As the case studies in this book will indicate, the way that governmental authorities respond to these movements can make all the difference. It can exacerbate the situation or alleviate it. But such movements do end.

To understand how this happens, I’ve tried to get inside the minds and mindsets of individuals involved in specific cases. I have chosen case studies where violent movements have largely come to a close. In deciding which cases to focus on I considered a range of possibilities. I could have chosen the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, though I have already analyzed how this conflict ended. Or I could have examined the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, though that movement, even in a diminished state, continues its savage warfare in the region. The list goes on, though many imagined wars are still continuing and it is too early to examine how they might end.

Out of the range of possibilities I have chosen three case studies. One of them is the Islamic State, based in Iraq and Syria, which reigned over large sections of both countries from 2015 to 2017 and was territorially defeated by 2018. This is a movement that I have studied since its inception, through multiple visits to the region, and is an example of attempts to crush such uprisings through military destruction.

The second case is the Moro Movement for a Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines, a Muslim separatist movement that persisted from 1969 to 2019, when a peace agreement was finally ratified by a plebiscite in the region. This was a new movement for me to study, but I chose it in part because it showed the possibilities of the transition from violence to nonviolence through skillful negotiation—much like the Northern Ireland case.

The third case I have chosen is the Khalistan movement for Sikh separatism in the north Indian state of Punjab. The Sikh movement was involved in a deadly conflict with the Indian government throughout the 1980s and finally came to an end in 1993 for a variety of reasons, including an all-out assault by the Indian police. This is a movement that I know well, since I lived for a time in the region, and it was the rise of religious nationalism in the 1980s in the Punjab that first sparked my interest in studying the relationship between religion and nationalism in strident new movements of opposition. It also interested me because it was an example, like ISIS, of militant suppression, but also of the collapse of popular support for the uprising. Hence these three cases provided me with a range of ways in which violent movements end.

I realize that in choosing two Muslim cases out of the three I may be giving a false impression that Islam is more prone to violence and movements of religious nationalism than other religious traditions. This is not the case. For a more balanced view of the rise of religious violence that occurs in all religious traditions one may consult my earlier books, Global Rebellion: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. For this book, I have chosen these two cases because they provide an interesting comparison with each other and the Khalistan case about how such movements end.

I say that each of these movements came to an end, though in each case aspects of the struggle linger on. Occasional acts of violence associated with them continue. Moreover, like the former ISIS soldier I met, the sense of militancy, the vision of great war, that animated each of them has endured among some supporters. Among many others, however, the idea of war was over long before the hostilities ended. That loss of faith in the war effort may have been a major factor in the ending of each of these movements.

How much of a factor was it? This is what I wanted to find out by looking more closely at each of these cases. I have traveled to these three regions on several occasions and talked with a variety of former supporters and others knowledgeable about the situation. By looking at different cases I hoped to find elements that were common to all three, as well as those that were not. I hoped to develop the range of patterns regarding how visions of warfare come to an end. I also wanted to understand what factors propelled the movements towards abandoning the idea of war, factors that were both internal to the movements and that came from outside, including the actions of government authorities who were trying to control or crush the movements. Which of these actions were helpful in bringing an end to the hostilities and which were counter-productive?

In this book I want to bring the reader with me into the worlds imagined by supporters of each of these three movements. We will try to understand how sensible people could be drawn into a state of remarkable war, and how in time they lost faith in that vision and found ways to extricate themselves from the movements that had fostered it. It will be a remarkable journey to three quite different locales, but in each case the end will be the promise of enduring peace.


Further information on the book may be found at the UC Press website:



Michael Was Not Ordinary

This was given as the eulogy at the memorial for Michael Jerryson at Youngstown State University on September 15, 2021

Michael Jerryson was not very successful….at being ordinary. He tried, but he was just not very good at it.

For example, he joined the Peace Corps after college. What could be more ordinary than that? He was stationed in Mongolia. There he just wanted to be an ordinary Peace Corps worker, out in the field helping with agriculture development projects and helping villagers improve their public health.

He did all that, which is the ordinary thing to do. But Michael’s mind kept working. He saw that Mongolian society was beginning to change, and the role of the Buddhist sangha, the monks, was taking on increased social and political power.

So in between his other Peace Corps tasks he studied the Buddhist sangha in Mongolia, and ended up publishing it as a book. That is not an ordinary thing to do in the Peace Corps.

He came to graduate school at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He just wanted to be an ordinary graduate student. But he kept winning scholarships and receiving awards for being the best teaching assistant. One of the undergraduate students in his classes told me that he was first attracted to Michael because he seemed such an ordinary guy, someone you could easily relate to. And he was. “But then,” the student added, “he changed my life. He opened my eyes in ways no teacher had done before.”

