Category Archives: Forum on Difference

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Factual claims are dubious and/or unsubstantiated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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

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

Less is better

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoga on the Road in Uganda, by Rahel Wasserfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Dog pose

[3] Mountain pose

[4] Warrior II pose

Students Share the Burden of Education, by David W. Montgomery

The priorities of the university are changing and these changes put at risk one critical dimension of the university’s role in society as a place of reflective (self-) learning. Much has been written about the marketization of education and the trend toward running universities as businesses concerned with efficiencies and bottom lines,[1] pushed even further by recent proposals of the Obama administration to rank universities by the “value” they provide.[2] What it means for students to receive a “well-rounded” education is increasingly constrained by economic pressures and the politically biased devaluing of certain fields of learning. We see this in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s statement deriding the value of anthropology[3] and the University of Pittsburgh’s decision to cut programs in classics, German, and religious studies due to declining enrollment.[4] The shifting of resources toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes is representative of the changing university.

It can be persuasively argued that disciplines such as those listed above, and humanities and social sciences in general, are essential to teach students the intellectual rigor that will best enable them to meet the future’s unknown needs with flexibility.[5] But even in a consumer-driven society where service providers readily respond to customer demands, students must see themselves as sharing the burden of schooling if they are to receive anything resembling a well-rounded education.

The imperative for students to view themselves as actors in their own education can be seen in a recent petition by the University of Pittsburgh’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). The petition protests the cancelling of four classes on Islam for the fall 2014 academic term.[6] One of the classes mentioned, Anthropology of Islam, is a class that I have taught at the university for the last five years, the last four of which have been in the spring term. Regardless of whether the course is taught again, there is some validity to the ideals of the MSA’s petition. The University of Pittsburgh is a major research university that is decidedly weak in the area of Islam. While I fully believe resources should be directed to increase opportunities for learning about Islam, the way in which the university “values” its resources is influenced by the students themselves.

The MSA petition emphasizes the importance for students of the opportunity to learn about Islam, the religion of 1.6 billion people in the world. Yet in the last five years I have regularly taught Anthropology of Islam, which has had an enrollment cap of 40 to 50 students, at half capacity. Very few Muslims have taken the course—in some years one or two, in some years none—and there has never been noticeable participation by students from the MSA. Regardless of the priorities of the university, basic economic theory suggests that a real demand by students for classes on Islam would make the provost and others more inclined to increase funding for such classes.

When I taught introductory courses on religion in the past, it was the case that students invariably performed worse on the exams that covered the religious tradition with which they identified. This makes sense, for having grown up in a particular tradition, one generalizes the familiarity with that religion without appreciating the diversity, historical controversy, and more doctrinal explanations of its rituals and beliefs. We think we know about our own beliefs and want others to learn about them so that they understand us better. The problem is that the corollary assumption does not hold: having others learn about our religious tradition does not in any way guarantee that we know about ourselves.

I support the MSA’s call for people to learn about Islam. But I wish to push them further: classes on Islam should also be filled with Muslim and non-Muslim students seeking to understand the diverse ways in which different religions provide frameworks for morally engaging with the world, ways intended to overcome the banality of misunderstanding. A rounded education is one that not only teaches the skills of a bureaucrat but also imparts a way of thinking that facilitates the ability to make morally engaged judgments. Though they are not taught with this end exclusively in mind, the humanities and social sciences should be seen as applied disciplines that prepare not only for work but also for life.

Students should learn about others’ traditions as well as their own, for what they will discover is that the assumptions and beliefs they hold will be challenged. And it is in preparation for such challenges that the university should engage its students. As concerned as we may be about our place in the world, we must also realize that the responsibility of education is not simply for others to learn about us, or even for us to learn about others, but also for us to learn about ourselves. Understanding is, after all, appreciating the difference of the other and recognizing the prejudices that keep us from seeing those differences as something—even when uncomfortable—to be tolerated.

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


[1] See Kendzior, Sarah. 2014. “College Is a Promise the Economy Does Not Keep.” Al-Jazeera, May 14.Available at, last accessed July 24, 2014.

[2] See Shear, Michael D. 2014. “Colleges Rattled as Obama Seeks Rating System.” New York Times, May 25, A1.

[3] Anderson, Zac. 2011. “Rick Scott Wants to Shift University Funding Away from Some Degrees.” Herald-Tribune. October 10. Available at, last accessed July 24, 2014. For a response to Gov. Scott, see Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2013. “2012 Public Anthropology Year in Review: Actually, Rick, Florida Could Use a Few More Anthropologists.” American Anthropologist 115 (2):286-296.

