Tag Archives: International Relations

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.

Shogimen & Spencer (eds.), “Visions of Peace: Asia and the West”

9781409428701This month, Ashgate published Visions of Peace: Asia and the West edited by Takashi Shogimen (University of Otago) and Vicki A. Spencer (University of Otago). The publisher’s description follows.

Visions of Peace: Asia and the West explores the diversity of past conceptualizations as well as the remarkable continuity in the hope for peace across global intellectual traditions. Current literature, prompted by September 11, predominantly focuses on the laws and ethics of just wars or modern ideals of peace. Asian and Western ideals of peace before the modern era have largely escaped scholarly attention. This book examines Western and Asian visions of peace that existed prior to c.1800 by bringing together experts from a variety of intellectual traditions.

The historical survey ranges from ancient Greek thought, early Christianity and medieval scholasticism to Hinduism, classical Confucianism and Tokuguwa Japanese learning, before illuminating unfamiliar aspects of peace visions in the European Enlightenment. Each chapter offers a particular case study and attempts to rehabilitate a ‘forgotten’ conception of peace and reclaim its contemporary relevance. Collectively they provide the conceptual resources to inspire more creative thinking towards a new vision of peace in the present. Students and specialists in international relations, peace studies, history, political theory, philosophy, and religious studies will find this book a valuable resource on diverse conceptions of peace.

Alizadeh & Hakimian (eds.), “Iran and the Global Economy: Petro Populism, Islam and Economic Sanctions”

Last month, Routledge published Iran and the Global Economy: Petro Populism, Islam and Economic Sanctions edited by Parvin Alizadeh (Boston Iran and the Global EconomyUniversity) and Hassan Hakimian (University of London).  The publisher’s description follows.

The relationship between religion and the state has entered a new phase ever since the Iranian Revolution more than three decades ago. The recent mass uprisings against autocratic rulers in the Arab world have highlighted the potency of Islamist forces in post-revolutionary societies in the region, a force arguably unlocked first by Iran’s version of the ‘spring’ three decades ago. The economic ramifications of these uprisings are of special interest at a time when the possibility of the creation of Islamic states can have implications for their economic policy and performance again. A study of the Iranian experience in itself can offer rare insights whether for its own features and characteristics or for its possible lessons and implications for recent events in the region. This book is concerned with the economic aspects and consequences of the Iranian Revolution in general and its interaction with the international economy in particular. Many studies have to date dealt with Iran’s economic challenges, policies and performance in the post-revolutionary period but its interaction with the international economy – although of growing importance – has not received sufficient attention. The contributions in this volume by experts in the field address ways in which in the span of three decades, Iran’s economy has evolved from a strong aspiration to develop an ‘independent economy’ to grappling with debilitating international economic sanctions.

Not to Mention Universities and the News Media

Here’s an odd story, from The Independent:

Christianity dominates the United Nations and a more inclusive system must be introduced at the world peace-making organisation, according to a new study.

The report Religious NGOs and The United Nations found that Christian NGOs are overrepresented at the UN in comparison to other religious groups.

Overall, more than 70 per cent of religious NGOs at the UN are Christian, where the Vatican enjoys a special observer status, as a state and religion, according to research undertaken by Professor Jeremy Carrette from the University of Kent’s Department of Religious Studies.

The study questions claims by the Christian right that cults are running the UN given the scale of Christian NGOs, and calls for greater awareness, transparency and equality, while putting a strong emphasis on religious tolerance.

See, we told you the secularization theory was wrong. Just so you know, according to the article, religious NGOs make up only 7.3% of the total number of NGOs at the UN. So it’s hard to see how Christian NGOs, which amount to even a smaller percentage, could really “dominate” the organization. And the UN doesn’t appear to promote particularly Christian worldviews in its programs. Anyway, maybe there’s more to the study than the Independent suggests. You can follow the links in the article to read more.

Bosco, “Securing the Sacred: Religion, National Security, and the Western State”

Next month, the University of Michigan Press will publish Securing the Sacred: Religion, National Security, and the Western State by Robert Bosco (Centre College). The publisher’s description follows.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Western nations have increasingly recognized religion as a consideration in domestic and foreign policy. In this empirical comparison of the securitization of Islam in Britain, France, and the United States, Robert M. Bosco argues that religion is a category of phenomena defined by the discourses and politics of both religious and state elites.

Despite significant theoretical distinctions between securitization on the domestic and the international levels, he finds that the outcome of addressing religion within the context of security hinges upon partnerships. Whereas states may harness the power of international allies, they cannot often find analogous domestic allies; therefore, states that attempt to securitize religion at home are more vulnerable to counterattack and more likely to abandon their efforts. This book makes a significant contribution to the fields of political theory, international relations, Islamic studies, and security/military studies.