Michael was not an ordinary graduate student. He challenged his professors. I was one of them who soon realized that this guy was not just an ordinary student. He was a colleague. And we ended up co-editing three book projects together. That is not ordinary.

Michael’s research work was not ordinary either. Oh, he chose an ordinary subject—the role of peace making by Buddhist monks. What could be more ordinary than that? Everyone knows that Buddhism is nonviolent, the religion of peace.

So Michael went to Thailand to study the Buddhist monks and their role in peacemaking. He knew there was conflict at the southern border between Buddhist and Muslim groups, and Michael immediately went there to see what the monks were doing to bring about peace. That would be what you ordinarily expect.

But that’s not what Michael found. He discovered that the monks were not trying to bring peace but some had guns under their robes and they were joining the fight. So Michael changed his topic, and began to explore how even Buddhists could at times justify violence.

This is not the ordinary way of looking at Buddhism. But it showed that Buddhist people are in fact people, and like everyone else in the world they use their religion for good and at times to support conflict. Michael meant no disrespect towards Buddhism, a tradition that he greatly admired, but intellectual honesty led him to probe more deeply into the dark side of the tradition. It was not the ordinary approach; but it has made Michael internationally famous in the fields of Buddhist studies and of religion and violence. As I recently wrote about him, “after Michael Jerryson no one will look at Buddhism the same way.” This is not an ordinary scholarly impact on a field of studies.

Now whether Michael was an ordinary husband and father is not for me to say. But you can see the evidence before you—Fawn and Siena and Parker, this is not your ordinary family. Each is special, and has become so, I believe, in part because Michael has encouraged them to not just be ordinary.

The same can be said, I suspect, regarding his interaction with students and colleagues at YSU. You will hear from many of them in a moment. And what they will tell you, I think, is that Michael was not an ordinary professor and colleague.

He was not your ordinary obedient faculty member. Even before he received tenure he began pointing out to the administration the institutional injustices of the university. He fought for more equitable treatment of faculty and students, just as he has fought for equal justice in issues of gender, race, and sexuality. He has never been willing to accept the ordinary when human rights have been imperiled.

Michael, as my undergraduate student said, seemed like such an ordinary guy, so warm and friendly, full of humor and good common sense. So ordinary. And yet when you got to know him you discovered how much more than ordinary he could be.

Michael was able to transform institutions, just he has transformed his subjects and those around him at every stage of life he has lived. He had a Midas touch for social and personal transformation. What a guy.

So we remember Michael Jerryson. In all that he taught, in all that he studied, and in all the lives he touched, he made the ordinary extraordinary.


How 9/11 Launched a War

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 11 (Photo by Anthony Correia/Getty Images)

This essay was published on September 11, 2021 in the Los Angeles Review of Books in a special issue on the impact of 9/11 twenty years later. 

Before the second tower fell, I was already on national television trying to give a credible answer regarding whom the perpetrators might be and why they did it. I had just published a book on religious terrorism based on interviews with activists around the world, so I was on the rolodex of television producers when the towers were attacked.

“If they were Muslim, it was just a small group,” I explained. “You can’t blame the entire Muslim world.”

“That’s an interesting opinion,” the Fox News host said, quickly cutting off my microphone. This was not the analysis he wanted to hear.

At the time, it seemed no one wanted to hear that. Though President George W. Bush also admonished the country not to blame all Muslims, clearly he and his neocon cohort had a larger agenda in mind, one that targeted the Muslim world. Responding to 9/11 was not just the obligation to round up the perpetrators — it was a chance to reset US policy in the Middle East.

This became clear on September 12, 2001, which in some ways was an even more fateful day than 9/11. Bush announced on television that this attack was not just a terrorist incident, it was “war.” Soon the banner of the War on Terror, a.k.a. the Global War on Terror — GWOT, was the persistent slogan creeping along the bottom of television screens.

Arguably GWOT was the fourth world war, following the Cold War that was preceded by World Wars I and II. It dominated US foreign policy for all of the Bush administration years and to some extent long afterward, and it resulted in the US invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. As of this writing, some two decades later, President Joe Biden is still trying to extricate the last of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the turmoil created by those invasions will not soon subside.

But why did the 9/11 attack indicate that we were at war? This is a question that I raised to a group of students in my classes shortly after the attack. They were uniformly convinced that it was an act of war.

