Tashkent – More Soviet than Silk Road (so far)

Last night, after arrival into a mid-size airport that functioned fairly well and that kind of a drive through empty streets where you try to get a sense of the city in a jet lagged blur as it zooms by, we got to bed around 4am.

Tired at the Tashkent Airport

Tired at the Tashkent Airport

I hit the ground running at 7am with a visit to the City Palace Hotel’s exercise area. I came down from my 11th floor wood paneled room. They had a serviceable room with two treadmills, some weights and a stationary bicycle. The steam room was small and beautifully tiled, and I would have tried to capture some of the sense of a hamam except that it was the hottest steam bath I had ever been in! A quick stop in the sauna and some laps in the pool completed my gym journey. Breakfast in the surprisingly cheerful and reasonably sized coffee shop. Overall, I get the sense that someone with moderate aesthetics, taking a signal more from a nice Hilton than from the empty and grand monstrosities of the old Soviet empire, built this hotel.

Most of the streets are very modern.

Broad avenues

Broad avenues

People that I see so far look generally white, along the same spectrum that white folks in the U.S. would look. They don’t appear central Asian – well some do a little bit – is this a city vs country thing? The good morning greeting is “Salaam aleikum.” Neither last night at the airport nor today at the hotel do I see anyone in any form of traditional dress. A quick walk next door to the Timur Museum did reveal two women in brightly colored hijab. The young men hanging around the lobby of our hotel are wearing football (soccer) polo shirts and either shorts or slacks.

A few traditionally dessed women walk in front of the Timur museum

A few traditionally dressed women walk in front of the Timur museum


The emotional roller coaster of the peaceful Syrian revolutionaries of 2011


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Today a MESA panel discussed how the people committed to the Syrian revolution of 2011 experienced and continue to experience their lives. The most powerful was a presentation by Professor Wendy Pearlman of Northwestern University. In 2012 and 2013 she interviewed revolutionaries who had fled Syria to Jordan and Turkey. She speaks of four phases of fear:

  1. Fear as the coercive authority of the state: Before the revolution, “the walls have ears” and rumors of information about torture are everywhere.
  2. Fear as a barrier to be broken: During the protests, people muster a new ability to act through or despite fear. Some quotes: “Is that protester a man and I’m not a man?” “My generation could go out and protest, my parents experienced Hama 1982 [a massacre of protesters by the Hafez Assad regime].” “I engaged my humanity for the first time.” “It was better than my wedding day.”
  3. Fear as way of life: As the revolution devolves into a civil war, fear becomes the backdrop. People experience terror physically – breaking out in acne, having digestive problems. Horror becomes normalized – bodies buried in every public park, weekly routine planned around Friday massacres. From “Thank goodness the walls no longer have ears” to “Yeah, but now we don’t have walls.”
  4. Fear of the future: Now many of these young peaceful leaders are in exile. To some extent they have lost the sense of solidarity. They are closing in on themselves. They fear the radical Salafi trend: “All people could talk about in October 2013 was “Da’ash: ‘We did all these things for the revolution, and then Da’ash came and did all these things.’ The fear of the regime is gone, but now there is a fear of revolution itself.”

Emotion, experience and academic distance?


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Yesterday I attended the Middle East Studies Association meeting in which panelists and members discussed the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, in front of a meeting tomorrow to consider the Association joining the movement somehow. Professor Noura Erekat of George Mason University spoke in favor and Professor Ilan Troen of Brandeis University spoke against BDS. Then various professors and graduate students in the audience advocated for or against the idea of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel.

A few interesting points. Professor Erekat thinks a. Israel is treating Palestinians terribly (war on Gaza, settlements, ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, the wall on West Bank land, etc.) b. all other options have failed and therefore c. MESA should support the BDS movement, even though it is only “a pathetic counterforce.” Professor Troen argues that a. Israeli Palestinians are well integrated into the Israeli educational system (1/3 Haifa U students are Palestinian, 22% of pre-med students are Palestinians, the most successful school is in the Arab triangle, there are many outreach programs for Palestinians) and Jews are native to the land, so this is not apartheid, b. academic organizations should not take stances on difficult political issues that are not apartheid and therefore c. MESA should not support the BDS movement.