[4] The memorandum announcing these cuts is available at, last accessed July 24, 2014.

[5] Roth, Michael S. 2014. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[6] Petition available at, last accessed July 24, 2014.

“Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”: The Unfinished Business of the Lord’s Resistance Army, by David-Ngendo Tshimba

It was recently reported in one of Uganda’s daily newspapers (Daily Monitor) that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader, Joseph Kony, had written to Ugandans seeking forgiveness and a resumption of peace talks to end the insurgency. Kony’s letter, dispatched by Mission Okello, reads in part: “I want to assure the people of Uganda that, we [LRA] are committed to a sustainable peaceful political settlement of our long war with the government of (President) Museveni…. We are willing and ready to forgive and seek forgiveness, and continue to seek peaceful means to end this war which has cut across a swathe of Africa for the people of the Great Lakes and the Nile-Congo Basin to find peace.”[1] Allegedly, Kony further noted that he did not go to war as an aggressor but in self-defense. In response to this letter allegedly authored by Kony, Government of Uganda (GoU) Media Centre chief Ofwono Opondo dismissed Kony’s plea for fresh talks, saying he wasted the opportunity to hold peace talks. Instead, Opondo advised Kony to surrender to government armed forces or apply for amnesty and denounce rebellion before time runs out.

Futile peace talks

The Juba peace talks between the GoU and the LRA, which began on July 14, 2006 and were mediated by the then recently instituted quasi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), were initially presaged as the best hope to end this armed conflict since it began. In particular, these talks were considered crucial to both the GoSS and the LRA (whose commanders feared International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants issued against them in October 2005 and saw these peace talks as a possible way to evade arrest. However, Ronald Atkinson argued that even though the ICC warrants surfaced as an issue for the LRA during the Juba peace talks, there is little evidence that they were a major factor in the LRA’s decision to enter talks, for it had increasingly become part of accepted wisdom from a range of people inside and outside Uganda to secure LRA cooperation in order to end the war, at the expense of ICC prosecution. Hence, both the GoSS and the LRA were unwavering in their commitment to the peace process in the face of often expressed skepticism by the GoU and the international community; shockingly, “hopes were reinforced when the talks produced relatively quickly a Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) Agreement on August 26, 2006”— the first ever formal bilateral accord signed by representatives of both the LRA and the GoU.[2]

Furthermore, on  June 29, 2007, the two sides signed what Atkinson termed “the even more wide-ranging” agenda on accountability and reconciliation in a bid to identify and/or establish a combination of local and national justice mechanisms designed to promote reconciliation and address issues of accountability for wrongs committed by both LRA fighters and the Ugandan Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF), “with hints that this combination of mechanisms might satisfy the ICC”.[3] Nonetheless, following frequent hiatuses resulting from divisions between the two sides over mediation procedures and more especially from instigated dissensions within the LRA delegation and fighters, LRA leader Kony—who was scheduled on April 10, 2008 to add his signature to the Final Peace Agreement (FPA), with President Museveni to sign four days later—did not sign, ostensibly because he wanted further clarification about the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) of LRA fighters and the mix of “traditional” and “formal” legal proceedings that he and his fighters faced, including the role of the ICC.  Given the unresolved dispute over issues of restorative and retributive justice, coupled with the deep-seated commitment of one party to the conflict (GoU together with its regional and international supporters) to end this conflict militarily, the Juba peace process—which had yet produced landmarked agreements—was relegated to futility.

Learning from the Juba peace talks

Impediments to peace differ in different contexts, but it is no exaggeration to state that peaceful communities have many things in common. By and large, avoiding the dangers of othering would be one of the most promising ways to secure durable peace in the aftermath of violent conflict. The rationale for avoidance of othering—searching for characterization in terms of some “us” as opposed to some “other”—is that othering tends to bestow social acceptability on a call for retribution or punishment to members of the “out-group” (considered offenders) as opposed to those of the “in-group” (considered victims) following a convoluted manifestation of violence. In fact, throughout this two-decade armed conflict, hegemonic discursive structures by one party to the conflict (GoU) have either caused compliance or inhibited disagreement with perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors that eventually rendered and continue to render military offensives against the other party to the conflict (LRA) a legitimate form of action in the search for peace.