What if the towers had fallen down at night when no one was there, I asked? They seemed puzzled, but agreed that that would not have been sufficient for war. What if the perpetrators were simply a small band of extremists, a suggestion that many of them knew was in fact the case. Still, they said, there must have been a larger force behind them. I pointed out that jihadi extremists had targeted America for some 10 years and the American public did not see itself at war.

“But September 11 was different,” the students argued, “because it worked.”

“Besides,” one of the women in the class said, breaking the silence, “it was such a crazy thing, those towers falling. It had to be war.”

Her comment was striking, since it was irrational, and yet totally convincing. 9/11 was war, she was saying, because it was the only thing that made sense of such a senseless situation.

For some years since then, I have been thinking about her response. It was echoed in a similar way by Sunni Arabs in Iraq who supported ISIS, and it was the sentiment of Sikh separatists in India and angry Buddhists in Myanmar. The many activist movements that I have studied in the last 30 years have had a common theme of believing that they were engaged in great wars.

Last year my thinking about this came to fruition in a book, God at War, where I concluded that in each case the idea of war started the same way. It was a response to an existential fear that the world had gone awry, and some evil force must be behind it.

This is a justifiable fear in many cases — it is clear who the enemy is. But in some cases the enemy is mystery, and one has a vague, inchoate sense of being under attack by an amorphous unseen force. This was the case in 9/11. The students in my class knew viscerally that it was war, though they couldn’t quite identify who did it or why we were the target. But they knew that Muslims were somehow involved.

The idea of war has consequences, and in the case of the Global War on Terror, the Muslim connection turned out to be troublesome on several levels. For one thing, it has led to a rash of Islamophobia in the United States that has still not subsided. For another, it has fueled the justifications for the invasion and occupation of two Muslim nations.

In both instances, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were ostensibly about things other than religion. The assault on Afghanistan was supposed to enable the US military to capture the al-Qaeda headquarters and rid the world of terrorism, though neither of those things happened. And the war in Iraq was sold to the American people as the means to find and destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Those were not found either.

Still, to buttress the case for invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that Saddam and Osama bin Laden had been conspiring together. It was an unlikely possibility, considering that the Iraq ruler was a secular socialist with no previous ties to religiosity. But in the minds of many Americans the invasion of Iraq, like Afghanistan, was a response to the Muslim attack on 9/11.

One of the first dramatic moments of the US occupation of Iraq came when a statue of Saddam was toppled in Fardous Square in Baghdad. As the ropes were tied on the statue to bring it down a young marine climbed to the top to put an American flag over Saddam’s face, rather like an execution hood.

His marine superiors immediately had him take it down since this was supposed to be an Iraq people’s moment, not an American celebration. But when asked by a Reuters reporter why he did it, the marine explained that this was not just any flag, it was an American flag that flew over the Pentagon the day that it was attacked by the jihadi activists on 9/11.

When the marine was told that Saddam did not have any connection to bin Laden or the 9/11 jihadis, the marine was persistent. “I know,” he said, “but in my heart I felt we were getting even for 9/11.”

Some 20 years later there are still those Americans who feel that we should be “getting even” with the Muslim world. It was only a small radical fringe that perpetrated 9/11, but once the notion of war invaded our minds it required an enemy of grand proportions. It is a devious myth, one that has not easily been dispelled.


Will the Taliban Remain Moderate?

This essay was posted August 24 in Religion Dispatches

Some ten days after the fall of Kabul it’s still not clear how the Taliban will rule. There are several reports of reprisal killings and brutal enforcement of their strict interpretation of Islamic law. But there are also statements of support for women’s rights, protection from reprisals, and overtures of the Taliban leadership to former Afghan leaders like Hamid Karzai to create a coalition government. More significantly, for over a week the Taliban stood aside while 50,000 foreigners and their Afghan supporters were airlifted from the Kabul airport.

The question is whether the Taliban has changed. Will it be the same hard line Islamic state that it tried to create the last time it was in power, twenty years ago? Many are, quite justifiably, skeptical of what Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr called a “charm offensive” in an article noting that while there will be no “discrimination” against women they will be living within the “framework” of Islam, which of course has numerous interpretations.

But even if the Taliban doesn’t want to change it might have to. For one thing, Afghanistan isn’t the same place as it was twenty years ago when ruling it was more of a pushover. Now it’ll have to adapt to some degree to its new freedom-loving urban constituency. Throughout Afghanistan people have cell phones and access to the internet. It’ll be difficult to have the same kind of social control two decades later.

Another factor is the way the Taliban came to power in recent months. In February 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo represented President Donald Trump in meetings with Taliban representatives in Qatar. Trump essentially surrendered to the Taliban in exchange for assurances that the US would withdraw peaceably. The US. then drew down its military presence to a tiny fraction of what it had been before, and with no assurances given to the Afghan government (which wasn’t even a party to the negotiations), the US agreed to withdraw all of its troops by mid-2021.

