Author Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

In Turkey, the Clash of Civilizations Continues

In academic and policymaking circles in the West, one hears a great deal about universal human rights. These rights, it is said, apply to everyone, everywhere; they are inherent in human nature. It’s an interesting idea. The problem is, not everyone agrees. That’s putting it mildly. Whole civilizations reject the Western conception of universal human rights, including, principally, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. We can tell ourselves that the conflict is temporary and superficial, that other civilizations are moving inexorably toward our understanding. We have international agreements! But much suggests the clash is profound and perduring.

Events in Turkey over the past weekend provide more evidence. On Saturday, 100,000 people gathered in the city of Diyarbakir to protest the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the French journal, Charlie Hebdo. One hundred thousand people – that’s hardly a fringe phenomenon. According to an account in a Turkish newspaper, speakers condemned the notion that freedom of expression extended to insults against the Prophet. Protesters held up placards with phrases such as “‘Damn those saying “I am Charlie,” and ‘May Charlie’s Devils not defame the Prophet.’”

These sentiments are not limited to the reaches of Anatolia. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu personally expressed his support for the protesters. At a meeting of the ruling AKP party in Diyarbakir, he sent greetings to the protesters, to “each and every brother who defends the Prophet Muhammad here.” (Ironically, Davutoğlu represented Turkey at the solidarity rally in Paris the weekend after the Charlie Hebdo attacks).  And, on Sunday, a court in Ankara ordered Facebook to block users’ access to pages containing content deemed insulting to the Prophet. According to the New York Times, Facebook immediately complied.

Of course, not everyone in Turkey endorses these actions, but that’s not the point. Throughout the country, and in many other places across the globe, millions disagree, profoundly, with how the West understands things. They are not about to change their minds. We need to pay attention. The clash of civilizations continues.

What’s Happening in Argentina?

I confess I don’t follow Argentine politics. So when an Argentine friend posted the message “Yo Soy Nisman” on her Facebook page this week, I didn’t get the reference. I asked her about it, and she directed me to several news items on the death Sunday of an Argentine prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who was about to testify about an alleged deal to immunize the perpetrators of one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks in recent history. It is an astonishing story.

In 1994, a bomb exploded at a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people. Iranian agents are suspected, and Interpol has issued arrest warrants against some Iranian officials. This month, Nisman accused the Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner, of blocking the investigation. Kirschner, he claimed, had made a secret agreement with Iran to shield the officials from prosecution in exchange for Iranian oil. He filed a criminal complaint against her and her foreign minister, Hector Timerman. Both Kirschner and Timerman deny the charge. They say that Nisman was being manipulated by their political opponents.

Nisman had an appointment to testify before Argentine legislators on Monday. On Sunday, police found him dead in his apartment, with a gunshot wound to the head. Kirschner first called the death a suicide, which is how the police described it. Many Argentines were skeptical, as Nisman had left no note and forensic evidence didn’t point to a suicide.

Now, apparently, Ms. Kirschner is skeptical as well. On her website yesterday, she wrote that she believes Nisman was murdered–implicitly, by the same people who had manipulated him to bring the charges against her in the first place. “They used him while he was alive and then they needed him dead,” she wrote. Presumably, the plot was to get Nisman to indict Kirschner on phony charges, and then kill him before the plot against Kirschner could be revealed.

So: A prosecutor claims he has evidence that the president has made a secret deal with a foreign country to cover up a attack on a religious minority that killed 85 people, then dies under mysterious circumstances the day before he is to testify. The president first claims it’s a suicide, then changes her mind and says, without providing evidence, that it’s a murder directed, ultimately, at her. Does any of this make sense? What’s happening in Argentina?

Pope Francis on Charlie Hebdo: Not WEIRD

pope 2On a plane home from the Philippines yesterday, Pope Francis clarified remarks he made last week, on a plane to the Philippines, about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (These papal plane trips are really good copy. The Vatican press corps must fight over passes). In last week’s remarks, while condemning the Paris murders, the Pope also cautioned against disparaging people’s religion in a way that leads, quite naturally, to a violent response. In a widely quoted remark, the Pope said that even a friend could expect a punch in the nose if he “says a swear word against my mother.”  That, the Pope said, is “normal.”

I was struck by the different reactions people I know had to the Pope’s remarks. Some Eastern Christians, who have more reason than most to resent Islamist brutality, told me the Pope was correct. The Paris massacre was horrible, but the magazine should have shown more respect for religious belief, Muslim and Christian. Most of my American friends, by contrast, thought the Pope was wrong. And many in the Western media, on both the left and right, quickly denounced his remarks. Was Pope Francis advocating censorship? Was he signaling a tacit alliance with Muslims to fight the Enlightenment and insulate religion from criticism?

