Tag Archives: Religion and Society

“The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” (Kerr & Larkin, eds.)

In November, Oxford University Press will release “The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” edited by Michael Kerr (King’s College London) and Craig Larkin (King’s College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout the turbulent history of the Levant the ‘Alawis – a secretive, resilient and ancient Muslim sect – have aroused suspicion and animosity, including accusations of religious heresy. More recently they have been tarred with the brush of political separatism and complicity in the excesses of the Assad regime, claims that have gained greater traction since the onset of the Syrian uprising and subsequent devastating civil war.

The contributors to this book provide a complex and nuanced reading of Syria’s ‘Alawi communities -from loyalist gangs (Shabiha) to outspoken critics of the regime. Drawing upon wide-ranging research that examines the historic, political and social dynamics of the ‘Alawi and the Syrian state, the current tensions are scrutinised and fresh insights offered. Among the themes addressed are religious practice, social identities, and relations to the Ba’ath party, the Syrian state and the military apparatus. The analysis also extends to Lebanon with a focus on the embattled ‘Alawi community of Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli and state relations with Hizballah amid the current crisis.

Schaposchnik, “The Lima Inquisition”

In October, the University of Wisconsin Press will release “The Lima Inquisition:
The Plight of Crypto-Jews in Seventeenth-Century Peru,” by Ana E. Schaposchnik (DePaul University).  The publisher’s description follows: 

The Holy Office of the Inquisition (a royal tribunal that addressed issues of heresy and offenses to morality) was established in Peru in 1570 and operated there until 1820. In this book, Ana E. Schaposchnik provides a deeply researched history of the Inquisition’s Lima Tribunal, focusing in particular on the cases of persons put under trial for crypto-Judaism in Lima during the 1600s.

Delving deeply into the records of the Lima Tribunal, Schaposchnik brings to light the experiences and perspectives of the prisoners in the cells and torture chambers, as well as the regulations and institutional procedures of the inquisitors. She looks closely at how the lives of the accused—and in some cases the circumstances of their deaths—were shaped by actions of the Inquisition on both sides of the Atlantic. She explores the prisoners’ lives before and after their incarcerations and reveals the variety and character of prisoners’ religiosity, as portrayed in the Inquisition’s own sources. She also uncovers individual and collective strategies of the prisoners and their supporters to stall trials, confuse tribunal members, and attempt to ameliorate or at least delay the most extreme effects of the trial of faith.

The Lima Inquisition also includes a detailed analysis of the 1639 Auto General de Fe ceremony of public penance and execution, tracing the agendas of individual inquisitors, the transition that occurred when punishment and surveillance were brought out of hidden dungeons and into public spaces, and the exposure of the condemned and their plight to an avid and awestricken audience. Schaposchnik contends that the Lima Tribunal’s goal, more than volume or frequency in punishing heretics, was to discipline and shape culture in Peru.

Walther, “Sacred Interests”

This month, the University of North Carolina Press releases “Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921” by Karine V. Walther (School of Foreign Service in Qatar).  The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Americans increasingly came into contact with the Islamic world, U.S. diplomatic, cultural, political, and religious beliefs about Islam began to shape their responses to world events. In Sacred Interests, Karine V. Walther excavates the deep history of American Islamophobia, showing how negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims shaped U.S. foreign relations from the Early Republic to the end of World War I.

Beginning with the Greek War of Independence in 1821, Walther illuminates reactions to and involvement in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the efforts to protect Jews from Muslim authorities in Morocco, American colonial policies in the Philippines, and American attempts to aid Christians during the Armenian Genocide. Walther examines the American role in the peace negotiations after World War I, support for the Balfour Declaration, and the establishment of the mandate system in the Middle East. The result is a vital exploration of the crucial role the United States played in the Islamic world during the long nineteenth century–an interaction that shaped a historical legacy that remains with us today.

Harris & Nawaz, “Islam and the Future of Tolerance”

In October, Harvard University Press will release “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” by Sam Harris (Project Reason) and Maajid Nawaz (Quilliam). The publisher’s description follows:

In this short book, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz invite you to join an urgently needed conversation: Is Islam a religion of peace or war? Is it amenable to reform? Why do so many Muslims seem drawn to extremism? What do words like Islamismjihadism, and fundamentalism mean in today’s world?

