Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

El-Menawy, “The Copts”

This September, Gilgamesh Publishing released “The Copts: An Investigation Into The Rift Between Muslims And Copts In Egypt” by Abdel Latif El-Menawy.  The publisher’s description follows:

The CoptsAbdel Latif Al Menawy met and interviewed late Pope Shnouda, the third Patriarch of Egypt many times during his rule. Throughout his career in journalism he was constantly in touch with leaders of the Coptic Society in Egypt. He had unparalleled access to developments of the various crises unravelling in the streets of Egypt as a result to confrontation between religion and politics.

The Copts explains how Christianity became so deeply rooted in Egypt that Islam was never able to overcome it, leading to an uneasy relationship between the two faiths. It will give accounts, never published before, of direct confrontations between  the Late Pope Shnouda and both Presidents Late Anwar Sadat and former President Hosni Mubarak.  Abdel Latif also reveals the role the Coptic Church has played in the recent uprising in Egypt.

Kobani, Then and Now

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Kobani, Syria, Last Weekend

For the past several weeks, the world has been watching Kobani (in Kurdish, Kobanê), a small city on the Syrian-Turkish border. In September, militants from ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that has declared a restored caliphate in the Middle East, laid siege to the city, which is mostly Kurdish and currently in the hands of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that opposes the Assad government. Kobani’s strategic significance is debatable, but the city has symbolic importance, and its fall would be a huge morale boost for ISIS. Consequently, the US has instituted a bombing campaign to push ISIS back. As of this weekend, the siege was at a standstill.

A bewildering set of parties is involved. In addition to the two main antagonists, ISIS and the YPG, there are the Iraqi Kurds – who, unlike the YPG, do not have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish militants who seek to establish a homeland in Turkey – the Free Syrian Army, part of the “moderate” secular opposition to Assad; the Assad regime itself; the Iraqi government; regional powers like Turkey and Iran; and the international anti-ISIS coalition, led by the US. Each of these parties has its own interests to protect, which makes cooperation very difficult. Most observers think the city will fall unless outsiders supply substantial ground troops. That seems unlikely. Although Turkey last week said it would open its border and allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters, as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, to reinforce Kobani, it’s not clear whether that will occur.

One group that does not have a significant representation in Kobani is Christians. This is ironic, because Kobani was in fact founded by Christians during the last great wave of persecution in the region, about 100 years ago. In the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Armenian refugees established a village near a recently-built train station on the Baghdad Railway, at a place called Ayn al-Arab in the Aleppo Province. The Kurds came later and called the village “Kobani,” apparently after the German company that had built the railway.

The Turks pushed many of Kobani’s Armenians further south. Those who avoided deportation built churches and schools in Kobani, but most eventually decided to move on, to other cities in Syria or to Soviet Armenia. Doubtless, many of them wished to leave a place with so many bad memories. According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, the area surrounding Kobani is known as “‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations. It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”

Hardly anyone today remembers the Christian presence in Kobani. I didn’t know the story, myself, until a friend said his grandfather, one of the refugees, once had a shop there. The churches are gone. New humanitarian disasters succeed the ones of 100 years ago; history moves on. Still, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the great suffering that led to Kobani’s foundation, and the great suffering that continues there now. It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Photo from CNN

The Synod on the Family and the Developing World

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First World Problems?

Not long after his election, the new Pope explained why he had taken the name “Francis”: “Ah, how I would like a church,” he said, “that is poor and is for the poor.” It was refreshing: the Pope was going to change the basic terms of the conversation between the Church and the world. Instead of waging a grinding “culture war” against a secular West, the Church would instead speak to the most urgent concerns of the global East and South. The first Pope to come from beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin promised to be the champion of those who lived in the parts of the earth where hunger, injustice and persecution abounded. Places like the Philippines, Mexico, and Nigeria had already become the true center of gravity of a global Church, displacing Quebec, Chicago, Milan and Vienna. The new Pope would speak for the populations of the emerging world – for their suffering, their desperation, their resilience, their energy, their sense of hope. The “North/South” polarity would supplant the “Left/Right” one. The Church would make the pivot to poverty. In making that turn, it would address the West too – but by awakening it from the deadly self-absorption of the affluent.

