Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

Until last year, the only time Native Americans captured headlines was at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. It was the culmination of a whole year of protests, which included sit-ins on Alcatraz Island and then at Mount Rushmore in a bid to force the federal government to honor past treaties.

The standoff was organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) on the very sight where in 1890 over 150 Lakota Sioux were massacred, and the days of this occupation turned to weeks, and then over two months. In the end, three people had died.

During that time, Marlon Brando, who had been nominated for his performance in The Godfather at the 45th Academy Awards, decided to voice his public support for the AIM’s action at Wounded Knee. To do so, he declined his award (he won, as expected) and sent in his place Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress, to read a statement. She was not allowed to do so on stage but was able to read a portion of it to the press afterwards. Other celebrities expressed their support for the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, including Johnny Cash, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda and William Kunstler.

There can be no doubt that sympathy for Native rights was on the rise after 1973.

President Jimmy Carter, arguably the first president to make human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy, also had signed the American Religious Freedom Act in 1978, which partially reads:


This legislation sets forth the policy of the United States to protect and preserve the inherent right of American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiian people to 'believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions. In addition, it calls for a year's evaluation of the Federal agencies' policies and procedures as they affect the religious rights and cultural integrity of Native Americans.”


Then there was the document President George H. W. Bush signed for the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989. When the project was finally completed in 2004 – with native consultation and participation the whole way through, the opening ceremony saw “the largest known gathering of American Native communities in history,” according to the Smithsonian archives.

That record was arguably broken, however, with the advent of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests from April 2016 to February 2017 at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. Sierra Crane-Murdoch, a writer from neighboring Montana, described her stay at the encampment in early September, staying for about a month. She then wrote this article for The New Yorker (“Standing Rock: A New Moment for Native-American Rights”). Unlike the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee with a few hundreds native Americans, most of them armed, the protest gathering on the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in 2016 saw thousands of native American participants with the flags of over 200 Indian nations lining up on both sides of the entrance of the camp (see photo above). Thousands of other well-wishers, including many veterans, came and went over those months, bringing food, supplies and cash to sustain the movement.

The other difference is that this movement was thoroughly nonviolent. If anything, the day before Crane-Murdoch’s arrival, protesters had attempted to stand in the way of the bulldozers and were attacked by dogs and pushed back with pepper spray. On another occasion, when some protesters had chained themselves to bulldozers, they were bitten by the dogs.

For the multitude of indigenous nations gathered at the confluence of the two rivers this was a sacred duty -- resisting a pipeline that cuts through property sacred to one tribe and that threatens to pollute the river that sustains the life of all. Sioux historian Vine Deloria, Jr., in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, notes that in the twentieth century Native Americans had witnessed “a more devious but hardly less successful war waged against Indian communities.” Crane Mudoch lists some of these indignities visited upon them:


“the lack of funding for tribal education, which forced parents to send their children to government-run boarding schools; the termination of federal recognition for scores of tribes, which caused the loss of services promised by treaty; and a disregard for the sovereignty of tribes, manifest in the building of infrastructure on Indian land without honest consultation or consent.”


Then on December 4, 2016, the campsite exploded with shouts of joy and celebration. The federal government had just refused to issue the mighty and well-connected company building the pipeline (Energy Transfer Partners) the needed permit to run the pipeline under the Missouri river, pending an environmental impact assessment.

Award-winning writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote on that day, “From the start, this has been an against-the-odds battle.” Almost the whole length of the pipeline had been laid before any significant opposition could be mounted. But by now the Dakota Access pipeline construction had awakened a sleeping giant. As McKibben puts it, "Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe" – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia.” Then he explains the nature of this protest:


“It wasn’t standard-issue environmental lobbying, nor standard-issue protest, though there was certainly some of both (lawyers took the company to court, activists shut down bank branches). At its heart, however, in the great camp that grew up along the rivers, this was a largely spiritual resistance, David Archambault, the head of the Standing Rock Sioux who demonstrated great character and dexterity for months, kept insisting that the camp was a place of prayer, and you couldn’t wander its paths without running into drum circles and sacred fires.”


Of course, they didn’t win in the end. A new president took office in January and on February 9, 2017, construction on the pipeline was ordered to resume. But this had certainly been a high-water mark of Native American unified action for regaining their legal rights.

As David Archambault wrote in the New York Times, however, resisting a pipeline that threatened the quality of a major river’s water is much more than about native rights. Here is how his piece ends, and it’s a fitting segue back into John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds:


“We are also a resilient people who have survived unspeakable hardships in the past, so we know what is at stake now. As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie, we need the public to see that in standing up for our rights, we do so on behalf of the millions of Americans who will be affected by this pipeline.

As one of our greatest leaders, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, once said: 'Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.' That appeal is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.”


John Dawson’s theology of the nations

“Satan,” intones Dawson, ”has never created and holds no title deed to anything: he is only a creature.” By contrast, “Peoples, cultures and nations have a redemptive purpose because they bear God-created gifts. They all have a power to bless the world that is an outgrowth of their unique attributes.” That blessing is love, and God’s ultimate purpose in creation is “that love be poured out on His creation, and that loving relationship be multiplied throughout time and eternity” (120).

Created as we are in God’s image, we bear his purposes in our souls, whether we fully understand them or not. As Dawson puts it, “therefore, something of God’s own nature is revealed through our creation” (121). And this includes the intentional fact of ethnic and cultural pluralism, as I mentioned in the first half of this blog post, referring to both Qur’an and Bible.

“As our songs and prayers echo across the prairie,” said Archambault. Dawson's version reads like this, “The peoples of the earth have all been created with the purpose of worshiping God uniquely and contributing unique service to other peoples.” But this is a double-edged sword: “These diverse gifts bring power to serve or to dominate, to wound or to heal, and God judges or blesses each people group according to their moral state as He works His redemptive purpose in the seasons of human history” (121).

Because of the fall and the reality of human sin, nations war against nations and seemingly endless cycles of aggression and retaliation play out. Still, that is not the whole story. God’s blessing in individuals, in nations and specific cultures continues to flow outward as well. Healing and blessing are passed on, sometimes through the arts and music, civil society activism and deeds of compassion, and practices of good governance and international cooperation.

Think of nations coming together after two mind-numbingly devastating world wars and agreeing on a covenant dedicated to human respect and dignity. It was called “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This led to a series of other covenants and conventions we consider "international law." These are all signs of God’s redemptive purposes placed in humanity – and Christians might add that these are also evidence of the Holy Spirit “blowing where He will” (John 4:8) in the far corners of the globe, even in the midst of horrific acts of violence and war.

About five years before I read Kenneth Craggs’ works and discovered his insight about a Muslim-Christian theology of humanity (“the human caliphate” or trusteeship of humanity), Dawson wrote,


“Adam was commanded to cultivate the earth’s resources and build with the things placed at his disposal. He was to organize and govern, under God, the world in which God placed him” (125-6).


So what about the Healing of America’s Wounds?

I hope to come back to Dawson’s book when I look more closely at Jim Wallis’ America’s Original Sin. But for now, I’ll just reproduce his own summary, that is, the four points that define the strategy of an organization he was helping to lead at the time, the International Reconciliation Coalition, whose greatest accomplishment turned out to be the three-year Reconciliation Walk that retraced nine centuries later the steps of the first crusade (read this article on its climax in Jerusalem, July 15, 1999).

But now here are Dawson's four steps to reconciliation and healing (135-6):


CONFESSION: Stating the truth; acknowledgment of the unjust or hurtful actions of myself or my people group toward other persons or categories of persons. (The main theme of this book because it is the place to begin and we have neglected it.)

REPENTANCE: Turning from unloving to loving actions.

RECONCILIATION: Expressing and receiving forgiveness, and pursuing intimate fellowship with previous enemies.

RESTITUTION: Attempting to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed, and seeking justice wherever we have power to act or to influence those in authority to act.


I am guessing that after a flurry of speaking engagements and an actual movement across several major US cities during the 1990s, this work that John Dawson and others gave their heart and soul to petered out because of step four – restitution. As we saw with the Dakota Access protest, there are still so many areas of restitution that need attention if there is to be healing both within the Native American nations and between them and the wider American society. Changes have to take place in people's hearts, but ultimately changes also have to take place in the political realm.

If the first step is telling the truth, perhaps none did this better that Marlon Brando when he wrote this text to be delivered at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1973. As mentioned earlier, Shasheen Littlefeather was not allowed to read it on the stage yet managed to read part of it to the press after the ceremony. It was then published in the New York Times.

After an opening paragraph in which Brando recapitulates the last 200 years of settler-Native interaction in the phrase, “Lay down your arms, my friends, … [then can] we talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.” He goes on,


“When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them [American leaders], we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.”


Brando captures well the American myth of “Manifest Destiny,” the mentality that might makes right, and that sentiment that human rights are nice ideals but our priority is to “make American great again.” Sadly, it’s a global issue too, as even the UN is despairing of being able to raise the issue of human rights on so many fronts. The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, just announced this week he will not seek a second 4-year term, “citing concern that his voice would be silenced in an age when the United States and other world powers are retreating from their historical commitment to human rights.”


A theology from the Fourth World for us all

In my parting words, I simply want to refer you again to the excerpts I posted from my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in “Resources” on my website. It is a necessary complement to this two-part blog post. The part I would like to draw your attention to here is the one about Osage-Cherokee Lutheran theologian George E. Tinker, who has been teaching at the Ilif School of Theology in Denver since 1985.

