Preliminary Notes – NCORE (day 1, June 2, AM Session), National Harbor, MD



I’m sitting in what’s known as the Atrium, a huge glass dome that opens to the National Harbor and blue skies.  Off at a distance is the bridge into DC and over a hill, the upper edge of the Washington Monument is visible through the thick haze.

Muzac plays and there’s the low hum of chatter, people sitting at tables, talking on cell phones, talking and chatting with each other or, like me, simply writing and checking emails.  I’m sitting in the Belvedere Lobby, which in the afternoons becomes the Lobby Bar – expensive.  Beneath me is the Atrium – large ficus trees, fake tropical plants mixed with real ones, a loud water fountain and restaurants about the perimeter – sports bar, Italian, a quick get a salad and a beer or coke place.  I can hear the low level hum of chatter and the clinking of silverware on plates – breakfast.

10-11:30 (Potomac Ballroom 2/Convention Center, Level 2)
A Conversation with Reza Aslan
“Sectarian Conflicts in Pluralistic Societies: Iraq as a Case Study”


•    Ethnic diversity more often than not leads to violent conflicts between religious and political groups in plural societies such as Iraq
•    Although such conflicts in recent times may occur less frequently and bee less violent in American society, we need to gain a better understanding of these conflicts in other societies and what lessons they hold for us

(note 1: the media background of candidates is so important, it seems, highlighted with equal importance as the academic)

•    Recognize the way globalization is changing the way people are defining themselves and the assault on national identities
•    Redefining what society and community mean
•    Primary form of identity is national identity, which is no longer the way we see ourselves or even behave
•    We are going to have to deal with other, more primal forms of identity – ethnicity, etc
•    Challenge: US traditional – first nation state to be “minority, majorities” – inevitable conflicts that arise when religion, culture, and ethnicity begin to clash with national identities