This was an enormously generous gift to the Taliban. They knew that Biden’s hands would be tied to the Trump decision—if he didn’t pull out the last US troops in mid-2021 as promised, the Taliban would militarily attack the paltry 2500 remaining troops and, assuming that the Afghan military wasn’t capable of resisting the Taliban (as was clearly demonstrated in the final weeks before the fall of Kabul) Biden’s only choice would be to ramp up the US military presence to a fighting force of 100,000 or so to protect the remaining 2500. There was very little stomach among the American people for yet more war in Afghanistan, an opinion shared by Biden himself. So he bit the bullet and withdrew the last remaining troops, and the world has witnessed the consequence.

For the Taliban, however, the Trump deal was a godsend. Not only did it hand them the country without needing to fight the US, but also it gave them time to make deals with regional warlords, tribal leaders, and Afghan military commanders to allow them safe harbor (and in some cases plum positions) if they agreed to change sides at the appropriate moment.

That moment came in August, when the new American President, Joe Biden, announced the withdrawal of the last troops. Methodically, region by region, the resistance fell within days like a house of cards, virtually without firing a shot. At the end, the Taliban simply marched into Kabul and took over.

This patient pattern of negotiation and coalition-building, however, has changed the Taliban. Although the movement continues to give voice to the extremist Islamic ideology for which it is justly infamous, it has also tempered its talk, in part to mollify its coalition partners. It remains to be seen if their support will be dropped as soon as the Taliban has secured its hold on the political apparatus of the country, but assuming they continue to need this support their extreme position will be at least partially checked.

One reason why it would be in the Taliban’s interest to maintain good relations with its internal coalition and with international connections such as Russia and Pakistan is that it remembers what happened twenty years ago. At that time an intensive US military assault was able to destroy the Taliban’s control as quickly as the American-supported Afghan government collapsed in 2021. In both cases the critical issue was a withdrawal of support from tribal warlords and regional leaders in what had been tacit support. The Taliban is mindful that this could happen again.

An indication that the Taliban leaders are taking a more prudent course is its approach to the US evacuations at the Kabul airport. They appear to have been in no mood to confront the might of the US military, especially since they’d been assured that it was going to leave. Instead, the Taliban leaders adopted a position of patience. They proclaimed that there would be no reprisals and free access to the airport. With some truly unfortunate exceptions, this promise was largely met.

Compare this to the last time the US lost a war and had to suddenly retreat during the fall of Saigon. During that memorable scramble in 1975, US diplomats had to evacuate the embassy via helicopters that landed on the roof as the North Vietnamese army tanks literally broke down the Embassy gates. The airport was out of commission since the North Vietnamese military had attacked it, and in fact the last American soldiers to lose their lives in the war were defending the airport. After that last helicopter flight not a single person was evacuated by the US military. The “boat people” who fled Vietnam did so on their own.

By contrast the Taliban has been remarkably patient. The airport hasn’t been bombarded, and tens of thousands of Afghan people have been able to board US military cargo planes. Though some Taliban soldiers have made the exit difficult, others have helped to control the crowds and check their documents to make certain that the papers of those trying to leave were in order. Understandably, however, tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who would like to leave the country simply to have a better life abroad were not able to do so.

For many of them, especially those who have come to enjoy the secular lifestyle that’s developed in Afghanistan’s cities in the past twenty years, the question is whether the Taliban will rule like another Islamic State (ISIS). In this regard it is interesting to note that there is in fact an indigenous movement in Afghanistan that calls itself ISIS-Khorasan (Khorasan is the 6th century designation for a region that stretched from Eastern Iran through Afghanistan to Central Asia). But this ISIS-K is led by renegade former Taliban militants, and is a rival of the Taliban, so they will likely try to co-opt or destroy it.

So the Taliban will not become ISIS, but it could rule like ISIS, as it did twenty years ago, or it could change along the lines that it has professed it would, and which its coalition and urban centers might welcome. Whether one thinks that that’s possible depends in part on whether one thinks a religious regime of this sort is capable of internal change without the necessity for an invasion from outside.

The diversity of political positions within the Islamic Republic of Iran give some indication that even a rather rigid religious regime is indeed capable of flexibility and perhaps significant change on its own. Muslim militants in other parts of the world have disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini and rejected many of his positions. Post-revolution leaders in Iran, including Mohammad Khatami, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani have been considerably more moderate than the extremists. Saudi Arabia is another hardline autocratic country that seems to tolerate a certain degree of dissention and liberal lifestyles—at least in private.

