Author Archives: Jessica P. Wright

Dispatches from Kabul: A New Script


Kabul Traffic

Last Friday, as we were driving through downtown Kabul, our car was stopped briefly as the traffic ahead slowed at the checkpoint. Looking out from my backseat window, I was struck by the lack of rhythm, the absence of a familiar flow of city movement. In most places, lights change color, people cross the street, taxis honk, engines rev, and buses stop and go methodically. Instead, dirty, overfilled city cabs sat haphazardly in traffic, their lackadaisical drivers staring into the dusty commotion. Children with dirty clothes and charcoal around their eyes darted in and out of traffic, casting doleful expressions at foreigners in hopes of collecting an Afghani or two. Grizzled soothsayers moved slowly from car to car, wafting incense into open windows and mumbling incantations. In the absence of sidewalks, young men in shalwar kameez walked briskly through traffic, whole groups moving against the disorderly jumble, their prayer beads brushing against the sides of cars as they passed by. Policemen with tired, sun-worn faces ambled around aimlessly, occasionally blowing a whistle or commanding a car to move. Their uniforms looked like costumes from an outdated prop closet, faded and sagging, adorned with meaningless insignia. In fact, everything around me in that moment was reminiscent of a movie set after the cut. It was as if, off-script, no one knew exactly where to be or what to do. There are many metaphors for the state of affairs in Afghanistan, but this one struck me as particularly vivid.

Two years ago, when I was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Casteau, the streets of Brussels were filled with life. We would spend weekends walking through the city, enjoying quaint cafes, chocolate shops, and the old Dutch masterpieces at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. On winter evenings, we would marvel at the Gothic and Baroque architecture and the beauty of La Grand Place glistening with Christmas lights. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 and the subsequent lockdown in Brussels, I’ve been thinking of the European capital, and about how ironic it is that life here in Kabul, chaotic city of blast walls, checkpoints, and indiscriminate violence, has been less affected by terrorism in the past month than my previous home in the heart of Europe.



La Grand-Place, Brussels

While at NATO, I was writing about humanitarian intervention as applied to the ongoing civil war in Syria. In conversation with military strategists and political advisors from the Alliance, my arguments for intervention, even for the limited purpose of constructing humanitarian corridors, were met with vague statements about the impenetrability of Assad’s air defense and the NATO members’ “lack of political will.” I found such reluctance remarkable; at the time, the United Nations was estimating that more than 100,000 had been killed and millions more displaced.

I still believe there was a moral responsibility to protect the Syrian people, but I am more willing to acknowledge and consider the drawbacks of intervention now, particularly in light of the current situation in Afghanistan. Resolute Support, the follow-on mission to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), still operates from the Green Zone in Kabul, but after fourteen years and billions of dollars, the Taliban now controls 29 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts, and 36 more are contested. The New Unity Government (NUG) is riddled with corruption, and the Afghan National Police seem unable to effectively control the provinces, as seen most recently in Kunduz. Ethnic violence in recent days has threatened to undermine the fragile cohesion that exists between the country’s disparate ethnic groups, and the Islamic State is gaining a foothold in several provinces.

At the invitation of President Ghani, and in the interest of maintaining stability, the United States has committed troops to Afghanistan for another year. Still, the question on everyone’s mind is how the government will manage to control the country once the donor money has dried up and the foreign troops are gone. The terrorist attacks in Paris have only highlighted the problem of Islamic extremism in the country, perpetuated by a resurgent Taliban and reinvigorated by an aggressive Islamic State. Despite robust efforts at reform in the economic, political, and legal sectors, no one seems to know exactly where to be or what to do.

* * *

My plate is always heaped with rice; sometimes it’s fluffy plain white, but more often it is flecked with sliced carrots and raisins – Kabuli palaw. Lunch at the office has become an enjoyable midday ritual. The cook comes in to assure me that the unidentifiable meat on my plate is not goat and that I should eat all the vegetables. Then I sit with one of our young paralegals, Nabila, learning new Persian words, usually relating to food: Gau is cow, Anar is pomegranate, palaw is rice. We discuss important topics like where to get a ball gown hemmed and how to keep a headscarf from slipping, but the conversation inevitably turns to politics and what is happening in Afghanistan.