Remarkable for the breadth and depth of its analysis, this dialogue between a famous atheist and a former radical is all the more startling for its decorum. Harris and Nawaz have produced something genuinely new: they engage one of the most polarizing issues of our time—fearlessly and fully—and actually make progress.

Rougier, “The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East”

This month, Princeton University Press releases “The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East: Northern Lebanon from al-Qaeda to ISIS” by Bernard Rougier (Sorbonne Paris III University). The publisher’s description follows:

Northern Lebanon is a land in turmoil. Long under the sway of the Assad regime in Syria, it is now a magnet for Sunni Muslim jihadists inspired by anti-Western and anti-Shi‘a worldviews. The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East describes in harrowing detail the struggle led by an active minority of jihadist militants, some claiming allegiance to ISIS, to seize control of Islam and impose its rule over the region’s Sunni Arab population.

Bernard Rougier introduces us to men with links to the mujahidin in Afghanistan, the Sunni resistance in Iraq, al-Qaeda, and ISIS. He describes how they aspire to replace North Lebanon’s Sunni elites, who have been attacked and discredited by neighboring powers and jihadists alike, and explains how they have successfully positioned themselves as the local Sunni population’s most credible defender against powerful external enemies—such as Iran and the Shi‘a militia group Hezbollah. He sheds new light on the methods and actions of the jihadists, their internal debates, and their evolving political agenda over the past decade.

This riveting book is based on more than a decade of research, more than one hundred in-depth interviews with players at all levels, and Rougier’s extraordinary access to original source material. Written by one of the world’s leading experts on jihadism, The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East provides timely insight into the social, political, and religious life of this dangerous and strategically critical region of the Middle East.

Dispatches from Kabul: Warlords and Takeout

Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 recently moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she works with a team of local and international lawyers at Rosenstock Legal Services, a commercial law firm. In this series of dispatches from Kabul, she will share her insights on issues of law and religion in the context of practicing law in the Islamic Republic. The following personal narrative is an introduction to the series.

Mostly, I was exhausted. There was the packing and repacking, a sleepless night, the flight from Milan to Istanbul, and a four and a half hour layover in the dead of the night. When I arrived at the overcrowded international terminal at Atatürk International, a dark sense of dread came over me. I ordered a venti chai tea latte, bought two bags of Haribo Gold Bears, and sat in front of the lounge monitor watching GO TO GATE flash across the screen for destinations like Najaf, Sulaimaniyah, and Baghdad. When “impoverished, Taliban-infiltrated, suicide-bombed city” is all you have to associate with your destination, it’s hard to rally. KABUL–3:10–WAIT FOR GATE. I wasn’t overcome by the urge to buy a one-way ticket back to Chicago, but as the minutes ticked by slowly I became increasingly angry with myself for having made this decision in the first place.

I couldn’t quite will myself out of the lounge on time, so I ended up sprinting down the terminal to the gate where all but one anxious-looking passenger had been loaded onto the bus that would take us to the outer reaches of the airfield. I remember passing rows of shipping containers and other miscellaneous cargo and wondering if I hadn’t read the fine print well enough.

The flight was full of Westerners. Men with buzz cuts, prominent biceps, and army green t-shirts; tall bespectacled Dutch men with reporter notebooks; women wearing Western tunics and headscarves and speaking the language of project management. A beautiful Afghan girl with kind and vibrant eyes sat next to me. She looked very stylish in her elegant black tunic and hijab, and we struck up a conversation about Islamic dress. She asked me if this would be my first time in Afghanistan – pronounced in a lilting and graceful accent – and then enthusiastically told me all the things she loves about her country. Later, I fell asleep to her conversation with another Afghan woman, the singsong words bale, bale playing in my head. Dari, the Afghan version of Persian and one of the national languages of the country, is really beautiful.

I woke in time to see the sun rising ahead of us in the east, and as we approached Kabul, the desert disappeared and the Hindu Kush came into view. I thought about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and his tiny asteroid, and about the surface of Mars and the moon. “Kabul might as well be outer space,” I whispered to myself. From high above, it looked as though you could be stuck forever in this place surrounded by a vast mountain range encased in endless deserts. The city itself appeared brown and dusty and flat, and the rows of concrete buildings gave the impression that we were landing in the middle of a sprawling detention center or military compound. But as we began the descent I felt a rush of adrenaline and excitement. I had finally made it to Kabul and there was no room for panic.

