Author Archives: David

“Is Tajikistan Really Jihad’s Next Frontier?”, by Edward Lemon

“Is Tajikistan Really Jihad’s Next Frontier?”, by Edward James Lemon. 2015. Exeter Central Asian Studies Network. June 13.

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This post is part of the CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

“What Does the Halimov Defection Tell Us About Tajikistan?”, by John Heathershaw

“What Does the Halimov Defection Tell Us About Tajikistan?”, by John Heathershaw. 2015. Exeter Central Asian Studies Network. May 31.

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This post is part of the CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

“It’s Not All About Islam: Misreading Secular Politics in the Middle East”, by Stacey Gutkowski

“It’s Not All About Islam: Misreading Secular Politics in the Middle East”, by Stacey Gutkowski. 2015. openDemocracy. April 25.

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This post is part of the CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

2015 – CEDAR Occasional Paper No. 8, by Sarah MacMillen

Abiding Issues Concerning Race and Religion in American Communities

Sarah MacMillen

With the recent news items on racial profiling and police actions against African Americans in the United States, a set of questions and problematics burst forward from a productive dialogue between sociological and religious views on the topics of race and diversity. Typically in sociology, those who study race reflect on power, while those who examine religion tend to focus on culture or communities and do not like to concern themselves with questions concerning structures or inequality. As Smith et al. noted recently, mainstream sociology and sociology of religion have historically been at cross-purposes.[1] In the conventional sense, “political” issues like race are public, whereas religion is private. This is a misfortune in recent sociology as a discipline, but a cross-pollination is in order and should be productive for the study of both religion and mainstream sociology. Further, there has been a call to change in the discipline itself. Organizations that are religiously based in America tend to be highly segregated, even today reflecting the adage that Sunday morning worship time is the most racially and ethnically segregated hour of the week.

Some scholars have attempted to examine this problem, most famously Christian Smith and Michael Emerson.[2] Their historical and sociological analysis looked at evangelical Christianity’s ambivalence about racial issues—evoking biblical, cultural, and historical texts while describing statistical trends. Emerson and Smith’s text explores something that resonated in peace studies literature. Like many other social institutions, religion is ambiguous when it comes to social problems like racism and violence. Religion—and, based on Smith and Emerson’s focus, Christianity specifically—is a source of both unity and division. Religion can promote conflict, but it can also be a source of overcoming it. This ambivalence of the sacred has been noted in other cases of conflict throughout the world. Religionists, however, have a certain duty to tap the resources of peace and reconciliation in areas where religion has either been the source of, or has contributed to, division. This is the thesis of a trajectory of recent scholarship, perhaps anticipating geo-political shifts concerning culture and religion that emerged following the events of September 11th. This trajectory began with Marty and Appleby’s work on the fundamentalism project and has extended far beyond looking merely at “resurgent religion.”[3]  Inspired by these shifts, scholars have suggested that if religion is a part of social conflict and violence, it must necessarily also be used to justify reconciliation and peace building.[4]

Chesterton’s “Nation with the Soul of a Church”: Good or Bad?

Given the American context with regard to current issues of racism and questions of diversity, I will now explore some of the Christian ideas attached to issues of diversity and race. As an aside (for the purposes of Husserlian or phenomenological bracketing)—statements always come from a location—and I therefore speak from my own confessional position. Christianity on a theoretical level, both biblically and traditionally, posits itself historically to concern itself with the question of difference. One of the issues surrounding this question produced a legacy of supersessionism and anti-Semitism. Biblically, Paul in numerous epistles would contrast the spirit of law and boundaries in a Pharisaical sense with the new Christian spirit of love and hospitality. Law and boundaries were associated with Judaic hostility and exclusion, and Jesus came with the new law of radical inclusion, reducing the numerous laws of the Hebrew tradition to “love God and your neighbor.” In theory, then, Christianity is a religion of radical hospitality and acceptance in contrast to the old law of judgment and exclusion.

The paradox in this theory, also noted in the Orthodoxy of G.K. Chesterton, is that it can never be lived up to—a great religion is thus hardly ever practiced. Christianity is difficult. I would go so far as to say that perfect hospitality is only possible in Jesus himself. Yet his model of engaging in community with (forgive the pop-culture reference), metaphorically speaking, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”—eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others whom we do not find in the “in crowd,”—is what is so celebrated and needed.

Thinking today of the racial issues that still haunt our society a century and a half after the dismantling of slavery, one cannot but wonder if focusing on beliefs and creedal confessions and culture have divided Christians historically. Beliefs can both unite and divide.  Most Protestant churches have conflicts, and Catholic parishes draw dividing lines over worship practices that reflect culture— usually language, style of worship, and music. The spirit of Pentecost represents division instead of unity. Different language means different parishes.  The situation is hopefully better, or perhaps different, than they used to be with regard to older forms of racial and ethnic division. I recall two Catholic parishes in the town where I went to graduate school. Irish national and Polish national Catholic churches were literally across the street, but dwindling parishioners meant a jointly administered parish at the time I was living there. The particular cultural and linguistic divides of the first-wave immigrant national parishes are no longer visible, but new divides do form with other cultural barriers.

Judaism and the Question of Difference: A Reminder to Christianity

One admirable aspect of my own anecdotal experiences of contemporary expressions of Jewish ability to entertain conversations around these more internal issues without so much external division. I can attest firsthand that at Shabbat and Passover dinners, disagreement and discussion concerning lively issues of justice and culture are encouraged. Gillian Rose, the social theorist, argued that Judaism in this way has a kind of philosophy open to interpretation, maybe even no theology at all.[5]  Christians have this in their tradition, the Eastern fathers referring to apophatic or negative theology, in which powerful arguments and rigid truth claims about the nature of God are eliminated in the mystery of God’s transcendence. How can we possibly accurately define or identify that which is a transcendent mystery?

However, perhaps due to Original Sin, in Christianity most of these questions and arguments concerning ideas and identity return; instead of living up to the Jesus model, Christians spent years of bloodshed riven by creedal divisions over ideas. Today, arguably, Christianity suffers from other forms of division and hostility. What is the paradox regarding open conversation about beliefs with boundaries of ritual? Perhaps it is in action that we are united. Liturgy is also public action, but it may be social service action through which people can reach across congregational and inter-religious boundaries. This notion of the ritual-bound community of God was also a part of the spirit of liturgical movements of the Catholic Church’s Vatican II theology, the impetus behind them being that bodies unite, while internal forms of structure and hostility can divide.

Culture brings with it the beautiful paradox of blending both external practices and internal ideas—norms and values about practices. The social anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work may provide a way into thinking about emerging culture from the point of view of practices. Geertz referred to religion as not strictly a private “belief” phenomenon but as a cultural system.[6] Cultural religion, emerging in systems of practice and ritual-based ethics, may foster more inclusiveness. Ritual, without the prison of sincerity claims or stern belief policing, may offer a more primitive hospitality. Seligman et al. have spoken to this principle of ritual.[7] Many Christian churches today do implement multicultural elements in their liturgy. But practicing these may well lead to arguments, backlash, or white flight out of parishes/congregations that attempt to implement such changes or other practices inviting minority cultural expression.

