Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Report: Obama Administration to Increase Aid to Syrian Rebels

 

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Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab

The Wall Street Journal reports today that President Obama’s national security advisers have agreed on a proposal to increase US aid to “moderate” Syrian rebels. Although the advisers disagree on the advisability of more aggressive military intervention, they have apparently coalesced around a plan for US Special Forces to train and equip the moderates. This is in line with a report on Walter Russell Mead’s blog that Obama agreed during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia to supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or “manpads.”

One can understand the Administration’s frustration. Two-and-a-half years after Obama said that Assad would have to go, and several months after the President’s about-face on chemical weapons, the Assad regime seems more secure than it has for a long time. But two factors counsel strongly against more aggressive assistance to the rebels. First, as Patrick Brennan writes, “for months and months now, it’s been obvious that the effective parts of the Syrian opposition are militant Islamists” like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Pro-Western moderate rebels, the sort the Administration likes to promote, are more or less “powerless.” If the opposition were to succeed in overthrowing Assad, it’s quite possible that the Islamists would overwhelm their secular allies–perhaps through a democratic election, as in Egypt in 2012–and transform Syria into an Islamist state. How would that advance America’s interests? 

Second, assistance to the rebels would almost certainly worsen the already dire situation of Syria’s Christians. Just in the last two weeks, the Nusra Front attacked the Armenian town of Kessab, displacing thousands of Christians. Fortunately, first reports of a massacre seem to have been unfounded. Indeed, the rebels are conducting a PR offensive to assure Kessab–and the world community–that they mean no harm. Christians are skeptical, and with good reason. ISIL recently imposed the centuries-old dhimma in a different Christian town, Raqqa, and, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon observed this morning, “gross human rights violations undeniably continue.” Islamists have kidnapped nuns and bishops and murdered clergy. Only today, masked gunmen, presumably Islamist rebels, murdered a Catholic priest in a rebel-controlled district in the city of Homs. For these reasons, Syria’s Christians mostly support the Assad regime, usually quietly, sometimes vocally.

At this writing, it’s not clear whether the plan to equip and train the Syrian rebels will be adopted. In the words of the Journal report, “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.”

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How We Get Things Done at the Center

Coffee

CLR Podcast on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby

In our most recent podcast, Center Director Mark Movsesian and Associate Director Marc DeGirolami discuss last week’s oral argument in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, the Contraception Mandate case. We address the background of the litigation, the rhetorical strategies adopted by each side, and the major doctrinal questions the Court will need to resolve. We also make predictions about how the Justices will ultimately rule. The podcast will be useful for students and others looking for an introduction to this extremely important case.

The Weekly Five

This week’s collection of new pieces on SSRN includes an article on Catholic objections to Legal Realism by John Breen and Lee Strang;  a history of Just War theory by Robert Delahunty; an article by Zoe Robinson on the definition of “religious institutions” in connection with the Contraception Mandate litigation; and two essays by Micah Schwartzman on religious and secular convictions.

1. John M. Breen (Loyola University Chicago) and Lee J. Strang (University ofToledo), The Forgotten Jurisprudential Debate: Catholic Legal Thought’s Response to Legal Realism. This article examines the critique of Legal Realism by Catholic scholars in the 1930s and 1940s. Legal historians have unfairly neglected this critique, the authors say, which was both profound and systematic. Catholic legal thinkers who objected to Realism drew on the worldwide revival of Neo-Scholastic philosophy taking place at the time.

2. Robert J. Delahunty (University of St. Thomas), The Returning Warrior and the Limits of Just War Theory. In this paper, Delahunty traces the history of the Just War tradition in Christian thought. Before the twelfth-century Papal Revolution, he writes, the Catholic Church treated the subject in a pastoral, unsystematic way. Soldiers who had killed in wartime were typically required to do penance. In the Papal Revolution, however, the Church transformed itself into an early modern state, equipped with a military force. “As an essential part of this epochal transformation, the Papal program required the Church to abandon its earlier skepticism about war and to settle on the view that war could be justifiable, even sanctified.”

3. Zoe Robinson (DePaul University), The Contraception Mandate and the Forgotten Constitutional Question. Robinson maintains that arguments about the ACA”s Contraception Mandate often neglect the first question: whether the claimants are “religious institutions” that merit constitutional protection. She develops a list of four factors that identify such institutions: “(1) recognition as a religious institution; (2) functions as a religious institution; (3) voluntariness; and (4) privacy-seeking.” Applying these factors, she argues that religious universities qualify as religious institutions, but not for-profit businesses or religious interest groups.

