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Defusing the Infidels Among Us

A Miller-McCune interview with Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State.
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In the world we all grew up in, a single entity provided most people with a sense of security, identity and shared values: the nation we call home. Citizenship was a powerful unifying force, as well as a way of differentiating ourselves from outsiders. The state supplied our basic needs, and in turn we gave it our loyalty and in many cases our love.

As a new century unfolds, that pact is weakening, and a new dynamic is developing. Migration, along with the globalization of both commerce and culture, has blurred distinctions and rendered national boundaries porous in fundamental ways. A banker in Beirut might drink Starbucks coffee and watch Seinfeld reruns — just like a colleague in Cleveland. What’s more, both are dependent on an international financial system that is beyond the control of any one government. And both face threats that are equally beyond the control of any state, from global warming to international terrorism.

The implications of this shift — some intriguing, others frightening — are one focus of the work of Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. His 2000 book Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence charted how religious extremism has risen in this unsettled environment — an insight that seemed particularly prescient following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

His recently published follow-up, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, mixes interviews with leaders of radical religious organizations with his analysis of their increasing appeal. In the book, he notes that religion has a stronger pull than nationalism or political ideology in this new world order. The Economist magazine summarized his research: “If you are trying to make people risk their own lives and take the lives of others, then calling the enemy infidels — or literally demonizing them — is more effective than calling them foreigners or class enemies.”

So what would be an effective response to this threat? And what will a new world in which states play a less important role look and feel like? Juergensmeyer discussed these issues in a recent interview with Miller-McCune.

Miller-McCune: You’re describing a fundamental restructuring of the world’s political order. Before we get to the ramifications, why is this happening?

Mark Juergensmeyer: It seems to me what has been happening to produce a radical critique of the secular state has been a sense (among many people) of being buffeted by forces beyond the state’s control — that is, beyond the ability of a secular nation-state to deal with them. Those issues include a loss of national identity, which is particularly felt in badly defined nations like Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, and corruption, a sense that the whole pattern of governance has lost its bearings because of immorality.

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The traditional idea is that a national community had to have a shared set of values, which means a shared religion and ethnicity. That was fine for a traditional, stable society, but it sure as hell doesn’t work today. Instead, it creates enormous stress — a feeling that somebody (from an alien culture) has come over and is running things.

In an era of globalization, people want to know three things: Who are we? Who’s in charge? And am I safe? Identity, accountability, security: These are the three fundamentals people are seeking. In an era of globalization, I think these things will be satisfied in different ways. They may be ensured by new structures — which may be forged by crisis.

M-M: When you speak of forces beyond the state’s control, it brings to mind the recent scares about food products from China. Today, it’s often hard to know where the ingredients in our food come from and almost impossible to ensure their safety. Is that part of what you’re talking about? Are people concerned that our nation-states can no longer protect us from the effects of globalization?

MJ: That’s certainly a part of what’s happening. But cultural encroachment on traditional societies is a very powerful phenomenon as well. We’re concerned about the impact of the news channel Al-Jazeera in the Middle East. But most people aren’t watching Al-Jazeera; they’re watching reruns of American shows. The most popular TV show in the Middle East is Friends, dubbed into Arabic. (If you’re worried about traditional Muslim values, you see that and think, “What’s happening to our society?”)

M-M: The New York Times recently reported that Oprah is a very hot show among Saudi Arabian women. But can’t that produce a backlash? Basically, is the point of view of conservative Muslims — that the West is not respecting their borders — that our cultural mores are seeping into their societies?

MJ: They feel already invaded. From their point of view, the political-social-cultural war has already begun, and they’re losing. They see terrorist acts as attempts to make a symbolic claim to power.

M-M: Some people believe religious radicalism grows out of a culture of economic desperation. Basically, when you have no hope for a comfortable existence, it’s tempting to turn to religious extremism. Do you see such a link?

MJ: Not directly, although it may exist. There’s no question that religious extremism is fed by deep discontent about the social order, whatever produces it. It could be the economic situation, political disenfranchisement, the feeling people are being deprived of their traditional homeland or a combination.