The recent stoning of a woman in Ghor Province for the crime of zina (extramarital sex) angered Nabila. “This practice is not allowed in Islam. Many of the people in the provinces don’t know what Islam teaches,” she said. I countered, “But the Quran establishes zina as a punishable crime.” As expected, she explained what I had learned previously from other liberal Muslims: the Quranic verse that defines zina is accompanied by an extremely high standard of proof for establishing that the crime actually occurred. All but one of the madhhabs or distinct schools of Islamic law agree on this point. President Ghani called the stoning, “extra-judicial, un-Islamic, and criminal,” and condemned the incident in the strongest terms. The Taliban has been blamed for the stoning, although tribal elders may have been responsible; a variety of groups in the provinces employ strict Taliban-like interpretations of the Quran.

Nabila has explained that the Sharia – the word of God in the Quran and the lived example of the Prophet Mohammad in the sunna – isn’t knowable except through distinct methods of human interpretation. “Muslims who want to justify violence can find plenty of passages to cite and terrible ways to interpret them,” she said. “We shouldn’t focus on that.” She and others like her are confounded by the too common perception that all Muslims are extremists, and that they must choose between extremism on one hand and secularism on the other. “Why can’t people learn more about Islam? We learn about your prophet,” she said. “Harchi bakhair basha. Whatever is in your goodness. It’s a phrase I learned and it’s a type of prayer. I think Jesus said it.”

* * *

It’s difficult to say whether the situation in Afghanistan would be worse today had the United States and western allies not invaded in 2001. I now have a greater appreciation for the complexity of military intervention and the drawbacks of state building operations, but I have also been reminded that non-intervention has unintended consequences too. Despite the generally gloomy outlook, and the fact that hundreds of thousands are trying to abandon the war zone of Afghanistan for Europe, some things have markedly improved in the country since the Taliban fell from power, which likely would not have happened without a western presence.


Women in Kabul

These days in Kabul, I see boisterous groups of girls in white headscarves walking to school. In fact, close to nine million children are now in school compared with fewer than a million before 2001, and half of those children are girls. At a business conference organized by the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, I sat at a table of young Afghan women who studied at university and now work in businesses across the city. The days when women were only allowed to be seen in public with a mahrem, a close male relative, are long gone. Some women still wear the light blue chadri on a daily basis, mostly for their own comfort, but they are now regarded less as the ultimate symbol of oppression under the Taliban regime, and more as a novelty of a bygone era. Expats can now buy chadri wine bottle covers – “made from real Afghan chadri” – and “burka bears,” stuffed animals covered head to paw in nylon, in varying shades of blue.

And there are other signs that Afghanistan is slowly continuing to change for the better. On November 11, thousands of men and women gathered on the streets of Kabul to participate in the largest peaceful protest in Afghanistan’s recent history. They were demanding justice and protection after seven innocent Hazara hostages were beheaded by the Taliban and/or the Islamic State. People marched with signs that read “Down with the Taliban” and “Down with ISIS,” but the protests were aimed mostly at the Afghan government; President Ghani was seen as ultimately responsible for failing to provide protection. In the past it has been easy for Afghans to side with whichever strongman our militant group seemed most capable of providing security and stability, but now, it seems, Afghans want more.


Kabul Protests

We see how corrupt and mismanaged the national government is on a daily basis in our roles as international lawyers in Kabul. Last week, one of our clients came to us with a stack of papers bearing the emblem of the Taliban. It was an old administrative regulation issued under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the now defunct Taliban regime – and signed by Mullah Omar himself. One of the government agencies demanded that our client comply with the regulation. We were startled to see the old black and white emblem in place of the new coat of arms of the Islamic Republic; it was as if the Taliban had resurrected under the guise of the NUG and no one working in the government had noticed. Still, reference to the regulation had been an administrative slip; it was not meant to herald the reemergence of an extremist regime.

