Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

Krauthammer on Rescuing Syrian Christians

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Syriac Orthodox Christians in Damascus (Russia Today)

A nice piece by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, on the efforts of Lord George Weidenfeld, a British Jew, to save some Syrian Christians. Weidenfeld was himself rescued by Christians in 1938. A British Protestant group brought him to London from Vienna, thus saving him from the Holocaust. Now, he says, he wishes to repay the favor. It’s a small effort, only 2000 families, but it’s something.

Notably, the US Government has declined to participate in Weidenfeld’s efforts, as they target Christians, as opposed to other religious minorities suffering in Syria. No doubt, this reticence comes from the by now well-known American policy of avoiding the appearance of sectarianism in the Mideast. Maybe some people in the Administration even think there would be some sort of Establishment Clause problem with helping Weidenfeld.

Both these concerns are silly. If the US Government were assisting only Christians in the Mideast, that could be a PR problem–for the US and for the local Christians. But the US is helping many religious minorities. Just last summer, it evacuated besieged Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar. So helping Weidenfeld’s group couldn’t be considered favoritism. Anyway, no matter what the US does, it will be seen in the region as a “Christian” power, however ironic that might seem to us here.

As for the Establishment Clause, I don’t know where to begin. Even if the Clause were to apply to such matters, the fact that the US Government distributes foreign assistance to all sorts of religious minorities in the Mideast, not just Christians, would surely satisfy any reasonable neutrality requirement, even the so-called endorsement test. The endorsement test asks whether government action makes non-adherents feel like political outsiders, second-class citizens. Would non-Christians in America really feel like outsiders because some small portion of US aid goes to help a charity rescuing a couple thousand Christian families from war-torn Syria?

The NYT on the End of Mideast Christianity

Egyptian Copts, one holding a Coptic Christian cross, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. Christians and Muslims throwing rocks clashed in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

 Photo from Christianity Today

Eliza Griswold’s major piece on Mideast Christians in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend is getting lots of well-deserved attention. The Times, more than almost any other media publication, can place items on the national agenda, and both it and Griswold deserve credit for covering the crisis facing Christianity in Syria and Iraq. Griswold makes a couple of mistakes in the article–she incorrectly describes the beliefs of Oriental Orthodox Christians and ascribes the Armenian Genocide to “nationalism, not religion,” when in fact the genocide resulted from both–but, on the whole, it’s a very impressive piece, and well worth reading.

As an American, I was particularly struck by Griswold’s description of how the United States has abandoned Mideast Christians. Really, we are doing next to nothing to help these poor people. “Wait a minute,” someone might object. “How has the US abandoned them? And why do we have to do anything? We’re not responsible for righting every wrong that occurs in the world, and anyway we were in Iraq, trying to help, for years. It didn’t work. Let Iraqis and other local populations settle this for themselves. It’s not worth more American lives.”

I understand the appeal of this objection, but it depends on not a little willful amnesia. Of course, the parties who bear principal responsibility for the persecution of Christians are local Islamists like ISIS. But the US itself bears indirect responsibility. The US invasion in 2003 led to this situation, by creating anarchy and unleashing long-repressed sectarian resentments. And by abruptly leaving Iraq, we have allowed the crisis to intensify. A Catholic bishop Griswold quotes says it well. “Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity. What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’ Having helped to create this crisis, the US has a moral obligation to do something to help. We can’t simply abandon these people–and Griswold makes clear that both the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve blame in this–as though we had nothing to do with exposing them to danger in the first place.

As of now, Griswold reports, the US has done very little. (This morning’s announcement of a potential US-Turkish alliance to fight ISIS in northern Syria seems driven largely by Turkey’s desire to preempt Kurdish gains; I doubt most of the region’s Christians hope for much out of it). The US is doing nothing to speed up immigration applications from Mideast Christians, notwithstanding the obvious persecution they are suffering. Even humanitarian assistance has been lacking.

Griswold correctly diagnoses the problem. Mideast Christians have few allies in American politics. Conservatives don’t feel much affinity for Mideast Christians, who often favor Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and liberals have a hard time seeing any Christians as sympathetic victims. As someone once observed, Mideast Christians have the misfortune to be too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left.

I hope Griswold’s timely piece can do something to help change America’s response. You can read her whole essay here.

Slight, “The British Empire and the Hajj”

In September, the Harvard University Press will release “The British Empire and the Hajj,” by John Slight (St. John’s College, University of Cambridge). The publisher’s description follows:

The British Empire at its height governed more than half the world’s Muslims. It was a political imperative for the Empire to present itself to Muslims as a friend and protector, to take seriously what one scholar called its role as “the greatest Mohamedan power in the world.” Few tasks were more important than engagement with the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Every year, tens of thousands of Muslims set out for Mecca from imperial territories throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, from the Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea. Men and women representing all economic classes and scores of ethnic and linguistic groups made extraordinary journeys across waterways, deserts, and savannahs, creating huge challenges for officials charged with the administration of these pilgrims. They had to balance the religious obligation to travel against the desire to control the pilgrims’ movements, and they became responsible for the care of those who ran out of money. John Slight traces the Empire’s complex interactions with the Hajj from the 1860s, when an outbreak of cholera led Britain to engage reluctantly in medical regulation of pilgrims, to the Suez Crisis of 1956. The story draws on a varied cast of characters—Richard Burton, Thomas Cook, the Begums of Bhopal, Lawrence of Arabia, and frontline imperial officials, many of them Muslim—and gives voice throughout to the pilgrims themselves.

The British Empire and the Hajj is a crucial resource for understanding how this episode in imperial history was experienced by rulers and ruled alike.

Conference: “ISIS, War and the Threat to Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria” (New York)

The International Foundation for Art Research will host a panel next month at the Scandinavia House in Manhattan on ISIS’ destruction of art and monuments in Syria and Iraq:

We have seen the disturbing and often horrific images emanating from the battle-torn regions of Iraq and Syria and heard the news of damage to monuments and archaeological sites and the looting of cultural objects in this ancient and archaeologically important region. But the news is rapidly changing and often conflicting, and the timing and substance of some of the stories appear to have been manipulated by ISIS. What is happening to the art and monuments of the region? What has been safe-guarded? What has been destroyed?  What is most at-risk, whether of destruction or looting? Where are the looted objects going? Are they coming into the United States?

Please join IFAR’s specialists, several of whom have on-site experience and knowledge, for a fascinating and topical discussion of these and other issues.

Note: Q& A and Informal Reception Follow the Talks

The event will take place in Manhattan on August 11. Details are here.

Byman, “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement”

In July, Oxford University Press releases “Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Daniel Byman (Georgetown University School of Foreign Service). The publisher’s description follows:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the entire world was introduced to Al Qaeda and its enigmatic leader, Osama bin Laden. But the organization that changed the face of terrorism forever and unleashed a whirlwind of counterterrorism activity and two major wars had been on the scene long before that eventful morning. In Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know, Daniel L. Byman, an eminent scholar of Middle East terrorism and international security who served on the 9/11 Commission, provides a sharp and concise overview of Al Qaeda, from its humble origins in the mountains of Afghanistan to the present, explaining its perseverance and adaptation since 9/11 and the limits of U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts.

The organization that would come to be known as Al Qaeda traces its roots to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Founded as the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda achieved a degree of international notoriety with a series of spectacular attacks in the 1990s; however, it was the dramatic assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 that truly launched Al Qaeda onto the global stage. The attacks endowed the organization with world-historical importance and provoked an overwhelming counterattack by the United States and other western countries. Within a year of 9/11, the core of Al Qaeda had been chased out of Afghanistan and into a variety of refuges across the Muslim world. Splinter groups and franchised offshoots were active in the 2000s in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen, but by early 2011, after more than a decade of relentless counterterrorism efforts by the United States and other Western military and intelligence services, most felt that Al Qaeda’s moment had passed. With the death of Osama bin Laden in May of that year, many predicted that Al Qaeda was in its death throes. Shockingly, Al Qaeda has staged a remarkable comeback in the last few years. In almost every conflict in the Muslim world, from portions of the Xanjing region in northwest China to the African subcontinent, Al Qaeda franchises or like-minded groups have played a role. Al Qaeda’s extreme Salafist ideology continues to appeal to radicalized Sunni Muslims throughout the world, and it has successfully altered its organizational structure so that it can both weather America’s enduring full-spectrum assault and tailor its message to specific audiences.

Authoritative and highly readable, Byman’s account offers readers insightful and penetrating answers to the fundamental questions about Al Qaeda: who they are, where they came from, where they’re going-and, perhaps most critically-what we can do about it.

Atzori, “Islamism and Globalisation in Jordan: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Quest for Hegemony”

In June, Routledge released “Islamism and Globalisation in Jordan: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Quest for Hegemony” by Daniel Atzori (FC Business Intelligence). The publisher’s description follows:

This book explores the activities of the local Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. It examines how the Brotherhood, working to establish an alternative social, political and moral order through a network of Islamic institutions, made a huge contribution to the transformation of Jordanian society. It reveals, however, that the Brotherhood’s involvement in the economic realm, in Islamic financial activities, led it to engage with the neo-liberal approach to the economy, with the result that the Islamic social institutions created by the Brotherhood, such as charities, lost their importance in favour of profit-oriented activities owned by leading Islamist individuals. The book thereby demonstrates the “hybridisation” of Islamism, and argues that Islamism is not an abstract set of beliefs, but rather a collection of historically constructed practices. The book also illustrates how globalisation is profoundly influencing culture and society in the Arab world, though modified by the adoption of an Islamic framework.

Mideast Christians and Authoritarian Regimes

2000px-Coptic_cross.svgLast week’s ruling in Obergefell took up a lot of attention, but I’ve been meaning to link a couple of good articles about Mideast Christians, specifically, their relationship with authoritarian regimes. Outsiders often criticize Mideast Christians for coming to terms with such regimes. But the regimes are often the best alternative in a terrible situation.

First, at Crux, John Allen has been writing a series on Egypt’s Copts, who are going through one of the worst periods of persecution in their long history. Yesterday, he posted an interesting piece on relations between Copts and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi has made a number of high-profile gestures of solidarity with Copts, including attending a Christmas Liturgy, and the vast majority view him very favorably. The Coptic Church is solidly behind him, and for most Christians, Allen writes, “it’s axiomatic that el-Sisi is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.”

But there are dissenting views. Allen interviews a few Copts who say El-Sisi’s warmth is just for show, and that his regime continues to oppress Copts, just as the Mubarak and Morsi governments did. Crimes against Copts continue to go unpunished, and there is still  “forced displacement, harassment under the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, kidnappings and physical assaults.” Indeed, one commentator reports that, “in virtually every category… the number of incidents today is going up rather than down.” Perhaps Christians’ support for el-Sisi is misplaced–or perhaps, as most Copts argue, el-Sisi is doing all he can to change traditional Egyptian attitudes, and is the best option in a very imperfect situation. My sense, from reading Western news accounts, is that the latter is the case. But I’ll admit Allen’s reporting makes me wonder a bit.

The second is this wide-ranging interview from La Stampa’s “Vatican Insider” with Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. Aphrem–who previously served as his church’s archbishop in America, incidentally–discusses a number of topics, including Christians’ relations with the Assad regime. Here’s a snippet:

Some Western circles accuse the Christians of the East of submitting to authoritarian regimes.

“We have not submitted ourselves to Assad and the so-called authoritarian governments. We simply recognise legitimate governments. The majority of Syrian citizens support Assad’s government and have always supported it. We recognise legitimate rulers and pray for them, as the New Testament teaches us. We also see that on the other side there is no democratic opposition, only extremist groups. Above all, we see that in the past few years, these groups have been basing their actions on an ideology that comes from the outside, brought here by preachers of hatred who have come from and are backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. These groups receive arms through Turkey too, as the media have shown us.”

You have to read between the lines here. What he’s saying, it seems to me, is not that Assad is wonderful, but that the alternative for Christians is incomparably worse. Aphrem makes other allegations that seem dubious, for example, that the West is arming terrorist groups that are massacring Christians. I guess he’s referring to Turkey’s alleged links with ISIS. Anyway, it’s hard to argue with his basic point that the West should not judge Syria’s Christians for the choices they have to make. Like the Allen piece on Copts, the La Stampa interview is worth reading for a sense of the pressures Mideast Christians face every day.

Conversations: Christian Sahner

From 2008 to 2010, young scholar Christian Sahner (left) lived in Syria, studying Arabic. He learned a great deal about the country. particularly the relations among the different religious groups that made up Syrian society–including Christians, who accounted for perhaps 10% of the population. Last fall, he published an engaging account of his time in Syria, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (Oxford). In the book, Sahner describes life in Syria before the Arab Spring. Notwithstanding a surface calm, he writes, sectarian tensions existed just below the surface.

This week, Sahner–who received a PhD in History this month from Princeton, and who will start a research fellowship at Cambridge in the fall–kindly answers some questions about his work. Our conversation covers topics such as the history of Christians in Syria, their experience under the Assad regime, the failure of the Arab Spring, and prospects for the future.

Christian, let’s start with some background. Your book is a reflection on the years you spent in Syria (2008-2010) and Lebanon (2011-2013). Why did you decide to live in these countries? What were you doing there?

Sahner: I first came to Syria for language study. Before the tumult of the Arab Spring, it was common wisdom among students that Cairo and Damascus were the best places to master Arabic. It was more or less dumb luck that led me to Syria and not to Egypt, and in hindsight, I’m immensely grateful the cards fell the way they did. By the beginning of 2011, Syria was no longer a safe place for an American student. Therefore, it was to Beirut that I relocated to carry on my language work and research. I’ve been returning to Lebanon ever since.

A main theme in your book is the power of sectarianism, which you define as the “activation of religious identity as one of the main principles of social and political life.” You believe this is a key fact of Syrian and Lebanese societies. What do you think explains it?

Sahner: Among the different countries of the Arab and Muslim world, Syria and Lebanon stand out for the terrific variety of peoples who live there, and always have. This includes not just Sunni Muslims, who form an absolute majority between the two countries, but also smaller Muslim sects, such as Shi‘is, Alawis, Isma‘ilis, and Druze, along with non-Muslims, including numerous Christian denominations, and until recently, large populations of Jews. The existence of religious diversity does not in and of itself entail the existence of sectarianism. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that sectarianism depends on and cannot exist without a sense of religious difference in a society. In the Levant, we face a world in which, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, political systems emerged that explicitly assigned power on the basis of sect (as in Lebanon), or which saw informal imbalances of power arise among sects (as in Syria). Because these systems thrust religious identity into the center of political life in this way, they tended to stoke resentments between communities, and under certain circumstances, spark violence.

You have a great interest in the Christian communities of Syria. Many Westerners are very unfamiliar with these communities. Could you give us a brief description of them? Who are they, what are their numbers?

Sahner: We tend to think of Syria as a Muslim-majority country, but for centuries after the rise of Islam, its population was majority Christian. The roots of these Christian communities are very ancient. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, it was in the Syrian city of Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Over the centuries, Syrian Christianity became splintered into different denominations, which were divided over Continue reading

Putin and the Pope

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How have you been?

From Crux’s John Allen, here is an interesting and provocative article on today’s scheduled meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. Surprisingly, Allen writes, on some issues, the two men have “forged an improbably strong partnership.”

One of those issues is the persecution of Mideast Christians. While Western nations have temporized, refusing even to acknowledge the sectarian dimension of the crisis–ISIS’s actions have nothing to do with religion, apparently–Putin has made himself the champion of the region’s Christians:

“As regards the Middle East and its Christians, their situation is dire,” Putin said in April. “The international community is not doing enough … this is the motherland of Christians. Christians have lived there from time immemorial, for thousands of years.”

In some corners of the Middle East, such as the Syrian region of Qualamun, Russia actually has floated the idea of granting citizenship to pockets of Orthodox Christians, effectively offering them a security blanket.

Now, talk is cheap. And Putin’s motivations are not wholly humanitarian. By offering itself as the protector of Mideast Christians, most of whom are Orthodox, Russia can exert influence in the region. (France has traditionally put itself forward in the same role, although France tends to focus on Catholics). Speaking out for Christian minorities also increases Putin’s credibility as the representative of traditional Christianity, which no doubt wins him admirers in the developing world, where Christianity is expanding, often in conflict with a rising Islam. And, of course, championing the cause of Orthodox Christians increases his political appeal in Russia itself.

Still, whatever his motives, Putin has focused on the suffering of Christians as Christians, and that is something many leaders in the West are apparently reluctant to do. It is also a stance, Allen writes, that appeals to Pope Francis:

Since Francis’ election in March 2013, meanwhile, no social or political issue has engaged the pontiff like the plight of persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East.

In March, he demanded that the world stop trying to “hide” the reality of anti-Christian violence, and he’s also argued that the shared suffering of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike is the basis for a contemporary “ecumenism of blood.”

Allen notes that the conflict in Ukraine will pose obstacles for any real partnership between Russia and the Vatican. Ukrainian Catholics believe that Pope Francis has taken too soft a line in that particular crisis. Francis has described the conflict as an unfortunate disagreement between Christians, while Ukrainian Catholics tend to see it as the result of Russian provocation, which they wish Francis would denounce. In particular, Ukrainian Catholics resent what they see as bullying and duplicity on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly the Moscow Patriarchate.

As I say, an interesting and provocative piece.

A New Book on the Armenian Genocide

This year, on its 100th anniversary, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 has receivedSuny unusually prominent and long overdue attention. New, in-depth treatments have appeared from major presses: Thomas de Waal’s Great Catastrophe (Oxford), Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans (Basic Books), and Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else” (Princeton). The fact that current events echo the Genocide–in the last year, hundreds of thousands of Christians in Syria and Iraq, some of them descendants of the victims of 1915, have been displaced or slaughtered–helps explain this new interest. It is hard to see the photographs of the refugees of 2015 without recalling the photographs of Armenian Christians 100 years ag0.

Scholar Ronald Suny’s treatment is an excellent source for readers wishing to learn the history. Suny has provided an exhaustive, dispassionate treatment, situating the Genocide in the centuries-long relationship between Armenian Christians and their Turkish Muslim rulers. In the classical Islamic system of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians were dhimmis–Christians who received toleration in exchange for their willingness to accept a subservient status. Although Armenians could do well in Ottoman society, their situation was always precarious. In the nineteenth century, a secular, national consciousness formed in certain segments of Ottoman Armenian society, encouraged by European revolutionary ideas and European-influenced reforms in the Ottoman government. The Armenian revolutionaries were always a very small minority, but they occasioned brutal, collective punishments from the government, which led to further unrest and resistance from Armenians in Anatolia.

Eventually, during World War I, the Young Turk government decided to solve the Armenian Question once and for all, by “deporting” the entire Armenian population of Anatolia to Syria–through the Syrian desert. (Suny’s title quotes a Young Turk leader’s dismissal of Armenian suffering).  Deportation was a euphemism for an extermination campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians–some sources put the number as high as 1.5 million–died in death marches and concentration camps. The government claimed military necessity; some Armenian revolutionaries were fighting with Russia in the hope of eventually gaining an independent state. But observers on the scene, including Turkey’s German allies, attested that the mass of the Armenian population remained loyal. Suny argues that the Young Turk leadership panicked after a military defeat in 1914 and decided that the survival of the Empire required the elimination of Armenians and other non-Muslims, whom the government saw as an existential threat. The Genocide, he writes, was “the pathological response of desperate leaders who sought security against a people they had both constructed as enemies and driven into radical opposition.”

Suny’s account is readable and thorough. The only criticism I have is that he sometimes discounts religion as a motivating factor. To be sure, he repeatedly discusses religious differences between Armenians and Turks. He explains the dhimma and the attitudes it fostered and notes that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were able to preserve themselves during the Genocide by converting to Islam. But, if I understand him right, he sees religion as an epiphenomenon, a marker for other, more relevant factors–tribe, politics, ethnicity. Religion, as such, was not so important.

The Genocide, like all major historical events, had many causes. The leaders of the Young Turk regime were not notably pious; they seem to have been motivated principally by a desire to create a Turkey for the Turks. But for many who did the actual killing, classical Islamic attitudes were an important motivating factor. The fact that Armenian Christians who converted to Islam were spared suggests this, as does the fate of the Assyrians, another Christian group that suffered genocide in 1915, though they posed no credible territorial threat. Besides, eyewitness accounts report that perpetrators proclaimed that they were acting in a holy cause, punishing rebellious infidels. This is not to say that classical Islam compels the genocide of Christians or that all Muslims believe this–obviously not. But religion deserves to be in the foreground of any explanation of the Genocide of 1915, and, indeed, any explanation for what is happening to Christians in the Mideast today.

Notwithstanding this criticism, Suny’s important book, the fruit of a lifetime of distinguished scholarship, is valuable for anyone wishing to learn the story of what happened in 1915. “By the end of the war,” he writes, “90 percent of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire were gone, a culture and civilization wiped out, never to return. Those who observed the killings, as well as the Allied powers engaged in a war against the Ottomans, repeatedly claimed that they had never witnessed anything like it.” Sadly, the ensuing century would provide many further examples.