Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

Hadiz, “Islamic Populism in Indonesia and the Middle East”

This month, the Cambridge University Press releases “Islamic Populism in Indonesia and the Middle East,” by Vedi R. Hadiz (University of Melbourne).  The publisher’s description follows:

In a novel approach to the field of Islamic politics, this provocative new study compares the evolution of Islamic populism in Indonesia, the country with the 9781107123601largest Muslim population in the world, to the Middle East. Utilising approaches from historical sociology and political economy, Vedi R. Hadiz argues that competing strands of Islamic politics can be understood as the product of contemporary struggles over power, material resources and the result of conflict across a variety of social and historical contexts. Drawing from detailed case studies across the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the book engages with broader theoretical questions about political change in the context of socio-economic transformations and presents an innovative, comparative framework to shed new light on the diverse trajectories of Islamic politics in the modern world.

  • Charts the evolution of Islamic populism in Indonesia, comparing it to the Middle East
  • Offers a novel framework to understand the diverse trajectories of Islamic politics in the modern world
  • Engages with debates on religion, politics and social change

Petersen, “For Humanity or for the Umma?”

In February, the Oxford University Press will release: “For Humanity Or For The Umma?: Aid and Islam in Transnational Muslim NGOs,” by Marie Juul Petersen (Danish Institute for Human Rights). The publisher’s description follows:

Seeking to broaden our understanding of these organisations, Marie9781849044325 Juul Petersen explores how Muslim NGOs conceptualise their
provision of aid and the role Islam plays in this. Her book offers insights into a new kind of NGO in the global field of aid provision. The book is based on empirical case studies of four of the biggest transnational Muslim NGOs, and draws on extensive research in Britain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Bangladesh, and more than 100 interviews with those involved in such organisations.

Christians, the State Department, and Genocide

syrian christians

Photo from The Guardian

At USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers writes about the State Department’s apparent reluctance to refer to ISIS’s persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians as a genocide. The reluctance is puzzling. According to press reports, the Department is poised to declare a genocide ISIS’s persecution of another religious minority, the Yazidis. If Yazidis are the victims of genocide, she asks, why not Christians? The situation of these two persecuted minorities is quite similar.

Powers makes a very good point. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines “genocide” as, among other things, “deliberately inflicting on” a religious group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Obviously, what ISIS is doing to the Yazidis qualifies. So does what ISIS is doing to Christians. ISIS is driving Christians from their homes, seizing their property, and, quite often, killing them in the most horrible ways. How does that not qualify as a genocide?

Apparently, the State Department is hesitating because, unlike Yazidis, Christians have a way out. As “People of the Book” under classical Islamic law — which ISIS has purported to restore in its newly declared caliphate — Christians can choose to abide by the terms of the Dhimma, the notional contract that governs the treatment of Christians, Jews, and some other minorities. As dhimmis, Christians may remain in the new caliphate as long as they follow the rules – paying the jizya tax, for example, and accepting social subordination. (I detail the dhimmi restrictions ISIS has imposed on the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria here).

As Powers point out, however, on many occasions, ISIS has disregarded the dhimmi rules. Moreover, even at their best, the rules are punishing. The jizya is often set at a level where many Christians cannot pay it. These Christians have no choice but to leave. More fundamentally, how is it acceptable to tell religious minorities that things are comparatively good for them because they can “choose” to accept oppressive and demeaning treatment and manage to survive? Quite obviously, ISIS’s goal is to eliminate these ancient Christian communities. And it is largely succeeding: those Christians who can do so are fleeing. Some experts believe that Christianity will disappear from Iraq and Syria – places where Christians have lived the religion began – within one or two generations.

Last Friday, a group of Christian leaders, human rights advocates, and scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a meeting on this question, at which they hope to persuade him that Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis, should be included in any designation of a genocide. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories). Secretary Kerry has not yet responded.

Some persecuted minorities are funny

Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In the clip, Colbert mocks Republican presidential candidates who argue for admitting Syrian Christians as religious refugees. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. Unfortunately, in attacking the GOP, Colbert, who often speaks publicly of his devotion to Catholicism, uses Syrian Christians as a cheap prop.

Republican candidates want to admit Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims, Colbert says, because they think Americans can “relate to average Syrian Christians.” After all, Syrian Christians are “basically Methodists.” For example, he continues, with the cutesy irony that has made him rich and famous, consider Syriac Orthodox Christians. They say something called the Ramsho Prayer every evening—“Ramsho Prayer,” incidentally, is how you say “Vespers” in Syriac—and read their Bibles in Aramaic. He continues with what he apparently thinks is a hilarious sendup of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. Flashing a picture of the patriarch in his liturgical robes, Colbert jokes that the vestments make Ignatius look like “Golden Snake Santa Pope,” a comic figure who would fit right in as King of Mardi Gras. Colbert’s piano-playing sidekick joins the audience in guffawing.

