Tag Archives: Middle East

Gray on the Ubiquity of Evil

John Gray has a long, superb essay on the subject (h/t L. Joseph), with scathingly acute criticisms of the modern sense in which evil is eminently conquerable through (of all things) politics, or really doesn’t exist, or must somehow be the result of somebody’s mistake, or could be cleared up as a simple matter confusion. Particularly keen are Gray’s comments about the way in which the old religious traditions offer certain insights on the matter, insights that are today largely either ignored or disbelieved. Read it all, including this:

It’s not that [most western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”. So what disturbs the west about Vladimir Putin, for example, is not so much the persecution of gay people over which he has presided, or the threat posed to Russia’s neighbours by his attempt to reassert its imperial power. It is the fact that he has no place in the liberal scheme of continuing human advance. As a result, the Russian leader can only be evil. When George W Bush looked into Putin’s eyes at a Moscow summit in May 2002, he reported, “I was able to get a sense of his soul”. When Joe Biden visited the Kremlin in 2011, he had a very different impression, telling Putin: “Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” According to Biden, Putin smiled and replied, “We understand each other.” The religious language is telling: nine years earlier, Putin had been a pragmatic leader with whom the west could work; now he was a soulless devil.

It’s in the Middle East, however, that the prevailing liberal worldview has proved most consistently misguided. At bottom, it may be western leaders’ inability to think outside this melioristic creed that accounts for their failure to learn from experience. After more than a decade of intensive bombing, backed up by massive ground force, the Taliban continue to control much of Afghanistan and appear to be regaining ground as the American-led mission is run down. Libya – through which a beaming David Cameron processed in triumph only three years ago, after the use of western air power to help topple Gaddafi – is now an anarchic hell-hole that no western leader could safely visit. One might think such experiences would be enough to deter governments from further exercises in regime change. But our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power. They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures.

Many view these western interventions as no more than exercises in geopolitics. But a type of moral infantilism is no less important in explaining the persisting folly of western governments. Though it is clear that Isis cannot be permanently weakened as long as the war against Assad continues, this fact is ignored – and not only because a western-brokered peace deal that left Assad in power would be opposed by the Gulf states that have sided with jihadist forces in Syria. More fundamentally, any such deal would mean giving legitimacy to a regime that western governments have condemned as more evil than any conceivable alternative. In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad’s secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy. In the liberal political culture that prevails in the west, a public choice among these options is impossible.

There are some who think the very idea of evil is an obsolete relic of religion. For most secular thinkers, what has been defined as evil in the past is the expression of social ills that can in principle be remedied. But these same thinkers very often invoke evil forces to account for humankind’s failure to advance. The secularisation of the modern moral vocabulary that many believed was under way has not occurred: public discourse about good and evil continues to be rooted in religion. Yet the idea of evil that is invoked is not one that features in the central religious traditions of the west. The belief that evil can be finally overcome has more in common with the dualistic heresies of ancient and medieval times than it does with any western religious orthodoxy.

There follows an interesting discussion of Manicheanism and the views of Augustine, and then this:

In its official forms, secular liberalism rejects the idea of evil. Many liberals would like to see the idea of evil replaced by a discourse of harm: we should talk instead about how people do damage to each other and themselves. But this view poses a problem of evil remarkably similar to that which has troubled Christian believers. If every human being is born a liberal – as these latter-day disciples of Pelagius appear to believe – why have so many, seemingly of their own free will, given their lives to regimes and movements that are essentially repressive, cruel and violent? Why do human beings knowingly harm others and themselves? Unable to account for these facts, liberals have resorted to a language of dark and evil forces much like that of dualistic religions.

The efforts of believers to explain why God permits abominable suffering and injustice have produced nothing that is convincing; but at least believers have admitted that the ways of the Deity are mysterious. Even though he ended up accepting the divine will, the questions that Job put to God were never answered. Despite all his efforts to find a solution, Augustine confessed that human reason was not equal to the task. In contrast, when secular liberals try to account for evil in rational terms, the result is a more primitive version of Manichean myth. When humankind proves resistant to improvement, it is because forces of darkness – wicked priests, demagogic politicians, predatory corporations and the like – are working to thwart the universal struggle for freedom and enlightenment. There is a lesson here. Sooner or later anyone who believes in innate human goodness is bound to reinvent the idea of evil in a cruder form. Aiming to exorcise evil from the modern mind, secular liberals have ended up constructing another version of demonology, in which anything that stands out against what is believed to be the rational course of human development is anathematised.

