Category Archives: Religion and Spirituality

What draws ‘lone wolves’ to the Islamic State?

The recent attack on a bike path in lower Manhattan once again compels us to ask: Why do people pledge allegiance to the Islamic State?

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack, isn’t a devout Muslim. He cursed and came late to prayers, according to acquaintances who talked to The New York Times. So why would he want to be a martyr?

As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging.

Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo

Like this recent attack in New York, many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by individuals the media have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, freelancers who act without the direct knowledge of the IS leadership. To avoid glamorizing them, the RAND Corporation prefers the term “flaming bananas.”

There are two theories as to why these individuals pledge allegiance to the group. The first is that they get “radicalized.”

Radicalization refers to a step-by-step process whereby individuals become increasingly susceptible to jihadi ideas. First, they cut themselves off from social networks such as family, which provide them with support and a conventional value system. They then immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi recruiter might bring them into the fold. Either way, the result is the same.

Some observers claim IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, IS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. IS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, the player destroys advancing personnel carriers and shoots enemy soldiers.

Perhaps, then, the radicalization model is wrong or not universally applicable. Perhaps there’s something other than religious zealotry at play.

Consider the widely reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham, U.K., for Syria, ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” to fill the gaps in their knowledge.

Newspaper stories time and again puzzle over the problem of how it happens that individuals who go on to join IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed some act of violence for the group. The most common explanation is that their dissolute lifestyle was a cover.

After the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 people in Nice, France, for example, the French interior minister was at a loss to explain how someone who drank during Ramadan – which had ended a week and a half before – could have radicalized so quickly.

Former French President Francois Hollande in Paris in September 2016 at a memorial service for victims killed by terrorism in France.
AP Photo/Michael Euler

A number of experts have argued that the radicalization model should be replaced by, or supplemented with, a different model.

Rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”

Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, thrill-seeking to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure?

The ConversationIn this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaida.

James L. Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

After 2016: The Trump Landslide

The narrative in the U.S. press has been that Donald Trump, arguably the most divisive major party candidate for President in American history, can’t win the general election. How does someone win the Presidency when the story in the polls says that he’s going to lose every major demographic group except white males?

Until the last week, the only question appeared to be “how big will Hillary Clinton’s victory be?” Now, suddenly, polls that have the two head-to-head. Even with the latest polls, Nate Silver, one of the great masters of polls and statistics, still gives Clinton a 2/3rds chance1 to win the Presidency.

But, one chart in the most recent PEW survey2 tells a very different story. If there are two groups most clearly identified with the opposite sides of the American Culture Wars,7 they are white evangelicals (aka the “religious right”) and the religiously unaffiliated (what PEW calls the “nones”).

The Republican party has been explicitly targeting what came to be called the Religious Right3 since before most Americans were born. In parallel, Nixon’s Southern Strategy4 targeted white southerners who rejected changes that were driven by the civil rights movement. There was significant cross-over between those two group and the two appeals effectively merged into the Republican party’s appeal to white evangelical voters.

Overall, it had a large impact on American religion. Significant numbers of American Christians disagreed with the politics that were pulled into their Churches and the resulting ways the interpretation of scripture changed. They felt shut out and tended to move across the aisle and/or out of those churches or church entirely and became part of the “nones” group.

While the Republic Party has increasingly focused on a specific vision of and for America, the Democratic Party has become the party of everyone else. The “nones” group was both drawn to and pulled in by the Democratic Party.

Getting back to ground zero in the American Culture Wars, how do these two groups –white evangelicals and nones– feel about the two major candidates? Pew turned the results of their survey into a graph:

Trump and Clinto Support among Evangelicals and Nonces
Trump and Clinton Support among Evangelicals and Nones – PEW, 13 July 2016

The headline, Trump support among white evangelical voters on par with Romney in 2012; Clinton support among religious ‘nones’ on par with Obama, says nothing has changed. There’s nothing see, it’s all status quo. The obvious conclusion is that Clinton (like Obama) is going to win. But, that’s not what the numbers in the chart actually show. Compared to their predecessors, Trump’s support is five points higher while Clinton’s is one point lower.