The leaders of the Taliban claim that now that they’re in charge they want a new leadership style, one that will create a stable respectable government, albeit one with strong Muslim religious limitations. We’ll see if this promise is fulfilled. But if Afghanistan does turn out to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia, then there’s another question: whether the US can live with it, and if so, whether it accepts that its twenty years of attempts to transform Afghanistan have at least in part succeeded.

That may be the enduring legacy of the long US occupation: a more moderate Taliban. Whether this was worth the trillions of dollars spent and lives lost in maintaining the occupation all these years will be debated for some time to come. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether this moderate stance will last.

Was Afghanistan Necessary?

Picture: Taliban entering Kabul August 15, 2021

This essay was posted in English and Polish translation on the website of the Warsaw news magazine Najwazniejsze. 

In contrast to Iraq, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan beginning in October 2001 is often regarded as the good war. Iraq was the bad war, the unnecessary war in many people’s estimation.

But the sudden though inevitable collapse of the Afghan government and the resurgent Taliban control has raised new questions about why the U.S. military went into the country in the first place, and what in twenty years was accomplished. Was Afghanistan also an unnecessary war?

In the days after the tumultuous events of September 11, 2001, there seemed to be no question is the minds of most sensitive people around the world that the perpetrators of this hideous act needed to be caught and brought to justice. When it became clear that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had played a role in housing Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the global jihadi movement who had their base of operation in the country, it seemed obvious to many that the regime itself had to be confronted.

Though no one had ever accused the Afghan leaders of being directly involved in the planning and conduct of the terrorist act, they were presumed to be guilty of willingly harboring terrorists. Moreover, the Taliban was a harsh extremist regime with very little international support. Only three countries in the world had extended it official recognition before 9/11 – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan – and after the attacks even these few ties were severed. Thus, it seemed, no one was willing to come to Afghanistan’s defense as the U.S. military prepared to invade the country.

Yet the invasion of Afghanistan has raised some interesting questions. Was the invasion necessary, and did the U.S. expect that their presence would enable Afghanis to adopt a different kind of regime?

The Taliban was one of several contending Islamic parties in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet-backed regime that had ruled the country since the Saur Revolution brought a socialist form of government to power in 1978. After a long and debilitating struggle between the Soviet-backed Afghan socialist regime and the Islamic resistance forces – the mujahadin (“fighters”) – the Soviet Union withdrew its support in 1989. The regime of Mohammad Najibullah was soon toppled.

Fighters who had come to join the mujahadin from throughout the Islamic world returned to their own countries and to expatriate communities in Europe and the United States, having been trained in guerrilla warfare and fired with rebellious zeal. Some of these became the terrorists of the new jihadi struggle against the secular governments backed by Europe and the United States, and changed the course of international relations in the post-Cold War world. These mujahadin-hardened fighters included the Saudi militant Osama bin Laden whose organization, al Qaeda (“the base”) was formed during the Afghan-Soviet war.

In the vacuum of power in Afghanistan, a new militant group was taking shape. It was based on former mujahadin militia, but with a more hard-core and strident religious ideological framework. It was called the Taliban, and it quickly emerged as a significant new force.

Taliban literally means “student,” and refers to the origins of the movement: young men who had attended madrassas, or Muslim schools, in the Pashtun-dominated areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan and of the Baluchistan and North-West Frontier provinces of Pakistan. The leader of the movement, Mullah Mohammed Omar, came from a village near Kandahar, attended a religious school – a madrassa – and served as a mullah. He was missing one eye, which he lost in the resistance struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He is said to have never flown on a plane and was uneasy around foreigners.

Though the Taliban was best known outside of Afghanistan for its religious conservatism, the main differences between it and the other religiously conservative groups in the country, such as the Northern Alliance headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud, were ethnic. Massoud and most of his followers were Tajik, and Mullah Omar and his Taliban cadres were Pashtun (Pathan). Mullah Omar was also distinguished by his effective military strength, rumored to have been aided by elements of the Pakistan intelligence agency.

By 1995 Taliban forces were able to capture the capital, Kabul. In 1997 Omar renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In August 1998 almost all of the last outposts of opposition in northern Afghanistan crumbled to his control, though the forces of the Northern Alliance led by Massoud fought on. Massoud’s armies were at the forefront of the US-based military conquest of the Taliban in 2001, though Massoud himself had been killed, most likely by Osama bin Laden’s cadres, days before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is notable that in the August 2021 blitzkrieg that solidified the Taliban’s renewed power, they quickly captured the northern region, thereby diffusing the possibility of a Tajik-based opposition to the Pashtun Taliban militia.