Despite the severe deficiencies of the current order, Afghans are making sense of the chaos by learning a new script, provided in part by western countries under the Bonn Agreement. Like the traffic in downtown Kabul, progress is stop and go and there is not yet a discernible flow, but if there is to be meaningful change in Afghanistan, it will be led by the new generation of Afghans who believe in constitutional government and free enterprise. Future leaders will draw their legitimacy from commitment to security, the dignity of communities, and the rule of law.

Photos: 1. Kabul traffic, Getty Images; 2. Brussels La Grand-Place, Jessica Wright; 3. Women in Kabul, Jessica Wright; 4. Protests in Kabul over ethnic unrest, The New York Times.

Dispatches from Kabul: On the Banks of the Kabul River


Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

A Public Murder

She was a 27-year-old student of Islamic law and a devout Afghan Muslim. After praying at the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque at the center of Kabul, Farkhunda Malikzada confronted the caretaker about the practice of selling charms or tawiz, amulets containing Quranic verses and incantations. Like many other conservative Muslims, she believed they were superstitious and un-Islamic. As she admonished the caretaker and the confrontation escalated, he began shouting, “In the name of God, kill her! She has burned the Quran!” Within minutes, a mob of hundreds had assembled, and while the police stood idly by, Farkhunda was stoned, beaten, set on fire, and left to die on the banks of the Kabul River. Some of those present filmed the lynching on their mobile phones.

Violence is endemic in Afghanistan and modern political and legal institutions have faltered since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the brutal murder of Farkhunda – which took place just last March – was particularly shocking given the cultural understanding in Afghanistan that public violence toward women is taboo. Despite the outcry from within the country and abroad, a number of prominent Afghan officials and religious leaders immediately endorsed the murder, highlighting Afghanistan’s complicated relationship with Islam and shattering the cautious hopes of reformers, particularly women’s rights advocates. The official spokesman for the Kabul police characterized Farkhunda’s protestations as a publicity stunt with the aim of attaining U.S. or European citizenship, and during his Friday prayer sermon, Ayaz Niazi, the prominent imam of the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque, said, “If someone disrespects the Quran, you cannot expect people to control their emotions and wait for judges to decide the punishment.” Mullah Hassam of the Bagh-e Bala mosque argued that mahkama—e sahrayi or arbitrary execution is the appropriate punishment for insulting Islam. Soon thereafter, an investigation by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs found no evidence that Farkhunda had burned the Quran, and concluded that she had been slandered.

I first read about Farkhunda while weighing the pros and cons of moving to Kabul to practice law. I knew about Afghanistan’s abysmal human rights record, and had read up on the fragile legal protections for women and girls, as well as the “moral crimes” they are often prosecuted for and the oppressive customary rules they are subject to. Nevertheless, I was stunned by the savagery of Farkhunda’s murder. Afghanistan has “entered a new period of instability in 2014” the reports read, but Taliban-style murders were, I thought, a thing of the past.

Several friends and colleagues asked if I would be defending victims of human rights abuses, particularly women, and strongly advised against it. I assured them that I would be working in the commercial sector, focusing on corporate law and taxation, and would remain far outside the controversial limelight. Free enterprise is the surest path to prosperity and human rights, I would tell them. And surely it is. But even though I am not an Afghan woman, and life in Kabul is comparatively easy for me, Farkhunda’s story affected me deeply and became a catalyst for deeper study into a troubled country.

