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Q&A: Mark Juergensmeyer on religious relations

Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, professor of sociology and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara spoke at convocation this week on the topic of “Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State.” Juergensmeyer is an authority in the field religiously motivated political extremism at both the national and global level.

How did religion develop such a narrative of a great battle between good and evil? Is it a method; is it a means to an end? Or is it more of a response to the world because of the challenges they face?
Well, it’s both. I mean to people who are involved in a struggle, it helps to empower the struggle, thinking of it in religious terms and this is true even when the struggle is a political campaign. Even in the last year, when you began to think of your opponent as this satanic being, then it’s maybe easier to rally the forces to go out and vote against this not just an ordinary opponent.

Mark Juergensmeyer, one of the foremost experts on religious violence and South Asian politics, presents his Convocation talk "Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State". Photo taken by Abraham Kohrman.

But of course there are problems with that because it makes it more difficult to negotiate and to compromise. But it’s also, like you said in your question, a way of thinking about the world, trying to make sense of conflicts in general in the world if you can see them as part of a grander struggle. Particularly, if you can see them as part of a grander struggle, that’s how you’ll win, because if you’re on God’s side and God is on your side—and isn’t God interestingly always on your side? –but anyways, what a nice thing because now I don’t have to worry. Phew, I mean, it might look like we’re losing now but who cares? Eventually we’ll win because God’s on our side. That’s a relief.

Have you ever interviewed a religious figure or someone who might be considered a religious militant who later renounced or came back from their hard-line views or became more secular?
There was a guy who was in the Hamas movement in Gaza. The second time I came to see him I was shocked to see that he had joined the Palestinian Authority and he had, you know, moved to that side. So that would be an example.

I also talked to Kerry Noble, who was a member of an extreme Christian militia group in the United States who was in fact involved in some terrorist acts. In one occasion he had a suitcase with explosives, and he went into a church. It was a gay church, like Metropolitan Community Church, which was a gay Christian religious organization, and he was going to blow up the church, and he went there and he saw these people praying, and he realized, he had a kind of epiphany, and he realized that these people were religious people just like him. I mean, they might have been gay or lesbian, but they were just like him, and so he just took his suitcase and walked out and left the movement. He became a very vocal opponent of this kind of vision of Christian politics and saw it as being very unchristian indeed.

It’s interesting that people have a kind of born-again epiphany to join movements like this because to express this view of the world is a kind of conversion experience. You have to get into this bubble and get into this reality of thinking “this is the way the world is,” but you can get out of it just as dramatically. I think often the way movements like this fall apart is that the whole thing just collapses. I mean, this is how the cold war fell apart. One moment we hated the godless commies, next moment we were trading partners with China and Russia, you know, it was bizarre. But this template of great war can dissipate as quickly as the rise kind of like summer storms in Iowa.

What do you think of the revolutions or protests, depending on who you are, what do you think of what’s happening in the Middle East right now? Do you think that the states that may or may not develop from those protests and revolutions will be secular states such as Turkey, or do you think they will be more religious?
Well, I don’t know, but there are two parts to your question. First of all, what do I think of what’s happening now, and part of it I think is Osama Bin Laden’s worst fear, and that is: a revolution of the kind that he had hoped for to get rid of American and European-supported dictators through peaceful means, through non-violent means and not through terrorism or not through violent struggle but through masses of people in Tahrir Square. I mean, that’s a very dramatic and important development, and I think that undercuts a lot of the Jihadi motivation or people, not necessarily the image of cosmic war in Jihad, but a lot of support, maybe popular support it had had, by people who were so frustrated and thought, “Gee, the only way you could get rid of Mubarak is by joining, you know, an extreme movement that would advocate violence.” Well here they got rid of Mubarak just by showing up and organizing through Facebook and on Twitter, and so I think it’s very significant in that sense.

In the long run, I don’t know. I mean, there are a lot of different scenarios. My guess is… In Egypt, probably because the military IS supportive of elections, there probably will be elections in September. It will probably be coalition government. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood will get more than 25% because that’s about what it’s been getting before. As I say, a lot of steam has been taken out of this movement because you no longer need a militant movement anymore for change when it’s been shown that a nonviolent movement works much more effectively, so they may actually get less votes, the Muslim Brotherhood. And if there will be a coalition government, will it be solid? I don’t know. I mean, it could be like Pakistan where the civilian government lasts for a couple years and then there’s another civilian government… I … I don’t know, but I think that’s the likeliest possibility.

There was a documentary I saw called “The Power of Nightmares.” I don’t know if you’ve…
It’s great! I use it in my classes. Absolutely terrific!

… and in the documentary it draws a lot of parallels between the neoconservatives in the US and the Islamic extremists in Egypt and in the rest of the Middle East…

I try to do the same thing in my lecture.

Do you see those parallels as well?
Absolutely, absolutely.

Why do you think a similar narrative developed in different places at the same time?
Well… there is a common thing behind the neocon vision and the Jihadi vision and that is a sense of the world slipping out of our grasp. And of course, the world is slipping out of everybody’s grasp in an era of globalization. In Osama Bin Laden’s eyes we need to wrest control away from America and the purveyors of globalization, and in neocon eyes we need to stabilize the Middle East and use American power to control the world. This is [Leo] Strauss’s vision of trying to create a new world order based on using the resources of American power. I think the neocon vision was a moral vision in my mind. It was just fatally flawed. It was fundamentally incorrect; the assumptions were wrong and the outcome was disastrous, but there is no doubt in my mind that the attempt was a moral one but a quixotic one.

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