Religious Nationalism Around the World

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Professor and Founding Director, Center for Humanities, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 

Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Global Studies and Affiliate Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

Secretary-General, Religions for Peace International


Senior Advisor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, YSC Consulting

SINGH:  Hi, everyone. I'm Simran Jeet Singh, senior advisor for diversity and inclusion at YSC Consulting and a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary. I'm delighted to be moderating today's discussion on religious nationalism around the world. And I'd like to introduce our three esteemed panelists for today, Sylvester Johnson, Azza Karam, and Mark Juergensmeyer. You have access to their full bios on the CFR conference app. But I want to share a brief overview of who you have the privilege of hearing and learning from today. Dr. Sylvester Johnson is the founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, and also assistant vice provost for humanities at Virginia Tech, and executive director of the university's “Tech for Humanity” initiative. Dr. Johnson holds a faculty appointment in the department of religion and culture and authored The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity, a study of race and religious hatred. Dr. Azza Karam serves as the secretary general of Religions for Peace, the largest multi religious leadership platform. Since 2004, Dr. Karam has served in various positions with the United Nations as well as other inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations since the early 1990s. And Mark Juergensmeyer is distinguished professor of sociology and global studies, and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was also the founding director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. Professor Juergensmeyer is the author or editor of over thirty books. So I'll begin by turning to you, Professor Juergensmeyer, to help us set the stage. When we talk about religious nationalism. What do we mean? And as we're looking around the world today, how are you seeing religious nationalism, manifesting itself and being deployed?


JUERGENSMEYER: Thanks, Simran, for that question, and it's a good one. Because it doesn't mean that religion is nationalist by its nature. Nor does it mean the nationalism is religious by its nature. But from time to time in the history of the nation state, there has been a kind of fusion of national identity with religious affiliation. And sometimes this is an innocent sort of identity. But sometimes it's much more strident, particularly when it's meant to exclude groups within society that are not part of the dominant religion. And alas, I think this is what we've been seeing in the last 30 years since I've been studying this phenomenon around the world. And this really is a global phenomenon. I've been tripping around the world from place to place talking with people, because I'm the kind of sociologist who feels like that the best way to know how people think, is to go and talk with them. So that's what I've been trying to do. And it's been a really interesting series of studies. But the conclusion is that this is a global phenomenon. Initially we thought this was a Muslim problem. But now it's become an issue around the world. And alas, it carries that tinge of exclusivity with it. In the global era, everybody can live everywhere. And this means that there is now a new kind of movement to just standardize the notion of nationalism and identify it with one particular culture. Well, that can alienate a lot of people, and sometimes, sadly, in a very brutal way.


SINGH: Thank you. I appreciate that. And Dr. Karam, I want to know what you're seeing when it comes to religious nationalism. Does it feel like it's changing, adapting growing in influence? Or does it seem like more of the same, the same phenomenon and logic and simply a new form?


KARAM: Thank you very much Simran for that excellent question. And let me begin by saying, I have to give due credit to CFR and to Irina Faskianos and the team at CFR for putting this this series of conversations together. I have learned so much and been very enriched. And I think Simran that you chose that question very deliberately, because it's a very hard one to answer. So let me just take a stab at it. I actually think quite frankly, that once we saw the big meta narratives of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, collapse of the Berlin Wall, there was, if you will, either an intentional or unintentional search for bigger narratives, those because we're used to big narratives. There's liberalism, communism, socialism, and all of a sudden, none of that seems to have been very workable. In fact, plenty of things crumbling in terms of the ideologies.


So here we are searching for new ideas, and I think Professor Juergensmeyer had his hand on the pulse many years ago when he identified religious nationalism as an ideology. That is actually, quite frankly up and coming. Just ten to fifteen years ago, we wouldn't have dreamed of a situation where religion can become such a, as anybody heard of the Islamic State before had we would we have thought of something called an Islamic State, I mean that the fact that they dare to call themselves such in the first place, I think we realized that it has become almost normalized to identify nation with religion before we used to see two maybe nations around the world like this. Now, you realize it's a much more common tendency to see religion as very much part of a national identity, of a territorial identity. I thought we had circumvented this and grown out of it from the old empires. I mean, the old empires used to be religious in nature, right? I had assumed we had grown out of this. But clearly, the collapse of the meta narratives of political meta narratives has led to the collapse, has led to an emergence, a search, a hunger, and now, I think, a marriage of convenience that is expanding in scope, between religious and political narratives, such that sometimes it's exceedingly difficult to make the dividing line. Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really ever, was it ever a situation of Muslims versus Jews? Really? Since when? Palestinians are Christian too, but we see it in those terms over time that we almost don't notice that there are multiple religions at stake in this space, because it's become so religionized in the way that the discourse itself is manifested. It's become so incredibly politicized in the way that the religion is understood and practiced.


So this is now the new normal, unfortunately, and it tears my heart out. And it deeply disturbs me, because politics is about the interests of the few, to try to maximize the interests of the few. Politics has never been about the interests of everybody. There's a clear line of distinction, massive, wide expanse between philanthropy and politics. Politics is about the interest of me and you, if we happen to be on the same side, all the better, but usually, we're on different sides. So how do I get my interest? Religion isn't supposed to be in this space. It's not supposed to be about this space. And if history has taught us anything, it is that the minute this marriage happens, and it becomes normal, it becomes the new normal. That is when we unravel, we unravel as human beings, we unravel as nation states, we unravel quite frankly, our own religious institutions continue to unravel, because they're not beginning to unravel. They've been unraveling for a while, but they continue to unravel. So this unraveling may be good, maybe an opportunity, but quite frankly, it is usually associated with violence, and that violence is never an opportunity. That is deathly. That is the cost of lives. And as we're seeing today, now, in almost every corner of the world, that religious political affiliation has led to an is leading to increasing violence, which is leading to active loss of life. That formula is not good.


SINGH: I appreciate that. That's, that's really well said and Dr. Johnson, I'd love for you to take us from the global and help bring us home. Clearly, religious nationalism is not just an external problem, as we've as we might like to think we've seen the rise of white nationalism and Christian nationalism here in the US. How does what we're seeing out there, meaning other forms of religious nationalism, how does that comport with what we're seeing here in America today?