Other speakers joined the debate. Several anti-BDS speakers argued hypocrisy, or in the words of one (Prof. Josh Teitelbaum) the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that we don’t discuss boycotting Libya, Iran, the corrupt PA, etc. Another argued that “BDS is an extension of warfare,” not a peaceful move. A conflicted Israeli professor argued that he does not want to be cut out of his “home” in MESA, but that “we need pressure from the outside. It is legitimate – I don’t see any internal force in my country that will change the situation.” Pro-BDS speakers, especially Professor Judith Tucker, noted that MESA can tailor its type of BDS and not isolate Israeli colleagues.

The room, I believe, held Israeli actions primarily responsible for the situation of the Palestinians, as indicated by applause when speakers pointed out Israeli injustice. Most of the discussion was polite. Several comments caused significant muttering disapproval. One was when Prof. Teitelbaum called BDS anti-Semitic, another when Prof. Troen’s responses to questions were heard as unrealistically portraying Palestinian Israelis as happy and successful. By far the most censure (perhaps disappointment?), however, was expressed against the pro-BDS Professor Lisa Hajjar when she described Prof. Troen as having limited intellectual ability. (Those words may not be exactly right, but they are close.) People were quite upset by that ad hominem attack, which she said that she “withdrew.”

When does it become incumbent on an organization of academics to take a political (ethical? moral?) stance? When is consensus a form of working together in unity, and when is it enforcing conformity?

So much for modernity


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Once again I find myself deeply thankful to Dr. Muqtedar Khan. I was his guest at the Jerrahi tekke, or Sufi Lodge, in Istanbul.ilminfazileti_1337523976184

The spaces are small but rich in history. The complex has about six rooms that I saw, with the main room having some attributes of a mosque. The focus is a beautifully tiled mihrab pointing the direction of Mecca. A balcony for women surrounds several sides, and the walls are completely covered in framed calligraphy – names of Allah, the Prophet, the Companions, and the founder and leading Shaykhs of the tekke. They did not allow photography, but after some searching I found this photo on a website featuring a list of tekkes in Istanbul.

We entered at about 7pm to find men sitting around in small groups, most wearing white caps. Women and kids were passing back and forth through to the balcony. There was quiet talking, and as Dr. Khan described it, fellowship. Some of the men are just members of the lodge, and some are darwishes – those who seek to follow this particular shaykh’s path to awareness of God. Over the next hour the rooms filled, and at about 8:30pm all aligned to say the Isha, or night prayer. After the prayer, people shifted a bit and the prayer leaders started to sing and chant. Occasionally there were full responses from all – mostly Amen, sometimes praises to God. Slowly the congregation took over from the prayer leaders with repetitive chanting. They began to bow slightly to one side and another. The chant was very simple – often just “Allah”.
Sometimes what is being chanted changed, and the volumes and speed rose or fell. Occasionally the prayer leaders sang a melody over the chant.

As the chants and swaying continued, I ceased registering time. At some point those less experienced shifted into the outer rooms, which had archway views into the main room. The men into main room circled and started a different chant, this with a strong breath component. The sound was “Hu” meaning, I believe, “Him” – God. The whole room breathed as one.

The circle started to rotate, with several men in the center moving counter to the main rotation. One wearing a tall light brown cap began to spin slowly, one hand up and one down. Again time was not registering. At some point the circle and the spinner slowed and stopped. The chant continued for some time, and it too came to an end. The sheik proceeded to a seat where he would deliver a sermon. We slipped out – 11:30pm.

The title of this entry, “so much for modernity”, is something Dr. Khan said to me. Consider so many people, spending a whole evening together, voluntarily, “unproductively” and with no technology. I am, generally, a big fan of modernity – especially the expanding circle of empathy, the chance for improved health, and the dissemination of knowledge. It is true, however, that we must continue to strive for genuine contact with one another and with enduring truths.


Where will the influential Muslim ideas come from? Mansoor Moaddel’s theoretical framework, and a prediction


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In his 2001 paper “Conditions for Ideological Production: The Origins of Islamic Modernism in India, Egypt, and Iran,” Mansoor Moaddel argues that Islamic modernism arose in the context of competing marketplaces of ideas and of a disruptive moment in history. He later expanded this into a 2005 book, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse.