Afghan Law

Afghanistan’s legal system has been shaped by the country’s multiethnic population and chaotic history, as well as its distinctive culture. Under the veneer of monotheism, it is actually a country of competing belief structures. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim, but it is also clan-based, and as such its two primary sources of law have long been customary tribal law and Islamic law. The current formal legal system – designed in Bonn after Allied forces and the Northern Alliance gained control of the country in 2001 – aims to blend both traditions within a constitutional order defined by civil codes and formal courts. The Constitution designates Islam as the religion of the state and stipulates that no law shall contravene its tenets and provisions. It also suggests that Hanafi jurisprudence – one of the four Sunni Muslim schools – should be used as a kind of gap filler, consulted when there is no provision in the Constitution or others laws regarding a particular issue. And while Islam has been used as a source of authority to unite Afghanistan’s disparate clans under the auspices of the government since the late eighteenth century to the present, legal authority has never been fully consolidated in the hands of the state. This is due in part to ongoing conflict, lack of infrastructure, and an overarching lack of legitimacy, but also because of the prevalence and perceived authority of informal or customary law.

Within the informal system in Afghanistan, the ulama or religious leaders adjudicate disputes by employing common cultural and ethical standards that are assumed to conform to Islamic law. Most of these tribal leaders, who meet in shuras or jirgas – the main institutions that operate as mechanisms of dispute settlement – are untrained in the classical Islamic law tradition. In Pashtunwali, an unwritten ethical code with its own particular set of customs or urf, individual identity is inextricably linked to membership within a particular tribe, and the concept of nang or honor is paramount. Certain actions help to build one’s honor within the tribe while others negate honor and bring about shame. Namus or the practice of observing gender boundaries, for example, is routinely extolled as a virtue. Women abide by purdah or seclusion to maintain these boundaries since it is believed that a woman who is almost invisible to others cannot shame herself. These norms and others like them are not codified; urf assumes space within Islamic law. As such, the formal and informal legal systems operate in parallel with significant tensions between them.

During my first month in Kabul I met Kimberley Motley, the spirited American defense attorney who represented Farkhunda’s family at the initial trial. Motley is, in her words, on a “quest for justness,” which means using existing laws for their intended purpose: to protect. She keeps records of all legal proceedings, and insists that court officers, judges, and parties to the dispute sign off on them. Since the principle of stare decisis does not apply in the Afghan legal system, and judicial interpretation cannot be relied upon to clarify interpretive voids, Motley often relies on this self-made precedential system to argue her cases.

Forty-nine suspects were tried in the Farkhunda case at a trial noted for its unusual brevity. Motley wrote a petition for the family, in which she cited the Afghan Penal Code, the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, the Afghan Constitution, the Quran, a body of tribal law, and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. She requested civil compensatory damages for the family and criminal punishment to the extent of the law for the perpetrators. Motley also demanded punishment for those who stood by and watched the murder. “To take good care of and protect women is one of the principles of Islam,” she wrote. “To allow society to ignore this obligation promotes anarchy and discord, and perpetuates further violence.”

In the end, four of the perpetrators were given death sentences and eight were sentenced to 16 years in prison for murder, assault, and encouraging violence. Nineteen more were sentenced to one year in prison for failure to protect, and 18 were acquitted. “The trial was about Farkhunda and her family,” said Motley. “But to some extent, this ordeal has also put the Afghan legal system on trial.” Critics contend that the rapid convictions were a result of public pressure, and came at the cost of serious failings in the judicial process. Motley, too, acknowledged that there were monumental flaws, but also noted that it was the most well run trial she has ever seen in Afghanistan. She added, “I hope the judges, police, and the wider community in Afghanistan have learned from this case and better understand that the laws exist to protect not oppress women.” Unfortunately, this seems not to be the case. Two months later, during a secret and unlawful hearing, the Appellate Court overturned the death sentences. Motley hopes the case will now be brought before the Supreme Court.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of Farkhunda’s murder, the largest women’s protest in the Afghanistan’s history took place. Women poured onto the streets of Kabul to demand justice and an end to gender-based violence. Many decried the notion that “men are fundamental and women are secondary,” as declared by the Afghan Ulama Council in 2012, saying that such a concept exists in neither classical nor contemporary Islamic jurisprudence. One women’s rights activist said, “The men who killed and attacked Farkhunda were mostly those who have lived in Kabul and have grown up as boys in Hamid Karzai’s government. . . they learned how to wear jeans and look modern but their mentality towards women hasn’t changed.” This attitude, split between a yearning for modernity and fidelity to tribal custom and regressive norms, applies most visibly to issues affecting women.

