Interviews:

Cosmic war on a global scale: An interview with Mark Juergensmeyer

posted by Nathan Schneider

As director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mark Juergensmeyer brings the sociology of religion to bear on the analysis of violent conflict in the contemporary world. His recent books include Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, both published by University of California Press, and he is currently working on God and War, based on his 2006 Stafford Little Lectures at Princeton University. Together with the SSRC’s Craig Calhoun and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, he is a co-editor of the forthcoming volume Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press). We spoke at his home office at UCSB, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Religion and International Affairs.—ed.

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NS: After your tenure last year as president of the American Academy of Religion, what do you think are the deepest challenges facing the study of religion today?

MJ: That’s an interesting question, because, in some ways, religion has never been of greater interest to a greater number of people than it is at present. Whenever something blows up, religion seems to be in the news. But, on the other hand, scholars are less and less sure about what religion actually is, and it has become an increasingly problematic subject to study. The self-confidence that an earlier generation had in the ideas of the “secular” and the “religious” has come into question. Because of globalization, we’re intensely aware of all of the diversity of perspectives in the world, and we’re increasingly aware that our perceptions are not necessarily the only ones, the right ones, or the dominant ones. The way we have come to conceive of religion in the post-Enlightenment West—as something reified and essentially different from the secular—is falling apart. Maybe the religious and secular never really existed in quite the ways that we thought about them. Religious studies remains, in large part, what it has always been—the study of religious literature, ritual, organizations, and the like—but at the heart of it, there is the very difficult conceptual question of how to think about religion in a globalized world.

NS: You’ve worked in a number of different departmental settings, including Asian studies, divinity schools, religion departments, and now global studies. Do you think that religion needs its own department? Or can it be addressed, fruitfully, in other contexts?

MJ: The answer is both. It’s like mathematics. You can’t imagine mathematics not having its own department, but you also can’t imagine physics, or accounting, or even political science and sociology without it. In the same way, I think religion has a part to play in other ways of understanding the contemporary world—whether political, anthropological, social, or economic—but there is also the danger that it can become too easily slivered off into pieces. Departments of religion allow people to look at the whole. Not everybody in those departments studies everything, of course, but they’re aware of what one another are doing in a way that they wouldn’t be if they were separated in different departments.

There have been attempts to make religious studies into a discipline or a science, and I’m not sure that has entirely worked. But the same is true about political science and sociology. Academic life is a coffeehouse with a whole bunch of tables, and there are different people sitting around the tables discussing different things, and each table is a field or a discipline. You can pick up and go from one table to another and talk about the same thing but find that you’re in a different conversation. Religious studies deserves its own table.

NS: What, then, can those conversations offer outside of the academic coffeehouse? I remember when Madeleine Albright came to the AAR and said that religion experts should participate more in matters of international policy, for instance.

MJ: I agree. When people like me, who study religion and violence, are called upon to advise an intelligence agency, or the State Department, or people in the military, I think that’s great. But it’s not like I’m telling them something different from what I’m telling anybody else. All I know is what is in my books. I don’t have a treasure chest of secret information that intelligence agency people would want. Probably the most valuable thing I can offer a government agency is an outsider’s perspective about the way in which other people view the world.

NS: Is there a particularly urgent message that you try to convey to them?

MJ: What I’ve found is that I’m most useful for alerting them to the one thing that they don’t have, and don’t want to deal with: a view of America’s role in the world, and the way in which our actions affect the actions of others. People don’t act in a vacuum. They respond to their perceptions of us, and the role that they see us playing in the world. If we’re perceived as the Great Satan—whether we think we are or not—it’s very important to know that, because it helps us understand why people respond to us as if we were. Within their sphere of perception, they’re simply responding to an image that they have of us.

NS: Is this a lesson that you’ve learned from the terrorists and religious militants you’ve talked with over the years?

MJ: Sure. To be a good social scientist, I have to try and understand another person’s frame of reference. My job in those interviews is not just to get information from these people but to try to get into their minds, into their views of the world, into their worldviews. As a sociologist, and also as a religious studies scholar, I’m what Ninian Smart used to call a “worldview analyst.” In the course of a conversation, I try to understand the other person’s frame of reference. I try to find out how they want to present themselves to me. That helps me understand them.