Striking the Balance

The major question for religious communities in this day and age is how to balance, on the one hand, the practical call for living with and being rooted in a binding sense of culture with, on the other, practicing local traditions, even while engaging with the experience of and living in community with those who are different from the majority. This is not exclusively a Christian question, nor even one about religion in general. Rather, it is a human question. How do we engage with the “other”? Even if that other is our neighbor, even spouse. It is the fundamental question of human existence.

There is no magic formula or answer. It ultimately falls upon the individual to draw elements from his or her tradition and culture—that bosom that makes us feel so at home and comfortable—and then to go deliberately beyond it to welcome the stranger and encounter the other in his or her community. The paradox of the Abrahamic faiths is this very tension between feeling at home and welcoming the stranger—sameness and hospitality.

This paradoxical human and also religious balance has been particularly jeopardized by modern pressures and dynamics at all levels of human existence: local, national, and international. Sometimes religion is blamed for creating conflict or causing division. But, a good social scientific perspective might interject, most modern conflicts are not necessarily caused by religious, cultural, or racial differences. Rather, material or other obstacles can sometimes exacerbate other forms of conflict. Religion and culture are highly emotional domains—remember the bosom metaphor—and other forms of conflict can take on religious narratives to fuel the flame or conveniently legitimate other forms of perpetuating conflict or discrimination. When this attribute of religion is activated to create conflict or division rooted in social factors, peace studies scholars will stress that it is important for scholars and religious practitioners alike to invest in the narratives of peace, forgiveness, tolerance, hospitality, and “welcoming the stranger.” This is Martin Marty’s parsing in When Faiths Collide, but the delicate nuances of the debates between multiculturalism, pluralism, and tolerance —and their boundaries and limits—have been thoroughly articulated in CEDAR’s initiatives, and published in Adam Seligman’s collection of dialogues in Modest Claims.[8] Inter-religious dialogue narratives and ideologies may have their own limits, however, in relation to intra-religious conflict and cultural-racial division. Lewis Coser and other sociologists have articulated a principle of conflict theory that the closer the original relationship, the more divisive the fight. Heretics, for example, were persecuted more than infidels in the Church’s tradition. Battles on music committees and parish decline over unpopular liturgical changes remain difficult, practical challenges to religious communities and the question of encountering difference.

Living in Community and Engaging Difference

The claims for living in community engaging with difference remain, as stated above, the ultimate human problem in a multicultural society. Given that the United States is increasing in racial and ethnic diversity, shifting demographic patterns are changing the religious landscape. This change will result in both inter- and intra-religious questions about dealing with issues of difference. The “salad bowl” metaphor from debates about multiculturalism largely reflects this need for engaging with difference rather than assimilating it away. One of the abiding issues of understanding religion in a Durkheimian sense is that religion works strongly as a source of the collective conscience—namely, shared norms and values. Implied in Durkheim’s definition of the collective conscience, driven by mechanical solidarity in religious socialization, and largely shaped by the context of his living in Catholic France and studying Aborigines in Australia, is an undergirding sense of homogeneity. The strength of the collective conscience comes from its dense and shared nature. Norms are stronger when they are shared. So the very impulse of religion is this need for shared norms and morals. However, what is critical and fascinating about Durkheim’s definition of religion, given his position in French society, is the fact that he was Jewish in a predominantly Catholic culture. In The Division of Labor and Society he makes the point that is most relevant to large-scale modern life—that being the principle of organic solidarity that binds people together in diversity. Society itself in a modern context is conditioned by diversity. The individual is organically free to bond with those who have similar interests, but at the same time those who are dissimilar are also interdependent. A general notion of the “pre-contractual” trust that undergirds society is what draws people together and makes society possible.[9]

In this Durkheimian mode, Keith Doubt has gone so far as to say that difference constitutes society itself.[10] In his book on Bosnia and Kosovo he frames the postmodern question in the following way: how society is actually destroyed when difference is eliminated in acts of genocide. Genocide is in fact, sociocide. The lesson from these cases is that the postmodern tendency toward ethnic and racial fighting and division constitutes the fundamental problematic of post–Cold War political existence. Though this paper began by addressing the issues faced by America, a nation of multiculturalism and a variety of immigration experiences that differentiate it from other post–Cold War cases, what can be learned from this literature is that the notion of difference constitutes postmodern life. The multicultural society is reflected in different demographic patterns. The vital principles drawn from these inter-religious cases about the question of difference from European and international literature are that the principles of hospitality and pre-contractual trust have both ancient and postmodern roots. Given that, it is important to stress that although it is human to isolate, divide, and conflict, it is also both “anciently” divine and fashionably postmodern to tolerate, and even embrace, the other’s difference.

Author Bio

Sarah MacMillen, a 2004 ISSRPL Fellow, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Duquesne University.


With thanks to Melissa Stoller.


Appleby, R. Scott. 2000. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Bellah, Robert, ed. 1973. Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Doubt, Keith. 2000. Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Emerson, Michael O. and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1977. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books. pp. 87-125.

Katongole, Emmanuel. 2011. The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Marty, Martin. 2005. When Faiths Collide. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Rose, Gillian. 1993. “Is there a Jewish Philosophy?” In Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Press. pp 11-25.

Schirch, Lisa. 2004. The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding: A Vision and Framework for Peace with Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Seligman, Adam B. 2004. Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Tolerance and Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: ND Erasmus Institute Books.

Seligman, Adam B., Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon. 2008. Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Christian, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Jose Casanova, Hilary Davidson, Elaine Howard Ecklund, John H. Evans, Philip S. Gorski, Mary Ellen Konieczny, Jason A. Springs, Jenny Trinitapoli, and Meredith Whitnah. 2013. “Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology—A Mellon Working Group Reflection.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81:4

Tutu, Desmond. 1999. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House.

Whitehead, Neil, ed. 2004. Violence. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.


[1] For more on the tension between American sociology and the study of religion see the quite good roundtable article produced by the American Academy of Religion by Smith et al 2013.

[2] Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] See Appleby 2000.

[4] There are many examples of this in recent scholarship. For a few examples: Tutu 1999; Whitehead 2004; Schirch 2004; Marty 2005; Katongole 2011.

[5] Rose 1993.

[6] See Geertz 1977.

[7] Seligman et al 2008.

[8] Seligman 2004.

[9] This is explored in the introduction to Durkheim’s social theory edited by Bellah. 1973.

[10] Doubt 2000.

2014 – CEDAR Occasional Paper No. 7, by Asim Jusić

Actionable Pluralism and Toleration in Religiously Diverse Societies: For Whom and for What?

Asim Jusić

Multiculturalism is dead—

and thank God for that.

–graffito on a building in Bosnia

In this paper I analyze and criticize the approach of pluralist and tolerationist theories to religious diversity in action. Following a discussion on actionable pluralist and toleration theories for religiously diverse societies – represented by two interfaith programs, IFYC (Interfaith Youth Core) and CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion) – I take up several issues that Lauren Kerby touched upon in a CEDAR Occasional Paper (2013) in order to analyze three aspects of the topic: (1) rules of behavior and dialogue exchange among people of different religions, or no religion at all, in diverse societies – an issue exemplified by the stance which actionable pluralist and toleration theories take toward ; (2) the way in which a religious-identity–based approach toward tolerance-building in diverse societies can function as a method for effectively “working the toleration out of its job” and getting rid of “others” – a consequence that an actionable toleration approach such as CEDAR’s attempts to prevent through rules of sticking together; and (3) the respective merits and deficiencies of actionable pluralist and toleration theories as recipes for organizing life in religiously diverse societies.