Of course, polls have many problems. The biggest one is that opinions don’t vote. People who, like those who are motivated, get to the polls vote. As an aside, that’s basically why most elections tend to favor the views of older voters: older voters have had more time to form their opinions so those opinions tend to be stronger so those voters tend to be more motivated.

The chart doesn’t say anything about age but it does say something about motivation. Looking at the motivated votes (the ones who “strongly support” their candidate), the number of white evangelicals who strongly support Trump is 10 points (roughly 40%) higher. Clinton’s strong support among the non-religiously affiliated is actually ten points (roughly 40%) lower.

While these groups are not identical with the respective parties, they are a useful map of a very strong divide in the U.S. and the country’s party structure. What that motivational factor is telling us is that if the election was held today, Trump would probably win. While, the numbers are far from exact and they don’t account for many things, many of the things the numbers don’t account for will actually amplify his victory.

One significant factor they don’t account for is the white nationalists who believe Trump is wink-wink nod-noding them, that he’s their guy5. In fact, members of this group have probably never felt like their was a candidate who understood them or represented their views. To actually have a say in an election? This group’s motivation to vote is off the proverbial chart.

More broadly, events and the news narrative is going to increase this gap. Clinton continues to be forced to look backwards to address issues like email scandals. Trump continues to get to run with weekly and daily stories –five police dead in Dallas shooting, truck used in attack that kills more than 80 in Nice, France, attempted military coup in Turkey, three police dead in Baton Rouge6that cater to his strong guy, win at any cost, image.

By November, it’ll be landslide territory, Trump’s party will probably have control of both houses of Congress and the chattering classes are going to sputter what’d we miss, how’d that happen again.

Coda

The study2 notes that the most common reason white evangelical supported Trump was “beating Clinton.” Part of the problem for Clinton is a collapse of alternatives. She, and the Democratic party, don’t really have a coherent alternative vision for the future. Some people used to say there wasn’t any real difference between Republicans and Democrats. It is more accurate to say that Democrats were striving (to steal a Republican line) for a kindler, gentler version of the Republican’s vision.

Both sides of the American political aisle are trapped in the world of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Neoliberalism, in particular, is the water that most people on both sides of the American political aisle swim in. However, just as the Keynesian approach reached it’s limit in early ’70s and the world shifted to Mises and Hayek, today neoliberalism has reached it’s limits but there is no alternative.

Keynes, Mises and Hayek built their economic theories in the era of manufacturing. While manufacturing still exists, for decades computers and software have driven our world and its economic growth. That post-manufacturing era is now closing. Sales of computers and software have been dropping for years. Technology is fading into the fabric of life with most of the actual horsepower existing out in the cloud, plugged into via throw-away smart phones and tablets. The gadgets we encounter in person are, to a large degree, non-functional without an internet connection because the real magic happens somewhere else out of our reach.

This decoupling is mirrored in the world of business. A chat bot gets people out of traffic tickets and law firms have begun to hire Ross, an IBM artificially intelligent lawyer. Businesses are actually in the process of decoupling profits from human labor and traditional investment.

While the world is entering it’s second new major economic eras after manufacturing, people still largely battle under the banners of the ghosts of Keynes and Hayek. The theories were built around factories when a factory is now a 3D printer that can sit on a desk.

For Clinton, when I say there’s a collapse of alternatives, the problem is that all the policy wonkiness in the world will never speak to people unless there’s a vision to unify it. For Trump, on the other hand, it is actually to his advantage that there is no current intellectual vision upon which to base his appeal. The complaints about problems with his policy ideas, the words coming out of his mouth, the what-evers don’t matter because in a world where all the theories are so out-of-date, there’s nothing to stop him from painting whatever picture he wants.