In 19th century Egypt and India, social change led to environments in which many ideas competed and led to strong new worldviews. He contrasts these moments with 19th century Iran, in which social change was relatively small but there were still multiple discourses. Thus, he argues, Iran saw weak but still extant modernist views arise. Moaddel presents evidence to show that one needs new thinkers associated with the state in order to create enough space for the new ideologies to be produced.

Moaddel also seeks to show that while the social milieu needs to be right, the content of the ideas produced is formed in dialogue with other ideas, and not simply as a reaction to external forces.

I found his argument persuasive, though I might put it a somewhat different way. The economic, political and social environment asks the questions, and people use their cultural, religious and intellectual heritage as well as new ideas they encounter to offer answers. In the cases of Egypt, India and Iran in the 19th century, for example, a central question was “how do we respond to the material dominance of the West?” This would be one of Moaddel’s “episodes,” a moment when resources and social space produce a need for new ideologies. The answers are presented by thinkers such as those discussed by Moaddel. An example of a response to the question of Western material advances would be al-Afghani’s anti-imperialist and simultaneously modernist claims. He draws from his understanding of his own history, from Muslim religious thought, and from Enlightenment reasoning to weave together his answers. Moaddel captures this when he says, “the key factors in the actual production of discourse are the nature, the number, and the level of diversity of the targets the ideological producers face, which determine the theme and the content of their utterances.”

The statement that most raised my eyebrows was in Moaddel’s conclusion, when he said, “We contend that if we obtain an adequate picture of the role of the state in culture, the nature of the discursive field, and the kind of ideological targets that are present in this field, we may be able to overcome indeterminacy and predict the process of ideological production.” This seems incredibly ambitious – it feels to me like there are just too many variables. I partly withdraw my critique, however, upon coming upon a quote from sociology professor Beau Weston: “It is always true that ‘reality is more complex than your social theory’. And that critique is never helpful”. So to finish I will attempt at two related predictions based on a current situation.

Muslims across the world today are encountering one of Moaddel’s episodes. In my terminology, sociopolitical forces are asking them a question: “How should Muslim majority states govern themselves?” In Egypt today this question has major implications, satisfying one of the conditions for the production of new ideologies. With the military back in firm control, however, and acting forcefully to limit the dialogue, new ideologies will arise but will not obtain a sufficient foothold to become powerful. Within Muslim communities in the United States and Europe, however, there is both a historical episode and a pluralist discourse. Thus we are likely to see Muslims in the West producing new, highly influential ideologies.

Ibn Sina’s thoughts on the good ruler


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I am getting to know Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna in the West) political ideas through Erwin Rosenthal’s Political Thought in Medieval Islam. I need to read Ibn Sina himself, but in the meantime here is my first approximation of his concept of the preferred caliph.

To understanding medieval political philosophy, we must begin with the premises that God exists and is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Then we pursue the following line of reasoning: the Divine wants people to be happy, both in this life and the next. Humans can only pursue the good life in the context of a well-ordered state. Thus, we must identify what such a state looks like.

Humans have two routes to knowledge in this worldview: revelation and reason. Revelation, being a direct communication from divinity, must be all encompassing and thus superior. Medieval philosophers thus faced a problem: why reason at all, if one could simply rely on revelation alone? Some Muslim philosophers, as well as some Jewish and Christian ones, responded that there are different paths to God, and for most people obedience to revelation is sufficient. To some, however, God gave a nature to follow a more complex path. As Rosenthal notes, “The distinction between the elect metaphysicians and the masses maintains religious equality and a concern for the happiness of all in accordance with the intellectual capacity of each individual, despite its claim that only the philosopher can penetrate to the inner, hidden meaning of these concepts, whereas the masses must be content with a metaphorical explanation.” The philosophers used this characterization of revelation as using metaphors to create the room for their work. Logical reasoning is more challenging than following metaphor, and thus reserved for elite thinkers.