A good example of this is Mahmud Abouhalima, one of the key people in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. I had a series of remarkable interviews with him in prison after he was convicted. He’s an affable, friendly, very talkative fellow. The way he explained the role of religion in his life and in society gave me a profound window into his view of the world. He regarded Islam as having rescued him at a couple of points in his own past—from an aimlessness when he was a kid in Egypt to another aimlessness when he was in Germany and was being wooed by the easy pleasures of Western life and Western women. He was struggling for a sense of identity and coherence in a world that is fractured and immoral. He made an attempt to justify himself—including several horrible murders of Muslim clerics in Brooklyn—by casting himself as a soldier for virtue in a war in which immorality and secular irreligiousness are the great enemy. At one point he leaned over to me and whispered intensely, “Mr. Mark, you just don’t get it. There’s a war going on, Mr. Mark. There’s a battle between good and evil and right and wrong. You just don’t see it!” And so I asked him if that was why people blow buildings up, to try to make that point. And he looked at me and smiled and said, “Well now you see, don’t you? Now you see.” His violence was meant as a demonstration to the world, to make visible for everybody else that we are living in a war and that we need to wake up.

NS: Is such religious violence fundamentally different from violence understood in secular terms? Is it necessary to draw a distinction there?

MJ: I hesitate to use the words “religious violence,” because it sounds as if I’m promoting the idea that religion causes violence. I don’t believe that for a moment. I sometimes have to defend myself and remind people that I don’t say that. I think that violence happens for a complex variety of social and political and economic reasons.

On one level, violence is violence; it is a social phenomenon. What religious images and language can bring to a violent situation, though, is a structure of justification and meaning. It can be an ethical justification, or it can also be a more dramatic, visual one, touching on the symbolism of the cosmic war, the great battle between good and evil, right and wrong, religion and irreligion. I call it “cosmic war” rather than “holy war,” because I mean to imply, not just a fight fought for religious reasons, but the image of a broader conflict between good and evil. Or, in many Eastern traditions, it’s a battle over chaos and order, as in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

NS: Religion has become the language of resistance against modern states much more in recent decades than at the height of the Cold War, when secular economic or social theories tended to be structuring the ideologies of resistance movements. What might be the consequences of such a shift from secular to religious ideologies?

MJ: In some cases, as in Egypt, it’s the same people; they just take off their Marxist hats, put on their Muslim hats, and they’re good to go. One needs a great ideological template of moral struggle with which to justify a challenge to power, authority, and order. Marxism supplied that, and so does a certain kind of politicized religious language. They’re both ideologies of order. But the way in which you perceive the nature of a struggle makes a huge difference. If you think of it in religious terms, the timelines can be vast. They can be eternal.

I’ll give you an example. When I was interviewing Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, the political head of the Hamas movement, I brought up the futility of using suicide bombing against the Israelis. I pointed out that Israel has one of the strongest armies in the world, and certainly the strongest in the Middle East. These suicide attacks can certainly annoy them, but it’s not going to topple the political institutions of Israel or create a Palestinian state. He just looked at me and smiled, as if he were speaking to a small child, and said, “Well, maybe not in my lifetime. Maybe not in my children’s lifetime. Maybe not in my children’s children’s lifetime. But in my children’s children’s children’s lifetime, it might succeed. We cannot lose. This is God’s war.” If you think it’s God’s war, then you’re able to put up with temporary failure. If this is God’s war, that changes the whole equation of the struggle. And, of course, cosmic war justifications exist in all religious traditions—you see this difficulty not just on the Muslim side of the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian situation but also on the Jewish side, often with people associated with the settler movement. If you’re a certain kind of messianic, Zionist Jew, your actions, like those of the Muslims on the other side, are for much greater reasons than mere conquest. A temporary setback doesn’t matter because it is an eternal war.