The hot, dry air smelled like summer in Mumbai, but the atmosphere at Hamid Karzai International was more subdued. An Afghan man loaded my suitcases onto a cart, and we exited the building and began the dreaded walk from the international arrivals terminal to the entrance and parking lots. I felt exposed in the open air, but more curious than frightened, and I managed to snap a few pictures of the “gardens” – wilting rosebushes among weeds – as we made our way to the gate. Given the recent airport bombings, I thought I would be sick with fear, but the ten-minute walk felt strangely normal. A coworker greeted me warmly at our meeting point, and we set out to the city with our driver.

The next hours are a blur of checkpoints, armed men, and seemingly perilous moments on a journey through Kabul’s manic “streets.” When we finally arrived at my new house in a quiet residential neighborhood, I met my housemates – journalists, NGO researchers, communications specialists – as well as the very gracious guards, drivers, and cleaners who make life here easier. We have gates and blast walls, 24-hour chakidors, CCTV, a safe room, and a semi-automatic weapon. Even so, we live “outside the wire,” to borrow a military phrase, which means our security approach is to remain under the radar and as out of sight as possible. Our cars have no markers, we wear headscarves and abayas, and we do not keep regular schedules. Consequently, we are able to move around the city with relative ease. I have only felt anxious once or twice when passing a checkpoint or sitting too long in traffic, and for the most part, the days pass by in a normal rhythm. But I guess this is the reality in a conflict zone. Everything’s fine until it isn’t. You’re safe until you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. You forget about the danger until your friends get captured or killed. It’s the vague, speculative fear, I suppose, that looms large.

My first week in Kabul has been filled with takeout dinners at home, all day brunches in private gardens, and bonfires at night. These are things you wouldn’t think possible in Afghanistan. I’m excited about the work – more on that later – and happy to have met many interesting and enthusiastic people. The low-flying helicopters that regularly shake the house still throw me off, as do glimpses of abject poverty seen through the car window. I like hearing the call to prayer five times a day, but the light blue burkas that cover the body with a single piece of cloth, the chadri, are an eerie reminder of the Taliban’s hold on this country.

As we ventured into a different neighborhood a few nights ago, our driver pointed to a newly built, outsized mansion and said, “That is Dostum’s house.” I looked on in awe as I recalled Ahmed Rashid’s description of General Dostum, the Uzbek warlord:

“He wielded power ruthlessly. The first time I arrived at the fort to meet Dostum there were bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the muddy courtyard. I innocently asked the guards if a goat had been slaughtered. They told me that an hour earlier Dostum had punished a soldier for stealing. The man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank, which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body into mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched. The Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all the Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging – a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes and Dostum was an apt leader. Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death” (Taliban, pg. 56).

Somehow, all of us, even warlords and lawyers, have a role to play in this strange but fascinating place.

Photos by Jessica Wright, September 2015

Richard, “Not a Catholic Nation”

In November, the University of Massachusetts Press will release “Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s,” by Mark Paul Richard (State University of New York at Plattsburgh).  The publisher’s description follows:

During the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan experienced a remarkable resurgence, drawing millions of American men and women into its ranks. In Not a Catholic Nation, Mark Paul Richard examines the KKK’s largely ignored growth in the six states of New England—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—and details the reactions of the region’s Catholic population, the Klan’s primary targets.

Drawing on a wide range of previously untapped sources—French-language newspapers in the New England–Canadian borderlands; KKK documents scattered in local, university, and Catholic repositories; and previously undiscovered copies of the Maine Klansmen—Richard demonstrates that the Klan was far more active in the Northeast than previously thought. He also challenges the increasingly prevalent view that the Ku Klux Klan became a mass movement during this period largely because it functioned as a social, fraternal, or civic organization for many Protestants. While Richard concedes that some Protestants in New England may have joined the KKK for those reasons, he shows that the politics of ethnicity and labor played a more significant role in the Klan’s growth in the region.

The most comprehensive analysis of the Ku Klux Klan’s antagonism toward Catholics in the 1920s, this book is also distinctive in its consideration of the history of the Canada–U.S. borderlands, particularly the role of Canadian immigrants as both proponents and victims of the Klan movement in the United States.

