Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 2 October 2014

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer at The Strand Hotel in Yangon

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer at The Strand Hotel in Yangon

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer is an American sociologist and a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of more than 20 books and is best known for his award-winning studies of religious violence and global religion. Among them is Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2003), which is based on interviews with religious extremists around the world, including those convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, Hamas leaders and abortion clinic bombers in the United States. During a recent visit to Myanmar, Professor Juergensmeyer spoke to Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about why religious violence is increasing throughout our world and the factors contributing towards this alarming trend.

What brought you to Myanmar?

I’m here as a tourist, to enjoy Myanmar’s beauty. But wherever I go in the world, I am always interested in the relationship between religion and society. So I’m also here to learn. One of the wonderful things about being a professor is that we can take the time to sift through ideas rather than publishing something immediately; unlike journalists. I’m here to listen to different voices, which may turn out to be useful in the future.

What’s your perspective about religious tensions in Myanmar?

While there is certainly a spotlight on the religious and ethnic tensions confronting Myanmar, my perspective is a global one: I see it happening it everywhere. So in that sense there is nothing unusual about Myanmar and its people should not blame themselves or feel that there is something especially wrong with their country. Obviously there is reason for concern about the intolerance and hatred we are seeing, but what’s happening here is no different from what’s happening elsewhere; including in my own country of the United States. In the US there has been a rise of the religious right, who are very strongly outspoken and sometimes very harsh in judging anyone who isn’t a Christian; particularly those who are Muslim.  Those who are deeply religious and conservative in America are very hostile to [President] Obama; to globalisation and to the Mexican, Chinese and other people migrating to the US. They feel their way of life and everything they associate with their world is under siege. And that’s true of Buddhism in Myanmar as well – just as it was in Sri Lanka during the civil war.

Why is religious conflict so widespread?

Religious conflict and violence isn’t a new phenomenon and although it could be explained by local conditions, that wouldn’t explain why it’s become so prevalent. Could it just be sheer coincidence? To me that seems a little weird. So if it’s not merely coincidence, what is it? That’s the question I’m focused on. My belief is that there are forces exacerbating religious-based violence. We are living in a period of great upheaval, in which the national identity is challenged by a new phase in modern history. The world is moving away from the idea of the nation state and the illogical conflict between socialism and capitalism and into a global era. These days everyone can immediately be in contact with anyone in the world because of cell phones and the likes of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. It also makes us feel as though we can be anywhere in a virtual sense. On the one hand, these forms of technology are very egalitarian because we each now have a voice – but it can also be problematic because not all these voices are “nice” voices. As a result, we are all experiencing a loss of identity and location in the global world and this makes us question our identity as members of a nation of people. So to me it’s not surprising that religion has resurfaced in public life. Internal devotion has always been there, but at this particular moment, religion has re-emerged in the public sphere.

But surely religion never left the public sphere?

Indeed: it never left, but since the European Enlightenment [during the 17th and 18th centuries] the nation state was created and the idea was that the state was secular and something devoid of religion. The very idea of the nation state didn’t exist before the European Enlightenment, nor did the notion that there are two spheres of public reality – the religious and the secular. The nation state came to the rest of the world much later, as part of the baggage of colonialism. That is to say, when the colonial powers left, nation states remained as supposedly secular states. That was fine in a sense, although there is one persistent problem – who is the national community and who does it represent? And so for some 50 or so years after independence in many parts of the world, there is a kind of groping for an understanding of nationhood. What I see across the world is that in this global era, the nation state no longer has the strength, the inviolability, and the sense of “This is the way it is and will always be.” There is a sense of the nation state under siege as an essential artifice. Then we must ask, who are we as a national people? To me it’s no surprise that religion has come back into our imaginations to fill the gap. For example, many Americans will tell you: “We are a Christian country.” However globalisation has several faces: one is a defensive reaction against it while the other is an acceptance of diversity and different cultures. People feel glued together as citizens of a common place. That’s the positive side. So there are two opposite things happening simultaneously. An interesting example of the positive face of globalisation occurred in Cairo during the early, optimistic moments of the Arab Spring. In the beginning it was wonderfully eclectic. [Former president] Mubarak’s thugs would be sent into Tahrir Square to break up protesters – and often chose the time of prayers to charge, as that was when the protesters were most vulnerable. Yet when the Muslims were praying in the square on Fridays, Cairo’s Coptic Christians would encircle those praying to protect them and on Sunday mornings the Muslims would circle around the Christians. That’s an example of cosmopolitism; of a global future where we protect one another.

Unlike many other academics who are interested studying religion, such as Richard Dawkins, you are not an atheist. In your early life you wanted to become a Methodist minister and you remain a practicing Christian. How do you reconcile your own faith with the academic study of religion?

It is very rare to find an academic who goes to church and admits to a being a practicing “anything” – a Christian, a Jew; whatever. It’s not popular within academia because academia is supposed to be the life of the mind; a rational path that is not the so-called mythical path of religion. But quite frankly, I’ve never seen a contradiction between the two. To me, religion is like art – it puts you in touch with a sensibility to life; a sense of an alternative reality and the feeling of being so finite. It makes humans more humble in the face of the awesome powers of the universe – well, at its best that’s what religion brings. At its worst, religion is people imagining that they are somehow privy to powers and insights that others aren’t. To my mind that’s a perversion of religion. I would also add that I am kind of a religious groupie – I feel akin to every religious tradition. If I’m in a Buddhist temple I feel a great sense of awe. Yesterday I spent some time sitting and meditating at the foot of a Buddha [image] here in Yangon and I felt overwhelmed by the power and beauty of the moment. I feel the same way in a mosque: I can take part in prayers and get a sense of what it means to be a part of that tradition and experience a feeling of awe in the face of divinity. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest and religion was always a broadening thing in a place where people could be very narrow minded: it brought us out of our shell. I first became aware of other cultures through my uncle, who was a missionary in China and told incredible stories. For me, religion broadened the mind and widened my imagination.

One of your arguments is that religious extremists take a long term view of their involvement in so-called holy wars and becoming martyrs, which makes it difficult to see an end to religious conflicts.

Well, yes and no. Such people are acting in the sense of what I call an “imagined war”. War is moral absolutism, where one side is absolute good and the other absolute evil – you have to imagine that in order to be able to kill somebody, because it’s one of the worst things a human can possibly do. Things are never that straightforward, which makes war a powerful act of imagination. It’s also very powerful because it’s a world view that gives purpose and can be enormously intellectually satisfying because it resolves anomalies – when you “understand” who the bad people are, everything falls into place. For those who are extremely anxious about the world, it helps them to see things as a being in a state of war.

Why do some wars last so long, while others are much shorter in duration?

An imagined war sustains itself by and large through the collaboration of a shared vision. If people stop believing in it, everything falls apart. It’s a bit like the Cold War. Everyone in my generation thought it would last forever. It was just beyond belief when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and suddenly the gates were opened. And when a war is over, it’s over – there is no going back. While there are problems with President Putin and Russian nationalism, it’s not a recreation of the days of the Soviet Union. The first violent religious movement I studied wasn’t a Muslim, Christian or Jewish movement: it was a Sikh one. I was living and lecturing in India’s Punjab State and I found Sikhs to be wonderful, gregarious people. To see these young men suddenly swept up in violence during the insurgency [that began in the 1970 against the alleged mistreatment of Sikhs by the Indian government] was terrifying. A whole generation was wiped out. And Mrs Gandhi thought she would fight fire with fire: but she herself was later killed by her Sikh bodyguards and the battle went on until the 1990s. One of the least reported aspects of the war was: ‘How did it come to an end?’ So I travelled to villages that had been at the centre of the conflict to try to understand. One man, whose brother had been a militant leader, said something very poignant to me. When I asked him why the war came to end, he replied by saying, “There are times in Sikh history when young Sikh men go to battle and there are times when they don’t. That was then and this is now.” That was all he could say. Like the Cold War, it just kind of collapsed. What I’m saying is that these imagined wars can disappear as quickly as they’ve arisen.

One section of Terror in the Mind of God is titled, “Why guys throw bombs”. Why are men disproportionally involved in acts of violence?

There are a lot of simple answers to that question: we could take a biological approach and say it’s the damn testosterone. Or we could use a Freudian explanation that guys blow up bombs when they can’t explode other things – that it’s a symbolic sexual release. While both explanations are entirely possible, as a sociologist rather than a psychologist, I look for sociological explanations. In traditional societies in particular, men are responsible for what goes in the public sphere and women are responsible for the home. When something in public life goes awry, men perceive it as a humiliation. And humiliation is one of the most powerful emotional forces in the world: nothing produces violence so directly. This could explain the male predominance of wanting to reclaim their honour. When I interviewed one of the heads of the Hamas movement, I asked him what is most misunderstood about Hamas’ goals – in the West particularly. He said to me, “You think we are struggling over property and about place – and while it is about that, it’s also about something more – it’s about pride. He used the word izzat, which represents more than pride, honour and respect; it means the total opposite of humiliation. Whilst I hate to put that in gendered terms – it often is by those who support it. Even Gandhi spoke of the “manliness” of the struggle of non-violence.

Is there any quick fix to at least reduce the violence or is simply too complex?

I think it’s very important for religious people in particular to challenge extremism. For example, after Malala [Yousafzai, 14, a Pakistani schoolgirl, who spoke out against Taliban policies banning women from having an education] was shot in the head by the Taliban, she said, “This is not Islam.” There is also enormous tension among Jews across the world about the conflict in Gaza. Some believe the war is being fought by the nation state of Israel, while others see it as a religious based conflict. There are Jews who are very critical of what the Israeli government is doing and I think it’s very important for these voices among religious communities to be raised loud and clear.