Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

Next Year in Jerusalem

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Issues of law and religion have always interested CLR Student Fellow Jessica Wright 3L, particularly as they relate to the Middle East. The following is a reflection on her recent trip to Jerusalem, during which she considered the religious, legal, and political issues that continue to divide the region.

Our taxi wound around the outskirts of Jerusalem, the city unfolding slowly before us beneath the dusty haze that had lingered since our arrival two days earlier. The Berlin-esque feel of Tel Aviv with its trendy cafes, beach-front hangouts, and laissez-faire attitude seemed a distant memory as we watched Haredim in their long black coats and black hats hurrying down the streets, weaving in and out of a stream of conservatively-dressed women pushing prams. Traffic ground to a halt somewhere between the entrance to Jerusalem and our hotel near the Old City, and our driver informed us that several streets had been closed because of a mass “ultra-Orthodox” protest against the draft.

The draft protest is indicative of larger issues having to do with community and identity in the region. Israel has been called the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, but it is a democracy with an important condition, one that Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear at the White House as I began my sojourn to the Holy Land. He said the only pathway to peace begins with Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. Of course, as the New York Times observed earlier this year, “this issue underpins all others [and] is exactly what makes it unacceptable to Palestinians. At its heart, it is a dispute over a historical narrative that each side sees as fundamental to its existence.” The question concerning what it means to describe Israel as a Jewish state is as relevant today and perhaps as vexed as it was in 1948.

The first night in Jerusalem, we found ourselves at the Old Bezalel Art School with Israeli friends. Our conversation eventually turned to the significance of the Israeli state and the importance of community. One friend argued that the land itself is significant because it allows one to experience Judaism as a public way of life. The traditional religious rituals become less important, she said, because identification with Judaism is about living in the state of Israel and being part of that community. But Israeli nationalism, it turns out, is not a wholly secular enterprise for most Israelis. Along with flying the flag, serving in the army, and speaking Hebrew, there is a religious narrative upon which identity is ultimately based. The particularities of the narrative vary widely. While sharing the same religious texts, the various Jewish communities within Israel have different histories and customs, and divergent outlooks. The tension between the communities is palpable. Secular Israelis want a modern, liberal state; religious Zionists believe in the coexistence of secularism and the dictates of the Torah; messianic Zionists see the state as a tool for bringing the Messiah; and the Haredim are devoted to isolated learning. And this is to say nothing of the narratives of modern Palestine, which are also focused on conflicts over belief, identity, and community.

These tensions are felt everywhere in Jerusalem – in conversation, on the streets, in the markets, and nowhere more than in the crowded and layered maze of the Old City. Standing inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where six ancient Christian denominations worship daily, one can hear the muezzin’s call to prayer outside. The church itself is just steps away from the Western Wall where Jews pray and celebrate, and very near the al-Aqsa mosque where Muslims gather together. Outside the walls, Israelis struggle to find commonality, to define their State, and to impress upon outsiders the importance of their identity. Inside the walls, one is able to forget those issues for a moment and revel in the diversity of belief in such close proximity.

From the Mount of Olives, one is afforded a panoramic view of the Old City with the construction of modern Jerusalem sprawling around it. Just down the road, one can look out over the West Bank, the security barrier visible in the foreground. It is nearly impossible to come away from Jerusalem without feeling its energy and passion, and without acknowledging its significance for people of many faiths. “Next year in Jerusalem,” I discovered, is about yearning for a way of life. How one defines it depends on the narratives woven by communities of believers. One may think Jerusalem should be a place where all Jews could flourish alongside Christians and Muslims. Perhaps, then, it would be more accurate to say, “Next year in utopos,” the place that can never be. Or maybe there is reason to hope that the communities of historical Palestine can live in peace. As Michael Walzer has said, “high ambition requires a long life, and Israel is a very young state.”

Meshal, “Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian”

This January, the American University in Cairo Press published Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Sharia 2Ottoman Cairo by Reem A. Meshal (Louisiana State University).  The publisher’s description follows.

In this book, the author examines sijills, the official documents of the Ottoman Islamic courts, to understand how sharia law, society and the early-modern economy of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman Cairo related to the practice of custom in determining rulings. In the sixteenth century, a new legal and cultural orthodoxy fostered the development of an early-modern Islam that broke new ground, giving rise to a new concept of the citizen and his role. Contrary to the prevailing scholarly view, this work adopts the position that local custom began to diminish and decline as a source of authority.

These issues resonate today, several centuries later, in the continuing discussions of individual rights in relation to Islamic law.

Reinstating the Dhimma in Syria

This month, the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year. The latest news is that the government has recaptured the border town of Yabrud, an important opposition stronghold. In fact, Yabrud is where the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in the opposition, had been holding hostage a group of Greek Orthodox nuns. The Front released the nuns only last week, reportedly in return for a government promise to allow the Front to leave the city.

Yabrud’s fall will be welcome news to Syria’s Christians. Although they have tried to avoid getting too mixed up in the conflict, it’s no secret that most of them quietly support the Assad government. Some Americans express dismay at this fact. Earlier this year, in fact, Senator John McCain reportedly stormed out of a private meeting with Syrian Christian leaders who had traveled to Washington to warn about Islamist elements in the opposition. Presumably, Senator McCain thinks these warnings reflect badly on non-Islamist elements in the anti-Assad coalition, whom he favors supplying with arms.

