Proud Boys and White Nationalists: Christian Terrorists?
By Robert Bernstein
UCSB Professor Mark Juergensmeyer was recently interviewed by a reporter from The Economist magazine. She wanted to know what religion has to do with the rise in terrorism in the world today.
That was the subject of his April talk to the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara. Starting with the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Juergensmeyer is a pioneer in the global studies field, focusing on global religion, religious violence, conflict resolution, and South Asian religion and politics. He has published more than three hundred articles and thirty books, including the recent "God at War".
Gavin McInnes was the founder of the Proud Boys, one of the groups involved in that attack. Born in Scotland, his family migrated to Canada when he was four. He had been a reputable journalist and was a co-founder of Vice Media.
But he became a white supremacist and started a new mission in life.
Proud Boys takes its name from the song "Proud of Your Boy" from the Disney movie "Aladdin".
After McInnes stepped down from the Proud Boys, Cuban American Enrique Tarrio took over. Why would a Cuban American be a champion of white supremacy?
Juergensmeyer has been to Cuba and witnessed racism that was worse than in the US. Tarrio is typical of Cuban Americans who don't want to be lumped together with other minorities.
The Oath Keepers is another group that participated in the January 6 attack. It is composed of current and former military, police and other first responders. They imagine an American past of a Christian nation that never existed.
In fact, the Founders were mostly deists. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he referred to Nature with a capital N as the source of our rights.
QAnon is a wacky conspiracy theory that sometimes claims to be a secret branch of the government. It is led by an anonymous leader who calls himself Q. Their ideas are closely tied to religious concepts of Millenarianism and Apocalypticism.
The idea that we are in the End Times. Left Behind is a bestselling series of books that promotes this idea.
They see Trump as their savior. His actions as savior are prophesied to happen in his second term. Which is why they see it as so crucial that he win a second term.
They also deal with anti-Christ evil. This evil includes journalists as well as figures like Obama and Hillary Clinton. They have invented an utterly absurd array of conspiracy theories.
Notably, QAnon adopted the bizarre Pizzagate conspiracy theory which involves claims of pedophilia, child abduction and a DC pizza parlor. A Pizzagate follower Edgar Maddison Welch actually shot up that pizza parlor in his delusional state, thinking he was going to rescue children in their basement. Except the place has no basement.
Jake Angeli (born Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley) is the notorious character seen in fur and horns at the Capitol attack. He carried a sign that said "Q Sent Me" on one side. But on the other side it read "Hold the Line Patriots – God Wins".
Juergensmeyer showed other images from the Capitol attack with very clear religious messages. A woman carries a poster of Jesus wearing a MAGA hat. A massive wooden cross.
He showed an image of Oath Keepers bowing and praying before the Capitol attack.
He noted that churches don't support these groups in general.
But many of those participating in the attack care about white supremacy and Christian supremacy. Anti-Jewish themes are a part of this ideology. He showed photos of a man wearing a "Camp Auschwitz" tee shirt and another with a tee shirt proclaiming that "Six Million Wasn't Enough".
This was also seen in the Charlottesville riot. Their Christian ideology also includes being anti Muslim and anti gay.
Where is this discontent coming from? Globalization. A sense of losing national culture and feeling left out of one's own society.
Juergensmeyer noted this is not unique to the US. It is seen in Germany, Austria. Denmark and among Shinto Japanese. They want to recreate an imagined past that never existed.
Putin plays the same game in Russia. Juergensmeyer showed a photo of former Communist Putin posing with Russian Orthodox church figures.
It also explains Brexit in England. In fact, England has suffered economically from Brexit. And the mayor of London was originally from Pakistan.
Trump voters in interviews said the same thing as Brexit voters. It is about trade, foreigners and culture.
Juergensmeyer reminded us of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was not portrayed as a Christian. But Juergensmeyer said Christian identity was very important to him. When he was arrested, his trunk was full of copies of The Turner Diaries that he had been selling.
The Turner Diaries is about a fictional revolution in which Jews, non-whites and liberals are exterminated. It even includes details very similar to how McVeigh carried out his truck bombing attack.
McVeigh could not quote the Bible. It was not about that. It was about Christian identity.