So when one learns that the Synod of Catholic cardinals and bishops summoned by the same Pope has returned the conversation to the culture wars of the West – though with unmistakable overtones of capitulation on many of the bishops’ part — it is, to say no more, a disappointment. Try as it may, the Church under Francis seems to be unable to resist scratching the sores of Western sexuality. The consuming obsessions of the West, now in the terminal phases of the sexual and cultural revolutions that have swept over it for more than half a century, are dominating the Church’s agenda once again. At the Pope’s insistence, the bishops did a reset, plunging the Church into renewed debate over divorce and homosexuality and cutting short the conversation that the Pope had earlier invited over famine, persecution and want. With Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram recently murdering 2500 Catholics in one Nigerian diocese alone, and with Christian children being crucified or cut in half by ISIS, you might think that the world’s bishops would have more pressing things on their mind than the compatibility of same-sex unions with Church teaching. You would, of course, be wrong.

Indeed, even considering “family” issues alone, the non-Western Church was short-changed: how much attention was given to the question of inter-faith marriages, despite its being a major concern for the Church in India? In the Philippines, many marriages break up because poverty forces a spouse or parent to migrate overseas in search of employment, leaving home, spouse and children behind. Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle noted this problem, saying that poverty “goes right at the heart of the family” in his country ; but how much attention did this issue get?

What is more, the organizers of the Synod openly expressed their indifference to – if not contempt for – the opinions of the leaders of the non-Western Church. They spoke as if the opposition of the African bishops to their “modernizing” program could stem only from irrational hatred and prejudice. What the Africans needed, they seemed to be saying, was a good, stiff dose of Richard Posner’s writings. In the controversy over the initial draft of the Synod’s statement, Cardinal Walter Kasper, an octogenarian German theologian and a favorite of the Pope’s, infamously said:

Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.

Kasper later denied having made those revealing remarks – a denial that was then proven to be false. In any case, the remarks hardly seemed out of character for the Cardinal. In an interview with the German magazine Focus published under the heading “Third World Land,” Kasper was reported to have said, “When you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country.” The German Cardinal obviously notices different things when he is at the airport from what Cardinal Tagle does. The Philippine prelate spoke of his anguish in watching Filipino mothers at airports forced to part from their children because their poverty is so desperate that they must leave their families and search for work abroad.

Not Just Cardinal Kasper

Even if Cardinal Kasper’s statement were merely condescension on the part of the passenger with the first-class cabin towards the passengers in steerage, it would be bad enough. But Kasper and those like him simply did not seem to understand the position. Perhaps the Africans and Asians are not just squinting narrowly at the issue of homosexuality, but rather looking at the state of Western culture as a whole? And perhaps they do not like what they see? Perhaps the cultural exports of the secular West – its current practices regarding marriage, abortion, childbirth, the family, the relations between the sexes – are no more wanted in Africa and Asia than the West’s toxic wastes and sewage effluents? (New York Cardinal Dolan’s wonderful defense of the “prophetic” African Church effectively made these points. )

But the problem with the Synod went far beyond the tactlessness and incomprehension of elderly European churchmen. Apparently at the Pope’s insistence, the Synod’s final report included three controversial articles that had received the approval of a Synod majority, but not the supermajority required for consensus. The final report will now go to the Church throughout the world for discussion and debate before the Synod reconvenes. You can be sure that the media coverage of the debate in this intervening period will focus overwhelmingly on the articles that the Pope reinstated. Cui bono? In their effort to get the conversation back on the familiar tracks of the Western culture wars, the Pope and his bishops are doing serious harm to millions of faithful Catholics trying to live out the Gospel in hostile and often dangerous conditions in the emerging world.

My former student, Andrew Ratelle, makes the point forcefully:

By upholding the nuclear family, the Church made what was perhaps the most important social investment in history. People in the poorer, more pagan regions of the world where polygamy, polyandry, arranged and child marriages were common, now had a place to look for support when it came to building a life that was most beneficial for themselves and their children. By weakening this support, or at the very least dispersing it to include more “diverse” arrangements, these bishops have weakened the very shield from which the nuclear family has received so much protection. Even in our own country, where “diverse” familial arrangements have almost become synonymous with urban poverty and crime (at least for those who have no gilded safety net to fall into), where should families look to now, since the Church has seen fit to dilute the medicine they have thrived on for so long?

Church leaders in the developing world understand this perfectly well. South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, for instance, wondered how he could deny communion to an African man living in polygamy in accordance with local culture and tradition, if he had to administer the sacrament to a divorced man married to his second wife? “Successive” polygamy, Napier pointed out, is hardly distinguishable from “simultaneous” polygamy.

Pope Francis was right (at first): it really is time to change the conversation. The global Church is not the parochial Western Church; the Church of the poor and the marginal is not the affluent, greying Church of Western Europe and North America. The Church should not be shadowing the West’s cultural trajectory all the way downwards. The future of the Church lies elsewhere. Ex oriente, lux.

Photo from the Catholic News Agency.

Klein, “Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron”

Next month, Hurst Publishers will release “Lives in Common:  Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron” by  Menachem Klein (Bar-Ilan University, Israel). The publisher’s description follows:

Most books dealing with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict see events through the eyes of policy-makers, generals or diplomats. Menachem Klein offers an illuminating alternative by telling the intertwined histories, from street level upwards, of three cities — Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron — and their intermingled Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants, from the nineteenth century to the present. Each of them was and still is a mixed city. Jerusalem and Hebron are holy places, while Jaffa till 1948 was Palestine’s principal city and main port of entry.

Klein portrays a society in the late Ottoman period in which Jewish-Arab interactions were intense, frequent, and meaningful, before the onset of segregation and separation gradually occurred in the Mandate era. The unequal power relations and increasing violence between Jews and Arabs from 1948 onwards are also scrutinised. Throughout, Klein bases his writing not on the official record but rather on a hitherto hidden private world of Jewish-Arab encounters, including marriages and squabbles, kindnesses and cruelties, as set out in dozens of memoirs, diaries, biographies and testimonies.

Burak, “The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire”

In December, Cambridge University Press will release “The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire” by Guy Burak (New York University). The publisher’s description follows:

The Second Formation of Islamic Law is the first book to deal with the rise of an official school of law in the post-Mongol period. The author explores how the Ottoman dynasty shaped the structure and doctrine of a particular branch within the Hanafi school of law. In addition, the book examines the opposition of various jurists, mostly from the empire’s Arab provinces, to this development. By looking at the emergence of the concept of an official school of law, the book seeks to call into question the grand narratives of Islamic legal history that tend to see the nineteenth century as the major rupture. Instead, an argument is formed that some of the supposedly nineteenth-century developments, such as the codification of Islamic law, are rooted in much earlier centuries. In so doing, the book offers a new periodization of Islamic legal history in the eastern Islamic lands.

Video: Movsesian Lecture on Mideast Christians at Lanier Theological Library

For those who might be interested, the Lanier Theological Library has made available a video of my lecture last month, “Religious Freedom for Mideast Christians: Yesterday and Today.” In the lecture, I discuss the history of the Mideast’s Christian communities, their persecution today, and what Americans can do about it.

The video is below. Thanks again to Mark Lanier and everyone at the library for hosting me!

On Christians and the Open Letter to the Islamic State

Recently, a group of more than 120 Islamic law scholars, many of them from very prominent institutions in the Sunni world like Cairo’s Al Azhar University, signed an Open Letter to the leader of the Islamic State (aka IS, or ISIL, or ISIS), Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi). The letter sharply criticizes IS, arguing that most of its actions violate Islamic law. Among other things, the letter rejects IS’s declaration of a caliphate; its conception of jihad; its persecution of non-Muslims, including Christians and Yazidis; its atrocities against women and children; its killing of journalists and aid workers; and its destruction of the shrines of the prophets.

The Open Letter is a welcome development and its authors and signatories deserve credit. Western observers often criticize Muslim leaders for their failure to speak out against Islamist groups like IS, since the silence of Muslim leaders can be taken as assent. The Open Letter makes clear that IS does not represent the totality of Islam and that its Salafist interpretations are not the last word in fiqh. It’s valuable to have a critique of IS from within the Islamic law tradition itself.

And yet, if one reads the Open Letter closely, one sees that its conclusions are not all that Western observers might hope. At the First Things site, Ayman Ibrahim explores some of the letter’s ambiguities. For example, the scholars criticize IS’s attempt to reestablish the caliphate, not because the idea itself is outmoded, but because IS is too small to assert worldwide Muslim rule. “There is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah,” the letter concedes. But a small group like IS cannot declare a caliphate all on its own. “In truth, the caliphate must emerge from a consensus of Muslim countries, organizations of Islamic scholars and Muslims across the globe.”