Helping Mideast Christians

Last week, Robert George and Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, published an important op-ed on the persecution of Mideast Christians. This topic receives far too little attention, for reasons I’ve explained, and George and Swett deserve praise for writing about it.

The situation is truly dire. For example, George and Swett discuss the plight of Egypt’s Copts, who celebrate Christmas today, as well as Christians in Iraq:

In Egypt, persecution against Coptic Christians, the region’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, numbering 8 million, has reached critical proportions. While Hosni Mubarak’s military-backed regime failed to punish attacks against Copts and other religious minorities, Mohammed Morsi’s election to the presidency in 2012 was followed by rhetoric leading to more violence before and since his ouster this July. Since mid-August, following a military crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Brotherhood sympathizers have assaulted more than 200 Christian religious structures, homes, and businesses.

In Iraq, violence against Christians rose after Saddam Hussein’s fall. Christians have endured increasing levels of rape, torture, and murder, driving many away. On Christmas Day, at least 37 people died in bombings in Christian areas, including a car bombing outside of a church. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has failed repeatedly to bring perpetrators to justice. Once home to about one million Christians, Iraq has half that number today.

The situation in Iraq, in particular, should embarrass the United States. America toppled Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq for almost a decade. The result for Christians and some other religious minorities has been disaster. And security continues to deteriorate. Just last week, Fallujah fell to militants linked to Al Qaeda.

But I digress. At the end of their op-ed, George and Swett suggest some things that the US can do to help persecuted Mideast Christians now:

First, the United States must press governments to bring to justice those who assault religious minorities – not only Christians but Shi’a Muslims in Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims and Baha’is in Iran, and Shi’a and Ahmadis in Pakistan.

Second, Washington must urge these governments to cease punishing the innocent. In countries like Egypt and Pakistan, Christians and others face not only violence from extremists who rarely are imprisoned for their misdeeds, but prison at the hands of these same governments, thanks to blasphemy laws which violate freedom of expression as well as religion.

Third, the United States must firmly support religious freedom as an antidote to religious extremism in these countries. By supporting a robust marketplace of beliefs and ideas, religious freedom enables more tolerant beliefs to compete in the struggle for hearts and minds.

Here I’d like to suggest a couple of friendly amendments. First, it’s not clear whether George and Swett are suggesting public action by the US. Public pressure could do more harm than good, in my view. Given the pathologies of the Mideast, overt advocacy on the part of religious minorities could expose them to a backlash. Christians are already seen, unfairly, as intruders and Western agents. Moreover, popular opinion in America would not support serious interventions on behalf of Mideast Christians. Public statements of support, without the will to back them up with concrete actions, would only raise expectations unfairly. This sort of thing has occurred to Mideast Christians many times in the past.

So pressure by the US should be private. Even private pressure could backfire, of course, especially if regional governments decide to make Christians scapegoats. But private pressure is less likely than public admonishment to cause greater problems for already vulnerable people.

Second, in addition to trying to improve the status of Christians in the region, the US and other Western countries should fast-track asylum applications from Copts and other Mideast Christians, to provide a haven for those who wish to leave the region. This is a very imperfect solution, of course, as it would accelerate the depopulation of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. But leaving these Christians to their fate isn’t a good option, either.

Leverett & Leverett, “Going to Tehran: Why American Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran”

This month, Macmillan will publish, Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran by Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett.  The Going to Tehranpublisher’s description follows.

Less than a decade after Washington endorsed a fraudulent case for invading Iraq, similarly misinformed and politically motivated claims are pushing America toward war with Iran. Challenging the daily clamor of U.S. saber rattling, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argue that America should renounce thirty years of failed strategy and engage with Iran—just as Nixon revolutionized U.S. foreign policy by going to Beijing and realigning relations with China.

In Going to Tehran, former analysts in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, the Leveretts offer a uniquely informed account of Iran as it actually is today, not as many have caricatured it or wished it to be. They show that Iran’s political order is not on the verge of collapse, that most Iranians still support the Islamic Republic, and that Iran’s regional influence makes it critical to progress in the Middle East. Drawing on years of research and access to high-level officials, the Leveretts’ indispensable work makes it clear that America must “go to Tehran” if it is to avert strategic catastrophe.

Yasukuni and Nice Distinctions

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe fulfilled an oft-repeated wish to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine while in office. In Shinto belief, the shrine houses the souls of millions who died in the service of the Japanese Empire. Abe has expressed regret that he did not visit the shrine during his last stint as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007.