Juergensmeyer wrote a book "Global Rebellion" that explained that for these angry white men it is all about three things:
Juergensmeyer went on to talk about the crisis in Iraq after the US invasion. Under Saddam Hussein Iraq had been secular. The war planners thought it would stay secular. But Iraq has religious divisions between the Sunni minority and the Shia majority. The Sunni had more power under Saddam Hussein.
But most Iraqis live in the fertile area near the Tigris and Euphrates near Iran which is mostly Shia, like Iran. The US invasion was a chance for the Shia and for Iran to take control of the country.
Juergensmeyer showed a photo of himself at a refugee camp. The refugees explained that as awful as ISIS may be, they represented a chance for Sunnis to regain power.
Another Millenarian vision. The Caliph. The Savior at the end of time. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed he was that prophesied savior.
Juergensmeyer showed an image of Mosul after US forces brutally bombed it. The excuse was to get rid of ISIS. But thousands of homes were destroyed. Making conditions ripe for a new ISIS.
He switched over to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. We think of Buddhists as being all about peace and non-violence. Yet Buddhist monks have attacked the tiny Rohingya Muslim minority.
Their attacks were savage. Burning villages and burning Muslims alive. The police just stood by and watched. What could justify that?
The Buddhists have the same fear as the white supremacists in the US: They fear globalization and a loss of their identity.
Time Magazine showed The Face of Buddhist Terror on its cover.
Wirathu is his name and Juergensmeyer had a photo of a meeting with him. He had a collection of news clippings covering himself, both good and bad. He asked Juergensmeyer, "Do I look like a terrorist?" Actually, yes was Juergensmeyer's reply.Juergensmeyer went on to discuss the issue of security in the case of the island of Mindanao in the South Pacific. It is technically a part of the Philippines, but for much of its history it was mostly neglected by the Philippines government. Except to the extent that the Moros, a Muslim minority there, were oppressed.This old Muslim kingdom considers itself separate. The Philippines government brought in Christians from other areas to change the character of Mindanao.
Some Moros identified with ISIS. To feel part of a global movement. They took a city hostage. So the government bombed the city and destroyed it.
Juergensmeyer talked to a man in that city. He had not been big on Muslim separatism. But the bombing made him oppose the government.
Amazingly, this story has a happy ending. Juergensmeyer was part of an effort to come to a negotiated settlement.
The Muslims were given autonomous regions in the southern part of Mindanao. So far, it has worked to keep the peace!
Juergensmeyer ended by returning to the central point of his talk: Why the return to religion? Because it all comes back to:
Globalization makes people feel uncertain. Religion tells you who is in charge and what to believe.Juergensmeyer is optimistic that there is a future beyond these divisions.
During the question and answer he gave the example of Northern Ireland as another case where seemingly impossible divisions were overcome. Decades of "Troubles" of bombings, assassinations and torture by both sides. People got exhausted. It took courageous people on both sides to move beyond the conflict.
Humanist Society President Judy Flattery asked about Biden's proposed withdrawal from Afghanistan.Juergensmeyer agreed that it is a gamble. But there is really no other choice. There is not just one Taliban. An agreement with one group may not be recognized by another. Some of the violence is among these Taliban factions. If a solution has not been found in 20 years it is not likely more time will help. Especially since the American presence itself is part of the conflict.
It is important to remember that the US is largely responsible for the oppressive power of extreme fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan. For decades the Soviet Union had backed a secular liberal government in Afghanistan.
Juergensmeyer was based in Punjab, India back then and loved to visit Kabul. Women wore skirts and it was truly modernizing.
It was President Carter and then President Reagan who funded and armed the most extreme Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan. Not as a response to the Soviets. But as an actual provocation to the Soviets to create a crisis. Forcing an invasion and a war that could not be won.
The result was a horrific war and a transition of Afghanistan to a most backward and oppressive form of Islam.
As long as the US remains there it is a recruiting tool for the Taliban.
Whether it is the Taliban, ISIS or the Proud Boys, people get caught up in what he called a "cosmic war". Fighting for something really big.
Perhaps if we give people something big and positive to be a part of, then they can get that sense while making the world a better place.
Juergensmeyer emphasized that peaceful settlements require all sides to feel that they have been heard. That their needs have been met. A good settlement does not have to give anything that either side may have been asking for. It may give something bigger and better that goes to the root needs that they really have.
For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to https://www.sbhumanists.org/