What inspired you to write Global Rebellion? What sparked your interest?
It began with the Sikhs. I lived with Sikhs in India and admired them, so I watched with horror as an awful spiral of violence between Sikhs and the secular state some 20 years ago led to thousands of deaths and the killing of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. So I went to India—and then to the Middle East and many other areas of conflict around the world—to understand why. The questions I had then are the same questions I have asked of every incident of religious confrontation since: Why is this happening now? And what does religion have to do with it?
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Religious rebellion against the secular state is found in every religious tradition—not just Sikhism or Islam. The people involved in these attacks are not evil or crazy—the ones with whom I talked believed passionately that they were soldiers defending their culture and honor and helping to bring about a more just political order.
Anything you had to leave out?
My book includes interviews with activists around the world, from Christian activists in the United States to Muslim militants in Iraq, but in most cases I didn’t tell how difficult it was to make contact with these activists, and how in some cases it took days or weeks to locate them, get them to agree to talk, and set up their interviews with me. Sometimes just finding their location could be a nightmare—like the time my taxi got lost in Gaza on my way to interviewing Hamas leaders and I had to go to the Islamic University to find the movement’s supporters who could help me find the address. But that’s another story—and maybe another book.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
The biggest misconception about the rise of religious activism? That there is something wrong with religion. The global rise of religious rebellion is not about religion—at least not in the narrow sense of fighting over theology or religious beliefs. It’s about social order and a perceived threat to their way of life. Most of the people I interviewed were not all that pious—they felt that their people were under attack and they were excited about joining the fight. When went to prison to interview one of the Muslim jihadi activists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, I was surprised how ordinary he seemed—using mild profanity and expressing an interest in blond-haired women. But he was passionate about what he perceived as injustice against the Muslim world.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I hope anyone interested in the rise of religious rebellion around the world can pick up the book, become fascinated with the case studies, and make sense of my analysis. If I can help make an impact on public attitudes and improve our government’s response to religious activism, that would be even better.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
I hope readers will have the same reaction that I had after I talked with religious activists and did the case studies—a sense of clarity, discovering that the confrontation between religion and the secular state is an understandable response to the social crises of the contemporary world. I hope the readers get angry when they realize that often a heavy-handed government response makes things worse.
What alternate title would you give the book?
Maybe I could have called it Inside the Mind of an Angry Religious World. But I can’t use that title since it sounds too much like my previous book, Terror in the Mind of God, and it sounds too much as if I think that religion is the problem. The scope of my book is broader—it deals with all movements of religious activism in the past 30 years, and deals with the strain on secular politics in a global world that has created it, causing many people to lose faith in secular nationalism and reject the religious-secular distinction that once was the hallmark of the modern West.
How do you feel about the cover?
I like the cover—it has pictures of humans on the cover, and this book is about humans, as well as about ideas. The picture of angry activists holding weapons illustrates the passion that often accompanies religious rebellion. I think the people in the picture are sort of generic—not particularly Muslim or Jewish or Christian, nor from any one particular region of the world—and this is appropriate since religious rebellion is a global phenomenon appearing in all religious traditions.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written?
I admire journalists’ interviews with religious activists in the Middle East and elsewhere, and I admire intellectual analyses of the crisis in modern secularism, and I appreciate political analyses of the social changes in the global world. My book is something of a cross between these three: it is based on interviews and contemporary cases, but it puts these cases in the context of larger social and political forces in this moment in global history. In the end it seems to me that this era of religious rebellion will be a temporary moment in history, one that will be supplanted by a sense of global order and mutual responsibility that will make us all feel more certain and secure about the world and our place in it. At least the optimist in me hopes that this will be our future.
What’s your next book?
War. I want to understand the odd attraction between God and war—why we humans love war, why our religious and other culture images from movies to computer games are saturated with images of warfare, and why war always has God on its side. This book will be based on lectures that I gave at Princeton University last year, trying to understand the awful attraction between violence and religion, and in the process hoping to learn more about each, and how we as humans think about ourselves and the world, in a world of God and war.