Shortly after the Taliban had gained control of the country in 1996, bin Laden, along with his Egyptian colleague, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and some two hundred of their band of jihadi warriors returned to their old base in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had been abruptly asked to leave his headquarters in Sudan, and thought that the Taliban would provide a more hospitable field of operations. His hopes were fulfilled, and Afghanistan turned out to be a friendly platform for bin Laden and Zawahiri to launch a campaign of global jihadi warfare.

Bin Laden soon ingratiated himself with the leader, Mullah Omar, showering him with gifts and more – some say that he arranged the marriage of one of his daughters to the Taliban leader. Bin Laden and al Zawahiri provided training for their cadres in the old Tora Bora headquarters left-over from the Afghan-Soviet war. They were able to communicate with their operatives and supporters over the world by utilizing new communication devices such as radio telephones and the internet. One of bin Laden’s first acts in 1996 was to release a statement, “A Declaration of Jihad Against the American Occupation of the Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries.” The land of the two holy places referred to Saudi Arabia, where both Mecca and Medina are located, and the presence of American military bases amounted to an occupation, in bin Laden’s frame of reference.

Two years later, in 1998, bin Laden and Zawahiri, along with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and other militants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt, proclaimed a World Islamic Front against the “Crusaders and Zionists” – the United States, Europe, and Israel. Though the mujahidin struggle in the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s was arguably one of the first chapters in global jihad, the 1998 proclamation helped to launch an expanded international campaign of violence. The declaration was issued as a fatwa—a religious edict. It implored Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military,” as “an individual duty” in any country “in which it is possible to do it,” in order to liberate the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, to free the land of the holy places – Saudi Arabia – from foreign forces, and to remove the American military from all Islamic lands, “defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.” Hence this fatwa gave an ideological justification for an international network to respond to what it described as a global scheme of America and the West to control and denigrate Islamic society.

Within a few months of the proclamation, in August 1998, the al Qaeda network from its base in Afghanistan was able to carry out a spectacular pair of bombings almost simultaneously on U.S. embassies in two African countries, Kenya and Tanzania. Over 200 were killed and many more injured, many of them Africans speared by falling glass from high-rise buildings adjacent to the shattered embassies. Within days, U.S. President Bill Clinton proclaimed that bin Laden and the “Islamic Army Organization” were responsible for the bombings. He ordered a military raid on an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, seeking but failing to kill bin Laden and his inner circle. In October 2000, Bin Laden’s network was associated with a brazen attack on the American navy vessel, the U.S.S. Cole, by a suicide squad of jihadi activists as the U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer was docked in the Aden harbor in Yemen.

The attacks on 9/11, however, created a whole new level of engagement and reprisal. Almost immediately, members of the jihadi movement in general and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network in particular were the prime suspects. Mohammad Attah, who was on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center towers, was quickly identified as one of the leaders of the operation. Papers in his luggage, which did not make it on the transfer from his earlier flight from Portland Maine to Logan Airport in Boston, identified all nineteen of the hijackers. Most were from Saudi Arabia. Attah, however, was an Egyptian who had lived in Germany. He is said to have come under the influence of radical Islam in Europe and to have met Osama bin Laden in 1999. He then received his mission to participate in what was called by jihadi leaders as the “Planes Project.”

On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush accused the Taliban of harboring al Qaeda terrorists. He delivered a non-negotiable ultimatum demanding that the Taliban government do five things: hand over Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to the United States for prosecution; release all foreign nationals, including Americans, “unjustly imprisoned” in Afghanistan; destroy bin Laden’s terrorist training camps in the country; allow US inspectors into Afghanistan to make sure that the camps were destroyed; and “protect all journalists, diplomats, and aid workers” in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the ultimatum included two items (the release of political prisoners and protection of journalists) that were not directly related to al Qaeda. But it is unlikely that the Taliban would have accepted the demands even if they were limited to what were regarded as terrorist operations. The Afghan government rejected Bush’s demands, saying that they would hold a trial for bin Laden if the US offered any evidence of his complicity in the attacks. At the same time, the Grand Islamic Council of Afghanistan – a convocation of the leading clerics in the country – met in response to the Taliban’s request for their advice on how the Afghan government should respond. The Taliban’s Mullah Omar was likely uncertain what to do in this situation, in part because he was almost completely ignorant of affairs outside his own country and did not understand what the collapse of some building far away had to do with him. Hence he sought his clerical convocation for guidance.