Yesterday, the Pope explained his meaning. According to CBS News:

Pope Francis said he wasn’t justifying violence when he said a friend who had cursed his mother could “expect a punch” in return. Rather, he says he was only expressing a very human response to a provocation, and that greater prudence would have avoided such offense.… Francis said: “In theory we can say a violent reaction to an offense or provocation isn’t a good thing … In theory we can say that we have the freedom to express ourselves. But we are human. And there is prudence, which is a virtue of human coexistence.”

In other words, the Pope was not excusing the Paris murders or saying that religions can’t be criticized. He was making the rather sensible observation that people react badly when you insult their religion and that wisdom, not to mention civility, counsels a certain restraint. You have the legal right to say whatever you want, but why say whatever you want?

The example the Pope gave is suggestive. Most people have a special respect for their mothers. Other people’s mothers are not beyond criticism, of course, but there are limits to what you can say about them. This explains why the worst schoolyard curse–it used to be, anyway; based on what I hear on the sidewalks of New York, it isn’t any longer–involves someone else’s mother.

In most of the world, people view religion the same way, as a matter deserving special respect. It’s the so-called WEIRD societies–Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic–that fail to do so. In WEIRD societies, individual rights, including the right to express oneself, have priority. (At least when it comes to insulting religion; other subjects, significantly, are off-limits). Autonomy, not divinity, is the key value; insults to religion have less moral valence than restrictions on liberty. These are generalizations, but social science research supports them and they seem intuitively correct. In fact, according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose book on the subject, The Righteous Mind, is well worth the read, America is the WEIRDest society in the world, and America’s educated upper-middle class, the sort of people who make up our editorial pages, is the WEIRDest group in America. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Western media would find the Pope’s remarks incomprehensible.

The murders at Charlie Hebdo were not justified, and we oughtn’t surrender our values to placate Islamists. But it’s worth remembering that much of the world, not only Islamists, sees things rather differently from us.

Law and Religion Australia

Professor Neil Foster at the University of Newcastle (Australia) has launched a new blog, Law and Religion Australia. The blog will cover mostly Australian issues — but which law and religion issues are purely domestic, now? — and will promote the cause of religious freedom. Looks very worthwhile. Welcome to the Blogosphere!

Egypt’s President Visits Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve

On Monday, I posted about a speech Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently gave at Al Azhar University, the leading center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world. In his speech, Sisi called for a “religious revolution,” a rethinking of classical Islamic law in order to address the concerns of non-Muslims. I wrote that Sisi’s speech was a hopeful gesture, even a brave one – but that only time will tell how serious Sisi is about honoring religious pluralism.

That’s still what I think – only time will tell. But Sisi deserves credit for another remarkable gesture this week. Yesterday, he paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. (The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7). According to the government-owned Ahram Online, it was the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history. Past presidents have visited the cathedral, but none has actually attended a Christmas liturgy.

You can see a video of the president’s speech — the liturgy was being covered in full by state TV – here. I can’t speak Arabic, so I don’t know what’s being said, but the scene looks electric. The congregation cheers wildly for Sisi, who himself seems moved. Here’s a report of the visit by an independent website, Mada Masr:

The president made a brief speech while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the highest Coptic authority in Egypt.

“It was necessary for me to come here to wish you a merry Christmas, and I hope I haven’t disturbed your prayers. Throughout the years, Egypt taught the world civilization and humanity, and the world expects a lot from Egypt during the current circumstances,” Sisi said.

“It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” the president declared.

The Coptic Pope thanked Sisi, and called his visit “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”

The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators think Copts are going through the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous for Christians, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. The sense of being under siege no doubt explains the emotion evident in the video. (Some commentators have complained that Sisi interrupted a liturgy, and that the congregation really shouldn’t have gotten so carried away in church, but in the circumstances these things can be excused). What would elsewhere be a routine event – a politician wishing a community well on its holiday – is, in this context, a crucial show of support.

Again, it’s easy for an outsider to miss things, and I wouldn’t be suggesting Sisi for the Nobel Prize just yet. Maybe this is all a show. But, together with his speech at Al Azhar last week, his visit to the cathedral suggests something serious is happening in Egypt. Which leads to a question: why has the US been so cool to Sisi?

Merry Christmas

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To all who celebrate, a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy Theophany.

