The Double-edged Sword of ISIS

Ali_Beheading_Nadr_ibn_al-HarithAli beheading Nadr ibn al-Harith in the Presence of the Prophet Muhammad. Miniature from volume 4 of a copy of Mustafa al-Darir’s Siyar-i-Nabi. Istanbul; c. 1594. The David Col.

When asked to contribute a blog on ISIS[1] to introduce the upcoming “Transnational Security Crises” seminar, my initial response was one of trepidation. The current state of affairs in Iraq and Syria is very complex, outside of my primary field of study (history of religion with a specialization in Buddhism), and unfolding in new ways that defy analysis even by experts of political science. And then, just as I was preparing to politely decline, an extremely informative FRONTLINE investigative report began to air on YLE 1. Watching The Rise of Isis (produced and written by correspondent Martin Smith), certain questions came to mind, questions that I realized may actually be of interest to others trying to make sense of this nascent force in the world. My limitations notwithstanding, I decided to share them here.

The first question to arise was how such a group could gain so much power so quickly. While assuming some knowledge of the situation on the part of the reader, it is still probably necessary to make note of the former Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki’s incendiary actions, the underlying Sunni-Shi’a sectarian divide in the region, 40% unemployment in Iraq, and the strong support of ISIS by al-Qaeda. After the exit of the United States, existing causes and conditions in Iraq literally ignited to become a self-perpetuating nightmare. In his interview with former Director of the CIA Leon Panetta, FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith suggests that the government “created the monster because of their fear.” Panetta’s response? “Exactly.”

One has to equally acknowledge the agency of ISIS itself, especially its ability to exploit chaos and obvious hunger for change. But what kind of change? Regime change? Religious reformation? What is the group’s motivation? Some, like Prof. Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, see its goal to be primarily political in nature: “ISIL primarily seeks to establish de facto sovereignty for Sunnis in territories in Iraq and Syria.” While this is not the place to enter into a discussion of (the neologism) Islamism, the extent to which the term can be applied to ISIS is certainly an important question.

But if the motivations of ISIS are political—and economic, considering the fierce battles waged over the oil-rich territories of Iraq—its language is clearly religion. Simply put, ISIS appears to be using religious vocabulary that is resonant with the cultural worldview of the region (and Muslims around the world) in order to achieve very worldly aims. ISIS is by no means the first religious movement to leverage faith to effect material and political gain, especially in the Middle East where religion and politics are so closely intertwined, but what strikes me about this case is the way in which it highlights some very fundamental contradictions and potential divides within Islam itself.

As one fighter in The Rise of ISIS puts it, “If you want God’s reward, start Jihad.” Such language is nothing new, of course. But stop to think about it for a moment in the context of political science rather than theology. Is God’s reward an oil well? ISIS strategists have succeeded in convincing people to fight—and to die—for an ideal that transcends this world, and yet the actual gains realized by their sacrifice are very mundane indeed. One has to wonder, will it be sustainable in the long run for ISIS to use a single—and, by its nature, exclusive—language for such competing agendas?

ISIS can also be credited with effectively exploiting the religious landscape of Islam in their establishment of a caliphate (khilafa). This is a hyper-charged term that summons for many pious Muslims an image of the golden historical period of successors after the death of Muhammad, a period when Islam spread rapidly from its humble origins. This image fits with the larger narrative that ISIS has painted for itself—traditional, righteous, and authentic—but, even more importantly, as a powerful religious image it invokes a sense of obligation in the believer to pledge loyalty. As Prof. Fred Donner of the University of Chicago notes, “There is a mystical belief that, if you just establish the caliphate in the right way, Muslims will come to you and everything will fall into place.” Yet, use of such terminology is risky. If anything, religious language can be factious. And now it has led al-Qaeda in Yemen to denounce ISIS and declare the self-proclaimed caliphate to be illegitimate. A strong wedge has just been driven between the faithful.

