Mark Juergensmeyer has spent over thirty years studying the ways in which religion-related violence has arisen in a variety of situations around the world. In this volume, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends, Juergensmeyer addresses the question of how religious violence might, one way or another, to a greater or lesser extent, come to an end. In doing so, it rests of the back of two of his previous books, Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State (University of California Press, 2008) and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, 4th ed. 2018).
As in his earlier work, Juergensmeyer’s conclusions are based on meticulous empirical research. He interviews both key players and foot soldiers who have been involved in initiating and carrying out (or combating) violent activities that had mostly ceased by the time the research for this book commenced. The interviews took him to prison, a refugee camp, and various other locations, including the private homes of some of his interviewees. The author also provides comprehensive background information on the three discrete movements with which the interviewees were associated.
The first case study to come under Juergensmeyer’s scrutiny is one with which he was already familiar from his earlier studies–that of ISIS (the Islamic State, based in Iraq and Syria) which, having ruled over large sections of the region from 2015 to 2017, was territorially defeated by 2019. The second case, which involved new territory for Juergensmeyer, involves the Moro Islamic Liberation Front–a Muslim separatist movement that fought for the independence of the Muslim Province of Mindanao in the southern Philippines from 1969 to 2019, when a peace agreement was ratified by a plebiscite. Juergensmeyer selects this as an example that illustrates the possibility of a transition to non-violence through skillful negotiation, not unlike what occurred in Northern Ireland.
The third case, one well-known to Juergensmeyer, centers on the Khalistan movement for Sikh separation in Punjab. This movement involved deadly conflict with the Indian government throughout the 1980s, the most notable occasion being “Operation Blue Star,” the code name for the storming of the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar on the order of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June 1984. Over two days, more than two thousand people, including large numbers of peaceful worshippers, were killed. Then, in October of that year, Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh, following which over two thousand more Sikhs were massacred in acts of vengeance in Delhi and elsewhere. Many more lives were lost before an uneasy peace was brokered in the mid-1990s.
One observation that lies at the heart of the dilemma faced by a government confronted with a violent movement is that something needs to be done and violence can often be suppressed only by resort to further violence. But, Juergensmeyer insists, it is important that the retaliation follows the rule of law (134). All too often government agencies, be they the military or the police, have engaged in rape, pillage, torture, and/or extrajudicial killings–actions that are more likely to exacerbate than to appease the violence, and often fuel expectations of the inevitability of an imminent “cosmic war”—the concept Juergensmeyer uses to describe "a form of absolute war that is totally merged with a religious view of the world" (9), often "imagining that God is guiding military engagements that ultimately are waged on a transcendent spiritual place" (12).
But while force may be necessary, it is not sufficient to bring about a lasting peace, Juergensmeyer contends. In each of these conflicts, there are several different constituencies involved. These range from the leaders and policy makers to foot soldiers on both sides. Also, importantly, there are those who, at least initially, are uninvolved, but over whose territory, be it villages or towns, the battles will be fought. What Juergensmeyer’s research demonstrates clearly is the importance of winning hearts and minds. At the local level, the provision of roads, schools, clinics, and general welfare is a far more efficient means of securing long-term support than the imposition of terror. And, perhaps most importantly of all, is the need to ensure that past, present, and potential participants in a movement do not feel they have to resort to violence to achieve their goals; rather than being “othered,” they should be listened to, treated with respect, afforded dignity, and given a meaningful role.
While the perpetrators of violence are frequently driven by political, economic, or social motivations as much as, if not more than, by religious expectations, religious ideals can be significantly more intransigent than those with a purely secular basis. Therefore, it would have been surprising if Juergensmeyer had arrived at an unambiguous conclusion as to the most effective means of ending all religion-based violence. But that does not mean that we cannot learn a great deal from his research. A key question that he highlights is whether the image of cosmic war can be constrained as part of a legendary culture, which is the case in many traditions. How can true believers come to live with an imagined rather than an actual war? Juergensmeyer's account of the trajectories of the three movements clearly indicates that it is possible for apocalyptic ideas to be transformed from those of a terrorist regime into those of a benign cult.
The ways of God may remain exceedingly strange, but the insights Juergensmeyer gives into the lives and thoughts of his cast of forty-three actors offer us glimpses into the various processes involved in some of God’s ways. Anyone, be they theologians, religious studies majors, sociologists, psychologists, historians, politicians, lawyers, those entrusted with the arts of conflict resolution, or just a member of the public, should read this book. In doing so, they will come to understand more about the many subtle (and not so subtle) processes by which men (usually) can steer situations either towards tragic disasters or in the direction of those more promising situations When God Stops Fighting.
Eileen Barker is professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and an honorary research fellow with INFORM.
Date Of Review:
February 17, 2023
Mark Juergensmeyer is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and William F. Podlich Distinguished Fellow at Claremont McKenna College. He is author or editor of thirty books, including the award-winning Terror in the Mind of God and the recent God at War.
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