NS: So how does one address another’s cosmic claims? Some want to ignore them and focus on underlying political and economic conditions; others say these people cannot be reasoned with and must be answered with violence.

MJ: There’s a third option: a conversion from within the religious community, one that persuades people that they are not engaged in a cosmic war and should redirect their activities. I think there has to be a combination between the first and the third. Addressing the social and economic issues that help to give rise to tensions in the first place can play a part in disarming the ideology. I have no doubt that if there were to be a solution tomorrow to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it would deflate a lot of the jihadi rhetoric in the Middle East. Getting the U.S. military out of Iraq and Afghanistan would be an even bigger pin in that bubble, because then you wouldn’t have the same Great Satan doing Great Satanic things. The second choice, which is to fight fire with fire, only magnifies the image of cosmic war.

This is what the “war on terror” did. Even calling it a “war” was a mistake. I’ve gone back to look at the newspapers on 9/11, and none of them used the word “war.” It didn’t appear in the newspapers until the next day, 9/12, in quotation marks: “Acts of war,” said the headlines. That, of course, came from President Bush’s speech. Suddenly, the war against terror became the image that defined our response to the attacks, and that has been driving our foreign policy ever since. My thought was then, and has been ever since: Why on earth are we promoting the ideology of Osama bin Laden? We’re taking that jihadi view of the world and validating it with our own rhetoric and our own actions. If you want to deflate the impression of being an enemy in a cosmic war, there’s a very simple way of doing it: stop acting like the enemy that they think we are. I have no doubt that the whole thing would then begin to collapse. It takes two to do this kind of bellicose tango. Radical religion can dissipate as quickly as it was created, like a summer storm. In that sense, I’m an optimist.

NS: Have you seen this happen in any of the conflicts you’ve studied?

MJ: During the 1980s a spiral of hideous violence arose between young Sikhs and the Indian government. But after a decade, it just unraveled. Yes, the Indian government exerted strong police pressure, as they always had. What really changed in the end, though, was that people in the villages no longer supported the radicals, and the movement fell apart. Just a couple of years later, I went to one of those villages where virtually all of the young people of a certain generation had been wiped out. I asked their families, “What about the cause they were fighting for?” One of the fallen Sikh militant’s brothers, who had become the head of his village, was obviously embarrassed to be talking about it. “What about your dead brother?” I asked. “Oh, we loved him.” he said. “We paid our respects.” Now the surviving brother was busy trying to work with the government to get more benefits for the town, to improve the road—doing all the normal things that people do. And what about the Sikh revolution? It was simply over. It was gone. The image of great warfare had vanished and worldly matters had returned. The same thing could happen with the great jihadi war.

NS: How does your early work on Gandhi and nonviolence affect your analysis of religious violence?

MJ: In several ways. It helps explain why I became interested in violence in the first place. Pacifists like myself are often fascinated with social violence because it seems so odd. What is there in the human imagination that allows us to switch gears so easily between the normalcy of civil society and the overdrive of warfare? I wanted to understand what happens in people’s minds when they’re so seized with passion about a struggle that they’ll go out and kill in such horrible ways.

What I’ve learned most from my understanding of the Gandhian mode of conflict resolution is the importance of trying to understand another’s perspective. For Gandhi, this was the fun of conflict—and I do mean fun, because Gandhi loved conflict. He was a pacifist, but that doesn’t mean he was passive. Conflict, as Gandhi pointed out, is one time when you’re forced to see the world from another person’s point of view. Unless somebody challenges you forcefully, in a way that makes you stop and think, you’ll just go idly about your business. We all know that from our own relationships; it’s not until somebody comes at you from a different point of view, seemingly from left field, that you really begin to question yourself and look carefully at what you’re doing.

I began my work on religion, politics, and violence by trying to understand worldviews that clash with ours—and by that I mean not only theirs but ours as well. I did so with the awareness that my way of seeing the world is not necessarily the only way. It was, in a sense, a Gandhian project.

NS: And you also studied with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union?