Ultimately, actionable pluralist and toleration theories turn out to be two equally valid approaches for different places, following the concept of “different strokes for different folks.” The actionable pluralist approach promises a better future life for everyone in exchange for the (largely voluntary) dilution of individuals’ strongly held, action-oriented religious imperative. Yet actionable pluralist theories explicitly and implicitly benefit from historical foundations that are no longer not present in most parts of the world and exclusionary actions that are no longer easily viable.

The greatest deficiency of the actionable toleration approach as a medicine for religiously diverse societies, on the other hand, appears to be that its proposed way of living in a diverse society cannot provide reasons for its inhabitants to affirm that the society they live in is fundamentally just, for reasons unrelated to any one particular group of people. Actionable toleration theory thus appears a somewhat unattractive and unrealistic option, for people have a real need to affirm that the society they inhabit is good – not because it is theirs, but because it is “objectively” good – and that need (even if mythical) will not be talked out of existence because it is unattainable or even irrational, let alone because identities and values are incommensurable. Hence, actionable toleration theories have to find a way to deal with the human need for the affirmation of a just society beyond particular identities.

To my mind the greatest deficiency in the actionable toleration approach and, to a lesser extent, actionable pluralist theory, is that basing toleration on arguments flowing from religious identity can lead toward “working the toleration out if its job,” since unflinching toleration destroys the basis of toleration itself, rendering it meaningless. It results in various forms and degrees of seclusion and separation. In contemporary religiously diverse societies, somewhat paradoxically, the support and respect of differences among religious identities turns out to be a strategic tool used by those who would like to eradicate many such differences.

Rules of conversation and decision making in action: an example of proselytism   

In her paper, Kerby compares the two interfaith programs IFYC[1] and CEDAR,[2] which represent a pluralist and tolerationist approach toward religious difference respectively. I will refer to them as actionable pluralist (IFYC) and actionable tolerationist (CEDAR) theories. According to Kerby, the core difference between the two approaches toward religious diversity “is the decision to view religious diversity as a positive thing or as simply an inescapable fact.”[3] In the actionable pluralist approach, “difference is to some degree peripheral and privatized, while the real action occurs in shared space doing shared activities.”[4] In an actionable tolerationist approach, “difference is central, and it features prominently in the cognitive, experiential, and affective dimensions of learning”.

The main claim of Kerby’s paper is that the viability of each approach depends on the context (i.e. place and time) in which either of the two strategies takes place. She notes that, “a college campus is not Bosnia; the strategies that work for students at the University of Illinois will not directly translate to a neighborhood in Sarajevo.”[5] In short, if people in a given place already believe that diversity is something positive to engage with, and the background context affirming the positive nature of diversity is there, pluralism will work. If not, the pluralist approach is not a recommended option. And if the diversity among people and groups in a particular context is seen as a threat to their identity and group boundaries, then the toleration approach, which recognizes diversity as a fact, is not only the preferred, but also the superior option for achieving a minimal degree of trust.

Kerby uses the example of the stance on proselytism in the pluralist IFYC approach (prohibiting proselytism in “conversation” between people of different faiths or no faith at all) compared to CEDAR’s neutral stance (neither prohibiting nor encouraging proselytism) in this regard. From her short example, a number of conclusions about differences between the pluralist and tolerationist approaches can be drawn in the context of her larger argument.

Pluralists insist – and not without good reason, I should add – on rules for conversation or decision making with an eye to making universal decisions upon certain matters that are for the good of everyone (“the common good”) and, at least rhetorically, detached from any particular perspective, especially a religious perspective. Hence proselytism – fervor on the part of religious adherents to try to impress their truths on those who have little interest in them – cannot be possibly be considered to contribute to a “good for everyone”; as such, proselytism has to be excluded. Tolerationists are more modest, in that they are attached to their own particular truths and hence, if they are consistent, they just have to accept the reality that some form of exclusive truth claims will be communicated, in public, between those who do and those who do not share such exclusive truths.

Because of the effects of the pluralist approach on those who are strongly committed to their exclusive truth claim, it comes across on the surface as devaluing difference in a subtle way. For those critical of pluralist approaches to religion – liberals and non-liberals alike – pluralism is cunning in the way that it rigs the rules of the game, i.e. the rules of public conversation and decision making, by pretending to convey a somewhat hypocritical “respect” for religion while rendering it irrelevant. The “charge” goes like this: In some of its versions, like the American one, the pluralist approach pays lip service to religion, stating that it protects and sometimes accommodates religious differences and freedoms; yet in the same breath it turns out that pluralism respects religion so much and proclaims it is such a cherished and private concern in need of protection that it relegates religion to private spaces. Hence pluralism is “charged” with making private matters (including religion) irrelevant, on the theory that they are protected because they are private and of concern to nobody but the individual concerned. Pluralism (just like its predecessor, liberalism) respects religion into irrelevancy.

The above “charges” against pluralists’ almost hypocritical stance toward religion is fairly accurate, but I would not even count it as a charge. Some forms and levels of hypocrisy are necessary virtues if any system of thought and action plans to survive facing its opponents, and that is what a strong form of religion always is for pluralists (and liberals): an opponent. Pragmatically, there is nothing surprising or inconsistent in the lip service pluralists pay towards religion, while pushing it into the private sphere and away from the public world where decisions on the “common good” are made. Pluralism, just like liberalism, out of necessity must push religion – or at least some religions and forms of religious life – back behind the closed doors of privacy if it does not want to destroy itself. It does so back and forth without definitive results, to various levels of extent, as one would attempt to repel terminal illness and sickness until death.

There is a large caveat to this last sentence, a caveat that is more and more publicly pronounced, one that Diane Eck, the theoretical mind behind the pluralist IFYC approach, also concedes.[6] It is the following: pluralism, just like liberalism, rests implicitly on values of Western Christianity, which has historically developed, to use William Jones’s phrase, as a “white-man Christianity,” which Jones portrays as a vacuous belief in individual salvation through Jesus Christ packed with an implicit appeasement of conscience that grants a license to inflict endless harm on persons of color, leaving intellectually honest and consistent Christian theologians of liberation such as Jones with no option but to conclude that God himself is either racist, or is impotent and unwilling to change this-worldly suffering.[7] In the Church-state jurisprudence of the German Constitutional Court, the belief that underlying Western Christian values spread in a relatively homogenous society are necessary for the existence of a liberal and pluralistic state is succinctly stated in what has come to be known as the “Böckenförde Dilemma”: the free, liberal, and democratic state rests on assumptions that it itself cannot deliver.[8] Wise as the dictum sounds, it has less obvious belligerent implications, for conditions for the exercise of Böckenförde “assumptions” are created through human action that does not necessarily include only niceties of dialogue and persuasion, as the horror stories of the treatment of native populations and the endless creation of nation states amply testify to.