Mishal & Goldberg, “Understanding Shiite Leadership: The Art of the Middle Ground in Iran and Lebanon”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Understanding Shiite Leadership: 9781107046382The Art of the Middle Ground in Iran and Lebanon, by Shaul Mishal (Tel-Aviv University) and Ori Goldberg (Tel-Aviv University). The publisher’s description follows.

In this book, Shaul Mishal and Ori Goldberg explore the ways in which Shiite leaderships in Iran and Lebanon approach themselves and their world. Contrary to the violent and radical image of religious leaderships in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanese Hizballah, the political vision and practice of these leaderships view the world as a middle ground, shying away from absolutist and extremist tendencies. The political leadership assumed by Shiite religious scholars in Iran and Lebanon has transformed Shiite Islam from a marginalized minority to a highly politicized avant garde of Muslim presence, revitalized the practice and causes of political Islam in its struggle for legitimacy and authority, and reshaped the politics of the Middle East and the globe in its image. Utilizing approaches from social theory, history, theology, and literary criticism, the book presents these leaderships as pragmatic, interpretative entities with the potential to form fruitful relationships between Shiite leadership and the non-Shiite world.

Rubin & Schwanitz, “Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East”

Next month, Yale will publish Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern 9780300140903Middle East, by Barry Rubin (Interdisciplinary Center, Israel) and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz (Interdisciplinary Center, Israel). The publisher’s description follows.

During the 1930s and 1940s, a unique and lasting political alliance was forged among Third Reich leaders, Arab nationalists, and Muslim religious authorities. From this relationship sprang a series of dramatic events that, despite their profound impact on the course of World War II, remained  secret until now. In this groundbreaking book, esteemed Middle East scholars Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz uncover for the first time the complete story of this dangerous alliance and explore its continuing impact on Arab politics in the twenty-first century.   Rubin and Schwanitz reveal, for example, the full scope of Palestinian leader Amin al-Husaini’s support of Hitler’s genocidal plans against European and Middle Eastern Jews. In addition, they expose the extent of Germany’s long-term promotion of Islamism and jihad. Drawing on unprecedented research in European, American, and Middle East archives, many recently opened and never before written about, the authors offer new insight on the intertwined development of Nazism and Islamism and its impact on the modern Middle East.

Colossal Armenian Jesus Towers Over Syria

Here’s a curious little story about a gigantic statue of Jesus (standing a Armenian Jesusgargantuan 128 feet tall, and weighing in at several tons) cast in Armenia that has been installed on top of a mountain near the Monastery of the Cherubim in the Syrian city of Saidnaya (which is itself apparently already 2,100 meters above sea level). This story reports that the project was supported by the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church. The statue is reportedly visible from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.

Marshall, Gilbert & Shea, “Persecuted”

This March, Thomas Nelson will publish Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (2013) by Paul Marshall (Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom), Lela Gilbert (Adjunct Fellow, Hudson Institute) and Nina Shea (Director, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom). The publisher’s description follows.Persecuted

Christians are the world’s most widely persecuted religious group, according to studies by the Pew Research Center, Newsweek, and the Economist, among others.

A woman is caught with a Bible and publicly shot to death. An elderly priest is abducted and never seen again. Three buses full of students and teachers are struck by roadside bombs. These are not casualties of a war. These are Christian believers being persecuted for their faith in the twenty-first century.

Many Americans do not understand that Christians today are victims in many parts of the world. Even many Western Christians, who worship and pray without fear of violent repercussions, are unaware that so many followers of Christ live under governments and among people who are often openly hostile to their faith. They think martyrdom became a rarity long ago.

Persecuted soundly refutes these assumptions. This book offers a glimpse at the modern-day life of Christians worldwide, recounting the ongoing attacks that rarely make international headlines.

As Western Christians pray for the future of Christ’s church, it is vital that they understand a large part of the world’s Christian believers live in danger. Persecuted gives documented accounts of the persecution of Christians in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and former Soviet nations. It contains vivid stories of men and women who suffer abuse because of their faith in Jesus Christ, and tells of their perseverance and courage.

Persecuted is far more than a thorough and moving study of this global pattern of violence—it is a cry for freedom and a call to action.