As a Native American theologian he takes issue with traditional Protestant theology, which starts with “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ.” Important as this is for Christian theology, it’s the wrong place to begin, avers Tinker. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. He explains, “To make fall/redemption the beginning point in theological proclamation generates traumatic experiences of spiritual and emotional dislocation for American Indians which some people survive and many do not.”

What is needed is a theology that integrates the worldview of all the native peoples and that starts with the created world and the land in particular. In his words,


“Respect for creation and the recognition of the sacredness of all in creation is a deeply rooted spiritual base for American Indians, rooted in the soil of the tribal cultures of North America . . . . It is a matter of relatedness and interdependence that finally results in a necessary relationship of interdependence with all nature” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation: Restoring Trinitarian Balance,” in Constructive Christian Theology in the Worldwide Church, ed. William R. Barr; Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 1997, pp. 202-13, at p. 209).


If however one proclaims the Good News of Jesus on the basis of a common ground of God’s good and sacred creation, then “it can generate genuine healing and life-giving response.” By doing so, at the same time the idea of interrelationship and harmony at the heart of all created things leads naturally to the crucial values of peace and justice among and between human societies and nations:


“On the one hand a proper prioritizing of First Article/Creation concerns will enable the churches to appreciate and value the inherent spiritual gifts that many cultures, especially indigenous, tribal, fourth-world cultures, bring with them to Christianity. . . . Secondly, . . . We will discover that respect for creation can become the spiritual and theological basis for justice and peace just as it is the spiritual and theological basis for God’s reconciling act in Christ Jesus and the ongoing sanctification in the Holy Spirit” (Tinker, “The Integrity of Creation,” 207).


You can see why I was keen to bring this up in my book. This concept of the integrity and harmony of creation ties in nicely with a holistic doctrine of humanity, according to which God empowers humankind as his stewards, deputies or trustees, to oversee his good creation and ensure that their governance leads to the wellbeing of all creatures, from the smallest to the greatest, as well as to the reign of peace through justice for all the peoples of the planet for God’s greater glory. This is a vision sorely needed in our politically polarized societies of today, at a time when we wantonly pollute our planet and sabotage its precarious climate.

Truly, we need to listen to the collective wisdom of our indigenous brothers and sisters, as we also commit to supporting them in their bid to gain their full rights as fellow citizens and to experience the healing we all need, by God's grace.

I got interested in the indigenous peoples of the world while doing research at Yale University. Though my main focus was writing about Islamic law and how modern scholars like Morocco’s Allal al-Fasi, Algeria’s Malek Bennabi, and Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi were recalibrating its traditional methodology and concepts, I was also reworking my dissertation into book form.

I just posted in “Resources” a couple of excerpts from that book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, in which I crafted a Christian theology of creation in parallel with the Qur’anic one, best expressed in contemporary Islamic theology as the “trusteeship of humanity.” It’s clear from the Qur’an and Bible that God empowered humankind to take care of the earth and of one another in his name – and for how well or poorly they fulfill that mission they will each give an account.

As the Qur’an puts it, “On that day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, and whoever has done an atom’s-weight of bad will see that” (Q. 99:6-8, Abdel Haleem). Or: “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad” (Q. 2:286, Abdel Haleem). Each individual will stand on the Last Day before God to be judged.

But this Christian, Muslim, and Jewish eschatological vision also has a collective dimension to it. Again and again, in the words of the Hebrew prophets, nations are called out for blessing or judgment. God chose Israel as a nation for a purpose. In the words given to its progenitor Abraham: “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3, NLT). They did not live up to this great calling, reneging on the covenant they agreed to at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the curses of the covenant eventually came crashing down upon them.

At the same time, Babylon, the nation chosen by God to carry out his punishment upon the nation of Israel, was to meet a terrible fate:


You rejoice and are glad, you who plundered my chosen people.

You frisk about like a calf in a meadow and neigh like a stallion.

But your homeland will be overwhelmed with shame and disgrace.

You will become the least of nations – a wilderness, a dry and desolate land.

Because of the Lord’s anger, Babylon will become a deserted wasteland.

All who pass will be horrified and will gasp at the destruction they will see there” (Jeremiah 50:11-15, NLT).


Amos, the shepherd turned prophet from Tekoa in Judah, receives God’s messages for Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Israel. Here’s just one example:


This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Ammon have sinned again and again, and I will not let them go unpunished!

Whey they attacked Gilead to extend their borders, they ripped open pregnant women with their swords.

So I will send down fire on the walls of Rabbah, and all its fortresses will be destroyed.

The battle will come upon them with shouts, like a whirlwind in a mighty storm.

And their king and his princes will go into exile together’” (Amos 1:13-15).


This small kingdom of Ammon occupied the Trans-Jordan plateau (just south of the Syrian Kingdom of Damascus) from about 1800 BCE to 500 CE. Their capital, Rabbah, is now Amman, Jordan. The military campaign mentioned here took place at the same time the Babylonians attacked the Kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The Israelite tribes which had settled east of the Jordan (Gad and Manasseh) in Gilead thus became an easy target for Ammon. But notice that it is not so much their attack to enlarge their territory that God is condemning here but their utter cruelty toward the general population, and pregnant women in particular.

The prophet Jeremiah goes into more detail about their crimes, but singles out their worship of the Canaanite deity Molech, to whom his people sacrificed their children through fire. He also lists their arrogance, announcing that God will “bring terror” upon them. Yet God intends to “restore the fortunes of the Ammonites in days to come” (Jeremiah 49:1-6).

God singles out cities for judgment too. Babylon was both capital city and empire. By contrast, Nineveh repented at the preaching of the prophet Jonah, Yunus in the Qur’an. In fact, a whole sura is named after him (Sura 10) and his story is told in Sura 37:139-148. Sadly, the ancient and impressive mosque that bears his name and housed his tomb (previously an Assyrian church) was destroyed earlier this year by ISIS.

Similarly in the Qur’an we find a recurring pattern according to which God sends a prophet to a particular people to warn them of impending judgment but there were always those who turned away and were met with God’s wrath as a warning to others. This was the case of the Arabian prophets Hud and Salih sent respectively to the people of Ad and Thamud. Others like Noah and Lot were met with total rejection and had to be saved miraculously by God himself. Here is the brief story of Noah, who preaches this message, “My people, serve God: you have no other god other than Him. I fear for you the punishment of a momentous Day!” They answer that he was “far astray,” to which he responds,


“‘My people, there is nothing astray about me! On the contrary, I am a messenger from the Lord of all the Worlds: I am delivering my Lord’s messages to you and giving you sincere advice. I know things from God that you do not. Do you find it so strange that a message should come from your Lord – through a man in your midst – to warn you and make you aware of God so that you may be given mercy?’ But they called him a liar. We saved him, and those that were with him, on the Ark and We drowned those who rejected our revelations – they were willfully blind” (Q. 7:61-64, Abdel Haleem).


So both in the Qur’an and Bible God deals with individuals and nations, calling them to repentance, and then to follow his ways. This part of the Apostle Paul’s message to the philosophers in Athens seems so close to the oft quoted Qur’anic verse, which says that God created people from a single couple and then made them “into races and tribes so that you should know one another” (Q. 49:13):


From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27, NLT).


John Dawson’s Healing of America’s Wounds

Dawson is a missionary from New Zealand who came with his family to work in East Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Then in 1992, just a block from their apartment, an African-American man, Rodney King, was brutally beaten by four police officers. Largely because it was caught on video, five days of looting and burning followed. Fifty people died in the riots and over 2,000 were injured.

This is where John Dawson’s book begins [it is out of print, but you can find used copies on the internet: it was published in 1994 by Regal Books, Ventura, CA].

Dawson’s message, primarily addressed to American evangelicals, is that they should pray with hope and faith for God to heal their land. That’s the easy part of his message, but the second part is a harder pill to swallow: the deep wounds in the American psyche can only be healed by facing our egregious crimes of the past, by repenting and asking forgiveness from the aggrieved parties, the African-American community we enslaved and the indigenous population we decimated and betrayed again and again.

This message deserves to be heeded once again. That healing never took place. In fact, since the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, riots have spread to numerous cities, the Black Lives Matter movement sprung up, and White Supremacists march openly, brandishing Nazi symbols in defiance.

Now back to the Native Americans and their plight … Dawson speaks about a groundswell of engagement with the issue by “prayer networks all over the nation,” with close coordination with Jean Steffenson who heads up the Native American Affairs chapter of Colorado. They were holding “solemn assemblies” in churches as well as on the actual ground where atrocities have taken place. I quote,


“In November 1992, such an assembly was held at Confluence Park, the birthplace of Denver. The event was attended by politicians, pastors and representatives of the Native American peoples of the front range. This was followed in January 1993, by a gathering of Christians of all races at a remote massacre site near the town of Chivington, Colorado. Events took place there in the 1860s that are a major cause of bitterness and rejection of Christianity by increasing numbers of young Native Americans” (137).


Dawson devotes a whole chapter to that massacre, because it kept coming up in his conversations with Native Americans over the years. Yet few anglo Americans have ever heard of it. Though he goes into great detail, quoting from several history books, I’ll close this first part of the two-part blog post with some details I found on the Smithsonian website. The good news here is that several archeological teams accompanied by Native observers discovered the site of this horrendous massacre in 1999. One thing led to another, and in April 2007 the site was dedicated as America’s 391st National Park, the only one with such a tragic name (“Sand Creek Massacre National Park”).