And, finally, we come to the beheadings, perhaps one of the things for which ISIS is best known, in part through the group’s use of social media. Despite attempts by YouTube and Twitter to take down videos and suspend accounts, they still spread—widely and effectively—once again demonstrating that something does not need to be smart, funny or cool to go viral, but rather the opposite. There are different theories why ISIS would take up such a gruesome practice: for the sake of sheer publicity, to shock and challenge its enemies, to differentiate itself from Al-Qaeda, and so on. From the perspective of religion, however, ISIS appears to be using decapitation both to frame itself in the historical tradition of hadiths and to send a clear message to other Muslims: get with our program or die.

The history of decapitation finds its roots in the Qur’an itself. Sura 47 says, “So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens.” This verse has been taken in very different ways over the centuries, either as an exhortation to behead one’s enemies or as a prescription to only do what is necessary in battle to take prisoners. Historically speaking, Islamic scholars have tended towards the former, more literal interpretation. For example, the widely studied commentary on this verse by the Sunni scholar Maḥmūd ibn ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144 CE) explains “strike [their] necks” as a command to aim directly at that place, to ensure that the enemy is killed. In support of its actions, ISIS draws on over a thousand years of tradition.

As might be expected, the Western media has focused primarily on the decapitation of Europeans and Americans. But ISIS has also posted photos of a number of beheaded Syrian soldiers (purportedly as many as 75). The question that keeps coming to mind for me, which I will close with here, concerns the battle over the defining face of Islam today. While ISIS may be able to attract fundamentalist followers through radical actions like beheadings, those with a different interpretation of the Qu’ran—or a different psychological disposition—may be actively repulsed by them. Initial stress fractures between ISIS and Sunni tribes in Iraq are evident. ISIS has chosen the path of the sword, but if some of the contradictions outlined here are any indication, it is a dangerous double-edged sword.

[1] My decision to use the acronym ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/Syria) rather than ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) follows the UN convention.

Text: Dr. Albion Butters, Lecturer, Department of Comparative Religion
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Markus Heide: Border Film and the US-Canada Divide

Do Canadians produce films? They most definitely do, and create varied, intriguing projections of North American cultures which may go far beyond projects already undertaken by Hollywood south of the border. Although Canadian film production may for the larger audiences be overshadowed by the massive scale and number of Hollywood productions, every now and then Canadian film and television break even that boundary, as proven, for example, by the international acclaim for the Quebec film maker Denys Arcand and his 1980s hits Jésus de Montréal (1989), Le déclin de l’empire americain (1986), and its more recent, Oscar-winning sequel Les invasions barbares (2003). But now I am jumping more boundaries than my topic implies; indeed, if there is a divide between U.S. and Canadian film, then there is a different divide between English and French Canadian film – and yet a different one between French Canadian and U.S. film.

The idea of divides, and specifically of borders which in some ways seem so easy to locate between nations but in others remain forever blurred and leaking, was the focus of Dr. Markus Heide’s talk at the JMC Current Issues Seminar on November 12. Dr. Heide, based at the Swedish Institute for North American Studies, Department of English, at Uppsala University in Sweden, focused on borders as ideas and images depicted in film and television, and also on their role in film production. Heide placed his talk in the framework of border studies, a field which in the words of David E. Johnson and Scott Michaelsen (Border Theory: The Limits of Cultural Politics, 1997), owes its existence to “the U.S.-Mexico border – the birthplace, really, of border studies, and its methods of analysis.” Heide recognized the importance of the U.S.-Mexico border in early North American film through Charlie Chaplin, who famously crisscrosses over the strikingly undefended U.S.–Mexico border in the silent film era classic The Pilgrim (1923).

Kuva 1From Chaplin’s border crossings, Heide turned his eye decisively to the north, showing how the U.S.–Canadian border has changed shape and taken on different meanings in the everyday life of communities on both sides of the border and in both documentary and fiction film engaging with the border as a location for various lived experiences. Drawing on border studies, Heide approached the border as a location which may appear as a divide, but is sometimes, perhaps more importantly, a zone of cultural contact, mixing, and hybridization.