Richard Rorty describes religion as a “conversation stopper.”[9] This phrase has some relevance for exposition through CEDAR’s and IFYC’s different approaches toward proselytizing, as well as the larger debates over the rules of conversation between people of different religions, or of no religion at all, who temporarily inhabit the same society. Since religiously-based reasons are difficult for those not sharing the particular religious viewpoint from which they emanated to understand, and because societies comprise non-religious persons as well as adherents of many different religions, and since all these persons need to understand one another’s vocabulary in order to make decisions affecting them all, religious reasons should not be allowed to enter public discourse with respect to making a particular collective decision; such reasons prevent joint deliberation (hence the ‘conversation stopper’ aspect). The ramifications of Rorty’s argument for the description of pluralists’ attitudes toward proselytizing should be obvious: since proselytizing is an attempt to get the other person to accept reasons originating in a different religious perspective (and thereby to accept the truth claims from which these reasons are produced) it should be off limits, since (1) it does not respect other individuals’ views and (2) it does not contribute anything to the common good but only to a particular good. For the actionable tolerationist approach, in contrast, proselytizing is simply a fact, not something to be excluded offhand and in advance.

Actionable tolerationists criticize the pluralist stance toward proselytism on the grounds that it excludes strong claims on the basis of allegedly neutral rule, which has been twisted in such a way as to in effect privilege certain worldview(s), i.e. those worldviews that are close to that preferred by pluralists. Now this is certainly correct, but in any case setting rules means privileging someone’s view, as rules are, by definition, one-sided in either word or effect – otherwise they would not be called rules, but simply good, nonbinding guidelines. If pluralists are to continue existing as such, they cannot act as pluralists in all spaces and times, and to some extent they must assume that the majority hold pluralist sentiments and viewpoints. So if they do not ultimately want to undo pluralism itself, pluralists have to set one ground rule that secures the continued existence of pluralism. What is truly inconsistent about pluralism is not the superficial commonness it attempts to produce, or even its exclusion of strong religions. It is that nobody can live as a pluralist when the going gets tough, if pluralism is to survive.

Most critics of pluralist theories point out that exclusive truth claims are facets of strongly-held identities, and it is inconsistent with both simple toleration and the project of pluralism to prohibit their entrance into the conversation between individuals (and groups) of different worldviews . The tolerationist approach appears to share in that critique by implying that decisions reached via the pluralist method are shallow and superficial, since large sections of strongly-held convictions are excluded from discourse and the process of decision making.

This criticism by tolerationists has some strong points; yet it would be fair to note that nothing extraordinary happens if, hypothetically, we attempt to include and apply religious perspectives to the decision making process. As evidence, it is enough to explore the shallowness of the recently-popularized concept of the “Abrahamic religions”,[10] otherwise an Islamic construct, used by those devoted to (monotheistic) religions in the hope of achieving common ground among said religions (again, not an all-encompassing approach). An even better example is a popular concept brought to us, by and large, by post–WWII and Cold War events: Judeo-Christian civilization.[11] As Mark Tushnet argues, Judaism cannot really be located anywhere within the ambits of what in the United States today is called Judeo-Christian culture—in fact Judeo-Christianity looks pretty much like regular Christian culture stretched at the margins.[12] Hence, any kind of commonness probably implies some degree of shallowness and superficiality. This might be a theoretically-correct criticism, but it is useless as a practical argument, for superficiality may as well be a practical virtue and solid social glue. If our eye is on the creation of a decent society authenticity will have to take a back seat; polite distance and superficial togetherness may become desirable methods on our path to tolerable social decency.

Religion-based identity as a way of working toleration out of its job

Toleration, as has been pointed out many times, is of necessity a paradoxical and inconsistent virtue, closely related to identity and values. One-sided toleration, toleration of the temporarily strong toward the temporarily weak, is theoretically inconsistent, because the first move before deciding to tolerate something is to proclaim it “wrong” on some scale of values; otherwise, toleration of it would be unnecessary. A first move of practical, one-sided toleration is to decide what is practically not to be tolerated for the practice of toleration to survive, which led Karl Popper to argue that there should be no toleration for the intolerant.[13]

But Popper’s statement is patently false: the intolerant do not require toleration according to the other side’s definition; rather, they wish to change the rules of game, not play by them; if the intolerant plead for toleration according to the other side’s definition, they effectively discredit themselves, ceasing to be serious competitors. Take, for example, Muslims, who are presently in the forefront of – and are therefore justifiably held responsible for – committing intolerant acts. Muslims who take up arms for the sake of doing God’s will do not wave a banner saying “we want to be tolerated and have our voices included in general discussion,” for that would be a sign of their ineffectiveness and would place them in the position of NGOs or Martin Luther King, basically transforming them into organizations and persons who are battling for (laudable) change, which turns out to be a symbolic formal change that leaves everything effectively the same in the long run.

What those armed Muslims want is to reframe completely – and destroy in the process – the current state of affairs. Then, once having sufficient power to be the ones setting the rules, they want to decide what and who (if anyone, save themselves) will be tolerated. In short, to paraphrase a statement attributed to Margaret Thatcher when speaking about the IRA, Robert Mugabe, and later Nelson Mandela,[14] there could be no negotiations with terrorists – until they became prime ministers. Those who are intolerant want to be prime ministers, not civil rights activists, because they know becoming the latter only solidify the status quo and division of power, which is exactly what the intolerant ones are battling against. And saying that “they are not Muslims if they take up arms” is at best unhelpful and at worst a sheer propaganda tool. For Tomás de Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor in Spain, remains a Catholic (and perhaps a good one for that, for who is to make such final judgments?) despite our rejection of his acts – a rejection that comes about with a huge benefit of hindsight and after Torquemada executed his mission toward its logical end, thus making the condemnation of his acts morally laudable and without cost.

Consequently, toleration in practice turns out to be, intentionally or not, a status quo strategy. Mutual toleration is even more paradoxical than one-sided toleration. If different identities of equal “size” see each other as deeply wrong, it is hard to see what else they can even talk about and why they should talk at all, given equal capabilities. Because of this, among those of equal weight and size there cannot be toleration, but only equality or some other relationship.

In short, for traditional toleration to function, an uneven division of power appears necessary. The trouble with the contemporary world is not a lack of toleration – nor an abundance of it – but the fear that the division of power will not remain as it is today. In practice, the question has evolved from how to practice toleration and why, to what will happen when people other than ourselves take power after growing in relative influence, strength, and numbers. Take the example of Muslims in Western Europe. While there is no shortage of calls and actionable proposals for tolerating and not tolerating Muslims – which implies that both tolerationists and non-tolerationists consider Muslim practices  in Western Europe at least potentially repugnant (and not without solid reasons) – the main worry is obvious. The presence of Muslims in Western Europe would not be an issue, despite their practices being repugnant to some other sectors of society, if they were not (1) a majority in areas outside Western Europe, and (2) growing in numbers within Western Europe, for a variety of reasons. Were it not so, the question of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Western Europe would attract as much attention as the relationship of Scientology or Satanic cults to the existing legal order or Christian values in Western Europe. This is, incidentally, the same reason that there is no widespread urge for solidarity with Muslims in their times of trouble – solidarity is premised on commonness and affordability, meaning that only those close to us who, for whatever reason, cannot possibly obstruct the fundamental order of things are objects of solidarity.

To deal with the above-described and similar problems, actionable toleration theories, such as those practiced by CEDAR, promote the protection and respect of identities. Actionable toleration theories portray identity, in my view, as an irreplaceable value to be protected by toleration. Yet I believe that cherished religious identity, and toleration as its protector, if premises of strong toleration theories are accepted as correct and are followed to their own implications, would work themselves out of a job and make both religious identity and toleration meaningless.