Perhaps Oresteia—the celebrated classical trilogy of plays by ancient Greek writer Aeschylus in which the author narrates three tales that focus on the events following the Trojan War—subtly reiterates the need to reconsider the notion of lex talionis  (an eye for an eye) in the quest for righting past wrongs. Movingly, Suren Pillay recapitulated Aeschylus’ lesson in the following words:

The first story commences with the Greek King Agamemnon’s victorious return from the battle for Troy along with his prize, the Princess Cassandra, and the unfortunate chain of events that this sets off. It is a compelling tale that sets out in staged dramatic form the generational intrigues that destroy the House of Atreus. In this famous story successive acts of injustice beget new acts of injustice and unleash a cycle of turmoil unforeseen by the central protagonists when they began their original quest for justice. The central lesson for Aeschylus is that the manner in which we right wrongs may impact on the future in ways that we might not have intended or desired.[4]

Against all odds so far registered in bringing this protracted armed conflict to a definitive end, dialogue in lieu of further confrontation ought to be reconsidered as a key option to address the deep-seated forces that continue to fuel this armed conflict beyond the confines of Uganda. Agreeing to dialogue with diverse histories and circumstances, memories and experiences, views and beliefs, could widen the horizons of those who have been a party to the conflict—whether involved directly (LRA and GoU) or indirectly (South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo)—beyond protractedness.  Even more insightfully, Paulo Freire’s notion of dialogical relations underpinned this possibility:

Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world…dialogue is thus an existential necessity. And since dialogue is the encounter in which the united reflection and action of the daloguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed and humanized, this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants…Because dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some name on behalf of others.[5]

Pillay finally underscored that if justice and reconciliation are in tension, then the balance between the two is best judged according to the criteria of what most effectively creates lasting peace and stability in a divided political community.[6] By and large, the demands of justice in today’s LRA-affected region go far beyond what any retributive endeavor—whether under the auspices of the ICC or otherwise—can deliver. Assuredly, the less conspicuous but more pertinent concern for the majority of vulnerable members from the LRA-affected region consists of a fuller restoration of their psychosocial as well as economic tissues torn apart by this armed conflict. Away from the need for a military victory and/or internationalized criminal prosecution against the LRA (now operating as armed rebels beyond Uganda), a context-specific restorative justice has huge potential for building lasting peace by addressing both the material discrepancies and psychological legacies of conflict. The main objective of such pursuit of justice should consist of creating a fresh political community from a fractured historical experience. Only then can a more nuanced understanding, as well as a much more appropriate application of justice with peace, be achieved. Does such nuanced understanding of justice not begin with the imploration of “forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors”?

David-Ngendo Tshimba (ISSRPL 2009, 2012, EPA 2012) is Assistant Lecturer at Uganda Martyrs University and a Research Fellow with International Alert.


[1] Waseka, A., “Kony asks for mercy, blames Museveni for S. Sudan woes” Daily Monitor, 27 January 2014. Available online at–blames-Museveni-for-S–Sudan-woes/-/688334/2161498/-/8ivihg/-/index.html (viewed on 27 February 2014).

[2] Atkinson, R. R. “From Uganda to the Congo and Beyond: Pursuing the Lord’s Resistance Army” International Peace Institute (IPI) Publications, December 2009. New York: IPI, 11. Available online at, accessed April 25, 2014.

[3] Atkinson 2009, p.12.

[4] Pillay, S. “Conclusion” in C. Sriram & S. Pillay (eds.) (2010) Peace vs Justice? The Dilemma of Transitional Justice in Africa. Durban: University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press, p.348.

[5] Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. [Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos] London: Penguin Books, pp. 69-70.

[6] Pillay (2010).

How Can I Accept the Other as Being Different from Me So That South Sudan Can Be at Peace?, by Noel Santo

On 9th July, 2011, South Sudan, then part of the Sudan, became an independent country. The huge majority of the population of South Sudan considered this step a colossal victory—something that they had sought for a long time. But one main challenge that accompanied breaking up South Sudan just as it gained its independence was the tendency to manipulate ethnic identities for private interest. Thus, we can understand the root causes of the current ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence.

Following independence, internal divisions among the ethnic groups became noticeable. South Sudan has 64 ethnic groups, and they all have unique cultures and languages. Although there were divisions and conflicts among them before, the South Sudanese ethnic groups generally put those aside and united against the common enemy of Sudan. Once that common enemy disappeared, though, they started to focus on the differences among themselves, and inter-tribal violence broke out.