The U.S.–Canada border was traditionally – and famously – framed as the world’s longest undefended border. So, long after the casual crisscrossings in Chaplin’s film became impossible due to increasing monitoring and even militarization of the U.S.–Mexico border, such nonchalant crossings remained, if not encouraged, then nevertheless rather unhindered on the thousands of miles of the U.S.–Canada border. That border often appeared in the landscape as merely a line in the middle of vast forests where all the trees had been cut down, or in the treeless Prairie as a line which barely left a mark on the landscape. Since 9/11, Heide pointed out, this kind of a soft, undefended border has been transformed into a protected border; not a militarized border like its counterpart in the south, but one which is under increasing pressures to stabilize and control this mutable zone from both sides of the border, and perhaps even more so from the south.

In the Canadian context, Heide showed how the dominance of Hollywood in the era of the fiction film spectacle caused Canadians to turn their eye toward the documentary film. The title of his example from this era, Two Countries, One Street (1955), speaks volumes of the experience of living on a “soft” border: the border exists; everyone probably knows where it is, but it may not appear as much of a divide in one’s everyday life. Heide showed that since those days, the U.S.–Canada border has changed shapes many times, and those changes are reflected in Canadian film, television, and other cultural products. As indigenous peoples have in the past fifty years or so found new ways to declare their continuing presence in North America, they have also found ways to speak against a border which does not reflect any traditional indigenous boundaries (Heide’s examples included the Canadian author Thomas King’s famous short story Borders and the recent U.S. film Frozen River, 2008). The border does not have the same meaning for all communities or individuals divided by it, and for some, denying the significance of the border has become an important means of self-identification.

On other fronts, Heide showed how Canadian television has taken the iconic U.S. story of A Little House on the Prairie and turned the setting into something rather more Canadian in the series A Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007-2012); and how the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) production The Border (2008–) at once mimics the frantic pace set by the U.S. hit series 24 and still carries different undertones, reflecting the documentary sensibilities of Canadian film and television history. Is Canadian film and television all about borders galore, then? In terms of national borders, no; but Heide’s talk opened up an important aspect of North American lived experience which is too often overshadowed by the interactions on the other U.S. land border, and suggested an enriched approach to borders and border studies by turning its gaze to the north.

Text: Dr. Janne Korkka, Coordinator of North American Studies Programme, Department of English
Photo: Laura Saloluoma


The Supreme Court as Politics

It seems like during the last couple of summers, scholars following the US Supreme Court (hereafter, the SCOTUS) have witnessed a familiar pattern: In the latter half of June, every new decision from the bench adds to the anticipation of the “big kahuna” – the landmark cases that even the European press covers extensively. In 2012, it was National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, or the “Obamacare” case; in 2013, it was United States v. Windsor, the same-sex marriage case; and this year it was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a case combining Obamacare and contraception. In fact, following Midsummer, when the big cases get decided (June 28, 26, and 30, respectively), it seems like “SCOTUS watching” is something of a national past-time. Then the buzz dies out.

The power of the SCOTUS, and its essentially political role, was the subject of Professor Mark C. Miller’s presentation at the John Morton Center’s Current Issue Seminar on Monday, October 20. In an hour, and in the following Q & A, Professor Miller showed how the judicial and the political are intertwined in the United States. As Miller argued, the SCOTUS is part of a political dialogue, bringing legal reasoning to a sphere dominated by emotions and ideologies of politics. The arena where the politics of the SCOTUS is perhaps most strikingly obvious, and which Miller touched upon in the Q & A, is the President’s nomination for a vacant seat on the bench and especially the confirmation of the nominee by the Senate. As President Obama stated in a recent New Yorker interview with Jeffrey Toobin, the SCOTUS nomination process brings the buzz back. Even as the Republicans have stalled, blocked, and challenged judicial nominations to lower courts (circuit- and district-courts), the significance of the SCOTUS nomination process continues to be “big,” Obama explained. (Read the full interview here:

