ISIS and the Nation of Islam?

Above Image: A crowd of Black Muslims applaud during Elijah Muhammad’s annual Saviors’ Day message in Chicago in 1974.

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In respond to my recently posting a story on Facebook about an ISIS supporter in Phoenix (apparently an African-American male who had converted to Islam) who was searching for a midnight mass he could attack over Christmas, a friend asked me the following question.

“Is there a concern that black Americans, who feel marginalized in society, will be a segment of the population ISIS may try to manipulate and recruit? The Nation of Islam is still very active in the US, estimates of around 20,000 or more followers. And while I can distinguish between the Nation and ISIS, I am concerned that in our current political and social climate more African American males will be led to believe they are not valued in Western society. We have the case you have posted here, I think there was a potential plot in Miami a few months ago. I just worry if we do not address the appeal of ISIS to a disenfranchised group of vulnerable Americans, we may see more and more cases of this.”

There are many issues to consider here and I admit plainly that I am no expert on the Nation of Islam, how it indoctrinates its adherents, and the impact of black militancy or black nationalism ideology in the production of terrorists. As a result, let me address some of these points in more general terms and then tentatively theorize a bit about the details.

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Sexual Renunciation and Early Christian Masculinity

Above Image: Trevisani’s depiction (c. 1722) of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

*What follows is a brief selection from my dissertation that otherwise looked at warrior manliness and crusading. This is taken from an chapter that considered early Christian views of sexuality and how those views later influenced the way medieval clerics judged Christian warriors on the same topic. Moreover, I’ve had students from Protestant or secular backgrounds (or sometimes even Catholic or Orthodox backgrounds) curious about the Christian roots of the modern practice of celibacy among Catholic priests or Orthodox monks and bishops, and so I typically provide some of this information as a starting point for their further exploration of the issue.

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In contrast to Roman societal norms of the time (with the exception of some philosophical groups like the Stoics), which in part defined masculinity by sexual aggression and playing the active, rather than passive, role during sexual activity, early Christians rejected such popular markers of masculine identity by pointing to Jesus as having never married and having remained continent throughout his life.[1]  That Jesus was both celibate (unmarried) and abstinent is not surprising in light of the Jewish influenced environment from which he is believed to have emerged. Near the Dead Sea, large communities of abstinent ascetic males are known to have preached repentance to nearby cities in a way similar to their better known contemporary, John the Baptist.[2] While Jesus never preached the abolition of marriage, his followers often interpreted his view of the married life as a hindrance to the highest levels of spiritual commitment, as he called on his followers to abandon their families to follow him.[3]

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Marine General James Mattis: The “Warrior Monk”

Many are only now starting to become aware of Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, as his selection as Secretary of Defense (pending approval of a waiver of the National Security Act of 1947) has piqued the interest of anyone paying attention to the news. Yet Marines have been broadly aware of him for many years as Mattis served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 2013. Indeed, Mattis has developed an almost cult like following among many Marines, particularly among those who served under him in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For years now, I have seen my Marine friends posting comments Mattis on social media and hearing all sorts of stories about Mattis’ bravado. I recall once having lunch a few years ago with an old Marine friend, Christopher LaVigne, with whom I had recently reconnected. I recall that at one point in our conversation, Chris, a big 6 foot 3-inch-tall former Marine Staff Sgt. who has worked as a trucker for the last 20 years, started talking about Mattis, and quoting him, even pulling up quotations on his smart phone to show to me. I recall thinking how if a former Marine, twenty years removed from the Marine Corps, saw Mattis in such affectionate terms, it suggested a lot about the impact Mattis had on the psyche of the Marine Corps more broadly, as his legend has only grown in recent years since his retirement. Continue reading

“Objectivity” and the Classroom: Ten Historians Respond

Above Image: Myself giving a lecture on the thorny topic of historic Bosnian and Serbian relations (Nov. 2015). Based on my past experiences with students, Jacksonville seems to have a large population of both Bosnian and Serbian immigrants, sometimes resulting in somewhat heated classroom discussions of related topics if not framed well from the outset.

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I have seen many of my Facebook friends post stories about political or cultural bias on college campuses, sometimes expressing concern about what sort of education their children may be getting in the classroom, followed by expressions of lament for the high costs of college tuition on top of it. On rare occasions, I have also posted such stories and expressed similar incredulity, as in the case of a recent report about one university level U.S. history course that compared the “founding fathers” with the Westboro Baptist Church. When I did, it prompted a bit of a debate with one former academic, who defended the right of professors to use hyperbole to stir class discussion and thinking about historical events from different perspectives. I can appreciate the point more generally, yet in this particular case I see the rhetoric used (as reported) as too extreme, to the point of no longer really teaching “history” by modern professional standards. Yet, as I noted, some of my colleagues appear to disagree and have a more nuanced perspective.

