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

This is a keynote address I delivered virtually at a conference on Faith and the Environment sponsored by the Oxford Centre for Muslim and Christian Studies, March 1, 2024. My title is "Is the Human Vicegerency Bad Theology in the Anthropocene?" The term "vicegerency" is a bit archaic, but it is the word used most often in Muslim academic circles for the "human caliphate" mentioned in several places in the Qur'an, referring to God's creating humankind as deputies or trustees over his creation. The Genesis 1 creation account has God deputizing humanity in this way as well: filling the earth and ruling over it (v. 28). This was a central theme of my 2010 book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation.

The contemporary Fair Trade concept dates back to British Quakers networking with some social activists and Oxford University academics to found the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in 1942. The next year this group incorporated as Oxfam with a driving passion to eradicate poverty everywhere. After the war, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Church of the Brethren found ways to help internally displaced refugees in Europe after WWII by collecting and selling their handicrafts. All three initiatives have endured until today: Oxfam, Ten Thousand Villages and SERRV.

One of the main Fair Trade certifying agencies is Fairtrade International. They define “Fairtrade” as “a global system that connects farmers and workers from developing countries with consumers and businesses across the world to change trade for the better.” Watch their very short video explaining what Fair Trade is. Economic justice and equity are its hallmark, as it aims to break the oppressive power differential between North and South inherited from the colonial era.

How does it work? Small farmers or artisans are encouraged to organize themselves into cooperatives. The buyer guarantees a minimum price regardless of market fluctuations (especially important for coffee and cocoa) and adds a social premium, up to 10 percent, for them to reinvest either in the business or their collective well-being (digging wells, building schools, clinics, cotton or rice mills, etc.). Often, the buyer will offer advance credit before harvest time and in all cases seeks to develop a long-term relationship built on trust, respect, and transparency. This is clearly an “alternative trading organization,” as it used to be called. It’s definitely NOT how multinational corporations deal with small coffee or cocoa growers!

I will come back to the Divine Chocolate company later, but here’s a story on their website about one cocoa farmer, Moriba Sama, from an isolated Sierra Leone province with only one town of 1,000 people. The rest of the population is spread out in small villages without clean water or toilets. He describes a democratic process in which the farmers came together and decided how they wanted to spend their Fair Trade premium. They agreed that the priority had to be the water and plumbing infrastructure; then, “working with development partners to provide scholarships” so that their children can at least get through primary school; building a communal rice mill; and finally, establishing a central market in town.

But Fair Trade for me isn’t just an academic or a worthy cause I read about. I’m actually involved in it. Read about my experience at the first “Fair Trade Towns and Universities National Conference” in Philadelphia (2011); my assessment of the Fair Trade movement in 2014; and a local seminar I did on “Why as a Christian I Support Fair Trade.” I could have also, just as easily, taught on why people of faith in general all support Fair Trade.


Bruce Crowther’s Not in My Lifetime: A Fairtrade Campaigner’s Journal

Reading this book was a deeply personal experience for me. I met Bruce in his 2015 visit to our quaint little town of Media, PA (the Delaware County seat on the outskirts of Philadelphia), and I’ve heard so much about him ever since I joined Media’s Fair Trade committee in 2008 (see our latest newsletter here). That was two years after Media declared itself “America’s First Fair Trade Town.” This was only possible because Bruce himself established the first Fair Trade Town ever in 2000 (Garstang, in Lancashire, UK) and went on to found the Fair Trade Towns movement. Our local connection to Bruce Crowther (b. 1959) was through the late Hal Taussig who generously used the proceeds from his alternative touring company in Media (Untours) to establish relations with coffee growers in Mexico. Then he heard about Bruce.

As a result, a Fair Trade committee was established in Media: a good number of shops in town agreed to sell some Fair Trade products; some restaurants agreed to use those products and community organizations (like schools) began to serve coffee, sugar, bananas and more – all products with a Fair Trade label. And finally, the borough council voted to promote Fair Trade in the community and declared Media a Fair Trade town.

To be honest, though, let me say from experience that our job of educating the community about Fair Trade and encouraging businesses, restaurants and shops to buy and use Fair Trade products is never done. It’s all about patient, creative, and determined advocacy, and especially about regular visits to local businesses (it works best in twos). It requires building relationships and finding ways to enhance their bottom line. It’s also about motivating consumers to do use their buying power to lift the less fortunate out of poverty.

Bruce Crowther’s experience over a decade in Garstang was like taking two steps forward and then a step back, several times. It’s definitely a story of perseverance. His book, in fact, while documenting the astounding accomplishments of this campaign (there are now over 2,000 Fair Trade Towns in 34 countries in all six continents today!), also points out several sources of discouragement along the way. Crowther recounts all this in candid detail.

Bruce is also very open about his own struggle with depression and how after nearly dying he benefited so much from one excellent therapist. What also stands out in all the stories leading up to his actual involvement with Fair Trade, is his outgoing personality. Bruce is a leader who easily makes friends, and partly for that reason, he always loved to travel. Like many youths in the 1970s, he traveled on the cheap in Latin America and South Asia. That cultural curiosity and sensitivity would serve him well years later.

And by the way, Bruce has a title to his name in British society. It’s Bruce Crowther MBE, meaning that in 2009 Queen Elizabeth gave him the medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services with Oxfam and the FairTrade Foundation, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown named him one of the “Everyday Heroes” in his book of that name. Yet those honors, clearly, never went to his head.

Among the many fascinating aspects of Bruce Crowther’s story, I will focus here on his vision to tie economic injustice today to the slave trade, and his creation of a bridge between Garstang, New Koforidua (Ghana), and Media, USA, aiming to bring some redemption and healing to the nefarious Atlantic slave trade triangle from the 16th to the 19th century in those same areas.


The Healing Triangle

Bruce qualified as a veterinarian in 1985 and worked for six months in Northern Ireland the next year. This is where he rolled up his sleeves and founded a new chapter of Oxfam – the Dungannon Oxfam Group. He soon moved back to the mainland and successively worked with a veterinary clinic near Lancaster and then one near Liverpool. In 1991, he left his home there to move in with Jane, his fiancée, in Garstang (about 40 miles from Liverpool). They were married the next year. Soon after his arrival in Garstang, he got to know the Methodist preacher, Peter Haywood, who was passionate about eliminating poverty in the developing world and had set up a fair trade shop called the Mustard Seed. Crowther asked him if he would join with him in starting a chapter of Oxfam in Garstang. Haywood was enthusiastic, and soon the Garstang Oxfam Group (GOG) was born.

The year 1994 proved crucial. Apartheid was dismantled in South Africa and the very first Fair Trade certification label, Fairtrade International, started in the Netherlands in 1987, came to the UK. The first products with that new label they could sell in Garstang were Clipper tea, Cafedirect instant coffee, and Maya Gold chocolate. One of the first GOG projects was “to donate a large catering pack of Cafedirect instant coffee to each of the five churches in Garstang” (p. 62). With Jane’s insistence, they added one more Christian congregation, the Quaker meeting house. That was a great idea, as it turned out. At the special meeting to inaugurate the Fair Trade coffee and tea, after Bruce made his short speech explaining what this meant, the clerk of the Meeting, Rachel Rogers, responded, “You’re knocking on an open door.” Rachel was to become one of Bruce’s most influential and ardent supporters and “a major player in Garstang’s declaration as a Fairtrade Town four years later.”

That anecdote is also worth recounting because Bruce, who up to this time had not been “religious” (in the sense that, if there was a God out there, he would sit back and wait for him or her to step into his life and show him the way), it was in Garstang that he gradually found his “spiritual home” in the Quaker meetinghouse at 36 (pp. 62-78). He felt God’s presence during worship, sometimes very strongly, and he loved that these people were very tolerant: one should look for the light of God in every human being. Finally, their values aligned with his: “Becoming a Quaker confirmed my beliefs and strengthened my resolve to see an end to poverty as we know it, once for all” (p. 77).

Quakers were the initiators and for several generations the main drivers of the abolitionist movement in Britain. Bryn Mawr College, one of the three Quaker-founded colleges on the west side of Philadelphia, houses a collection of documents on the Quakers’ role in that movement. Bruce Crowther in 1999 was looking for a hero of the abolitionist movement that had some ties to Lancashire (the most famous one, the parliamentarian William Wilberforce hailed from south Yorkshire). He was on this quest for two reasons. The first was that Oxfam that year was highlighting the Fair Trade Divine chocolate company that was part-owned by the cocoa farmers in New Koforidua, Ghana and a shop in Garstang was now selling it. The second reason was that though Liverpool, Bristol and London had been the biggest slave-trading ports, nearby Lancaster had also gained most of its wealth from that sordid trade.

After some digging, Bruce discovered that the Anglican Thomas Clarkson, “considered by many to be the architect and founding father of the anti-slavery movement” (p. 103), though from Cambridgeshire, built a cottage in Lancashire’s lovely Lake District and spent a good deal of time there. Ah, that counted, said Bruce! He also discovered other commonalities between Fair Trade and past slave-trade abolition campaigns. The latter were unique as a mass political movement opposing a specific social ill. He found an Oxfam article that compared the abolitionist badge “Am I not a man but a brother to you?” with the white band thousands of campaigners wore in Nelson Mandela’s international “Make Poverty History” campaign in 2005.

Thomas Clarkson’s grassroots campaign took him all over the British Isles at the time. One year he even covered 7,000 miles on horseback to gather signatures for his petition. His campaign also included a trade element, albeit a boycott. At the time, “Britain consumed more sugar than the rest of Europe put together.” And yet, West-Indian sugar was grown by slaves. And therefore, people had the power to confront this morally evil trade by refusing to buy sugar. This turned out to be a potent instrument to pressure Parliament to outlaw slavery (p. 104). The Fair Trade campaign is also about the ethics of trade, but with a different emphasis: choose to buy fairly traded products. Of course, in so doing people also choose not to buy products that don’t have the ethical label they can trust. [To see how far the UK has gone in this direction, read this 2016 BBC article explaining the pros and cons of Britain’s best-known chocolate brand, Cadbury, abandoning the Fairtrade label for its own in-house ethical label. As it turns out, Cadbury ended up doing even more to benefit the cocoa farmers and their communities in a sustainable way].

These connections between the slave trade and the 21st-century trade justice campaign are what finally sent Bruce to Ghana in 2001. Representing the GOG, he partnered with the Youth and Community Centre and in the end, twelve people traveled together for three weeks, including five high-school students, part of a youth theatre group. A grant enabled them to perform their play (“Hidden Brutality,” touching on Fair Trade, the Atlantic slave trade, and child labor) in front of several thousand Ghanaian students in several locations. They also visited a Ghanaian charity for children in need in the capital city, Accra, and then the two slave forts on the coast. They visited the cocoa farming cooperative in New Koforidua (Kuapa Kokoo) and had the chance to see for themselves what cocoa farming entails and how it relates to Fair Trade. Finally, they visited the Volta River Estates Limited (VREL) cooperative farm, which at the time, was the only Fair Trade banana plantation in Africa.

This first experience in Ghana opened up a very fruitful partnership with the leaders of Kuapa Kokoo over the years, and this in at least three important ways. The first fruit of Bruce’s personal connection with the chocolate farmers in New Koforidua, Ghana, is the Fair Trade and Slave Trade exhibition. It started small after returning from that first trip in 2001 and was exhibited for several years in the Garstang library and gradually expanded. Then in 2009, Christina Longden of the Lorna Young Foundation (another Fair Trade-minded organization) approached Bruce with the idea of opening the first Fair Trade Center, which would also be a coffee shop selling Fair Trade coffee, tea and chocolate, and house that exhibition about Fair Trade and the transatlantic slave trade. They named it The Fig Tree. The township gave them a suitable location with a four-year lease. It moved to Lancaster in 2015 housed by the historic church of St. John’s. That location allowed them to put together a play that highlighted some of the dynamics between the Quaker abolitionists and the few wealthy Quakers like Dodshon Foster who owned slaves. Much of the Fig Tree’s educational program, already in the Garstang area, consisted in “heritage workshops” on this theme in local schools, so the new location helped them to widen their appeal to the youth and adults of that city.

The second fruit of that partnership with New Koforidua was to expand it to the Americas where by far most of the slaves were shipped like cargo. Hence, the slave trade triangle. In October 2005, after speaking about Fair Trade Towns at a Fair Trade conference in Chicago sponsored by the American FT labeling agency, Transfair USA, Bruce soon got a phone call from Elizabeth Killough who worked for Hal Taussig at Untours and asking him how Media could become a Fair Trade Town. Those discussions led to Media’s self-declaration as the first Fair Trade Town in the Americas (p. 137). Other towns would follow suit, including cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. So now, the healing triangle, that three-fold connection for the purpose of bringing at least some measure of healing to the injustices and indignities of the past, had seen the light of day.

