Tag Archives: Arab Spring

Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

In October, Basic Books released “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into 9780465030569the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East,” by Gerard Russell (Foreign Policy Centre – London). The publisher’s description follows:

In this spellbinding journey across the past and present of the Middle East, a former diplomat takes us into the fascinating religious communities that have survived for centuries under Muslim rule.

Despite its reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before.

In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former diplomat Gerard Russell ventures to the distant, nearly impassable regions where these mysterious religions still cling to survival. He lives alongside the Mandaeans and Ezidis of Iraq, the Zoroastrians of Iran, the Copts of Egypt, and others. He learns their histories, participates in their rituals, and comes to understand the threats to their communities. Historically a tolerant faith, Islam has, since the early 20th century, witnessed the rise of militant, extremist sects. This development, along with the rippling effects of Western invasion, now pose existential threats to these minority faiths. And as more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of greater freedoms and job prospects, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction.

Drawing on his extensive travels and archival research, Russell provides an essential record of the past, present, and perilous future of these remarkable religions.

El-Menawy, “The Copts”

This September, Gilgamesh Publishing released “The Copts: An Investigation Into The Rift Between Muslims And Copts In Egypt” by Abdel Latif El-Menawy.  The publisher’s description follows:

The CoptsAbdel Latif Al Menawy met and interviewed late Pope Shnouda, the third Patriarch of Egypt many times during his rule. Throughout his career in journalism he was constantly in touch with leaders of the Coptic Society in Egypt. He had unparalleled access to developments of the various crises unravelling in the streets of Egypt as a result to confrontation between religion and politics.

The Copts explains how Christianity became so deeply rooted in Egypt that Islam was never able to overcome it, leading to an uneasy relationship between the two faiths. It will give accounts, never published before, of direct confrontations between  the Late Pope Shnouda and both Presidents Late Anwar Sadat and former President Hosni Mubarak.  Abdel Latif also reveals the role the Coptic Church has played in the recent uprising in Egypt.

Ghobadzadeh, “Religious Secularity”

This November, Oxford University Press will release “Religious Secularity: A Theological Challenge to the Islamic State” by Naser Ghobadzadeh (Australian Catholic University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious Secularity“Fundamentalism” and “authoritarian secularism” are commonly perceived as the two mutually exclusive paradigms available to Muslim majority countries. Recent political developments, however, have challenged this perception. Formerly associated with a fundamentalist outlook, mainstream Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nahda, have adopted a distinctly secular-democratic approach to the state re-building process. Their success or failure in transitioning to democracy remains to be seen, but the political position these Islamic groups have carved out suggests the viability of a third way.

Naser Ghobadzadeh examines the case of Iran, which has a unique history with respect to the relationship of religion and politics. The country has been subject to both authoritarian secularization and authoritarian Islamization over the last nine decades. While politico-religious discourse in Iran is articulated in response to the Islamic state, it also bears the scars of Iran’s history of authoritarian secularization-the legacy of the Pahlavi regime. Ghobadzadeh conceptualizes this politico-religious discourse as “religious secularity”. He uses this apparent oxymoron to describe the Islamic quest for a democratic secular state, and he demonstrates how this concept encapsulates the complex characteristics of the Shiite religious reformation movement.

Iraq’s Christians Still Need Our Help

For people seeking to understand the crisis facing the Christians of Iraq, there’s an interesting panel discussion on the website of France 24, an English-language news station based in Paris: “Iraq’s Christians: Nowhere to Run?” The discussion is in two segments, here and here. It features a French senator, Nathalie Goulet; the New York Times Paris Bureau chief, Alissa Rubin; lawyer Ardavan Amir Aslani; and Christelle Yalap of the Committee for the Support of Iraqi Christians, a French NGO.

The panel is worth watching in full, if only to learn about the discussion taking place in another Western country. The panelists disagree about the responsibility America bears for the situation. Although the invasion of Iraq destabilized the country and exposed Christians and other minorities to grave danger, Islamism is not simply a response to American actions. It results from factors internal to the Muslim world. America has been only a peripheral actor in the Arab Spring. And yet, as one of the panelists says, the Arab Spring always seems to become an Islamist autumn.

One thing stood out for me in particular. Ms. Yalap, who offers a succinct description of the Christian community of Mosul, makes the very important point that the ordeal of this community did not end with expulsion from its home. Her NGO has been in touch with these Christians, who have taken refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan. Apparently, ISIS has continued to pursue them there, and has succeeded in cutting off  their water and electricity. It’s summer in Erbil, and the temperature is around 113°. The Christians of Mosul continue to face a humanitarian crisis. Will the international community do something to help?

This weekend, rallies in support of Iraq’s Christians are planned around the world, including here in New York, at the UN. For information, please click here.

