Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

Iraq’s Christians Still Need Our Help

For people seeking to understand the crisis facing the Christians of Iraq, there’s an interesting panel discussion on the website of France 24, an English-language news station based in Paris: “Iraq’s Christians: Nowhere to Run?” The discussion is in two segments, here and here. It features a French senator, Nathalie Goulet; the New York Times Paris Bureau chief, Alissa Rubin; lawyer Ardavan Amir Aslani; and Christelle Yalap of the Committee for the Support of Iraqi Christians, a French NGO.

The panel is worth watching in full, if only to learn about the discussion taking place in another Western country. The panelists disagree about the responsibility America bears for the situation. Although the invasion of Iraq destabilized the country and exposed Christians and other minorities to grave danger, Islamism is not simply a response to American actions. It results from factors internal to the Muslim world. America has been only a peripheral actor in the Arab Spring. And yet, as one of the panelists says, the Arab Spring always seems to become an Islamist autumn.

One thing stood out for me in particular. Ms. Yalap, who offers a succinct description of the Christian community of Mosul, makes the very important point that the ordeal of this community did not end with expulsion from its home. Her NGO has been in touch with these Christians, who have taken refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan. Apparently, ISIS has continued to pursue them there, and has succeeded in cutting off  their water and electricity. It’s summer in Erbil, and the temperature is around 113°. The Christians of Mosul continue to face a humanitarian crisis. Will the international community do something to help?

This weekend, rallies in support of Iraq’s Christians are planned around the world, including here in New York, at the UN. For information, please click here.

Emon, “Religious Pluralism and Islamic Law”

In September, Oxford University Press will release Religious Pluralism and Islamic Law: Dhimmis and Others in the Empire of Law by Anver M. Emon (University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious Pluralism and Islamic LawThe question of tolerance and Islam is not a new one. Polemicists are certain that Islam is not a tolerant religion. As evidence they point to the rules governing the treatment of non-Muslim permanent residents in Muslim lands, namely the dhimmi rules that are at the center of this study. These rules, when read in isolation, are certainly discriminatory in nature. They legitimate discriminatory treatment on grounds of what could be said to be religious faith and religious difference. The dhimmi rules are often invoked as proof-positive of the inherent intolerance of the Islamic faith (and thereby of any believing Muslim) toward the non-Muslim.

This book addresses the problem of the concept of ‘tolerance’ for understanding the significance of the dhimmi rules that governed and regulated non-Muslim permanent residents in Islamic lands. In doing so, it suggests that the Islamic legal treatment of non-Muslims is symptomatic of the more general challenge of governing a diverse polity. Far from being constitutive of an Islamic ethos, the dhimmi rules raise important thematic questions about Rule of Law, governance, and how the pursuit of pluralism through the institutions of law and governance is a messy business.

As argued throughout this book, an inescapable, and all-too-often painful, bottom line in the pursuit of pluralism is that it requires impositions and limitations on freedoms that are considered central and fundamental to an individual’s well-being, but which must be limited for some people in some circumstances for reasons extending well beyond the claims of a given individual. A comparison to recent cases from the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Court of Human Rights reveals that however different and distant premodern Islamic and modern democratic societies may be in terms of time, space, and values, legal systems face similar challenges when governing a populace in which minority and majority groups diverge on the meaning and implication of values deemed fundamental to a particular polity.

France to Facilitate Asylum for Iraqi Christians

France has offered to facilitate asylum for Iraqi Christians who have fled Mosul since the takeover of that city by ISIS, the jidahist group. The announcement came in a joint communiqué by Foreign Minister Laurence Fabius and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

Granting asylum is a very imperfect solution to the crisis Mideast Christianity currently faces. Indeed, Mideast Christian leaders typically resist the “escape option,” out of concern that Christian emigration will put an end to faith communities that have endured for thousands of years. For many Mideast Christians, though, emigration may be the only option left.

Fast-tracking asylum is the least the West can do for Iraqi Christians–but it may also be, sadly, the most. France, which traditionally has seen itself as the protector of Christians, especially Catholics, in the Middle East, deserves credit for taking this step. It would be nice if the United States, which bears principal responsibility among Western countries for what has happened to Iraqi Christians, would do the same thing. (H/T: Rod Dreher).

“Modern Islamic Thinking and Activism” (Erkan Toguslu & Johan Leman, eds.)

This month, Leuven University Press released Modern Islamic Thinking and Activism: Dynamics in the West and in the Middle East, edited by Erkan Toguslu (KU Leuven University) and Johan Leman (Emeritus Professor at KU Leuven University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Modern Islamic Thinking and ActivismModern Islamic Thinking and Activism presents a series of scholarly papers in relation to Islamic thinking, activism, and politics in both the West and the Middle East. The reader will apprehend that Islam is not the monolithic religion so often depicted in the media or (earlier) in the academic world. The Islamic world is more than a uniform civilization with a set of petrified religious prescriptions and an outdated view on political and social organization. The contributions show the dynamics of ‘Islam at work’ in different geographical and social contexts. By treating the working of Islamic thinking and of Islamic activism on a practical level, Modern Islamic Thinking and Activism includes innovative research and fills a significant gap in existing work.