Notes

1. Nate Silver’s forecast is updated frequently. His forecast is a 66.7% chance of Clinton victory versus a  33.3% of Trump victory as of Friday 15 July 2016 at 15:14pm Mountain. Five Thirty Eight, “Who will win the presidency?”: http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-election-forecast/

2. Pew Research Center, “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton.” (13 July, 2016): http://www.pewforum.org/2016/07/13/evangelicals-rally-to-trump-religious-nones-back-clinton/

3. One short personal account: Brian Zahnd, “The Jesus Revolution” (1 July 2016): http://brianzahnd.com/2016/07/the-jesus-revolution/

4. Volumes have been written on Nixon’s Southern Strategy including, perhaps most famously Alexander Lamis’ 1984 book The Two-Party South, based in part on an interview he conducted with legendary Republican figure, Lee Atwater that can be found embedded in Rick Perlstein’s “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,” The Nation (13 November 2012).

5. Nicholas Confesore, “For Whites Sensing Decline, Donald Trump Unleashes Words of Resistance”, The New York Times (13 July 2016): http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/us/politics/donald-trump-white-identity.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

6. Four major events that occurred in eight days: a gun man killed 5 police in Dallas, Texas, USA (7 July), a man in Nice, France drove a truck into a Bastille Day celebration (14 July), a portion of the military attempted a coup in Turkey (15 July) and between final edits, three more police shot in Baton Rouge, LA (17 July). Each was notable. To find a US event comparable to the Dallas shooting, one has to go back to the mass evictions of farmers during the American dust bowl. The attack in France is the first major instance of an attack against a soft target (effectively making anything and everywhere a target). Turkey is a member of NATO, acts as major forward base for operations against Islamic State (formerly ISIL) as well as one of the major checkpoints in western minds against Russian aggression ala the invasion of Crimea. Baton Rouge is notable for multiple reasons including the fact that the US flag is flying at half staff around the country because of multiple horrific events. It’s easy to suspect we may be entering a period where the days when the US flag is not at half staff are the notable ones.

7. (American) Culture Wars is a term coined by Professor James Davison Hunter for the conflict between traditionalist/conservative and liberal/progressive views of the meaning of America. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991) http://www.jamesdavisonhunter.com/culture-wars.

Note: there are no new citations in the Coda section at this time because I’ll be digging in deeper on everything that would normally be cited in another piece.

Thus it Begins: The Great Stock Market Crash of 2016

What you’re reading is the introduction to a book I knew I was supposed about where the U.S. and the world is headed. I’ve know I had to write it since the fall and to say it scared me as an understatement. By December I was at least willing to start telling people around me, including my wife key elements of the book including that the US economy will crash and that Donald Trump will be President of the United States. Neither is a guess: this is what will happen.

On January 3rd, I told my wife the key elements again. The only thing that changed was that the order had reversed and finalized. I told her:

This year, the US Economy will crash and then Donald Trump will be elected President.

The next day, the U.S. markets opened and had their biggest initial drop on an opening day since 1932. That (1932) is the year the U.S. Great Depress began for real. And I finally went out on the line in public by tweeting the news with the hashtag #ThusItBegins.

Tomorrow morning, the markets will open for the third week of the year. The press will continue to fret, wave their hands and mostly say it’s psychological and things will stabilize soon. Unemployment is down. Fundamentals are solid. Blah. Blah. Blah. Just a few things to sort out. But things won’t. We’re past that point.

We’re at the beginning of the Great Stock Market Crash of 2016. The stock market crash is just the opening salvo of a brutal shift in the world that will be much larger, deeper and nastier than just another recession.

 

And I honestly don’t want to write this book. It’s not because I’m shy about writing about dark subjects or the darkness in subjects. It’s because I’m saying G*d has told me to write it. While I once had a reviewer call me a prophet, he merely meant as someone who warns. He certainly didn’t think G*d was around and sending people out to describe what’s happening.