Tony Horwitz, the author of the Smithsonian article, a substantial one, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and he includes not just details of the massacre itself, but also the trail of bloodshed and numerous broken treaties that followed (300 altogether, before and after, writes Dawson). He also details some of the controversies, from 1998 on, that marked the development of this national park.

Here is the short version of what happened. Around November 1864, “about 1,000 Cheyenne and Arapaho lived in tepees here, at the edge of what was then reservation land. Their chiefs had recently sought peace in talks with white officials and believed they would be unmolested at their isolated camp.” Then the unthinkable happened:


“When hundreds of blue-clad cavalrymen suddenly appeared at dawn on November 29, a Cheyenne chief raised the Stars and Stripes above his lodge. Others in the village waved white flags. The troops replied by opening fire with carbines and cannon, killing at least 150 Indians, most of them women, children and the elderly. Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies.”


To add insult to injury, Col. John Chevington who carried out the raid was a towering man with a booming voice. He was also a preacher who had been an active abolitionist. How is this possible? Only God knows, but he carried on the slaughter in many more Native settlements. Part of the answer is that there was a reigning paradigm in American culture, which we know as “Manifest Destiny.” Horwitz puts it thus:


“There were many such atrocities in the American West. But the slaughter at Sand Creek stands out because of the impact it had at the time and the way it has been remembered. Or rather, lost and then rediscovered. Sand Creek was the My Lai of its day, a war crime exposed by soldiers and condemned by the U.S. government. It fueled decades of war on the Great Plains. And yet, over time, the massacre receded from white memory, to the point where even locals were unaware of what had happened in their own backyard.”


Hence his title, “The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More.”


Last thoughts …

The continuing plight of America’s First Nations came into focus for me recently when in nearly Carlisle, PA, the Army exhumed the bodies of three Arapahoe boys forced to assimilate and erase their own culture. Like many others of the 10,000 Native children who were subjected to such horror in other locations, they died within the first two years of their stay. One of the Arapahoe elders, Crawford White Sr., said, “It’s a long time coming. It’s something that had to be done for our tribe, and the healing begins.”

Healing is the operative word in Dawson’s book too. I will start the next half with the historic gathering of indigenous nations from all over North America and several other continents at the edge of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Over 280 Native tribes and many allies, including Black Lives Matter people and various celebrities, came to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The action failed in the end. But that was the first such gathering since the 1973 Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Such unity brought with it hope, and even a palpable dose of healing within the Native community.

My book Earth, Empire and Sacred Text is about forging a theology of creation common to Muslims, Christians and Jews, so as to encourage and sustain mutual cooperation toward a more just and peaceful world. In my research I was struck and saddened by the tragedy of millions and millions of indigenous peoples wiped out by the Western colonial expansion of the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The message of the Qur'an may or may not be behind the breathtaking military expansion of the Arabian tribes in the seventh and eight centuries, but an empire even greater than Rome at its height emerged.

Coming out of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in bringing together the League of Nations. I doubt that he intended for his nation to supplant the British and French colonial empires, but that's what happened after WWII. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, only one superpower remained standing, and it may be for the best that US global power is waning so dramatically under the current administration. Empires may have some benefits for the people and nations under their sway, but the resulting repression and suffering outweigh any of those benefits. At least, that's how I see it.

Here are twenty pages expanding on this idea, but with a laser-like focus on the indigenous people, the so-called Fourth World. In the last part I raise the issue of human rights, not only on an individual basis, but on a collective basis as well. We must, as people of faith who believe that God created the nations and cultures of the world from "one soul" (Q. 49:13), find a way to work together to manage much better than we have up to now our natural enviroment -- God's "good" creation -- and our life together as humankind, a tapestry of many different languages, races and cultures.

I began this two-part blog post with the invasion and subsequent colonization of the small Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE. Yes, Jeremiah along with many other prophets since at least two centuries had warned its rulers that unless Israel repented of its sins, this calamity would surely strike them. At the same time, the short book of Lamentations which he wrote after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its elites also reflected God’s lament in the face of such horrific human violence, cruelty and suffering.

The colonization of Algeria, you might say, was much tamer and humane than that of the Babylonians. After all, they took no one into captivity but only brought their own people to colonize the land. I would hope that if you read the first part of this blog (and taking into account that this all began in 1830), you would think twice about using the word “humane.” Those 132 years of colonization were anything but that, mostly because the vast majority of the population (France’s “Muslim citizens”) had practically no civil rights. Further, the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962) killed nearly a million of them.

Enter Léon-Etienne Duval. Pope John XXIII moved him from his administrative post in the French Alps region and sent him to Algeria, naming him in 1947 bishop of Constantine and Hippo (where St. Augustine’s was bishop in the fourth century). Then in February 1954 he was installed as archbishop in Algiers and overseer of three bishops in the church of French Algeria. Eight months later, the Algerian resistance ignited the war.

In this second half I will light on various passages in the French book of interviews with Duval (pictured in the first half), highlighting two main aspects of the cardinal’s calling in that land: missionary and prophet. I’ll follow that up with some personal recollections.


Cardinal Duval’s missionary calling

This is especially interesting to me not only because in a much humbler position I too served as a pastor in two different expatriate churches in Algiers (1978-1987), but also because I now teach as an adjunct professor in the field of missiology (the study of Christian mission) and Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Remember that it was the pope himself who appointed Duval bishop in French Algeria. In 1950 a special envoy from the Vatican came to spend three weeks there and Duval invited him to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the basilica at Hippone (near the ruins of ancient Hippone near the city of Annaba in eastern Algeria). Regarding this visit, Cardinal Duval recalls one of his words, “My brothers, let us resist the voices of hatred, holding on faithfully to love, peace and gentleness. That is how to build or rebuild” (67).

For Duval, this was an affirmation of his calling to build bridges with other Christian confessions and with Algeria’s majority Muslim population. This papal envoy was none other than Monseigneur Roncalli who would soon become Pope John XXIII. So Duval looked back on his visit as “prophetic” – and especially this particular word: “Remembering the words of the Apostle Saint Paul, I love to contemplate them in the light of Abraham, the great patriarch of all the believers” (67).

He even talked at length with Duval about how he saw the church’s mission in Algeria: “a mission of universal openness, with a great respect for the freedom of persons and populations, a mission of love with humility in a spirit of service.”

A year and a half into the war, Cardinal Duval issued a statement addressed to all Algerians:


“God is with those who desire to build with justice a fraternal Algeria. In the midst of our cruel anguish a great hope remains: the friendship which, despite the storm, persists between true Christians and sincere Muslims” (102).


The journalist had quoted this to him, and he responded by saying he believed that friendship was still evident and bearing fruit. Then this statement: “I can summarize my apostleship [or “mission”] in Algeria in one word: friendship. I believe in the power of friendship.”

Further on in the book the journalist asks the Cardinal about the relative importance of evangelization (“preaching the gospel to save souls”) or social and political action to further the cause of justice. I quote the greater part of his answer here:


“The church must announce the Good News, that is clear. But it announces it to people who live on this earth in concrete situations. To ignore the situation in which people live would be to announce the Good News in an abstract way, divorced from its historical context. Further, there is a close connection between the gospel and the demands of justice. To do away with the latter would be a dangerous proposition and could lead to a betrayal of the Good News. One cannot speak of a God of love while ignoring the injustices that bear down on people” (139).


Then too Christian witness includes dialog with people of other faiths, and in that sense there is a dynamic of mutual witness:


“Seeing Muslims faithfully practicing prayer, fasting and pilgrimage increased the Christians’ motivation to practice their own faith. Conversely, I remember the president of a Muslim association in Annaba telling me, ‘We have no trust in a French administrator who does not go to Mass’” (84).


Finally, what I find remarkable in Cardinal Duval’s view of Christian mission is the role played by the Holy Spirit. The following statement seems to anticipate the revolutionary document he would contribute to in the next decade, Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”) from Vatican II. Duval in his Pentecost 1956 radio address said this:


“The Spirit of God fills the universe. He is sent to all the Church’s sons [and daughters] scattered throughout the earth. He is even sent beyond the walls of the visible church to all people of good will whom he prepares by his grace for salvation and enables to actively participate in the salvation of the world” (104).


Further on, Duval tells of a member of the Army of National Liberation (ALN) , who was betrayed by a compatriot and then brutally tortured by the French. After the war the betrayer became very ill and was hospitalized. The man who had been tortured by him nevertheless came to the hospital every day to keep him company and shave him. “I had to care for him, because no one would come to visit him.” The cardinal concludes:


“How could the Church possibly survive in Algeria unless the Holy Spirit sustain it by working outside of its visible borders? There is outside of the Church a movement which converges with what God’s Spirit is accomplishing within the Church” (168).


Cardinal Duval’s prophetic calling

I use “prophetic” here by associating it to the role and calling of the Old Testament prophets, including Jeremiah. They received God’s words for the people and transmitted those messages to them. Often those words were for rulers, in which case “they spoke truth to power,” as the adage goes. Allow me highlight just a few examples.


    • Just two months into the war (Jan. 1955) Cardinal Duval issued a public declaration condemning all forms of torture.
    • The next year, in a letter addressed to all the clergy, he spoke of the Algerian people’s right to determine their own future.
    • At independence, within the framework of the Evian Accords, Cardinal Duval took on Algerian nationality. Over a hundred priests and nuns followed his example.
    • When the agenda for the 1971 world synod of the Catholic Church was focused only on the role of the priesthood in the Church, Cardinal Duval insisted it also deal with justice in the world.
    • For Christmas 1979 Cardinal Duval was accompanied by Algeria’s Foreign Minister to Tehran in order to celebrate Mass with the American hostages. The Algerian government was hoping he could negotiate for their release with the Islamic students holding them.


