Category Archives: Engaging the World

CEDAR partners with Eshel to help build communities of difference

Living in society demands living among many different types of people, including those whose norms, models of a good life, and moral imperatives may differ from our own—for example, with respect to family, gender, and sexual orientations. How can we live harmoniously among people with different political ideas, moral beliefs, religious commitments, communal loyalties, and sexualities? How do we accommodate such difference, and when does the social fabric of belonging stretch beyond the breaking point? In other words, how can we engage the other with compassion, while also sustaining the group boundaries that define us?

Attempting to address such questions is uniquely challenging in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, especially when perceived threats touch upon basic human needs, the vulnerabilities of the body, and specifically gender and sexuality.  One group’s sexual expressions are seen by another as a sign of corruption and decadence. One community’s commitment to holiness and self-restraint is taken by the other as an invitation to pathological hatred. For gay teens and young adults growing up in Orthodox Jewish environments, the crucible of crushing guilt can lead to mortal danger. The conflict between longstanding religious norms and emerging social and scientific realities has occasionally resulted not only in suicide but also in violence in the streets.

Eshel is a nonprofit organization in the United States and Canada that works to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox Jewish communities. Increasingly over the past few years, CEDAR staff have been working with Eshel leadership toward developing programming for an open and inclusive place in Orthodox Jewish communities where LGBTQ individuals can feel welcome as full members of the community, able to live their lives according to their own choices and preferences.

Eshel’s approach to matters of sexual preference embodies CEDAR’s philosophy regarding the importance of accepting difference, especially from and within more traditional social, cultural, and religious parameters. Eshel’s work in schools, families, among individuals, and in Orthodox synagogues aligns with CEDAR’s pedagogy for living with difference, and we are pleased and honored to play a role in its development. Thus far, collaboration has revolved around programming events, though we are looking forward to expanding our collaboration in the development of shared projects and pedagogies.

CEDAR-Japan Developing Workshops in Nagasaki and Hiroshima

CEDAR-Nagasaki (August 2019) addressed the different histories and memories held by people from Japan and its former colonies. CEDAR-Hiroshima (March 2021) will focus on ethnic tensions rising under Japan’s new immigration act. To develop the program, the university-based CEDAR Hiroshima has been hosting a series of study meetings with local colleagues to build the network and share knowledge about the CEDAR pedagogy.

Given that workers in Japan do not have long holidays allowing them to join the standard two-week CEDAR programs, the Nagasaki and Hiroshima teams are exploring the most effective ways of translating the CEDAR experience to the Japanese context. The CEDAR-Japan workshops, for example, will be only three days long. The team plans to publish a program report with an appendix of the program outline in Japanese and English to show how shorter programs–held in conjunction with regular engagement–can help Japan develop a peaceful, multicultural society.

At present, collaborating with colleagues at Hiroshima University, CEDAR-Hiroshima is building a network for the first workshop, which will, through discussions with different members of society, help nurture a mindset for living with differences and learning from diversities. In the workshop, program participants will engage with local organizations that represent ethnically diverse communities including an NGO supporting immigrants; a workplace employing immigrants; a Catholic Church; and an ethnic school for Zainichi Koreans. Though COVID-19 has delayed CEDAR-Hiroshima preparations, the program–currently planned for Spring 2021–hopes to integrate the CEDAR pedagogy into local university teacher-training curriculums and will continue to coordinate with the CEDAR-Nagasaki program in adapting CEDAR to the Japanese context.

NSD Host on Rebuilding Solidarity from Anywhere

Rebuilding Solidarity from ‘Anywhere’:

A COVID Response from the Nusantara School of Difference Network

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most Institute for Resource Governance and Social Change (IRGSC) activities switched to working remotely from home and using an online platform to interact, managing nonetheless to build a solidarity movement at the time Indonesia declared its first COVID-19 case in March 2020. (IRGSC is the host organization of the Nusantara School of Difference.)

In the whole province, there was no facility to do COVID-19 swab- testing until the fourth week of April 2020. While such a laboratory is now operating, the test capacity receives very limited use and is expensive; the current cost per person is 1,500,000 rupiah per test, which is about three times the salary of a contract teacher in rural areas. The cost makes it unaffordable for most people in the East Nusa Tenggara province.

