Mark Juergensmeyer speaks on religion and insurgency in Iraq and beyond

Yesterday, Mark Juergensmeyer spoke on the role of religion in the Iraqi insurgency, and in terrorism generally. He concluded that while there should and must be a role for Islam in the future Iraqi government, its inclusion raises important questions as to human rights. And the rebuilding of Iraqi civil society has a long way to go.

Juergensmeyer began with an illustrated travelogue of his May 2004 trip to Baghdad with a human rights organization. He began with a frightening landing at the Baghdad airport in the midst of missiles, and described the dangers of being an American in Iraq, even one with no official connection to the US government. The best way to stay safe, he said, was to travel with Iraqis and stay in a small hotel, rather than attracting attention with a convoy of SUVs. He described Baghdad as a modern, busy city with a booming economy, but it’s still unsafe to walk down the street alone. “Baghdad has been transformed,” he said, into a new and horribly unpredictable state. Before the war is was “their own kind of stable awfulness…now it isn’t getting better.”

The attitudes of the Iraqis Juergensmeyer met seemed outlandish to Americans. They suggested that the US was sponsoring the insurgency so that the occupation could be prolonged. Another said that the CIA had been supporting Saddam all along, and, knowing that an Islamic revolution was imminent, invaded before his government collapsed. Even the semantics were difficult- was Iraq “liberated” or “occupied”? Juergensmeyer settled for “the time since the end of the ancient regime”. The US forces have a great deal of work to do. One Iraqi woman he met said, “You Americans have become the dictators you came to destroy.”

Juergensmeyer also criticized some of the policies after the invasion as “catastrophic,” most importantly the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. A new force takes time to train, and the old soldiers quickly found jobs as private soldiers in the insurgency, which is now almost entirely Iraqi and Islamicized. Many mistakes are still being made, he said, citing the recent jailing of a Sunni political leader with little reason.

Juergensmeyer quickly surveyed religious terrorism around the world. He emphasized that there has been much more Christian terrorism in the US than Islamic terrorism (though he granted that the two World Trade Center attacks were monumental). He cited the Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh, who he called a Christian terrorist rather than just the crazy loner most people imagine.

He ended the lecture on a somewhat hopeful note, describing a panel discussion he moderated. First, an Iraqi cleric proclaimed the need for an Islamic state. Then, a human rights said, “Who gave you the authority to interpret the Koran?” Juergensmeyer began to worry. “I don’t want Iraq to look like America. I know Islam is a part of our unique culture,” she said, passionately arguing for women’s rights. But the cleric responded. “I’m not God, but I’ll try to learn.”


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