You’d think a visit to such a shrine by a sitting prime minister would be entirely proper, like an American president visiting Arlington National Cemetery. Abe’s visit has caused great controversy, however, as Abe surely knew it would. Among the souls commemorated at the shrine are a thousand convicted war criminals who fought for Japan in World War II, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. China and Korea, which both suffered greatly at Japan’s hands in that war, deeply resent official visits to Yasukuni and, naturally, objected to Abe’s visit. So, unusually, did the United States, which expressed disappointment “that  Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” Walter Russell Mead does a good job explaining the diplomatic implications.

For his part, Abe said he had not intended to offend Japan’s neighbors or send a crypto-imperialist signal. He did not visit Yasukuni to honor war criminals, he insisted, but to express to the souls housed there his determination “to create an age where no one will ever suffer from tragedies of wars.” In addition, Abe’s spokesman stressed that the prime minister had visited the shrine, and made a donation, strictly as a private citizen exercising his “religious freedom.” This last part is important for purposes of Japanese law. According to the Japanese Supreme Court, the constitutional “separation of state and religion” forbids officials from making financial contributions to Yasukuni for use in Shinto ceremonies.

So, is everything clear now? It was crucially important for Abe to visit Yasukuni while in office–but strictly in an unofficial capacity. A very lawyerly distinction, but one unlikely to persuade anyone in China or Korea. Maybe not even in Japan.

Repairs Begin on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity

Here’s some good news, for a change, about Christianity in the Middle East. This fall, workers began much-needed repairs to the roof Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional site of the birth of Christ.

The roof of the church has been in a terrible state for some time. Experts warn it could collapse at any moment. Getting agreement on repairs has been exceptionally difficult, however. There were geopolitical issues. To qualify for UN restoration funds, the building had to be added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. This proved controversial–the US and Israel worried about the implications naming the site would have for Palestinian statehood–but the church was ultimately added to the list last year. (The church has long been a flashpoint for world intrigue. In the nineteenth century, someone stole the star that marks the place of Christ’s birth; the theft led to the Crimean War.)

The most significant hurdle, though, has been getting the agreement of the Christian communions that share the church–Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. The three share the church under the “Status Quo,” a set of rules and customs that date back centuries to Ottoman times, and which also govern other Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. According to custom, repairing part of the church, or even paying for repairs, is an assertion of ownership. As a result, each communion carefully guards against the possibility that another will undertake repairs in common areas, like the roof, and thereby gain rights by a sort of adverse possession. Fistfights among the monks are not uncommon.

How did the three communions reach agreement on the repairs this time? No one’s saying much, but the AP reports:

A senior church official said the three denominations would never have been able to reach an agreement on their own. But once the Palestinian Authority stepped in, all three churches accepted the decision. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the matter with the media.

Well, anyway, the point is they did agree and the church will be preserved. And that is wonderful news for Christians and people of good will generally. Congratulations to everyone concerned. And Merry Christmas!

Anderson, “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East”

Last month, Random House published Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson.  Lawrence in ArabiaThe publisher’s description follows.

The Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War One was, in the words of T.E. Lawrence, “a sideshow of a sideshow.”  Amidst the slaughter in European trenches, the Western combatants paid scant attention to the Middle Eastern theater.  As a result, the conflict was shaped to a remarkable degree by a small handful of adventurers and low-level officers far removed from the corridors of power.

Curt Prüfer was an effete academic attached to the German embassy in Cairo, whose clandestine role was to foment Islamic jihad against British rule.  Aaron Aaronsohn was a renowned agronomist and committed Zionist who gained the trust of the Ottoman governor of Syria. William Yale was the fallen scion of the American aristocracy, who traveled the Ottoman Empire on behalf of Standard Oil, dissembling to the Turks in order gain valuable oil concessions.  At the center of it all was Lawrence.  In early 1914 he was an archaeologist excavating ruins in the sands of Syria; by 1917 he was the most romantic figure of World War One, battling both the enemy and his own government to bring about the vision he had for the Arab people.

The intertwined paths of these four men – the schemes they put in place, the battles they fought, the betrayals they endured and committed – mirror the grandeur, intrigue and tragedy of the war in the desert.  Prüfer became Germany’s grand spymaster in the Middle East.  Aaronsohn constructed an elaborate Jewish spy-ring in Palestine, only to have the anti-Semitic and bureaucratically-inept British first ignore and then misuse his organization, at tragic personal cost.  Yale would become the only American intelligence agent in the entire Middle East – while still secretly on the payroll of Standard Oil.  And the enigmatic Lawrence rode into legend at the head of an Arab army, even as he waged secret war against his own nation’s imperial ambitions.

Based on years of intensive primary document research, lawrence in Arabia definitively overturns received wisdom on how the modern Middle East was formed.  Sweeping in its action, keen in its portraiture, acid in its condemnation of the destruction wrought by European colonial plots, this is a book that brilliantly captures the way in which the folly of the past creates the anguish of the present.