Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

Oxford University Press Adds Movsesian Lecture to Online Legal Research Library

For those who are interested, I see that Oxford University Press has added my lecture on Mideast Christians, which I delivered last year at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, to its online legal research library. The Oxford link is here. Thanks!

Esposito et al, “Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring”

In November, the Oxford University Press will release “Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring,” by John L. Esposito (Georgetown University), Tamara Sonn (Georgetown University), and John O. Voll (Georgetown University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The landscape of the Middle East has changed dramatically since 2011, as have the political arena and the discourse around democracy. In Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring, John L. Esposito, John Voll, and Tamara Sonn examine the state of democracy in Muslim-majority societies today. Applying a twenty-first century perspective to the question of whether Islam is “compatible” with democracy, they redirect the conversation toward a new politics of democracy that transcends both secular authoritarianism and Political Islam.

While the opposition movements of the Arab Spring vary from country to country, each has raised questions regarding equality, economic justice, democratic participation, and the relationship between Islam and democracy in their respective countries. Does democracy require a secular political regime? Are religious movements the most effective opponents of authoritarian secularist regimes? Esposito, Voll, and Sonn examine these questions and shed light on how these opposition movements reflect the new global realities of media communication and sources of influence and power. Positioned for a broad readership of scholars and students, policy-makers, and media experts, Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring will quickly become a go-to for all who watch the Middle East, inside and outside of academia.

Mahmood, “Religious Difference in a Secular Age”

In November, Princeton University Press will release “Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report” by Saba Mahmood (University of California, Berkeley). The publisher’s description follows:

The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.

A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.

Roby, “The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion”

In November, the Syracuse University Press releases “The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion: Israel’s Forgotten Civil Rights Struggle, 1948–1966,” by Bryan K. Roby (New York University). The publisher’s description follows:

During the postwar period of 1948–56, over 400,000 Jews from the Middle East and Asia immigrated to the newly established state ofIsrael. By the end of the 1950s, Mizrahim, also known as Oriental Jewry, represented the ethnic majority of the Israeli Jewish population. Despite their large numbers, Mizrahim were considered outsiders because of their non-European origins. Viewed as foreigners who came from culturally backward and distant lands, they suffered decades of socioeconomic, political, and educational injustices.

In this pioneering work, Roby traces the Mizrahi population’s struggle for equality and civil rights in Israel. Although the daily “bread and work” demonstrations are considered the first political expression of the Mizrahim, Roby demonstrates the myriad ways in which they agitated for change. Drawing upon a wealth of archival sources, many only recently declassified, Roby details the activities of the highly ideological and politicized young Israel. Police reports, court transcripts, and protester accounts document a diverse range of resistance tactics, including sit-ins, tent protests, and hunger strikes. Roby shows how the Mizrahi intellectuals and activists in the 1960s began to take note of the American civil rights movement, gaining inspiration from its development and drawing parallels between their experience and that of other marginalized ethnic groups. The Mizrahi Era of Rebellion shines a light on a largely forgotten part of Israeli social history, one that profoundly shaped the way Jews from African and Asian countries engaged with the newly founded state of Israel.

Atwan, “Islamic State”

In September, the University of California Press will release “Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate,” by Abdel Bari Atwan (editor of the Rai al-Youm news website).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Islamic State stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In this timely and important book, Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics to reveal the origins and modus operandi of Islamic State.

Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan traces the Salafi-jihadi lineage of IS, its ideological differences with al Qaeda and the deadly rivalry that has emerged between their leaders. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace.

As Islamic State continues to dominate the world’s media headlines with horrific acts of ruthless violence, Atwan considers the movement’s chances of survival and expansion and offers indispensable insights on potential government responses to contain the IS threat.

In Defense of Christians to Hold National Convention Next Month

In Defense of Christians, a non-profit organization that publicizes the plight of Mideast Christians and seeks assistance for them, will hold its National Leadership Convention in Washington, DC next month. The meeting will include roundtables and open discussions with religious and political leaders; policy briefings with congressional leaders; panels on international religious freedom; and an ecumenical discussion on bridging gaps between Eastern and Western Christians–all with the aim of raising awareness about the human rights of Mideast Christians. Details are here.


Krauthammer on Rescuing Syrian Christians


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.