Perhaps to the Taliban leadership’s surprise, the convocation suggested that Osama bin Laden and his foreign militants immediately leave the country. News reports indicated that the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, was considering the recommendation and would likely have accepted it if he had an indication from Washington that this would be sufficient to keep the US from invading his country. The response from the White House was immediate and negative, however, saying that it would not be sufficient to allow bin Laden to leave Afghanistan only to slip into hiding in another country.

The Taliban government then offered another solution. It would remove bin Laden from Afghanistan under guard in order for him to stand trial in a neutral, third party country (not specified) if the United States would provide evidence that Osama bin Laden was indeed implicated in the attacks. Although this proposal seems reasonable, by the time the Taliban leadership suggested it the matter was moot, since the United States military had already attacked the country and were attempting to destroy bin Laden’s likely hideouts and forcibly remove the Taliban from office.

The combined efforts of American military air strikes and the revived forces of the Northern Alliance caused the Taliban regime to crumble at the end of 2001. The Taliban central regime fell quickly, in part because tribal war lords in Afghan’s regional outposts withdrew their support from what they perceived to be a losing situation—which is largely what happened in the August 2021 collapse of the American-supported Afghan regime. When the Taliban fled from Kabul on November 12, 2001, even members of the Taliban’s own ethnic community, Pushtun, celebrated as if the country had been liberated from an evil oppressive rule, though clearly no government since then has been able to gained the stable confidence of the Afghan people.

The Bush regime clearly had been determined to topple the Taliban regime regardless of whether or not they banished bin Laden from the country or released him into the hands of a third-party nation for a trial. It regarded the Taliban not only as an accomplice of Osama bin Laden but also as a kind of terrorist movement in its own right.

No matter that evidence was never given at the time for bin Laden’s complicity in the 9/11 attack. In fact it might have been difficult for the US to produce such documentation without revealing its intelligence sources. Besides, the official 9/11 Commission Report identified another jihadi militant, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, based in Pakistan, as the chief architect behind 9/11, not bin Laden. Nonetheless, at the time the dominant position within US leadership circles was that the Taliban was implicated in the 9/11 attack. The most important link in the minds of many who regarded the Afghan invasion as justified was a conceptual one: the notion that the Taliban and al Qaeda were essentially the same kind of thing.

Many have assumed that a radical Islamic regime like the Taliban was terrorist by its very nature. Therefore, whether or not there was an al Qaeda link, toppling such a radical religious regime was morally warranted. It is an interesting moral assumption and a problematic one.

There is no question that Afghanistan was ruled by an unsavory band of leaders. What frightened people about the Taliban was not only its reliance on brutal exercises of violence as a way of controlling its citizenry but also the restrictions on civil liberties that gave the government the appearance of enslaving its populace. Even if the darkest assessments of the Taliban’s harsh rule were true, however, the question remains as to whether these would be sufficient reasons for an external invasion to liberate the country. Part of the answer to that question is the degree to which one thinks a religious regime of this sort is capable of internal change without the necessity for an invasion from outside.

The diversity of political positions within the Islamic Republic of Iran gives some indication that even a rather rigid religious regime is indeed capable of flexibility and perhaps significant change on its own. Muslim militants in other parts of the world – including Sheik Ahmed Yassin in Palestine and Qazi Turadqhonqodz in Tajikistan – have disagreed with Ayotollah Khomeini and rejected many of his positions. Other post-revolution leaders in Iran, including Mohammad Khatami, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Hassan Rouhani have been considerably more moderate than the extremists. Saudi Arabia is another hard-line autocratic country that seems to tolerate a certain degree of dissention and liberal lifestyles, at least in private.

The leaders of the Taliban claim that now that they are in charge they want to create a stable respectable government, albeit one with strong Muslim religious limitations. We will see if this promise is fulfilled. But if Afghanistan does turn out to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia or one of the Gulf State Emirates, the question is whether the US can live with it. And if so, whether it accepts that its twenty years of attempts to transform Afghanistan have at least in part succeeded.





Why Michael Jerryson Mattered

This essay was posted in Religion Dispatches with the title, “After Michael Jerryson Nobody Will Ever Look at Buddhism the Same”

It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that after Michael Jerryson no one will ever look at Buddhism the same way. Others have written about Buddhist violence and warfare, of course, but Jerryson brought it to public attention in a way that could not be ignored.

When he died this last week after over two years of struggling with ALS (the dreaded neurological Lou Gehrigs’s disease), Jerryson left a rich corpus of writings, including nine books. Among them were his solely authored works, including Buddhist Fury, and If You Meet the Buddha on the Road (quoting the famous line attributed to a Chinese Buddhist monk that ends with the words, “kill him”). He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, and the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (co-edited with Margo Kitts and myself).