The strong identification with one’s ethnic group created a poor sense of belonging to a shared nation. People are identified by ethnicity, for instance, Dinka, Moru, Bari, Nuer, Lotuko, Shilluk, etc. The ideal solution could be to create an institutional atmosphere in which all citizens of South Sudan can live together and maximize their values.

Nevertheless, many of the issues facing South Sudan are interrelated—for instance, there cannot be peace if the government is incapable of managing effectively the ethnic diversity in South Sudan and improving the ability of the various ethnic groups to live together peacefully notwithstanding their religious and sociocultural differences.

Living together in peace with the other who is different from you is still the biggest challenge to socioeconomic progress in South Sudan. It has become not so easy among many South Sudanese to accept the other as being different and to coexist in peace with him or her.

On the 15th December, 2013, the viability of the South Sudan state was put at risk when fighting spread from a few presidential guards to many parts of South Sudan and soon became a militarized ethnic conflict.

What occurred made me think about the other who is different from me—but is also a South Sudanese like me. Should I kill the other because he/she is different from me? Compete against the other because he/she is different from me? Or cooperate with the other notwithstanding his/her differences? Is it possible for South Sudanese communities to recognize and accept their differences build a peaceful civil society? How can the main differences between the ethnic groups in South Sudan be no longer a source of conflict?.

Noel postOn 15th January, 2014, I was challenged to recognize and accept the other as different when my close friend and I were invited for a thanksgiving prayer in the house of another friend of ours, who was carjacked in Munuki (a suburb of Juba town). Luckily, he got away with his life, sustaining only a slight bullet wound on his ankle. To my surprise, some Muslims were called to lead the prayers for thanksgiving. At first I felt uneasy, but gradually I accepted it. After the prayers we had a shared meal, all using our hands to eat from the same dish! It is common practice in South Sudan.

This situation challenged me—not because of the type of the food but because of the ethnic composition at the meal. Different ethnic groups were accepting each other and sharing the same dish. I came to understand that not accepting the other who is different from me is a result of seeing the negative in them. Instead of focusing on why someone is different from me, I should focus on how to live together in our diverse but one country—inhabited by people with very different religious, moral, sociocultural, and political beliefs.

Noel Nyombe Santo (ISSRPL 2012, EPA 2012) is a Catholic Priest from the Archdiocese of Juba in South Sudan and a Ph.D. candidate in Development Studies in Uganda Martyrs University.

How come a self-proclaimed progressive Jew sides with halal meat?, by Rahel Wasserfall

Last week, by chance, I watched a video from the site AKADEM, the French cultural site on all things Jewish (November 20, 2013). Claude Askolovitch, a self-identified progressive Jewish journalist, explained that he was let go from his job as a journalist at Le Point because of an article he wrote defending halal slaughter in France. I was intrigued and continued watching. On the video, he mused about the causes of hatred toward Muslims in contemporary France and asked why both the Front National, a right wing anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic political party, and the Socialists have difficult relations with French Muslims. He then presented the story of how the Front National has been taken seriously and has, in his words, become “the thinking norm.”

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, started a polemic about halal meat two years ago. She claimed that 45 percent of the meat eaten in France is halal and that halal slaughtering is inhumane. She also asserted that the French are eating it unknowingly and that it is unhealthy for the French population as a whole. Her outrageous statements culminated in a wild pseudo-scientific scenario in which the contents of a dead animal’s stomach are spewed onto the meat while the throat of the animal is ritually cut. This ritual way of slaughtering would pour the stomach bacteria over the meat and render it pathogenic.

This strong, vivid image made me think of my parents whispering that Arabs tend to kill their enemies by cutting their throats. When I was a child in Paris during the most difficult months of the OAS[i] retaliation in the city, an Algerian man was assassinated below my apartment. I can still see in my mind’s eye the chalk contour of his body form on the pavement when I went to school the next morning. The image of cutting someone’s throat was seared into my childhood as the “Arab way of killing.”

Is there something reminiscent of this primal fear in the antipathy to halal slaughtering? Is slaughtering an animal by cutting its throat somehow symbolically linked to the fear of being a human victim of that knife? Madame le Pen has also asserted that Muslims effectively reject the “real French,” as they believe that halal meat touched by a non-Muslim becomes non-halal, and thus no longer edible by a Muslim.  The news media erupted after her claims, explained Askolovitch, and many publications reproduced them without checking their veracity.