The dissonance between customary practice, Islamic law, and the state legal code makes it difficult to use existing laws to effectively protect the rights of individuals or to hold accountable those who have violated the rules, norms, and customs of the existing constitutional order. Preventing tragedies like the murder of Farkhunda in the future depends, at least in part, on building and sustaining a robust legal system in Afghanistan. And because that legal system will develop within the strictures of Islam – a religion focused on jurisprudence – many believe change must begin with the ulama.

Photos via Wikimapia and The Guardian

Dispatches from Kabul: Warlords and Takeout

Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 recently moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she works with a team of local and international lawyers at Rosenstock Legal Services, a commercial law firm. In this series of dispatches from Kabul, she will share her insights on issues of law and religion in the context of practicing law in the Islamic Republic. The following personal narrative is an introduction to the series.

Mostly, I was exhausted. There was the packing and repacking, a sleepless night, the flight from Milan to Istanbul, and a four and a half hour layover in the dead of the night. When I arrived at the overcrowded international terminal at Atatürk International, a dark sense of dread came over me. I ordered a venti chai tea latte, bought two bags of Haribo Gold Bears, and sat in front of the lounge monitor watching GO TO GATE flash across the screen for destinations like Najaf, Sulaimaniyah, and Baghdad. When “impoverished, Taliban-infiltrated, suicide-bombed city” is all you have to associate with your destination, it’s hard to rally. KABUL–3:10–WAIT FOR GATE. I wasn’t overcome by the urge to buy a one-way ticket back to Chicago, but as the minutes ticked by slowly I became increasingly angry with myself for having made this decision in the first place.

I couldn’t quite will myself out of the lounge on time, so I ended up sprinting down the terminal to the gate where all but one anxious-looking passenger had been loaded onto the bus that would take us to the outer reaches of the airfield. I remember passing rows of shipping containers and other miscellaneous cargo and wondering if I hadn’t read the fine print well enough.

The flight was full of Westerners. Men with buzz cuts, prominent biceps, and army green t-shirts; tall bespectacled Dutch men with reporter notebooks; women wearing Western tunics and headscarves and speaking the language of project management. A beautiful Afghan girl with kind and vibrant eyes sat next to me. She looked very stylish in her elegant black tunic and hijab, and we struck up a conversation about Islamic dress. She asked me if this would be my first time in Afghanistan – pronounced in a lilting and graceful accent – and then enthusiastically told me all the things she loves about her country. Later, I fell asleep to her conversation with another Afghan woman, the singsong words bale, bale playing in my head. Dari, the Afghan version of Persian and one of the national languages of the country, is really beautiful.

I woke in time to see the sun rising ahead of us in the east, and as we approached Kabul, the desert disappeared and the Hindu Kush came into view. I thought about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and his tiny asteroid, and about the surface of Mars and the moon. “Kabul might as well be outer space,” I whispered to myself. From high above, it looked as though you could be stuck forever in this place surrounded by a vast mountain range encased in endless deserts. The city itself appeared brown and dusty and flat, and the rows of concrete buildings gave the impression that we were landing in the middle of a sprawling detention center or military compound. But as we began the descent I felt a rush of adrenaline and excitement. I had finally made it to Kabul and there was no room for panic.

The hot, dry air smelled like summer in Mumbai, but the atmosphere at Hamid Karzai International was more subdued. An Afghan man loaded my suitcases onto a cart, and we exited the building and began the dreaded walk from the international arrivals terminal to the entrance and parking lots. I felt exposed in the open air, but more curious than frightened, and I managed to snap a few pictures of the “gardens” – wilting rosebushes among weeds – as we made our way to the gate. Given the recent airport bombings, I thought I would be sick with fear, but the ten-minute walk felt strangely normal. A coworker greeted me warmly at our meeting point, and we set out to the city with our driver.