MJ: Niebuhr was probably my greatest single influence as a professor. I was literally his last student. My first year at Union was the last year he taught a seminar, and I was in it. The second year, there was a group of us who met in his apartment every Friday afternoon. Then, the third year, the other two had left Union, and I went up there on my own. One of the things that drew me to Niebuhr—though it was his ideas that drew me more than anything else—was that his family and my family came from the same German immigrant community in central Missouri.

NS: He was someone who began as a pacifist but went on to develop a critique of pacifism. How did Niebuhr’s thought play into how you think about violence?

MJ: Well, I disagree with Niebuhr on his analysis of Gandhi. I think he didn’t understand Gandhi. He regarded Gandhi as a sentimentalist, the same way he regarded Marx as a sentimentalist: as someone with vaunted expectations about human nature. But Gandhi was more of a realist than Niebuhr assumed, and his method of conflict resolution involves exerting a certain kind of pressure. This is not exactly the coercion Niebuhr accused him of, because Gandhi tried to make a distinction between coercive and non-coercive force. Force that is coercive doesn’t give you any choice about accepting or not accepting your opponent’s position. Non-coercive force is about making you dramatically aware of a situation while leaving you to make a choice on your own. Gandhi would want concessions to be made out of free will rather than by coercion. Actually, I don’t think that Niebuhr was as different from Gandhi as he thought.

NS: For both, a deep moral sensibility seems to have kept their realism from falling into cynicism.

MJ: That’s what I liked about Niebuhr, of course. He tried to take seriously the moral dimension of public life and to understand where it could come from in a world that is, alas, populated by sinful humans. And, despite his understanding of Original Sin, he knew that we can be capable of fellowship and of selfless love. But collectivities are less morally adept, because they’re never capable of selfless love. A corporation might say it’s sorry, but it would never try to show its contrition in a way that would bring about its own demise. Parents sacrifice for their kids, soldiers perform acts of bravery in warfare, but collectivities can’t do that, and that was Niebuhr’s great insight. He insisted on the necessity for us to create buffers against the power of collectivities like nations and corporations: he thought that we needed structures of justice, on the one hand, and countervailing powers, like labor unions, on the other.

NS: What kinds of things did you talk about with him?

MJ: He told stories about his time in Detroit and what he learned as a pastor there. His last book was on the nature of man and his communities. Niebuhr felt that churches actually have a greater moral capacity than other collectivities do. He tried to make that argument. Sometimes I doubt it, with the way churches eat each other and are, in my mind, subject to the same terrible limitations as other kinds of human enterprise. It’s so depressing to see churches on the wrong side of the moral issues in our day. Occasionally you see them on the right side, and that at least gives me some hope.

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9 Responses to “Cosmic war on a global scale: An interview with Mark Juergensmeyer”

  1. I respect Mark Juergensmeyer immensely, and have followed his work for some time. But his sense that religion alone cannot cause violence does a disservice to religion. He is a student of religion, and (understandably) would rather not speak ill of it. But if he is going to persist in believing that religion can do great good—a proposition I would agree with—he must also agree it can do great evil. Alas, you cannot have one without the other. So, he must somehow make room is his wonderfully ecumenical viewpoint for the idea that religion—pure and simple—can do evil. Otherwise, it has no power at all. Most of all, it has no power to do whatever good he thinks it can do.

  2. I was struck by Vincent Pecora’s response to the interview with Mark Jurgensmeyer, disputing what he takes to be Juergensmeyer’s view that “religion alone cannot cause violence.” I have learned much from both scholars but I have been uncomfortable with this locution for some time—the separation and balancing of good and evil as the possible fruits of religion—a common one among religious studies scholars, often intended, I think, to marginalize both the critics and the advocates of religion in favor of scholarly neutrality. I also believe that it has been particularly prevalent since 9/11. (For many, I think, although certainly not for Pecora and Jurgensmeyer, it is a coded way of dividing good religion from bad religion, maybe even good religions from bad religions, Christianity from Islam. Certainly it implies that the speaker know when religion causes violence and when religion causes good.)