JOHNSON: Thanks so much, Simran, that's really great question. And you're right, the problem of religious nationalism is certainly not exclusive of the United States. We see multiple ways that some of the developments happening abroad in France, for example, the effort to require Muslims, Imams particularly, to sign on to a charter of French values that targets Islam as being a religion that is somehow in conflict with French values. This is a new, unique imposition onto Muslims are being asked to do things that no other religion is being asked to do, on gender parity, for example, which is not being asked to Jews or Christians. Or if we think about what's happening at the conflicts around the meaning of being a citizen of India between Muslims and Hindus in way that is attached to definition of the nation that securitizers. Or even in China. The incarceration of Muslims and forced placement into so-called training camps that are actually carceral systems. We see important and troubling parallels in the United States. We just had a Muslim travel ban in the United States, for example, for many years, we have an incredibly elaborate really deeply harmful system of securitization in the United States. That's been part of the so-called counter terrorism. One example of this is the FBI is program called countering violent extremism, which sticks out and criminalizes social activism among Muslims.


That that calls it radicalization, that actually ends up entrapping and criminalizing, particularly young Muslims who might be involved, for example, ironically, activists who target anti-Muslim bias. This gets read by the FBI and police departments as terrorists radicalization, even though it's a social justice effort. Or even the effort to raise funds in order to support indigent Muslim families of these forms of activism have for years now then classified as either precursors of, or evidence of terrorist behavior, or Muslim radicalization, and has been criminalized. And so one of the parallels we see is the association between the efforts to securer times, the state, and this form of religious nationalism, where Muslims are treated as somehow being inherently at odds with or in opposition to what it means to be truly part of the US. And there, there are other ways that this happened. So what I just described was very much about the national security entities and programs and carceral systems, that is not at all suggested separate and apart from what we may think of in a more popular fashion. As religious nationalism among non-state actors among religious communities, for example, or in popular literature, or in educational systems. And so we also see in in more popular ways of recounting the essence of the nation that is in by Christian nationalism, pointing to the roots of the United States, particularly in white Protestant religion, for instance. And then just more broadly in Christianity, that of course, that's at odds with Muslims and Jews. African religions, such as Yoruba and Santeria, for example, those have also been targeted. So both in terms of just defining what it means to belong to the United States, more culturally, and also more particularly in terms of securitization practices. These are very troubling and important parallels.


SINGH: Yeah, that's really insightful. And I think what I'm hearing from you all is both the sort of the real-life examples around the world, including at home. And also the elucidation of what's happening and why. Dr. Juergensmeyer, I want to turn to you. As we start thinking about solution building. Now we have a better sense of what religious nationalism is, we feel a sense of urgency around it. And I would love to have a little bit more clarity in diagnosing the problem. Some say religious nationalism is a chicken and egg issue. Is it religious nationalism a religious symptom of a political problem, or a political symptom of a religious problem, or is it both at the same time? So I'd love for you to help us dig into that question a little bit and better understand what's going on here so that we might address it more effectively.


JUERGENSMEYER: In my study of religious nationalist movements around the world, I think my answer is decisively the first of those two options you gave. I'm a professor of just putting together multiple-choice questions. I know, often the answer is C, all of the above. D, none of the above. But in this case, I think that religious nationalism is where religion is a symptom of a political problem. And I say that because as I studied these movements, I don't see any, or very rarely do I see people who are embracing a political perspective and a national perspective, for reasons of belief or reasons of faith. It's for reasons of identity. I mean, religion can mean many different things. It can mean, the piety of your grandmother as she's lighting a candle. Or it could mean people who don't seem to be all that religious, but they are defending Islam, or they're defending Christianity, or they're defending Buddhism. And that's a sign of religion as a part of identity, a part of a social identity. And I think this is primarily the feature of religious nationalism around the world today. There are some exceptions, but primarily. And that means the sense of a fractured identity of people who feel like they are not being represented, they're not being heard. This is fundamentally a political problem. It's a political social problem. And that it's, you know. It's not just a problem of leadership, but also a problem of the conception of a political entity, the conception of public order of public life.


And there was a time when we kind of dominated with the Enlightenment vision of secular societies. But even the Enlightenment vision thought that these would-be nation states should be around relatively culturally homogenous groups, in the European mind that spoke the same language, spoke the same religion. In an era of globalization, all this is up for grabs. The three big problems in the global era; one is identity, accountability, and security identity. Who are you if everybody can live everywhere? And does? You know, who are you? And who is the nation? And accountability? Who's in charge? If everything is made everywhere? And you're part of massive communication, global communication patterns? And how can you be secure? How can you be safe? So it's no surprise, I think, that all of these cases that we've been talking around the world, including our own country, religion is seen as a sort of antidote to these divisive features of globalization. That's not religion's fault. That happens, it's just a part of the character of societies that we're in as the world increasingly shifts towards a more globalized world. And for many of this, this is good. We enjoy personally. in Southern California, I really enjoy the diversity of ethnic communities, because I love to eat. And the kind of food that is suddenly available is just remarkably proliferating, and not just the food, but the cultures.  I don't have to go to India to meet with Punjabi anymore, I could just go down the street. And there they are. So I mean, for me, this is wonderful to be in touch with all aspects of the world, just in my own backyard. But I can see how that threatens some people. Like I see how some people feel that their world is falling apart, it's not secure, they don't know what's happening. They don't know who's in charge anymore. And they don't know who they are anymore. And that's, that's very deep. This is not just a political issue, it's a personal issue. We're talking people's sense of identity; their lives were deeply touched. So you can, I think, understand the kind of passion that's so frequently associated with a passion that sometimes turns out in awful ways. And that's, of course, the problem. But at least you can understand what created in the first place.


SINGH: Thank you, Mark. Appreciate that. And Dr. Karam, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Are you seeing the same things as Professor Juergensmeyer in terms of how politics and religion are intersecting to produce religious nationalism?