While always a political question–John Rutledge’s defeated nomination to the Chief Justice under George Washington, perhaps, being the first example–this process has during the last half-a-decade become a partisan affair. In many ways, this dates back to Lyndon B. Johnson’s nomination of Associate Justice Abe Fortas to succeed Earl Warren as the Chief Justice in 1968 (Fortas was a close friend and confidant of President Johnson and his nomination was met with great opposition mainly from Republicans in the Senate). A surprised Johnson used his political arm-twisting to secure an end to a Republican filibuster and then withdrew his nomination, essentially saving his friend’s honor from rejection by the Senate. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times has pointed out, this must be seen as one of the most consequential political blunders of modern times, as Johnson’s successor, Republican Richard Nixon ended up nominating the next Chief Justice, Warren Burger. Since then the Chief Justice has been nominated by Republican presidents; Ronald Reagan nominated William Rehnquist in 1986 and, following his death in 2005, George W. Bush nominated the current Chief Justice, John Roberts.

The great partisan fights over SCOTUS confirmations erupted in 1987 when President Reagan nominated Robert Bork to succeed Lewis Powell. Senator Edward Kennedy condemned Bork in harsh terms, presenting Bork’s United States as a country where “women would be forced into back-alley abortions, [and] blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters […].” (See a YouTube clip of the notorious bashing at Following intense political warfare, the Senate voted 58-42, mostly along party lines, against the confirmation of Bork. The seat eventually went to the current swing vote of the court, Anthony Kennedy.

The next big fight came with Thurgood Marshall’s retirement from the bench in 1991. George H. W. Bush decided to nominate Clarence Thomas to the seat; ironically Thomas was Bork’s successor on the D.C. Circuit Appellate Court. Thomas’s conservative record was met with fierce opposition especially from civil rights and feminist groups; Thomas not only succeeded the civil rights icon Marshall but was himself critical of both affirmative action and Roe v. Wade. After a testimony of sexual harassment by a former employee, Anita Hill, and a sharp questioning by the Senate, Thomas called the process a “high-tech lynching of uppity blacks.” In the end, Thomas was confirmed by a razor-thin margin of 52-48, but the confirmation process was severely damaged in the process.

Since the Thomas confirmation, SCOTUS nominees have been evasive during the Senate hearings and, with the exception of Samuel Alito, they have been confirmed with comfortable margins, even if the opposition is mostly along party lines. The ideological homogenization within the political parties in the United States over the last half-a-century is clearly seen in these confirmations. As Miller pointed out in his presentation, we are at an interesting point in the history of the SCOTUS, following the retirements of David Souter and John Paul Stevens in the summers of 2009 and 2010 respectively, in which the justices appointed by Republican presidents generally vote conservatively, while the justices nominated by Democrats vote liberally. This means that the Court has a slight, inherent five-to-four conservative majority, with Kennedy being the most unpredictable among the conservatives and thus the main swing vote. At the same time, this highlights the politics surrounding the SCOTUS that Miller’s talk focused on, as some of the older justices are reaching conventional retirement age: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 81 years old, Antonin Scalia and Kennedy are both 78, and Stephen Breyer is 76. Some commentators have even taken the liberty to call for Ginsburg’s retirement to secure a fellow democrat the opportunity to appoint her successor. Ginsburg snapped back in a recent interview in Elle saying that Obama would not get an appropriate successor confirmed in the current political climate anyway. The judicial is indeed intrinsically political.

Text: Oscar Winberg, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Åbo Akademi University


When Law Meets Politics: From Bewilderment to AHA

I remember having read the right-wing author and columnist Anne Coulter entitle one of her columns “My court is bigger than your court” after the US Supreme Court had stopped the vote recount in Florida after the Presidential election in 2000, a recount which had been confirmed by the Florida Supreme Court. The role of the Supreme Court in the United States is bewildering to most Europeans, who are accustomed to an entirely different kind of judicial system and regard it self-evident that a court should not interfere with politics – or vice versa. However, in the United States all this is very different.