Now, I’m sure Colbert, who often makes jokes about his own church, thinks this is all good-natured fun. How clever! These GOP candidates know nothing about real Syrian Christians, and if they did, they’d be shocked, those ignoramuses. But it’s in very bad taste. The whole joke turns on showing how weird and unrelatable Syrian Christians are. That’s why the audience is laughing so hard. (You want us to admit these people?) The Syriac Orthodox have suffered for centuries and are enduring one of their worst trials right now, and Colbert is using them for a cheap gag. The joke is particularly unfortunate with respect to Ignatius himself. I’ve talked to people know him personally, and Ignatius is a saintly man. (But what about those silly clothes?). For many years, he was the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in New Jersey. He could have continued to live a pleasant life here in the United States, but returned to the hellhole that is Syria last year in order to lead his flock.

Syrian Christians, and Mideast Christians more generally, have a public relations problem. The fact is, they are culturally different from Americans, and it is genuinely difficult for many American Christians to relate to them. That’s one reason why the United States has done so little to help them in the current crisis. Mocking them as weirdos doesn’t help. Those golden snakes on Ignatius’s staff are an ancient symbol of wisdom. Colbert should display some of it himself.

Osman, “Islamism”

In February, the Yale University Press will release “Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World,” by Tarek Osman.  The publisher’s description follows:

A political, social, and cultural battle is currently raging in the Middle East. On one side are the Islamists, those who believe Islam should be 9780300197723the region’s primary identity. In opposition are nationalists, secularists, royal families, military establishments, and others who view Islamism as a serious threat to national security, historical identity, and a cohesive society.

This provocative, vitally important work explores the development of the largest, most influential Islamic groups in the Middle East over the past century. Tarek Osman examines why political Islam managed to win successive elections and how Islamist groups in various nations have responded after ascending to power. He dissects the alliances that have formed among Islamist factions and against them, addressing the important issues of Islamism’s compatibility with modernity, with the region’s experiences in the twentieth century, and its impact on social contracts and minorities. He explains what Salafism means, its evolution, and connections to jihadist groups in the Middle East. Osman speculates on what the Islamists’ prospects for the future will mean for the region and the rest of the world.

Abdel-Samad, “Islamic Fascism”

In January, Prometheus Books will release “Islamic Fascism,” by Hamed Abdel-Samad.  The publisher’s description follows:

This polemic against Islamic extremism highlights the striking parallels between contemporary Islamism — as exemplified by ISIS, islamicfasicism_coverBoko Haram, al Qaeda, and others — and the twentieth-century fascism embodied by Hitler and Mussolini. Like those infamous European ideologies, Islamism today touts imperialist dreams of world domination, belief in its inherent superiority, contempt for the rest of humanity, and often a murderous agenda. Author Hamed Abdel-Samad, born and raised in Egypt, not only explains the historical connections between early twentieth-century fascist movements in Europe and extremist factions in Islam but also traces the fascist tendencies in mainstream Islam that have existed throughout its history.

Examining key individuals and episodes from centuries past, the book shows the influence of Islam’s earliest exploits on current politics in the Islamic world. The author’s incisive analysis exposes the fascist underpinnings of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Shia regime in Iran, ISIS, Salafi and Jihadist ideologies, and more.

Forcefully argued and well-researched, this book grew out of a lecture on Islamic fascism that the author gave in Cairo, which resulted in a call for his death by three prominent Egyptian clerics. This American edition contains two new chapters, one on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and one on the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Kondo, “Islamic Law and Society in Iran”

In January, Routledge will release “Islamic Law and Society in Iran: A Social History of Tehran” by Nobuaki Kondo (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies). The publisher’s description follows:

This book explores the legal aspects of urban society in nineteenth-century Iran. It provides the social context in which political process occurred and examines how authorities applied law in society, how people utilized the law, and how the law regulated society. The legal system was primarily derived from Islamic la

In his thorough analysis, the author focuses on two themes: the shari‘a court and vaqf (endowments). The shari‘a court was the location, where law was applied, and the author shows that the majority of courts in the country did not engage in disputes, lawsuits, and litigation, but were instead involved primarily in popular transactions such as sales, loans, leases, gifts, and other commercial contracts. This is one of the main reasons that led to the development of close ties between religious clerics as legal professionals, on the one hand, and, on the other, merchants, traders, and shopkeepers in Iranian society during this time period. The second topic, the law of vaqf, is considered to be the strongest among the contracts of Islamic law and an essential part in the development of an Islamic city. Vaqf deeds constituted one of the most common and important types of transactions dealt with by any shari’a court in Iran. Using the alterations that occurred in the legal terms of very important vaqf deeds as an example, the author argues that this traditional legal system was itself not static but had the potential for change and modification.

The relationship between Islamic law and society is still an important issue in Iran under the Islamic Republic. Despite all the debates that began from the middle of the nineteenth century and which promoted legal reform, little was changed substantively in the area of the day-to-day practice of law in Iranian courts until the present day. This book provides an understanding of this legal system and its role in society, and offers a basis for assessing the motives and results of modern reforms as well as the modernist discourse.