Ibn Sina (d. 1037 CE) works in this tradition. Along with al-Kindi (d. c.873 CE), al-Farabi (d. 950 CE), ibn Rushd (d. 1198 CE), and others, he builds on Plato and Aristotle. Ibn Sina argues along with them that the leader, the caliph, must possess noble virtues. The core value is justice, which one realizes by pursuing the Golden Mean. The three other Platonic political virtues, wisdom, temperance and courage, devolve from justice according to Ibn Sina. In our discussion, Professor Khan noted that ibn Sina’s emphasis on justice made sense, since justice is even more strongly emphasized among Shi’ites than Sunnis, having suffered historical injustices.

One part of Rosenthal’s description of Ibn Sina’s argument I found challenging – when he describes how to handle undeserving rulers. It runs: The people must obey the caliph. If the ruler lacks the political virtues, however, the people must switch their loyalties to a challenger, if a worthy one is available. They must rebel against a tyrant. At the same time, the people should support a strong, impious caliph over a weak, pious caliph. Rosenthal sees these last two rules as inconsistent with each other. One could argue, however, that Ibn Sina is ranking caliphs from 1. pious and strong, to 2. impious and strong, to 3. pious and weak to 4. impious and weak. Within the second category, whether the caliph counts as a tyrant who needs to be deposed depends on how cruel he becomes. This advice would fit with the overall medieval philosophical understanding of the goal of a ruler: to provide a well-ordered state in which the populace can pursue happiness in this life and the next through submission to God. This goal is perhaps why Ibn Sina sees the less moral but capable ruler as preferable to the more moral but less capable ruler. At least under the former you have some chance of living an orderly life and focusing on the good life. Under a weak ruler, not matter how well intentioned, security will collapse and the probability of focusing on higher values will collapse with it.

A brief sidenote on some new (to me) educational technology

For the first time in several years I have added two technological tools that so far are benefiting my teaching.

The first, and simpler one to discuss is plickers. It’s a polling system. I love polling. Two days ago I polled my Abrahamic Traditions class on the question “Should we be tolerant of all religious beliefs?” Today I asked my ethics class a variant on the Buridan’s ass paradox.

For the last seven years or so, I have been laminating 3 x 5 index cards and handing out them and whiteboard markers. Kids would register their votes on the cards, and a student would gather the cards, tally the results and another student would write them on the board. I’ve been looking at clicker systems, but they are designed for larger classrooms and are expensive. We don’t allow students to carry cell phones around school, so voting by text like pollanywhere doesn’t work for me. Plickers are just the right combination of low and high tech for my situation. I downloaded an app onto my smartphone, and printed out a set of cards with computer readable symbols on them. When I want them to vote I pass out the cards (I laminated them). I go around the table scanning the students’ cards and depending on how the student holds the card, the system will register one of four vote choices. The vote is tallied automatically and represented on a private webpage as a bar graph. It’s not as fast as a clicker system or pollanywhere, but it is faster than writing, handing in and counting, it is free, and it works without kids needing to have their phones with them. So far it is a useful addition to my classroom, speeding things up a bit.

A plicker card - "A" side up to vote "A", etc.

A plicker card – “A” side up to vote “A”, etc.

The second, much larger change is a learning management system, in this case Canvas. I’d been messing with LMS options for years, and never quite getting over the hurdle to actually use one. Last spring I used Canvas for paper grading, and this year I put two of my three courses completely online. Grading papers is faster – I used to have kids email me their papers, but now when the students upload their papers to Canvas I can move from one to the next in the same window, and I don’t need to download, reupload, and send an email back. It also records the grade in a gradebook. Similarly with short written responses to readings – no hassles collecting them, I can quickly glance through them and give them a small grade (0 for not handed in, 1 for lame, 2 for complete – thanks to my colleague Nate Crimmins for the simple update to check, check plus, check minus!) I have also put video links in their syllabus, links to electronic versions of their readings, etc. Finally (for me at the moment – I know it includes a lot more tools) it is automatically capturing a portfolio of each student’s work.

It has been a great start to the year, and these tools are helping.

How to make the classroom more like travel?


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How can I help students experience a Palestinian refugee camp while in a classroom 5700 miles away?

How can I help students experience a Palestinian refugee camp while in a classroom 5700 miles away?