Here is why: Consider my own favorite mental experiment, an effect-oriented analysis of the behavior of a racist and a multiculturalist. Roughly speaking, the main claim of racists is that some other group is despicable for any number of “reasons”; if sufficiently hedonistic and not necessarily committed to killing, racists would eventually tell the “other” group something along the lines of the following: “You people are so despicable that you should stay completely in your own separate place, congregating solely with those of your own kind.” Strong multiculturalists, as they are known, show a high degree of respect (true or false, it doesn’t matter) for the values of others and basically give them the following message: “The values and identity of your group are so peculiar, different, and respected by me (or society) that people sharing such values should congregate in one place or at least mostly with each other.” Thus, the motives of racists and multiculturalists may be diametrically opposed, but the effect is largely the same – degrees of seclusion for the sake of difference. This makes it impossible to determine whether multiculturalists are in effect just more benevolent racists, since their private intentions remain unknown – and therefore irrelevant – to others. In short, you can “get rid of” people – remove those that are different from you and your group – through respecting their identity and achieve effects suspiciously similar to those achieved by overtly racist methods.

Further, if, as Kerby’s analysis implies throughout, it is true that identity differences sometimes convey threat due to the breaking of boundaries between groups, it does not necessarily follow that only the most open and liberal members of one group should welcome and celebrate diversity by embracing it. In fact, the opposite is true: if diversity is a threat, then those concerned with strengthening the homogeneity of their “in-group” should privately welcome diversity (while condemning it publicly), since the fear of difference will obviously solidify their in-group feelings and bonds of shared identity.

Moreover, to stay with the same example, if it is assumed that toleration is a recipe for living with discomfortingly deep differences, calls for mutual seclusion coming from different groups should, in a tolerant manner, be given a legitimate hearing. Consider the following counterfactual. Assume that members of one large group in a given society or geographical space are, by and large, different from members of a second group which, in addition, are not favorably disposed toward them. Assume further that most among the second group are strongly motivated to preserve their identity and are therefore motivated either to seclude themselves from the first group or to be reciprocally unfavorably disposed toward them. Now members of both groups, being true to their identity and, in addition, tolerant of their differences and mutual dislike, could come to the following conclusion: Members of the first group could, instead of saying, “We don’t like you” to members of the other group, say something like “We respect your identity and difference from us: therefore, why shouldn’t we help you find your own way in some other geographical space?” Members of the second group, if they are true to their identity and tolerant of others’ (dis)respect for them, could conceivably respond “We highly cherish our identity, which we need to preserve at all costs, and, while tolerant of your identity and unfavorable disposition toward us, we will seclude ourselves from you by accepting your help in relocating to a different geographical space.”

Both groups here are true to their identity and tolerant of others, some level of respect for mutual disrespect has been achieved, seclusion follows, and toleration has worked itself out of a job, since it is no longer necessary in any meaningful sense, given that the two groups have been divided by space. In-group identity in this analysis is not something that endangers boundaries and is disturbed by differences, rather it is a strategic tool of those who would like to get rid of differences while supporting and (allegedly) respecting different identities.

The mental experiment described above has already played out in real life with some degree of violence and ensuing horrific consequences, which does not diminish the validity of the examples. Strong evidence suggests that mutual ethnic cleansing by Serbs and Croats during the 1990s Balkan wars was informally accepted by the leadership of ethnic groups, its results later legitimized through a democratic voting process in which large groups of people decided that the way in which they wanted to tolerate each other was by secluding themselves from those of the “other” group.[15] Similar recipes for building “tolerant societies” have been applied in Bosnia, and suggested as a cure for Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and so on.[16] Long before these more recent events, on September 26, 1937, as Heinz Hohne showed using official records, a representative of the German government (none other than Adolf Eichmann) attempted to travel to Palestine to meet Feivel Polkes, a senior member of the Haganah (the underground Zionist organization), to discuss the coordination of both German and Jewish organizations’ efforts to facilitate Jewish emigration to Palestine. Both sides in the negotiation aspired towards Jewish relocation: the Germans wanted them out of Western Europe, and the Zionists wanted more Jews to build their own version of Jewish identity and outnumber the Arabs in Palestine as quickly as possible.[17]

All of these events occurred in places where, contrary to conclusions reached after the fact, there was no horror-esque daily persecution: Croats and Serbs lived together relatively amicably on a day-to-day level for many centuries;[18] Jews were arguably prospering more in Germany and Hungary than in most other places in Europe; while places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia , Cyprus, and the like, all share a longing for times in their not-so-distant history when troubles were out of sight and differences were fairly irrelevant. The horror of contemporary societies is that toleration leading to separation no longer occurs on a grand geographic scale. The voluntary separation induced by calls for identity protection and justified by claims of toleration plays out on a daily basis from classrooms to restaurants, so much so that in a nightmarish scenario the future of the world might be a sort of voluntary Lebanon, where different religious groups segregate from each other voluntarily whilst governing themselves internally, and providing for group representation on the level of general government.

The CEDAR perspective on toleration holds itself, I believe, aware that consistent toleration ends in separation, which makes toleration unnecessary, given that one of its rules is that members of different religions as well as non-religious individuals participating in the program have to share the same space and stay together. This is a good rule for preventing toleration from ending, as it usually does, in people from different backgrounds parting ways. But whether such a rule can be imposed on larger groups of people remains an open question, and it is therefore doubtful whether the project of toleration can be sustained – especially these days, when values such as autonomy, equality, and so on are widely accepted, at least as a matter of political correctness and public speech – without the promise of a common future or a good reason to share a space. In this sense, toleration, just like pluralism in the example above, requires a ground rule that is the opposite of the value that toleration itself stands for. A ground rule necessary for toleration to continue existing in a meaningful sense is a force or will that will keep different groups in one place without parting ways. The very requirement of the existence of a force that compels one(s) to mutual toleration is in opposition to the values of toleration, while the mutual (good)will to tolerate cannot be counted on as being indefinitely present.

Conclusion: Who is the action for, and where is it going?

Ultimately, then, the main differences between the pluralist and tolerationist approaches to religious differences could be described as follows. IFYC pluralists – for there are other types of pluralists – perceive particular religious differences as something to be relegated to the private sphere if common rules of conversation are to be sustained as acceptable to the majority. Pluralists view strongly-held particularistic identities, especially religious ones that command their followers to action, as correctable mistakes that cannot be obliterated altogether but whose bearers may be cajoled into accepting the promise of a better and prosperous common life in exchange for diluting their suspected or actual dogmas and imperatives for action that might affect everyone around them. For the tolerationists, particularly strongly-held religious identities are not correctable mistakes, but irreversible facts that one just has to get along with, packed with the discomfort that getting along with (at best annoying and at worst threatening) differences imposes on others.

