A schoolmate of mine from undergrad commented to me that she believes what I’m doing here on this site is as kind of public theology. She said “anytime that you are considering questions of community and culture, with a lens on religion, you are asking and answering God questions….therefore, theology.” This sort of misconception is common, because most people do not understand what a person in the field of Religious Studies does. Therefore, it is the fate of those in my field to dispel such perceptions one person at a time.

To me, a critical difference between a religious scholar (theologian) and a scholar of religion (secular academic) is an interest or disinterest in supernatural forces (God, angels, devils, etc…). Theologians care about the supernatural and wish to understand the intentions of a supernatural force (God) that they worship. However, secular scholars, such as myself, have no interest in understanding the supernatural. Secular scholars in the field of Religious Studies are instead interested in the natural (human) intentions and behavior: specifically of those who would be categorized as ‘religious believers.’ Read the rest of this entry »

Iranian state media has reported that 5 top commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have been assassinated by a suicide bomber along with at least 26 others. The attack occurred in a region of south eastern Iran that borders Pakistan. 

Information being provided by Iranian state media indicates that the Revolutionary Guard commanders were meeting with local tribal leaders when one or two explosions went off and killed the commanders as well as the tribal leaders that they were going to meet. 

The south eastern region of Iran is a very volatile region due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working in the area.

The attack is being claimed by Jundullah (Army of God), a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shia led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003. It is said that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda. The group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran. 

Today’s attack highlights how the Taliban and al Qaeda’s regional influence is spreading. The suicide bombing is a hallmark of the al Qaeda playbook. While Jundullah has used suicide bombers in it’s attacks before, such actions indicate that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al Qaeda within Pakistan’s borders.

A New Path In Afghanistan?

October 6, 2009

The United States lost no troops when it toppled the Taliban in 2001, but has lost more than 800 in Afghanistan in the years since. Most of these troops were lost after 2006 when the real fight was taken to quell Taliban insurgencies aided by outside groups. Now the American military commanders have indicated that they are moving from a counter-insurgency plan to a more regional encompassing counter-terrorism strategy. This new approach would certainly include Pakistan, because a counter-terrorism strategy would have to focus on al Qaeda and the group’s leadership are currently hiding within Pakistan’s boarders. Read the rest of this entry »

With Iran continuing to dominate international news media, I thought it an important exercise to distinguish Iran from other Middle Eastern countries. 

Because of the representations of the Middle East that the U.S. is exposed to through various forms of mass media, Americans hold many stereotypes about the region: lavish sheiks, militant clerics, harems, cruel punishments, oil, and totalitarianism represent the Arab portion. The Israelis are viewed as being heroic, outnumbered, and tough. Yet, accurate representations of non-Arab countries like Iran often get lost due to the tendency of Americans to confuse and oversimplify cultural representations. 

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This site takes a pluralist approach to its analysis. Pluralism refers to an image of international relations that assumes that non-state actors (NSA) are important entities in state affairs. The state is not necessarily a rational and unitary actor, but is composed of a multitude of competing bureaucracies, individuals, and groups. The agenda of state politics is extensive and goes well beyond security concerns. Most of the work on decision making and transnationalism falls within the pluralist image as the result of a focus on a multiplicity of factors and actors. The political situation in Afghanistan is a prime example of this view’s scope.  

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The Deobandi Movement

August 31, 2009

In my post on the Taliban last week, I explained that the Taliban’s brand of Islamic radicalism has been significantly influenced by the Deobandi movement. Since that post, I have received several requests asking me to explicate on the history of the Deobandi movement itself. 

The Deobandi movement has evolved out of a Sunni reformist movement. It began in the Indian subcontinent, but it’s political expression and ideology were co-opted by Pakistan’s Jamiyyat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI). The JUI are a religious party with a strict, militant, anti-West, and anti-American culture. The JUI also hate anyone who is a non-Muslim. The JUI trained many members of the Taliban in their madrasas (seminaries). These schools were first set up for Afghan refugees in the Pashtun heavy areas of Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war.

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Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is defending his choices for his new cabinet. The men, and surprisingly women, chosen by Mr. Ahmadinejad appear to be chosen for their loyalty, and not necessarily for their skills. However, conservative hardliners, who normally back the president, have come out against his female picks. This would be the first time in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic that the government included women. 

Mr. Ahmadinejad is publicly defending his choices at the start of a three-day vetting process by parliament. Under the president’s proposed list, women would head the ministries of health, education, and social welfare. Opposition to Ahmadinejad’s picks is not only coming from his conservative allies who dominate the parliamentary assembly, but also moderates who say his government is illegitimate. 

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Today, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the leaders of the opposition to be prosecuted for post-election unrest. 

“Those who have organized, provoked, and implemented the desires (protests) of the enemy should be dealt with decisively,” he said in a speech before thousands of people at Tehran University. 

During its first decade in power, the Islamic Republic of Iran was authoritarian in nature: it had strict limits on political participation. But the political system has experienced a loosening of restrictions since the 1990s. Societal pressure from women and younger voters has renewed emphasis on civil society, conforming to laws, and democracy. But even with those democratic demands, there was still a fair amount of uniformity in the state’s government. 

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The House of Saud (royal family of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia) has been at overt odds with Osama bin Laden since 1994. At that time, the Kingdom revoked his citizenship and froze his assets within the country. This was due to bin Laden’s support for militant movements within the country. Once this happened, bin Laden was moved to the fringes of Saudi society and became more outspoken against the royal family. Bin Laden and dissident activists have called for the removal of the House of Saud ever since. 

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The Taliban

August 27, 2009

With the war in Afghanistan all over the news, people keep asking me “Who are the Taliban?” 

The Taliban were originally a band of madrasa (seminary) students (taliban) who were living as refugees in Pakistan. Many of the men who made up the Taliban were veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war. They had returned to Afghanistan after the Soviets departed. They spent their first couple of post-Soviet years pushing their ideology and cultural moral codes across the country. The group was primarily made up of Pashtuns (ethnic Afghans), but quickly overwhelmed the Northern Alliance of non-Pashtun minorities.

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