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Haseeb, “State and Religion in the Arab World”

On July 22, Routledge Publishing will release State and Religion in the Arab World, by Khair El-Din Haseeb (Centre for Arab Unity Studies).  The publisher’s description follows:

This collection focuses on the controversial relationship between religion and the state within the Arab Spring context and the evolving debates on democratic transition. In this book, democracy is not questionable; it is hailed by all those vocal on the political scene. The array of opinions presented here varies from a call for a secular state based on Islamic philosophy to a call for setting democratic institutions before working on solving this religion-state dichotomy. Meanwhile some prefer to have an ambiguous stand on which side to back up, the liberals or the Islamists, despite a detailed criticism of the ossified ways of those calling for a religious state (Al-Majd). The book starts with an analysis and a detailed account of how the sensitive issue of the relationship between state and religion developed in Arab though and society and it goes on to employ less the religious discourse in presenting their positions thus focusing on actual cases of this struggle for power in different Arab countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. The collection also provides insights and analysis of the ongoing debates and views on the role of religion in Libya and provides an analysis of the case of Morocco. In addition to this there is a special chapter that deals with how Muslim communities living in the West adapt to secular state politics. The collection ends with a thorough discussion by a number of Arab intellectuals and activists, Muslims and Christians alike, whereby core issues related to the debate on state and religion are presented. This discussion, in addition to reflecting the Islamist-secular dichotomy, demonstrates the richness of the ongoing debates that extend well beyond the discourse on this dichotomy.

This book is a compilation of articles published in Contemporary Arab Affairs.

Alianak, “The Transition Towards Revolution and Reform”

This month, Oxford University Press releases The Transition Towards Revolution and Reform: The Arab Spring Realised?, by Sonia L. Alianak (University of Texas). The publisher’s description follows:

The Arab Spring created a transition toward democracy for the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, who initially elected moderate Islamist parties to lead them out of economic deprivation and corruption. This study looks at the relative success of the move to democracy in these four Middle Eastern countries, comparing the secular leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and their desire for revolution with the monarchs of Morocco and Jordan and their priority of reform. In contrast with the monarchs, the secular leaders avoided resort to the palliative of religion to ensure the stability of their rule and were, as a result, unable to survive.

“Popular Protest in the New Middle East” (Knudsen & Ezbidi eds.)

Later this month, I.B. Taurus releases Popular Protest in the New Middle East: Islamism and Post-Islamist Politics, edited by Are Knudsen (Christian Michelsen Institute- Norway) and Basem Ezbidi (Birzeit University). The publisher’s description follows:

In the wake of the protests that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010 and early 2011, Islamist movements of varying political persuasions have risen to prominence. This is especially the case in post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Ben Ali Tunisia. Popular Protest in the New Middle East examines Islamist approaches to political participation and integration and asks whether regional trends can be discerned with respect to either the strategy of disparate movements or the challenges they face. It offers analysis of the ideologies and actions of these movements, ranging from countries where Islamism is in control of the state as an Islamic theocracy (Iran), the ruling party (for example, Turkey), part of the ruling coalition (Lebanon), or a parliamentary minority (such as in Jordan or Yemen). Are Knudsen and Basem Ezbidi’s analysis of the various experiences of protest, participation and integration make this book vital for researchers of the impact of religion on politics (and, indeed vice versa).

Elsasser, “The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era”

This week, Oxford University Press releases The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era, by Sebastian Elsässer (Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel, Germany). The publisher’s description follows:

Egypt’s Christians, the Copts, are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. While they have always been considered an integral component of the Egyptian nation, their precise status within Egyptian politics and society has been subject to ongoing debates from the twentieth century to present day. Part of the legacy of the Mubarak era in Egypt is the unsettled state of Muslim-Christian relations and the increasing volatility of sectarian tensions, which have continued in the post-Mubarak period.

The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era delves into the discourses that dominated public debates and the political agenda-setting during the Mubarak era, explaining why politicians and the public in Egypt have had such enormous difficulties in recognizing the real roots of sectarian strife. This “Coptic question” is a complex set of issues, ranging from the petty struggles of daily Egyptian life in a bi-religious society to intricate legal and constitutional questions (family law, conversion, and church-building), to the issue of the political participation of the Coptic minority. Through these subjects, the book explores a larger debate around Egyptian national identity.

Paying special attention to the neglected diversity of voices within the Coptic community, Sebastian Elsässer peels back the historical layers to provide a comprehensive analysis of the historic, political, and social dynamics of Egypt’s Coptic Christians during Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

The Return of the Dhimma?

First Things has run my essay on the return of the dhimma in Syria and its potential meaning for Mideast Christians:

Recently, an Islamist group in the Syrian opposition, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), captured the town of Raqqa and imposed on its Christian inhabitants the dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. The dhimma allows Christian communities to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya and submission to social and legal restrictions. In Raqqa, for example, Christians have “agreed,” among other things, to pay ISIL a tax of $500 per person twice a year—poorer Christians can pay less—and to forgo public religious displays.

The dhimma has not been in operation in the Mideast for about 150 years. Even Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood did not reinstate it during the party’s brief period in power. Indeed, some progressive Islamic scholars argue that the dhimma is an anachronism that should no longer be part of Islamic law. So ISIL’s decision to impose it now has shocked Christians and many Muslims. The formal reestablishment of the dhimma in Raqqa reveals that some Islamists are prepared to cross a line many had thought inviolable.

You can read the whole thing here.

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.