In fact, he never stopped calling attention to the disparities between the French citizens and the Muslim natives of the land. He also called for French farmers and business owners to treat their Muslim employees kindly and fairly. This earned him a derogatory title from many in France – “Muhammad Duval”! He had this to say about that:


“I was not surprised that people called me ‘Muhammad.’ They were actually rendering me a great service. Many Muslims warmly congratulated me. They knew that I remained Catholic, but they were happy to see that the Church was not a ghetto. They understood that it was an open community. It was open, because of its love for all people; open too, because of its concern to promote justice, dialog, mutual understanding, and to work for the common good of all humanity” (146).


My own connection to Cardinal Duval

During my nine years in Algeria, as a pastor I benefited directly from the cardinal’s Christian leadership in that nation. Thanks to him, we had regular meetings between Protestants and Catholics leaders. Usually present would be himself and one of his assistants, along with Gerald Brittenden, the priest of the Anglican Church (where I served for four years) and Bible Society director; Pastor Hugh Johnson, the senior pastor for the Protestant Church of Algeria (where I served for five years); and Gilbert Carayon, pastor of the small Seventh-Day Adventist Church. There was wonderful collegiality and friendship among us, and out of those meetings was birthed the establishment of the Bible Society’s shop in Algiers, the only one in all of North Africa.

Thanks also to the cardinal, Hugh Johnson and I would precede the radio broadcast of the Mass in Algiers’ cathedral by quickly switching places with the two radio journalists who had just given the 7am news bulletin. This was “Alger Chaine 3,” the national radio station in French, which was the most popular one by far. Four times a year we did this – Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and Pentecost. I must have preached at least six times over the years. It was a bit surreal to speak live into a microphone, knowing that a minimum of two or three million Algerians were listening to me. But it was Duval who had paved the way, especially during the war years. He recalled this:


“I knew that people in the mountains listened to my messages on the radio. A Muslim man who lived in a region far away from Algiers once said, ‘We always listen to the pope on the radio, because he always defends justice.’ I am happy in this regard to be associated with the pope!”


Then finally, on a more personal note, God used the cardinal to lead me to my wife. Years before, my mother had responded to the request of a French teacher in a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia and found a French family near them in Lyon to receive her student named Charlotte for a year. Some twelve years later, this student, now a nurse, ran into my father during one of his visits to the US. After hearing from her that she felt called to serve abroad as a missionary, my father suggested Algeria. Charlotte came for a visit and my boss, Hugh Johnson, invited her to come and work in our parish, mostly to visit some of the elderly shut-ins.

I was 33 and single, though for a long time I had been in a long distance relationship with an Algerian woman. We had spoken about marriage, but the obstacles were many. Charlotte and I worked closely together that year and at one point she confided about being in love with me. I thanked her for being so brave and open about it, but added that I could not reciprocate. “Let’s just remain friends.” A medical student in our church from Zaïre (at the time) had an amazing gift of prophecy, often with visions “in Technicolor,” as he put it. I had many opportunities to see that this was clearly a gift from God. At one point he told me I would marry Charlotte. Still, I was not convinced.

Then on April 15th, 1986, the Reagan Administration bombed Gaddafi’s residence in Tripoli. A few days later Charlotte, who had just come back from three months in France because her residence papers had not gone through, had just stepped into the immigration office in Algiers to apply again for a residence permit. This time she was insulted, yelled at, and kicked out. “Americans, out of Algeria!”

Hugh Johnson mentioned this to the Cardinal Duval, who answered, “We too have had difficulties with this office. There are a few fundamentalist hotheads who are blocking out people too.” So he went to see his friend who happened to be in charge of national security and a week later Charlotte received her final residence card, a process that in the best conditions would take three or four months.

I clearly saw God’s hand in this and I said to God, “OK, I’m open. Show me the way.” In the next few days my feelings for her flipped dramatically and we were married that fall. Cardinal Duval, the new archbishop Henri Teissier, and a few priests and nuns joined our very international congregation for the wedding ceremony. We are still very happily married today thirty years later!


A life poured out for Jesus and Algeria

I end with a story and a quote. Cardinal Duval lived another ten years in Algiers, but he likely would have lived longer had it not been for the tragedy that weighed so heavily on him. Algeria collapsed into civil war in 1992 when the islamist party (FIS) was poised to win the second round of parliamentary elections and the army stepped in. It was a brutal war with bomb attacks almost daily in Algiers and numerous assassinations of politicians, secular intellectuals, foreigners and especially priests and nuns. I remember Hugh Johnson telling me, “After going to the fiftieth funeral for one of my friends, I stopped counting.”

Already in the 1950s during the war, Rome had urged Duval to shut down the Cistercian monastery in the mountains near Medea. He said no. “This is a witness that needs to remain,” he insisted. Forty years later, an extreme offshoot of the GIA (Islamic Armed Group) was hiding in the Medea area committing numerous atrocities. One of the monks was a physician and he had long taken care of the medical needs of the surrounding villages free of charge. Add to that the wonderful dialog the monks had carried on with some local Sufi Muslims (the mystical side of Islam), and you can imagine how beloved those monks were among the local population. At this point they urged the monks to leave. “These fighters will come after you,” they warned.

The film “Of Gods and Men” in 2010 recounts that brewing drama over several months in gripping and beautiful fashion. It took France by storm and won Best Film at the Cannes Festival that year. I want to believe God used it to bring some healing to the French who suffered most from the Algerian war. It certainly was a tribute to the sacrificial faith of the monks, and indirectly, a tribute to their cardinal’s faith.

The seven monks were indeed kidnapped and after disappearing for about two months, the GIA reported that they had been executed on May 21st, 1996. Their heads were discovered ten days later, but their bodies were never recovered. This ordeal must have been too much for Cardinal Duval to bear. As it turned out, his funeral Mass was celebrated in his beloved Basilica of Our Lady of Africa in Algiers and the Mass also celebrated the lives and sacrifice of the seven monks.

Léon-Etienne Duval’s life was “poured out for Algeria,” as you see in my title. But that is because it was first poured out for Jesus. I end with the last paragraph of Le Cardinal Duval: ‘Evêque en Algérie’:


“It is in Jesus Christ that I feel bound, not only to the Christians of my diocese, but to those of the whole world and of all ages; yet not only to Christians, but also to Muslims, Jews, and even to those who call themselves atheists. All the marvels of creation are for me messengers of one of Jesus Christ’s thoughts, for all was created in Him, for Him and by Him. He fills the entire universe. He is present everywhere in history. Even more so than in creation, I search for Him and at times I find Him in the movements of true love, which His Spirit brings forth in the hearts of the humble, the poor, and the suffering members of the human family. All authentic love, all love that is disinterested and directed to all is a manifestation of Jesus Christ.”

From one angle, human history is an unbroken chain of strong nations invading, abusing and controlling weaker nations. With time they lose their grip, weaken and fall prey to other rising powers; and the cycle goes on.

Empires rise and fall, and as young male lions compete, sometimes to the death, for the honor of leading a “pride” of mostly females, so ascending nations vie for a greater share of economic, strategic and political power at the expense of surrounding nations. Today this process is unfolding before our eyes in ominous ways.

The prophet Jeremiah had the most challenging and tragic calling of all the Hebrew prophets. He spent his whole life transmitting God’s message of judgment to the remaining southern tribes of Israel (Judah and Benjamin), after the northern kingdom had been carried away into exile by the Assyrians two centuries before – yet all in vain it would seem.

Because of the violent oppression of the poor by the rich and because of their idolatrous ways, God’s wrath, as Jeremiah and others had predicted, swept over Judah in the form of a Babylonian invasion in 586 BCE. Jerusalem and its temple were razed, most people were slaughtered, while the elites were taken into captivity and a few hundred common people were allowed to stay under a governor chosen by Babylon. Jeremiah stayed too, now an old man, but soon the governor revolted and had to flee to Egypt, where Jeremiah soon died.

We now have a whole, separate book by Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem, five chapters long, entitled “Lamentations.” But I believe God laments every single act of conquest and dispossession. Here are a few excerpts to give you an idea:


Judah has been led into captivity,

oppressed with cruel slavery.

She lives among foreign nations

and has no place to rest.

Her enemies have chased her down,

and she has nowhere to turn.

The roads to Jerusalem are in mourning,

for crowds no longer come to celebrate the festivals.

The city gates are silent,

her priests groan,

her young women are crying –

how bitter is her fate!

Her oppressors have become her master,

and her enemies prosper,

for the Lord has punished Jerusalem for her many sins.

Her children have been captured

and taken to distant lands. (Lamentations 1:3-5)


Algeria, French colonialism, and the Church

As I convalesce from a total hip replacement last week, I’ve had more time to think, pray, and read outside my usual box. For some reason, Algeria has been on my mind. I did live there between 1978 and 1987, but also I’ve been meaning for a while to read the above book and write a couple of blogs on it. After all, I knew the Cardinal personally and many of the priests who worked under him. What is more, he came to our wedding in Algiers! Yet more significantly, he was the single most influential Christian leader in Algeria in the 20th century and his legacy has much to do with the values of this website.