    To say that “religion can do great good” OR that “religion can do great evil” is to suggest that something identifiable as religion can do things, and in some cases, to imply that humans have the capacity to control what will be done. The evidence would suggest rather, in my view, that the power and persistence of religion, to the extent that it is separately identifiable, comes in part from its capacity to encompass the full range of human activity, that is, to represent the tragedy of human existence. In other words, one of the things that the study of religion reminds us is that the two are inseparable. To speak otherwise is to preach.

  3. I probably agree with Winnifred Sullivan more than my earlier response suggests. I certainly do not believe that some religions are “good” and others “evil” (though I must admit I find Scientology terribly unappealing—but that’s a different criterion). And I am not Manichean—I do not believe there are “good” and “evil” forces active in the world. Religions are, of course, mixed bags, embedded in worldly concerns: the same Evangelicals who fought the slave trade helped spread the British Empire. But I would take exception to the idea that judging a religion’s actions descends into preaching. If we can’t say the Inquisition was evil or that Mormon discrimination against non-whites was evil, and acknowledge that both policies were systematically pursued by the respective Church hierarchies, then we abdicate moral responsibility altogether. Judgment, carefully done, is not dogma or self-righteousness. My point, both here and earlier, is that my one-time UC colleague Mark Juergensmeyer tends to shy away from saying that “religion” alone has the power to motivate people to do things that are extreme (such as violence against others). In most cases, he is probably right. But not in all. I would simply note that acts of great selflessness as well as terrible violence against others can be motivated, at times, by religion alone. If we do not admit this, then we might as well go back to the old days (pre-post-secular, as it were) when we all agreed that religion existed but hardly counted for much in terms of what people actually chose to do.

  4. I am not opposed to preaching. Good preaching. But preaching is not the same project as assessing the role of religion in human history. Preaching is witnessing to God’s word. Assessing the role of religion in history involves a coming to terms with what we mean by religion and religion(s). To return to Mark Juergensmeyer’s interview, I would agree with him that “scholars are less and less sure about what religion actually is, and it has become an increasingly problematic subject to study.” I think this is a healthy development. We are in a time of re-assessment of the project of studying of religion even while it is flourishing.

    I don’t believe it is abdicating moral responsibility to say that it is very difficult to sort out whether it is religion that caused Mormon racial discrimination or the activities of the Inquisition. I am not sure what it means to say that “religion alone” motivates violence or acts of great selflessness. There is no shortage of evidence that violence is part of religion. There is no shortage of evidence that violence is part of being human. To say that we cannot (and dare I say, ought not) speak of “religion alone” is not to say that religion “hardly counts for much in terms of what people do.” On the contrary, we cannot understand people without understanding religion.

  5. Winnifred Sullivan may find it difficult to tell whether the Inquisition was religious in origin or intent, but the Catholic Church does not, and has in many places taken responsibility. This is how it does so (while of course distinguishing its true essence from its false accidentals) on the web site http://www.catholic.com, which carries the Imprimatur of Robert Brown, Bishop of San Diego, Aug. 10, 2004:

    Don’t Fear the Facts . . . . The Church has nothing to fear from the truth. No account of foolishness, misguided zeal, or cruelty by Catholics can undo the divine foundation of the Church, though, admittedly, these things are stumbling blocks to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

    What must be grasped is that the Church contains within itself all sorts of sinners and knaves, and some of them obtain positions of responsibility. Paul and Christ himself warned us that there would be a few ravenous wolves among Church leaders (Acts 20:29; Matt. 7:15).

