Edir Macedo is 5-foot-6, slight, and 68 years old. He has deformed fingers, a sparse crown of graying hair, and more than 5 million followers, whose donations over the last 36 years have made him a billionaire. In Brazil, where he was born and raised, he is a major national figure, the subject of dozens of criminal inquiries, and the owner of Rádio & Televisão Record, a media conglomerate that runs the country’s second-largest television network. He is known to most everyone by the title he created for himself: He is O Bispo—“The Bishop.” Macedo is the founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Pentecostal denomination specializing in prosperity theology, which links faith to financial success. He preaches twice a week, often in two different cities, and the sermons are fervently watched on church websites, his Facebook page, and the miniature TV sets that Brazilian taxi drivers like to keep on their dashboard. Now and then he holds outdoor events that draw crowds of half a million. In February he addressed 5,000 of his parishioners at one of his churches in Belo Horizonte, in southeastern Brazil. … In Macedo’s teaching, tithing, or giving 10 percent of your income to the church, is a mandate from God. … Macedo is proud of his success, but turns questions about his wealth into questions of the spirit. He declined an in-person interview; in an e-mail, he writes: “From the point of view of my faith in Jesus Christ, I am the richest man in the world.”
An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region. ... Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn’t explain all the political, economic, and geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism through which to understand the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. ... Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in the seventh century, and a long history of marginalization by the Sunni majority.
Early on, Ibrahim’s nickname was “The Believer.” When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home at the end of the day, according to one of his brothers, Shamsi, he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law. ... Now Ibrahim al-Badri is known to the world as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ruler of the Islamic State or ISIS, and he has the power not just to admonish but to punish and even execute anyone within his territories whose faith is not absolute. His followers call him “Commander of the Believers,” a title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the Middle Ages. Though his own realm is much smaller, he rules millions of subjects. Some are fanatically loyal to him; many others cower in fear of the bloody consequences for defying his brutal version of Islam. ... Since Baghdadi’s sudden emergence from obscurity in 2014 as the monster who ordered and broadcast on YouTube the beheading and even burning alive of those he deemed his enemies, news articles and books have traced his radicalization back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although the American invasion fed the fire and enabled it to spread, in fact, his radicalization began much earlier, ignited by an unlikely but highly volatile mixture of fundamentalism, Saddam Hussein’s secular totalitarianism, and his own need to control others. ... there is evidence that several of Baghdadi’s family members, perhaps even his father, were Salafis—adherents of an extreme, puritanical form of Sunni Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia and throughout much of the Middle East, including Iraq, where it has deep roots. ... Saddam’s creation of new jobs teaching the scripture may have influenced Baghdadi’s academic career. Unable to study law at the University of Baghdad as he wanted because of his middling grades in high school—he nearly failed English—Baghdadi studied the Quran there instead. ... Baghdadi’s master’s thesis was a commentary on an obscure medieval text on Quranic recitation. His task was to reconcile various versions of the manuscript. While tedious, it involved little imagination and no questioning of the content—a perfect project for a dogmatist. ... Radical jihadist manifestos circulated freely under the eyes of the watchful but clueless Americans. ... The growing unrest in Syria in 2011 played directly into their hands. Presented with an opportunity to inject violence into what had been a peaceful revolt, Baghdadi sent one of his Syrian operatives to set up a secret branch of the Islamic State in the country that year. The branch, later known as the Nusra Front, initially followed the Islamic State’s playbook by attacking civilians as part of a clandestine terror campaign to sow chaos. The hope was that the Islamic State would be able to capitalize on that chaos in order to make its first land grab.
- Also: Council on Foreign Relations - Backgrounders: The Islamic State 5-15min
- Also: Bloomberg - The Doomsday Ideology of Islamic State's Leader < 5min
- Also: The Chronicle of Higher Education - The Ties That Bind Jihadists 5-15min
- Also: Business Insider - An ISIS defector explained a key reason people continue joining the group < 5min
- Also: The Daily Beast - Meet the Islamic Fanatic Who Wants to Kill ISIS < 5min
- Also: Al-Jazeera - ISIL sells its oil, but who is buying it? < 5min
- Also: Bloomberg - Why ISIS Has All the Money It Needs < 5min
For much of his 80 years, the Dalai Lama has been present at these strange intersections of religion, entertainment and geopolitics. In old photos, you can see the 9-year-old who’d received the gift of a Patek Phillipe watch from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Another twist of the kaleidoscope reveals him tugging at Russell Brand’s shaggy beard, heartily laughing with George W. Bush in the White House or exhorting you to ‘‘Think Different’’ in an advertisement for Apple. ... The economic potency of China has made the Dalai Lama a political liability for an increasing number of world leaders, who now shy away from him for fear of inviting China’s wrath. Even Pope Francis, the boldest pontiff in decades, reportedly declined a meeting in Rome last December. When the Dalai Lama dies, it is not at all clear what will happen to the six million Tibetans in China. The Chinese Communist Party, though officially atheistic, will take charge of finding an incarnation of the present Dalai Lama. Indoctrinated and controlled by the Communist Party, the next leader of the Tibetan community could help Beijing cement its hegemony over Tibet. ... ‘‘My concern now,’’ the Dalai Lama said, ‘‘is preservation of Tibetan culture.’’
It’s the church of choice for Bieber and Durant. It’s where the cool kids spend Sunday morning after Saturday night at the club. For ye of little faith, it’s hard to make sense out of Hillsong. Is it legit? Is it a hipster cult? And why’s everyone wearing Saint Laurent? ... Hillsong, which began in Australia, has outposts all over the globe, from Kiev to Paris to Buenos Aires. The church landed in New York City in 2010, with a branch at the Manhattan nightclub Irving Plaza, a branch at a theater in Times Square, and a branch in an auditorium at Montclair State University. On any given Sunday, Hillsong NYC salves the souls of 8,000 people, and what souls: Justin Bieber, yes, but also Kendall Jenner and Selena Gomez and Kevin Durant and Bono. “People say we cater to celebrities,” Pastor Carl tells me. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebrities deserve a relationship with God. Celebrities deserve a place to pray.” So do all of God’s children, he says. And so they save seats in a special section for celebrities, but also for people in wheelchairs and single mothers who were running late. But it’s easier for God’s children to find a peaceful home in which to pray than it is for, say, Damon Dash. ... that is an image that will stick with you, let me tell you: Justin Bieber, on his knees in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub, wet and sobbing against Pastor Carl’s chest ... I was witnessing the logical conclusion of an evolutionary convergence between coolness and Christianity that began at the dawn of the millennium, when progressive-minded Christians, terrified of a faithless future, desperately rended their garments and replaced them with skinny jeans and flannel shirts and piercings in the cartilage of their ears, in a very ostentatious effort to be more modern and more relatable. Which is why, today, you can find ironically bespectacled evangelicals in Seattle and graphic designers soliciting tithes with hand-drawn Helvetica flyers in San Diego. You can walk into mega-churches all over the country where the pastor will slap on a pair of leather pants and drop the F-bomb BOOM how do you like me now??
Successful empires and kingdoms are good at building infrastructure and sharpening the best ideas. The inscription along the magnificent colonnade above the James A Farley building in central Manhattan, the largest post office in the United States, reads: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’ Herodotus wrote the words 2,500 years ago, to describe the ancient Persians – who were always on the lookout for innovative technologies and ideas that made it easier to administer their great empire. Getting messages quickly and reliably from A to B in the ancient world was no less important than it is today. ... The instant communications made possible by recent technological changes should not make us susceptible to the breathless commentary about globalisation as something new. For more than two millennia, news and information, goods and products, ideas and beliefs have flowed through networks linking the Pacific coast of China with the Atlantic coasts of North Africa and Europe, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Since the late 19th century, these networks have been known as the Silk Roads. ... We are witnessing the world’s centre of gravity return to the axis on which it spun for millennia. When viewed from the vantage point of the Silk Roads, the familiar narrative begins to quiver, history itself begins to shift. In fact, to understand the world, the best place to look is not in the centre of the West nor in the heart of the East, but on the old Silk Road where the two come together. ... Most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons. First, they challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West. Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. ... Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages.
Most young Kurds had not expected another war. At least, not the one brought by ISIS. Only a couple of years before, Iraqi Kurdistan had been thriving. The Americans had deposed Hussein, the Kurds’ most hated enemy, in 2003, opening the way for Kurds to establish control over their mountainous, Switzerland-size territory. Though they remained part of Iraq, they essentially created a protostate of their own. Investment, development, and oil-fueled optimism (Kurdistan sits atop vast oil deposits) were soon transforming the region. Skyscrapers rose over Slemani, the “Paris of Kurdistan,” and Hewler, the Kurdish capital, attended by shopping malls, luxury-car dealerships, and gelato cafés. Universities were built. Something like universal health care was established. Promoters even dreamed up a slogan to lure tourists and businesses: “Kurdistan, the Other Iraq.” And while Arab portions of the country seethed in those years, some five million Kurds entered what many call a golden decade. ... Kurds have a distinct culture and language, but except for a few historical moments of self-rule, they’ve always lived under the shadow and control of a larger culture—Persian, Arab, Ottoman, Turkish. Today some 25 million Kurds are believed to live in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (though the true size of the population is unknown), and it’s often suggested that they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation. This may be true, but it hints at unity. There really isn’t any. ... From region to region Kurds speak different dialects and support hyper-local and often fractious political parties, and even if given the chance, they probably wouldn’t try carving a greater Kurdish state out of those diverse lands.
The religiously unaffiliated, called "nones," are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths. ... A lack of religious affiliation has profound effects on how people think about death, how they teach their kids, and even how they vote. ... There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture. ... But nones aren’t inheriting the Earth just yet. In many parts of the world—sub-Saharan Africa in particular—religion is growing so fast that nones’ share of the global population will actually shrink in 25 years as the world turns into what one researcher has described as “the secularizing West and the rapidly growing rest.” (The other highly secular part of the world is China, where the Cultural Revolution tamped down religion for decades, while in some former Communist countries, religion is on the increase.)
Last year, three million came for the hajj, a pilgrimage in the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar that is considered obligatory for every Muslim who can afford it; five million more came for the umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be made for much of the year. And millions of Saudi citizens routinely pass through Mecca’s sacred sites as tourists. ... It is a transformation that has been underway since the late 1970s, when the wealth generated by the oil boom led Saudi monarchs to devise an ambitious plan to replace earlier Ottoman structures and to expand the Grand Mosque and its surroundings with Arab-style architecture. At a projected cost of $26.6 billion, the Saudi Binladen Group has led the efforts to increase the capacity of the Grand Mosque ... Throughout the history of Islam, no other ruler built in such proximity to the Kaaba; certainly none built anything to dwarf it. In luxury hotels like the Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower and the Raffles Makkah Palace, views of the holiest site of Islam are marketed as the “Haram view” and “Kaaba view,” and a standard room can run anywhere from $1,500 to $2,700 a night during the hajj.
Harry Potter brought the philosopher’s stone back as a cultural reference point, but the idea of a universal panacea against death is much older than J.K. Rowling. From Alexander the Great to Ponce de León, tales of conquistadors and rovers stumbling onto fountains of youth are a fable trope. Greek mythology addressed the horror of aging in the tale of pitiful Tithonus, kidnapped by the goddess Eos and granted eternal life. Eos f***ed up and forgot to specify that Tithonus should stay young as well as living, and so her kidnapped boy toy aged into a trembling old man, lasting on and on in babbling, incapacitated misery. In some versions of the story he turns into a cicada, but the moral remains: Eternal life without eternal youth is a curse, which is why RAAD wants both. ... The people who organized RAAD are members of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, which is the nonprofit offshoot of People Unlimited, a Scottsdale, Arizona–based group that describes itself as “a community of people living physical immortality.” People Unlimited charges a $245 monthly membership fee, and holds regular meetings where members swap antiaging tips and listen to guest speakers. Many of the presenters at RAAD are also members or guest speakers at People Unlimited. ... The coalition’s online mission statement shoehorns immortality into a historical narrative of moral and social progress. ... “Asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say ‘no.’” The study also found that around half the people questioned had never heard of radical life extension; around half also answered that it would be bad for society.
The very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror or being represented in a portrait as the center of attention encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique. Previously the parameters of individual identity had been limited to an individual’s interaction with the people around him and the religious insights he had over the course of his life. Thus individuality as we understand it today did not exist: people only understood their identity in relation to groups—their household, their manor, their town or parish—and in relation to God. ... the average person saw himself only as part of a community. This is why the medieval punishments of banishment and exile were so severe. A tradesman thrown out of his hometown would lose everything that gave him his identity. ... What happened in the fifteenth century was not so much that this community identity broke down, but rather that people started to become aware of their unique qualities irrespective of their loyalty to their community. That old sense of collective identity was overlaid with a new sense of personal self-worth.