Then our son just finished writing his Masters’ thesis in history at the University of California at Santa Cruz and I read it this week. It was about a French colonial education administrator in Tunisia. He did a great job untangling some of the complexities of colonial rule using some recent racial theory. He also passed on another goldmine of a book: Darcie Fontaine’s Decolonizing Christianity: Religion at the End of Empire in France and Algeria (Cambridge UP, 2016).

Finally, this afternoon I watched a French film by David Oelhoffens (starring Viggo Mortensen who speaks both excellent French and Algerian Arabic!), Far from Men, which won three awards at the 2014 Venice Film Festival. It was set in the beginning of the Algerian war (1954) and is loosely based on Albert Camus’ short story, “The Host.” It was an excellent portrayal of the dilemmas of war and human friendship across cultural and religious boundaries.

But none of this makes sense without at least a bare-bone knowledge of the history of French colonialism in Algeria. The story begins in 1830 when the French invaded Algeria under the pretext of destroying the Barbary pirates who over decades had enslaved thousands of Europeans (and some Americans along the way, see my blog on this) and their nominal overlords, the Ottomans. Because this campaign started under the weak ruler Charles X, it was couched in lofty religious language, “crusading” even.

Yet within the interior of the country, the Algerians offered fierce resistance, which the French in turn stamped out with resolve and cruelty over two decades. French settlers were immediately brought in, who were followed in time by Spaniards, Italians, and Maltese. Much of the northern lands were quite fertile and the settlers took over the best parts. Then in 1848, under the Second Empire, France annexed the three northern provinces. But even if this wealthiest part of the land was now “France,” Algerian Muslims could not be French citizens and therefore had no political rights. It was apartheid on steroids, as I like to put it.

So by the 1940s, at least six generations later, you had over 800,000 colonists and about ten million Algerian Muslims. It was not hard to predict that the situation would explode, especially after World War II when so many other colonial nations were achieving their independence. Keep in mind too the brutality with which the French stamped out the Algerian uprising and the continual warfare that the Algerian nationalists managed to keep up between 1954 and 1962.

Yes, torture and atrocities were committed by both sides, but if you take into account the huge discrepancy between war casualties (somewhere between 30,000 French deaths and 700,000 Algerian deaths), you see that the ragtag Algerian fighters were no match for a world class army arrayed against them. There is no doubt that the French committed war crimes, most notably when they wiped out whole villages in acts of reprisal. In the end, that is what created the most international pressure for them to come to the negotiating table. And though the colonial terrorist organization (the OAS) killed many Algerians as well as fellow Frenchmen both in France and Algeria, victims of Algerian infighting numbered in the tens of thousands and post-war revenge killings likely surpassed 100,000.

This was not the Babylonians sweeping into sixth-century BCE Judah as in the beginning of this blog, but it certainly follows the same pattern. Then the civil war of the 1990s produced another 200,000 victims, most of which were civilians. There is so much to lament in this one nation’s history.

So how did Christian leaders react to all of this? Were they simply churning out religious rhetoric in support of the colonial rulers’ policies and the colonial ideology of the French state? Or did they voice any opposition to it in the name of the gospel?

There was certainly plenty of the former, though not in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church (Protestants were very few in Algeria). Many of the colonists held on to a very conservative Catholic ideology and were primarily motivated by a “defense of Christian civilization.” But there were plenty of “progressive” voices too at all levels in the latter category, as Darcie Fontaine amply documents in her first chapter. Then in 1947 the pope sent Léon-Etienne Duval from the Haute-Savoie region of France (the Alps south of Geneva, Switzerland) as the new bishop of Constantine and Hippo (St. Augustine’s original bishopric). In Fontaine’s words,


[Duval] “became the symbol of the Catholic Church during the Algerian War. His mythic status derived from his public statements against the use of torture and other forms of what he called “injustice”; his vocal and tangible support of peace and reconciliation among the Algerian population, especially across religious lines; and his eventual words and actions at Algerian independence” (62).


Cardinal Duval’s convictions before Algeria

The book photographed above came out in 1984. My copy was a gift from a priest in his administration. A couple of years before, a well-known French journalist, Marie-Christine Ray, interviewed Cardinal Duval over several months and the book reports those conversations. Le Centurion is one of France’s oldest and most popular publishers and I’m guessing it sold over a million copies, only because the Algerian War remains a gaping wound in the French psyche. The Vietnam War was traumatic for Americans on many levels, but it was in a land far away. In France’s case, close to a million “pieds noirs” returned to France fearing for their safety after independence. France has yet to heal from this trauma and process it in a healthy way.

I have to interject a personal note here. I grew up in the Paris suburbs and remember as a child being fascinated and troubled by gory pictures of bombings in France or Algeria in the popular weekly magazine Paris Match which came to our home. In France alone several thousand people were killed in terror attacks during this period either by the FLN or the OAS. Still in elementary school I would read a good part of those articles. Little did I know I would be living there nine years.

Now back to the Cardinal. From a young age Léon Etienne Duval knew God was calling him into the priesthood. At eighteen his bishop in Annecy sent him to do theological studies in Rome, where he came out with a specialty in philosophy. After briefly serving as parish priest he taught from 1930 to 1938 in the Catholic seminary at Annecy. Then he was named as the bishop’s top administrator as the war seemed imminent. This put him in touch with lots of Catholic social activists who by 1940 were organizing discussion groups about how to push back against the Vichy government, resist German forced labor, and manage the hiding and care of Jewish children pouring in from Germany and Switzerland. Then Duval reflects on how crucial this emphasis of mobilizing lay people for this work turned out to be:


“By inviting the laity to deepen their faith and review their lives in the light of the gospel, chaplains and lay leaders were admirably preparing them to exercise their own responsibility and to act ‘politically,’ in the best sense of this word, that is, in the service of the community’s common good. The events that followed largely bore this out. I often came to realize that to erect a wall between the political and the religious spheres is just as harmful for politics as it is for the Church. I fondly and vividly remember this time spent with those activists. I saw the Holy Spirit moving in the conscience of most members of that diocese” (38).


His bishop had clearly led the way by visibly supporting the Resistance and making sure no Catholic would be tempted by the ideology of Nazi Germany. This applied to the Vichy government as well. Duval himself states how he quickly he came to realize how nefarious their policies were. He knew people who joined the Resistance and those who chose not to. But his concern was “to lead Christians to rise above partisan views and to take a stand for justice and solidarity between all French people” (39).

It is not surprising, then, that before the pope sent him to Algeria as bishop he had already come to his own conclusion with regard to the French colonial project in Algeria. Here’s how he puts it:


“I recall that one day at the seminary where I was teaching we were having a conversation as colleagues and I had come to the conclusion that the Second World War had shaken the nations so deeply that it must mark the end of the colonial empires. By what means and in what form this change would take place, I was far from guessing. But I thought it inevitable.”


I will begin the second half of this blog with the Cardinal’s role during the war.

Founded by Rick Love around 2010, this is the organization with which I work most closely. They have grown very rapidly and have now hired a consultant to enable them to take their operations to the next level. They are have ongoing projects in at least nine US metropolitan areas and continue to expand their partnering with local and national Muslim organizations.

I recently did a webinar for them, and we collaborate in other ways as well. I feel very privileged to be so closely associated with them. We are very much "on the same page."


This is a recent venture (started in 2014) with a great deal of promise. Grayson Robertson is the founder and executive director, and Dina Malki, who together with him completed Masters degrees at the Hartford Seminary, have put together some interesting projects. Another sign that this project is going to bear fruit is that they have Joseph Montville on their board of advisors. Montville is an experienced US diplomat, a highly respected academic, and the director of the Abrahamic Family Reunion. Perhaps another indication of potential reach is that Robertson is located in Washington, DC.


In a sequence now all too familiar in Europe, a truck careened down a busy shopping street in Stockholm last Friday afternoon killing four people and seriously injuring nine others before going up in flames as it rammed into a department store. The driver, as was later discovered, was a 39-year-old Uzbek, a Muslim likely radicalized through ISIS propaganda.

An article in The Guardian carries a likely title, “Swedish truck attack: shock gives way to fear of open society.” Sweden and Germany, after all, are the two nations that by far have welcomed the most migrants and asylum seekers since the 2011 “Arab Spring.” Last year alone, Sweden resettled 130,000 more refugees. Understandably, “compassion fatigue” has set in, as the Economist puts it. In addition, right wing parties are leveraging these rising fears of terrorism to attract people to their populist cause.


Please take a deep breath

I named the last part of my library lecture on the risk of terrorism “Why take a deep breath.” As I said in the the first half of this blog, the fear of Islamic related terrorism is greatly overblown. I mentioned Harvard’s Steven M. Walt’s Foreign Policy article, “Five ways Donald Trump is wrong about Islam.” In particular he writes,

“… based on the evidence since 9/11 (and including that attack), the likelihood an American will be killed by a terrorist is less than 1 in 3 million per year, and the lifetime risk is about 1 in 45,000.”

The incredible discrepancy between the fear level of the average American and the actual risk of becoming a victim of terrorism (which is practically nil) is in itself a telling sign of the terrorists’ success. They do succeed in terrorizing! And ironically, this is in a country plagued with by far the highest rate of gun violence among Western nations (there are at least 10,000 gun-related homicides in the US every year).

Those facts led two terrorism experts, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, to write a book together: Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2016). Jack Anderson on the Homeland Security Community website reviewed the book. The authors, he noted, remind the reader …


“that according to the START Global Terrorism Database, all Islamic extremism, globally, claims some 200-300 lives per year, roughly equivalent to bathtub drownings in the U.S. Bathtub drownings do not take up such a significant portion of the U.S. discretionary budget, and Mueller and Stewart consider this imbalance to be a deeply irrational use of public money, betraying public trust by chasing inconceivable and unlikely contingencies.”