Portrayed in this way, pluralism and toleration turn out to be two equally-valid theories for different places, theories of “different strokes for different folks.” Pluralists promise a better life for everyone in the future in exchange for a largely voluntary dilution of one’s strongly-held, action-based religious imperatives. Tolerationists do not promise anything, basically saying “This is the way things are, and we will all just have to learn to live and cope with this quietly in the hope of some modest improvements.” Consequently, IFYC-type pluralist theories are for forward-looking societies making future sales to their present and future inhabitants. But the project will work only within societies where background conditions for success have already been secured, places where, as Jeremy Waldron states, the majority Christian population adheres to a variation of Western Christianity with few rules and doctrinal demands.[19] Change the background conditions by assuming stronger versions of Christianity or the presence of a native population’s religions with reverence for land and rejection of the concept of private property, or just exchange a population of Christians for a population of Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews, and the project of pluralism assumes another form, or maybe no form at all.[20]

What’s the bottom line? The actionable, IFYC-type pluralism project follows from an old story, to borrow from Stanley Fish, built on twin rocks: John Locke’s declaration that “the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth,” and Thomas Jefferson’s more colloquial version of the same point: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods or no Gods; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[21] The latter declaration, despite its wonderful wording, did not stop Jefferson from subsequently extinguishing Native Americans from the lands to which they were attached, so that he could, as Bernard Sheehan argued, create the foundations for what has come to be known as a pluralist society.[22] The project of pluralism, after the Jeffersonian foundation was secured, evolved into modernity’s assignment for religious identities, asking the religious identity to master modernity by means of fully committing itself to behavioral non-commitment. Of course it might be surprising for religions to learn that their task is to master modernity and its commitment to non-commitment, but that is the way the rules of the social game are set at this point in time within societies that have followed the path of modernity.[23]

On the other hand, actionable toleration theories appear tailored to current or upcoming “frozen communitarian conflict” societies, places with little hope of fundamentally changing relationships between “different communities” but which, with the help of CEDAR tools, can at least move toward achieving minimal trust. In current or upcoming “frozen conflict” societies, the locus of CEDAR’s attention is the community, and the inhabitants of such places come across as clinging tightly to their identities and group boundaries in most things that matter in relation to other communities and their boundaries. From this short description, one can immediately see that tolerationist theories in this version claim sociological allegiance to facts, but in fact value identity and group boundaries above all, while conceding that such identity boundaries are somewhat changeable.

A short overview of places where CEDAR organizes its activities – places like Cyprus and Israel, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Turkey or massively-diverse cities like Birmingham, England – confirms what I have just said. Those, like myself, who have not just visited but have actually spent considerable amounts of time living in these places, can attest that, interestingly, many inhabitants of such societies, true to their identities and communities, are not so much in the grip of their “community identities” as much as they grapple with a fact that a perspective of endless agonistic sustainment of our and others’ communitarian identity eventually leads nowhere and just runs itself in circles. This is why I believe that those most committed to their group identity are usually also the most pessimistic about the future of that identity.

Therein lies the greatest deficiency of actionable toleration as a medicine for religiously-diverse societies. To paraphrase a main theme of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor story in The Brothers Karamazov, human groups cannot indefinitely sustain their particular identities, for humans appear to need to have all of humanity under one banner and to affirm society as fundamentally just, for reasons unrelated to themselves. The inability to attain that goal because of the incommensurability of values matters very little, pragmatically speaking. Humans’ need to affirm that the society they inhabit is a good one, not because it is theirs but because it is good – or just lauded as good – for everyone will not be talked out of existence because it is unattainable or even irrational, let alone because identities and values are incommensurable. Hence, actionable toleration theories will have to find a way to deal with the human need for affirmation of a just society beyond particular identities.

Author Bio

Asim Jusić, a 2012 ISSRPL Fellow, is an attorney in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Bockenforde, Ernst-Wolfgang. 1992. Die Enstehung des Staates als Vorgang der Sakularisierung. In Recht, Statt, Freieheit. Studien zu Rechtsphilosophie, Staatstheorie und Verfassungsgeschichte. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. 42-64.

CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion. n.d.-a CEDAR: Our Story. Available at us/our-story/. Last viewed June 20, 2014.

CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion. n.d.-b CEDAR: Pedagogic Principles. Available at Last viewed June 21, 2014.

Cohen, Arthur A. 1970. The Myth of Judeo-Christian Tradition. New York: Harper and Row.

Fish, Stanley. 1999. The Trouble with Principle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fish, Stanley. 2002. Postmodern Warfare: The Ignorance of Our Warrior Intellectuals. Harper’s Magazine. July: 33-40.

Gagnon, V.P., Jr. 2004. The Myth of Ethnic War : Serbia and Croatia in the 1990’s. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gedicks, Frederick Mark and Roger Hendrix. 2007. Uncivil Religion: Judeo-Christianity and the Ten Commandments. West Virginia Law Review 110: 273-304.

Haddon, Katherine. 2009. Margaret Thatcher Blocked Talks with ‘Terrorist’ Mugabe. Mail and Guardian. December 30. Available at Last viewed January 11, 2015.

Höhne, Heinz. 2000. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Hughes, Aaron W. 2012. Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Interfaith Youth Core. n.d. IFYC Overview, About Interfaith Youth Core. Available at Last viewed June 20, 2014.

Jones, William R. 1997. Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. Boston: Beacon Press.

Joseph, Edward P. and Michael E. O’Hanlon. 2007. A Bosnia Option for Iraq. American Interest Online, January-February. 2(3). Available at  Last accessed on May1, 2010.

Kerby, Lauren. 2013. Pluralism versus Tolerance: Turning Principles into Action in Interfaith Organizations. CEDAR Occasional Paper No. 6. Available at: Last viewed June 20, 2014.

Pluralism Project, Harvard University. n.d. From Diversity to Pluralism. Available at Last viewed 21 June, 2014.

Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and Its Enemies. London: Routledge. Vol. 1.

Rorty, Richard. 1994. Religion as a Conversation Stopper. Common Knowledge. 3(1): 1-6.

Sheehan, Bernard. 1973. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philantropy and the American Indian. Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Tushnet, Mark V. 1987. The Conception of Tradition in Constitutional Historiography. “29 William and Mary Law Review. 29(1): 93-99.

Waldron, Jeremy. 1991. Locke: Toleration and the Rationality of Persecutions. In John Locke’s Letter on Toleration in Focus, edited by John Horton and Susan Mendus. London: Routledge. 98-124.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2006. The Paralax View. Cambridge: MIT Press.


[1] Interfaith Youth Core n.d. Since I do not have firsthand experience of how IFYC functions on the ground, I draw conclusions on the basis of Kerby’s interpretation of the work and theory of the IFYC.

[2] CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion.

[3] Kerby 2013.

[4] Kerby 2013.

[5] Kerby 2013.

[6] See The Pluralism Project website, Harvard University.

[7] Jones 1997.

[8] Bockenforde 1992.

[9]Rorty 1994.

[10] Hughes 2012.

[11] See Cohen 1970, esp. p. 55-56 and p. 69-70. Frederick Mark Gedicks basically affirms this same claim, arguing that what is called Judeo-Christian tradition in the US symbolizes essentially Christian beliefs and values, see Gedicks and Hendrix 2007.

[12] Tushnet.  1987.

[13] Popper 1945. Vol. 1., Notes to the Chapters: Chapter 7, Note 4.

[14] Haddon 2009.

[15] Joseph and O’Hanlon 2007.

[16] Joseph and O’Hanlon 2007.

[17] Höhne 2000, p. 336–337, quoted in Žižek, 2006, p. 256.

[18] See Gagnon 2004.

[19] Waldron 1991, p. 99.

[20] Fish 1999, p. 179.

[21] Fish 2002.