Our contribution to coping with the pandemic started in the second week of March 2020, when a friend from Jakarta requested us to translate a government handbook to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and to take care of those infected. We did this in two days, for free. It was the work of more than 20 people with different backgrounds including medical doctors, sociologists, and others. We understood that during the crisis we need to work together to rebuild solidarity from anywhere. Anywhere may mean help from someone in Iowa (United States) or Yogyakarta (Indonesia), or  Tasmania (Australia).

What was unique in this case was that rather than working with people we know or with whom we had established contacts, here we simply worked with others who shared our goal, even without knowing one another. From the shared experience of the work itself, we got to know one another better and overcome the limitations of physical distance.

We worked with others to collect ideas, to share our anxiety, and to execute planning on a daily basis- during the pandemic. We continued for four months, until the 15th of July 2020, when the government lifted its internal travel restriction. We have produced several things out of this, including the COVID-19 handbook translation, face masks, sterilization boxes for N-95 medical masks, and swab chambers. Moreover, we coordinated and connected the district leaders and heads of provincial offices to communicate with each other and the general public. In short, we assisted and supported the government’s role through an effort of mass solidarity.

At present, we are running a fundraising campaign to build something we call a “People’s Laboratory” to provide not only the best care for COVID-19, but for other contagious diseases as well (something the government does not provide). This is our long term goal and we have raised funds for the training of lab operators and now waiting for the first laboratory provided by the government to do a mass test for COVID-19. This is a response to the public demand for the urgent need of a biomolecular-based-surveillance laboratory. We aim to set up at least one laboratory on each big island in the province (a total of four), in order to support the surveillance task on a large scale.

Reach out to IRGSC or Forum Academia NTT for more information on ways to support their ongoing efforts.


EPA in Conversation on Body Culture and Conflict

Emerging out of a very successful and challenging 2019 Equator Peace Academy program in Uganda and Kenya on Body Culture in East Africa, EPA has begun discussions in some local parishes in the Bukwo district of Uganda on developing new attitudes and approaches to body culture in East Africa. Much of this work has been on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic but will resume as soon as the situation allows.

At the same time, EPA has been working with fellows from former schools in both Western Uganda and Goma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to develop EPA/CEDAR pedagogies in addressing local challenges around tribalism, religious divisions, national frontiers, and ethnonational conflict. It is hoped that these will lead to further initiatives in Eastern DRC as well as Western Uganda

Culture for Peace, Development and Rights (CPDR) established in Kenya

It is evident from lived experience that cultures are distinct from each other; each culture has unique elements. However, attempts to address human problems—conflicts, violence, poverty, etc.—tend to propose generalized solutions that create tensions among local cultures. Solutions, after all, cannot always be generalized. When standardized approaches to peace, development, and rights programs ignore the local context, resistance often emerges. It is considering this background that the Culture for Peace, Development and Rights (CPDR) non-profit organization was created in Kenya. CPDR seeks to create spaces for engaging international visions of generalized peace, development, and rights with the lived experiences of specific communities to promote ownership, dialogue, tolerance, inclusivity, respect, and dignity. When local visions of culture play an active role in peace and development processes, community ownership of the process becomes real and stability more secure.

In its approach, CPDR has borrowed from the CEDAR pedagogy. This has allowed the organization to be more effective in facilitating communities working to better integrate gender, local-value systems, and cultural practices into international peace, development, and rights programs to facilitate respectful engagement with the local cultural realities.

Difference and Its Demons, by Adam B. Seligman

Of all the many uncomfortable truths this election has forced us all to face, surely one of the most important is our discomfort with difference. This attitude was made clear in the months leading up to the elections, in much of the campaign rhetoric and the slogans repeated at many rallies. It was made clear as well in certain policy recommendations: building a wall sealing off Mexico, deporting over three million illegal immigrants, establishing a register for Muslims, and so on. Whether these campaign promises will become policy we have yet to see. But the deep feelings of fear, foreboding, and discomfort that they have exposed are undeniable, while the extent to which we are unable even to face people with political, social, religious, and class affiliations that differ from ours is profoundly disturbing. Further, overt racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia, and downright hatred have become part of our national life. The FBI and NGOs such as the Southern Poverty Law Center all report a substantial uptick in hate crimes and racist and anti-Muslim incidents in the months leading up to the election, an increase that continues today.