Well, what if IS ultimately does ultimately obtain support for its caliphate? Given the group’s meteoric success so far, perhaps IS feels optimistic and would like to give it a try. Would consensus make IS’s caliphate legitimate? And does the letter really mean to suggest that Muslims across the globe have a religious obligation to seek the restoration of some sort of caliphate? That’s certainly how it sounds. How about Muslims in the West?

Or take the treatment of Christians, a matter Ibrahim does not discuss. As most people know by now, IS has murdered or expelled Iraqi and Syrian Christians who refuse to agree to the terms of the dhimma, the classical Islamic law “agreement” in which Christians accept subordinate status and pay a poll tax called the jizya. The Open Letter sharply criticizes IS for these actions. “These Christians are not combatants against Islam or transgressors against it,” the letter protests, but “friends, neighbors and co-citizens. “

This defense of Christians from leading Muslim scholars is very helpful. But then the letter makes clear the Islamic law basis for the scholars’ critique: “From the legal perspective of Shari’ah,” it says, the Christians of Iraq and Syria “all fall under ancient agreements that are around 1400 years old, and the rulings of jihad do not apply to them.” As non-combatants, these Christians are subject to a smaller jizya than IS has assessed . This smaller jizya is a substitute for the zakat Muslims pay and is to be distributed among the whole population, including Christians on occasion, as a form of charity.

In other words, the scholars’ objection is not that IS has subjected Iraqi and Syrian Christians to the dhimma and imposed on them the jizya. Rather, the objection is that these Christians are already subject to the dhimma and that IS has no authority to impose new terms, and that IS is collecting the wrong form of jizya. To put it mildly, this reasoning is not likely to reassure Christians and encourage them to return to their homes — assuming those homes still exist.

Some readers will think I am caviling. But I really don’t think so. In law, reasons matter. As I say, the Open Letter is a welcome contribution to the debate over IS and the signers, some of whom have no doubt taken personal risk, deserve credit. But the reasoning of the letter — well, let’s just say it raises some serious questions.

Al-Jabri, “Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought”

This November, I.B. Tauris Publishers will release “Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought” by Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri (Mohammed V University, Morocco).  The publisher’s description follows:

9781780766508Mohammad Abed al-Jabri is one of the most influential political philosophers in the contemporary Middle East. A critical rationalist in the tradition of Avincenna and Averroes, he emphasizes the distinctive political and cultural heritage of the Arab world whilst rejecting the philosophical discourses that have been used to obscure its democratic deficit. This volume introduces an English-language audience for the first time to writings that have had a major impact on Arab political thought. Wide-ranging in scope yet focused in detail, these essays interrogate concepts such as democracy, law, and human rights, looking at how they have been applied in the history of the Arab world, and show that they are determined by political and social context, not by Islamic doctrine. Jabri argues that in order to develop democratic societies in which human rights are respected, the Arab world cannot simply rely on old texts and traditions. Nor can it import democratic models from the West. Instead, he says, a new tradition will have to be forged by today’s Arabs themselves, on their own terms.

Rohe, “Islamic Law in Past and Present”

This November, Brill Publishing will release “Islamic Law in Past and Present” by Mathias Rohe (University of Erlangen-Nuremberg).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islamic Law in Past and PresentIslamic Law in Past and Present, written by the lawyer and Islamicist Mathias Rohe, is the first comprehensive study for decades on Islamic law, legal theory, reform mechanisms and the application of Islamic law in Islamic countries and the Muslim diaspora. It provides information based on an abundance of Oriental and Western sources regarding family and inheritance law, contract and economic law, penal law, constitutional, administrative and international law. The present situation and ‘law in action’ are highlighted particularly. This includes examples collected during field studies on the application of Islamic law in India, Canada and Germany.

Video of Panel Presentation on Religious Liberty

The Lanier Theological Library in Houston has posted a video of a panel on religious liberty that took place at the library earlier this month. Among other subjects, the panel addressed the rise of contemporary Islamism, the treatment of Christians in the Mideast, the prevalence of Islamic-law arbitration in Europe and the US, and the legality of American drone strikes on American citizens affiliated with Islamist groups. I participated in the panel, along with Mark Lanier (Founder, Lanier Theological Library), Dean Michael Simons (St. John’s), Professor James Hoffmeier (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Fr. Mario Arroyo (Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston). Take a look.