•    Islamic Reformation: “reformation” not applicable to geo-political conflicts one sees in middle east; “reformation” – is a universal phenomenon, and ultimately it’s about the inevitable conflict btwn institutions and individuals about who defines the state – who holds the interpretive capacity? This process has gone on for centuries and we’re now experiencing the “end” of the reformation of Islam, the rapid individualization of religion, the democratization that comes when adherence achieves a certain level of literary and when technological advances (communication/IT), which parallel the printing press in the Christian Reformation, creates a more fractured community; the traditional forms are dissipating and anyone can become a source of authority and emulation. Over the last 100 years, in Islam, we’ve been experiencing the fracturing of the religion and becoming more profound.  It’s neither a good nor a bad thing.
•    When institutions are used to maintain a grip on the interpretation, it’s bound to create conflict and bloodshed.
•    Islam separated church and state 1500 years ago.  The true problem of totalitarian in the Middle East comes from sectarian groups; the only religious totalitarian government is in Iran.
•    Sectarian forces: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria – maintain a monopoly of discourse and have separated themselves from religious groups.  Religion thus becomes the sole means to express one’s political ideas. The only free space is the mosque. Part of the fracturing of Islam and the diminishment of interpretive power among clerics has lead to the politically active, socially active religious movements.  These are non-mosque based movements, such as Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, anti-institutional movements that define themselves in opposition to the clerics.  The perfect example is Al Qaeda, defining themselves against Iranian religious leaders.  Children of the Islamic reformation and disgusted by clerics, so they don’t have to look to mulas for interpretation of Islam.
•    The young find these leaders appealing because they wouldn’t be ‘caught dead’ in a mosque.  These movements exist because young Muslims don’t feel they have to get their religious education from mosques, turning to charismatic individuals that are socially conscious.
•    Taliban: diverse group, Pakistani and Afghan are different, the Afghan made up of half a dozen groups.  Taliban means student, kids members of a very conservative school that took on a political role in the 1990s when Afghanistan was taken over by warlords.  Mula Omar did not go to school; he is a tribal sheik.  Institutions were opposed to the Taliban – almost every Muslim country was against the Taliban, Iran even fighting alongside the US.
•    Iran: is it holding the “Ace” card?  Israel has becoming increasingly isolated, due to the incompetence of current regime (N); it’s living in era that no longer exists.   Other narratives are available and the Israeli narrative is no longer central.  The images of the Israeli ship event cannot be controlled.
•    “Special Relationship w/ Israel”: the normal issues, boundaries, concepts that tend to define international relations btwn two nation states do not apply when it comes to Israel; we get nothing from our relationship with Israel.  The relationship disproportionally favors Israel.  American national safety is in jeopardy.  Relationship needs to be brought into line.  The “special relations” status has hurt Israel.
•    Iran: complicated issue – a majority S’hia, which is much different than Sunni, where authority derives from text and tradition; the interpreters can maintain a real grip, a monopoly on religious interpretation (14 centuries of access).   In S’hia Islam, the sources of authority come from the Ayatollahs themselves, because they’ve reached a level of spiritual and intellectual authority.  Ayatollahs don’t have to refer to the Qur’an and can issue fatwa.  S’hia Islam can adapt and change; it’s more pliable.  In Iran, a country that’s very conservative, abortion, contraception and sex change operations are possible; they pass out clean needles for drug addicts. S’hia Islam allows for a single individual to make a judgment on a single individual.  The cons are that there is no single authority within S’hia Islam – 30 Ayatollahs have the same authority, no one having authority over the other.  S’hia Islam allows the worshiper to follow whichever s/he likes; allows for incredible diversity and innovation.
•    What we’re seeing in vibrancy in Iran in the political community; every month there are mass uprisings – unions, student groups, etc. Part of it has to do with S’hism, the sense of individualism: the individual is responsible for his /her relationship with Allah.  Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess; it’s in a moment of profound political change.
•    Iraq: majority S’hia country.  The most dynamic experiments taking place right now is happening in the S’hia world.  Iraq is much more diverse than Iran. Iraq has an overly expressive national identity – exaggerated patriotism.  US, by far, the most religious country in the modern world; we want public displays of religion.
•    Winston Churchill drew arbitrary lines and created Iraq.  Churchill gave them a fake name, Iraq, which means nothing and forced the notion of secular nationalism, a western notion, removing any attempts to define the country in indigenous ways. Sectarian conflicts then make sense since the people have never thought themselves in secular national terms; ethnic identities take a front seat.   Indefatigable nature of the Iraqis themselves.  Nothing that binds the citizens of Iraq together, except for a piece of paper.
•    Islam states conversations: are Islam and democracy reconcilable? 1/3 of Muslims live in democracy.  It’s a useless conversation because it’s not born out by empirical facts.  Iran is 98% S’hia and 96% Persian – the ideas of diversity doesn’t exist in Iran.  The challenge is greater in countries like the US, where we have to figure out a way of reconciling identities in a larger framework so that we feel that we belong to a greater society.  This is what’s really at stake when we speak about globalization.  Even in the US we’re seeing the fracturing of the American identity.  Episcopalian Church fractured into 2 communities around the issues of ordaining gays.

(note 2: Globalization is fracturing the US, too, and here we’re also experiencing the push and the pull, politically, between religious groups and groups with an exaggerated sense of patriotism.)

•    People that have very different view are challenging national Identity.  Judeo-Christian means Protestant. We need to rethink how we speak about moral issues.  Shifting moral landscape in the US.
•    Europe: no construction of minarets; France, strip yourself of identity, then you’ll be French; also banning the face covering, as a symbol of the “creeping” Islam.  This is about Europe; as a result of globalization, it’s becoming harder and harder to define what it is to be European – what does it mean to be French?  Europe has had a lot of practice in defining itself against other nationalities.  Islam is the “fall guy.”
•    India: rising economic power with tremendous diversity.  Partition was only 60 years ago, resulting in the most massive human migration.  US pluralism is an accident.  India, on the other hand, has constructed a firm a national identity and a civic identity as well, based not on ethnic or cultural or religious identification, but rather, on the notion of a greater national identity while being true to personal identities.
•    Our ethnic, cultural and religious identities are beginning to be resurgent and national identity is on decline.
•    The relations btwn nations are no longer the same.  What happens in Kashmir is affecting the US.

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