Category Archives: Engaging the World

The Kitara School of Difference Established in Uganda

The Kitara School of Difference (KSD) has been established in St. Ignatius University Kabale. Formerly the Equator Peace Academy (EPA), which was based at Uganda Martyrs University and ran regular programs since 2012, the KSD will continue the work begun by EPA to extend more dialogue and deeper analysis of issues on difference in the area of the former Kitara kingdom. Indeed, the name of the school is drawn from the legendary oral tradition Kitara Kingdom. The kingdom supposedly lasted until the 16th century in the territory of modern Uganda, northern Tanzania, eastern Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Burundi. Today, people living in the areas of former Kitara share somewhat similar Bantu languages and cultures, often intermarry, though have had numerous cultural and traditional conflicts. The KSD is designed to engage thematic issues in this region with the aim of confronting problems of intolerance to diversity, divisive governance, and the turbulent past. As a CEDAR affiliate, KSD utilizes the CEDAR pedagogy to bring international participants together to explore issues of living together differently. The goal is to understand and overcome the type of social segregation and violence that have so often characterize relations between different communities in this region. At St. Ignatius University, the school is housed within the Center for Planning and Development (CPD).

Kenyan Program on Pedagogies for Community Established

The Kenyan Program on Pedagogies for Community (KPPC) was created by the Culture for Peace, Development and Rights non-profit organization in Kenya. Emerging out of training during CEDAR affiliate programs, KPPC focuses on addressing the major challenges facing Kenya today. These include the dynamics of fostering unity and understanding the intricate interplay of cultural  diversity and social, political, and economic differences. Positioned within the organizational framework of CEDAR, KPPC is dedicated to fostering sustainable development and peacebuilding in Kenya. Its primary mission revolves around unraveling the inherent dynamics of Kenya’s diverse communities, with a specific focus on interfaith dialogue, cross-cultural understanding, and the nuanced dynamics of tribal belonging. A central tenet of its philosophy is cultivating a profound comprehension of the distinctive customs, traditions, and religious paradigms that underpin the fabric of society in Kenya. Employing a CEDAR approach that transcends conventional political discourse, KPPC endeavors to establish a foundation for enduring coexistence and knowledge acquisition. Its comprehensive initiative aims to engender understanding and empathy among diverse Kenyan communities, delving beyond immediate political realities to explore historical, economic, and social factors contributing to the recurrent episodes of violence that have plagues the country. KPPC works to be a catalyst for sustainable coexistence and learning, envisioning a transformative role in fostering unity and comprehension among Kenya’s multifaceted demographic groups.

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

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.