Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Rentier State and Religious Extremism

In class the other day, Monday, we talked about Islamic extremism. I brought up a point that I would like to discuss further; that since some secular states of the Islamic world have failed the populace by not providing a better standard of living and quality of society (in their view), the Salafist view of a caliphate becomes appealing to many. Since the modern, inherently Western, world has corrupted their leaders and caused conflict, some Islamic populations want to go back to a time when they were "in charge". The great caliphates of the medieval times produced breakthroughs in every part of society; the Muslim world was prospering. With the advance of globalization and "Western greed", some think that going back to this structure of government will produce prosperity again since the caliph is holy and a descendant of Muhammad.

But what is a rentier state, and what does this have to do with anything? A rentier state is a nation which generates most of its revenue from the rent of a natural resource to an external client. I was first exposed, and enlightened, to this concept by Professor Webb in his International Politics of the Middle East last fall. I subsequently wrote a blog post for his class on how the rentier state makes the Middle East an 'exceptional' region.

But now I am here to write about it again, in a different lens.

Many Islamic states are rentier states: the Gulf states in the Middle East, Iraq (used to be), Egypt, Saudi Arabia to name a few. The elite in these countries generate enormous wealth, and in some cases use this wealth to enhance their countries. In Kuwait, the people there pay very little, if at all, taxes. In response, it is a monarchy with no representation. No representation without taxation. In Egypt, the Suez Canal generates a hefty amount of income. Thus, Egypt has less incentive to diversify its economic portfolio; which translates into less jobs and industry. The same goes for oil producing states. Why diversify if you're making a killing on natural resources? These resources are used to enhance the power of elites, political parties, and autocrats in the region.

What does this have to do with religious violence? I go back to the point I made in my first paragraph. These rentier states, often highly autocratic in some way, often don't provide a better quality of life and security to their citizens. While secular, their populaces view them to be "puppets" of the West; in it for money, not for the population. By the Salafist vision of a pan-Islamic caliphate, it is more likely to focus on Muslim well-being as well as be a religious (thus moral in some's views) state. Some Salafists have chosen to used Jihad in three ways in order to accomplish a pan-Islamic state: increased individual piety, non-violent actions, and violent actions. Obviously, we can see where Al-Queda and religious violence fits in. But it is important to note that to be a Salafist, doesn't make you violent. Neither is it the case where if one is violent, it means that their a Salafist. My bottom line is because rentier states in the region have not provided for their population, Muslims feel like they haven't gotten a "fair shake" from the West or the international system. Thus some turn to violence in order to achieve a pan-religious-state which will not "embarrass" their pride in the international system while being religious in the same context.

What can we do to solve this? It all comes down to good governance. Now, I am not saying that good governance will end religious violence, because it won't. However, with better governance, prosperous people, a system where change can occur, and less corruption; religious violence may be less appealing and even opposed by many because it will disrupt a good status quo. The Arab Spring is a promising start in some cases, but much needs to be changed in the region. If rentier states devoted more resources to helping people, and developing quality governance, we just may see less religious violence with Salafist motives. If we could curb a cause of one motive of religious violence, isn't it all worth it in the end?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Government is a Means to an End for Religious Extremists

After reading the sections on the 3 major monolithic religions in Mark Jurgensmeyer's Terror in the Mind of God and learning about the theological concepts which fuel conflicts, it became very apparent to me that religious extremists (in our view, not theirs) view government as means to their ultimate goal (which varies). Government and politics don't matter; legislative processes, and international affairs can mean very little in some cases. Religious extremists participate in government (at times) to achieve their cosmic goals, which can mean having a messiah come, establishing religious rule in order for a messiah to come, or for the world to get salvation.

What I mean by these statements is that actions such as Goldstein massacring innocent Muslims, McVeigh blowing up a federal building, or young Muslims blowing up bombs in Israel do not regard political repercussions as consequences. Do you think Goldstein cared about the political deterioration between Israel and Palestine? Do you think it mattered to McVeigh how U.S. internal security would react to an act of domestic terrorism? I think not. These extreme ideologies have to deal with government in order to achieve goals, but in the long scheme of things, government is ether an obstacle or inconsequential.

The point I am trying to develop here is that we (by "we" I mean modern society) are ruled by a government, representatives, monarchs etc. In order to accomplish our goals in life, we have to play with the system (and work it if you're good enough) in order to succeed in our aims. Its a paradigm that we're all familiar with. Religious extremist don't have to play with the system to get what they want. Mass cosmic salvation, or the coming of a messiah, isn't something you can get by going through with the system. Extremists can use the system for their advantage, but ultimately it is another thing that is minor in their larger aims.