The third fruit of that connection between Garstang/Lancaster and New Koforidua in Ghana was that Bruce learned from them on one of his early visits there (the book mentions seven!) to make his own chocolate from the Kuapa Kokoo chocolate beans. [See the pictures and video which are part of Sabeena Ahmed’s blog post about her visit to the Fig Tree, including making chocolate with Bruce]. First, they have to be roasted, then they have to be ground into a chocolate liquor and then smoothed out into a nice, thick liquid. Then comes the addition of sugar and cocoa butter. Over time, Bruce and his friends developed many different flavors and versions of their “Bean to Bar Chocolate” (click on that tab at the top of the Fig Tree website). Bruce is still making this chocolate, though only selling smaller quantities (he works full-time for the Office of National Statistics) and sending the proceeds to the Fig Tree, of which he is now only one of several volunteers.


Where we go from here

Bruce Crowther ends his book in 2020, when, because of the Covid pandemic, the Fair Trade Towns’ Annual General Meeting was convened online. But it enabled more people to attend: “A total of 37 people from 16 countries joined the link at one time or another.” Then he adds, “a very fitting celebration for a movement made up of over 2,000 Fair Trade Towns across 34 countries.” True, the 14th International Fair Trade Towns meeting in Quito, Ecuador was canceled due to the pandemic, but the movement continues. In fact, with the international protests that year after the killing of George Floyd and the rising visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, Bruce writes that their “work linking Fair Trade to the abolition of the slave trade and its legacy of racism was more appropriate than ever” (p. 228).

I’ll sign off with the last paragraph in the book—well, almost: a 2-page epilogue follows. Here Bruce connects the end of Apartheid in South Africa with the global anti-poverty campaign by the United Nations via the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Its first goal is “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. The Fair Trade movement in all its diversity is only one very small player in this global campaign. But we all must do our part. Notice that the book’s title are its last four words:


I remain optimistic, however. In my earliest campaigning days when Oxfam was accused by the Charity Commission of taking a political stance by calling for a boycott of South African products, I was certain that we would see an end to Apartheid in South Africa. But I did not believe I would happen in my lifetime. Even if we do not reach the UN target of ending world poverty by 2030, I am just as certain today that, like Apartheid, it will eventually come to an end, albeit perhaps not in my lifetime” (p. 231).

This is an article that I submitted to the academic journal Missiology. After the first round of peer reviews, the editor said they were interested in the article, but some changes needed to be made. I am still waiting to hear back from them about the second draft I sent which took account of the advice proffered. Yet whether this article is actually published by them or by some other journal, I wanted it to be available to those with an interest in these topics. In any case, missiology (the academic study of Christian mission), pneumatology (the branch of theology that studies the Holy Spirit), and global governance, are prominent themes running through the book project I am working on at the present.

The full title is "Mission and Global Governance: A Convergence of Pneumatology and Human Flourishing."


One of the great German theologians of the twentieth century, Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926), published a book in 2019 that neatly summarizes some key themes of his monumental work: The Spirit of Hope: Theology for a World in Peril. His 1965 (German edition) groundbreaking book had been on Christian hope: A Theology of Hope. Then among his numerous books, at least four are devoted to the Holy Spirit and creation.

This blog post follows the two-part one on “Learning from Indigenous Creation Theology.” I’m digging deeper on the issue of God’s good creation, but my main concern is about the divine role of the Holy Spirit in creation, as well as in human society and history.

Moltmann’s 2019 The Spirit of Hope (at age 95 he released another one, Resurrected to Eternal Life: On Dying and Rising) focuses on the multiple crises facing 21-century humanity and how Christians can respond. In this work published by the World Council of Churches (WCC), his second chapter deals with creation: “The Hope of the Earth: The Ecological Future of Modern Theology.” He begins the chapter with this thought:


“Today we stand at the end of the modern age and at what has to be the beginning of the ecological future of our world, if our world is to survive. . . . The modern age was determined by the human seizure of power over nature and its forces. These conquests and usurpations of nature have now come up against their limits. All the signs suggest that the climate of the earth is changing drastically as a result of human influence. The icecaps of the poles are melting, the water level is rising, islands are disappearing, droughts are on the increase, the deserts are spreading, and so forth. We know all that, be we are not acting according to what we know” (15).


Hence, we urgently need to rethink our traditional (and modern) theology. The Renaissance scholar Pico della Mirandola argued in his classic 1486 text On the Dignity of the Human Being that the world is subject to a predetermined body of laws and that humankind, at its center, is free to study it and exploit its riches. The Bible’s first chapter teaches that human hegemony over nature is justified by their creation in the image of God, but Francis Bacon turned that idea on its head: “human beings rule over nature proves that they are the image of God” (18). René Descartes added that humanity’s rational capacity legitimately reduces nature to mathematical and scientific exploration. This is because in modern theology, “the human being as God’s image is God’s deputy and representative on earth” (19).

Yet, retorts Moltmann, before we humans assume any such responsibilities, we must acknowledge that it’s the earth that cares for us, and not the other way around. Think about it: “The earth can live without us, but we cannot live without the earth” (16). What is more, “God did not breathe the divine Spirit into the human being alone, but into all God’s creatures” (19). The author of Psalm 104 asserts that it was “in wisdom” that God made all his creatures. They all depend on him “to give them food as they need it” (v. 27). Their very lives – literally, their “breath” is in his hands:


“When you supply [their food], they gather it.

You open your hand to feed them,

and they are richly supplied.

But if you turn away from them, they panic.

When you take away their breath,

they die and turn again to dust.

When you give them their breath

[or, “when you send your Spirit”]

life is created,

and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:28-30).


“Spirit” in Hebrew is ruah, meaning both breath (or wind) and spirit. Both translations of that phrase in the last verse are possible. Certainly, in the many places where in the Old Testament (or “Hebrew Bible”) you find references to the divine “spirit,” Christians see the Holy Spirit, while Jews or Muslims (rouh appears 21 times in the Qur’an, and 4 times with the adjective “holy”) simply see “God’s spirit” as part of who God is. The same could be said for Genesis 2 (often referred to as the second creation narrative): “Then God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person” (v. 7). This is similar to the Qur’an: “Then he moulded him; He breathed from His Spirit into him” (Q. 32:9; 15:29; 38:72). Also, three times we read that God breathed his Spirit into Mary’s womb, affirming Jesus’ virgin birth: “We breathed into her from Our Spirit and made her and her son a sign for all people” (Q. 21:91; see also Q. 19:17 and 66:12).

In Psalm 51, where David confesses to God his great sin of taking another man’s wife and having her husband killed, he confesses it and asks for God’s forgiveness. He goes on, “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. . . . Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:7, 11). That is from a Christian translation, the New Living Translation. But the literal Hebrew has it as “don’t take your spirit of holiness from me” – the same idea, but of course, without any Trinitarian content.

The same goes for the second verse of the Bible: “The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). For Jews (and Muslims), God’s Spirit is symbolized by a wind and for all three Abrahamic traditions, and sometimes fire (think of John the Baptist: “[Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire). The next verse is fitting: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). There certainly was no Trinitarian intent by the human author (that would be an anachronism), but a Christian reading this understands “spirit” as the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, equal to the Father and Son and indivisible from them, though distinguishable from them by his particular function.

For Christians, trying to discern the identity and role of the Holy Spirit from the biblical texts, and much more, is the branch of theology called “pneumatology” (“pneuma” being the Greek equivalent to ruah in Hebrew). Moltmann has explored the Trinity in a number of his books, but more than any other peer, he has particularly focused on the Holy Spirit, notably in his 1991 book, The Spirit of Life, which he released in anticipation of the seventh Assembly of the WCC in Canberra, Australia, that year under the theme, “Come, Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.”

In The Spirit of Hope, he offers this comment on the above quote from Psalm 104: “We can deduce from this that if the character of human beings as image of God is due to the Holy Spirit which dwells in them, then all created beings in which God’s Spirit dwells are God’s image and much be respected accordingly” (19). Then he adds, “At all events, human beings are so closely connected with nature that they share in the same distress and in their common hope for redemption. Men and women will not be redeemed from transience and death from this earth, but together with the earth” (19). He then quotes the Apostle Paul:


“But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering” (Romans 8:19-23, NLT).


In Moltmann’s words, “The Spirit who is now present is the beginning of the new creation, in which death will be no more, for it is the Spirit of Jesus’ resurrection and the comprehensive presence of the risen one.” He then makes an important nod to the Orthodox church tradition: “Orthodox theology has expressed this in the hope not only for the deification of humanity but for the deification of the cosmos too” (20).

For Moltmann, then, we should all be working together, people of all nations, Christians with people of other faiths and no faith, to mitigate the worst of climate change, but also to redress the many injustices of the past and those still being committed today. Peace only comes when justice is addressed. That said, we know that none of this will be achieved before the return of Christ when all – humanity and the whole world – will be renewed:


“The divine Spirit who indwells all things is the present bridge between creation in the beginning and the kingdom of glory. For that reason, the essential thing at present is to perceive in all things, and in all the complexes [sic] and interactions of life, the driving forces of God’s Spirit, and to sense in our own hearts the yearning of the Spirit for the eternal life of the future world” (29).


The Holy Spirit works in individuals and human society for greater justice and peace

The Indian Jesuit theologian Samuel Rayan (1920-2019) has been a dear companion to me in this book project. His 1978 book, The Holy Spirit: Heart of the Gospel and Christian Hope (sadly, out of print) is a good complement to Tinker’s book on American Indian Liberation. Commenting on the second verse in the Bible, Rayan writes, “The whole of creation took place under the presidency of the hovering Spirit of God. When God’s Spirit brooded over the waters, chaos changed into cosmos” (2-3).

What is cosmos? It is “something ordered, beautiful” and it’s what the Spirit brings: “The Spirit can likewise effect this change in human hearts. The confusion, the chaos, the lack of beauty in our hearts can be transformed into a world of order, beauty, and peace.” On the heels of the flood that overwhelmed the world, killing all the life in its path, God the Spirit renewed the earth through the animals and plants in Noah’s Ark, for the Spirit brings life. He also works through human history.

For Rayan, the Holy Spirit is involved in every new movement for the good, and supremely for the work of redemption through Jesus Christ. As he is baptized by John, the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the form of a dove: “As he emerged from the waters, heaven was torn open before him and God accepted him; You are my Son” (7). The Spirit then sent him into the desert to be tempted and tested; “in the power of the Spirit he returned to Galilee; in the power of the Spirit he went to the synagogue at Nazareth,” where he read from the prophet Isaiah:


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

For he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,

that the blind will see,

that the oppressed will be set free,

and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1, NLT).


Rayan explains, “From the moment of the baptism the Spirit took charge of the ministry of Jesus, of his life, of his world. What Jesus spoke thereafter was what the Father revealed to him and communicated to him through and in the Spirit. The deeds he did were henceforth regulated, determined, made meaningful through the Spirit. The wonders he worked, the signs, the miracles, all were done in and through the Spirit, and it was the Spirit that revealed their divine meaning to the disciples (John 16:13)” (8). Then at Pentecost, as Jesus had promised his disciples before his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit came with great power on the first group of Christians assembled for prayer in Jerusalem. The coming of the Spirit “meant total nonconformity to everything that was opposed to the will of God and the willingness to pay for this nonconformity. . . . After Pentecost, the disciples were willing to pay the price because they were strengthened and illuminated by a new Power, the power of the Spirit” (8-9).

But notice how he widens the scope of the Spirit’s action – way beyond the confines of the church: “The Spirit is associated with all great beginnings. He is the Initiator of fresh developments and the Leader of new movements. He is alive at every turning point in the march of life on earth. He is the Creator Spirit” (9). This is not traditional theology. Even the Orthodox, who have given the Spirit the greatest role and attention, would not venture to say, like Rayan does, that sociopolitical movements that have led to liberation for the oppressed, like those led by Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, had in their sails the wind of God’s Spirit.

Rayan challenges us to listen to the Spirit as we contemplate current events, partly because God’s Good News, inevitably, has political implications:


“Coming to our own times we should ask if the Spirit is not at work in the many movements that characterize our world today. In this century how many lands that were once in the grip of colonial powers have striven for independence. The first great struggle, the struggle of India, has been followed by the collapse of practically the entire colonial system. Where is the God of Exodus and the Spirit of freedom at work?” (131).