Why Did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah?

On Friday, the media reported that ISIS, the Islamist group that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, had destroyed the centuries-old Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Present-day Mosul encompasses the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where, the Bible teaches, the Prophet Jonah preached. Although this is disputed, a tradition holds that Jonah was buried within the city, on Tell Nebi Yunus, or Hill of the Prophet Jonah.

An Assyrian church stood over the tomb for centuries. After the Muslim conquest, the church became a mosque; the structure that ISIS destroyed last week dated to the 14th century. In addition to the tomb, the mosque once held the supposed remains of the whale that had swallowed Jonah, including one of its teeth. At some point, even the tooth had disappeared. In 2008, the U.S. Army presented the mosque with a replica.

Last week, ISIS closed the mosque and prevented worshipers from entering. Then it wired the structure with explosives and reduced it to rubble (above). You can see a video of the explosion here, taken by a Mosul resident, who mutters, in Arabic, “No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels.”

Some commentators have explained the destruction of the tomb as part of ISIS’s anti-Christian campaign. Scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss point out that, in Christian interpretation, the Old Testament story of Jonah prefigures the death and resurrection of Christ. “The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.” Another scholar, Sam Hardy, told the Washington Post that the destruction of the tomb shows that ISIS is willing to destroy “pretty much anything in the Bible.”

On this analysis, ISIS destroyed the tomb because of its Christian associations. But that mistakes ISIS’s motives in this case. True, ISIS has no respect for Christians or their sites of worship and, in fact, has driven Mosul’s Christians from the city. The fact that the tomb was sacred for Christians as well as Muslims—and contained a present from the US Army—cannot have endeared it to ISIS. But something else is going on here. The shrine was, after all, a mosque, and Jonah figures in the Quran as well as the Bible. To understand why ISIS destroyed the tomb, one has to appreciate something about the version of Islam the group espouses.

ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf— who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as unjustified innovations–pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

Salafi Islam prevails in Saudi Arabia, where it enjoys the patronage of the royal family. On the Arabian Peninsula, as now in Iraq, Salafis have destroyed the tombs of Islamic holy men. Indeed, when the Saudi royal family captured the city of Medina in the 19th century, Salafis systematically destroyed the tombs of several of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions and family members, leaving only the Prophet’s tomb itself unmolested. There is some thought that the Saudi government plans on dismantling even that tomb, but hesitates to do so because of the uproar that would result in other Muslim communities.

In short, one should see ISIS’s destruction of the tomb of Jonah as an act principally directed at other Muslims, not Christians. That doesn’t make it any better, of course. Will the outside world do anything in response? Unlikely. Besides, as Professor Hardy told the Post, “If we didn’t intervene when they were killing people, it would be kind of grotesque to intervene over a building.”

America’s Duty to Iraq’s Christians

At The Week, columnist Michael Brandon Dougherty has a hard-hitting piece on America’s responsibility to Iraq’s Christians. In light of the fact that America’s invasion, occupation, and withdrawal created a situation of great and continuing peril for Christians, America should be doing much more to help them. For example, he writes:

Although I’m generally inclined toward a more restrictive position on immigration, the U.S. should, as a matter of practice, be especially generous in granting refugee status to the collateral victims of the war we started in Iraq. It should even offer some refugees of ISIS persecution the material resources to emigrate to America if they so desire.

The dream of transforming Iraq into an incubator of Arab liberalism has turned into a nightmare for religious minorities. America’s intervention in Iraq, and its support of Syrian and Libyan rebels, have created a disastrous disorder in which Islamist threats thrive.

Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.

Read the whole thing.

Is ISIS Ready to Move on Aleppo?

This is very disturbing news. Walter Russell Mead reports that ISIS, last seen expelling the Christians of Mosul, Iraq, from their ancestral homeland, may be readying an attack on Aleppo in Syria:

A Syrian army officer interviewed by al-Monitor is entirely certain that this fight is coming. Maybe not tomorrow, but “very soon,” he says—and the regime is preparing itself.

The fall of Aleppo would have strong symbolic resonance across the Middle East. If ISIS were to capture Aleppo, it will have two of the oldest cities in the Middle East in its pocket. Mosul is the fabled city of Nineveh while Aleppo is the ancient city of Halab, and no one power has held both strongholds since the Ottoman Empire. While this may not seem like a big deal to Western observers, history is experienced very differently especially in that part of the world. And jihadists love a winner: The possession of two storied cities would be a big selling point in ISIS’ recruitment drive.

The Assad regime would offer a much tougher opponent than the hapless Maliki government in Iraq, Mead notes. And Assad “has at least the reluctant backing of Syria’s minorities, who fear that ISIS will conduct the same sort of ethnic cleansing in Syria as it has in Iraq.” Still, as Syria’s financial center, Aleppo would be a great prize, and ISIS will be sorely tempted to keep up the momentum. Stay tuned.