As a result, I had been thinking about the topic of “objectivity” in the classroom when I came across a recently released statement by the American Historical Association issued in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory. Consequently, I may have initially read it in a slightly different context than many of my fellow historians. It noted:

An unusually bitter and divisive election has been followed by continuing evidence of polarization to the point of harassment seldom seen in recent American history. The American Historical Association… condemns the language and harassment that have charred the American landscape in recent weeks. The AHA… [emphasizes] mutual respect and reasoned discourse—the ongoing conversation among historians holding diverse points of view and who learn from each other. A commitment to such discourse—balancing fair and honest criticism with inclusive practices and openness to different ideas—makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge. The American Historical Association reaffirms its commitment to mutual respect, reasoned discourse, and appreciation for humanity in its full variety. We will strive to demonstrate these values in all aspects of practice, including in our roles as teachers, researchers, and citizens.

As I read these words, I wasn’t thinking so much about how historians dialogue with each other (which I can assure you is sometimes quite inflammatory), but with our students in the classroom, a captive audience, thinking these stated ideals would apply nicely there as well. The statement does, at the end, mention that these values should be demonstrated in our roles as teachers, after all, as well as more generally.

In response, I reached out to ten historians to see if they might offer some brief thoughts on the topic of “Objectivity in the Classroom.” To be clear, I fully realize that complete or “true” objectivity is not possible, but nevertheless there are things a professor can do to insure some degree of objectivity or neutrality (“as much as humanly possible”) in how they frame and discuss sensitive political, religious, or cultural topics in the classroom. It’s interesting to note that the AHA statement cited above nowhere uses the word “objectivity,” but does emphasize “mutual respect” and “reasoned discourse” in its place.

Consequently, I was curious to see how the other historians considered such issues.

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Pope Gregory VII on the Plight of Eastern Christians Prior to the First Crusade

In the wake of the Turkish victory over Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, eastern Christians intensified their efforts to win military support from western Christians. Pope Gregory VII’s letters, written in the years that immediately followed, are an important source for highlighting how (at least some) western Christians interpreted the plight of eastern Christians at this time and the pope’s efforts to provide military aid. This brief post provides some selections from a few of those letters to give a sense of Gregory’s concerns.

Although the letters suggest a deep sympathy for eastern Christians and a genuine passion for providing them with western military aid in the form of an army under the pope’s leadership, Gregory was ultimately unsuccessful due in part to his conflicts with Henry IV during the Investiture Controversy. Nevertheless, both his concerns and his efforts reflect some interesting similarities with the circumstances leading to Pope Urban II’s approach to the calling of the First Crusade two decades later in 1095. Continue reading

Congressional Debates at FSCJ: How My Students Responded

So far as I know, my brother and I are the first in our family to complete our college degrees. My father had spent much of his life as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy and then had a successful career in the restaurant business before passing away when I was nine years old. My mother was only a high school graduate, but had a love of books and a respect for education that she passed on to her children. Perhaps due to my mother’s influence, although coming from a family with no background in higher education, both my brother and I eventually completed graduate degrees. But this came only after both of us served as enlisted men in the Marine Corps and working a variety of (sometimes dreadful) jobs as civilians. In my mid 20s, I would have never suspected that I would eventually earn a doctorate from the University of Florida and become a college professor, which I see as a vocation rather than a job.

Consequently, I also never envisioned some of the unique opportunities I have had in the last few years as a result of working at FSCJ. Among those unique opportunities, moderating two recent U.S. congressional debates hosted by my college (and its Student Government Association) certainly rank high on any such list. Indeed, recently an excellent team of administrators[i] at my college put together two wonderfully organized debates for the 4th Congressional District’s Republican Primary and the 4th Congressional District General Election. During both debates, I had the opportunity to serve as a co-moderator, along with my highly talented colleague Professor Cynthia Counsil. It was fascinating to be a part of this process and so I want to reflect on those experiences here and the value of such events for the college community and our students. Continue reading

Pope Innocent III : Reprimand of Peter, a Papal Legate, for the Sack of Constantinople- July 1204

See also: Apology for the Fourth Crusade

Provided below is both a partial English translation as well as the full original Latin text of Pope Innocent III’s letter no. CXXVI. PETRO, TITULI SANCTI MARCELLI APOSTOLICAE SEDIS LEGATO, PRESBYTERO CARDINALI. Reprehendit legatum, deseruisse terram sanctam, etc. (VI Id. Julii.). The translation is by James Brundage and the Latin text is taken from the Patrologia Latina, Vol. 215:136.

The letter was written by the pope in the wake of the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the participants of the Fourth Crusade. The crusaders’ original goal was Egypt, but the crusade was diverted as a result of financial problems resulting from debts owed to the Venetians and a deal made with Alexios IV to restore his deposed father Isaac II to the Byzantine throne.

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