At the same time, he is not naïve. We need discernment and reflect about the extent to which a movement reflects “the values for which Jesus lived.” Those values include “human dignity, greatness, freedom, wholeness.” But human life is always tainted by sin: “In this earthly life of ours the brightest light has a touch of darkness; our greatest holiness is somehow touched with selfishness” (133).

My interest in bringing the Holy Spirit into this project of human flourishing and global governance started in 2019 when I was struck with the outpouring of political protests, often very risky, in places as diverse as Hong Kong, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, France, Chile, and elsewhere too. What drives people into the streets, sometimes at great personal cost? I did write a blog post about this, right as the pandemic shut down the world as we knew it. I explained the many different issues involved in each case, and though I didn’t mention anything about God’s Spirit, it was certainly on my mind. Any movement that strives towards greater “humanization,” as Rayan puts it, is a call to bring about justice for the downtrodden and dignity to the oppressed. It is also a cry of the heart, a prayer deep inside the human soul, perhaps even unconsciously, for the coming of a New Earth where justice, peace, and love will reign supreme in God’s presence.


Liberation theology with an evangelical flavor

Rayan’s book was published in 1978. Six years later, thirty-seven evangelical missiologists (theologians specialized in mission theology) from the Global South came together in Tlayacapan, Mexico, to sharpen their understanding of what God was doing in the world and how he was calling his people to be involved. Their conference published a Declaration at its closing, but not in English. Noted Honduran missiologist C. René Padilla contributed the last chapter to a 2016 edited book, The Spirit over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World. Commenting on Latin American pneumatology in particular, Padilla notes that it seeks to uncover the practical ways the Holy Spirit guides his people in their everyday challenges, and “especially in the context of poverty and oppression” (165). Whereas Western Protestant pneumatology limits its focus on the church and personal salvation and sanctification, the perspective is much broader in Latin America. If the sphere of the Spirit’s action is confined to the church, then social issues are worldly matters Christians need not worry about. But he disagrees: “If, on the contrary, the intermediary God is present in creation and history, all issues that affect human beings, regardless of race, sex, or socioeconomic status in the present world, become a matter of Christian concern” (169). He then offers an English translation of a passage in the Tlayacapan Declaration:


“The Spirit’s creative work can be seen in all the spheres of life – social, political, economic, cultural, biological, and religious. It can be seen in anything that awakens sensitivity to the needs of people – a sensitivity that builds more just and peaceful communities and societies and that makes possible for people to live with more freedom to make responsible choices for the sake of a more abundant life” (169).


It goes on to explain that the mission of the church includes joining the work of the Holy Spirit who is promoting, among other things, environmental sustainability and the kind of activism we would label today “global governance”:


“It can be seen in anything that leads people to sacrifice on behalf of the common good and for the ecological wellbeing of the Earth; to opt for the poor, the ostracized, and the oppressed, by living in solidarity with them for the sake of their uplift and liberation; and to build love relationships and institutions that reflect the values of the Kingdom of God. These are ‘life sacraments’ that glorify God and are made possible only by the power of the Holy Spirit (169-170).


Padilla marvels that these African, Asian, and Latin American Christian theologians mentioned “the ecological wellbeing of the Earth” at a time when evangelicals generally ignored such issues. And yet those concerns have only become more acute, to the point that “the very survival of Planet Earth is under threat” (170). First, he quotes from Pope Francis’ first encyclical (2015), Laudate Si: On Care for Our Common Home (see my blog post on it, part I and part II). Then he cites Anglican missiologist John V. Taylor who delivered the Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham in 1967. Taylor later reworked those lectures into a book, The Go-Between God. This excerpt of that book Padilla offers is a nice conclusion to this post. Taylor is reminding us that part of our collective mission is to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead in caring for creation – both listening and responding to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” as Pope Francis put it:


“The Spirit of God is ever at work in nature, in history and in human living, and wherever there is a flagging or corruption or self-destruction of God’s handiwork, he is present to renew and energize and create once again. Whenever faith in the Holy Spirit is strong, creation and redemption are seen as one continuous process” (171).

In the first half of this post, I introduced Native American theologian George E. “Tink” Tinker and used some of the material in his book, American Indian Liberation, to offer us a double reality check: first, the horrors committed by the colonial masters in the Americas, starting with Columbus and stretching the United States’ genocide of the Native populations in the name of Manifest Destiny. The History channel offers a helpful page on this shameful past: “Broken Treaties with Native American Tribes: A Timeline.” From the Revolutionary War and the aftermath of the Civil War (1778-1871), the U.S. government and Indian nations signed 368 treaties. All were broken.

The second reality check is that the 3-4 million who identify as members of indigenous nations are the poorest and most vulnerable demographic in the USA. Tinker wrote that “we are damaged goods,” still reeling psychologically, socially, economically and spiritually from their colonizer’s abuse in all these areas. Add to that the church’s complicity in the oppression of the Indian peoples and the destruction of their way of life. Christian leaders have (consciously or unconsciously) subscribed to a heretical doctrine of White supremacy and colonialism. Christians in the pews, knowingly or not, have imbibed the settler worldview of their White culture. When President Andrew Jackson pushed through Congress the Indian Removal Act of 1828 which set in motion the horrific suffering of hundreds of thousands of tribal peoples during the Trail of Tears, where there any churches that spoke out against it? Very few did. But too, when Christian engaged in missionizing Indian reservations, with all the best intentions in the world, they often contributed to the breakdown of these Native’s cultural safeguards and their psychosocial equilibrium by preaching a Jesus that looked too much like themseves. Here is how Tinker puts it:


“We live with the ongoing stigma of defeated peoples who have endured genocide, the intentional dismantling of cultural values, forced confinement on less desirable lands called ‘reservations, intentionally nurtured dependency on the federal government, and conversion by missionaries who imposed a new culture on us as readily as they preached the gospel” (42).


The Clash of Worldviews

Tinker elucidates the contrast between “euro-western” culture (which informed much of Christian theology over the centuries, and especially since the Protestant Reformation) and the indigenous cultures. For him, there are “four fundamental, deep structure cultural differences between Indian people and the cultures that derive from european traditions” (7):


1. Indigenous traditions are spatially rooted, as opposed to Western ones which are temporarily rooted; “history and temporality reign supreme in the euro-west, where time is money and ‘development,’ or progress, is the goal” (7). The worldview of indigenous peoples revolves around their land and all its components, whether living or inanimate (not a word in the Indian vocabulary).

2. Whereas euro-westerners prioritize the individual and his or her rights, Native peoples are “communitarian by nature.” He explains, “Thus, for instance, [for Indians] spiritual involvement in the ceremonial life of a community is typically engaged in ‘for the sake of the people’ and not for the sake of individual salvation or personal spiritual benefit. This continues to create deep anxiety and rifts in the minds and hearts of Native Americans who have embraced Christianity, for example, and if you add the heavy burden of the church’s past complicity in the suffering of their people, you begin to understand why many Native Christians are leaving behind their Christian faith and devoting their spiritual energies to the ceremonial life and rituals of their Native tradition (though many practice both simultaneously).

3. For indigenous peoples, everything in the natural or created world is organically related. Whereas euro-western people see themselves as distinct and above the natural world – and therefore free to exploit it as they choose, in Indian cultures people “live and experience themselves as part of creation” (8). Think of Disney’s film, The Lion King, and the theme song, “Circle of life.” Their wider community includes “animals (four-legged), birds, and all the living, moving things (including rocks, hills, trees, rivers, and so on), along with all the other sorts of two-leggeds (e.g., bears, humans of different colors) in the world” (9).

4. Native peoples have “a firm sense of group filial attachment to particular places that comes with a responsibility to relate to the land in those places with responsibility” (9). That is why the eviction of Native Americans from their tribal lands remains so traumatic to them. Another consequence of that tribal attachment is that land ownership itself, whether individual or even group ownership, is completely foreign to their worldview.


What Native Americans can teach us

Tinker is right: “Perhaps the most precious gift that American Indians have to share with amer-europeans is our perspective on the interrelatedness of all creation and our deep sense of relationship to the land in particular. . . . Just as there is no category of the inanimate, there can be no conception of anything in the created world that does not share in the sacredness infused in the act of creation” (10). Creation is the theological bedrock of indigenous communities and the circle is the commanding metaphor: “Our prayers are most often said with the community assembled in the form of a circle” (48). It is as if the circle represents the tribe’s connection to other tribes and to all humans, and then to all the universe in creation. Hierarchy is absent from this worldview. Chiefs are chosen by consensus and they are called to embody the collective will of the tribe. Kings and kingdoms are puzzling concepts to them. Put otherwise, the indigenous worldview is egalitarian – their relatives are animals and all elements of the physical world created by God, or the Great Spirit, or some similar conception, depending on the tribe. They also believe in many spirits associated with all manifestations of creation; hence, the overarching concern in this theology of creation is the call to harmony and balance.

This idea is so important that all tribes believe that in order to respect “the established boundaries,” specific ceremonies must be performed if any act of violence is necessary (like killing an animal for food or cutting down a tree for building a sweat lodge). Tinker explains, “Acts of violence against any relative disrupt the balance and are inexcusable.” The same applies to war:


“Likewise, most tribes engaged in elaborate ceremonies before going to war with another tribe. Even one’s enemies must be respected. No killing was to be random. A tribe’s survival or territorial integrity might be at risk. Nevertheless, maintaining balance, respect for all one’s relatives, meant that four to twelve days of ceremony might be necessary before battle could be engaged” (55).


Along with respect, the American Indian would add “reciprocity” to the central dynamic of our human interaction with the land and all its creature. Just as “prayers and the offering of tobacco are reciprocal acts of giving something back to the earth and to all of creation in order to maintain balance,” the Osages and other plains Indian peoples performed specific ceremonies before engaging in a hunt and the killing of buffaloes. Indeed, they “lived a close sibling relationship with the buffalo.” These ceremonies, then, were seen as “necessary to restore life to the buffalo nation” (40). Tragically, he asks, “what do we return to the earth when we clear-cut a forest or gouge out a strip mine leaving miles upon miles of earth totally bare?”

Yet if our Christian theology truly started with God creating the heavens and the earth as in the early church’s ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Nicene Creed), then we would also realize that all human beings are equally sacred by virtue of creation. So the question comes, “Where is the reciprocity, the maintaining of cosmic balance, with respect to those who are suffering varieties of oppression in our modern world? Blacks in southern Africa, non-Jews in Palestine, Tamils in Sri Lanka, or tribal people in Latin America?” (41).


Liberation theology is a Third-World thing

Even though the Vatican has condemned the Marxist-inspired “liberation theology” distilled in the writings and activism of Latin American theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and others, official Catholic social doctrine teaches that God’s “preferential option for the poor” is central to the gospel. Reading the words of Jesus and following him through the four written gospels makes that abundantly clear. But is this what Tinker is referring to in his title: American Indian Liberation? In fact, he is not. That phrasing, he insists, “is nearly meaningless language for Indians” (136). To identify “the poor” in that way is to refer to a modern socioeconomic structure in which different classes compete for power in a capitalist economic system. It also presumes an individualistic view of personhood. By contrast, affirms Tinker, “Indian people want affirmation . . . as national communities with discrete cultures, discrete languages, discrete value systems, and our own governments and territories” (136). Human rights are still relevant, but in a different way. Indigenous peoples have been recognized as the “Fourth World,” and the landmark United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007.

Just a quick footnote here. Article 26:1 of that Declaration states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.” Let me inject a small note of hope here. The U.S. government’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation just posted a lengthy article, “Announcement of US Support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Rights.” When the said UN Declaration was presented to the General Assembly in September 2007, the United States was not one of the 143 nations to sign it. President Obama changed that in 2010. The article explains,


“U.S. support for the Declaration goes hand in hand with the U.S. commitment to address the consequences of a history in which, as President Obama recognized, ‘few have been marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans – our First Americans. That commitment is reflected in the many policies and programs that are being implemented by U.S. agencies in response to concerns raised by Native Americans, including poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, health care gaps, violent crime and discrimination.”


The article documents a number of discussions, decisions and the earmarking of several billion dollars in land acquisition and other measures to improve the lives of Native Americans. Our current Secretary of the Interior is a Native woman, Deb Haaland, and more work is being done in this area. [Read also about how the State of Minnesota just decided to return a state park to a small tribe adjacent to it – a first in the U.S., partly because of its Indian burial site and mostly because of a massacre perpetrated there in 1862].