[22] Sheehan 1973.

[23] Fish 2002.

“Should the United States Attempt to Reform Islam?”, by Gregorio Bettiza

“Should the United States Attempt to Reform Islam?”, by Gregorio Bettiza. 2015. Foreign Policy Centre. March.

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This post is part of the CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

Who Says Syria’s Calling? Why It Is Sometimes Better to Admit That We Just Do Not Know, by John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report on the radicalization of Muslims in Central Asia, Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia (20 Jan 2015), focuses specifically on the recruitment of Central Asians to Islamic State (IS) and the consequences of this phenomenon for the region’s security. This short report repeats the ungrounded assumptions of earlier reports, as identified in a Chatham House paper we published in November 2014. It argues that recruitment is higher than previously thought, that attraction to violent extremism is found in the ”devout” who demand a greater public role for religion, and that the return of such people “risk[s] challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia” (p. 1).

The report’s assumed relationship between Islamization and radicalization, and the claim that both are ideological processes spurred by economic disadvantage, makes all pious Muslims potential followers of IS. However, as we have argued, there is no evidence for this claim in Central Asia. Furthermore, the very concept of radicalization is incoherent and disputed. Even in the UK or US, where the environment is more conducive to research, there is disagreement as to who are most susceptible to radicalization: rich or poor, recent immigrants or native-born citizens, the well educated or the ill informed, political entrepreneurs or those with mental health problems. In short, we know almost nothing about the causes of “radicalization,” despite the many millions of dollars that have been poured into research projects on the subject.

Syria Calling therefore appeals to received wisdom, not evidence and logic, to make its argument that IS’s purported success in the region is a consequence of the general ills of society. Given that ICG’s work is some of the best of its genre, based on fieldwork by experts working in the region, this is a strong assertion, and we do not make it lightly.

Therefore, let us consider in more detail the sources used to support ICG’s argument and the logic of the inferences drawn. Consider the following quotation, which links the very small number who have joined IS to the general Muslim population in a matter of a few sentences:

IS sympathisers in Central Asia are motivated by an extremist religious ideology and inspired by the ruthless application of severe social and political order that they interpret as reflecting moral strength. The growth of radical tendencies is exacerbated by poor religious education and grievances against the region’s secular governments. Radicalization also spreads partly because economic and political opportunities are scarce. Islamic organizations offer social services that Central Asian states do not adequately provide, such as education, childcare and welfare for vulnerable families (page 7).

The second, third, and fourth sentences refer to interviews with supposed radicals, experts, and officials as the main sources used to support the claims made.

There are at least four problems with how interviews are used in the report.

  1. Factual claims are dubious and/or unsubstantiated.

A case in point is the claim regarding the number of recruits. For example, the assertion that between two and four thousand Central Asians have joined IS—the headline finding reported in media coverage of the report—is no more than guesswork. Although it leads the online summary, its provenance is found in footnote 6 on page 3: ”Western officials estimate that about 400 fighters from each of the five Central Asian countries have travelled to join Islamic state. A Russian official put the total regional figure at 4,000. Crisis group interviews, Bishkek, October 2014.” We are simply required to trust these figures despite their obvious arbitrariness. Given that routes to Syria are clandestine and typically run through several countries, it is not clear how any expert or institution can possibly know with any certainty how many recruits there are.

  1. The declared motivations of “IS sympathizers” are taken as causal explanations.

Given how difficult and dangerous it is to meet with such people in the authoritarian contexts of Central Asia, this handful of interviews apparently adds a degree of authenticity to the report. However, the failure to distinguish declared motivation from causation is highly problematic. Since almost all Central Asians face the conditions summarized above, and many express frustration with government and lack of opportunities, the fact that a tiny minority of the region’s 50 million Muslims are drawn to IS or other violent groups means that grievance is merely the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, the tip is often a very poor guide to the shape of the whole.

  1. The opinions of experts and officials are uncritically cited as fact.

Central Asian experts and officials are quoted uncritically as authentic sources of information. Reports on regional websites that draw on arguments made by Central Asian governments are used liberally and taken at face value. Often, however, they actually reflect Soviet-style themes of materialism, religion-as-national-culture, and scientific atheism; according to these precepts, poverty is identified as a cause of radicalization and religion as a threat. Many assertions are made along these lines, such as that Issyk Kul (in Kyrgyzstan) is particularly prone to radicalization because the tourist season only lasts three months, and that the only choice facing youth is to ”start drinking or become religious” (p. 7, fn. 45). Not only are such testimonies unconvincing, these officials and many experts are not in any way independent. Elsewhere in the report, in discussing policy responses, they are dismissed as “often from the communist-educated urban elite” who need retraining to distinguish ”between piety and radicalization” (p. 12). But it is the same ideologically driven political analysis that informs both policy response (which is challenged) and political analysis (which is not only accepted but serves as one of the primary sources for the report’s claims).

  1. The anonymity of all interviewees makes it impossible to judge their reliability.

It is simply patronizing to assume that locally based scholars are reliable. In reality, as any researcher who has spent a significant amount of time in the region knows, while some are genuine experts with years of ethnographic research under their belts, others are talking heads who have never done proper fieldwork in their lives. Unfortunately, it is often the latter who are more likely to speak out on this issue. The anonymity of all interviewees cited in ICG reports makes it impossible to assess their reliability and hold them to account for their generalizations about the IS threat. The very few genuine experts in the region are invisible. In some cases it is necessary to maintain anonymity in order to protect sources. In other cases, independent scholars are happy to go on the record even when their views are somewhat controversial. Without any on-the-record citation, however, the credibility of the claims being made remains uncertain.

So what?

These concerns regarding the paucity of reliable evidence suggest that interviews with officials, experts, and witnesses are not enough to shed light on the causes and effects of IS recruitment in Central Asia. But it may be the best that can currently be achieved in terms of an analysis of the problem of IS in the region.

Surely we should recognize these basic facts and cut the beleaguered ICG some slack?  The report recognizes that risks from radicalization are in their infancy and that there is a danger that Central Asian governments will exaggerate it (p. 14). Like most ICG reports, this one is a mixed bag of questionable claims and cautious caveats. However, the authors cannot be let off the hook that easily.

Unfortunately, suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights lead to adverse consequences—in this case for the Muslims of Central Asia who are publicly and politically active in practicing their faith. The long quotation cited above links IS recruiters with organizations such as Tablighi Jamaat, the so-called Akromiya movement active in the Uzbek city of Andijon before the massacre there in 2005, and the Islamic Revival part of Tajikistan. Indeed, it is the welfare and outreach activities of these nonviolent movements that seem to be referred to implicitly in that paragraph.

If the analysis in Syria Calling is correct, the adherents of these and other pious movements are all potential enemies of the state. Although the report makes an abstract distinction between piety and radicalization in one section, elsewhere its authors clearly identify piety and Islamic social welfare as the thin end of the wedge of radicalization.

ICG recommends a moderate response by Central Asian governments, perhaps along the lines of Denmark’s re-education and resettlement program (p. 10). Leaving to one side the question of whether it is realistic to imitate Danish policy, if the religious and ideological factors that ICG identifies are the actual causes of IS recruitment, then such a response by Central Asian governments would in fact be woefully inadequate. The problem would be urgent and extreme; draconian measures of internment, à la Guantanamo, could and perhaps would be justified. For the hardliners, reports like this are a gift, not a challenge.