Dr. Mark Miller, Professor at the Department of Political Science, Clark University, USA, now the Distinguished Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in North American Studies at the University of Helsinki, gave an interesting and highly illuminating lecture about the political and judicial role of the US Supreme Court at the University of Turku on October 20, 2014. The event was organized by the John Morton Center for North American Studies.

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As Professor Miller stated, the US Supreme Court is “one of the most powerful courts in the world.” It has the right to make decisions on binding precedents and to interpret the constitution, and it has not hesitated to use these rights. Its status and will to act have actually become stronger over time. It has a clear political role in defining if the government or a policy is constitutional or not. Actually, it is not only the Federal Supreme Court which can declare acts, even government acts, as unconstitutional. Any court can do so (although lower courts very seldom do this). This underlines how intertwined politics and the judicial system are in the United States.

Also the process of electing the justices to the Supreme Court is very political: the President suggests a candidate, almost always from his own party, and the Senate arranges hearings before it decides whether it accepts the President’s candidate or not. Today, there are five Republican and four Democrat justices and, according to Professor Miller, for the first time all of the Republicans vote along Conservative lines, while all of the Democrats vote along Liberal lines. Thus, the political aspect is unlikely to diminish anytime soon, and we can expect more tough four-to-five decisions in controversial issues attracting wide publicity.

Americans would likely find it hard to fathom why Europeans think all this is so bewildering. As Professor Miller elaborated, Americans elect more lawyers to political posts than any other country. Already Alexis de Tocqueville compared the United States to France and England in Democracy in America in the mid-19th century. According to him, in the United States, every political issue becomes a legal issue, and vice versa, for lawyers are the American aristocracy. Sixty percent of the Senate, forty percent of the House, and more than half of the past Presidents have been lawyers. It is taken for granted that the judicial aspect blends into politics.

Whereas in Europe the term “government” means the political party in power, in the United States it refers to “institutions of power.” As Professor Miller explained, because of all this, “government” is actually seen as a form of dialogue, an institutional conversation about the Constitution, between the Supreme Court, the Congress, the President, and the states. In this process, the Supreme Court is a powerful voice, and it is the only one bringing in the judicial reasoning.

Professor Miller also gave examples of the Supreme Court’s “judicial activism.” As examples of Liberal activism, he talked about cases relating to freedom of speech, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a “Obamacare”), and same-sex marriage. As an example of Conservative activism, he presented cases of gun-owners’ rights and the rights to free speech and religion for family-owned corporations. One of the members of the audience expressed how difficult all this was to understand from a democratic point of view; to describe the differences of mentality, Professor Miller referred to the American and European concepts of democracy. According to him, the European conception usually deals only with the majority rule, whereas in the United States, the conception of democracy is not only about a majority; it is also a question of protecting political minorities, even when they are unpopular. Checks and balances once again, one might add.

All in all, Professor Miller’s lecture was, in its simple format – no PowerPoint, for example – a very good example of how clarity in expression and concrete examples can keep an audience extremely engaged and active; and of how to explain a political culture, the logic of which might at first defy the audience’s own. And all this on an extremely complicated issue. It was a very useful afternoon.

Text: Dr. Vesa Vares, Research Fellow, Docent, Department of Contemporary History 
Photo: Laura Saloluoma


Indian Summer

On April 29, 2014 the inaugural ceremony was held for the John Morton Center for North American Studies at the University of Turku. The event included a live documentary show by Professor Will Kaufman on “Woodie Guthrie: Hard Times and Hard Travelin.’” Profoundly influenced by the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, Guthrie traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California, where he met famed leftist writer John Steinbeck, and later to the Pacific Northwest, writing and performing folk songs concerned with the conditions faced by working people down on their luck. Guthrie is best remembered for his song “This Land Is Your Land.” Kaufman, guitar in hand, entertained the audience with some of Guthrie’s more controversial songs about social inequality, including several verses of the famous song that have often been omitted in subsequent recordings. This is a more controversial side of American history than the one often propped up in school textbooks, but Kaufman was quick to note that if anyone were to accuse Guthrie (or him) of being un-American, “them’s fightin’ words!”