Why in the world would I do such a crazy stunt? I wasn’t raised in any faith. In my Bachelors (Physics) and Graduate (Humanities) work, G*d was basically ignored other than the occasional ridicule from, usually, another student. The professors for the most part didn’t waste their time on the subject. They assumed the whole faith thing was a left-over from the pre-rational world.

To say that G*d told me to be a prophet is to immediately be regarded by most people I know as, at least, slightly unhinged. Even most of the American Christian world assumes that miracles and prophets stopped a long time ago.

But, here I am. Since this book got dropped in my life, I’ve waited again and again for confirmations because it still sounds crazy to me. And I’ve tested things I’ve gotten again and again and I’ve had confirmations that are unlikely in the extreme.

 

I’d describe my plans for this book but that assumes I’ve got one. Back to I’m supposed to have been writing this for a while. Beyond a few scribbled notes, this book will appear basically as I write it. This blog entry is the initial “Introduction” and will bundled up shortly as the initial release of the book via PDF on this website. Later I’ll make it available on Amazon.

 

This document has been saved as a pdf and can be downloaded: http://4til7.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Introduction-v1.pdf

an Open Letter to my Son

Today, my son tried on two of his mother’s dresses. It felt like he was expecting me to be shocked or turn judgemental. Why? On one level, it would take a whole lot more than a guy in a dress to surprise me. It’s not my job as a parent to be shocked or judgemental. In my experience, it’s really hard to be a good parent when ‘freaked out’ is how you’re acting. All a freaked-out parent can ever really say is BAD BAD BAD BAD. It doesn’t even work with dogs. Why do we think it can work with people?

Especially when, at the heart of things, he’s asking the quintessential human question: “who am I?” Sexuality is just part of that. The rest of us can share our journeys with him but, ultimately, my son has to answer the question himself. No one else’s words will ultimately ring true to him. It’s only when he understands enough to answer himself that words will really matter. And it’s only when it’s his answer that he will choose who becomes.

A book!

I’ve got a book coming out on pressWoodInk about prayer as an intentional practice called Practicing Prayer. This one is going to be a publishing back-to-the-future. Once, books were often first published in serial form. Many of Dickens’ books originally appeared as a series of episodes in the newspaper. Publishing has rediscovered this and pressWoodInk is going to try out the idea with Practicing Prayer. The first part will appear soon.

Hotlines to God

The Trace of God, a book I helped publish, was released about a week ago. I posted this related piece on Facebook a few days ago:

I remember an interview with Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he claimed, in essence, to have a hot line to God. The Creator was his personal adviser. My reaction? “He’s a loon. Hot line to God?” When someone says they’ve had “an encounter with God”, “a mystical experience” that’s the common reaction. When it happened to Barbara Ehrenreich, an atheist, she didn’t talk about it for decades out of fear it would get her labelled as crazy. Most Fundamentalists Christians have that reaction. Miracles, holy fire, burning bushes… that stuff ended back, you know, with the Disciples.

Funny thing is, I keep backing into studies about the effectiveness of prayer, stories about meditation changing people’s lives and so on. The assumption I’d picked up didn’t jive with what researchers we’re finding. When Joseph Hinman approached me about publishing his book, The Trace of God, I was definitely of two minds. I’ve never been involved in publishing a book about God, let alone one making a sane, rational argument that mystical experience is real?

But, what I found is someone who took all that research, looked at all the arguments floating around and made a case that needed to be heard. He shows that when someone has one of these experiences, they’re part of a very very large group, probably the vast majority of people, and that they’re not crazy. He pulls together research that shows that these experience, again and again, change people’s lives for the better. You can’t prove God. He says so right up front. Instead, he says that the evidence meets a legal standard: Looking at all the evidence (including your experience) and concluding there is a God is “rationally warranted”.

Do I still think Ahmadinejad is a loon? Yes. And I’m convinced there are a lot of people who’ve had experiences that justify concluding there is a Creator, a God.