Tag Archives: Arab Spring

Mideast Christians and Authoritarian Regimes

2000px-Coptic_cross.svgLast week’s ruling in Obergefell took up a lot of attention, but I’ve been meaning to link a couple of good articles about Mideast Christians, specifically, their relationship with authoritarian regimes. Outsiders often criticize Mideast Christians for coming to terms with such regimes. But the regimes are often the best alternative in a terrible situation.

First, at Crux, John Allen has been writing a series on Egypt’s Copts, who are going through one of the worst periods of persecution in their long history. Yesterday, he posted an interesting piece on relations between Copts and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi has made a number of high-profile gestures of solidarity with Copts, including attending a Christmas Liturgy, and the vast majority view him very favorably. The Coptic Church is solidly behind him, and for most Christians, Allen writes, “it’s axiomatic that el-Sisi is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.”

But there are dissenting views. Allen interviews a few Copts who say El-Sisi’s warmth is just for show, and that his regime continues to oppress Copts, just as the Mubarak and Morsi governments did. Crimes against Copts continue to go unpunished, and there is still  “forced displacement, harassment under the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, kidnappings and physical assaults.” Indeed, one commentator reports that, “in virtually every category… the number of incidents today is going up rather than down.” Perhaps Christians’ support for el-Sisi is misplaced–or perhaps, as most Copts argue, el-Sisi is doing all he can to change traditional Egyptian attitudes, and is the best option in a very imperfect situation. My sense, from reading Western news accounts, is that the latter is the case. But I’ll admit Allen’s reporting makes me wonder a bit.

The second is this wide-ranging interview from La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider” with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. Aphrem–who previously served as his church’s archbishop in America, incidentally–discusses a number of topics, including Christians’ relations with the Assad regime. Here’s a snippet:

Some Western circles accuse the Christians of the East of submitting to authoritarian regimes.

“We have not submitted ourselves to Assad and the so-called authoritarian governments. We simply recognise legitimate governments. The majority of Syrian citizens support Assad’s government and have always supported it. We recognise legitimate rulers and pray for them, as the New Testament teaches us. We also see that on the other side there is no democratic opposition, only extremist groups. Above all, we see that in the past few years, these groups have been basing their actions on an ideology that comes from the outside, brought here by preachers of hatred who have come from and are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. These groups receive arms through Turkey too, as the media have shown us.”

You have to read between the lines here. What he’s saying, it seems to me, is not that Assad is wonderful, but that the alternative for Christians is incomparably worse. Aphrem makes other allegations that seem dubious, for example, that the West is arming terrorist groups that are massacring Christians. I guess he’s referring to Turkey’s alleged links with ISIS. Anyway, it’s hard to argue with his basic point that the West should not judge Syria’s Christians for the choices they have to make. Like the Allen piece on Copts, the La Stampa interview is worth reading for a sense of the pressures Mideast Christians face every day.

Conversations: Christian Sahner

From 2008 to 2010, young scholar Christian Sahner (left) lived in Syria, studying Arabic. He learned a great deal about the country. particularly the relations among the different religious groups that made up Syrian society–including Christians, who accounted for perhaps 10% of the population. Last fall, he published an engaging account of his time in Syria, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford). In the book, Sahner describes life in Syria before the Arab Spring. Notwithstanding a surface calm, he writes, sectarian tensions existed just below the surface.

This week, Sahner–who received a PhD in History this month from Princeton, and who will start a research fellowship at Cambridge in the fall–kindly answers some questions about his work. Our conversation covers topics such as the history of Christians in Syria, their experience under the Assad regime, the failure of the Arab Spring, and prospects for the future.

Christian, let’s start with some background. Your book is a reflection on the years you spent in Syria (2008-2010) and Lebanon (2011-2013). Why did you decide to live in these countries? What were you doing there?

Sahner: I first came to Syria for language study. Before the tumult of the Arab Spring, it was common wisdom among students that Cairo and Damascus were the best places to master Arabic. It was more or less dumb luck that led me to Syria and not to Egypt, and in hindsight, I’m immensely grateful the cards fell the way they did. By the beginning of 2011, Syria was no longer a safe place for an American student. Therefore, it was to Beirut that I relocated to carry on my language work and research. I’ve been returning to Lebanon ever since.