Tinker’s creation theology

If liberation theology is a “Third World thing,” in Tinker’s writing it becomes a “Fourth World thing.” The key difference resides in the way one interprets the central theme of Jesus’ teaching – the kingdom of God and how one relates it to social justice and peacebuilding. Western theology (and liberation theology too, to a large extent) understands the concept in terms of temporality: Jesus announces that in his person the kingdom of God has “drawn near,” that his death and resurrection will open up a new age in which his disciples will spread the Good News (or, the gospel) to all nations, tribes and cultures of the world. At the end of that era of the church, Jesus will return to earth and all humans of all ages will be resurrected; then God will pronounce his final judgment, which will then lead to the renewal of all things – the appearance of a completely renewed creation.

Right after the judgment, the Apostle John writes,


“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband …

I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb [the crucified and risen Jesus] are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. Its gates will never be closed at the end of day, because there is no night there. And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Revelation 21:1-4; 22-27).


But notice that it isn’t just about people. Other elements of creation are present:


“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2, from the New Living Translation).


This eschatological (i.e., relative to the end time) narrative is full of symbolism. Tinker, using only broad strokes emphasizes the following. First, the perfectly harmonious and balanced creation was there from the start in Genesis 1 and 2, but only as potential. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and evil, chaos, and death entered God’s good creation. As Paul writes to the Roman believers,


“Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:20-22).


You can see how this fits nicely into his Indigenous worldview. Yes, there is a time arc that stretches from creation to the cross and resurrection of Jesus and finally to the New Heavens and the New Earth where all creation is made new. Tinker doesn’t deny the time dimension; he just chooses to emphasize the spatial dimension over it. In that “New Jerusalem,” God’s rule is supreme and unhindered. Even the nations of the earth come together in harmony and they put their wealth and honor at the service of the common good.

Finally, if the settler communities of our world repent, turn around and see themselves as truly and organically part of God’s good creation, then “we will begin to participate actively not in the exploitation of the earth but in the establishment of balance and harmony. Our participation in the balance and harmony of all creation will then most naturally include other individuals and communities of human beings. And justice and then genuine peace will flow out of our concern for one another and all creation” (56).

But what is missing here? God’s Spirit is missing – God presence in the world and his power in the human heart and soul and in human communities everywhere to move forward this healing, reconciling process. Perhaps this is because in the Native American worldview “God” is more often seen as the Great Spirit, an impersonal life-force pulsating through everything. Every facet of creation – animals, trees, rocks, rivers and plants – is imbued with spirits. They are alive in that sense. And Paul talks about all creation “groaning” and writhing in pain, looking forward to the full redemption which is still to come. There is a lot in contemporary Christian theology, particularly from the Majority World (of what we used to call the Third World), that addresses this theme of creation, justice and peace through the agency of God’s Spirit.

Addressing that glaring gap in Tinker’s creation theology, then, will be the theme of my next blog post. Pneumatology (that part of theology that focuses on the Holy Spirit) is a central theme in my book project.

This will be a two-part blog post about one Native American theologian (George E. “Tink” Tinker) and his most famous book, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty. But this is only partially a book review. In the second half I connect some of these thoughts to portions of a paper I just submitted to the journal Missiology. Indigenous peoples, and American Indians in particular, have much to teach us theologically. Tinker is right: creation theology should be the starting point of all Christian theology. To do so also serves to “decolonize” it.

[This is also picking up where I left off in my two-part blog post in 2017 on the heels of the months-long protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, “Theological Reflections on the Fourth World”]

To begin, who is George Tinker? A citizen of the Osage Nation, Tinker’s mother was from a family of Norwegian immigrants. He clearly was closer to his father who came from a long line of leaders among the Osage people, because alongside his teaching career at the United Methodist Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, he served many years on the leadership council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado and founded and directed for 25 years the Four Winds Indian Council in Denver, a center for Native Americans searching together how to connect their indigenous worldview, rituals and customs, to their faith in Jesus. Some of them concluded it was impossible and gave up on Jesus altogether (including his brother).

Surprisingly, there is very little biographical material on Tinker online. I wasn’t able to find his date of birth, but he did earn a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA in 1983 and in 2004 he was named “Alumn of the Year.” After 32 years of teaching at the Iliff seminary, he retired in 2017 and is today the Clifford Baldridge Emeritus Professor of American Indian Cultures and Religious Traditions. He continues to be an invited guest speaker at various venues nationally and internationally.

Before diving into some of the content of Tinker’s book, I will first offer you a short glimpse of other Christian native Americans – either theologians or writers/speakers, if you want to dig deeper into this topic. Juliany Gonzales Nieves is a young Puerto Rican woman who earned a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois and blogs on her website, Glocal Theology: Bridging El Seminario & El Barrio. I found her post “18 Native American Voices to Learn From” very helpful. Besides Tinker, she points to other leading male voices and a few female ones as well.

Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005) was one of the most prolific pioneers of this revival of Indigenous thought on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the years of protests that culminated in over two months of armed stand-off with the authorities at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1993 (the so-called Alcatraz-Red Power Movement). Among the several hundred of mostly armed protesters three were killed in the end, but it was in the forefront of America’s daily news and it attracted much popular sympathy for the cause of Native rights. Marlon Brando famously declined his Best Actor Oscar award that year, and wrote a manifesto supporting the protests at Wounded Knee and decrying the portrayal of American Indians in Hollywood films. Vine Deloria, Jr. had already made a dramatic entry into American culture with his 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. He followed up on that with his now classic God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (see its 30th anniversary edition in 2003).

Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, a member of the Cherokee nation, is currently the most active and prolific author (three books in 2022!) and is able to straddle the evangelical and Mainline Protestant worlds. He and his wife Edith (Eastern Shoshone Tribe) co-founded the Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice and is Director of the Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Portland Seminary.

You will also find some useful video clips, including a striking 4:37 minute one by Tinker and a 7:28 one by Adrienne Keene, a member of the Cherokee Nation with a PhD from Harvard University and only the second indigenous tenure-track professor at Brown University. But be sure to watch this one too, an interview by the popular sociologist from Eastern University, Tony Campolo, of Richard Twiss (1954-2013), an author, speaker and pastor from the Sicangu Lakota Nation. His best-known book was published posthumously: Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way (IVP, 2015). He and his wife founded Wiconi International and he co-founded the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. He and most of those 18 “voices” have an evangelical connection. Tinker does not. More on that in the second half.


Settler colonialism and genocide

Most of us know that the aboriginal populations of South and North America were dramatically decimated following the arrival of the Spaniards and Portuguese after Columbus in 1492 and British and French colonists starting in the 17th century. Current research puts the number of aboriginal peoples in the Americas of the 15th century at well over 100 million. Columbus, it would seem, set the pattern for what was to follow:


“Columbus engaged nearly immediately in kidnapping and enslaving Native peoples in the Caribbean. As governor of the Caribbean for some eight years, he was directly responsible for the murder and death of some seven million aboriginal inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola alone [today’s Haiti and the Dominican Republic]” (5).

“In the centuries of colonization and genocide following Columbus, the christianization of these indigenous populations became one key strategy for their conquest, that is, facilitating the exploitation of their labor and natural resources. The conquest was brutal from the beginning. In almost every context, the European invaders initiated a very quick 90 to 95 percent (or higher) death rate among native populations through programs of mass murder and enslavement, through brutal military repression, and through the introduction of disease epidemics to which the natives lacked resistance . . . Within thirty years of the first invasion of Mexico, according to Bartolomé Casas, the Spanish had killed twenty million of the original twenty-five million native residents” (11).


[Tinker explains from the beginning that part of his project of decolonization is to do away with capitals for words like American, European, and words referring to Christian denominations and terms]

Tinker is right to point out the role of the Catholic Church in the brutal colonization of Latin America. Three papal decrees (or bulls) were instrumental for this: Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493). Recall that in the 15th century popes wielded immense political power in Europe. They were hereby giving a green light for engaging in these ventures of discovery and exploitation of new lands. The Good News (“gospel”) can be preached to new peoples and the merchants can exploit the bountiful treasures of these lands and all will be well, was the reasoning. Bartolomé de las Casas was a dissenting voice. A Dominican friar who arrived with the first Spaniards on the Island of Hispaniola, he soon freed all his Native slaves and spent the rest of his life in the Americas lobbying the Church and the Spanish authorities for the abolition of all slavery and for an end to the brutal crimes against the indigenous populations. He did not succeed, but his writings and his defense of the natives likely led to the Sublimis Deus bull in 1537 which in effect canceled some of the worse parts of the previous bulls: Native peoples should not be enslaved but given their freedom, including the right to property. But in practice, that was too little and too late for the small minority of survivors by that date.

Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, has been very aware of this shameful history. In 2015 he apologized to Indigenous leaders of Bolivia on behalf of the Church for the atrocities committed during the colonial era. Then in 2022, during a pilgrimage to Lac Sainte Anne in Canada, he promised to a group of Indigenous leaders that he would issue an official apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the launching of the genocidal conquests. On that occasion, he did publicly apologize for the residential schools in the last two centuries, and in a recent Religion News Services article, we read that on that occasion “he was met with demands for a formal repudiation of the papal bulls.”

The official document apologizing for the Doctrine of Discovery was issued in March 30, 2023:


“The Vatican on Thursday (March 30) responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ the theories backed by 15th-century “papal bulls” that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property laws today.”


This was not entirely satisfactory for the Indigenous leaders. And it’s not because the “Doctrine of Discovery” technically refers to a “1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they ‘discovered’ it.” That was actually about the United States looking for a convenient way to justify its “Manifest Destiny” doctrine – despite its anti-Catholic animus at the time! No, the reason this apology doesn’t go far enough is that it states that the bulls, in that they “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples,” were never considered true Catholic doctrine. In effect, they were “manipulated” by the colonial authorities who used them to justify their greed and violent methods. The text does recognize, however, that these “immoral acts against Indigenous peoples . . . were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities.”

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee and Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Center and has been writing about the Doctrine of Discovery for over three decades now. In 1992 he wrote Pope John Paul II, urging him to denounce it. His 2008 book is entitled, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. A follow-up article in RNS mentions both him and Mark Charles (Navajo) who co-wrote Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery with Korean American theologian Soong-Cha Rah. Agreeing with several other Native leaders, Charles is quoted in this article as saying:


“In what could have been a groundbreaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers.”


By the way, Mark Charles ran for U.S. president in the 2020 elections.

But for all the genocidal acts committed against the Native population of Latin American, the American case is classic “settler colonialism,” that is, the invaders came in greater and greater numbers, taking over the Indigenous lands by force. Tinker writes, “Hence, this was a more persistent and concerted effort . . . to deal in decisive ways with aboriginal landowners. The result, Tinker points out, was a persistent ethnic cleansing of the continental territory that became the United States” (12). Andrew Jackson’s presidential platform called for the removal of Indian tribes from the southern states. He was elected and what followed is known as the “Trail of Tears.”

After the Civil War, two factions vied for supremacy in this debate about what to do with the surviving Indian population. The extreme view was that they had to be exterminated or removed from the West so that White settlers could occupy their lands. It was also the most popular view, as overwhelmingly reflected in the print media of the Western states at the time. The “Eastern liberals,” as Tinker puts it, believed in “civilizing” these peoples. In the end, they won the day and this is what led to the horrific residential school system, in which Indigenous children were forcibly integrated with the goal of erasing their belief system, language, and customs. Put otherwise, it was a cultural genocide project.

I just came across the latest issues of the journal Religions, which is entirely dedicated to “The Future of Islamic Liberation Theology.” The editor of this special issue is a young Canadian scholar, Shadaab Rahemtulla, a professor at the Divinity School of Edinburgh University in the UK. His article is entitled, “Decolonising Islam: Indigenous Peoples, Muslim Communities, and the Canadian Context.” His central argument is that Muslim immigrants in Canada are now living as a minority in the midst of a colonial settler majority. They cannot just wash their hands of that ugly past of their adopted nation, since they now have become a part of. They have now become settlers themselves, benefitting from the web of structural injustices that continue to this very day. What does he mean?

Rahemtulla is citing a 2006 article by Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” (Journal of Genocide Research 18, 387-409). He is applying Wolfe’s thesis to the situation of Muslims (and of all recent immigrants of color) who see themselves as migrants and therefore have no part in past sins of the wider “settler” society:


“But settler colonialism, as Wolfe presciently notes, is not a historical ‘event’—a thing of the past—and therefore something that is over, but rather an ongoing ‘structure’ which reflects a ‘continuity through time’ (Wolfe 2006, p. 390). The passage of time, after all, does not erase crime. This is a key principle in international law. Canada, or the US, or Australia are no less settler colonies today than they were yesterday. And yet, the manifest settler-hood of these states continues to be rendered invisible.”


This idea that the heinous and systemic injustices perpetrated against Indigenous populations in the past are still operative and destructive today is a theoretical tool that can help explain many other forms of racism in contemporary America. In fact, using a legal lens brings into sharper focus the wider concept of systemic racism, argues Distinguished Professor and Professor of Law at Yale University Natsu Taylor Saito, a woman of Japanese descent, in her 2020 book, Settler Colonialism, Race, and the Law (NYU Press). I mention this, only to emphasize that settler colonialism is a growing sub-discipline with already much research to back it up.

This is the context in which I want to place Tinker’s argument, the subject of the next section.


“Tink” Tinker’s Challenge to White society

In the summer of 2020, Syracuse University’s Department of Religion teamed up with Indigenous Values Initiative and American Indian Law Alliance to sponsor a virtual conference on the theme, “Mother Earth’s Pandemic: The Doctrine of Discovery.” In this 23-min. clip of Tinker’s address, notice what he says, starting around minute four. Speaking (rhetorically) to all the Mainline Protestant denomination that publicly denounced the Doctrine of Discovery (and a few evangelical ones), he says with tongue in cheek, “OK, you’ve renounced discovery. Aren’t you wonderful!” Then the follow-up: “What happened? … How much land did Indian people get back? Or was this just an internal dialogue y’all had to make y’all feel better for living on Indian land?” Then he adds – an understatement, for sure, “our non-Indian allies will have a lot of work to do!”

Already in the first Chapter of American Indian Liberation, Tinker writes, “We want our lives back, our ways of being – rooted, of course, in connection to the land itself. We want back our sovereignty that was ours before the invasion of European colonizers . . . American Indians who are the most engaged in struggle and resistance refuse to acknowledge the validity or legality of the United States’ claim for the occupation and governance of north America; nor do they recognize the right of the United States to any claim on our lands or on our peoples as subjects” (24).

In a further chapter, Tinker argues that giving back to Native nations their land and sovereignty would be beneficial for all other populations – despite the initial pain and costly disruptions to our Western consumerist societies. “Indeed, such a political move will necessitate a rethinking of consumption patterns in the north, and a shift in the economics of the north will cause a concomitant shift also in the Two-Thirds World of the South. The relatively simple act of recognizing the sovereignty of the Sioux Nation and returning to them all state-held lands in the Black Hills (for example, national forest, national park, and South Dakota state park lands) would generate immediate international interest in the rights of indigenous, tribal peoples in all state territories. In the United States alone, it is estimated that the Indian nations still have legitimate (moral and legal) claim to some two-thirds of the U.S. land mass” (81).

That would be the biggest gauntlet Tinker (and all his colleagues and fellow American Indians) would throw at the majority White settler population of our nation. But there is another defining aspect of contemporary American Indian life he mentions several times in the book – poverty and demoralization, plainly the result of so many past indignities, starting with their loss of ancestral lands. In his words, “With a poverty level that puts American Indians chronically at the bottom of nearly every social indicator, we suffer a resulting level of community dysfunctionality that increases our lack of sustainability and makes us all the more susceptible to forces of external political and economic power.” He continues with some telling statistics:


“Indian unemployment is stuck chronically at more than 50 percent across the continent. Per capita income is the lowest of any ethnic community in the United States. Longevity figures for Indians are more than twenty years less than the american average. The infant mortality rate is the highest of any group in the United States. And diseases such as tuberculosis (nearly eradicated for most of the U.S. population) and diabetes occur at seven and six times the average U.S. rates. In some states (e.g., Montana and South Dakota) Indian inmates number more than half of the state’s prison population, even though the general Indian population in the state is under 10 percent” (80).


Tinker in his last chapter (“Culture and Domination: A ‘Postcolonial’ Quandary”) tells the sad story of his older brother, his inspiration and the true genius behind the Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver. Though he knows few details of his growing up, he does know that “by the time he was six years old, he had already been physically and emotionally abused by his parents, themselves already the product of the abuse of colonization” (153). It was then that the Bureau of Indian Affairs put him in a mission school. There, one evening, he and his best friend were raped by a priest and then threatened “with physical punishment and eternal perdition” if they ever told anyone about it. Tragically, and not surprisingly for those who suffer such trauma, his best friend committed suicide at age seventeen, leaving him “with a deep, enduring sense of responsibility not only for his own shame but for the death of his young friend.” His brother, as a result, suffered from alcoholism and in 1995, on the anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre, “combined his antidepressant drugs with prodigious amounts of alcohol and quietly left the world of the living” (152).

Sadly, this story is told again and again in connection to Indian country residential schools. It is “pervasive,” Tinker writes. After five hundred years of conquest and domination, the American Indian community is “damaged merchandise.” The list of traumatic injustices forced upon them seems endless: mass murders, loss of land, ongoing experience of racism and “marginalizing disempowerment,” the experience of “living in rather intimate closeness with [one’s] abuser” and the burden of being made to adopt the values and culture of one’s colonizers (154).


Tinker’s overall objective

I just mentioned how dysfunctional, oppressed and demoralized the Native American population is as a whole. Tinker obviously wants his readers to understand and feel deeply the trauma inflicted upon our Native population. But to what end? Already in the Introduction, Tinker articulates his objective in this way: “I write with the hope that we will be able to initiate a symbiotic healing process whereby Indian poverty and devastation can find healing even as White America begins to find healing from its ongoing history of violence and the resulting culture of violence that seems to have captured the north american present” (4-5). He ends the book with nine steps “that we can take together in order to change our world of violence and to restore the balance of creation” (160). I’ll end with a summary in three short points.


1. White Americans (and following Rehemtulla, all those middle and upper-class immigrants of color) “must courageously own their past – without guilt but with great intentionality – to change the present and the future” (160). Confession and repentance are about facing “the systemic and engrained violence” (including our recent overseas wars of choice). It also means identifying “the systemic structures of oppression” and working to dismantle them. This could be quite costly.

2. We will need to change our lifestyle – “get serious about reducing consumption.” (161).

3. White Americans should take a long and careful look at all that is embedded in the system of white supremacy so that they will find ways to break it down. One way is to develop genuine friendships with people of color and Indigenous people in particular. Showing respect will mean to listen and learn from them. How can we extend our natural concern for individual well-being (a typical liberal, Western worldview) to a concern for community well-being? It can start with a neighborhood, then expand to a city, a state, a nation, and finally encompassing our world – “two-leggeds,” as Tinker has it, restoring harmony and balance among all our relatives, animals and each part of the natural world. That is the subject of the second half of this post.

My purpose here is simple – to get you to listen to the 54-minute Middle East Eye interview with Oxford historian Avi Shlaim. The first part concerns Shlaim’s biography and the second, as the title suggests, captures his view as an Israeli historian of the current protests and the future of the Israeli state.

How did a Jewish boy born in 1945 to wealthy parents in Baghdad, Iraq, end up in Israel six years later? More intriguingly, how did a young Mizrahi (Arab Jew) who struggled to learn Hebrew and spent four years in a British “public school” (actually meaning “private”), come back for military service in the IDF (1964-66) and become a convinced Israeli nationalist? Perhaps that is understandable. In the interview he explains how military training became a very effective nationalist indoctrination tool. Also, by that age his Hebrew was fluent and he was better assimilated. But what is most stunning in Shlaim’s biography is that barely two years after his return to Britain for his university studies, he was seriously beginning to question the moral foundation of Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians within its territories. “These are colonial policies,” you will hear him say.

Here are a few points I want to highlight. Hopefully this post will motivate you to actually listen to the whole interview and fill in the blanks, while getting to know this brilliant British academic (he has dual nationality) who in 2006 was elected Fellow of the British Academy.


Iraq a model of Jewish integration for 1,200 years

When a coalition of discontents overthrew the first Islamic dynasty (Umayyads) centered in Damascus around 750, they founded a new dynasty, the Abbasids, which moved to Baghdad. There in the next century, the fifth caliph, Harun al-Rashid, founded a library and center of learning called Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) in which Christian and Jewish scholars were prominent. After all, they had been working for centuries on Greek manuscripts and could readily initiate their Muslim colleagues into the study of thousands of volumes on philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and more. Baghdad became under him a capital of the arts and sciences, a cosmopolitan center of culture, knowledge and trade. By the tenth century, two Jewish schools competed against each other and Jews could be found at all levels of society, including political administration. This remained the same into the 20th century, as Avi Shlaim explains.

With the hardening of Arab nationalist ideology in the 1930s and 1940s and finally, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jews were suddenly persona non grata. Most of them were forced to leave in 1951 – 120,000 Arab Jews from Iraq joined another 140,000 other Arab Jews from other Arab nations to find refuge in Israel. In reality, they were more tolerated than welcomed in their new home. More on that below.

These Iraqi Mizrahis, or Arab Jews, trace their lineage back to the 6th century BCE when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and forced many Jews into exile. This is when the prophet Jeremiah, one of the few Israelites staying behind, sent a letter to the exiles in Babylon (just miles from today’s Baghdad): “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them and so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NLT). Well, they stayed until 1951.

Shlaim talks a great deal about identity. As an Arab Jew, he shared the language and culture of his fellow Iraqis, whether Muslims or Christians. But this only made it more difficult to adapt to a country that had just been founded by European Jews (Ashkenazi).


The shocking role played by Israeli agents in Iraq

Shlaim recounts that, after the founding of Israel, the government of Iraq (similarly in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere) was looking for a convenient scapegoat for its defeat on the battlefield – a defeat that could only be attributed to its own failed policies. The Iraqi Jews were that perfect scapegoat and “the government pursued official policies of discrimination: Jews were fired from the government service. Restrictions were placed on the activities of the Jewish traders and Jewish bankers, and a quota was imposed on the number of Jews who could go to university.” He sees this as “the main reason for the exodus of the Jews from Iraq.”

But there is another reason as well. Five bombs went off in Jewish spaces between 1950 and 1951. In March 1950, the Iraqi government passed a law that Jewish citizens who wished to leave the country were free to do so. They had one year to register. The response was tepid, so violence was used to speed up their departure. Five bombs exploded in Jewish public spaces during that time, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty for Jews and motivating many more of them to leave. But not all of those bombs were planted by Iraqi Arabs. Shlaim had grown up aware of persistent rumors in the Mizrahi community that Israel itself had been involved in uprooting them from their land, “and they were very resentful of that.” Years later, as a historian, Shlaim “investigated this question.” He adds, “I didn’t want to just repeat conspiracy theories; I wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.”

While doing this research, he met an elderly friend of his mother, Yaakov Kirkouki, “who had been in the Zionist underground.” He told him about how they forged documents, including passports, and paid “bribes to officials to facilitate the movement of Jews from Iraq to Israel.” Kirkouki also told him that one of their members was a bright young man named Yosef Basri, a lawyer and “an ardent Zionist.” Basri and his assistant Shalom Salah Shalom “were responsible for three of the five bombs. Four people were killed by the first two bombs, which he found out from good Iraqi sources were planted by a young activist from the Istiqlal Party, the main party wanting to force the Jews out of Iraq (the only party that defended the Jews and a policy of democratic pluralism was actually the Communist Party). Four people died as a result of those two bombs, but the other three bombs only injured their victims.

Basri’s “controller” was Max Bennett, an Israeli intelligence officer based in Iran. That was a relatively safe context for Israelis because the Shah was pro-Western and Iran had “covert relations with Israel.” Bennett had given Basri the TNT for the bombs and the know-how to make them. The operation was not entirely successful, however. True, no one was killed and these explosions sowed a lot more fear within the Jewish Iraqi community. But Basri and his assistant were caught, tried (Shlaim thinks the trial was fair), convicted, given a death sentence and executed by hanging. Meanwhile, Bennett had been relocated to Cairo, where he was involved in several “terrorist attacks” in 1954. As Shlaim puts it, “Planting bombs in public places was to create bad blood between the Nasser regime and the West. So it was a false flag operation, like the false flag operations in Iraq in 1950-51.” But the last bomb went off prematurely and the entire ring was arrested, including Bennett himself, who committed suicide in prison. These events are known as the Lavon Affair (Pinhas Lavon was Israeli defense minister at the time).

What happened in Iraq and Egypt happened elsewhere as well. It was a pattern of what one expert called “cruel Zionism because it involved innocent Jews, decent Jews, good people, and the Zionist movement, or the intelligence officers, turned these Jews in Baghdad, and then later in Cairo, into . . . spies and terrorists against their own homeland. And these people paid the price.” These false flag operations especially turned the Egyptian population against the Jews. But this was 1954 and Nasser had succeeded in getting the British to sign a treaty by which they would withdraw their military and cease all other activities in Egypt. Israel resented this treaty, hence the false flag operations. “It was shortsighted,” says Shlaim. It failed to achieve its purpose and it created even more resentment between Egypt and Israel.


The shock of Arab Jews arriving in Israel

It wasn’t just the clash of cultures and language that greeted the newcomers from Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. Schlaim describes the attitude of the Ashkenazi elites as despising and ignorant of the Mizrahis and their cultural heritage. Upon entry into Israel, these people were sprayed with DDT, as if they were animals with deadly diseases. Then these 260,000 were put into tents with deplorable sanitary conditions and given food of poor quality. Perhaps worst of all, many of these camps were surrounded by barbed wire. Ironically, among these immigrants were teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, yet the Ashkenazi transit camp managers considered them all backwards people. Of course, that’s what they thought of Arabs.

The identity issue pops up several times: they were mistreated because in some sense they were still the “Arab” enemy. Yes, they were Jews, but they were made to feel inferior to the Ashkenazis. So they were neither Iraqi nor Israeli, at least to a full extent. They were caught in between. Shlaim grew to admire all the construction and early achievements of this state being built from the ground up, but he felt like it was an Ashkenazi project he did not fully understand. He compares himself to Edward Said, the great Palestinian American literary critic and political activist, who entitled his autobiography “Out of Place.” This was exactly Shlaim’s experience. He never felt that he belonged in Israel. He could never shake his feeling of inferiority.


Shlaim’s views on Israel evolve after 1967

As mentioned in the beginning, his military service in the IDF between 1964-66 had made of him “an ardent nationalist and patriot.” But after the victory of 1967, Israel “became overtly a colonial power,” tripling its territory and building settlements in these conquered areas “in violation of international law.” This illegal activity has continued until the present time. For him personally, a sense of disenchantment came over him, but it took a few years for him to truly articulate it to himself. After much research and publishing, he came to the views he expressed in his magnum opus, The Iron Wall (2000; see the Updated and Expanded edition, 2014). It is almost 1,000 pages, but if you are interested, you might start with this excellent review, which includes a response from Avi Shlaim.

In the interview he says that he served “proudly and loyally” in the IDF when it was, as its name indicates (“Israeli Defense Force”), an army to defend its nation’s borders. But that changed after June 1967. It “became the brutal police force of a brutal colonial power.” Besides its purpose to defend Israel from any Arab belligerence, it now added a new task: “to police the occupation in the Palestinian territories.” Then he adds, “Today it’s really become a settlers’ army.” It doesn’t protect the Palestinians, but only the settlers. For instance, “When the settlers go on a rampage and there is a really disturbing, alarming escalation of settler violence against Palestinians, the army does nothing to curb them. On the contrary, it supports them.”

What does he think about the current protests in Israel? “In historical perspective, this is the most serious constitutional crisis that Israel has ever faced.” What is at stake, he explains, “is Israeli democracy and everything that goes with it, which is the rule of law, [and] the independence of the judiciary.” It’s a “frontal attack” on “the main symbol of Israeli democracy, the Supreme Court.” Yet that court is “no friend of the Palestinians” and it’s certainly not “a paragon of virtue” since it has routinely rubberstamped policies that can only be qualified as “apartheid policies” and “policies of ethnic cleansing.” Yet it retains some independence, both legally and in practice. It has at times declared a government policy illegal, forcing the executive branch to back down. This is no longer the case. The executive branch can now act with complete freedom and impunity. The protests will certainly continue and the army reservists who said they will not report for duty might well follow through. This is a dangerous time.

But what worries him most is that in Netanyahu’s present cabinet are extreme right-wing people with “an ethnonationalist agenda” that aims to achieve “Jewish supremacy.” Their true aim is “ethnic cleansing and annexation of the West Bank.” On the other side, the protesters make no mention of the Palestinians. Their only concern is “Israeli democracy and Jewish rights.” They represent the centrist parties that have no qualms about the oppression of Palestinians, though they claim to be less extreme. In fact, they support all the current settlements and Jerusalem as “the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.” Hence, as proponents of “liberal ethnonationalism,” they want to keep the status quo, which in fact is “an apartheid state.” They have no alternative to propose.

Shlaim believes in neither vision. Right-wing ethnonationalism and its liberal counterpart are equally dismissive of Palestinian rights, whether the million and a half Palestinian citizens of Israel or the 3 or 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza living under military occupation since 1967. But Shlaim believes in democracy which is fundamentally about all citizens having equal rights. Here is what he wants to see: “I support one democratic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion and ethnicity.” Israel has “killed the two-state solution with its settlements.” The only solution for peace and prosperity of all is the one-state solution.

We’re now back to the story of his upbringing in Iraq. His family’s experience of coexistence within a diverse Iraqi society represents a hope that this kind of political, religious, cultural and ethnic pluralism can again be replicated in the Middle East – and this time in Israel. It may years from now, but Shlaim still hopes this will happen.

Please watch this. I also believe you will agree with me: the Middle East Eye journalist interviewing him is a young Iraqi Muslim (Mohamed Hassan). There’s another sign of hope right there.

[For more on my views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see my 2019 post “The Fight for Justice in Palestine”]

On September 16, 2022, the Iranian morality police arrested a 22-year-old Kurdish woman visiting relatives in Teheran likely because her hijab had slipped a bit over her head, showing some hair. Three days later, Mahsa Amini died in police custody, presumably from the beatings she received. Within days, dozens of Iranian cities in all parts of the country exploded in protests. These demonstrations continue, though much smaller now, almost five months later.

It’s hard to believe for those of us living in democratic nations – however imperfect that democracy might be – that these protesters, often women, and as young as 15, with the majority in their twenties, will still venture in the streets, or engage in public acts of defiance to voice their anger, when by now . . .

    • 20,000 have been jailed
    • there are testimonies of people released saying that most all prisoners experience beatings, torture and rape
    • more than 500 people killed by security forces, including 70 children.”
    • four protestors have been executed – all young men in their 20s or 30s who faced only a judge behind closed doors with no defense or jury in a trial that lasted between 5 and 15 minutes.


In this four-minute video in The Guardian from January 23, 2023, the journalist tells us that these executions have made protestors even more angry and even more determined to continue their fight for freedom, even if it costs them their lives. A protestor on death row put it this way, “What they’ve done, the regime with their executions, is that they’ve created this fire under the ashes.

First, allow me to present some historical background. There’s a long genealogy of public resistance to the Iranian theocratic regime, but it flared up dramatically in this century.


The four protest movements since 2009

The first was arguably the greatest, in terms of participation. The Green Movement, named for the green sash previous President Mohammad Khatami gave to reform candidate Hossein Mousavi in the months running up to the June 12, 2009 presidential election. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for a second term and won, but from the start the opposition believed the vote had been fraudulent (it turns out that it was, as the UK’s Chatham House, among other studies, proved). Quoting again from the Iran Primer, “The Green Movement reached its height when up to 3 million peaceful demonstrators turned out on Tehran streets to protest official claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the 2009 presidential election in a landslide. Their simple slogan was: ‘Where is my vote?’”

But over the fall, under Hossein Mousavi’s leadership (a cleric, he had been prime minister in the 1980s), the movement “evolved from a mass group of angry voters to a nation-wide force demanding the democratic rights originally sought in the 1979 revolution, rights that were hijacked by radical clerics.” But by the beginning of 2010, the regime had cracked down so brutally, that Mousavi and his leaders had to call off any more public protest. Still, particularly among the students, protests had loudly called for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to step down. One often heard the crowd chant, “Death to the dictator!”

An October 26, 2022 interview with respected Iranian American sociologist Asef Bayat (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) was first conducted in Farsi and was “widely shared in Iran – and now banned by the Tehran authorities.” New Lines Magazine republished it in English under the title, “A New Iran Has Been Born – A Global Iran.” Bayat brings up the 2009 Green Movement and notes that it “was largely a movement of the urban modern middle class, though some other discontented people also supported it.” The uprising of 2017, by contrast, was more about the poor protesting their impossible life conditions, but they remained separate groups demanding better conditions, “like unpaid workers, creditors, drought-stricken farmers and others rose up in protest simultaneously throughout the country, but each raised their own sectoral demands.”

Two years later, this wave of discontent found greater unity. The uprising of 2019 was a more cohesive movement of middle-class poor and other marginalized people from cities and the provinces protesting “economic and cost-of-living issues.” And in some cases, the tactics they used were “quite radical.”

But, argues Bayat, “this current uprising has gone even further.” He explains:


“It has brought together the urban middle class, the middle-class poor, slum dwellers and people with different ethnic identities — Kurds, Fars, Azeri Turks and Baluchis — all under the message of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom.’ Significantly, this is an uprising in which women play a central part. These features distinguish this uprising from the previous ones. It feels like a paradigm shift in Iranian subjectivities has occurred; this is reflected in the centrality of women and their dignity, which relates more broadly to human dignity. This is unprecedented. It is as though people are retrieving their ruined lives, perished youth, suppressed joy and a simple dignified existence they have been denied. This is a movement to reclaim life. People feel that a normal life has been denied to them by a regime of elderly clerical men. These men, they feel, seem so separated from the people and yet they have colonized their lives.


The current wave, sparked by Mahsa Amini’s brutal death, is the fourth since 2009. It was not just set aflame by the death of a young woman; it was and continues to be a movement inspired and led by women.


The persistent role of women

Suzanne Kianpour, “an Emmy-nominated news reporter and producer,” is only 36 but has reported from Washington, Los Angeles, Beirut and London, and most recently produced the “Women Building Peace” series for the BBC. As a “Persian and Sicilian” American who speaks and writes fluently in Farsi, she has leveraged her intercultural background and journalistic experience to cover stories in over fifty countries and interviewing some high-profile leaders, including the Iranian foreign minister (see her website). I only mention this as background to the piece she wrote for Politico magazine (Jan. 22, 2023), “The Women of Iran Are Not Backing Down.”

She starts off by recalling an incident while visiting her cousin in Tehran in 2007 while a student. She witnessed a young woman being dragged off the street into a morality police van. Then she adds,


“Fifteen years later, the morality police took it too far. In September 2022, during what seemed a typical detention over an inadequate hijab, Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman visiting Tehran, was arrested and beaten. She subsequently died in custody. Two female journalists broke the story. They are now in prison. The country erupted in widespread protests not seen since the Green Revolution of 2009, demanding justice for Mahsa and freedom and civil rights for all women.”


Protests have taken place over the years in Iran, “over election fraud, economic woes, civil liberties.” Yet this time feels very different, Kianpour contends: “an unprecedented revolution led by women, with support from men, encompassing a wide variety of grievances, all laid out in the heart-wrenching Persian lyrics of Shervin Hajipour’s song ‘Baraye,’ or ‘because of.’ It’s become the anthem of the revolution, striking such a nerve around the world that backlash after Hajipour’s arrest led to his release.” This song won a Grammy award, in fact the very first for Best Song for Social Change Award (watch Jill Biden present it at the Grammys).

Catherine Z. Sameh, associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Irvine, reminds us that the Islamic Revolution, unlike the Shah regime, noticeably benefited the rural, working class, and poor women who had been left behind. Through its comprehensive social welfare programs, literacy levels and life expectancy went up for women, as well as the number of women in Iranian universities. Women also began to have fewer children as the poverty rate was falling. However, she notes, “these improvements were exacted at a very high cost for women: a discriminatory legal structure that legitimizes patriarchal control over and violence against women and girls.”

What are some of these “discriminatory” laws”? Here are a few: a citizenship status conferred on children only through the father; custody of children more easily granted to the father; inherently patriarchal family laws related to marriage and divorce. Kianpour adds a few more: “Women are forced to cover their hair in hijab and bodies in loose clothing. They cannot dance publicly, cannot drive motorcycles and cannot travel without parental or spousal approval.” They are not admitted in sports stadiums either.

Women over the decades, at least in some circles, have often quietly resisted this oppressive system aimed at controlling their persons and bodies. But in the 2000s, they started to speak out. Sameh describes the 2006 One Million Signatures Campaign launched by women activists both inside and outside Iran. Both the Qur’an and the Iranian revolution promised equality for women but reality turned out quite differently. Hence, they presented 46 articles in Iran’s Civil Code and Penal Code that plainly discriminated against women. Going door to door, organizing both house and public meetings, they sought to build a movement of dialogue and consensus building starting at the grassroots. The signatures collected helped to show that anyone and everyone’s voice is counted.

The movement’s co-founder, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, explained their rationale: “The power of the civil and democratic movement of the Iranian people must come not from blood, clenched fists, bulging veins, and zealous revenge-seeking, but rather from life-affirming endurance, persistence, and thoughtfulness.” Sameh calls this “a politics informed by feminist principles and organizational practices of collectivity, dialogue, and a deep embeddedness in the ordinary lives of people.”

In fact, she argues, this “might well be the unfolding of a distinctly new kind of feminist revolution.” It’s extraordinary, really. Sameh is worth quoting here:


“In the streets, schoolyards, universities, restaurants, shops, and homes of Iran, women and girls are demanding their freedom and autonomy and, in the process, creating relationships based on mutuality, solidarity, love, and care. Unlike their predecessors, however, they are not interested in negotiating within the parameters set by a patriarchal authoritarian state. In the multiple and extraordinary acts of celebration and defiance—removing and burning hijabs, dancing in the streets, eating in restaurants without hijabs, graffitiing walls, kissing in public, creating art, singing, cutting hair, taping sanitary napkins over surveillance cameras—women and girls are occupying space with their bodies and creating a new world of political symbols, ideas, practices, and visions.”


Why the slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom?”

As quoted above, Noushin Khorasani described the One Million Signatures Campaign as women continuing the revolution very differently than the men had it in the past – “from blood, clenched fists, bulging veins, and zealous revenge-seeking.” Enough of that misapplied testosterone, she says. What is needed is an injection of “life-affirming endurance, persistence, and thoughtfulness.” Sameh had begun her essay with these words:


“The feminist uprising in Iran—sparked by the beating, arrest, and death in police custody of Mahsa (also known by Jîna) Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman accused of “improper hijab”—is generating previously unimagined ideas, images, and possibilities. The current movement, led by women and girls, has forced us all to rethink the glorified figure of the revolutionary as a militant, often militarized, and individual masculine subject. It also invites us to understand the complex history of women’s struggle in Iran—not as counterpoised to or lagging behind Western feminism, but rather on Iranian women’s own terms.


Notice that Mahsa Amini’s other name is “Jina,” meaning “life.” The current revolutionary movement, as mentioned above, is about girls and women demanding their civil rights of “freedom and autonomy,” but only in a way that creates “relationships based on mutuality, solidarity, love, and care.” Recall that sociologist Asef Bayat had claimed, “This is a movement to reclaim life.” The quest for freedom is about life and human flourishing.

This reminds me of the time we lived as a family in the West Bank just outside of East Jerusalem in the 1990s. The Oslo Accords rolled in with great hope for Palestinians, but were soon dashed, as military checkpoints appeared out of thin air constraining Palestinian life even more than before. Already, it was clear that the Israelis had no intention to back down from their military occupation of Palestinian territories and that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority was only a sham, an insidious scheme to pacify a people in order to better subjugate them. Under those conditions, violence is bound to erupt. With horror, we witnessed several suicide bus bombings in Jerusalem (West Jerusalem, the Jewish side, much larger and more prosperous). At the time, we were actually part of a support group for parents of ADHD children, in which we were the only non-Jews. We saw up close the fear, anger and grief of Israelis.

We also saw women coming together from both sides, calling themselves “Woman in Black.” These Israeli and Palestinian women would stand at a busy Jerusalem intersection in West Jerusalem at noon on Fridays (Israelis are rushing to get ready for Shabbat so traffic is intense). They held up signs communicating the following message: “violence is not the way; we all mourn these senseless killings; only dialogue and mutual understanding will bring peace.” Since time immemorial, it is the men who start wars and kill. Today in many places, it is often the women who come together to seek reconciliation and peace (see my blog post about the 2019 women-led protests in Sudan).


Whence Iran?

I began this post with the sheer brutality of the theocratic state’s repression of this protest movement. Kianpour notes that “[t]he Islamic Republic’s atrocities have gotten global attention and led to Iran being kicked off the UN Commission on Women.” She also quotes the “Iranian-born British actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi” who in October “met with Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House to discuss how the Biden administration can help protesters with internet freedom and hold the Islamic Republic accountable for human rights abuses.” Boniadi stated:


“The most unprecedented thing we’re seeing is people are fighting back against security forces. Women are not just taking off their headscarves in protest, they’re burning them. And young kids, young girls are protesting . . . Despite the brutal crackdown, they’re showing no signs of slowing down. I think this is a historic moment, I truly believe this is the first female-led revolution of our time.”


But will it topple the clerical regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei? In a short interview conducted by Ali Shapiro of NPR with Columbia Senior Advisor Kian Tajbakhsh, the latter had this to say about it:


“… authoritarian systems are remarkably resilient in the face of opposition. I mean, the experts who look at authoritarian regimes point to three pillars of regime strength – a cohesive ruling elite, a highly developed, loyal coercive apparatus and the destruction of rival organizations and alternative centers of power. Looking at those three, what is very striking is how these all seem to be intact. So unfortunately, it's hard to see them crumbling in the next six months or so.”


But when Shapiro asks him whether some image or moment sticks with him from these months of protest, Tajbakhsh seems more optimistic. That young men, he answers, stand publicly with these young women is “absolutely uplifting” for him. That kind of solidarity “bodes well for the future.” He adds, “It'll be very hard for them to go back into their families and into their houses and even to their own marriages, let's say, or their partnerships, and treat women in a more traditional and discriminatory way. So I think that these protests have thrown down a gauntlet. It's a moral challenge to this regime.”

I end with James Dorsey’s analysis of a recent poll among Iranians in Iran and abroad conducted by the Netherlands-based Gamaan Institute with the help of Voice of America and London-based and Saudi funded Iran International TV. The outcome was stunning, even if the participation of Iran International might have skewed some of the results: “an overwhelming majority of the 158,000 respondents in Iran and 42,000 Diaspora Iranians in 130 other countries, rejected Iran’s Islamic regime. The poll was published days before Iran commemorates the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.”

To the question, “Islamic Republic: Yes or No?,” 80.9 percent in Iran said no. Among the diaspora, the figure was 99 percent. When respondents in Iran were asked whether they supported the anti-government protests, 80 percent said yes; when asked if they would change anything, 67 percent said they would.

Within Iran, it is striking to see the level of participation. If, as Kianpour puts it, it’s fair to say that Gen Z “are the true leaders of the revolt,” many others support it. Dorsey highlights the following from that poll:


“Twenty-two per cent of those in Iran said they had joined the protests, including participating in nightly chanting against the government; 53 per cent indicated they might. Thirty-five percent had engaged in acts of civil disobedience like removing headscarves or writing slogans; 44 per cent participated in strikes, and 75 per cent were in favour of consumer boycotts. Finally, eight percent said they had committed acts of ‘civil sabotage’ while 41 per cent suggested they might.”


Eighty-five percent of respondents believed the opposition should organize, preferably around some kind of “solidarity council or a coalition of opposition forces.” Then, in terms of next steps, “[f]ifty-nine percent expected the council to establish a transitional body and a provisional government.”

But it gets a bit murky when you go into details. It turns out that the top candidate to join such a council is “Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Virginia-based son of the toppled Shah.” Though 22 percent in Iran and 25 percent outside preferred a constitutional monarchy, 28 percent inside Iran and 32 percent outside leaned toward a presidential system. Fewer preferred a parliamentary system (say, like Britain).

In the end, we cannot say that the current wave of protests will actually topple the Islamic Republic, which requires that its Supreme Leader be an ayatollah. NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly just spent a couple of weeks in Iran and filed this report (Feb. 16, 2023). The street protests have been mostly tamped down, but students interviewed said they will start up again. One female student studying psychology said, “This kind of dissent . . . it doesn’t go away.”

But it’s worth emphasizing: this is not a revolution against Islam, like the French Revolution was against the Catholic Church (allied with the monarchy) and Christianity. Rather, it’s a revolt against the traditional, male-dominated interpretation of Islamic law that robs women of their civil and personal status rights. It is also a full-throated demand for democracy – in the way I was explaining it in the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development goal #16:


“A democratic system is one in which its institutions and the mechanisms that keep them functioning (including voting, which isn’t spelled out here) are actually considered “inclusive and responsive,” and one in which those serving in the legislatures, public service, and the judiciary, reflect the population as a whole ('by sex, age, persons with disabilities and population groups').”


Is this kind of holistic human flourishing that controversial? In many parts of the world ruled by authoritarian regimes, it seems out of reach. In Western cultures too, especially with their strong emphasis on individualism, whole segments of the population can be left behind. Clearly, this “inclusive and responsive” democracy is a challenge for all societies.

In this light, I urge people of faith in particular to get behind this kind of feminist-inspired, grassroots movement of “creating relationships based on mutuality, solidarity, love, and care.” It’s about human dignity, first and foremost. Maybe it will still take a while to get there in Iran (or in the US, for that matter), but as Kianpour concludes, these young people have sacrificed so much to call for a change. They won't stop: “This genie cannot and will not go back in the bottle.”


Afterword (3/25/23): Asef Bayat published an in-depth article in the March 2023 edition of the Journal of Democracy. His concluding paragraph nicely summarizes this 4900-word piece:

"Whatever the endgame, a lot has changed already. Things are unlikely to go back to where they were before the uprising. A paradigm shift has occurred in the Iranian subjectivity, expressed most vividly in the recognition of women as transformative actors and the 'woman question' as a strategic focus of struggle. Most Iranians now want a different kind of government. A discursive shift away from religion has been combined with a strong anticlericalism and resentment of state religion. New norms have been established on the ground and are likely to stay. The morality police, forced hijab, and sex-segregation in public might be things of the past. The once lethargic society plagued by a sense of impasse has gained a new energy. After years of anguish and despair, a kind of uncertain hope has emerged, a vague belief that things might really change for the better. Those who expect quick results will likely be dispirited. But the country seems to be on a new course. The people’s drive to live in dignity has thrown a wrench into the machine of subjugation. A new, though unknown, opening may well be on the horizon."

As you know, the G20 represents the twenty most powerful economies of the world and it meets every year. With a rotating leadership, Indonesia is the 2022 convener this month, and President Joko Widodo has insisted that President Vladimir Putin attend (he did not in the end). Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had walked out of the G20 ministers conference in July as a result of Western nations’ fierce criticism of the Russian war in Ukraine. So far, Widodo’s entreaty to the G7 leaders to join regardless of Putin’s presence has succeeded to keep the G20 on track.

But Widodo’s objectives are even more ambitious than that. For the first time, Indonesia’s powerful Nahdatul Ulama organization (NU) – by far the world’s largest civil society Muslim organization (90 million members) – has initiated a two-day parallel religious conference called the Religion 20 Forum (R20) (Nov. 2-3) and has allowed the Saudi-run Muslim World League (MWL) the chance to co-sponsor it. There is a lot to unpack here. Let me begin with Indonesia and the NU organization.


Indonesia and the Nahdatul Ulama

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority nation (231 million). The second is Pakistan (212 million); third, India (200 million); fourth, Bangladesh (154 million); fifth, Nigeria (nearly 100 million). And simply being part of the G20 makes Indonesia even more influential. Add to that an Asian culture that favors social harmony over ideology and creed, and an Islamic heritage that tolerated at least some room for its traditional mix of Hindu and native rituals and practices.

The twentieth century witnessed a revival of Islam, no doubt sparked by the harsh reality of colonialism and by other influences of global Islam at the time. Two reform movements were founded in the 1920s that are unique to Indonesia and remain very influential today. The Muhammadiyya movement borrowed many features of the Islamic modernism of 19th-century pioneered by Middle Eastern scholars and activists Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. Their main insight is that Islamic law has to be reformed with more place given to reason. Its membership today is around 40 million.

The second organization remained until recently more traditional in its approach, while always seeking reform. Nahdatul Ulama means “Awakening (or Renaissance) of the Islamic Scholars.” Both organizations have established a network of pesantrens (residential religious schools for the youth) and universities, and continue to run multiple clinics and hospitals.

Yet in this century, NU has gradually paid more attention to the deradicalization of some of its youth and to the possible root causes of violent Islamic extremism, which has also been plaguing Indonesia. With the election of Yahya Cholil Staquf as chaiman of the NU Executive Council in 2021, NU took an even stronger stand against Islamic militancy and a bold push for democracy at every level of society. In a 2021 OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, Staquf tells of a recent speech he made at the United Nations on Islamic terrorism. He argued that the violence of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram and other terror groups finds support from some traditional Islamic teachings. In particular, . . .


“. . . the doctrine, goals and strategy of these extremists can be traced to specific tenets of Islam as historically practiced. Portions of classical Islamic law mandate Islamic supremacy, encourage enmity toward non-Muslims, and require the establishment of a universal Islamic state, or caliphate. ISIS is not an aberration from history.”