Half a century ago our schools, restaurants and swimming pools were desegregated, mostly by court order, and sometimes with the involvement of federal troops as well. As difficult a social process as that proved to be, it seems that the desegregation of our minds has hardly progressed at all. Perhaps, in fact, such segregation has increased. We live more and more in different realities, trust (and distrust) different institutions, grant moral credit to different communities, believe different news feeds and are less and less inclined—and almost never required—to go beyond our comfort zone of like-minded folk.

Isolated, inward-turning, and afraid, many of us—Democrats and Republicans alike—are demonizing our respective “others” rather than encountering them and wrestling with their difference.  These “others” may be Muslims, immigrants, transgendered individuals, or supporters of the opposite political party. But the divisions are not just about the posters at Trump campaign rallies that castigated “Hitlary”, or Secretary Clinton’s remarks on “deplorables.” They relate to a whole culture, one that crosses political, social, and religious differences. We live in a country that prizes comfort over knowledge, safety over experience, and self-righteousness over truth-seeking. These proclivities are just as visible on liberal college campuses as in southern Evangelical churches and can be encountered in Democratic Party caucuses as well as on the Breitbart news site.

As a nation, we have become fearful. And fear is dangerous, both to others and to ourselves. It causes us to lash out, stop thinking, lose our perspicacity, and bury our analytic capabilities. Our responses to events and to people are no longer measured or rational, but potentially counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. And why have we become fearful? Because fear is easier to deal with than discomfort. Discomfort is too demanding. To remain open to the other and voluntarily feel uncomfortable encountering his or her alien positions, lifestyle, beliefs, or politics is a difficult burden. It implies existing in a certain cognitive dissonance. Believing in what we believe, while all the while also being open, listening to, and responding to the other. Much easier to demonize him or her as a “radical Islamic” terrorist, a “degenerate Jew,” a homosexual who “chooses” to subvert Christian family values, or a “know-nothing” racist, white supremacist, homophobe, or misogynist. Some of these categories may sometimes fit some individuals. It is, however, that very burden of uncertainty that we shy away from. It is far less trouble to tar everyone with the same brush than to carefully parse, argue with, and perhaps even refute a particular argument, policy recommendation, or political position.

Fear correlates with danger, and our responses to danger tend to be clear-cut and often violent. When we are in danger, we know (or think we know) what to do. Not so with discomfort, with understanding a situation (or person, position, or policy) as risky. The very ambiguity of risk, as opposed to danger, is unsettling and hard to tolerate. No tolerance is called for in situations of danger—only action.

If we are to prevent the outbreak of violence that could well accompany perceptions of danger on all sides, it is imperative for us all to begin to encounter, wrestle with, and even come to terms with difference—not solely the generally acknowledged” deep divisions in our society,” but the real people behind these differences. We must learn to be uncomfortable in the face of the other. We must learn to tolerate living with less than perfect knowledge of the world around us and to accept, suffer, and abide by the ambiguity that inheres to the stranger, the outsider—whether that otherness is one of race, religion, ethnicity, nationhood, political affiliation, class membership, or sexual identity.

The establishment of forums for encountering, rather than eliding, difference should be foremost on our political agenda.  We have taken some steps in this direction with CEDAR – Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion that creates a space for such encounters.  There we have come to recognize that we do not need a false pluralism that looks for what is common to us all, but rather an honest admission of the deep, constitutive differences that exist among us. And we must face such differences without fear or any false hopes of “overcoming” them. Instead, we must commit to building the skills necessary for a life of discomfort. That, at least, we can all share.

Adam B. Seligman is the Director of CEDAR and a Professor of Religion at Boston University.

What We See Is Not Necessarily Reality, by Adam B. Seligman

A few weeks ago, Christmas Day actually, which in 2015 was also a Friday and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad to boot, found me at the Jingjue Mosque in central Nanjing, a city of 8 million inhabitants with a Muslim population of about 100,000. There were about 900 people in attendance filling the mosque and the surrounding courtyards, which stretched out both to the sides of the mosque and in front of it.