Early this summer I led 17 students and two fellow faculty members to Israel and Palestine. There we met with folks who held many different perspectives on the conflict. No one would be surprised to hear that the students learned more in this time than they would have learned in the equivalent time in our home classroom. Nonetheless, there are lessons I have taken back from this experience that will definitely benefit my classroom. What follows are some initial thoughts.

Opportunity to powerfully envision the question

On our first day, we went to the Haram al Sharif. There we saw a religious Jew, against the rules of both the site and the law, come up with a prayer book and begin praying. Immediately, many Palestinians gathered around him and started chanting, “God is Great.” My students promptly had questions and opinions: shouldn’t he be able to pray wherever he wants? What is he trying to do by praying up here, a place that looks like a Muslim holy place? Are the police around him protecting him, allowing him to be up here? Or are they trying to escort him out? The religious history and political significance of the spot, as well as the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immediately became highly relevant.

I plan on raising this specific encounter in my classroom. I will provide the students with some photos, and a tiny bit of background, followed by a description of the incident. Then I will ask: what questions does this raise for you? More broadly, I take from this idea the model of beginning from a highly relevant, charged moment to lead into a more in depth discussion.

Direct dialogue with those involved

One afternoon, a community leader guided us through a Palestinian refugee camp. He himself had had a close relative killed in the fighting, and was (nevertheless? Or therefore?) committed to a just and peaceful solution to the situation. Driving from 1948 Israel to the West Bank, seeing the camp and hearing from him, the students gained a much more resilient understanding of what it means for Palestinians to be refugees.

I will replicate three aspects of this experience in my classroom. Most directly, we will speak through videoconference with the representative or someone he recommends. Second, we will “see the camp” through seeing images, video and narrative. The most difficult aspect to capture will be an understanding of the distance, or lack thereof, from the places where the refugees had lived to where they live now. This I will accomplish through a combination of examining maps, viewing photos and videos of the checkpoints, and reading a written narrative of the old days.

Inspirational bonding with each other related to the topic

This is probably the most difficult aspect of educational travel to re-create in a classroom setting, and I will not attempt to do so directly. Our trip, however, has moved me to think more carefully about building those connections in the classroom. I will reemphasize my use of group projects aimed at solving real problems. For example, a new parent is the former ambassador to Jordan and the current ambassador to Iraq. I will ask my class to produce a report together that we will send to him, making recommendations for how to handle Islamic State (ISIS). This work will pull us together through working toward a shared goal.

These are just some of the teaching approaches inspired by my trip this summer. I am immensely grateful to all the donors who supported the students, and to St. Andrew’s for its generous support of my own ability to lead us to explore Israel and Palestine.

Must sovereignty over holy cities be a core value for those with a strong religious identity?


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Should Episcopalians be willing to go to war to protect this congregation's right to visit the Holy Sepulcher, 8 miles south?

Should Episcopalians be willing to go to war to protect this congregation’s right to visit the Holy Sepulcher, 8 miles south?

Most Christians are not upset about Istanbul being in Muslim hands, or Jerusalem being in Jewish hands. Are they therefore no longer as committed to their faith? These Christians would say no, that they have transcended the need to possess a place to consider it holy and to participate in that holiness. Professor Khan, however, challenged me on this position. He argued that non-Christian sovereignty of these places is hurting their status as sacred spaces for Christians. Examples:

-Permits for Palestinian Christians to worship in Jerusalem are difficult to get. The scope of operations of existing Christian churches and schools are tightly circumscribed by the state, and the government pressures churches to sell their land. Meanwhile, synagogues and yeshivas are being built with state support, even in traditionally Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.

-The current Turkish government is undermining an 80 year-long agreement between Muslims and Christians to classify contested religious sites as museums. Most famously, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul had been the Patriarchal Cathedral of Constantinople for 900 years, then a mosque until being designated a museum in 1931. But there is more and more discussion and demonstrating to turn it back into a mosque, as the government has done to the ancient church-mosque-museum in Iznik, the town in which the early Christian church met to formulate the Nicene Creed.