KARAM: So first of all, allow me to answer that question by what I should have done before, which is to wear another hat entirely, not to speak for Religions for Peace, but to speak as the professor of religion and development at the University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. So I can have a little bit more freedom to say what I'm about to say, which is going to provoke everybody and nobody. First of all, Professor Juergensmeyer very astutely observed that we were dominated quote, unquote, by “enlightenment thinking.” The truth of the matter is that some of us never were dominated by enlightenment thinking, because that was pretty much pertinent to the Western Hemisphere. If that whole space. I come from a part of the world where a nationalist Egyptian nationalist leader in 1919 said very clearly, at the height of the liberation struggle from the British colonial administration said, I am a Christian by religion, but a Muslim by culture. He was a Coptic, Christian and Egyptian, a liberation fighter. So I think we have to understand that for most of the world, religion has always been so integrally part of the cultural domain. So even if you were secular in your orientation, not necessarily observant in your religion, quite frankly, it didn't matter, you still belong to that religion in some way, shape, or form, which is the point I agree with Professor Juergensmeyer that it was about identity. But my point is, it been about identity forever and a day, always in some parts of the world. And I think what by not noticing this, by looking at the entire world through the prism of enlightenment thinking, we ignored, we overlooked, we sidetracked, we marginalized that appreciation for religion.


As part of our culture, as part of who we are, as part of how we speak, I have heard people around me say “inshallah” a thousand times, not because they necessarily believe that there's an Allah, but because it's a way of speaking, and I'm used to it, and they got used to it.  That speaks volumes for how we have integrated the religious into the very pores and fabric of our being. And by not seeing it by consecutive Western administrations over so long, by not understanding and indeed, now seeing it, and trying to instrumentalize it, and the actors in its name to respond to those who are reclaiming the religious as the political, that are reclaiming our religious identity. They always were Muslims, or Christians or Jews, they always were. But they're reclaiming it as a political statement. They're reclaiming it as a matter of asserting an interest. And the interest is in land, or in space, or in demography, or you name it. It's about reclaiming the religious discourse, as part of our political orientation, and our interest-based negotiation with one another. This reclaiming is happening in a certain part of the world, too. It's happening right here in the United States of America. We saw quite a bit of it with the previous administration, but we're still seeing it in action today. So to think that this is a recent dimension is to continue to look through a lens that has yet to appreciate and become just minimally literate about how the rest of the world has always had religion as part of its identity.


When we spoke, and thank you so much, Sylvester, for mentioning the countering violent extremism dynamics and rhetoric, which suggested that the counter point was we had to create an alternative discourse. What? The FBI had to create an alternative Muslim discourse?  Really? Since when? I mean, hallelujah, if they could I claim it, but, good grief, really? But this notion that you can use the religious because you nicely parcel it out. And now let's use it, and now let's renovate it. And let's support those who are trying to renovate, and modernize, and become moderates. Since when is my faith a tool for any politician? Since when will I cede that ground for anyone to determine how I live my faith? How I understand my reality, how I exercise my right of citizenship and essence to be? Since when does anyone take that right? Unfortunately, that right has been taken left, right, and center. On the one side by academics, on the other side by governments. And today, religious nationalism means that at the same time, as in the old days, in the 1919 era, when we were fighting off British colonialism, and British colonialism was coming back and saying, oh no no no, we're very much on the side of women, we really would like to support women and women's rights. It's all about empowering women in this country, in the street, because the religion is so anti.


I realized we're actually part of that same process again, today, in 2021. And we're still talking about trying to fend off a cultural sense of domination in the name of the religion, but actually, its politics, its interest, at the end of the day. So as I refuse to cede the grounds of my faith and its narrative, I also refuse to accept an ideology, whether it comes from within my own religious community or from outside of it, that tries to tell me that religious nationalism can actually be a good thing. It isn't a good thing, because when you nationalize my faith, you have nationalized my body. And that is not on the market, and never was and never will be. So how do we change this way of thinking? Well, we have to completely break up that paradigm that assumes that religion and faith are something that we can use, and we can nicely distill. And then let's see what we can do with it once we distill it. You can't distinguish an identity, you can't distill the way I think and break up and say, Okay, we'll take your words up to this point, the word “inshallah” will be omitted. Well, I'm sorry, inshallah was actually what I wanted to say at the very beginning. So there's a cacophony of issues here. But if I fight this struggle alone, within my own faith tradition, or within my own country, I get nowhere, really, really fast. I get lynched.


As you can see from so many examples in so many different parts of the world, what has been supremely helpful, supremely important is the alliance building that takes place between people who have their faith at the core of their hearts and identity, but at the same time, are committed to justice for everyone, including the other who's hurting me, including the other who's hurting me. And this is the call that we have at this moment in time, in Religions for Peace, that the reason I left the UN to join this because I realized that the moment is now to call for those who are hurting us to be part of the beloved community that I want to be part of. This is not the time to keep alienating and pointing fingers and saying mine or yours or this or hers. No. All religions, all faiths are tested today. All religious institutions, all religious communities, all faith-based NGOs, every single one of us is being tested today. We are people of faith. Yes, some of us the definition between those of us who are fighting and struggling for human rights for all, including our planet, and those who are deciding to carve out a space for themselves and claiming that it is for their own protection and their own their own space, as if we can live in that isolation. As if we can we have. We have a global pandemic telling us not one of us can live in safety. Yet we are fighting one another in different parts of the world. Because we think that this enclave will remain safe. Well, good luck with that. If and when religions come together, to serve together not even just to speak together, even though God knows that is brilliant. But if and when religions are capable of coming together to serve together that will break the paradigm that we are currently seeing where those who have interests to serve politically, including defunct political institutions, which are lacking in legitimacy entirely. Where those same institutions seek to serve, to take their religion to serve their interests. The only way to combat that is when the religious, the faithful comes together to serve together every other one, not only their own communities, that is the antidote.


SINGH: That's powerful. Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Karam. And Dr. Johnson over to you. I'd love to hear your reflections on the relationship between religion and politics as it comes to religious nationalism. And where do we go from here?