The cover of a book that Jerryson and I co-edited on Buddhist Warfare portrayed a young monk holding a handgun. When this picture appeared accompanying a review of the book in the London Times Literary Supplement, readers were outraged. “How could this be?” several readers demanded to know, “since as everyone knows Buddhism is the religion of nonviolence?”

After Jerryson everyone now knows that Buddhism is like every other religious tradition on the planet. It is capable of inspiring great moments of insight and fomenting peace and toleration. But it can also accompany the angry attacks of Buddhists, goaded on by activist monks, in slaughtering Muslims in Myanmar, tsetting their houses on fire and burning the innocent victims alive. This too is Buddhism.

In writing about such matters, Jerryson makes clear that he is not out to trash the tradition. Quite the opposite. Because Jerryson has lived and worked with Buddhists in Mongolia, Thailand, and elsewhere, he felt a kinship with the Buddhist community and an admiration for its tradition.

But Jerryson was also a scholar with enormous intellectual curiosity. As he explained in an 2010 essay in Religion Dispatches, “Monks with Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence,” initially he came to Thailand to study Buddhist pacifism and social activism. But when violence broke out in Southern Thailand between Muslims and Buddhists, he wanted to go and see what the monks were doing there to bring about peace.

What he discovered was quite different. The Buddhist monks in the region had little interest in peace-making. Mostly they wanted to defend themselves and their Buddhist community, and many were armed in order to do so.

What Michael discovered, as he explained in his Religion Dispatches essay, was “not that Buddhists are angry, violent people. But rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.”

Since then we have seen an abundance of other examples of Buddhists acting violently—which is to say acting the way that all people can do. Some of the most virulent are the Buddhist riots against Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka where vitriolic monks have added to the climate of hate and ethnic anger.

It was this violent side of Buddhism that both troubled and interested Jerryson. It troubled him since he admired the tradition and cherished its attitudes towards peace and tolerance. But as a scholar he was also fascinated with the diversity within the Buddhist community and the degree to which ideas and images from the religious tradition could be employed in quite hostile ways.

Jerryson then began to ruminate over why we are surprised at discovering this dark side of Buddhism. Why should it be counterintuitive that Buddhist societies, just like all other societies around the world regardless of religious affiliation, have at times embraced violence?

This attitude of ours towards Buddhism, Jerryson reasoned, tells us more about ourselves than about the Buddhist tradition. There has been an image of pacific and reflective Buddhism that has been marketed in the West, often by itinerant Buddhist teachers. Not that this image is incorrect—there is much in Buddhism to admire and to share with peace-loving people everywhere.

It is not, however, the whole story. And for a scholar of Buddhism, what is left out of the popular image is as interesting as what is included.

Jerryson’s interest in Buddhist violence has come at a critical time in global history. Increasingly violence and religion have been associated together in movements of xenophobic religious nationalism, not just in Buddhist societies but around the world.

For this reason Jerryson began to turn his attention more broadly to religion and violence around the world. He saw the phenomenon of Buddhist political violence within a global framework. His more recent work has focused on comparative studies, including editing a two-volume comprehensive set of essays on Religious Violence Today: Faith and Conflict in the Modern World.

Jerryson had outlined a new book project that he wanted to write. It would expand on some of the concepts that I have developed in Terror in the Mind of God, and try to identify the critical occasions in which religion and violence become fused in a way that results in real attacks, not just symbolic expressions.

One of the central ideas in this new book was to be the concept of “sacred emergencies,” moments of existential fear that drive the faithful into thinking that the world as they know it is in ultimate danger. This leads to faith-driven assertions of power and control that are often expressed violently.

Michael was never able to write that book. But he did write an extensive essay encapsuling the major ideas. Shortly before his death he sent me the manuscript of this paper, which will now be published in the Journal of Religion and Violence, a journal which for a time he was co-editor, along with his frequent collaborator, Margo Kitts.

Kitts and I have co-edited a Festschrift for Jerryson, Buddhist Violence and Religious Authority, that is soon to be published. It includes articles by scholars exploring a wide range of Jerryson’s concepts, showing their relevance to continuing scholarship. Some of the essays from that volume are featured in a special issue of the Buddhist Studies Review devoted to Jerryson’s work. Fortunately he was able to see these manuscripts and comment on them before his death.

In our introduction to his Festschrift, Kitts and I conclude by saying that these essays show that his fertile ideas will continue to nourish the field for some time to come. Indeed they, along with the whole corpus of Jerryson’s influential work, provide an enduring legacy, a continuing contribution to our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and public life.

Mark Juergensmeyer