Similarly, Professor Khan questioned the religious identity of Muslims who are not pushing hard enough to liberate al-Quds. He told a story of polling a large number of Muslims at a conference about the four cities they most valued. They all answered Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, (the “good Muslim” answer) and then most answered their home city. He asked them if they would take up arms if a foreign, non-Muslim country occupied their home city. Many said yes, and he responded that these must be lying about something. Jerusalem was occupied, from their perspectives as Muslims, by a foreign, non-Muslim state and they had not gone to fight. Either they valued their hometown more than Jerusalem, or they would not really go to fight for their hometown.

Despite the above example, Professor Khan argued that on average Muslims (and Jews) are more committed to sovereignty of their holy cities than are Christians. He and my classmate Bushra emphasized, for example, how it would be inconceivable for Muslims to give up Mecca to non-believers.

So, to use the language of Professor Khan in his book Jihad for Jerusalem, are holy places an incontestable core value for most Christians anymore? If so, why the lack of concern about some of those places? If not, does that show a weakening of Christian religious identity, an evolution, or something else? Does the relatively stronger passion more Jews and Muslims currently hold to control their holy cities show a stronger religious identity overall?

Encountering International Relations Theory


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I am learning the disputes within International Relations theory for the first time in my class Islam in Global Affairs. I find myself agreeing strongly with my professor Muqtedar Khan’s positions, which makes me suspicious of my own conclusions since following the first line of thinking one encounters is a classic tendency when in a new field. With this proviso, what follows are my first ideas on IR theory as presented by Professor Khan in the opening chapter of his book Jihad for Jerusalem.

Pursuing the academic study of religion in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the United States, I encountered a primarily postmodern approach. The observation of Michel Foucault, that all thinkers were shaped by their relation to forms of power and powerlessness, was popular. I studied from what I believe our current readings describe as a sociological perspective. Authors I recall, and I may be wrong about how I am categorizing them, include William James, Thorsten Veblen, Clifford Geertz, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Mary Douglass. When contemporary politics did arise as a topic, we often made the point that political leaders did not take an understanding of peoples’ faith commitments sufficiently seriously. Teachers and students also often agreed that if there ever were a time when societies were clearly bounded, that time had long past. “They” not only live among “us” and “we” among “them,” they are now us and we are now them. I do not recall encountering rational choice theory of international relations except by implication of its weakness and failure. Later, while reading behavioral economics for fun, I did come across “homo economicus,” the rational actor who always make choices to maximize his own gains. Behavioral economists also presented this concept as the previous paradigm that we needed to overturn.

As someone who moves quickly because of my academic interests to the religious dimension when considering international politics, I agree with my intellectual upbringing –  I am highly skeptical of the rationalist narrative that claims people only act from positions of narrow, especially strictly economic, self-interest. At the same time, I have always been and continue to be suspicious of assertions that our choices are totally subjective. This links in my mind to complete cultural relativism, which implies a pessimism about improving our lot as humans. If no approach to life is better than another, then we cannot find ways to improve and become more fulfilled. I want to believe that different societies in different ways have hit upon political, cultural, economic, philosophical and spiritual approaches to living, among others, that lead to greater happiness overall and can be copied successfully by other societies.

I am finding many of the terms used in our Voll reading and in Jihad for Jerusalem extremely helpful. The idea of agency in this context I find appealing – especially seeing the agent as interacting with his society in mutually influencing turns. As Khan writes, “Agents are to some extent rational and their rationality is circumscribed by their identity and structural constraints.” (Khan, Ch 1, Constructivism: A Middle Path, para. 14) Thus I find myself persuaded by Khan’s claim that “Constructivist approaches (as understood in the IR discipline) recognize the essential role of identity and normative/cultural values in the constitution of society, the individual subject, and in the decision processes that shape interactions.” (Preface, para. 3)

Toward the end of chapter 1, I was surprised to find the two terms frequently used in religion pop up: “moral” and “symbolic”. Khan contrasts the idea of morally motivated action to the concept of structurally motivated action. Khan argues that there are several responses an individual can make to structural forces: she can go along with the hegemony, thus following the rational actor model, she can challenge the hegemony because of her identities (moral action), or she can challenge the power in order to gain power – which he calls being counter-hegemonic. He uses the term symbol in a similar way. When political actors are not behaving strategically (in line with their material self-interest) they are behaving symbolically. Khan opens Jihad for Jerusalem by giving us language by which religious interests, among others, can be considered in the realm of international relations.