4. Micah Schwartzman (University of Virginia), Religion as a Legal Proxy. In a response to Andrew Koppelman, Schwartzman argues that affording legal protection to religion as such unfairly discriminates against people with non-religious commitments. He argues that the concept of religion should be expanded to include secular claims of conscience. A wide range of international and domestic laws already do so, he points out. Against the backdrop of these laws, the First Amendment’s singling out of religion “feels somewhat antiquated.”

5. Micah Schwartzmann (University of Virginia), Religion, Equality, and Public Reason. This is a review of Ronald Dworkin’s posthumous work, Religion without God, in which Dworkin argues that, as a moral matter, both religious and non-religious convictions deserve legal protection. Schwartzman agrees, but argues that Dworkin unfortunately resisted using the concept of public reason, familiar from the work of John Rawls and others. Schwartzman believes that reliance on public reason is “inevitable” for those, like Dworkin, “who accept that believers and nonbelievers deserve equal respect for their competing and conflicting views.”

Panel: The Coptic Question (April 10)

Fordham’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work will host a panel discussion, “The Coptic Question: Protecting Minorities During Periods of Upheaval,” in New York on April 10:

Coptic Christians, who make up more than 10% of the Egyptian population, were partners with their Muslim fellow citizens in Tahrir Square and Arab Spring. However, since 2011, scores of Coptic churches, monasteries, shops, schools, clubs and orphanages had been plundered and burned, and over the past year more than 100,000 Christians have fled Egypt with their families, leaving everything they know behind.

This program will explore the experience of the Coptic Christians as religious minority in Egypt and consider the potential for protecting Christian minorities in majority Muslim countries.

Details are here.

President Obama and Pope Francis on Mideast Christians

In the Boston Globe, the always worthwhile John Allen analyzes today’s meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis. Although the two men will agree on issues like economic inequality, Allen says, they will likely differ on others, including, notably, Mideast policy.

Pope Francis often highlights the crisis Mideast Christians face; President Obama, not so much. “Few on the Catholic side are inclined to see the Obama administration as a great defender of those Christians at risk,” Allen writes, “while standing up against violent anti-Christian persecution is emerging as a cornerstone of Francis’ social and political agenda”:

On Egypt, Obama took a “pox on both your houses” stance last summer with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood and the army after a military council declared controversial President Mohamed Morsi deposed. The Vatican was more favorable to the military intervention, inclined to see it less as a coup and more as a reflection of popular will.

In Syria, the Obama administration has made the removal of President Bashar al-Assad a precondition for any negotiated end to that country’s civil war, while the Vatican is more skeptical about regime change, in part out of concern that whatever follows Assad might actually be worse.

Underlying these contrasts is that the Vatican’s reading of the Middle East is heavily conditioned by the perceptions of the Christian minorities in these countries, who generally see either a powerful military or strong-arm rulers as a buffer between themselves and Islamic radicalism. They often point to Iraq, where a once-thriving Christian community has been gutted in the chaos that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein.

You can read the full article here.

Two Updates on Syria’s Christians

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab, Syria

Two updates on last week’s post about the persecution of Christians in Syria, one hopeful, one much less so.

First the hopeful one. As I wrote last week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting with Syrian opposition, has succeeded in capturing the town of Raqqa and imposing the classical dhimma on the town’s Christian inhabitants. The dhimma is a notional contract that Christians make with the Islamic community; it offers Christians protection and some autonomy in exchange for their agreement to pay a poll tax called the jizya and to accept restrictions on their dress, movement, construction of churches, etc. Although the historical origins are obscure, the dhimma was a standard concept in classical Islamic law. The Ottomans abandoned the concept only in the 19th century. Its revival now, even in this limited way, is a very worrying sign.

In a response to my post, a post at Andrew Sullivan’s blog points to comments condemning ISIL by a scholar at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, the leading center of Sunni Islamic learning. The scholar, Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, maintains that Islamic law makes imposition of the dhimma illegal in these circumstances. ISIL’s collection of the jizya , he says, is “a form of theft that uses religion as a cover.”