What struck me right away was the great range of the congregants’ backgrounds: Han Chinese (converts to Islam), Uighurs from Xianjiang Province, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Central Asians, Indonesians, Arabs, North Africans, Africans from both East and West Africa, as well as Caucasians. There were students and old folk, men dressed in jeans and flowing robes, some with hip-hop hats and Uzbek (and Kyrgyz) headgear, some bearded and others clean-shaven (and everything in between, as befits some stylish young trends), some with socks and many without, despite the thermometer being in the low 40s. New migrants from the northwest of the country added to the existing Muslim presence, now sadly depleted—only four mosques are left in a city where there were once dozens.

What I noticed next was the diversity within unity, the distinct and palpable individuality and uniqueness of each and every man bent in prayer. A religion that emphasizes practice, rather than belief alone, allows for, even requires, a fractile field of differences; people do not hold their hands in exactly the same position, maintain the self-same posture, or prostrate themselves in an identical manner, even if they are all striving for exactly the same prescribed positions.

I was suddenly reminded of a colleague, an expert on religion in Europe, who once remarked that in his view Islam is a religion inherently hostile to individualism, because Muslims pray “all bunched up together, not like people in a church or synagogue.” His comment seems to me to represent, in the kindest of readings, a strictly secular, perhaps sociological perspective, which sees, perhaps even structures reality for one pair of lenses only: the observer looking in from outside. Yet from the perspective of the believers, the men and women actually praying in that space, of course they are individuals—how else should they approach God?

The view from outside looking in, especially the view trained in one reality and one way of looking at the world, by its nature imposes a certain unity, if not homogeneity, on what it finds strange and unsettling. Those gathered for Friday prayer do not in fact lack individuality; rather, the Western, Christian, and post-Christian eyes are just not trained to see it. To make sense out of what we find both foreign and, especially in these times, threatening, we lose “granularity,” we lose the specifics. We abstract, generalize, lump together, and homogenize—and in the process we see not individuals, but only an undifferentiated mass. But what we see is not necessarily the reality.

During my stay I spent a good deal of time in different mosques, and meeting with different Muslim communities and individuals in and around Nanjing. I was visiting China to explore setting up a summer school on how to live with religious and ethnic difference, based on the blueprint developed by CEDAR. For a while now, China has been experiencing massive population transfers, generally from the north and west to the southeast. These economic migrants face prejudice and social ostracism, as their very presence challenges established boundaries of community, religious practice, and ethnic identity. Engaging with difference is therefore an important mandate, in today’s China as in many other parts of the world.

China today is also struggling with its policies and often outdated laws affecting Muslims and adherents of other religions among its citizens. Should group prayer on university campuses be permitted? Who can be a prayer leader? Where may donations to religious organizations originate? The government seems to be searching for a manageable, middle-of-the-road policy that would allow religious expression, without also opening the floodgates of religious and ethnic separatism —all the while, to be sure, taking care not to do anything that will lead to a greater sense of disenfranchisement and grievance. As in so many other places in the world, policymakers—indeed, all of us—are having to learn to see the world a bit differently and shift our focus as we view the other and the unfamiliar.

As for myself, at the end of Juma I joined the congregants at lunch, forgoing the meat soup and eating only hard-boiled eggs and bread. And outside the mosque I bought some wonderful sweet rolls for my own Shabbat, which began at sundown that evening.

Adam B. Seligman is the Director of CEDAR and a Professor of Religion at Boston University.

Why Do Central Asians Join ISIS?, by John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery

Why do Central Asians join ISIS?

What little we know suggests that the non-religious reasons Central Asians join ISIS are more important than the religious factors often cited by analysts.

For almost a year, the foremost question in the minds of security analysts of Central Asia has been why some Central Asians have joined “jihad” in the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the implications of this development for Central Asian security. Recently, analysts ranging from members of the International Crisis Group (ICG) to guest columnists of the New York Times have warned that this indicates a wider “radicalisation” of the region, while only a few journalists have responded with appropriate scepticism.

For many years, Central Asian governments—fearing their societies and wanting to retain power at all costs—have used the opportunity of the “war on terror” to crack down on all  expressions of Islam, from foreign education to facial hair, which are not officially sanctioned.

Some Western officials, such as Daniel Rosenblum, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, have been more sanguine. But their governments continue to fund the “counter-radicalisation” and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) activities of repressive regimes in the region, as if the costs of these activities (in terms of being yoked to corrupt regimes) are outweighed by the risks (that these regimes will be brought down by violent extremism).