    “Admittedly,” also, the size of these “stumbling blocks” is always an issue. And the Inquisition’s persecution of Cathars, Jews, Muslims, and other heretics had many phases over the course of the 12th to the 16th centuries, some worse than others. But I wonder what we gain by trying to gloss over the historical responsibility of a faith for its wrongs even more than the faith itself does (the LDS too takes responsibility today for its historical racism). This was precisely the strategy of those of us on the left for decades—religion merely thought itself important, but in reality it was always just a cover for the material, socially-based forces (class conflict, geo-political struggle, nationalism, and so on) that caused “real” history to occur. I now think we were wrong on this point. Religion is indeed an important part of a “mix.” Is it as hard to separate religious studies from sociology as it is to separate sociology from economics or math from physics, as Juergensmeyer might observe? Of course. But then, we should not let our insight that our disciplines have humanly-constructed and somewhat arbitrary boundaries deprive us of understanding the power of religion to motivate those who strongly affiliate themselves—for a variety of reasons, to be sure—with a belief or church or sect. Bishop Brown’s religious authority also carries worldly power (as in the Catholic Bishops’ intervention against abortion-funding in health care reform). But that does not mean it is simply impossible to tell what is religious about what he does or says—or approves. His Imprimatur is a religious act, as surely as the Inquisition’s defense of the Roman Church and its doctrines against any who threatened them was a religious act. In our very important effort to re-open the question of what religion means and how it works, we should not let all that is solid melt into air.

  6. I think perhaps we are talking past one another a bit.

    I do not suggest that religion merely thinks itself important. In my view, religion is vastly important—maybe indispensable for human life. To be careful in calling something religious or not is not to “gloss over the historical responsibility of a faith [another difficult word] for its wrongs.” The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have a lot to answer for, some of which they have acknowledged. I wished rather to suggest that to use the word “religion” or “faith” to generalize in a bounded way about very different sets of historical institutions, ideas and practices, and sort them, is to imply a kind of equivalence that obscures real differences as well as possibilities for human life. Religious texts, practices, and persons make powerful claims about the world and about how humans should behave. The categories the Catholic Church uses to describe its responsibilities and the authorities it cites are specific and appropriate to its tradition. Sin. Worldliness. Paul.

    That I differ from the Catholic bishops on what counts as religion seems entirely natural to me. They don’t have authority over my language. And I don’t seek their imprimatur.

    One of the reasons that I am concerned about how the word religion is used is because of its currency in legal and political contexts today. I think scholars of religion have a responsibility to be careful about how they serve such contexts. I am, by the way, reading a book that tries to sort these things out in early Islam and to describe how Islam became “a religion”—which I highly recommend: Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers.

  7. This has been an interesting discussion and I have learned much from both sides, and agree with many of the points that have been made. But let me make my own position perfectly clear: I doubt that there is such a thing as “religion” that can “cause” anything—good or bad, nonviolent or violent. Our use of the word “religion” can mean many things—religious organizations, leaders, ideas, identities, practices, rites and symbols—all of which are human inventions. Like many theologians, I think that what we do and think in the name of religion may be responses to our sense of the sacred, but are themselves quite human. This, I think, is one of the points that Winnifred Sullivan was making. Just as with everything else that humans do, religious ideas and activity can be both creative and destructive, positive and negative, life-affirming or quite deadly. But since religious ideas and practices are touched with a sense of absolutism, all of these things are often thought and done in the extreme. And it is also true, as Vincent Pecora argues, that religious ideas and structures—though humanly invented—sometimes take on a life of their own, and great masses of people act as if religion were a reified entity that could command authority and dictate behavior. It is for this reason that the religious imagination can produce both magnificent visions of peace, and propel otherwise decent persons into the most wretched acts of bloodshed.

  8. avatar Leslie Eppler says:

    Vincent Pecora refers to the historical actions of the church (Roman Catholic, LDS) as well as the contemporary involvement of Bishop Brown in this year’s health-care legislation, and he makes the point, from this understanding, that religion has been a force in those actions/beliefs. I am assuming he meant that as opposed to the motive of those actions being power, bigotry or greed. Certainly, I can understand and do, in fact, agree with this point to some extent; however, at what point do we stop calling it religious influence and start calling it political control, colonization, or genocide? When does religion stop guiding our behaviors and our behaviors start guiding our religion?

  9. avatar Khru says:

    I find it interesting how Juergensmeyer seems to lump all religions together when it comes to violence (his books: Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence) when essentially it is the three Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity that perpetrate 99% of the offenses.

    Buddhism, on the other hand, has a much better track record of peace and is not mentioned.

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