The next hours are a blur of checkpoints, armed men, and seemingly perilous moments on a journey through Kabul’s manic “streets.” When we finally arrived at my new house in a quiet residential neighborhood, I met my housemates – journalists, NGO researchers, communications specialists – as well as the very gracious guards, drivers, and cleaners who make life here easier. We have gates and blast walls, 24-hour chakidors, CCTV, a safe room, and a semi-automatic weapon. Even so, we live “outside the wire,” to borrow a military phrase, which means our security approach is to remain under the radar and as out of sight as possible. Our cars have no markers, we wear headscarves and abayas, and we do not keep regular schedules. Consequently, we are able to move around the city with relative ease. I have only felt anxious once or twice when passing a checkpoint or sitting too long in traffic, and for the most part, the days pass by in a normal rhythm. But I guess this is the reality in a conflict zone. Everything’s fine until it isn’t. You’re safe until you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. You forget about the danger until your friends get captured or killed. It’s the vague, speculative fear, I suppose, that looms large.

My first week in Kabul has been filled with takeout dinners at home, all day brunches in private gardens, and bonfires at night. These are things you wouldn’t think possible in Afghanistan. I’m excited about the work – more on that later – and happy to have met many interesting and enthusiastic people. The low-flying helicopters that regularly shake the house still throw me off, as do glimpses of abject poverty seen through the car window. I like hearing the call to prayer five times a day, but the light blue burkas that cover the body with a single piece of cloth, the chadri, are an eerie reminder of the Taliban’s hold on this country.

As we ventured into a different neighborhood a few nights ago, our driver pointed to a newly built, outsized mansion and said, “That is Dostum’s house.” I looked on in awe as I recalled Ahmed Rashid’s description of General Dostum, the Uzbek warlord:

“He wielded power ruthlessly. The first time I arrived at the fort to meet Dostum there were bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the muddy courtyard. I innocently asked the guards if a goat had been slaughtered. They told me that an hour earlier Dostum had punished a soldier for stealing. The man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank, which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body into mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched. The Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all the Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging – a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes and Dostum was an apt leader. Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death” (Taliban, pg. 56).

Somehow, all of us, even warlords and lawyers, have a role to play in this strange but fascinating place.

Photos by Jessica Wright, September 2015

Classic Revisited: Dalrymple, “From the Holy Mountain”

from-the-holy-mountain-001In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. This is important to remember, as the last remaining Christian communities are driven from the region by Islamist groups or misplaced by the ravages of civil war. William Dalrymple’s classic, From the Holy Mountain (1997) provides a detailed and insightful look into this dying culture. It is a timely read as Christians around the world celebrate the Easter Season.

Writing from an austere monastery cell on Mount Athos, Dalrymple tells us in the first chapters that the journey we are about to embark upon will follow in the footsteps of a wandering monk and his student, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. The purpose of their journey across the entire Eastern Byzantine world in the spring of 578 A.D. was to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers, sages, and mystics of the Byzantine East “before their fragile world – already clearly in advanced decay – finally shattered and disappeared.” Fourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple replicates their journey, staying in monasteries, caves, and remote hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean, collecting anecdotes from the remaining inhabitants of long-forgotten communities. Dalrymple’s book is not a plodding travelogue, nor is it a dry commentary on asceticism or obscure monasticism. With witty and elegant prose, he brings to life the old Byzantine world and its modern incarnation. Dalrymple reminds us, “From the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century – the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian.”

In Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), Dalrymple brings us to the pillars of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived atop high, unsheltered pillars where they would preach, pray, and fast. Byzantines looked on the stylites as “intermediaries, go-betweens who could transmit their deepest fears and aspirations to the distant court of Heaven, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who had, by dint of their heroic asceticism, gained the ear of Christ.” Acknowledging the strangeness of the practice, Dalrymple says, “It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of skeptical Western rationality.”

In Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey), one of the first towns outside Palestine to accept Christianity, Dalrymple notes the absence of churches and the dwindling, almost nonexistent Christian communities that once flourished there. There has been no Christian community in the area since 1915, when the governor began deporting Armenians – that is, rounding them up and murdering them “in the discreet emptiness of the desert.” In Diyarbakir (also in Turkey), once one of the largest Armenian communities in Anatolia, only one church remains. Dalrymple emphasizes the degree to which the Armenians have been erased from the history and even physical landscape of the region.

The Suriani, too, were driven out. Once surviving in the barren hills of Tur Abdin (in southeast Turkey), where hundreds of Syrian Orthodox monasteries maintained the ancient Antiochene liturgies in the original Aramaic, a community of only nine hundred still lived there when Dalrymple visited in the 1990’s. Speaking with Christians who have remained, Dalrymple highlights the striking lack of Western support for these communities: “The Christians of the West have never done anything for us. . . the Turks help other Muslims if they are in trouble in Azerbaijan or in Bosnia, but the Christians of Europe have never shown any feelings for their brothers in the Tur Abdin.” As we well know, support is still lacking.

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Upon entering Syria, Dalrymple attempted to interview a group of Nestorian Christians in a refugee camp. He was told that it was impossible for outsiders to get in, and that even trying would attract the attention of Assad’s secret police. The Syrian local who gave this information also suggested, dryly, that Dalrymple simply interview the Nestorians of England when he returned home, in Ealing. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late twentieth century,” wrote Dalrymple, “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.” This story reminded me of my own plan to travel to Assad’s war-torn Syria to hear a liturgy sung in Aramaic. A professor suggested, instead, that I simply drive 20 minutes to St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey to achieve the same goal–which I did.

Before the civil war intensified, it was widely held that Christians were better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East (with the possible exception of Lebanon). Syria was considered a sanctuary for Christians, due in part to the way Assad built his regime: “Assad kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s many religious minorities – Shias, Druze, Yezidis, Christians, and Alawites – through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority.” Considering the current situation in Syria, one wonders if there are any safe havens left.

Dalrymple takes the reader on a memorable historical journey through cities and regions now more readily associated with strife and militant Islamism than with Christianity. Through his stories and observations, Dalrymple also gently suggests that a way forward through present conflict may lie in acknowledging the similarities between the cultures and communities of the region. He writes, “In an age when Islam and Christianity are again said to be ‘clashing civilizations,’ supposedly ‘irreconcilable and necessarily hostile,’ it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to the early Christian world, and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of our own early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves.” One should read From the Holy Mountain to learn about or remember the history of Christianity – it is, as one reviewer put it, an evensong for a dying civilization. But one should also read this book to put into perspective contemporary cultural and religious conflicts in the Middle East and the role Christian communities have played, and could still.

Photos by Jessica Wright: 1. The Altar of the Crucifixion, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 2. Icons, Istanbul; 3. Chapel of St. Helena, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 4. Armenian Shrine, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 5. The Aedicule, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 6. The Stone of the Anointing, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Around the Web This Week

Some interesting law & religion stories from around the web this week:

Emon, Levering & Novak, “Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue”

9780198706601_450This May, Oxford University Press will publish Natural Law: A Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Trialogue by Anver M. Emon (University of Toronto), Matthew Levering (Mundelein Seminary), and David Novak (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows.

This book is an examination of natural law doctrine, rooted in the classical writings of our respective three traditions: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. Each of the authors provides an extensive essay reflecting on natural law doctrine in his tradition. Each of the authors also provides a thoughtful response to the essays of the other two authors. Readers will gain a sense for how natural law (or cognate terms) resonated with classical thinkers such as Maimonides, Origen, Augustine, al-Ghazali and numerous others. Readers will also be instructed in how the authors think that these sources can be mined for constructive reflection on natural law today. A key theme in each essay is how the particularity of the respective religious tradition is squared with the evident universality of natural law claims. The authors also explore how natural law doctrine functions in particular traditions for reflection upon the religious other.

Russo (ed.), “International Perspectives on Education, Religion and Law”

9780415841474This May, Routledge will publish International Perspectives on Education, Religion and Law edited by Charles Russo Jr. (School of Law, University of Dayton). The publisher’s description follows.