In the first half I also mentioned leading terrorism expert, Jessica Stern. This is from her piece on Boston University’s website in September 2016, “Is the war on terrorism really winnable?”:


“The United States is generally far less prone to terrorism than is Europe, and even less prone to terrorism than the rest of the world. This is true even with respect to attacks inspired by ISIS. On average, terrorism kills about as many Americans per year as lightning strikes do. (Several organizations collect data on terrorism, and figures differ, but only slightly for terrorism inside the United States.)”


Right-wing terrorism is a greater threat

These figures on terrorism include attacks by right wing movements, which from 2002 until the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting killed more Americans than Muslim terrorists did (48 compared with 45). Newsweek ran a cover article in February 2016 entitled, “Right-wing extremists are a bigger threat to America than ISIS.” This is certainly the belief of most law enforcement agencies in this country, it notes. But notice the political incitement that feeds these hundreds of groups bent on hatred and violence:


“These Americans thrive on hate and conspiracy theories, many fed to them by politicians and commentators who blithely blather about government concentration camps and impending martial law and plans to seize guns and other dystopian gibberish, apparently unaware there are people listening who don’t know it’s all lies. These extremists turn to violence—against minorities, non-Christians, abortion providers, government officials—in what they believe is a fight to save America. And that potential for violence is escalating every day.”


This is why the Trump administration’s sole focus on Islamic-related terrorism is so out of line with reality. This is the message that three authors in a joint article published in Foreign Policy wanted to convey: “The Trump administration’s focus on fighting ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ could not only hamper counterterrorism efforts, but it could even embolden right-wing and anti-government extremists, experts and former government officials say.”

Part of the problem is that if these policies are actually implemented in the Department of Homeland security (DHS), they would seriously jeopardize the ongoing collaboration between the DHS and the Muslim community to counter radicalization. Further, it would reinforce the dangerous perception that the US is at war with Islam. Of course, that’s precisely the message that ISIS, al-Qaeda and their ilk are using to recruit more foot soldiers.

The other problem is that they are underestimating the threat of right-wing extremism. Another article cites figures from the Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) funded by the DHS and the Justice Department. If you discount both the Oklahoma bombing and the 9/11 attacks, between 1990 and 2017 far-right violence killed 272 Americans, while Muslim terrorists killed 136. Between 2015 and 2017, Muslim extremists staged five homicide events killing 74 people, while right-wing extremists staged eight such events and killed 27. If you exclude the Pulse nightclub attack (49 dead), then the number on the islamist side is 25.

That is the general pattern: “far-right extremists tend to be more active in committing homicides, yet Islamist extremists tend to be more deadly.” But terrorist experts, as mentioned above, are predicting an uptick of non-Muslim terror in the US. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups.” Have a look at their recent “Hate Map” and you will notice a 197% rise in anti-Muslim hate groups since 2015. Part of that can be attributed to the emboldening of white supremacy groups during and after the electoral campaign.


What you and I can do

I have to end on a better note. You took a deep breath and now you’re stressed once again!

First, the overall threat of terrorism in the US is very marginal. Whether it’s inspired by islamists or right-wing militants, remember, you are more likely to drown in your bathtub than be killed by one of them.

Second, I don’t want to convey the impression that because Islamic-related terrorism marginally affects us in the US we have a license to remain unconcerned about it. Especially if you add the sectarian violence in the Middle East and South Asia, general political instability, and the participation of jihadi organizations in the Syrian civil war, the number of victims climbs astronomically. Then too, just this morning (Palm Sunday) ISIS militants bombed two Egyptian churches killing well over forty people. Last December in a Cairo church they killed 29. This is an ideology of hatred, and though the victims of ISIS have been mostly Muslims, they have clearly targeted other minorities, and in Iraq above all Yazidis. This should move us to prayer, advocacy, and certainly a large dose of compassion!

Third, I believe that with all this information in hand there is much you and I can do to allay people’s fears about Islamic-inspired terrorism. More than that, I believe we have a God-given responsibility to build bridges, first between Muslims and Christians in order to foster greater understanding and empathy within our communities; and second as non-Muslim Americans or Europeans to stand with our Muslim friends, who more than any other group these days live in fear (to better understand why, look at this SPLC page).

Many groups in the US have come together to stand with Muslims in fighting Islamophobia. Some are interfaith groups, like Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, or the Abrahamic Alliance; some are Jewish, like Jewish Voice for Peace; some are Catholic, like the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University; some are evangelicals like my friend Rick Love and his Peace Catalyst International.

Finally, you can lobby for the US to welcome many more refugees than it has in the past. They are the first victims of our irrational fears. Polls show that 76% of white evangelicals approve of President Trump's "Muslim ban." Other white Protestants are around 50 percent, whereas 84% of black Protestants, 62% of Catholics, and 74% of the religious "nones" disapprove of it. We have lots of work to do!

I write this as a Christian at the beginning of Holy Week. “God is love,” repeats the Apostle John in his first New Testament letter. He then adds, “perfect love expels all fear” (I John 4:18, NLT). As those who follow the one who sacrificed his life for all on Good Friday, Christians should be the first to cast off fear and love their enemies as their Lord did.

Keep in mind that the Coptic Orthodox, who suffered these brutal Palm Sunday attacks, said prayers not only for the victims and their families but for the perpetrators too. Their souls are in grave danger, they said.

Sadly, most Christians attend churches where Islamophobia is, if not rampant, at least tolerated.

This you and I, from any angle and in whatever measure, can help to change.


Addendum (Nov. 2018): a comprehensive study was just completed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on terrorism. There are nearly four times as many Sunni salafi-jihadis operating now than did in 2001. Counting all al-Qaeda and ISIS-related fighters and potential fighters, and including all other independent groups on various agencies cooperating around the world, there might be as many as 230,000 in 70 different countries. So the threat is real. But this NYTimes article on the study shows that miltary counter-offensive is only a very small part of combatting this ideology which has metasthetized over the last couple of decades. In its conclusion it says that the following objectives are the most important: “Perhaps the most important component of Western policy should be helping regimes that are facing terrorism improve governance and deal more effectively with economic, sectarian and other grievances.” Finally, a long article in Politico by a top-level Justice Department official under Obama traces the fascinating story of how they were able to disable (at least the first wave of) the virulent combination of jihadism and cyber warfare in the person of Junaid Hussain, a Pakistani British youth who managed to mount a huge campaign of recruitment of youths in the US and elsewhere.

It’s no secret that stoking the fear of “Islamic terrorism” was one element of candidate Trump’s successful campaign and the prime motivation behind his attempt (so far unsuccessful) to ban travel to the US from six Muslim nations.

That fear is real. In the 2016 Survey of American Fears, Chapman University found that people’s top fear was “government corruption” (60.6%). Next came a terrorist attack on the nation (41%); then “not enough money” (39.9%); then “victim of terrorism” (38.5%).

Spoiler alert: leading US terrorism expert Jessica Stern (Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University) estimates that your chances of being killed by a Muslim terrorist are about the same as being killed by lightning. Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt wrote in January 2017 that your chances of being killed by a terrorist in one year are one in three million. By comparison, your chances of dying of cancer this year are one in 600.

Naturally, there is a lot more to say about this topic. But at least you can breathe a sigh of relief before you read on :-).

This blog post is the result of my local library doing a series of talks entitled “Making Sense of Current Events.” I was privileged to kick off the series with this topic and it was well attended. This then is a shortened version of what I presented via Powerpoint.


A/ Islamic-related terrorism will continue

Since 2015 there has been a string of attacks in the West:

  • Charlie Hebdo, Jan. 2015, 17 killed
  • Paris attacks, Nov. 2015, 137
  • San Bernardino attack, Dec. 2015, 14
  • Brussels attacks, March 2016, 34
  • Orlando night club shooting, June 2016, 49
  • Nice truck attack, July 2016, 84
  • Berlin Christmas market attack, Dec. 2016, 12
  • London car & knife attack, March 22, 5

But this shouldn’t keep us from seeing the big picture: since the 9/11/2001 attacks the vast majority of victims have been Muslims themselves (easily 9 out of 10), with the following breakdown:

  • 75% in 25 Muslim-majority nations (126,016)
  • 2.2% in US & Western Europe (3, 689)
  • 22.4% in rest of the world (37, 516)
  • Total: 167, 221 dead

Also, it helps to gain some historical perspective. Post-WWII there have been three waves of terrorism:


a) 1960s & 1970s: the epicenter was in Europe and less in US (wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland); during that period 5,000 people died from terror attacks in France, and around 3,000 in Ireland/UK

b) 1980s: a shift to Latin America w/ insurgencies in Peru, El Salvador and Columbia

c) 1990s till now: Muslim-majority nations of the MENA region and South Asia; it all started in the 1980s with the Afghan mujhadeen's successful guerilla warfare against the USSR in part thanks to US money and arms


Furthermore, according to Massod Farivar, writing for the Voice of America, the distribution of terror attacks shows that it is much more about political instability than about religion. The authors of the 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report indicate that “less than 0.6 per cent of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries without any ongoing conflict and any form of political terror.” Consider too that whereas over 50,000 died from terrorism in Iraq since 2001, only six died in Malaysia.