A main theme in your book is the power of sectarianism, which you define as the “activation of religious identity as one of the main principles of social and political life.” You believe this is a key fact of Syrian and Lebanese societies. What do you think explains it?

Sahner: Among the different countries of the Arab and Muslim world, Syria and Lebanon stand out for the terrific variety of peoples who live there, and always have. This includes not just Sunni Muslims, who form an absolute majority between the two countries, but also smaller Muslim sects, such as Shi‘is, Alawis, Isma‘ilis, and Druze, along with non-Muslims, including numerous Christian denominations, and until recently, large populations of Jews. The existence of religious diversity does not in and of itself entail the existence of sectarianism. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that sectarianism depends on and cannot exist without a sense of religious difference in a society. In the Levant, we face a world in which, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political systems emerged that explicitly assigned power on the basis of sect (as in Lebanon), or which saw informal imbalances of power arise among sects (as in Syria). Because these systems thrust religious identity into the center of political life in this way, they tended to stoke resentments between communities, and under certain circumstances, spark violence.

You have a great interest in the Christian communities of Syria. Many Westerners are very unfamiliar with these communities. Could you give us a brief description of them? Who are they, what are their numbers?

Sahner: We tend to think of Syria as a Muslim-majority country, but for centuries after the rise of Islam, its population was majority Christian. The roots of these Christian communities are very ancient. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, it was in the Syrian city of Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Over the centuries, Syrian Christianity became splintered into different denominations, which were divided over Continue reading

McLarney, “Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening”

This month, Princeton University Press releases “Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening” by Ellen Anne McLarney (Duke University). This publisher’s description follows:

In the decades leading up to the Arab Spring in 2011, when Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was swept from power in Egypt, Muslim women took a leading role in developing a robust Islamist presence in the country’s public sphere. Soft Force examines the writings and activism of these women—including scholars, preachers, journalists, critics, actors, and public intellectuals—who envisioned an Islamic awakening in which women’s rights and the family, equality, and emancipation were at the center.

Challenging Western conceptions of Muslim women as being oppressed by Islam, Ellen McLarney shows how women used “soft force”—a women’s jihad characterized by nonviolent protest—to oppose secular dictatorship and articulate a public sphere that was both Islamic and democratic. McLarney draws on memoirs, political essays, sermons, newspaper articles, and other writings to explore how these women imagined the home and the family as sites of the free practice of religion in a climate where Islamists were under siege by the secular state. While they seem to reinforce women’s traditional roles in a male-dominated society, these Islamist writers also reoriented Islamist politics in domains coded as feminine, putting women at the very forefront in imagining an Islamic polity.

Hansen, “Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt”

This June, I.B. Tauris Press will release “Christian-Muslim Relations in Egypt: Politics, Society, and Interfaith Encounters” by Henrik Lindberg Hansen (University of London).  The publisher’s description follows:

The subject of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East and indeed in the West attracts much academic and media attention. Nowhere is this more the case than in Egypt, which has the largest Christian community in the Middle East, estimated at 6-10 per cent of the national population. Henrik Lindberg Hansen analyzes this relationship, offering an examination of the nature and role of religious dialogue in Egyptian society. Taking three main religious organizations and institutions in Egypt (namely the Azhar University, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Orthodox Church), Hansen argues that religious dialogue involves a close examination of societal relations, and how these are understood and approached. Including analysis of the occasions of violence against Christian communities in 2011 and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, Hansen provides a wide-ranging exploration of the importance of religion in Egyptian society and everyday encounters with a religious other . This makes his book vital for researchers of both religious minorities in the Middle East and interfaith dialogue in a wider context.”

Marlin, “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East”

This June, St. Augustine’s Press will release “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy” by George J. Marlin (Aid to the Church in Need-USA).  The publisher’s description follows:

Christian PersecutionsEven before ISIS launched its ultra-violent campaign targeting Iraqi Christians in the summer of 2014, Pope Francis proclaimed that the current wave of Christian persecution in the Middle East is worse than the suffering inflicted on believers in the centuries of the early Church. Since the Arab Spring and the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, which have thrown the region into utter chaos, Muslim extremists have killed thousands of Christians every year, while destroying and desecrating countless churches. Christian communities in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt have been hardest hit.