Askolovitch, a journalist, did exactly that; he researched the facts and proved that these stories reported all over the media were completely erroneous.[ii] The percentage of animals slaughtered in Ile de France was no more than 2 percent. Furthermore, there is certainly no scientific evidence that the meat is unhealthy because of the way the animals are slaughtered. Le Pen’s claim that halal meat is rendered non-halal by virtue of being touched by a non-Muslim is simply hate mongering.

In her claims regarding halal, Le Pen points to what she thinks is the main problem with the Muslims: they separate themselves, eat differently, and do not drink as the French do. France is not the only place in Europe where halal and kosher slaughter are under attack as inhumane, because stunning the animal prior to ritual slaughter is unacceptable to Muslims and Jews who eat halal and kosher.

Askolovitch develops a thesis surrounding the problem of secularity in France and the inability to include religious others into the Republique. He begins by telling his audience that Alain Finkelkraut, the French Jewish philosopher, just observed that he is not really completely French and the only “real” French are the “Francais de souche.” The word souche (lit: root) has connotations of ancestry and land, which takes us back to 19th-century nationalism and blood.

As I was listening to this story, I was reminded of my own adolescent feelings that as a Jew I would never “really” belong to France. I loved the Republique, but she did do not love me back! I left France to find my place in a Jewish land and then, as many Jews before me, in the goldene medinah,[iii] the United States. I am still longing for what could have been, if I had felt loved by the Republique of my childhood. Does the Republique today behave toward its Muslims as it did to its Jews?

Rahel Wasserfall is Director of Evaluation and Training at CEDAR and resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

[i] The OAS (organization de l’ armée secrete) was a counterterrorist part of the French army that refused to let go of Algeria, they were active from 1954 to 1962. Its motto was “L’Algérie est francaise et le restera” Algeria is French and will remain so.

[ii] Claude Askolovitch, Nos mals-aimes: Ces musulmans dont la France ne veut pas. September 2013, Editions Grasset.

[iii]Yiddish; literally the “golden country.”

Musings on diversity from Vienna, Sarajevo, and New York, by Maja Šoštarić

On a sunny morning in August 2013, as I exited the peaceful Parc des Bastions in Geneva, Switzerland and passed by the oversized chess figures near the park gate, I was astonished to see some familiar faces, a real blast from the past, on coming out into Place de Neuve. There they were again: four bronze sculptures by the contemporary German artist Thomas Schütte, entitled Vier große Geister. I had seen them before in 2011, earlier in their tour of European cities, on Vienna’s Graben Street. One is pointing to the skies; another looks defiant, with arms crossed; the third is stretching his arms combatively; and the fourth looks as if he is preparing to embrace someone. What do these four figures really represent? Faith, pride, persistence and hospitality? Or perhaps fundamentalism, segregation, fighting, and indoctrination?

FoD 1 b sostaric photos 3 - cropThe original German title of the sculptures can mean both Four large ghosts and Four great spirits. This ambiguity is probably intentional, as the odd foursome can be interpreted either as terrifying, voracious manifestations of one’s own past coming for its prey, or as dignified, lofty symbols of civilization and humanity. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. Be it as it may, the majority of observers will probably be captivated by something inherently paradoxical: the static dynamism and motionless interaction of the figures.

Back in 2011, while walking past the Vier große Geister in Vienna in the midst of the crowded Graben, replete with tourists, occasional horse carriages, and one very persistent cello player, I caught myself thinking, “Are these four sculptures in some sort of conflict? Or are they independent of each other?” And then, since I always find a way to connect my thoughts with my immediate locations, I concluded that, viewed through my Vienna lens, the four could stand only for faith, pride, persistence and hospitality, and that their interaction could be seen only as togetherness.

Indeed, as I was returning from an eventful soiree with some old friends in Vienna’s 16th district, also popularly known as the Balkanstrasse (Balkan Street), I thought how welcoming this place was toward the citizens of the former Yugoslavia. In Balkanstrasse cafés almost no one speaks German. In the subway or the street, you’re more likely to hear Croatian, Serbian, or Bosnian than German, to the point where you might forget you’re in the Austrian capital. When I was a student here, those of us from the “former state” used to hang out in a large area of the main university aula. But no matter how difficult it was for us—financially, culturally or socially—to adapt to Vienna, all my “ex-Yu” friends and I achieved our goals while respecting Austrian norms and culture and at the same time preserving our respective identities. Many Asians, Mexicans, or Turks in Vienna have embraced a similar lifestyle, in what may be a textbook example of togetherness resulting in diversity.

But Vienna was just a temporary shelter for my restless spirit. When I arrived in Sarajevo more than three years ago, I was handed a city map along with the names of the most important sights. Only several weeks after my arrival, having walked the webs of narrow streets and climbed all the neighboring hills, did I discover a still widely unknown Old Town souvenir: the Sarajevo cube. I stumbled upon it in the tiny streets of the central Baščaršija neighborhood. A simple wooden cube encapsulates the four symbols of Sarajevo: the Beg mosque, the Roman Catholic cathedral, the Old Synagogue, and the Old Orthodox church. This is also why Sarajevo is sometimes compared to Jerusalem: in a small circle of a few hundred meters, four important religions are represented. Indeed, on my short bike ride from the Old Town to my house, I travel through centuries of continuous religious and ethnic coexistence.

Yet I think coexistence has found its absolute pinnacle in the majestic New York City, where I see myself at some point in the future. Walking down endless Broadway late at night, blinded by the colorful lights of Times Square, I witnessed the city’s burgeoning night life, a sweet tyranny of everything, and an overwhelming power of contrast: luxuriously dressed-up people and half-naked people, dancing people and crawling people, people publicly denouncing religion and people publicly worshiping their gods. The avenue resounded with a Babel of different languages. “So this is what diversity is really all about,” I thought, slightly tired, somewhere amidst all those people. But I was not entirely right. The day after, I visited the impressive 9/11 memorial and the neighboring St. Paul’s Chapel, which hosted numerous volunteers who cleaned up the ruins of the destroyed World Trade Center in the months following the attacks. The church houses dozens of objects, photographs, and prayers recalling that period from throughout the United States and the world. That, in fact, is what diversity is all about.

Vienna by night is not nearly as alive as New York, but there are certain nights when everybody is out and about. One such example is Lange Nacht der Kirchen (Long Night of the Churches). All Christian churches keep their doors open for visitors, whoever they may be. I remember the abundant scent of wax candles in a Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and the elevated voice singing an Old Slavic mass in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church of St. Barbara. Although the Muslim and Jewish communities are (still) not part of the initiative, their believers have expressed great interest in it. Indeed, if they were to participate, Vienna would have much more to offer; its first and second districts contain numerous synagogues, while the 10th, 16th, and 17th districts are replete with mosques and places of Islamic worship.

Given the presence of different religions in Sarajevo, there are also many occasions to celebrate. During the month of Ramadan preceding the Eid-al-Fitr holiday (also known in Bosnia as ramazanski Bajram, the Ramadan Bayram), observant Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Come sunset, however, it is time to enjoy iftar, an evening feast. Many non-Muslims, myself included, are regularly invited to iftars and blessed by the hospitality of our Muslim friends. The small Jewish community in Sarajevo also prepares celebrations, and I was fortunate enough to attend a seder (festive Passover dinner) with prayers recited in Hebrew, Bosnian, and—interestingly—old Spanish (because the first Jews who came to Sarajevo were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century). Likewise, on Christmas Eve, many Muslims and other non-Catholics gather in front of the Sarajevo Cathedral in order to wish their Catholic friends merry Christmas. All this is to say that the above-mentioned four sculptures, as viewed through my Sarajevo lens, are doing nothing less than emanating optimism—in spite of the war and annihilation of the city’s recent history.

New York, too, saw destruction not that long ago. Nevertheless, it is nothing but a splendid, relentless motion, resulting from the interplay of faith, pride, persistence and hospitality. I stayed in the exciting area bordering fancy SoHo on one side and colorful Chinatown and Little Italy on the other. In other words, a typical American cupcake bakery is just minutes away from countless Chinese restaurants or delectable Sicilian specialties— a microcosm of people and opportunities. New York really is “all that jazz.” After having enjoyed the magnificent revival of the Harlem Renaissance in the Apollo Theater, the African Poetry Theatre of Queens, and the Japanese-looking Botanical Garden of Brooklyn, completely by accident I found myself in front of Norman Mailer’s beautiful Brooklyn house. My guidebook quoted a sentence from one of his novels: “I don’t think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for.” Considering my second chance encounter with the Four great spirits in Geneva, I could only mumble to myself, “How appropriate, how wonderfully appropriate”.

Maja Šoštarić (2012 ISSRPL) works at the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.