JOHNSON: I really want to echo the comments of the other panelists who pointed to the very troubling ways that the political domain is intersecting with religion. One of the things that has become important in trying to explain the phenomenon is called the racialization of religion. I think is very helpful for thinking about historically, across many centuries. So Dr. Karam, you were talking about these empires of old have really used this political understanding of religion. And then we have these more modern examples of this, where there was a sense of belonging to a political community that was rooted in some religious identity. So the history of Christendom, we see that in the Islamic societies, we see actually different kinds of structures that point to some possible solutions. But all of that is to say that, if we think about one of the most influential figures in shaping politics, he didn't claim to be doing this, but in relationship to religion and race. is Samuel Huntington. He wrote an article in the 1990s that was entitled The Clash of Civilizations that became a book a few years later, that unlike many books that academics write, became very common reading by people who were not even in academia, particularly those who were in the U.S. State Department. and in other countries, who were particularly in the West, thinking about the relationship of their nation states. What they were beginning to see as some Western struggle against Islam.


I say beginning, but obviously there was something called the Crusades, many, many centuries ago. So that's not the first time something like that this happened. But it is certainly a more recent iteration. And one of the things that Huntington explained is that, he said, in the past, the conflicts of the world were based on nations against nations. But in our time, we're going to see cultures against cultures. It's going to be this deep cultural thing. And he claimed to be talking about cultures. And if you actually read that book and see what he's talking about, it was against Muslims, and it was against China. And who was against Muslims and China? It was Europe. It was it was the West. And so he didn't claim to be talking about religion and rights, but what he was actually doing, and it wasn't new, I'm not trying to claim you invented racism, but he made it very popular with other people, such as Bernard Lewis, who had a similar kind of set of claims that were also widely embraced popularly, as well as by people who were in foreign policy and state policy. They were treating religion as a fundamental type that functions in the way that scholars have tried to describe what race does. And that is it's seeing this fundamental type as having a certain set of characteristics. It's not reducible to biology, even though people often think of race through biology, we have history we see it's actually all kinds of things, language, and the susceptibility to criminality, etc.


But all of that is to say that the racialization of religion really manifests this intersection of religion and politics, because what we get is an understanding of who gets to belong in our political community. You're not really a member of fill in the blank. It could be name your country. France, India, China, the United States, unless you are this. And so what we're dealing with the resurgence of Christian nationalism in the United States is this intensified emphasis on claiming a story about the roots of the West and then drilling down to the US. And then projecting that globally up. We can think of Eric Prince, for example, who was a former military person, led his own private military company of Blackwater, that generate a lot of money. It was based on an anti-Muslim bigotry, and it became part of the way the United States operationalized its struggle against Muslims in the name of securing the nation. So what does that mean for solutions? And I think that we certainly have to go beyond some of the important and necessary measures that have been talked about before of really using education of encouraging dialogue. There's certainly a place for that. We should not stop dialogue, and not stop educating people. But we also have to deal at multiple levels with this.


So in different ways, all of the panelists have been talking about a certain construction of the West, for example, that is based on a falsehood. Most people in the West have never heard of Averroës Ibn Rushd. He was celebrated in his own time that 12th century as the father of secularism. And he was especially call that by people who live in the so-called Christian West. But today we hear that Muslims somehow are beyond the pale of these formations of the secular and that there's something that is just supposed to be admissible, even though Western Europeans attributed his genealogy secularism to a Muslim scholar, it's also true. You can study philosophy today, in most western countries, and you will almost never read any writings of a Muslim. You will not be required to learn Arabic. And with rare exceptions, that is just if you understand the actual history of Western philosophy, that should be ridiculous, because the actual history of philosophy was something that was largely rooted in engagement, the Muslim thinkers. So what are we trying to say here? We have to, in a very vigorous way, really demythologize this construction of the West from the ground up and it needs to happen in at many levels and needs to be reflected in our language about foreign policy, the debate of whether Turkey should be part of the UN.


You know, the idea that it was a different continent is absurd. I mean, even thinking of Europe, as a very separate place on the earth. But we have to demythologize the West. And we have to do that in multiple levels, not just in school textbooks. But in terms of our policy and our media coverage and how we represent, we have to focus on the future of technologies. Because I do think, that when we particularly understand the securitization practices, there is so much control over populations and, as Eric Prince demonstrates, there is so much control over populations, that is happening through technology, if it's Mossad or the CIA, or the FBI. The people who are writing code, who are surveilling, who are developing algorithms that are going to be part of the securitization practices. So we have to focus on the future talent that is actually going to create technologies that can have so many consequences, that will have so many quantum consequences for human security. And we have to make sure that future talent is grounded in a very critical understanding of the things that we're talking about, which means that we have to have a much more comprehensive approach to what we think preparing future talent technology is, because there's going to be a lot more control over very vulnerable populations, through the kinds of state surveillance practices and predictive algorithms that are happening. And that is a huge, huge opportunity and an urgent need for us to actually address these issues. And finally, I would say that we have to move beyond the Manichaean divide, that we often use globally.


And this is a real problem in the West, particularly, to talk about things like human rights and rogue nations. We have to stop using, particularly, a Western bias against nonwhite governments and nonwhite populations. When we think about justice, and what government is just because if you pay attention to the way governments treat, particularly their minority populations, I don't mean that only narrowly, but also in terms of their power. You can't come up with this Manichaean binary list of good nations over here and rogue nations over there. If you look at the way the United States or any Western nation treats minority populations, then suddenly that list of who's on the good side, who's on the bad side looks very different. Why do I raise that? Because so much of the targeting of religious minorities again is happening through this securitization, discourse, and practices. And in the West, it's this idea that we need to guard against some threat from non-Western nations from non-Western culture. And in Huntington's term, you know, either from China, which he reduced to being based on the Confucian culture, or Islamic societies as the Muslim enemy. And when we pay attention to that, we will realize that binary system of dividing countries and the good and bad actually doesn't work, we need a more complicated process. And that's actually going to have very direct implications for how our foreign policies and our national security practices would otherwise get implemented. You'd have to be much bigger and more equitable.