Baker, “One Islam, Many Muslim Worlds”

This month,  Oxford University Press releases “One Islam, Many Muslim Worlds: Spirituality, Identity, and Resistance across Islamic Lands,” by Raymond William Baker (Trinity College).  The publisher’s description follows:

By all measures, the late twentieth century was a time of dramatic decline for the Islamic world, the Ummah, particularly its Arab heartland. Sober Muslim voices regularly describe their current state as the worst in the 1,400-year history of Islam. Yet, precisely at this time of unprecedented material vulnerability, Islam has emerged as a civilizational force strong enough to challenge the imposition of Western, particularly American, homogenizing power on Muslim peoples. This is the central paradox of Islam today: at a time of such unprecedented weakness in one sense, how has the Islamic Awakening, a broad and diverse movement of contemporary Islamic renewal, emerged as such a resilient and powerful transnational force and what implications does it have for the West? In One Islam, Many Muslims Worlds Raymond W. Baker addresses this question.

Two things are clear, Baker argues: Islam’s unexpected strength in recent decades does not originate from official political, economic, or religious institutions, nor can it be explained by focusing exclusively on the often-criminal assertions of violent, marginal groups. While extremists monopolize the international press and the scholarly journals, those who live and work in the Islamic world know that the vast majority of Muslims reject their reckless calls to violence and look elsewhere for guidance. Baker shows that extremists draw their energy and support not from contributions to the reinterpretation and revival of Islamic beliefs and practices, but from the hatreds engendered by misguided Western policies in Islamic lands. His persuasive analysis of the Islamic world identifies centrists as the revitalizing force of Islam, saying that they are responsible for constructing a modern, cohesive Islamic identity that is a force to be reckoned with.

McMullen, “The Bahá’ís of America”

In November, NYU Press will release “The Bahá’ís of America: The Growth of a Religious Movement” by Mike McMullen (University of Houston). The publisher’s description follows:

The Bahá’í Faith had its origins in nineteenth century Shi’ite Islam, but embraces Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad—among others—as prophets, each seen as a divine messenger uniquely suited to the needs of his time. The Bahá’í community has spread to become the second most geographically widespread religion in the world. It has a 120 year history in the United States, where members have promoted their core belief that all people are created equal.

American Bahá’ís have been remarkably successful in attracting a diverse membership. They instituted efforts to promote racial unity in the deep South decades before the modern civil rights movement, and despite lip service to fostering multi racial congregations among Christian churches, over half of American Bahá’í congregations today are multiracial, in comparison to just 5 to 7 percent of U.S. Christian churches. This level of diversity is unique among all religious groups in the United States.

As the story of a relatively new religious movement, the history of the Bahá’ís in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries offers a case study of institutional maturation, showcasing the community’s efforts to weather conflict and achieve steady growth. While much scholarly attention has been paid to extremist religious movements, this book highlights a religious movement that promotes the idea of the unity of all religions. Mike McMullen traces the hard work of the Bahá’ís’ leadership and congregants to achieve their high level of diversity and manage to grow so successfully in America.

“The Polygamy Question” (eds. Bennion and Joffe)

In November, the Utah State University Press will release “The Polygamy Question,” edited by Janet Bennion (Lyndon State College) and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe (Brandeis University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The practice of polygamy occupies a unique place in North American history and has had a profound effect on its legal and social development. The Polygamy Question explores the ways in which indigenous and immigrant polygamy have shaped the lives of individuals, communities, and the broader societies that have engaged with it. The book also considers how polygamy challenges our traditional notions of gender and marriage and how it might be effectively regulated to comport with contemporary notions of justice.

The contributors to this volume—scholars of law, anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, and religious studies—disentangle diverse forms of polygamy and polyamory practiced among a range of religious and national backgrounds including Mormon and Muslim. They chart the harms and benefits these models have on practicing women, children, and men, whether they are independent families or members of coherent religious groups. Contributors also address the complexities of evaluating this form of marriage and the ethical and legal issues surrounding regulation of the practice, including the pros and cons of legalization.

Plural marriage is the next frontier of North American marriage law and possibly the next civil rights battlefield. Students and scholars interested in polygamy, marriage, and family will find much of interest in The Polygamy Question.