But how much do we really know about radicalisation in Central Asia? We have gone on record over the past year to suggest that we analysts actually know very little, but what we do know suggests that a widespread process of societal radicalisation leading to large-scale support for violent extremist groups is not happening. This is as true about ISIS recruitment today as it is about the disparate Central Asian violent extremist organizations (VEOs) that remain weak in the five post-Soviet republics, and as it was about the call to fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s and 2000s.

We labelled the idea of a societal shift towards radical Islam “The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization” and pointed to its damaging consequences in legitimising the repression of unofficial Islam across the region and justifying counter-productive international partnerships in the name of “de-radicalisation.”

However, it is all very well to make such criticisms from our privileged position as academics, who are not required to provide policy solutions. It is also easy to point out that relatively few Central Asians have made the journey to join ISIS relative to Muslim populations in other neighbouring regions of the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. It is somewhat incidental to point to methodological issues: the paucity of sources, that correlation is not causation, and that an explanation for the behaviour of a tiny minority cannot be found in a general claim about the majority.

The question remains: As far as we know, why do Central Asians join ISIS?

At George Washington University on 20–21 April 2015, we convened the second of two workshops on the theme of Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond, supported by the British Council USA’s Bridging Voices programme. Our expert participants, some of whom are cited below, discussed many aspects of the interplay between secular states and Muslim societies in Central Asia, as well as the question of the nature of radicalisation in the region.

As Noah Tucker, one of our participants in the dialogues, observed:

“Central Asians who support or are interested in ISIL appear to mostly be young migrant labourers who have little or no background in Islam as a religion but embrace Islam as an identity that offers solidarity, a sense of belonging and an explanation for economic hardship and discrimination that they experience.”

Other than Tucker’s work on Uzbeks, and forthcoming work by Lemon on Tajiks, there is very little published research on the recruitment of Central Asians by ISIS. Estimates of their numbers range widely—from the conservative 1,000, based on official figures from the five post-Soviet republics, to the speculative 2,000 to 4,000 cited by the ICG. To make any headway, it is necessary to draw on three additional bodies of knowledge to offer some possible answers to this question. These are studies of recruitment of Muslims from other regions, the literature on the nature of radicalisation and violent extremism, and research on politics and security in Central Asia.

Drawing on all these sources, we argue that four factors are important in explaining why Central Asians join ISIS. Whilst each case is specific, there are some general factors common to those largely young men, who have been deluded by online jihadist propaganda and made the journey to Iraq/Syria. Although these factors affect Central Asian Muslims, they are not essentially about Central Asia or Islam. The term “radicalisation” is misleading.  But the attraction of the ISIS brand is global and suggests some aspects of what it means to grow up as a young Muslim during the so-called war on terror.

Opportunity to Rebel

First, as the wider literature on rebellion tells us, rebels need the opportunity to rebel. This may seem obvious, but it explains why wealthier Muslims in Europe, as well as those living nearer the conflict zone in the Middle East, are more likely to join ISIS, as they can hop on a flight to Turkey from their more open societies or get a bus to the border. We know that the opportunities in Central Asia are few and the costs great, due to the lack of resources and a restrictive society that is incessantly monitored.

Research suggests that most Central Asian recruits travel to Iraq/Syria through Russia, where they are less likely to be tracked amidst the flow of many hundreds of thousands of labour migrants. The “political opportunity structure” is more amenable there, as networks of recruitment are able to form in and around Moscow, a city with almost twice the population of largely rural Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, and other large Russian cities.

In villages in Central Asia, the internet is less accessible and any deviant activity far more closely monitored. This informal surveillance is much more effective than bureaucratic control, but in most places it supplements state suppression rather than working against it. Pockets of “extremism,” where this monitoring breaks down, are few and far between in Central Asia.

Anti-Secular Political Ideas

However, while there are millions of Central Asian migrants in Russia, only a very small proportion are recruited by ISIS. The few that make that choice express vehemently conservative and anti-secular political ideas. They rail against Western policies in the Middle East and assistance to regimes in Central Asia. They emphasize the profanities of secularised societies and the ignorance of and vulgar control exerted over Islam by Central Asian governments. By themselves, these grievances are not causal, but they are a part of the picture. As Peter Neumann has argued with respect to violent extremism, ideas matter.