This was just a thought, maybe controversial. Feel free to disagree with me. My statements don't reflect all extreme parts of religions, but primarily extreme Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Let me know your thoughts!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ethnic and Religious Identities; Further Separating an Increasingly Connected World

Some people reading this post may get the wrong idea when they first read this title. I would like to preface this post by recognizing that religion has many wonderful and positive qualities which bring people together by extraordinary means. What I plan to talk about is in no way trying to undermine these positive qualities.

After reading Eller and Teehan, and adding some Avalos in there, it has become even more apparent how divisive religion and ethnicity can be. This observation is nothing new and perhaps, too simple. It is human nature to form and be identified with groups, cliques, and organizations. Everyone, including myself, is guilty of this. In our struggle to form an identity, we use groups to define who we are. It comes with our competitive nature; which group is the best? This group mentality is magnified when it comes to ethnicity and religion.

Eller states that ethnicity is a conscious culture which mobilizes itself to compete with others. Ethnic groups afford some of the same benefits as religion; community, practice, institution, group privileges and an identity. It separates humanity into groups, with each coming into competition with others. Ethnic groups, are distinguished from each other by "the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that encloses it." (210) These boundaries could vary from geographical to physiological. Ethnicity provide another way for humans to group themselves. The same could be said of religion. Though it gets more complex with the metaphysical and cosmic aspect, humans are further separating, and subsequently defining themselves.

Now where does the conflict come into play? Conflict can start from different ethnic groups, or different religions, fighting over sacred space, resources, or physiological reasons. Teehan goes into detail on how one group can physiologically demonize another group by "characterizing foreign people as "abominations" and as "unclean"" to trigger "our evolved contagion-avoidance systems" (152). The fact that humans can possibly see others as "unclean" is the point I am trying to make. Ethnic and religious differences can separate us to the ends that we see others are things to be exterminated is horrifying. Our perceived differences are so powerful, that we have to the potential to dehumanize other as unfit for life. Our boundaries are stronger than our sense of humanity, at times. Religion and ethnicity are not the only factors to this, but each lie at the core foundation of one's values, perceptions and what one thinks and see's as truth. As a result, it has to be a starting point to see the origins of group-on-group violence.

In an increasingly interconnected world where people from different cultures and views are interacting, these ethnic and religious barriers are simultaneously being knocked down and fortified at the same time. Its part of who we are. We, as humanity, will never give up our groups. Bringing out the inner idealist in me, if we didn't separate ourselves into groups and malign others, would we have so much conflict? Even if we just stopped judging those with different than us (that don't actively harm others), would we have so much conflict? What I am trying to say is, are all political/religious conflicts based on the premise of group competition? (On a side note, another entire argument can be made that groups are the only reason we have politics and the essence of conflict itself)

Groups and identities define who we are and help create who we become. The group mentality fosters competitiveness and conflict. Compounded with different politics, religious views and senses of truths; humans have a lot of differences. Some people in this world fail to remember no matter what defines you, we're all the same in the end.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why the Sociology Theory of Religion helps give an Insight to Politics

After reading Chapter 1 of Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, I was pretty impressed. As a political science major and working towards a security studies certificate, I haven't been exposed to much sociological theory. However Berger's piece made complete sense in my mind, and it served to do more than just tell me about the creation of society.

Society gives mankind three things; externalization, objectivation, and internalization. I am not going to go over them since we talked about them in class today, but they do provide a common basis on which to start the analysis of how someone formulates their views, and consequently, lives their lives by them. I took these three pillars as being the key to understanding the lens the individual uses to make religion their own. The personalization of religion, morals, and truths; the cornerstone to understanding why a person does a specific thing. Pretty powerful if you're looking for reasons of a decision...or trying to manipulate them.

I also took these three pillars as the process of the transfer of ideas. Essentially how ideas are developed and transmitted to another person. Each generation has a different way of transferring ideas, but it all goes through these three processes. It almost reminds me of the movie "Inception".

These three processes are relevant for politics. If one is analyzing leaders of certain states, non-state actors, or movements, learning their truths - how they perceive the world to be - is an immensely important factor. There is an age old saying of "put yourself in their shoes." That's entirely true. However, you also have to walk around in those shoes. To understand the decision-making process of certain people, you need to understand their truths and how they were brought up. You need to understand how they underwent the transfer of ideas. Why are they acting like this? Why do they support something different than I do? How can I understand their point of view in order to have a sustained dialogue?

One can try to look into a person's upbringing, but sometimes its just not possible. The broader picture that I am trying to pitch is that, in politics, leaders are guided by using their worldview in a specific context. This is the constructivist concept of international relations, in a sense. But what this process shows is the root of ideas. If one can successfully understand the other side, they could potentially communicate more efficiently to advance policy goals...or solve religious conflicts.