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President Sisi’s Speech

Abdel_Fattah_el-SisiThe Internet is buzzing with news of a speech last week by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt (left) on the need for a “religious revolution” in Islam. Speaking at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the most important center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world, Sisi admonished the assembled scholars to revisit Islamic law, or fiqh, in order to calm the fears of the non-Muslim world. According to a translation at Raymond Ibrahim’s site, Sisi said:

I am referring here to the religious clerics.  We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before.  It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.  It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

Some are praising Sisi for his bravery. That’s certainly one way to look at it. When Sisi calls for rethinking “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years,” he may be advocating something quite dramatic, indeed. For centuries, most Islamic law scholars – though not all – have held that “the gate of ijtihad,” or independent legal reasoning, has closed, that fiqh has reached perfection and cannot be developed further. If Sisi is calling for the gate to open, and if fiqh scholars at a place like Al Azhar heed the call, that would be a truly radical step, one that would send shock waves throughout the Islamic world.

We’ll have to wait and see. Early reports are sometimes misleading; there are subtexts, religious and political, that outsiders can miss. Which texts and ideas does Sisi mean, exactly? Fiqh rules about Christians and other non-Muslims, which often insist on subordination? Some argue that, notwithstanding the speech at Al Azhar, Sisi has done relatively little to improve the situation of Coptic Christians. And calling for the opening of the gate is not necessarily progressive. Although progressive Muslim scholars endorse the opening of the gate in order to adapt fiqh to modernity, Salafist groups wish to open the gate in order to discard centuries of what they see as un-Islamic traditions. Opening the gate may be a signal for fundamentalism, for a return to the pure Islam of the Prophet and his companions. I don’t imply Sisi is a fundamentalist, of course. I’m just saying one needs to be alert to the nuances.

Still, Sisi’s remarks do suggest he means a rethinking of Islamic law to adapt to contemporary pluralism. This is definitely worth watching.

Movsesian at American Historical Association Meeting

For readers attending the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in New York this weekend, I’ll be on a Sunday panel, “Contemporary Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights.” The panel, sponsored by the American Society of Church History, is chaired by Penn’s Sally Gordon, who participated in our Joint Colloquium this past spring. Details are here. Please stop by and say hello!

Foreign Policy Magazine on Iraqi Christians

From Foreign Policy,  a moving essay on how Iraqi Christians are observing this Christmas season. Last month, the author, Christian Caryl, visited Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Chaldean-rite Catholics, refugees from ISIS’s summer campaign, live in tents in a church courtyard:

I guess you could argue that this is all old news. A lot has happened since late November, and there are plenty of other stories to cover. By and large, the international media have moved on. But the refugees are still there, huddled together on the grounds of the church, or in other sites scattered around Kurdish-controlled territory (which has offered them a warm welcome despite its own lack of resources). The world may have forgotten these people, but they’re still struggling to come to terms with the catastrophe. The accounts repeat and overlap: “I hid our money in the house, thinking we’d be back in a few days. But now we realize that we’ll probably never be able to go back.” “They knew our cellphone number, so a few days later, they called us up and said they’d hunt us down and kill us.” “They took him away, and we’ve never heard from him again.”

Sadly, the tragedy of the Christians of Iraq — who span a whole range of doctrines and ethnic groups — is being replicated in many other places. Sectarian tensions are deepening around the world, and Christians are often the victims. Syria’s mostly Orthodox Christians are caught in the middle of the civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad and its Islamist opponents. Egypt’s Copts are still attending charred churches, burned inanti-Christian pogroms and battling persistent anti-Christian sentiment. And now churches are even being targeted for attack by Hindu nationalists in India.

Caryl also answers the inevitable criticism that it is wrong to focus on the plight of Christians. (Do human rights advocates ever require explanations for defending other persecuted minorities? Just asking).

And yes, before you put coal in my stocking, I do understand that Christians aren’t the only ones in the world suffering from bigotry and violence. Just this past week, many Yezidis, another important religious minority in northern Iraq, finally got thrown a lifeline when Kurdish forces broke through an IS siege to open up a corridor to Mount Sinjar, where many Yezidis had been trapped. And yes, it’s absolutely true that many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are victims of persecution and terror. I think everyone in the world should be happy to see that stop. Faith should never be an excuse for violence.

What’s important to keep in mind in the case of Middle Eastern Christians is that the communities under attack embody unique cultural traditions that now stand on the verge of irreparable damage or even extinction. (Some of Iraq’s Christians still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.) Small wonder that a group of Christian and Muslim leaders recently meeting in Cairo issued a statement calling for tolerance pleading with Christians to remain in the Middle East. They understand that the loss of each one of these ancient communities of faith is a loss for all of us — and a victory for the forces of intolerance at a time when the world can least afford it.

Read the whole thing.

Merry Christmas

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We’re knocking off early and giving the staff the whole day tomorrow. (Yeah, we’re regular Fezziwigs around here). To all who celebrate, a very Merry Christmas.