In his new book, author and political commentator George J. Marlin, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA – an agency under the guidance of the Pope that supports the persecuted and suffering Church around the world – describes the sharp rise in Christian persecution in the Middle East. After brief narratives on the rise of Christianity, Islam, and terrorism in the Middle East, Marlin documents country by country, acts of twenty-first century Christian persecution that is nearing a bloody climax that could produce the unthinkable: a Middle East without Christians and the destruction of an ancient patrimony that has been a vital link to the very birth of Christianity.

Wilson, “Islam and Economic Policy: An Introduction”

In May, Edinburgh University Press will release “Islam and Economic Policy: An Introduction” by Rodney Wilson (Durham University). The publisher’s description follows:

To what extent do Islamic values have implications for economic policy making?

Islamist political parties have enjoyed unprecedented election victories in recent times. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, the election of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the coming to power of Islamists, albeit briefly, after the Arab Spring, has changed the political landscape in the Middle East and has ramifications for the entire Muslim World. Yet the continuing success of these parties depends on their record on economic development and employment creation. Are their economic policies different from those of their autocratic predecessors? Have they been influenced by the writings of academic Islamist economists? This book looks at the impact of Islamic teaching on public economic policy and asks how Islamic economics differs from mainstream micro and macroeconomics.

Goldsmith, “Cycle of Fear”

This March, Hurst Publisher’s will release “Cycle of Fear: Syria’s Alawites in War and Peace” by Leon Goldsmith (Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman).  The publisher’s description follows:

Cycle of FearIn early 2011 an elderly Alawite shaykh lamented the long history of ‘oppression and aggression’ against his people. Against such collective memories the Syrian uprising was viewed by many Alawites, and observers, as a revanchist Sunni Muslim movement and the gravest threat yet to the unorthodox Shi’ah sub-sect. This explained why the Alawites largely remained loyal to the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad.

But was Alawite history really a constant tale of oppression and the Syrian uprising of 2011 an existential threat to the Alawites? This book surveys Alawite history from the sect’s inception in Abbasid Iraq up to the start of the uprising in 2011. Goldsmith shows how Alawite identity and political behaviour have been shaped by a cycle of insecurity that has prevented the group from achieving either genuine social integration or long term security. Rather than being the gravest threat yet to the sect, the Syrian uprising, in the context of the Arab Spring, was quite possibly a historic opportunity for the Alawites finally to break free from their cycle of fear.

Mallat, “Philosophy of Nonviolence: Revolution, Constitutionalism, and Justice beyond the Middle East”

Next month, Oxford University Press will release “Philosophy of Nonviolence: Revolution, Constitutionalism, and Justice beyond the Middle East” by Chibli Mallat (S.J. Quinney School of Law at the University of Utah). The publisher’s description follows:

In 2011, the Middle East saw more people peacefully protesting long entrenched dictatorships than at any time in its history. The dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were deposed in a matter of weeks by nonviolent marches. Imprecisely described as ‘the Arab Spring’, the revolution has been convulsing the whole region ever since. Beyond an uneven course in different countries, Philosophy of Nonviolence examines how 2011 may have ushered in a fundamental break in world history. The break, the book argues, is animated by nonviolence as the new spirit of the philosophy of history.

Philosophy of Nonviolence maps out a system articulating nonviolence in the revolution, the rule of constitutional law it yearns for, and the demand for accountability that inspired the revolution in the first place. Part One–Revolution, provides modern context to the generational revolt, probes the depth of Middle Eastern-Islamic humanism, and addresses the paradox posed by nonviolence to the ‘perpetual peace’ ideal. Part Two–Constitutionalism, explores the reconfiguration of legal norms and power structures, mechanisms of institutional change and constitution-making processes in pursuit of the nonviolent anima. Part Three–Justice, covers the broadening concept of dictatorship as crime against humanity, an essential part of the philosophy of nonviolence. It follows its frustrated emergence in the French revolution, its development in the Middle East since 1860 through the trials of Arab dictators, the pyramid of accountability post-dictatorship, and the scope of foreign intervention in nonviolent revolutions. Throughout the text, Professor Mallat maintains thoroughly abstract and philosophical arguments, while substantiating those arguments in historical context enriched by a close participation in the ongoing Middle East revolution.

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?

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.