Take the case of Palestine, which has 50 percent unemployment. Until you have a job, you can’t get married, and until you get married, you can’t have sex (due to social and religious restrictions). So the level of frustration among 18- and 19-year-old men is considerable, and although the issue is not strictly economic, it is linked.

M-M: So religion isn’t the primary problem, but it can exacerbate an already difficult situation?

MJ: That’s right. There aren’t movements trying to force Catholics to become Muslims. Rather, there are social and political problems for which religious language and imagery becomes the framework in which a critique can be leveled. Religion becomes the language of resistance and rebellion, kind of like the way Marxism was for an earlier generation. Religion complicates the problem. It absolutizes it, frames it as a cosmic war, a great confrontation. It’s hard to compromise with a Satanic being!

M-M: That’s one of the problems with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, isn’t it? It’s hard to divide a piece of land when both sides believe God gave it to them.

MJ: The religionization of the Israel-Palestine conflict is very recent. Remember: Yasir Arafat was a secularist. Israel was founded to be a working person’s utopia (more than a home for religious zealotry). The 1967 war changed everything. That’s when Messianic Jews started talking about the recreation of biblical Israel — rebuilding the temple at Temple Mount and reclaiming the lands of the West Bank. In that way, they could create the conditions for the coming of the Messiah. Suddenly you have all these settlements on the West Bank. So religion is not the problem, but it’s problematic.

M-M: You write about the nation-state having reached the zenith of its power in the mid-20th century. Do you see states becoming less and less important as this century progresses?

MJ: Yes. It’s already happening. The second-largest Filipino city is Los Angeles. I think it’s the second-largest Iranian city as well. The idea of a national currency, a national airline — all these symbols of national identity seem to be quickly eroding. In some ways, we already live in the post-nation-state era, but there’s nothing to take its place.

It’s only since the 1950s that the whole world has been defined in terms of nation-states. That’s only 50 years — nothing in terms of world history. How did the world organize itself before that? There were little princedoms and large empires. Well, guess what’s happening again? Then there are new coalitions like the European Union. That’s an extremely interesting model, where you have nation-states clustering together into a regional identity, which now has practically all the ingredients of nationhood.

I think that’s one reason why there could be a solution for Northern Ireland. The EU provided a larger framework in which a relatively small entity like Northern Ireland could survive as an autonomous entity. A similar arrangement could provide a solution to the issue of Kashmir; it could become a mini-country within some larger, regional entity.

M-M: Do you have any idea what these new international structures might look like?

MJ: The World Trade Organization already has emerged as a transnational player. One reason it has been demonized (among some activists) is it has not taken responsibility for things like environmental impact, labor standards or fair wages. But what if it did? Then you could have a whole new regulatory body that is not a state agency. My guess is increasingly there will be global accountability structures, with generalized legitimacy and enforceable power.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the current economic crisis ends up strengthening international and transnational organizations. We could end up with a different kind of International Monetary Fund or a World Bank that would be set up to stabilize international currencies.

M-M: Is it important to give people cultural autonomy within this international web you describe?

MJ: They’ll take it whether you give it to them or not! Ethnic and religious identity will continue to be enormously powerful — maybe even more so — but they may be (expressed through relationships via) e-mail. Internet ethnicities.

M-M: It sounds like there is a lot of upheaval ahead, which presumably will provide more opportunities for religious extremists. What can we do in the short run to decrease their power?

MJ: First of all, we can stop acting like the evil enemies they say we are. The more we do that, the more we unwittingly promote their ideology. There is no question in my mind that most of America’s military activity since 2001 has magnified the problem it is trying to erase: the rise of Islamic radicalism. On the day of Sept. 11, we received an offer of help from many Middle Eastern countries, including Iran. If we had worked with these Muslim countries to isolate this small band of terrorists and brought them to justice — well, we could have done it. Instead, we’re still looking for bin Laden. Everything we have done has alienated the moderate Islamic voices who could have been our allies.

We face more of a threat from jihadi activists who learn their ideology on the Internet and now live in Fresno than from people who live in caves and aren’t going anywhere. The London subway bombers lived in the suburbs of that city! What we can do is try to dampen down the ideology by not acting like a big bully.

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