Such ideas put these recruits on a completely different plane to Muslims supporting more popular movements within Central Asia, such as Tablighi Jamaat in Kyrgyzstan (which is legal) and the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (which once claimed to have 40,000 members and remains legal, barely, but beleaguered). These groups and their members are partially or completely secularised in their political views and not necessarily anti-Western. The idea touted by some Western analysts that such people are on a path towards radicalisation fails to recognise their acceptance of the secular state, which creates a vast gap between them and the extremists.

“Extremist ideology” is often identified as a specifically religious doctrine. There is no doubt that ISIS is a group whose hateful ideology and self-representations are Islamic—just consider the declaration of the Caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with its frequent Qur’anic references, and the content of ISIS’s daily propaganda. Many of these ideas are conservative (in the sense of wishing to return to an imagined past) not radical (in the sense of demanding change, innovation and novelty). In this sense the term “radical” is also misleading.

Moreover, what evidence do we have that these ideas are primarily religious and offer a coherent theological, legal and practical alternative for the Central Asian Muslim population?  Very little. ISIS’s ideas are framed in terms of Muslim against kaffir (those who have rejected the Qu’ran), but they themselves remain marginal to the mainstream legal schools of Islam. The level of religious knowledge and education remains very low in Central Asia; those who travel to Iraq/Syria rarely make reference to theology in their declarations, social media profiles and testimonies, but discuss banalities of practice as a way of demonstrating their religiosity to others. To a social scientist the religious rhetoric of ISIS looks like a secondary effect of extremism, not a primary cause.

Political ideas about the repression of Muslims appear to be somewhat more important. These can be held by someone with little or no knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence or commitment to its practice in prayer, worship and other rituals. This analytical distinction between politics and religion—a distinction found neither in the extremist ideology itself nor in the secular analysis of it—is necessary to make sense of why ISIS may attract many Muslims and even some non-Muslims with little or any knowledge of Islam.

It is the excitement of rebellion, the opportunity to fight, and delusions of grandeur offered by ISIS that are more commonly cited. In this sense, the Tajik special forces commander Gulmorod Khalimov, who defected to ISIS-held territory in Iraq/Syria, is typical in his protests against the United States, Russia and Tajikistan for their killing and repression of Muslims. It is the anti-secular politics of ISIS, not its theology and religious practice, that seem to explain its attraction to Central Asians like Khalimov, who joined ISIS despite showing no great piety or commitment to the “straight path” in their past.

Exposure to Violence

Still, there are probably many Muslims who hold these views and have the opportunity to be recruited but choose not to go. The evidence indicates that a third factor, exposure to violence, is crucial as a trigger to mobilization. This is why large-scale support for jihadism has historically only been found in war zones and refugee camps where violence is prevalent. Khalimov’s involvement in violence, in military campaigns against fellow Tajik Muslims in Rasht (2010) and Khorog  (2012), and the US special forces training he received may be important here, although it is impossible to say for certain. In the propaganda video announcing his defection, he speaks directly to the United States: “You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims.”

The absence of widespread political violence in Central Asia since the 1990s may again explain why recruitment is lower in Central Asia than in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the high rates of recruitment in Western Europe suggest that basic security and development are far from being bulwarks against extremism. In the UK an estimated 1 per 4,900 and in Belgium 1 per 1,450 of the Muslim population have joined ISIS; in Uzbekistan the rate is 1 per 54,000, in Tajikistan 1 per 37,000. (These figures are composed from the estimates of ISIS recruitment from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.)

Violence is more than physical, but also structural and cultural. It relates to threats to a person’s ethnic and gender identity as well as their basic survival. Testimonies from Western jihadists about their experiences of racism in public and hypocrisy at home suggest that feelings of shame and isolation, however misplaced, are factors in their recruitment. There also appears to be a link between domestic violence and the attraction to violent extremism, which is particularly visible in the highly patriarchal societies that prevail in much, but not all, of Central Asia.