This volume examines the legal status of religion in education, both public and non-public, in the United States and seven other nations. It will stimulate further interest, research, and debate on comparative analyses on the role of religion in schools at a time when the place of religion is of vital interest in most parts of the world. This interdisciplinary volume includes chapters by leading academicians and is designed to serve as a resource for researchers and educational practitioners, providing readers with an enhanced awareness of strategies for addressing the role of religion in rapidly diversifying educational settings. There is currently a paucity of books devoted solely to the topic written for interdisciplinary and international audiences involving educators and lawyers, and this book will clarify the legal complexities and technical language among the law, education, and religion.

Around the Web This Week

Some interesting law & religion stories from around the web this week:

Barras, “Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey”

9780415821780This month, Routledge publishes Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey: The Case of the Headscarf Ban by Amelie Barras (University of Montreal). The publisher’s description follows.

Over the past few years, secularism has become an intrinsic component of discussions on religious freedom and religious governance. The question of whether states should restrict the wearing of headscarves and other religious symbols has been particularly critical in guiding this thought process.

Refashioning Secularisms in France and Turkey documents how, in both countries, devout women have contested bans on headscarves, pointing to how these are inconsistent with the ‘real’ spirit of secularism. These activists argue that it is possible to be simultaneously secular and religious; to believe in the values conveyed by secularism, while still remaining devoted to their faith. Through this examination, the book highlights how activists locate their claims within the frame of secularism, while at the same time revisiting it to craft a space for their religiosity.

Addressing the lacuna in literature on the discourse of devout Muslims affected by these restrictions, this book offers a topical analysis on an understudied dimension of secularism and is a valuable resource for students and researchers with an interest in Religion, Gender Studies, Human Rights and Political Science.

Hamid, “Temptations of Power”

9780199314058_450Next month, Oxford University Press will publish Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East by Shadi Hamid (Brookings Doha Center). The publisher’s description follows.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we had reached “the end of history,” and that liberal democracy would be the reigning ideology from now on. But Fukuyama failed to reckon with the idea of illiberal democracy. What if majorities, working through the democratic process, decide they would rather not accept gender equality and other human rights norms that Western democracies take for granted? Nowhere have such considerations become more relevant than in the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings of 2011 swept the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties into power. Since then, one question has been on everyone’s mind: what do Islamists really want?

In Temptations of Power, noted Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid draws on hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and rank-and-file activists to offer an in-depth look at the past, present, and future of Islamist parties across the Arab world. The oldest and most influential of these groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, initially dismissed democracy as a foreign import, but eventually chose to participate in Egyptian and Jordanian party politics in the 1980s. These political openings proved short-lived. As repression intensified, though, Islamist parties did not — as one may have expected — turn to radicalism. Rather, they embraced the tenets of democratic life, putting aside their dreams of an Islamic state, striking alliances with secular parties, and reaching out to Western audiences for the first time.

When the 2011 revolutions took place, Islamists found themselves in an enviable position, but one they were unprepared for. Up until then, the prospect of power had seemed too remote. But, now, freed from repression and with the political arena wide open, they found themselves with an unprecedented opportunity to put their ideas into practice across the region. Groups like the Brotherhood combine the features of political parties and religious movements. However pragmatic they may be, their ultimate goal remains the Islamization of society and the state. When the electorate they represent is conservative as well, they can push their own form of illiberal democracy while insisting they are carrying out the popular will. This can lead to overreach and, at times, significant backlash, as the tragic events in Egypt following the military takeover demonstrated.

While the coup and the subsequent crackdown were a devastating blow for the Islamist “project,” premature obituaries of political Islam, a running feature of commentary since the 1950s, usually turn out to be just that – premature. In countries as diverse as Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, Islamist groups will remain an important force whether in the ranks of opposition or the halls of power.

Drawing from interviews with figures like ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, Hamid’s account will serve as an essential compass for those trying to understand where the region’s varied Islamist groups have come from, and where they might be headed.