The conference, “Bridging North America: Connections and Divides,” organized by the Center (August 28-30), also offered various perspectives on history, culture, and identity in North America, including presentations on travel and migration, ethnic identity, multiculturalism, American folk culture, indigenous voices, borderlands and notions of space, to name a few. All of the talks made valuable contributions to better understanding the rapidly changing economic, political, and cultural landscapes of the different countries. Traveling along the West Coast this summer, and visiting some of the places that Guthrie visited and sang about, like the Columbia River Gorge area (Guthrie wrote 26 songs in one month about the Columbia River; “paradise” he called it), I cannot help but feel that the numerous state and national parks, having preserved the (relatively) unspoiled nature and provided generations of families opportunities to reconnect with stories from the past, are one of the country’s best legacies. Guthrie, though, for all his appreciation of the natural beauty of the region, was primarily in the Pacific Northwest to document the damming of the Columbia River and government efforts to create jobs.

Today, tensions are no less heated than they were in Guthrie’s day regarding the role of government in the economy. Since the Great Recession especially, much attention in the United States has been devoted to the growing wealth gap between the wealthy elite compared to the overall citizenry. The Occupy movement of 2011 coined the political slogan “we are the 99%,” reflecting the opinion that 99% of the people are paying the price for the economic greed of a tiny minority within the upper class. The American popular narrative has always faced an inherent tension between the Horatio Alger myth of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps on the way to fulfilling the American dream and a darker history of the deck being stacked against minorities and generations of working people. In the current heated political climate, there is also renewed interest in focusing on the bottom 1%, predominantly made up of American Indians, to shed light on reasons for the increasing wealth gap and what can be done about it.

A friend of mine and her entire extended family were recently disenrolled from the tribal register of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon. It is part of a larger debate about who is “Indian enough,” cultural identity, and tribal disputes over money. Having reached epidemic proportions in recent years, it has divided communities and stripped members of payments, health benefits, pensions, and scholarships. Are interracial marriages and moving away from the reservation compromising cultural traditions? It depends on how one defines a sense of community. Since John Collier, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under FDR (1933-1945), first revived the reservation system as part of an effort to preserve American Indian culture and traditional economies, in the process helping to define modern tribes in their essentials and raise questions about the nature of tribal sovereignty and cultural identity, debates have continued over how best to deal with persistent economic inequality and a history of disenfranchisement. Should the U.S. government return stolen lands to Indian tribes, as one United Nations investigator studying discrimination against Native Americans advised the government to do as a way of combatting continuing and systemic racial discrimination? Or, does the problem reside in the reservation system itself (the government holds the land in trust while at the same time treating the reservation as a separate nation apart from federal and state law)? The first perspective blames the government for not doing enough, whereas the second blames it for already having done too much in marginalizing Indians and making it difficult for them to fully participate in the market economy.

In my time back in the United States for research purposes, I have been struck by a pervasive culture of volunteerism in which people are looking to their neighborhoods and local schools and organizations rather than the state for solutions to problems. But the issue of disenrollment also highlights the dangers of not having enough legal safeguards at the state or national level, of not having the means to borrow money or acquire and safeguard property, of not having access to basic social services, all issues that Woodie Guthrie would have been familiar with in his sympathy for the disadvantaged.

What would Woodie Guthrie have to say about the recent round of identity politics and accusations of a new war on poor people? Probably a great deal. Fortunately, a new generation of folk singers from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Wilco, from Jerry Garcia to the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco, to name a few, have paid tribute to his work and are helping keep his life and legacy alive for younger generations of fans who recognize the power of music in the struggle for social justice.

Text: Erik Hieta

The text was originally published at: