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Introducing myself to ETHOS

[ by Charles Cameron — games and complexity, Joseph Kony, think tanks, need for a new analytic institution ]

I just introduced myself to the Ethos Network — their motto: Collaboration, Trust, Moderation — a group of mainly UK-based mil, biz & creativ types a good friend pointed me to, partly responding to an earlier conversation about Kony on their platform, partly laying out my own interests…

And with a suggestion thrown in there that we could really use a new analytic setup of some sort, a point I’ll return to.

Here, then, is my introduction as posted there:



A few words of introduction are probably in order, before I dive in…

You might say I live at the intersection of complexity and games, and work at the intersection of religion and violence.


My interest in complexity comes from a sense that the problems facing us contains many diverse and conflicting tensions to be resolved in some sort of continuous, shifting balance, and that we as humans face them with a complexity of our own, the complexity of our individual tensions, preferences, desires, interrests, hopes, fears, assumptions, resistances and so forth.  

So both within each one of us, and in groups, we have a situation where many points of view, many voices should if possible be heard, taken into account, adjusted for.

As social beings, we need to let the voices of other stakeholders, other constituencies, other points of view be heard, so that we can move towards win-win balances — I won’t call them solutions — wherever possible.

As humans, we need to let some of our own quieter, slower, deeper voices emerge — and that’s the purpose of inward listening, meditation, taking a break, the Sabbath, sleeping on it, relaxing, reverie — to bring out some of the voices that add insight, to give the aha! time to develop and space to show itself…

And in both cases, it’s the voices that go unheard, the parts of the web of tension unattended to, which can come back and bite us.

So… two things.  

One:  I am interested in developing ways to map conversations that are many voiced — literally “polyphonic” — such that, as with the music of Bach and Handel (and hey, Dylan and the Band), multiple voices can be heard at once, held in a shifting tension, with conflict arising and moving into resolution as they do when Glenn Gould plays Bach or Eric Clapton jams with Billy Preston…  I have games I’ve designed that do this…

Two: I am interested in what we’re not paying attention to, to our blind spots, to the undertows of our own and other cultures, to the stuff we easily dismiss.

Which brings me to…


I am specifically interested in the contribution of religion, of religious emotion, to contemporary violence.

Religious violence is obviously not the only aspect of violence — but materiel is easier to quantify than morale, and all too often we miss religious signals in others (and in those on our own side) which turn out to have been powerful drivers of conflict.

Joseph Kony is the example of “religious violence” that I’ve seen mentioned here, and given my interest in jihad — I’d been tracking jihadist groups since before the turn of the millennium — he popped up on my screen and claimed some real estate in my attention in May 2005, when I downloaded DFID Media Fellow Maya Deighton’s report in the then-DFID journal, Developments, in which she wrote:

The rebels’ leader is a religious fanatic called Joseph Kony, who hides out for most of the time in southern Sudan.

Kony manages to combine a heady blend of occultism, born-again Christianity, and most recently, a much-proclaimed conversion to Islam, with his campaign of terror and child abduction.

At about the same time, I dowloaded a Chalcedon Foundation file containing Lee Duigon’s piece, “Uganda’s War with ‘the Devil’” — Chalcedon is the late “dominionist” theologian Roussas John Rushdoony’s outfit, and preaches the imposition of the full Old Testament law of Moses, stoning of adulterers included, in the United States (and ultimately the world) — hence my interest.

In any case, it would have been Kony’s “much-proclaimed conversion to Islam” that likely caught my interest in Deighton’s article, and it may well have been Duignon’s piece that first brought Kony to my attention. 

I have tried to keep a wary eye out for news of Kony and the LRA ever since, and for my own purposes, the most informative materials that I have run across in the interim are the notes taken by LTC Richard Skow, published by the New York Times in December 2010.

I have blogged at least twice on Kony, once after Rush Limbaugh, an American media presence on the right, described Kony and the LRA approvingly as “Christians … fighting the Muslims”, and the other time to note (among other things) Kony’s connection with Alice Lakwena.

But Kony’s not the point, and indeed Kony’s wider context, with its multiple drivers in terms of resources, warlords, moral issues, the whole shebang, isn’t the point either.

The point is that I work a seam that’s very little noticed by western analysts, and that runs through the heart of pretty much every insurgency and terrorist movement in recent memory.

The LTTE, for what it’s worth, included.


Al-Qaida’s the prime example of course — but when Omam Hammami’s made his video presentation just last week, how many people noticed that he defined jihad as an act of worship?  And who had an inkling of what that meant?

That was the topic of my most recent blog-post on Zenpundit, but it’s just the most recent instance of a trend that’s both significant and significantly under-appreciated.  It’s in one of our blind spots.

There are times when I’m hugely thankful for the work of people like Nelly Lahoud at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point — her preliminary report on the “history of jihad” written by bin Laden’s personal secretary came out today — or Will McCants at the Center for Naval Analyses.  But there are other times when I’m equally frustrated, knowing how many bright scholarly voices with valuable insights to offer go unheard.

The think tanks are pretty much all heavily politicized: twitter and blogs are the go to places to keep up with cutting edge thinking — and still, just today, a rising star like Aaron Zelin can tweet about another, in this case Gregory Johnsen:

Is it me or has  predicted everything re: AQAP/Yemen/US policy the past 4-5 yrs? Yet no1 in gov is listening to him. Stupid.

— and pretty much everyone who knows about Yemen agrees…  

This, too, while hugely knowledgeable people like JM Berger of Intelwire are in all likelihood too independent-minded and truth-driven to fit into one of those politicized tanks!  A place for bright, oddball, curious analysts to work without the pressures of group think or authority is very much needed.

But I rant!  And to get back to my own area of special interest – who’s paying attention to the Khorasan motif, to the idea that Afghanistan is where the Mahdi’s army will come from, to the significance of black flags (sometimes Mahdist signals, sometimes “just a cigar”), to the end game in Jerusalem — and for that matter to the notion, likewise found in hadith and widely proclaimed on populist Pakistani videos, that there’s a prong of attack — the Ghazwah-e-Hind — that sweeps from Pakistan down into India, until the victorious flag of Pakistan flies over the Red Fort?


Well, I’ve pointed you towards my own areas of interest, and I do want to indicate that they are extremely focused — that in my view they constitute one important and often overlooked strand in a much larger weave, a strand that needs to be braided along with many others into a larger picture that I make no claim to see.

I am frankly ignorant about what doesn’t interest me, and frankly a very quick study in what piques my curiosity.  And I learn — and forget — more with each passing day.

Any place where Oink’s friends gather grabs my attention. I already see a number of friends here, Greg Esau, Richard Hodkinson, Peter Rothman, John  Kellden, Bryan Alexander, Gregory McNamee… 


How can I be of service?


So that’s what I wrote for Ethos — and one of my analytic buddies already sent me a comment:

There is def a vacuum that needs to be filled that intersects relevant research with a level of independence for writers. Something between academia and a think tank.

I think that’s an important issue — but it shouldn’t remain at the issue level, it should be acted on.

Any ideas about that?

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