Right now from Iraq to Pakistan it’s mostly a sectarian war. Sunnis are killing Shiites and one of the driving forces in the region is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being played out in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. But locally, it’s also about political power. Farivar quotes Columbia University’s ME historian Richard Bulliet:


At its core, the violence is part of a broader struggle over power in predominantly Sunni societies where questions over political and religious authority as well as the relationship between religion and modernity linger unsettled decades after European colonial rule and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With Sunnism collapsing as a unifying state institution, Islamists have turned to religion to combat authoritarian regimes…. Sunni Islam… is falling apart drastically, and I think this is the source of a great deal of the violence. Ultimately, that’s the problem: If you have an entrenched state, can you get rid of it without violence? If you don’t believe that’s a possibility, then violence becomes the alternative option.”


At the same time, al-Qaeda and ISIS (after its territory is gone) will go on targeting the US, according to the December 2016 report, “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, al-Qaeda and Beyond.” Published by the US Institute of Peace, this was a work of collaboration among twenty top academics and specialists in this field. They begin with this general statement:


“The United States alone has spent trillions of dollars—in military campaigns, intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, and diplomacy—to counter jihadism. Progress has been made; fewer than a hundred people were killed inside the United States between 2001 and late 2016—in stark contrast to the death toll on 9/11. Yet the threat endures.”


Regarding ISIS, the report states that even with the loss of its actual caliphate, it will still retain some appeal. It likely will “endure for years to come as a pure insurgency using terrorist tactics. It revolutionized mobilization of supporters and sympathizers in the West, a lasting legacy as well as a future threat.”

More ominously, al-Qaeda retains its particular brand and has expanded as a network of affiliated organizations in North Africa, the ME, West Africa, South Asia and the Caucasus. Additionally, it is well entrenched in Yemen. The report adds, “Al-Qaeda has played the long game, and it may prove to be a more enduring model than the Islamic State.”

Do not think that the rivalry between the two organizations will undermine the jihadi cause in the world. Though it’s possible they will skirmish here and there, it’s more likely that they will divide up the task, if only by default:


“The two movements have complementary effects on the global jihadi Salafist network, however. They are both exploiting disenfranchised or disillusioned Sunni youth in the Middle East and abroad. They are both undermining the existing state system and contributing to expanding wars in the region. They are both normalizing the belief that violent jihad is necessary in order to defend the Sunni community globally.”


[If you are unsure about what the Salafi movement represents, read this blog of mine, “The Global Salafi Phenomenon.” It is mostly an apolitical movement which does not engage in violence and which is distinct, yet ideologically very similar to Saudi Wahhabism. Yet as the attacks of 9/11 showed, the leap from peaceful Salafism to Salafi-jihadism is not a great one. Fifteen of the nineteen attackers were Saudi.]

Here are some bullet points I will give you from their section on how to defeat jihadism:


1) It’s a complex phenomenon shaped by “a confluence of trends”: “ideological, geostrategic, sectarian, demographic, economic, and social”

2) “Military means can disrupt, but they can’t permanently dismantle or reverse a trend initially spawned by deep political discontent.”

3) International cooperation and local partnerships are needed, but often require compromises (think of working with a quasi-dictatorship in Egypt)

4) “Marginalizing extremism requires creating a political environment in which jihadism has less and less appeal over time.” Some form of democracy support is crucial.

5) Jihadist movements do everything to entrap foreign powers fighting a futile battle on their own turf. Don’t take the bait! The greater the violence the greater their ability to recruit!

6) Much of the strategy will have to work on reconciling the sectarian divide. But I add: what do you do with the Iran/Saudi grand game in the ME?

7) Pay attention to the human factors: spend money on aid with a long-term strategy, like attending to social dislocation and internally displaced persons in war zones (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen).

8) Be aware of ISIS’ propaganda at home. If Muslim youth feel battered by discriminatory policies and prejudice, they may be more vulnerable to this propaganda.


In their conclusion (“Future Jihads”) we read:


“The pace of change in the Middle East is unprecedented. So is the range of possible future jihadi threats. No single analytical framework or model suffices to predict the future. Anticipating the next conflict zone—and particularly the next phase of jihadi extremism—is difficult. Extremist organizations quickly morph and adapt tactics—often faster than large bureaucracies and major armies. The reality is that jihadis may always be one step ahead.”


B/ The risk of CBRN terrorism

There is a wealth of writings on terrorism, from books to hundreds of articles in specialized journals. I wanted to give you at least a taste of a 2011 article written by Gregory D. Koblentz (George Mason U.), “Predicting Peril or the Peril of Prediction?”, published in Terrorism and Political Violence 23 (pp. 501-520).

CBRN stands for “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear” weapons. Concern for the proliferation of these weapons blasted to the top of national security priorities in 1995 after three incidents occurred in close proximity:


1) The Aum Shinrikyo cult used the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway (11 killed, 1,000s injured)

2) Oklahoma bombing (3 weeks later), 168 killed

3) A white supremacist arrested for fraudulently ordering samples of Yersinia pestis (the bacteria that causes the plague) through the mail


Next, Koblentz uses the Department of Defense definition of terrorism, “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

How is "risk" defined when it comes to CBRN terrorism? Koblentz says risk is the convergence of three factors:


“In the study of terrorism, risk is commonly conceived of as the function of the threat posed by a terrorist group, a chosen target’s vulnerability to attack, and the consequences of a successful attack on the target.”


Among specialists, you find roughly three camps, he says. The “optimists” emphasize the low probability of this kind of attack occurring. The “pessimists” aver that the risk is low, but growing in terms of its probability and the grievous nature of its consequences. Finally, the pragmatists refrain from making any kind of judgment and simply follow the evidence one way or the other.

Most of the article is about evaluating the role of human judgment, “the influence of mental shortcuts (called heuristics) and the systemic errors they create (called biases) on the risk assessment process.” But you ask, “why can’t you just follow the evidence? Don’t facts speak for themselves?” Actually they do not, at least not very clearly. Look at the following examples based on mathematical models:


a) Matthew Bunn asserts that there’s a 3% risk of CBRN terrorism per year

b) John Mueller concludes that it’s one in a million!


Plainly, Koblentz opines, “Different experts using the same model can come up with radically different estimates of the threat. Despite the use of mathematical formula and statistical analyses, these types of quantitative risk assessments remain reliant on the judgment of experts. As a result, they remain susceptible to the biases discussed above.”

But these wildly different conclusions greatly impact the real world. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, the US spent $60 billion on building defenses against biological terrorism. Many critics noted that this expenditure took funds away from the necessary research on immediate health threats. Then too, it’s a matter of priorities. In 2009 Homeland Security spent $9 billion on CBRN terror, but only $1.3 to counter IEDs. With hindsight of course, that wasn’t so wise.

Admittedly, terrorism studies are a work in progress. In another 2011 article, this time for the University of Virginia Law School, John Monahan evaluates the state of research on radicalization (is there a profile for people who radicalize? “The Individual Risk Assessment of Terrorism”). As it turns out, acts of “common violence” are quite different from acts of terrorism. The four characteristics generally accepted (in some combination) as predictors of common violence (“criminal history, an irresponsible lifestyle, psychopathy and criminal attitudes, and substance abuse”) generally do not apply to terrorists. Monahan continues,


“In addition, there is little empirical evidence supporting the validity of other putative risk factors for terrorism beyond what is already obvious (i.e., age, gender, and perhaps marital status). Indeed, the strongest empirical findings are entirely negative: terrorists in general tend not to be impoverished or mentally ill or substance abusers or psychopaths or otherwise criminal; suicidal terrorists tend not to be clinically suicidal. In no society studied to date have personality traits been found to distinguish those who engage in terrorism from those who refrain from it.”


Monahan concludes that further research must focus on identifying “robust individual risk factors.” In his opinion, there are four promising ones: ideology, affiliations, moral emotions, and grievances. But ideology by itself says virtually nothing about a person. He quotes the authors of another study:

“Polls in Muslim countries indicate that millions sympathize with jihadist goals or justify terrorist attacks. But Muslim terrorists number only in the thousands. The challenge is to explain how only one in a thousand with radical beliefs is involved in radical action.”


Between 2014-2015 there may have been up to 80,000 jihadis worldwide. But the fight against ISIS since then has killed over 60,000 ISIS fighters. And this is not counting the relative drying up of recruits due to their crushing defeat. So yes, “Muslim terrorists number only in the thousands.”

Herein ends the first part of this blog. I begin the second half of this blog on the threat of Islamic terrorism with the advice, “take a deep breath!” Just as I began here with the “spoiler alert,” the chances of you and I being victims of terrorism are very minute indeed.

When President Donald Trump announced his first refugee ban, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz fired back that his company would hire 10,000 refugees. In turn, this ignited a social media firestorm from conservatives vowing to boycott the brand. Though Starbucks disputes this will have any effect on its bottom line, it does underscore in graphic terms what we all know – our nation is deeply polarized these days!

This blog reflects what I have learned in the last couple of months from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (pronounce “height”). First I showed my Comparative Religion classes a TED talk Haidt did in 2008 that seemed very prescient relative to what’s happening today. Then I read a long article he wrote that was published in July 2016 after Trump became the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party – hence the title for the blog post: “Nationalism Rising: When and Why Nationalism beats globalism.”

Haidt forced me to think outside of my own comfort zone. I hope you find this helpful too.


The 5 moral foundations of the human mind

There’s nothing remotely religious about Haidt and his colleagues’ research on the social dimensions of morality. It’s all based on evolutionary psychology with data comparisons from all parts of the world. In his 2008 TED talk Haidt approvingly quotes Stephen Pinker’s thesis in developmental psychology that human beings at birth come into the world not as a “blank slate” but with many ingrained moral dispositions. He calls this “the first draft of the moral mind.” Naturally, that first draft gets modified as the child grows up in a particular family, goes to school, and moves around in various social contexts over time.

But at bottom, and all across cultures and disciplines, he and his colleagues found that there were five moral foundations of morality, or sources of intuition and emotions:


1) Harm/care: our brains as mammals cause us to feel compassion for those most vulnerable, compel us to care about them, and castigate those who cause them harm

2) Fairness/reciprocity: we’re also programmed to believe in people’s equality, and hence in justice, and additionally in some form of the “golden rule”

3) In-group/ loyalty: only humans create large groups that cooperate, first and foremost to fight any competitors; schools or sport teams’ loyalty are also good examples of this

4) Authority/respect: hierarchy comes naturally in human society, but respect for authority can also manifest as love, and not just fear of a greater power

5) Purity/sanctity: any ideology that says that virtue can be cultivated by controlling our body; it could be about abstaining from sex, but also about controlling what we eat


Then they gave out questionnaires to about 30,000 Americans that measured the relative strength of these values for each respondent. Also part of the questionnaire was whether the person self-identified as “liberal” or “conservative” politically. The result was astounding. Everyone scored high on the first two moral values, harm and fairness, but that was the extent of the liberals’ moral scope – just a two-foundation morality. By contrast, the more conservative a person is, the more the next three values grow in importance. As Haidt puts it, “conservatives have more of a five-channel, or five-foundation morality.”

Surprisingly perhaps, this same kind of result holds for questionnaires given out in many other countries around the world. Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia or Eastern Europe, everyone agrees about the importance of care and fairness, but it is around issues of in-group, authority and purity that the moral arguments become heated.

The rest of his talk, then, is focused on the two facts of 1) social entropy (left to their own devices, human groups degenerate over time because of in-fighting and chaos); 2) fruitful cooperation entails putting all five moral tools to use. At this point he brings in religion. It is a controversial finding, he admits, but much research points to the emergence of religion as a means of bringing societies together and be able to move forward. Look at all the great civilizations of the past, he says. There was usually some kind of religious component that united people and energized them to achieve the common good.

This research led to the writing of his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. But here I’m more concerned with what he wrote during the 2016 electoral campaign.


The rise of the globalists

In Haidt’s “Nationalism Rising” he point to the World Values Survey that in six waves since the early 1980s has charted people’s values and beliefs around the globe. Just about all of these nations have grown more prosperous in the meantime, with some transitioning from communism to capitalism, from autocracy to democracy. How have their values changed in this time period?

Despite all the variations from one country to the next, there are nevertheless common trends that emerge. They move forward according to two axes. He explains:


“[F]irst, as they industrialize, they move away from ‘traditional values’ in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward ‘secular rational’ values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from ‘survival values’ emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward ‘self-expression’ or ‘emancipative values’ that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.”


When the rule of law is established to some extent and corruption in government is at least curtailed, societies tend to see people live more comfortably; and as they feel safer and more prosperous, they tend to become “more open and tolerant.” Along with the internet and access to movies and other aspects of global culture worldwide, they gradually develop a “cosmopolitan” worldview – literally becoming “citizens of the world.”

Perhaps the best way to describe this “vision of heaven for multicultural globalists” is to quote from John Lennon’s song:


Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.


But as Haidt notes, “it’s naïveté, sacrilege, and treason for nationalists.”


How globalists trigger the nationalist reaction

Some forms of nationalism can be illiberal and outright racist – think of the extreme represented by Hitler’s National Socialism, or even white supremacy groups in contemporary America. But at core, it’s a reemphasis on the in-group, authority and purity values mentioned above. It’s really about a social contract, contends Haidt:


“Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.”


But what has fed the conflicts between the globalists and nationalists of late has been the flood of immigrants pouring onto Europe’s shores. There had been a steady stream of economic and political refugees crossing from Africa into Spain, but things have accelerated by multiple digits since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of ISIS in 2014. In 2016 around 5,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. I dealt with this issue in two blogs about inequality (the first, and the second).

Haidt captures some of these feelings on both sides as these events unfolded:


“But if you are a European nationalist, watching the nightly news may have felt like watching the spread of the Zika virus, moving steadily northward from the chaos zones of southwest Asia and north Africa….

By the summer of 2015 the nationalist side was already at the boiling point, shouting ‘enough is enough, close the tap,’ when the globalists proclaimed, ‘let us open the floodgates, it’s the compassionate thing to do, and if you oppose us you are a racist.’ Might that not provoke even fairly reasonable people to rage? Might that not make many of them more receptive to arguments, ideas, and political parties that lean toward the illiberal side of nationalism and that were considered taboo just a few years earlier?


Yet in this conversation, the word “racism” is too imprecise to be helpful. What the nationalists are objecting to, in fact, is what they perceive as the immigrants’ different values and abhorrent practices, which represent a threat to their way of life. Of course, there are politicians who exploit and amplify those fears for their own gain.

Enter here Karen Stenner’s classic book on political psychology, The Authoritarian Dynamic. This is how Haidt describes her thesis:


“Her core finding is that authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait. It is rather a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat. It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”


What “pushes that button” is what she calls a “normative threat,” when leaders are not worthy of respect, when society is fraying at the seams and threatening chaos. As Haidt puts it, “it’s the perception that ‘we’ are falling apart.” Most nationalists, he adds, are just trying to protect the homeland, not just their income or family.

Stenner conducted some studies in a variety of national settings and when a scenario came up showing that Americans were becoming more similar, “authoritarians were no more racist and intolerant than others.” But change the direction in which society is moving and something gets triggered:


“But when Stenner gave them a news story suggesting that Americans are becoming more morally diverse, the button got pushed, the ‘authoritarian dynamic’ kicked in, and they became more racist and intolerant. For example, ‘maintaining order in the nation’ became a higher national priority while ‘protecting freedom of speech’ became a lower priority. They became more critical of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce.”


Not surprisingly, when asked about what values should be emphasized above others in raising one’s children, authoritarians put “obedience” above “tolerance and respect for other people” or “independence.”

Haidt also likes Stenner’s distinction between “status-quo conservatives” (those wary about any radical change) and authoritarians. This was graphically demonstrated by the quasi-unanimous opposition to Donald Trump by the Republican establishment during most of the 2016 presidential campaign. At the same time, Stenner gives the reason most Republican leaders rallied behind him once it was clear he would be the party’s nominee (though writing years before):


“But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling 'Stop!' Brexit can seem less radical than the prospect of absorption into the “ever closer union” of the EU.”


This dynamic also explains why Muslim immigrants pose a greater threat than immigrants from anywhere else. But it’s not so much about security as it is about what Stenner calls a “normative” threat. Muslims generally do not assimilate as easily as immigrants from other backgrounds. They require high maintenance – building mosques, seeking special treatment for prayer spaces at work, insisting on halal meat, having their women wear hijabs and in some cases even niqabs (full face veils). This represents a threat to western secular civilization. Many in the US would add “a threat to Christian civilization.” Besides, Europe has been discussing for at least two decades the ins and outs of “reasonable accommodation” for Muslim immigrants. In Sweden, for instance, public swimming pools now offer specific times reserved for female swimmers in order to accommodate Muslims.


What do we take away from this?

I offer three takeaways:


1. Start listening to one another: If globalists are in power, they need to think how best not to trigger an authoritarian reaction. Angela Merkel, after welcoming over a million mostly Muslim refugees in Germany in the last two years, has a great challenge before her. That would be like if the US had let four million Muslims!

On the micro level, let’s learn to reach out to people on the other side of the political divide, wherever we happen to be. Building a healthy democratic society will mean paying attention to all five foundational values mentioned above: fairness and care; but too, group loyalty, respect for authority (including religious authority), and moral uprightness (sanctity/purity). Many times, bridge-building starts within our families!


2. Assimilation versus multiculturalism? I have no space to deal with this here, but I want to push back just a bit against this Haidt conclusion:

“If the story I have told here is correct, then the globalists could easily speak, act, and legislate in ways that drain passions and votes away from nationalist parties, but this would require some deep rethinking about the value of national identities and cohesive moral communities. It would require abandoning the multicultural approach to immigration and embracing assimilation.”

The classic contrast here would be between France (staunchly assimilationist) and the UK (multiculturalist, including Sharia courts!). I believe France’s hardline stance against Muslim expression will only invite more terror attacks. Further, it seems to me that Britain has managed its multiculturalism rather well. But so much more could be said …


3. Be loyal to your nation, but remember the big picture. If you know anything about this website, you know that my lifelong commitment is to building bridges between adherents of different faith traditions in the name of Jesus, most notably between Muslims and Christians. This endeavor knows no national boundaries. In fact, its objective is to raise awareness of and commitment to our calling to care for our fellow human beings and for our planet as God’s trustees on earth. With the privilege of a trust comes responsibility and accountability. And that means moving forward with sensitivity, wisdom and love in these troubled times. Reconciliation and peacebuilding are the order of the day!


  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This was the page devoted to my small monograph published in Malaysia, Evolving Muslim Theologies of Justice: Jamal al-Banna, Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl. It is now a 180-page (double-spaced) manuscript that should come out in 2019. You can also read a summary for each of the 6 chapters on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:


  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)