SINGH: Thank you, Dr. Johnson. Dr. Juergensmeyer, over to you. As we, as we think about solutions, where we go from here, surely, we all know some of the most obvious ways forward, that we've repeated for decades, right dialogue, religious literacy, etc. It seems that we need to go deeper, or at least go further. And so when you envision solutions for religious nationalism, what do you see?


JUERGENSMEYER: Good question. And in an answering that, let me turn back just a second to comments from my wonderful colleagues. It's been so much fun to be a part of this discussion. Because I'd love to go out with these guys and have a chance to just chat all evening. Unfortunately, you can't do that on Zoom. But I've learned so much from Professor Johnson and Professor Karam, which I agree with almost entirely. And following up on a comment by Professor Johnson talking about the invention of secularism, which is also part of the Enlightenment project, along with the invention of religion, as if it was something different from ordinary culture. These are really recent inventions. But in doing so, they really produced alternative ideologies and some of the big, biggest threats to public life are not just religious nationalism, but anti-religious nationalism. A second are crackdowns like in, Azza Karam, I don't want to pick up on your country, Egypt, but here you have a rather striking secondary dictatorship if I can use that word. It was used to put down the threat of religious nationalism, of Islamic nationalism in the country. Well, maybe the previous government would have not been, you know, good for Egyptians but the alternative is pretty severe also. And it's done in the name of countering religious nationalism. Of course, this is China's position now, against the Muslim Uyghurs and the Tibetan Buddhist.


The threat of the possibility of religious nationalism has created its own problems, and its own kind of authoritarianism. And then a follow up on something that Professor Karam said. At one point earlier, she talked about the religion as a nation of politics, and, and how, yeah, it's true that religious identities have been part of public life for forever. But the kind of stridency in this particular politicization is a is a real thing. Let me give you a specific example. Right before the pandemic began, I was in Iraq doing research for the book that came out this year called God at War. And I met in prison with a farmer militant, while he was still militant with ISIS, although he's now in prison in Kurdistan and northern Iraq, and I was able to have some long interviews with him. At one point I was asking you, how did you have this happen? How did you get into this? Tell me your life story. And he started talking about early days in Mosul where he used to have Shia playmates, and the Shia and the Sunni, all got along together, they're all part of one family. And there's no sense of any kind of major difference. And I said, well, what happened? And he said, well, after the American invasion and the rise of Shia political power in Iraq. And then we began to realize that they were really out to persecute us Sunnis. And then he said in prison, after he had joined one of these movements, he really became radicalized and saw the Shia, not just as enemies but as demonic beings, as devils, and people who should be killed. And I said, do you still believe that? He said, yes. You know, if I had Shia around, I would kill them. And I said, what about your old playmates that you grew up with when you were a little boy in Mosel? He said yes. Even them.


What an extraordinary thing. What happened in his life, and what happened in Iraq society to make this dramatic shift? Well, if it was a cataclysmic event in which religion became politicized, or politics became religionized in a way that it hadn't been before. And I think, in different ways, that's what's happening around the world, where people used to get along with each other, they didn't think in terms of religion, and they thought about identity and getting along with each other. And now increasingly, those labels carry social freight and social significance, because the premium on it is political power, and national identity. And that's the issue. So how do you free yourself from that? I think part of it is understanding and not just dismissing the religious nationalists, the extremists, as simply crazy. The other do crazy things. I mean, January 6, was pretty crazy. And then you look at the different people who were involved. You know, they were just ordinary folks back in suburban Phoenix or wherever, and then they got on a flight, and they came up to Washington to join the cause. Well, okay. What can we do in our lives? And what can we do as a society to give a sense that this kind of multicultural experience of national community is really a wonderful thing. Is really a very positive thing. And that they are included. Because I think, ultimately, that's what fuels the passion.  I grew up in a farm in Southern Illinois, that's an area that's MAGA hat country. So when I go home, as I sometimes do, and meet my all high school classmates, who are big supporters of the former administration, and they look at me and say, you're in California now. And then their face darkens and say, are you one of those liberals? And I look at them and this came to mind, I don't know why I said this, but it the right thing to say. I said, I'm your old classmate. I'm your old classmate. I'm not something. I'm your old classmate. So I guess the response to something that's very human and personal is a very human and personal response. To reach out to those old classmates. And say, you're included, and I know you're watching television, yours online, you see what looks like a wonderful party that only people on the east coast in the West Coast can take part in. But you're excluded from that party. But you are included. You're part of the party. You're part of this wonderful life and an important part of it. It wouldn't be as good without you. So don't give up. Don't despair. You're still loved. That's a tough message to get across. But I think that's ultimately, really the only one.


SINGH: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And at this time, I'd like to invite participants to join our conversation. With their questions. We'll do our best to get to as many questions as possible. Krista will now get instructions on how to join the question queue.


OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions)


SINGH: Thank you. I'll start with a question that's written from Satpal Singh. He says for those of us operating in local communities and congregations and classrooms, what can we be doing to help combat religious nationalism? How do we ensure that we are protecting ourselves and others from being drawn in by its allure? And how can we be proactive in rooting out religious nationalism in our own communities? So Dr. Karam, I think this might be a good one for you to start with, please.


KARAM: So I think this this resonates very strongly with a question that Professor Juergensmeyer also asked is, how do we free ourselves from this, this space where we've dehumanized one another, but at the same time, we're working together against the other? And I think the issue here is precisely what the message of Religions for Peace has been for the last fifty years. There is no escape from the fact that we have to work together for the other not just for ourselves, as long as we're continuing to work for our own interests, even if our interests are shared. But we're working from the principle of, I need to save my people, or I need to save my family, or I need to save myself that that limited interest per definition will make us draw boundaries. Whereas I think to be honest, I hate to say this, but I think the pandemic is giving us an opportunity to see how incredibly intertwined our basic survival is. It's not just the aspiration to be rich and famous. And then and but it's the basic survival is so incredibly interdependent. That pandemic is telling us this, is showing us this, if we don't seize this opportunity to realize that this is the moment that I serve you, as opposed to serving myself, that this is the moment I defend you, as opposed to only defending myself. That if we don't take that forward, and if that doesn't become our mantra, how do I serve you? How do I insist, be deliberate in serving you? And in other words, in loving you insistently even though you hurt me? How do I insist on serving you? I think if we don't start having that as our mantra collectively, teaching it to our children having this be part of the way that our families serve and operate in any given social context, I think we are going to continue to be sucked into the spaces which are built on the fear of the other as opposed to the love of the other as part of loving ourselves. I believe that's a very fundamental, by the way, every single faith tradition known to humankind, says that. Every single one. Don't tell me Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic! Every single faith tradition says that. Now surely, they can't all be wrong. That's it.


SINGH:  Thank you, Dr. Johnson, please.


JOHNSON: Sure, I would certainly agree with that. And I would add for civic organizations, institutions that are trying to address these problems, they're very important strategies that should, again, should certainly include some things that we've talked about before. Education and dialogue--we should continue those things. But we also have to include things such as engaging with and changing policy. I want to just point again to the securitization role that the way that carceral systems, law enforcement, national security entities are in multiple countries, certainly, including the United States, but globally, are a significant factor and the religious nationalism and targeting religious minorities, and giving religious majority is a platform. So if you are part of a religious community, or civic organization that wants to get involved in addressing religious nationalism, you might include in the work that you do, learning about and engaging with and trying to change the policy around things such as securitization practices, if there are efforts to deprive religious groups who are actually suffering from state persecution, then that's something you can address at the level of how you vote. There are people who are running for office who have a clear set of commitments to ensuring that if if they're able to participate in governance, that they're actually going to address the problem of targeting persecuted minorities. And again, I want to be clear that persecution, for example, does not mean in the United States that you are a white Christian who feels aggrieved. And that you feel like you're being discriminated against as a white Christian, because people don't agree with your vision of the United States, it means that you're actually suffering from a violation of rights. And so I think we just have to clarify that. So engaging with the policy kind of voting that goes on. And then I think, even in terms of the international context, becoming involved in social justice, human rights work, is another way. I think it's important for religious communities to take the opportunity not to romanticize their religious history and their religious identity, but to include in whatever kind of religious education that they're doing engagement with the deep problems of that in ways, for example, that their religious history has participated in depriving others of rights, of inflicting harms upon people. And again, that's should not be seen as attacking your religion. It should be seen as understanding all the range of things that have happened in the past, so that when people are coming to be part of that religious community, what they're getting is not a romanticized view of it. They're getting a very realistic understanding of it so that those opportunities for justice and for solidarity and for coexistence said that Dr. Juergensmeyer and Dr. Karam have articulated can actually flourish.


SINGH: Thank you. And Dr. Juergensmeyer. Would you like to add to that?


JUERGENSMEYER: Yeah, and just to answer my own case that I gave about this guy in Iraq, who used to pal around with Shia, and now that he's become, you know, a hardened ISIS supporter. Well, you know, ISIS is really a movement for Sunni empowerment. And he joined it because he wanted the Sunnis in Mosul in the western part of Iraq to feel like they were included. And Dr. Johnson is absolutely right. This is not just as I indicated a human problem, it certainly is. But it's also a policy problem. Because if the Shia government reached out in a way that dramatically, for example, tried to rebuild Mosul, where it's just destroyed flat like a pancake, and so you have hundreds of thousands of people living out in refugee camps. I've seen them, I've talked with them. The United Nations has done a wonderful job in providing for these refugee camps, but they can't live there forever. So if the Shia government--it is its job, really, to make everybody feel welcome. And if it created those kinds of conditions, then I think there would be a rapid change in the response of the Sunni Arabs. And the same is true in the United States. We think of this, you know, the Christians being the dominant religion, but that's not really true. The dominant culture in the United States is a kind of secular multiculturalism. And at least that's the way it's perceived by the people in my high school back in Southern Illinois.  They don't think of themselves as the majority. They think of themselves as the minority and increasingly so in a country that is becoming visibly more secular and more multicultural. Well, they need to be welcomed, they need to be, we need to reach out to them in a way that they feel like they are part of the party, and not just the unwelcome remnants of the past.


SINGH: Thank you. Krista, I'll pass it to you to answer a, or to involve a live question, please.


OPERATOR: Our next question is a live question from Rich Procida from Bible Study for Progressives.


PROCIDA: Hi. So I'm concerned with the negative definition of politics. Isn't this really the result of the failure of religion to address the important social and political concerns? Isn't the rise of nationalism a failure of religion? And isn't the solution to actually engage those issues as a faith? Not to withdraw into some personal area of personal salvation, but to actually engage as a church, as a community, in social justice, advocacy? And then maybe, one suggestion I made at our breakout group which came up, which I think is pretty good, is that the thing that unifies Americans--I always speak as a progressive Christian and American--is democracy. And isn't that something that we can all rally around? And isn't that anti-theoretical to nationalism?


JOHNSON: I think this is a great point. I we've been talking about politics in ways that I think what you're pointing to is a fair observation that we've made some assumptions and not been precise in our language. This is why I was talking about the racialization of religion as a way of understanding the problem of the intersection because I agree with you, I think that it's if we ask where is there a space that is not political? And what would it look like if religion or anything were to not be involved in any way politically? I don't even know if that's possible. But I'm reminded of in the United States, a civil rights movement was largely criminalized and criticized because it was being political. Here was a group of Black Southern Christians who organize themselves in their own language in order to fight for human rights. And as you just described, who saw their work as necessarily involving the need to change laws because they were trying to fight for social justice. And they were criticized because they we're being political. And what happened was that they actually shifted the way that so many people in the U.S. came to view the relationship between religion and politics, often to different kinds of ends. But I think your point is right. Globally, we've talked, we refer to different kinds of movements that were liberation movements happening within Islam or within Christianity. These have gone on within Judaism, Hinduism, and there's so many examples of this. So I think you make a very important observation. And I would just say we were not being precise in the language. We were referring to the nationalism particularly as a as a problem when you get a certain kind of intersection of religion and politics. But yes, you are right. Not only should people not retreat into some apolitical fear, I'm not sure is humanly possible to live in the world in a way that does not someway become political.


KARAM: Can I also just make a quick point here? I think that exactly as Professor Johnson said, the issue isn't so much that politics is good, and religion is bad, or that religion is good, and politics is bad. That's not the point. The point is that the politicization of religion or the religionization of politics, is a rather toxic equation. And that unless we understand the causes and the roots of the manifestations of this, we will end up finding what is happening now, which is contexts where certain political regimes are making use of religious discourse to justify what is fundamentally actually undemocratic. Because there is no way and there's no—there's not a single context around the world, where a political administration has decided to work with all religions, with all the religions inherent in its boundaries, in order to serve everybody. That's not what's happening. What's happening is that certain political regimes and administrations are working with certain religions in order to marginalize and or to justify the marginalization of certain interest groups. If it indeed was a multi-religious encounter to serve the political administration's interests of serving all we would find ourselves with a radically different political paradigm globally because then it would be every nation for the other. It wouldn't be this nation against that nation, and this race against that race, and this community against this community. The point here is that the alignment between religions, one religion and one political administration is harmful. When the alignment is multi-religious in nature, it is per definition for the welfare of more than one particular group, more than one particular race, more than one particular gender, more than. But that's not what we are seeing and the answer to some of the questions that have been raised before. Again, it's not about religion being good and politics being good or both being bad. It's about how can this administration that we have here, thankfully, how can this administration serve the interests of all, including races, ethnicities, genders, you name it? Well, guess what, not by working with only one religious group or community. Not by working with only one religious organization, or institution, but by working with all of them. Now, having said that, that is the hardest thing to do. The hardest thing to do. You can work with mono interests, you can work with clearly identified paradigms of us and them, it's easy. It's easy to work at even just within the Catholic community sometimes, it's easy. Not really, but just for the sake of argument. My point here is this, political administrations utilize specific religions. And in so doing, either advertently or inadvertently pit them against one another. Learn from the lessons of colonial history. They are plenty, and they are still very pertinent today. Colonialism was about (inaudible) "White Man's Burden." Remember, what was "White Man's Burden?" To bring faith to all people in the dark lens? No, "White Man's Burden" was to bring a certain interpretation of a certain faith to all the so-called "other." That was the problem. And in so doing, it positioned, the different faiths, the different cultural identities, the different ethnicities, and the different races, that positioned them as antagonistic. It was those with us and those against us. That happens when you align with one faith tradition, no matter how beautiful that faith tradition is. No matter how inclusive that faith is. It's still one faith tradition. It's still one faith tradition. And if you look at the variety of work that's been done on religion and development, over time, you will find that many nations, many governments today are indeed supporting religious organizations to do development work globally. But guess what? Each administration is supporting its own religious affiliate to do that work globally. It's not supporting multi religious development. It's not supporting multi religious collaboration. It's supporting specific religions to do their good work in specific parts of the world. That is the wrong formula. And as long as that's the formula, don't tell me good politics and democracy is going to sort that.


SINGH: Thank you. And Dr. Juergensmeyer, would you like to weigh in here?


JUERGENSMEYER: I'm just thinking of, you know, the larger issue about what we can do in our own neighborhood, in our own backyard? What if each church or synagogue or gurdwara adopted another congregation? Like Satpal Singh was saying, who asked the question initially, let me go out on a limb and guess that he's a part of a gurdwara community of Sikhs. What if they adopted a synagogue in their town or another church, and formed a kind of sister relationship between them and the two communities began to meet each other and hang out with each other and to learn from each other? Basically, it's hard to hate people that you don't know. It's hard to hate people you know, it's hard to hate people that you met with and you've learned their lives and you've broken bread with and all of these other things. So maybe it starts just with this kind of human interaction.


SINGH: Thank you. Thank you. The next written question comes from Whit Bodman. This is for you Dr. Johnson. Andrew Whitehead in his work on Christian nationalism found that among Blacks, 31% identified themselves as moderate Christian nationalists, the largest cohort in his four categories. Obviously, they are not white supremacists. This suggests that there are different kinds of Christian nationalism. Do you see this Christian nationalism as problematic, as dangerous as acceptable? And perhaps an acceptable part of the diverse fabric of America?


JOHNSON: And thanks so much for the question. I think it's a really important one and glad to answer. The quick answer is that it's problematic because this is religious nationalism. Whether these are white Christians, or Black Christians, or Latinx Christians, and they're important examples of how harmful this is. So one of the things that we we've not talked so much about are the African religions that have suffered persecution, Candomblé in Brazil, for example, which the adherents of Candomblé are particularly Black, but there is a new wave of charismatic Christianity that has targeted Candomblé as a diabolical religion. And many of these people are, of the Christians who were targeting Candomblé, are Black Christians, who see the presence of an African-derived religion as a form of Satanism, and the influence of the devil that needs to be eradicated. Or in Nigeria, which is a Black country, Yoruba, an indigenous African religion, has suffered targeted persecution and desecration by at the hands of Black Christians who believe that Nigeria should be a Christian nation. And there's also contention with Muslims as well who are fighting over the identity of Nigeria, but who particularly have targeted Yoruba as a as a diabolical religion. And in the United States, you're pointing to the statistic of black Christians who identified nationals we see this, for example, and the very harmful and unfortunate targeting in Christian nationalism, in the U.S. on trans youths, for example, transgender youths, so targeting these young people, as transgender has become a center stage platform for expounding a Christian nationalist agenda that wants to employ religious doctrine of a particular nature. So there is no one Christian doctrine on sexuality or anything else or gender on anything else, Christians disagree, but this movement asserts that it is the Christian truth that is anti-trans, and that's multiracial. You can find Black Christians who are a part of that. So the result would be that as we just as we were saying the fight over right now that trans youth would not be able to get medical services that they need at the discretion or judgment of medical experts, it would be based on anti-trans religious bias. And so those are just examples of the very harmful effects of the religious nationalism. So it doesn't matter what the racial population is. It is about the outcomes and the strategies and whether or not they're harmful. So those are just examples.


SINGH: Thank you, Dr. Johnson. The next written question comes from Katherine Marshall. She says what would be your counsel to the U.S. Biden administration? As some practical policy steps in the area of religion, symbolic actions, more pragmatic things removed from the table? What would you say?


KARAM: I actually already answered, Professor Marshall, who's my mentor, by the way, and someone I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for, it's really not rocket science. It is about working deliberately with all religious communities at all times to serve everybody. It is not about giving the bulk of the resources available to any one religious organization or one religious community, no matter how dynamic and fantastic its range of services around the world is. It is about quintessentially essentially having the basic religious literacy to understand that working deliberately, determinately, and systematically with all religious groups and communities and organizations, that that is the way to make a difference to serve everybody. Now that skill by the way of working with everybody is not born overnight. And it's certainly not going to be born overnight in any particular U.S. administration or any particular political administration. That's why there are multi religious organizations that have existed since 1850 that deal with this work. But are they on the horizon? Are they anywhere on the horizon, USAID just had a beautiful, remarkable event trying to look at impact of religious collaboration just last year. Noteworthy is who was not invited to that space, in spite of having tremendous experience and resilience and experience over decades. I'm sorry, political administrations, no matter who they are, are not particularly known to be inclusive in their outreach and in the skills of understanding what it is like to work multi religiously, all it takes is identifying who the multi religious actors are, where there is a track record of multi religious advocacy and service delivery, both not just one and working with those organizations to support them. I would like to see the Biden administration recognize Religions for Peace, recognize the Parliament of World Religions, recognize United Religions Initiative. So far, it has not. And I wonder why they're all based here.


JUERGENSMEYER: Yeah, I think that I agree with Dr. Karam, that would be a good approach. But I think there's also something really much more fundamental, and that is returned to America stand as a leader for human rights around the world, in all areas. Because I think that taking a very strong policy on human rights and joining that with our political and in particular, our weapons sales and other aspects of America's interaction with other countries, that human rights would become an important factor. And the treatment of religious communities, minority communities, of course, would be a very strong element of that not the only element. I mean, the treatment of gays and transgenders, and other disenfranchised ethnic communities will also be a part of the human rights agenda, whether there is a kind of autocracy that deprives of basic freedom, all those are part of the human rights agenda. But certainly that would then encompass the treatment of minority religious communities. I think that's so important. And this administration, I think, to its credit, has begun to make statements in exactly this direction. And I hope that this will continue. And that, once again, America will be seen as a leading light for human rights around the world and willing to put its money where its mouth is. Willing to stand behind these positions with its support, whether it's political or monetary, or military or whatever. We don't engage with countries that deprive people of their human rights. That is a stand I think would make a huge difference, for not only for minority religious communities, but for those who are disenfranchised from human rights around the world.


SINGH: Thank you. And over to you, Dr. Johnson. Do you have anything you'd like to add here?


JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that there certainly needs to be much more deliberate commitment to engaging with the variety of liberation struggles and the fight for justice happening globally. I would differ somewhat from some of the other panelists over human rights. The United States is overthrown multiple democracies around the world, including (inaudible), we to this day operate black sites where we torture people. We incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any other country on Earth and we are investing even more heavily in repressive strategies. We have militarized our policing. The way it operates is actually very murderous for Black and brown communities. That's not the case for white communities. And so this is why I said earlier that, in the West, we have a discourse about judging countries based on human rights. But we don't actually judge countries based on the human rights for all peoples, we are doing that based on majority populations. We're not paying attention to how countries are treating minority populations. And we do that based on the history of Western colonialism. So I do think that we have to fight for human rights. But I think that if you make a list of the actual violations of human rights, and you make a list of the countries that are violating those human rights, I don't know--the United States would not be on the list of countries that is not severely violating human rights. Okay. We wouldn't be and I don't know what country would be on that list. We'd need a different kind of calculus. And so I don't think that means that we shouldn't fight for human rights, we do. But you can look at our policy with regard to Saudi Arabia, or Israel, or European states, and see that it's a contradiction. You know, we pick and choose. We pick our partners, and we agree with them whenever they do things that are in violation, often that we're funding, or when we do things that ourselves in violation of human rights. So we do need to fight for human rights. We do need standards around it, that I agree with. But the binary list that we have right now is really based on colonialism, race, and it does not take seriously the way minorities are treated by these nation states. So I think that for the Biden administration certainly have a very different approach, I think that we could start with radically changing our securitization practices. When I say radically, I mean that we start from the ground up and recognize that we have spent billions of dollars, and we have spent, we have built lots of infrastructure, to unfairly target Muslims as a threat to the United States. We've done that within the United States, and we've done that outside of the United States. We maintain a great relationship with India, even though they're violating the rights of Muslims. We maintain a great religious relationship with Israel. We won't even call for them to stop an air raid against civilian Palestinians right now--we won't do it, not publicly. You know, Biden wants to get on the phone and have a private conversation. But if there were a different population of people who were on the receiving end of those bombs, or if a different country were doing it, it would be different, right? So I think that we have to have a much more honest and inclusive approach to this. I think we need to support everyone's human rights; it should not matter who they are, it shouldn't matter what their race is, it shouldn't matter what their religion is, it should not matter where they live, we have to support everyone's human rights.


KARAM: And it might begin—forgive me, forgive me—it might begin with a little bit of humility, about the fact that human rights in this country still have a long way to go. We cannot at any moment in time claim to go and serve and judge anyone else out there, when our own pain exceeds our boundaries and spills over everywhere. In this country, there are human rights violations of the most egregious degree, let's name it, please. And a little bit of humility about that might have been what would have salvaged the previous Democratic administration because it wasn't a very humble one either. I think just that humility to understand that human rights begins right here. And to be examples and paragons of virtue right here before we decide to serve others will help us build the bridges we need to build for human rights with others. But where can I extend the hand when it is cut off? And how dare I think that I can extend the hand and understand the other way in my in my own home, in my own territory, in my own neighbor, I will see a sign that tells me that hatred is okay?


JUERGENSMEYER: Human rights begins at home.


KARAM: Exactly.


SINGH: Thank you. Thank you all, I think this is a very powerful note to end on. Dr. Johnson, Dr. Juergensmeyer, Dr. Karam, thank you for joining us in this discussion and sharing your insights and your wisdom with us.

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