It’s gratifying to see someone from al-Azhar making the point. But there is a certain ambiguity in Shehata’s remarks. If you read them closely, you see that he is not necessarily condemning the jizya as such, only its collection by a renegade group:

“ISIL contradicts itself,” Shehata said. “On the one hand they say they are implementing the provisions of Islamic sharia, including the ‘jizya’, however the Islamic state must be a full-fledged state and recognised by its citizens and subjects, which is not the case in the areas where ISIL is imposing its control by force and bloodshed.”

Maybe it’s a problem with the translation, or perhaps one has to read the whole interview to understand Shehata’s point. But it’s important to focus on the nuances. Perhaps Shehata’s real point is that only a true Islamic law state, not a band of rebels acting outside government authority, may impose the jizya–in which case, Syria’s Christians may find his rejection of ISIL’s actions less reassuring than first appears.

The less hopeful update: over the weekend, fighters with a different al-Qaeda offshoot in the opposition, a rival of ISIL known as the Nusra Front, captured the Armenian Christian town of Kessab. The fighters crossed the border from Turkey, where their bases are located, and attacked the town on Friday. By Sunday, it had fallen. Thousands of Kessab’s Christians–some of whom had sought refuge from Raqqa–have fled to the nearby city of Latakia, where they receiving assistance from the local community, the Red Cross, and Red Crescent. Eyewitnesses report that the Nusra Front has looted Christian homes and stores and desecrated churches in Kessab.

Many Armenian Christians in Kessab descend from refugees who fled the last great persecution of Christians in the region, the Armenian Genocide of 1915–itself a byproduct, in part, of a jihad the Ottoman Empire declared against Christians during World War I. The sad ironies will not escape any of the Christians in Syria today.

Movsesian on Dworkin

For those interested, my review of Ronald Dworkin’s last work, Religion without God, appears in the current edition of Religion and Human Rights. The link is here; subscription required, I’m afraid!

Quote for the Day

On the crisis in Ukraine, from the Washington Post‘s Robert Samuelson:

“We’re relearning an old lesson: History, culture, geography, religion and pride often trump economics.”

Reinstating the Dhimma in Syria

This month, the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year. The latest news is that the government has recaptured the border town of Yabrud, an important opposition stronghold. In fact, Yabrud is where the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in the opposition, had been holding hostage a group of Greek Orthodox nuns. The Front released the nuns only last week, reportedly in return for a government promise to allow the Front to leave the city.

Yabrud’s fall will be welcome news to Syria’s Christians. Although they have tried to avoid getting too mixed up in the conflict, it’s no secret that most of them quietly support the Assad government. Some Americans express dismay at this fact. Earlier this year, in fact, Senator John McCain reportedly stormed out of a private meeting with Syrian Christian leaders who had traveled to Washington to warn about Islamist elements in the opposition. Presumably, Senator McCain thinks these warnings reflect badly on non-Islamist elements in the anti-Assad coalition, whom he favors supplying with arms.

It’s easy to support moderate rebels and hope for the best when one lives in the United States. Syria’s Christians do not have that luxury. They favor Assad because he represents the lesser of two evils. A member of a minority religion himself–he is an Alawite–Assad has been reasonably tolerant of other minorities, including Christians. Better to take your chances with him, even if he is a dictator, than risk life under jihadists who kidnap nuns and hold them for ransom.

Actually, for an al Qaeda affiliate, the hostage-taking Nusra Front is relatively tolerant. The opposition contains worse. Take, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another al Qaeda offshoot that fights with the opposition. ISIL has taken the eastern town of Raqqa and reinstated the centuries-old dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians may live in an Islamic society as long as they pay a poll tax called the jizya, accept restrictions on their activities–for example, they may not engage in public religious displays, affect equality with Muslims, or carry weapons–and refrain from cooperating with Islam’s enemies. If they break the terms of the contract, Christians forfeit the protection of Islamic society and become subject to retaliation.

ISIL has updated the dhimma for Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. For example, Haaretz reports,

According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.

The Raqqa dhimma also requires Christians to turn over persons ISIL believes to be working against it. Interestingly, this might include other jihadists. At the moment, ISIL is quarreling with the Nusra Front, whose members have demanded that ISIL leave the country and allow the Front to represent al Qaeda’s interests in Syria.

The Ottomans formally abolished the dhimma in the nineteenth century, an act that led at the time to a widespread anti-Christian backlash. Since the founding of the modern Middle East, no Islamist group has seriously sought to reinstate it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, did not propose that Christians formally comply with the old dhimmi restrictions. It’s no surprise that Syria’s Christians look at developments in places like Raqqa and decide that Assad, rather than the opposition, offers them a more secure future.