As he fielded guilty pleas throughout 2015, Davis thought about how he might offer leniency to the conspiracy’s least culpable members. He could do so only if he knew for sure that the men would never again be tempted by jihadism. To that end, Davis began to research whether there are effective therapies for reforming extremists. He hoped to find a credible way to transform Yusuf and his friends back into the ordinary young men they’d once been. This could spare the youths years behind bars—an act of compassion that would undermine the Islamic State narrative that the West despises its Muslim citizens. ... Davis discovered that numerous nations, from Denmark to Indonesia, have developed methods for nudging young men and women back from the extremist brink—a process known as deradicalization. The judge became intent on starting the first laboratory for deradicalization in the US; he just needed to find an expert he could trust, someone with a proven track record of liberating young minds from violent extremism. ... Koehler’s key finding has been that all extremists, regardless of ideology, develop a sort of tunnel vision as they go through the indoctrination process. ... Koehler sees little point in starting moral or theological arguments with these young people, who are more interested in becoming warriors than debating the finer points of scripture. Instead, he advocates repluralization: the careful reintroduction of problems and solutions into a radicalized person’s life, so that they can no longer devote all their mental energy to stewing over their paranoia. ... Koehler believes that each client needs at least four mentors plus an “intervention coordinator” and that full deradicalization can be achieved only after a matter of years, not months.
Whether it takes the form of a touch of the Holy Spirit at a Florida revival meeting or a dip in the water of the Ganges, the healing power of belief is all around us. Studies suggest that regular religious services may improve the immune system, decrease blood pressure, add years to our lives. ... Religious faith is hardly the only kind of belief that has the ability to make us feel inexplicably better. ... just as a good performance in a theater can draw us in until we feel we’re watching something real, the theater of healing is designed to draw us in by creating powerful expectations in our brains. These expectations drive the so-called placebo effect, which can affect what happens in our bodies as well. Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience. ... How does a belief become so potent it can heal? ... Most astonishingly, placebos can work even when the person taking them knows they are placebos.
- Also: Aeon - The lizard inside 5-15min
The figure of Yahya—an English-speaking convert within ISIS with powerful connections and the cojones to challenge Baghdadi to a death match—intrigued me. But Cerantonio didn’t elaborate on his identity and referred to him only by an alias, in the traditional Arabic style, with his first name and the name of his firstborn: Yahya, father of Hassan. He said Yahya was a fellow Dhahiri—a member of an obscure, ultra-literalist legal school that had enjoyed a sort of revival within the Islamic State. He didn’t, or wouldn’t, say more. I wrote down the name and committed to investigating Yahya later. ... Soon enough, I began collecting clues to his identity.
The bloody battle to wrest Mosul from ISIS was the world’s largest military operation in nearly 15 years. ... As Iraq looks to rebuild, and tens of thousands of Moslawis return to their homes—or what’s left of them—ISIS is still holding onto territory south and west of Mosul. ... If the U.S. military has learned anything about Iraqi insurgencies over the past 15 years, it’s that violence will likely return to Mosul, as it has on occasion in Baghdad—which the group never seized. ... On top of that is the ISIS presence in Syria, where an entirely separate large-scale operation has been progressing for months. The target: the group’s de facto headquarters in Raqqa. Beyond that, ISIS also maintains strongholds south of Raqqa in the Euphrates River city of Deir Ez-Zour, and some 200 kilometers west, around the ancient city of Palmyra. ... Which is all to say: the battle for Mosul may soon be over, but the war against ISIS — already a generational conflict — is far from finished.
- Also: The New York Times - The Living and the Dead 40min
- Also: Reuters - After Mosul, Islamic State digs in for guerrilla warfare < 5min
- Also: National Geographic - Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS (Video) > 15min
- Also: Wired - How Anarchist Bitcoin Coder Amir Taaki Wound Up Fighting ISIS in Syria 5-15min
- Also: The New York Times - Trained to Kill: How Four Boy Soldiers Survived Boko Haram 5-15min