Staquf went on to explain that until the end of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 Muslim lands were ruled under the classical formulations of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which many people wrongly conflate with Sharia. That is unfortunate, he said, because the scholars’ interpretation of the sacred texts (Qur’an and Sunna, hence Sharia, as opposed to fiqh) had created and reinforced over time a political ideology of Islamic supremacy that discriminated against religious minorities and glorified war as a way to expand political power and national borders. Fiqh, by definition, is a human interpretation and practical application of the Sharia in a particular context in a particular time. As such, it is fallible and in constant need of revision.

For instance, beyond the many rulings of fiqh that give more power to men and take away rights from women, “Classical Islamic orthodoxy stipulates death as the punishment for apostasy and makes the rights of non-Muslims contingent on a Muslim sovereign’s will, offering few protections to nonbelievers outside this highly discriminatory framework.” Then Staquf adds, “Millions of devout Muslims, including many in non-Muslim nations, regard the full implementation of these tenets as central to their faith.”

As mentioned above, this attachment to traditional Islamic jurisprudence is especially problematic when it can be used to justify violence done to non-Muslims and other Muslims. This is the core of his OpEd argument:


“The problem is that these tenets, which form the core of Islamist ideology, are inimical to peaceful coexistence in a globalized, pluralistic world. But we can’t bomb an ideology out of existence. Nearly 1 in 4 people in the world is Muslim, and many Muslims—me included—are prepared to die for our faith.

The world isn’t going to banish Islam, but it can and must banish the scourge of Islamic extremism. This will require Muslims and non-Muslims to work together, drawing on peaceful aspects of Islamic teaching to encourage respect for religious pluralism and the fundamental dignity of every human being.”


Catholics and Protestants routinely killed each other up until the 18th century, Staquf notes. But then they reformed their theology to see each other as fellow human beings and, especially, as fellow Christians. Muslims today can to the same with their theology, which like their Jewish counterparts, is closely tied to their jurisprudence. NU is doing this very thing, discarding elements of fiqh that stand in the way of pluralism, “universal love and compassion,” and adopting the Nusantara Manifesto: “a theological framework for the renewal of Islamic orthodoxy—and abolished the legal category of “infidel” within Islamic law, so that non-Muslims may enjoy full equality as fellow citizens, rather than endure systemic discrimination and live at the sufferance of a Muslim ruler.” Staquf and his colleagues also call this “Humanitarian Islam.”

The Nusantara Manifesto (2018, see above link to download the 40-page pdf document) has a version of this in its opening and concluding paragraph:


“The Nusantara Manifesto represents a significant milestone within a long-term, systematic campaign—guided by the spiritual leadership of the world’s largest Muslim organization— designed to block the political weaponization of Islam, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, and to curtail the spread of communal hatred by fostering the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.”


How could such a radical reinterpretation of Islamic theology and law be in any way compatible with the puritanical and exclusionary ideology of the Saudi state (Wahhabism)? Mind boggles . . . and yet . . .


The surprising NU outreach to the Muslim World League

This “recontextualization of Islamic theology,” on the face of it, would be anathema to the Muslim World League (MWL), which since its inception was a propaganda tool of the ultraconservative Saudi religious ideology of Wahhabism. To be sure, the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (known as MbS), has embarked on some cosmetic reforms like allowing women to drive and attend public football matches, and the youth to experience some Western-style entertainment. He also put the moral police on a much shorter leash. But none of that amounted to religious reform. As James M. Dorsey, incisive commentator on global Muslim affairs, put it, “Instead, it amounted to long overdue social change by decree.”

This deceptive window-dressing campaign is likely why the MWL jumped on the NU’s offer to jointly chair the R20. Dorsey ponders the relative advantages both sides saw in this partnership:


“Persuading the League to endorse a genuinely moderate form of Islam would have enormous significance. It would lend the prestige of the Custodian of Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, to Nahdlatul Ulama's effort to reform Islam. That, however, is a long shot, if not pie in the sky.

More likely, the League sees reputational benefit in its association with Nahdlatul Ulama. The League also probably hopes to co-opt the Indonesian movement to prevent it from becoming a serious competitor for hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

Neither group may succeed in fulfilling its aspirations.

Nahdlatul Ulama has a century-long history of fiercely defending its independence and charting its moderation course.

At the same time, there is little reason to believe that the League can embrace anything but what Mr. Bin Salman authorises.

If the last two months provide an indication, Mr. Bin Salman and his loyal lieutenant, League secretary general Mohammed al-Issa, can, at best, be expected to opportunistically pay lip service to Humanitarian Islam.”


Dorsey’s comment about “the last two months” was a reference to the crown prince’s hard line when it comes to stamping out all political dissent in the kingdom. In fact, it seemed MbS saw President Biden’s July 2022 visit to him in Jeddah as a green light to quash even more fiercely any sign of protest under his de facto rule. To wit, 34-year-old mother of 2 young boys, Salma al-Shehab, was working on a PhD in Leeds, UK and decided to visit her family for the holidays in Saudi Arabia in December 2020. She was then arrested and handed down a 34-year prison sentence for following overseas Saudi dissidents on Twitter and retweeting some of their tweets. Apparently, this qualifies as threatening the integrity of the state. She is still in prison, alleging “abuse and harassment.” Since then, another Saudi woman, Nourah Bint Saeed al-Qahtani, was arrested and given a 45-year sentence for “using the internet to tear [Saudi Arabia’s] social fabric.” MbS is obviously seeking to make an example of these women and sow terror among his would-be detractors.

Then just last month three members of the Howeitat tribe were put on death row for resisting an edict that forced them to leave their land to make way for the construction of Mr. bin Salman’s US$500 billion futuristic Neom megacity on the Red Sea. Civil rights, it seems, shine by their absence in Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, Dorsey’s comment about NU’s pluralism and democratic ideals rubbing off on the MWL as “pie in the sky” is understandable. Yet the crown prince knows very well that oil money will be drying up and he has sought to diversify the KSA economy. He has not pursued tourism as aggressively as his ambitious neighbor, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but in order to attract more business capital, both neighbors promote a “moderate Islam” that supports autocratic regimes like their own. That said, the UAE is open to at least a degree of religious pluralism in its realm, permitting, for instance, the building of churches in Abu Dhabi. Its Saudi neighbor, by contrast has never allowed such a thing.

A quick side bar on the UAE is warranted here, because despite sharing with the KSA a mission to defend autocratic governance on Islamic terms, it competes with its neighbor for economic, political and religious soft power in the Arabian Gulf and in global capitals. But it’s a game the Emiratis appear to be winning so far.

Dorsey posted a recent piece on the UAE’s top religious cleric, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, whose global influence could be seen in the 2016 Marrakesh conference in Morocco, where over 250 Muslim religious leaders, scholars and even some heads of state spoke out against the persecution of Christians and Yazidis under ISIS. The Marrakesh Declaration was notable for its ringing endorsement of religious freedom. But as Dorsey rightly points out, democracy is not on the table for Mr. Bin Bayyah:


“In Mr. Bin Bayyah's mind, autocracy, uninhibited by religious jurists who do not know their proper place, is best positioned to ensure societal peace. Mr. Bin Bayyah remained silent when his Emirati paymasters rendered his theory obsolete with military interventions in Libya and Yemen. The interventions fueled civil wars while political and financial support for anti-government protests in Egypt that overthrew the country’s first and only democratically elected president in 2013 produced a brutal dictatorship.”


NU versus MWL: justice as rights versus traditional fiqh

Quoting from Yahya Cholil Staquf’s OpEd above gave you the impression that his main objective was dismantling the scourge of Islamic-related extremism and violence. But he also demonstrated that this ideology was fed in part by the traditional worldview of Islamic jurisprudence (the world being divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War; hence, by military means—by using the “lesser jihad”—we can expand the borders of Islam until, God willing, it encompasses the whole world). Therefore, a bold and clear-eyed revamping of classical Islamic fiqh is in order. It includes not only eliminating any tacit support for military action in order to advance God’s cause, but also a number of issues that until now justify the discrimination against women’s rights, religious minority rights, and bolster autocratic regimes that suppress the rights of citizens to choose political leaders to represent them. In other words, the KSA and the UAE’s bid to spread their top-down, monarchical form of “moderate” Islam, with an ulama class subservient to the ruler’s every wish, will not succeed if the NU has its way.

So how did the inaugural R20 proceed? According to the British Religion Media Centre’s report, over 300 religious leaders came from around the world. Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah was one of several keynote speakers, but the article features MWL secretary-general Muhammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa right from the start, indicating that he is also a Saudi politician, “widely regarded as moderate, challenging extremism and promoting peace, dialogue and respect.”

Words are cheap, as they say, but in an interview with the Religion Media Centre Dr. al-Issa offered a judicious remark about the passing of the baton to India, next year’s host of the G20 and now the R20. As many conflicts today have roots in religious identity, he noted, “conflict resolution and peace building must involve society’s moral and faith leadership.” Since the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was prominently represented in this conference, Shaykh al-Issa, while affirming clearly India’s right to select its own delegates for next year’s forum, he also cautioned that “it is better to communicate than create a void where misunderstandings accumulated.” Keep in mind that RSS people are the ones primarily responsible for attacks on Muslims, destructions of their homes and shops by bulldozers, with these tensions spreading into the Indian diaspora in the West. Here I can see the MWL playing a constructive peace building role.

But when it comes to democratic ideals grounded in the human rights of all human beings as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent covenants, I am afraid that statements made by the likes of al-Issa and Bin Bayyah are more about gaining soft power and cleaning up their reputations. NU’s Humanitarian Islam, by contrast, has embarked on a courageous plan to reform traditional Islamic jurisprudence. That is not what these men have signed up for.

Still, after all this reading and pondering about the very first R20 and its launching by NU with the support of Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo (who spoke at the R20), I come away encouraged that this momentum will likely produce change in the long run. One reason is the clarity of the goals established from the onset by NU. The Final Communiqué (available in this article) bears this out. The final goal says it all: “foster the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.” As I wrote in my book on justice and love, justice is about rights and it leads to a society in which everyone finds their place and are able to flourish – yes, and able to have a political voice.

Second, the most prominent speakers listed by the MLW on its news website. In order they are (notice NU comes after MLW):


      1. Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia
      2. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Secretary-General of Muslim World League
      3. Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama
      4. Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Vatican)
      5. Thomas Schirrmacher, Secretary General of the Protestant World Evangelical Alliance
      6. Archbishop Henry Chukwudum Ndukuba, Primate of the Church of Nigeria
      7. Reverend Yoshinobu Miyake, Chairman of International Shinto Studies Association
      8. Swami Govind Dev Giri
      9. Rabbi Silvina Chemen, Professor at Latin American Rabbinical Seminary
      10. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayah, Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies
      11. Bashar Matti Warda, Archbishop of Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq


Pope Francis also addressed the assembly in a recorded statement. Bin Bayyah appears (with typo), but in his connection to an NGO he helped to found. There are no Orthodox Christian leaders, but we find the Vatican represented along with the Iraqi Chaldean Catholic Church, the top Anglican leader in Africa, the leader of the World Evangelical Alliance representing 600 million followers globally, and finally, a Shinto, a Hindu and a Latin American Jewish professor. Many others were there also. See in particular this short video promoting the participation of the Mormon leader. It will give you a better feel for the pageantry of such occasions. [See also this 45-second Instagram montage of the handover ceremony to India]

But one thing is for sure. We should all applaud any initiative that seeks to make religion a solution to our world’s many problems, while condemning the many ways it has contributed to violence and oppression. We are in the debt of Indonesia’s Humanitarian Islam.

On October 8, 2022, I presented a paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society. It was a joint session with the International Society for Frontier Missiology and the paper’s title is, “Caring about Global Governance for the sake of Human Flourishing.” This was an opportunity for me to put on paper some of the material I have been working on for my book on Christian mission and human flourishing. I had already posted a two-part blog post related to this topic (“The New Economy and the SDGs”), but this was the opportunity to ground this project more specifically in mission theology.

In particular, this paper highlights some of the interviews I have been conducting with Christians actually involved in some aspect of global governance. Following John Kirton of the University of Toronto, I have defined global governance as including the plurilateral summit institutions (PSIs like the G7/G8, G20, BRICS); the many United Nations summits on specific subjects, but especially the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Summit on Climate Change, both in 2015; intergovernmental and multilateral agencies like the World Bank and regional ones like the EU, the African Union, etc.; and finally, NGOs, both in the business and development communities, and more broadly, civil society. All are stakeholders trying in one way or another to eradicate poverty and build a more peaceful and just world.