In the Tien Shan

Captain Afsoon Setara sat just outside her tent, under the shade of a pistachio tree. They grew wild here in the foothills of the Tian Shan. She was compiling a report on recent activity by Hizbut-al-Tahrir, which had been recruiting Uzbek youth displaced by the genocide of 2010 to guerilla bases from which they harassed the Kyrgyz herders who grazed their flocks up in these mountains in the summer time. It was early autumn now and the tribes were leaving. The air was crisp and cold, the apple trees and walnut trees and pistachio trees heavy with fruit, their leaves gold against the lapis lazuli sky. On one screen she had the notes submitted by her Human Terrain Team’s social scientists; on another she was mapping out the complex relationships between kinship, sectarian, and political networks. Analyst Notebook made that easy. The hard part was figuring out what was moving the urbane Uzbeks to align themselves with this Wahabi nonsense –and what could be done to lure them away. That would be the topic of the upcoming secret conference in Bukhara. And then three weeks of well earned leave before she returned to the University of Washington to finish her doctorate in Central Asian Studies.

Not a bad deal, all in all: four years military service as a linguist and research analyst for a Human Terrain Team in return for a green card, a graduate fellowship –and refugee status for her family which, like the young Uzbek youths she was monitoring, had been displaced by the genocide three years ago. It was Salvador who had finally convinced her to take the deal. “Not everything the Empire does is imperialist,” he had said. “And this war, even it is also about US geopolitical interests, is a war for the soul of Dar-al-Islam.” Four years of military service, a chance to use all of her extraordinary linguistic skills –Arabic, Turkish, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Pashto, Farsi, Uygur …

What he didn’t know was that in the process she had created a cluster of revolutionary cells –mostly disillusioned Tajik Ismailis like herself, frustrated with the Aga Khan’s reformism and seeking to return their community to the revolutionary glory days of Alamut. That and the fact that while she was mapping out Wahabi networks for the US government she was also mapping out the growing US sociocultural intelligence apparatus for …

There, of course, was the rub. She wasn’t exactly sure who it was for. During her training at Fort Leavenworth one of her fellow trainees, an anthropology grad student from the University of New Mexico, had invited her to join her during an extended weekend leave on a trip to the Gila Wilderness. She had expected a relaxing weekend hiking in the mountains and exploring Mogollan archeological sites. Instead she found herself at the mountain headquarters of an intense young woman who called herself Fatima and claimed, quite matter of factly, to be the Imam of the Age. She invited Afsoon to join her in an effort to do nothing less than restore the Fatimid dynasty.

Her appeal was simple. Fatima tapped into her rage, which ran deep: rage against the old Soviet Union, which had used her people, and against the cleptocratic Tajikistan which had succeeded it, rage against Salvador, who had set her on this “revolutionary road” and then abandoned her, and above all rage at the Aga Khan and his reformism. And all Fatima wanted was a map of the emerging US sociocultural intelligence apparatus, to which she certainly felt no profound loyalty. In return, Fatima offered her a renewed sense of purpose, an energy and excitement she had not felt since those days ten years ago when she first met Salvador and sat in his courses absorbing his vision.

She must have paused for a moment, caught in this reverie, because when she returned to her work the computer had gone into hibernation. As it revived there appeared on her screen, not the map of Uzbek kinship networks she expected, but rather what looked like a complex yantra or mandala of some kind. Assuming that she had accidently downloaded a new screen saver, or that the US Army had done it for her, she double clicked on the screen and then and space bar, but nothing happened. Pressing Esc did nothing either. Then she began clicking wildly around different places on the yantra. Each click led her to a new and more complex yantra. Realizing that she must have picked up a virus, she, she wandered off to find Colonel Edwards, the Human Terrain Team Leader, who would no doubt forward the problem to the Brigade G2.

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Published by:

Anthony Mansueto

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943/1993: 556). Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely. Human history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise. Precisely because we are finite and contingent, our seeking takes place under definite material (physical, ecological, demographic, built-environmental) conditions which shape the ways which emerge, as well as the social structures through which we pursue them. As something set apart we call this power of Being the sacred but it is, in fact, the warp and woof of the world in which we live, driving secular projects as much as those which understand themselves as religious. My work is centered around an effort to engage the sacred analytically, interpretively, normatively, creatively, and practically. My scholarship is centered around an effort to restore theoria to its original sense as an encounter with the sacred which is empirical, analytic, interpretive and normative, and specifically to understand the diverse ways (including secular ways) in which humanity seeks (to be) God in the context of the material realities out which they emerged and the structures through which they operate while engaging these ways normatively, contributing to the transhistorical deliberation around what it means to be human. As an artist I work first and foremost with narrative, telling stories which, blending elements from magic realism, science fiction, and fantasy, highlight humanity’s engagement with the sacred. But I also create paintings, photo collages, and illuminations and am experimenting with alterealities, games which actually change the world, and which engage all these elements in an interactive context. And I work in the medium of food, creating alchemical cuisine which at once encodes meaning and transforms those who consume it —especially in community. My scholarly and creative work aims at charting a new way of being human, at making the sacred present to people in their day to day lives, and at helping people situate their lives and their decisions, individual and collective, in he context of the ultimate aims of human life. My practical engagements with the sacred cross the boundaries between teaching and mentoring, leading and organizing. As a teacher, it is my aim to cultivate free, creative human beings and engaged citizens with a mature spirituality who have the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding questions of meaning and value, to understand their particular calling and how to realize it, to build and exercise power in service to the common good, to learn the difficult spiritual lessons that come from both success and failure in our lives, and thus to pursue and progress along the way they have chosen. In addition to teaching in formal academic and community based settings, I mentor individuals using a process which integrates deep listening with both traditional spiritual disciplines and secular insights drawn from organizing and business strategy. I cultivate both scholars and practitioners, and challenge my students to cross the boundaries between these two domains. As an academic leader I have worked to promote liberal education for students from working class and ethnic minority communities, to make the institutions I serve into centers for deliberation around questions of meaning, value, and public policy, and to restore (nonconfessional, pluralistic, but still normative) engagement with the sacred to its rightful place in the academy. I see this academic leadership as an extension of my broader work as an institutional organizer helping organizations and institutions find their way, and working to build, conserve, and transform them in service to the Common Good. My work as an organizer has also included significant contributions to interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, from building financial and institutional support for interfaith organizing through catalyzing public deliberation around questions of meaning and value across diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. I bring to this engagement a substantial record of publications, including nine books and numerous articles in both scholarly journals and journals of public opinion setting forth my vision and strategy, decades of experience teaching the liberal arts to students from working class and ethnic minority communities, a history active civic engagement, primarily in interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, and a range of institutional leadership roles in the academy including department chair, program director, dean, and campus leader with responsibility for all community college functions for a large rural area. As I continue my formal institutional engagements as an academic administrator over the next several years, I am also looking to build support for my creative work and a consulting practice mentoring individual leaders and organizations across the academic, religious, and civil society sectors. Supporting my work through Patreon is a way to contribute to making this possible while getting a glimpse of my creative process, free or discounted artifacts from my alterealities, and the opportunity to benefit from my mentoring and consulting practice at much reduced rates.

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