Moussa, “Politics of the Islamic Tradition”

In October, Routledge released “Politics of the Islamic Tradition: The Thought of Muhammad Al-Ghazali,” by Mohammed Moussa (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies).  The publisher’s description follows:

Over the last two centuries the Muslim world has undergone dramatic transformations, impacting the Islamic tradition and throwing into question our understanding of tradition. The notion of tradition as an unmoving edifice is contradicted by the very process of its transmission, and the complex role human beings play in creating and sustaining traditions is evident in the indigenous mechanisms of change within the Islamic tradition.

Politics of the Islamic Tradition locates the work of Egyptian cleric Muhammad al-Ghazali within the context of this dynamic Islamic tradition, with special focus on his political thought. Al-Ghazali inherited a vast and diverse heritage which he managed to reinterpret in a changing world. An innovative exploration of the change and continuity present within Muslim discourses, this book brings together disparate threads of the Islamic tradition, religious exegesis, the contemporary Arab Middle East, the Islamic state and idea of renewal in al-Ghazali’s thought. As well as being one of the first complete treatments of al-Ghazali’s works, this book provides an original critical approach to tradition and its capability for innovation and change, countering the dichotomy between tradition and modernity that typically informs most scholarly studies on contemporary Islam.

Offering highly original insights into Islamic thought and engaging with critical notions of tradition, this book is essential reading for students and scholars of Islamic Politics and History.

“The Protection of Religious Minorities Worldwide” (Defeis and O’Connor, eds.)

Last month, Pax Romana released “The Protection of Religious Minorities Worldwide,” edited by Elizabeth F. Defeis (Seton Hall Law School) and Peter F. O’Connor. Prof. Defeis is an alumna of St. John’s Law and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for International and Comparative Law at St. John’s.  Mr. O’Connor is a third-year law student at St. John’s. The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout history, religious minorities have experienced discrimination, persecution, expulsion, and genocide. Further, in the last decade, the world has witnessed an unprecedented increase in violent persecution of religious minorities, particularly in the Middle East, in Asia and in Africa. Yet the international community has been a bystander and has not been able or willing to develop a strategy to protect persecuted religious minorities and to stop their expulsion and genocide. After the Second World War with the creation of the United Nations, there were great hopes that all peoples could live in peace with one another as good neighbors, based on the fundamental human rights and the practice of tolerance as stated in the Preamble of the United Nations Charter. However, the United Nations never developed specific and effective strategies to protect the human rights of religious minorities and to stop their persecution, expulsion and genocide. Even so, we must recognize that the United Nations has been providing humanitarian assistance to refugees who fled for religious reasons. The 2014 Symposium at the United Nations in New York on the “Protection of Religious Minorities Worldwide” was directed at the international community in the hope that it will acknowledge the dire situation of so many religious minorities and will adopt practical strategies and measures for protection of, and strong humanitarian assistance for, the expelled religious refugees.

Slighting Syria’s Christians

Take a look at the photo above, which appeared recently on Instagram. It’s the photo of a page from the New Testament — Acts 25, which recounts St. Paul’s trial before Festus. The page, seared into a bookshelf, is all that remains of the Bible that once contained it. ISIS recently burned the Bible, along with the Armenian Orthodox Church that held it, in Tal Abyad, Syria. The page is written in Armenian characters, but in the Turkish language, which suggests the Bible was once the possession of refugees from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Survivors of that Genocide founded the town of Tal Abyad 100 years ag0.

I thought of this photograph while reading Nina Shea’s searing assessment, in yesterday’s National Review Online, of the US’s treatment of Syrian Christian refugees. In the past five years of the Syrian civil war, she writes, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Christian refugees from Syria. Fifty-three! When one considers that at the start of the conflict Christians made up 10% of the country’s population of 23 million, and that ISIS and other Islamist groups have made Christians special targets, the minuscule number of Christian refugees the US has admitted is truly shocking.

Shea says there are two explanations. First, the US has generally been reluctant to admit any refugees from Syria. Second, the US relies on the UN to process and refer applications for asylum from its own refugee and resettlement camps. But Christians and other religious minorities are reluctant to use the UN camps, which are infiltrated by ISIS operatives:

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

There are other explanations as well. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is reluctant to appear too solicitous of Christian refugees. The concern is that singling out Christians would cause our allies in the region to view our humanitarian efforts as sectarian. We should get over this concern. Our allies view us as sectarian, anyway. And it’s not like our strategy of projecting even-handedness has won us much support till now.

This is a complicated situation. Many Christian leaders do not want their flocks to leave their homes in Syria, where Christians have lived for many centuries. And other religious minorities are also dying in Syria, as well as Muslims. But, for many Christians, escape to the West is the only viable option. And Christians have suffered disproportionately in Syria and deserve more help from the US than they are receiving. Shea’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.