Feelings of Alienation and Exclusion

This leads to a fourth and final factor, which is altogether more personal, more gendered and probably more important: feelings of alienation and exclusion. Rather than a gradual process of becoming more and more religious, the shift to a desire to join the jihad seems to occur quite rapidly in many cases. From Western jihadists who suddenly abandoned their university studies to modern Central Asians who rapidly “Islamised,” many cases suggest that social and psychological factors are at play. Sexual frustration and thwarted ambition are likely to affect young men everywhere, whatever their religion, especially those in the conservative social contexts of patriarchal families and authoritarian states. The role that jihadist groups play in creating community and meaning is frequently cited by those who have sought to explain their past once they have turned their backs on violent extremism.

It is this aspect that may give most cause for concern in Central Asia. Noah Tucker’s analysis of Uzbek ISIS recruits shows that all have very particular stories in which unemployment and relationship breakdown triggered a rapid move to rebellion and violence. “But the overarching pattern that I see among Central Asians is that the young people who go want to belong to something bigger than themselves, often in a situation in which they feel isolated and alone,” he commented to the BBC. “They are looking for meaning in their lives, for something significant to be a part of.”

There are significant social and political developments at work here. More important than the increasing Islamisation of Central Asia since 1991 may be the increasing conservatism and patriarchy promoted by secular regimes that are widely understood to be wholly corrupt. Early marriage, poverty and migration have all increased in volume. Education, healthcare and job opportunities have all decreased in quality. It is not good to be young in Central Asia right now, and the generation gap between Soviet-educated parents and their barely educated offspring is profound. The absence of fathers from the home and the shift away from industrial employment opportunities have hit teenage boys particularly hard.

The “youth bulge,” with close to 50 per cent of the population in some states under the age of sixteen, is characterised by a lost generation of young people in Central Asia who lack employment prospects at home, as the ethnographer Sophie Roche notes. But the remarkable coping strategies of the vast majority of older Central Asians suggest that authoritarianism and poverty are not general causes of violent extremism.  Their effects must be differentiated by gender and generation.

The research of Roche and others suggests that there is a particular strain placed on young people who become the object of patriarchal control mechanisms. In this environment, young men may turn to violence as a means to gain recognition, masculinity and honour; they may find this in combat sports clubs and/or ISIS propaganda. It is not clear whether it is religiosity that drives this process as much as a process of alienation and exclusion from one’s family and society.

Religion—part of the content, not the cause

Violent extremism remains thankfully rare in Central Asia. The two post-Soviet Central Asian cases of mass political violence that have been spuriously linked to religious factors may be instructive for those wanting to assess the possibility of further outbreaks if ISIS recruits return (although, as Ed Lemon points out, theirs is often a one-way ticket).

Tim Epkenhans shows in his prodigious study of the origins of the Tajik civil war that although religious debates were important in explaining the clergy’s disputes with one another and with the Soviet state prior to the war, they had very little to do with why Tajiks formed and joined militias.  Even those who represented themselves as guardians of Islam were propelled by a variety of political factors, the least of which was the ideas of political Islam.

Similarly, in Uzbekistan’s Andijon uprising, presented as an Islamic extremist rebellion by the government, the role of religion was actually limited, with one scholar denoting it as “epiphenomenal.”

In both cases religion was part of the context, not the cause.

Much contemporary security analysis on Central Asia focuses on one of the four factors identified here—extremist ideology—at the expense of the other three. That one factor is often misattributed as being primarily religious when it is primarily political.

Maybe if we stop obsessing about religiosity, we can begin to see the non-religious factors that really matter: how feelings of alienation and exposure to violence feed anti-secular political views amongst a very small minority of young people who are able and willing to take the opportunity to enter ISIS’s fantasy world.

These four factors are important, not just for the recruitment to Iraq/Syria that is taking place, but for the harbinger they pose for Central Asia’s political future. We need more information and far better analysis than we currently have to make sense of these phenomena. This evidence will need to draw on criminology and ethnographies of gender relations as much as security studies and “expert interviews” on Islamic VEOs if we are to get closer to the truth on this matter.

In the meantime, there are strong grounds to stop talking about piety and mosques as if they were the prime sources and sites of danger and to look instead at the non-religious reasons why ISIS’s online clarion call to join the caliphate has not gone unheard in Central Asia.

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 Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

This post is published simultaneously and in collaboration with the Exeter Central Asian Studies Network, and 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.

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.


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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.