Choosing life, not terror

As I read about the young people organizing the uprising in Egypt, I keep thinking about Mark Juergensmeyer’s description of similar situations that have turned violent, and his arguments about why, in his book Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.

Juergensmeyer is writing about disempowered youth — primarily male — who turn to religiously sanctioned violence in particular settings. The triggers for this violent engagement are:

1) Unemployed young men cannot build careers or marry, and become hugely frustrated.

2) Religious movements provide a sense of meaning and belonging for young men who cannot establish traditional employment and families.

3) Religious appeals to frustrated young men cause them to perceive political/economic stagnation and repression as cause for holy war against secular regimes.

According to Juergensmeyer, these confrontations can build into “cosmic warfare” when these conditions are met:

1) The struggle is perceived as a defense of basic identity and dignity.

2) Losing the struggle would be unthinkable.

3) The struggle is blocked and cannot be won in real time or in real terms.

The path toward religious violence relies on a process of delegitimization of the perceived enemy. This process begins with creating a crisis of confidence regarding the authority of the regime in power and its policies. Next, this is extended into a conflict of legitimacy in which the challengers question the legitimacy of the regime. Finally, the situation is pushed into a crisis of legitimacy, where the entire regime and all its adherents are derogated as less than human, and therefore subject to justifiable violence.

Juergensmeyer draws examples of movements that have found adherents among disaffected youth, and mobilized them through each of these stages toward violent engagement; notably, he finds examples across (the extremes of) various religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism.

Young people in Egypt are standing on the first stepping stone Juergensmeyer describes: inadequate employment opportunities have stalled progress toward any kind of fulfillment for the vast majority of Egyptians — half of whom are under 24. As political researcher and analyst Dina Shehata says in an op-ed piece on

The Tahrir Square uprising “has nothing to do with left or right … It is about young people rebelling against a regime that has stifled all channels for their upward mobility. They want to shape their own destiny, and they want social justice” from a system in which a few people have gotten fantastically rich, in giant villas, and everyone else has stagnated. Any ideological group that tries to hijack these young people today will lose.

This is where Egypt’s path of resistance diverges from the road to religious violence. The religious resistance movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has deliberately taken a backseat role of followership and support, so as not to give Mubarak’s regime an excuse to portray the movement as an Islamic jihad, thereby justifying a violent crackdown. Participants in the resistance movement have found their sense of meaning and belonging in the resistance work itself, through their social networks: Facebook pages, tweets, blogging. Young resisters’ perceptions about political and economic stagnation are seen as cause for political regime change, not holy war.

The struggle is seen as a defense of basic identity and dignity, but over and over resisters have portrayed their struggle as that of Egyptians for Egypt; the refrain has been frequently heard, “We are all Egyptians ….” Accordingly, you see a Coptic Christian woman like Sally Moore — leftist, feminist, psychiatrist — working with the Muslim Brotherhood. You see Wael Ghonim — a young Google executive — imprisoned for his Facebook activism and then released to a media celebrity he insists on bending to the movement’s larger aims. Tenement dwellers, youth, lawyers, housewives … “We are all Egyptians.”

To pick up on another of Juergensmeyer’s points, loss in this struggle is considered unthinkable, but not because of ideological absolutism. Rather, loss has become unthinkable because victory is thinkable: because of the visibility of the Tunisian uprising, because of young imaginations spurred by educations and exposure to other ways of life in the world, because of the mobilization enabled by technology, and because of the forbearance of the Egyptian army that so far has identified more with its role as an agent of the people than of Mubarak’s regime. As the army begins to mobilize, I hope and pray it holds to this identification.

These last two realities are critical for obviating the third condition for cosmic warfare: a perception that the struggle is blocked and cannot be won in real time or in real terms. Mubarak’s regime has blocked the struggle for decades, but the resistance movement has — in its first two weeks of life — proved that the struggle cannot any more be completely shut down. It is far too wily — using feints and miscommunication to throw off the police — and is becoming far too widespread.

For the most part, too, the movement has maintained a sense of humanity. Even as the resistance movement has effectively created a crisis of confidence and legitimacy regarding Mubarak’s regime and everyone in it, it has not engaged in the kind of derogation that dehumanizes Mubarak or members of his government. A few signs have called for more than ouster; at least one protest included a figure hung in effigy. But for the most part, resistance has stayed on a human scale, with significant grief for those killed in the struggle.

This week’s readings for Christian church include one that has long been a watchword. From Deuteronomy 30:19:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live ….

Egyptians are choosing life, with each other and for each other. The United States political machinery is running slowly in response, unsure how or whether to keep up, bogged down by the tension between — as Roger Cohen puts it — between our values and our interests:

American values and interests do not always coincide — perhaps they rarely coincide. Diplomacy comes down to juggling them. That U.S. values are embodied on Tahrir Square is as clear as the lines of the pyramids. I say its interests, on balance, lie there too: in the establishment of a participatory society that would return Egypt to its pivotal place in the Arab world and give the young hope.

What we United States citizens say we value is on display in Tahrir Square: the democratic impulse, galvanizing human action.

Is it on display here at home?

When I first read Juergensmeyer’s book, I remember thinking how much of what he described was the lived reality of young men of color, particularly African-American youth.

Our school systems are disproportionately failing young people of color. Poor education outcomes lead to unemployment and underemployment, which makes establishing a life and supporting a family difficult if not impossible. Some of our youth make it through sufficient education and engagement to make a life; some fall off the edge of our society into an abyss of drugs, alcohol, gangs and/or crime.

Our response as a society to these young people of color is to arrest, sentence and imprison them in numbers far out of proportion to their representation in our nation. It is, I surmise, this very high rate of arrest and incarceration that has so far prevented any kind of organized uprising against a clearly unjust state of affairs.

Choose life, God says. Who are we to stand in the way of that choice?

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