Hassan, “Contracts in Islamic Law”

This month, I.B. Tauris Publishers is publishing Contracts in Islamic Law by Hussein Hassan.  The publisher’s description follows.Contracts in Islamic Law

This book introduces students to the theoretical and philosophical foundations of Islamic contractual law. Islamic law is applied in differing degrees by many countries across the world and especially in the Middle East. Considering the strategic and financial importance of these countries, taken as a whole, it is surprising how little academic writing exists in the West on either Islamic law or Middle Eastern law. Recently there have been signs of a burgeoning interest in Middle Eastern law. However, traditional Islamic law remains a neglected area of study. Hussein Hassan makes a significant contribution by presenting a detailed survey (which utilises both contemporary and classical sources) of a crucially important area of Islamic law – contract law – and by adopting an approach that gives priority to theory and to a comparative analysis with Anglo-American law theory. Contracts in Islamic Law offers an invaluable resource to academics and researchers with a specific interest in Islamic law, to postgraduate students and final year students of law, and to scholars whose main focus is Anglo-American contract law but who are interested in comparative law/theory.

Krishna-Hensel (ed.), “Religion, Education and Governance in the Middle East”

This month, Ashgate Publishing will publish Religion, Education and Governance in the Middle East: Between Tradition and Modernity edited by Sai Felicia Krishna-Hensel (Auburn University at Montgomery).  The publisher’s description follows.

The Middle East is a key geopolitical strategic region in the international system but its distinctive cultural and political divisions present a mosaic of states that do not lend themselves to simplistic interpretations. A thoughtful analysis of the Middle East requires an understanding of the synergism between tradition and modernity in the region as it adapts to a globalizing world. Religious education and activism continue to remain a significant factor in the modernization process and the development of modern governance in the states of the Middle East.

This interdisciplinary book explores the historical and contemporary role of religious tradition and education on political elites and governing agencies in several major states as well as generally in the region. The relationship between democracy and authority is examined to provide a better understanding of the complexity underlying the emergence of new power configurations. As the region continues to respond to the forces of change in the international system it remains an important and intriguing area for analysts.

Tejirian & Simon “Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion: Two Thousand Years of Christian Missions in the Middle East”

This October, Columbia University Press will publish Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion: Two Thousand Years of Christian Missions in the Middle East by Eleanor H. Tejirian (Columbia University) and Reeva Spector Simon (Columbia University). The publisher’s description follows.

 Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion describes two thousand years of the Christian missionary enterprise in the Middle East within the context of the region’s political evolution. Its broad, rich narrative follows Christian missions as they interact with imperial powers and as the momentum of religious change shifts from Christianity to Islam and back, adding new dimensions to the history of the region and the nature of the relationship between the Middle East and the West.

Historians and political scientists increasingly recognize the importance of integrating religion into political analysis, and this volume, using long-neglected sources, provides the necessary context for this effort. It surveys Christian missions from the earliest days of Christianity to the present, with particular emphasis on the role of Christian missions, both Protestant and Catholic, in the political and economic imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The authors delineate the ongoing tensions between conversion and a focus on witness and “good works” within the missionary movement, which has contributed to the development and spread of nongovernmental organizations. This volume’s systematic study offers an unparalleled encounter with the social, political, and economic consequences of these trends.

Gregorian, “The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946”

This January, Stanford University Press will publish The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946 with a new introduction by Vartan Gregorian (President of Carnegie Corporation of New York). The publisher’s description follows.

 Long heralded as a seminal work on the history of Afghanistan, this book traces the evolution of the modern Afghan state by studying the politics of reform and modernization that started in 1880 through World War II. This history is marked with persistent attempts by the Afghan ruling dynasty to assert and strengthen its rule—both against the great imperial powers, as well as over the various Afghan tribes within its territory.

In this reissue, Vartan Gregorian offers a new introduction that places the key themes of the book in the context of contemporary events, addressing questions of tribalism, nationalism, Islam, and modernization, as well as the legacies of the Cold War and the various exit strategies of occupying powers. The book remains as distinctive today as when it was first published. It is the only broad work on Afghan history that considers ethnicity as the defining influence over the course of the country’s history, rather than religion. In light of today’s ongoing struggle to develop a coherent national identity, the question of Afghan nationalism remains a particularly significant issue.

Sisk, “Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders, Conflict, and Peacemaking”

This November, Georgetown University Press will publish Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders, Conflict, and Peacemaking edited by Timothy D. Sisk (University of Denver). The publisher’s description follows.

Civil war and conflict within countries is the most prevalent threat to peace and security in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. A pivotal factor in the escalation of tensions to open conflict is the role of elites in exacerbating tensions along identity lines by giving the ideological justification, moral reasoning, and call to violence. Between Terror and Tolerance examines the varied roles of religious leaders in societies deeply divided by ethnic, racial, or religious conflict. The chapters in this book explore cases when religious leaders have justified or catalyzed violence along identity lines, and other instances when religious elites have played a critical role in easing tensions or even laying the foundation for peace and reconciliation.

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