Conference: “Confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (July 24)

The Middle East Institute will be hosting a conference, “Confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: Challenges and Options,” at the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University on July 24:

The Middle East Institute and the Conflict Management Program at SAIS are pleased to a host a discussion about combating the rising influence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Middle East Institute scholars Richard A. ClarkeSteven Simon, and Randa Slim will examine the current status of the organization and its support network, focusing on the steps that Iraqi political actors and the U.S. administration can take to address the spread of its influence. Daniel Serwer (SAIS, The Middle East Institute) will moderate the event.

Details are here.

The Dhimma Returns in Iraq

al arabiya

Photo: Al Arabiya

Sad news from Iraq this weekend. In response to an ultimatum from ISIS–the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” or, if you prefer, just the “Islamic State–Christians have evacuated the northern city of Mosul. For thousands of years, Mosul has been a center of Christianity, particularly the various Syriac Christian communions: Chaldean-rite Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East, a church that once spread as far as China. As recently as a decade ago, tens of thousands of Christians lived in Mosul. After this weekend, virtually none remain.

The expulsion of Christians from Mosul suggests something very worrying about the possible future of Islamism. And it serves as a reminder of what can happen to religious minorities when secular dictatorships in the Arab world collapse.

Mosul lies within the territory of the “caliphate” that ISIS, a militant Sunni Islamist group, has proclaimed in parts of Iraq and Syria. Its ultimatum to the Christians of Mosul is the same it gave the Christians of Raqqa, Syria, last spring. “We offer them three choices,” ISIS announced last week: “Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” In recent days, ISIS operatives went through Mosul marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter “Nun” for “Nasara,” from “Nazarenes,” a word that refers to Christians. The implications were clear.

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the term dhimma. The dhimma is the notional contract that governs relations between the Muslim umma and Christians (and Jews) in classical Islamic law. Theoretically, it dates back to the “agreement” one of the early caliphs made with the Christian community of Syria. The dhimma allows Christian communities to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya—in Mosul, ISIS was requiring a jizya of about $500—and submission to various social and legal restrictions. The dhimma forbids Christians from attracting attention during worship, for example, from building new churches, and generally from asserting equality with Muslims.

It’s wise to take ISIS at its word. On Saturday, ISIS operatives expelled the 52 Christian families who remained in the city–after first requiring them to leave all their valuables behind. For good measure, ISIS also burned an 1800-year-old church and the Catholic bishop’s residence, along with its library and manuscript collection.

One could say much about this sad uprooting of Christianity from a place where it has survived for millennia, but here are two observations. First, a psychological line has been crossed, and this may have dire consequences in future. For the moment, ISIS is unique among Islamist groups in calling for formal reinstatement of the dhimma. Although Islamists everywhere reject the idea of equality for Muslims and Christians, they typically avoid calling for the dhimma, as they understand that most contemporary Muslims find the concept abhorrent. Nothing succeeds like success, however. ISIS has now shown that it is possible to reestablish the dhimma at the center of the Muslim world. Other Islamist groups will no doubt take notice. Christians who remain in the Middle East have great cause for worry.

Second, although principal responsibility for this outrage lies with ISIS, and with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose misgovernment has created a situation in which ISIS can gain a following, the United States bears responsibility as well. Its invasion of, and hasty withdrawal from, Iraq set in motion a chain of events that has allowed radical groups like ISIS to succeed. In the Middle East, secular dictatorships can be very brutal. But they are often the only thing that stands in the way of the absolute destruction of minority religious communities. Toppling such dictatorships and hoping for their replacement by “moderate” elements is not a good bet. Incredibly, this seems to be a lesson the United States still has to learn.

Katz, “Women in the Mosque”

In September, Columbia University Press will publish Women in the Mosque: A History of Legal Thought and Social Practice by Marion Holmes Katz (New York University).  The publisher’s description follows: Women in the Mosque

Juxtaposing Muslim scholars’ debates over women’s attendance in mosques with historical descriptions of women’s activities within Middle Eastern and North African mosques, Marion Holmes Katz shows how over the centuries legal scholars’ arguments have often reacted to rather than dictated Muslim women’s behavior.

Tracing Sunni legal positions on women in mosques from the second century of the Islamic calendar to the modern period, Katz connects shifts in scholarly terminology and argumentation to changing constructions of gender. Over time, assumptions about women’s changing behavior through the lifecycle gave way to a global preoccupation with sexual temptation, which then became the central rationale for limits on women’s mosque access. At the same time, travel narratives, biographical dictionaries, and religious polemics suggest that women’s usage of mosque space often diverged in both timing and content from the ritual models constructed by scholars. Katz demonstrates both the concrete social and political implications of Islamic legal discourse and the autonomy of women’s mosque-based activities. She also examines women’s mosque access as a trope in Western travelers’ narratives and the evolving significance of women’s mosque attendance among different Islamic currents in the twentieth century.