Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

In Turkey, the Clash of Civilizations Continues

In academic and policymaking circles in the West, one hears a great deal about universal human rights. These rights, it is said, apply to everyone, everywhere; they are inherent in human nature. It’s an interesting idea. The problem is, not everyone agrees. That’s putting it mildly. Whole civilizations reject the Western conception of universal human rights, including, principally, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. We can tell ourselves that the conflict is temporary and superficial, that other civilizations are moving inexorably toward our understanding. We have international agreements! But much suggests the clash is profound and perduring.

Events in Turkey over the past weekend provide more evidence. On Saturday, 100,000 people gathered in the city of Diyarbakir to protest the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the French journal, Charlie Hebdo. One hundred thousand people – that’s hardly a fringe phenomenon. According to an account in a Turkish newspaper, speakers condemned the notion that freedom of expression extended to insults against the Prophet. Protesters held up placards with phrases such as “‘Damn those saying “I am Charlie,” and ‘May Charlie’s Devils not defame the Prophet.’”

These sentiments are not limited to the reaches of Anatolia. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu personally expressed his support for the protesters. At a meeting of the ruling AKP party in Diyarbakir, he sent greetings to the protesters, to “each and every brother who defends the Prophet Muhammad here.” (Ironically, Davutoğlu represented Turkey at the solidarity rally in Paris the weekend after the Charlie Hebdo attacks).  And, on Sunday, a court in Ankara ordered Facebook to block users’ access to pages containing content deemed insulting to the Prophet. According to the New York Times, Facebook immediately complied.

Of course, not everyone in Turkey endorses these actions, but that’s not the point. Throughout the country, and in many other places across the globe, millions disagree, profoundly, with how the West understands things. They are not about to change their minds. We need to pay attention. The clash of civilizations continues.

Rajan, “Al Qaeda’s Global Crisis”

In February, Routledge Press will release “Al Qaeda’s Global Crisis: The Islamic State, Takfir and the Genocide of Muslims” by V.G. Julie Rajan (Rutgers University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Al Qaeda's Global CrisisThis book focuses on the crises facing Al Qaeda and how the mass killing of Muslims is challenging its credibility as a leader among Islamist jihadist organizations.

The book argues that these crises are directly related to Al Qaeda’s affiliation with the extreme violence employed against Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the decade since 9/11. Al Qaeda’s public and private responses to this violence differ greatly. While in public Al Qaeda has justified those attacks declaring that, for the establishment of a state of ‘true believers’, they are a necessary evil, in private Al Qaeda has been advising its local affiliates to refrain from killing Muslims. To better understand the crises facing Al Qaeda, the book explores the development of Central Al Qaeda’s complex relationship with radical (mis)appropriations and manifestations of takfir, which allows one Muslim to declare another an unbeliever, and its unique relationship with each of its affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The author then goes on to consider how the prominence of takfir is contributing to the deteriorating security in those countries and how this is affecting Al Qaeda’s credibility as an Islamist terror organization. The book concludes by considering the long-term viability of Al Qaeda and how its demise could allow the rise of the even more radical, violent Islamic State and the implications this has for the future security of the Middle East, North Africa and Central/South Asia.

This book will be of much interest to students of political violence and terrorism, Islamism, global security and IR.

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?

Novak, “Zionism and Judaism: A New Theory”

In February, Cambridge University Press will release “Zionism and Judaism: A New Theory” by David Novak (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows:

Why should anyone be a Zionist, a supporter of a Jewish state in the land of Israel? Why should there be a Jewish state in the land of Israel? This book seeks to provide a philosophical answer to these questions. Although a Zionist need not be Jewish, nonetheless this book argues that Zionism is only a coherent political stance when it is intelligently rooted in Judaism, especially in the classical Jewish doctrine of God’s election of the people of Israel and the commandment to them to settle the land of Israel. The religious Zionism advocated here is contrasted with secular versions of Zionism that take Zionism to be a replacement of Judaism. It is also contrasted with versions of religious Zionism that ascribe messianic significance to the State of Israel, or which see the main task of religious Zionism to be the establishment of an Israeli theocracy.

Owen, “Confronting Political Islam”

This past November, Princeton University Press released “Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past” by John M. Owen IV (University of Virginia). The publisher’s description follows:

Confronting Political IslamHow should the Western world today respond to the challenges of political Islam? Taking an original approach to answer this question, Confronting Political Islam compares Islamism’s struggle with secularism to other prolonged ideological clashes in Western history. By examining the past conflicts that have torn Europe and the Americas—and how they have been supported by underground networks, fomented radicalism and revolution, and triggered foreign interventions and international conflicts—John Owen draws six major lessons to demonstrate that much of what we think about political Islam is wrong.

Owen focuses on the origins and dynamics of twentieth-century struggles among Communism, Fascism, and liberal democracy; the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contests between monarchism and republicanism; and the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars of religion between Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and others. Owen then applies principles learned from the successes and mistakes of governments during these conflicts to the contemporary debates embroiling the Middle East. He concludes that ideological struggles last longer than most people presume; ideologies are not monolithic; foreign interventions are the norm; a state may be both rational and ideological; an ideology wins when states that exemplify it outperform other states across a range of measures; and the ideology that wins may be a surprise.

Looking at the history of the Western world itself and the fraught questions over how societies should be ordered, Confronting Political Islam upends some of the conventional wisdom about the current upheavals in the Muslim world.

“Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law” (Lau & Cotran, eds.)

In February, Brill Publishing will release “Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, Volume 17” edited by Martin Lau (University of London) and Hon. Eugene Cotran. The publisher’s description follows:

Practitioners and academics dealing with the Middle East can turn to the Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law for an instant source of information on the developments over an entire year in the region. The Yearbook covers Islamic and non-Islamic legal subjects, including the laws themselves, of some twenty Arab and other Islamic countries.

Sattam, “Sharia and the Concept of Benefit”

This February, I.B. Tauris Publishing will release “Sharia and the Concept of Benefit: The Use and Function of Maslaha in Islamic Jurisprudence” by Abdul Aziz bin Sattam (Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The idea of maslaha has a rich history in classical legal thought and literature. Conventionally translated into English as ‘general benefit’ or ‘general interest’, it has been the subject, over many centuries, of intense argument in Muslim legal manuals about how the concept should be constructed and how it might be interpreted. Some celebrated scholars have even elevated its status to an independent legal source; while other prominent jurists have spoken of the special strictures which need to be applied to maslaha when considering it within the overall framework of Islamic law. In this thorough and original treatment of the concept, Abdul Aziz bin Sattam offers the first sustained examination of one of the most important tenets of Sharia. Seeking to illuminate not only the intricacies of its application, but also the wider history which has shaped it, the author examines its foundations, theoretical underpinnings and the key debates in both classical and contemporary texts. His book will be a vital resource for all those with an interest in Islamic law, whether of the medieval or modern periods.

Foreign Policy Magazine on Iraqi Christians

From Foreign Policy,  a moving essay on how Iraqi Christians are observing this Christmas season. Last month, the author, Christian Caryl, visited Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Chaldean-rite Catholics, refugees from ISIS’s summer campaign, live in tents in a church courtyard:

I guess you could argue that this is all old news. A lot has happened since late November, and there are plenty of other stories to cover. By and large, the international media have moved on. But the refugees are still there, huddled together on the grounds of the church, or in other sites scattered around Kurdish-controlled territory (which has offered them a warm welcome despite its own lack of resources). The world may have forgotten these people, but they’re still struggling to come to terms with the catastrophe. The accounts repeat and overlap: “I hid our money in the house, thinking we’d be back in a few days. But now we realize that we’ll probably never be able to go back.” “They knew our cellphone number, so a few days later, they called us up and said they’d hunt us down and kill us.” “They took him away, and we’ve never heard from him again.”

Sadly, the tragedy of the Christians of Iraq — who span a whole range of doctrines and ethnic groups — is being replicated in many other places. Sectarian tensions are deepening around the world, and Christians are often the victims. Syria’s mostly Orthodox Christians are caught in the middle of the civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad and its Islamist opponents. Egypt’s Copts are still attending charred churches, burned inanti-Christian pogroms and battling persistent anti-Christian sentiment. And now churches are even being targeted for attack by Hindu nationalists in India.

Caryl also answers the inevitable criticism that it is wrong to focus on the plight of Christians. (Do human rights advocates ever require explanations for defending other persecuted minorities? Just asking).

And yes, before you put coal in my stocking, I do understand that Christians aren’t the only ones in the world suffering from bigotry and violence. Just this past week, many Yezidis, another important religious minority in northern Iraq, finally got thrown a lifeline when Kurdish forces broke through an IS siege to open up a corridor to Mount Sinjar, where many Yezidis had been trapped. And yes, it’s absolutely true that many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are victims of persecution and terror. I think everyone in the world should be happy to see that stop. Faith should never be an excuse for violence.

What’s important to keep in mind in the case of Middle Eastern Christians is that the communities under attack embody unique cultural traditions that now stand on the verge of irreparable damage or even extinction. (Some of Iraq’s Christians still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.) Small wonder that a group of Christian and Muslim leaders recently meeting in Cairo issued a statement calling for tolerance pleading with Christians to remain in the Middle East. They understand that the loss of each one of these ancient communities of faith is a loss for all of us — and a victory for the forces of intolerance at a time when the world can least afford it.

Read the whole thing.

“Islam and the European Empires” (Motadel, ed.)

Last month, Oxford University Press released “Islam and the European Empires” edited by David Motadel (University of Cambridge).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islam and the European EmpiresAt the height of the imperial age, European powers ruled over most parts of the Islamic world. The British, French, Russian, and Dutch empires each governed more Muslims than any independent Muslim state. European officials believed Islam to be of great political significance, and were quite cautious when it came to matters of the religious life of their Muslim subjects. In the colonies, they regularly employed Islamic religious leaders and institutions to bolster imperial rule. At the same time, the European presence in Muslim lands was confronted by religious resistance movements and Islamic insurgency. Across the globe, from the West African savanna to the shores of Southeast Asia, Muslim rebels called for holy war against non-Muslim intruders.

Islam and the European Empires presents the first comparative account of the engagement of all major European empires with Islam. Bringing together fifteen of the world’s leading scholars in the field, the volume explores a wide array of themes, ranging from the accommodation of Islam under imperial rule to Islamic anti-colonial resistance. A truly global history of empire, the volume makes a major contribution not only to our knowledge of the intersection of Islam and imperialism, but also more generally to our understanding of religion and power in the modern world.