Less is better

Fortunately, those of us with liberal consciences have very good reason to doubt ICG’s shorthand explanation for radicalization and therefore do not have to face the awkward question of whether repression of all unsanctioned religion in public life is necessary on security grounds. Given that such reports legitimize tyrannical state responses toward religious minorities, it is comforting that the more credible stance is to admit that we know very little about the IS problem in Central Asia.

Is it not better to focus on the little that we actually do know?  Publicly available evidence tells us that an unknown but relatively small number of “radicalized” Central Asians are in Syria as part of a global phenomenon; many of these people have already been killed or are finding it difficult to return through transnational networks. We also know from two post-Soviet decades of historical and social scientific research that while piety is increasing in Central Asia, the region’s Soviet-inspired secular Islam and its relative lack of armed conflict make it a less fertile recruiting ground than other Muslim-majority areas.

Finally, perhaps it also wise to recognize that there are limits to what can be done about IS in Central Asia.  Much of what masquerades as research on the phenomenon of IS is driven by the security imperative. Governments would like to identify an existential threat and step in like heroes to defeat it. But overgeneralizing this threat and making spurious associations between Islamization and radicalization just leads to clumsy policy. It is better to identify specific criminal justice responses to returnees when they come back—and, in Denmark at least, to take a restorative approach—rather than to treat all pious Muslims as potential recruits and enemies of the state. Sometimes, the more uncertainty acknowledged and the less action taken, the better the policy.

John Heathershaw is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter and Principal Investigator for the ESRC Research Project: Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia.

David W. Montgomery (ISSRPL 2003) is CEDAR Director of Program Development and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

This post is part of CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

“Tajikistan Takes on the God Squad”, by Edward Lemon

“Tajikistan Takes on the God Squad”, by Edward Lemon. 2015. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. January 28.

Read the Full Article

This post is part of the CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

Yoga on the Road in Uganda, by Rahel Wasserfall

On Wednesday December 17th 2014, after an exhausting bus ride on bumpy, dusty, and unpaved roads, we finally reached Kyaka II. We were traveling to this refugee settlement in western Uganda as part of the Equator Peace Academy’s (EPA) two-week program “Coping with Refugees in a Foreign Land,” which was devoted to the refugee question. With time before dinner and tired from the long hours in the bus, members of our group requested that I lead a yoga session.

After doing a few Urdhva  Hastasana, Badangulyiasana,  Utthitha Trikonasana poses,[1] the group became aware that two young girls from the refugee camp behind me were copying our moves. With a big smile, we invited them to join us. They were soon followed by a six-year-old boy. These little children all beamed with joy to be practicing with the grownups, just as their presence infused tremendous joy into our session. We did not need to communicate in any other way; yoga became our common language.

Feeling the togetherness and the joy, I decided on the spot that after almost two weeks together, the group was ready to try some partner work. As one person became a wall, his or her partner adopted a modified Adho Mukha Svanasana.[2] The children worked together. Both partners benefited from the stretch: one stood in Tadasana,[3] while the other gently lowered the trapezius muscles on entering into the modified pose. We then graduated to a modified partner Utthita Trikonasana and Virabharadasana II.[4] We felt a wonderful sense of togetherness. Practicing with these little children from the refugee camp brought energy and a sense of purpose; it was one of those moments when we touch grace.

This practice time in Kyaka II with the small children was the culmination of our yoga work. Almost every day we had learned basic asanas for 30 minutes. I was amazed to see how quickly the group, the majority of whom were from East Africa, the United States, and Canada and had no prior yoga experience, took to the yoga practice sessions. Many expressed their surprise at the power of these simple movements, which helped them center and let go of stress after a full day of activities.

At the beginning of the program we scheduled yoga practice every two or three days, but as people asked for more, we added sessions whenever possible. Yoga proved most helpful after long trips, which is how we came to practice together with the children in camp Kyaka II. Yoga brought us together in a fundamental way. As one participant observed, “we had fun, we could laugh together, and it also rejuvenated us.” In addition to giving us the power to bring our group of strangers together, yoga enabled us to reconnect to our bodies after emotional and intellectual activities. Integrating our bodies and mind reinvigorated each of us and nurtured our togetherness.

The EPA is an affiliate program of the global educational network CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion), where I am the staff member in charge of reflective practice. In our programs throughout the years, yoga has become part of our methodology, one of the different containers created to engage the whole person. This methodology, created by CEDAR and implemented in Uganda by the EPA, focuses on learning together how to engage with our differences. For more than 12 years we have developed programs that integrate the many ways in which we humans learn, creating an awareness of how we see strangers and the baggage we bring to these meetings. Lectures, site visits, and facilitation sessions in which we personalize our learning prompt participants to connect with their deep-seated assumptions regarding strangers.

As CEDAR’s program grew, I gradually started sharing my passion for yoga with our group participants. Iyengar yoga in particular supports my efforts toward reflective practice. One of the first things I tell each CEDAR group is that in meeting our “others,” we must become aware of our assumptions and act, not react. We need to stop and become aware. In a way this approach is like the yogic principle of Svadayaya, self-study. Only through stopping and feeling can we understand our own bodies’ reactions when we encounter strangers. How can we encounter our “others” if we are not seated in our bodies and aware of our own reactions?

I remember the first time, in Bosnia in 2004, when some joined in my daily practice after a very tense day, exhausted by the sheer destruction we had encountered in Mostar. Without words, we pushed the chairs away and created a space for opening our chests and ourselves to life again. Since then, I have brought my love for yoga to each different yearly group. Organically, yoga has grown in my own life as well as in our programs and has become an integral part of our routine. In our CEDAR groups, yoga has the power to bring us together, to experience joy, but also to accomplish the difficult task of bringing our bodies into sync with our minds. Meeting strangers and our differences can be scary at times, and yoga also teaches us to confront our boundaries, the places where we are afraid. Achieving the integration of body, mind, and soul is a lifelong process, but we take a small step toward it during these programs. In yoga as well as in the rest of the program, we practice with the group to face up to our places of discomfort as we encounter difference.

I am always humbled to see people who, during these two weeks, start the process of returning to their bodily sensations in a very methodical way and find these difficult places. They become aware of their body parts and the places where they hold tension, discomfort. Participants love the new feelings of openness, as well as the realization that these simple movements are actually not so simple. The feeling of well-being that comes at the end of a practice is indeed well earned. While we enjoy the process, we also meet with our boundaries, as we do in our groups. Yoga is one way we bump up against our physical boundaries. Sometimes, we learn that these boundaries are not set in stone, and that we can push through our discomfort to find a new way to engage not only our bodies, but also the stranger among us. Yoga has proved itself a most valuable ally in this process. It teaches us to look at our boundaries, the places where we are afraid. As we learn to face our own bodily sensations and feelings in yoga, we become conscious of the social boundaries within our groups and learn to confront them too. Both in our yoga practice and in our encounters with strangers, we have begun the work of learning to live with discomfort and difference.

Rahel Wasserfall is the CEDAR Director of Evaluation and Training and a Scholar in Residence at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) at Brandeis University.


[1] Upward hands pose, upward bound fingers pose, triangle pose

[2] Dog pose

[3] Mountain pose

[4] Warrior II pose