It’s easy to support moderate rebels and hope for the best when one lives in the United States. Syria’s Christians do not have that luxury. They favor Assad because he represents the lesser of two evils. A member of a minority religion himself–he is an Alawite–Assad has been reasonably tolerant of other minorities, including Christians. Better to take your chances with him, even if he is a dictator, than risk life under jihadists who kidnap nuns and hold them for ransom.

Actually, for an al Qaeda affiliate, the hostage-taking Nusra Front is relatively tolerant. The opposition contains worse. Take, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another al Qaeda offshoot that fights with the opposition. ISIL has taken the eastern town of Raqqa and reinstated the centuries-old dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians may live in an Islamic society as long as they pay a poll tax called the jizya, accept restrictions on their activities–for example, they may not engage in public religious displays, affect equality with Muslims, or carry weapons–and refrain from cooperating with Islam’s enemies. If they break the terms of the contract, Christians forfeit the protection of Islamic society and become subject to retaliation.

ISIL has updated the dhimma for Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. For example, Haaretz reports,

According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.

The Raqqa dhimma also requires Christians to turn over persons ISIL believes to be working against it. Interestingly, this might include other jihadists. At the moment, ISIL is quarreling with the Nusra Front, whose members have demanded that ISIL leave the country and allow the Front to represent al Qaeda’s interests in Syria.

The Ottomans formally abolished the dhimma in the nineteenth century, an act that led at the time to a widespread anti-Christian backlash. Since the founding of the modern Middle East, no Islamist group has seriously sought to reinstate it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, did not propose that Christians formally comply with the old dhimmi restrictions. It’s no surprise that Syria’s Christians look at developments in places like Raqqa and decide that Assad, rather than the opposition, offers them a more secure future.

Masoud, “Counting Islam”

In May, Cambridge University Press will publish Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt by TarekCounting Islam Masoud (Harvard University). The publisher’s description follows.

Why does Islam seem to dominate Egyptian politics, especially when the country’s endemic poverty and deep economic inequality would seem to render it promising terrain for a politics of radical redistribution rather than one of religious conservativism? This book argues that the answer lies not in the political unsophistication of voters, the subordination of economic interests to spiritual ones, or the ineptitude of secular and leftist politicians, but in organizational and social factors that shape the opportunities of parties in authoritarian and democratizing systems to reach potential voters. Tracing the performance of Islamists and their rivals in Egyptian elections over the course of almost forty years, this book not only explains why Islamists win elections, but illuminates the possibilities for the emergence in Egypt of the kind of political pluralism that is at the heart of what we expect from democracy.

Ferrari & Benzo (eds.), “Between Cultural Diversity and Common Heritage”

This April, Ashgate Publishing will publish Between Cultural Diversity and Common Heritage: Legal and Religious Perspectives on the Sacred Places of the Mediterranean edited by Silvio Ferrari (University of Milan, University of Leuven) and Andrea Benzo (Italian Embassy in Riyadh). The publisher’s description follows.

Going beyond the more usual focus on Jerusalem as a sacred place, this book presents legal perspectives on the most important sacred places of the Mediterranean. The first part of the book discusses the notion of sacred places in anthropological, sociological and legal studies and provides an overview of existing legal approaches to the protection of sacred places in order to develop and define a new legal framework. The second part introduces the meaning of sacred places in Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought and focuses on the significance and role that sacred places have in the three major monotheistic religions and how best to preserve their religious nature whilst designing a new international statute. The final part of the book is a detailed analysis of the legal status of key sacred places and holy cities in the Mediterranean area and identifies a set of legal principles to support a general framework within which specific legal measures can be implemented. The book concludes with a useful appendix for the protection of sacred places in the Mediterranean region.

Including contributions from leading law and religion scholars, this interesting book will be valuable to those in the fields of international law, as well as religion and heritage studies.

Al-Azmeh, “The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and his People by Aziz Al-Azmeh (Central European University, Budapest). The publisher’s description follows.The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity

Based on epigraphic and other material evidence as well as more traditional literary sources and critical review of the extensive relevant scholarship, this book presents a comprehensive and innovative reconstruction of the rise of Islam as a religion and imperial polity. It reassesses the development of the imperial monotheism of the New Rome, and considers the history of the Arabs as an integral part of Late Antiquity, including Arab ethnogenesis and the emergence of what was to become Muslim monotheism, comparable with the emergence of other monotheisms from polytheistic systems. Topics discussed include the emergence and development of the Muhammadan polity and its new cultic deity and associated ritual, the constitution of the Muslim canon, and the development of early Islam as an imperial religion. Intended principally for scholars of Late Antiquity, Islamic studies and the history of religions, the book opens up many novel directions for future research.

Bearman, et al., “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics by Peri Bearman (Harvard Law School), Sohail Hashmi (Mount Holyoke College), Khaled Keshk (DePaul University), and Joseph Kechichian (King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies), edited by Emad Shashin (American University in Cairo). The publisher’s description follows.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world. Developments in Muslim societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have highlighted the need for a major reference work focusing primarily on these dimensions. The realization of internal decay and relentless quest for reform, the collapse of the Islamic caliphate, the fall of most parts of the Muslim world under western colonialism, the emergence of nation-states, the dominance of secular ideologies, the rise of Islamic revivalist movements and faith-based political, economic, and social alternatives, the confrontation between Islamic movements and secular inspired regimes have constituted major turning points in the contemporary history of Muslim societies. At no time has the understanding of the nature and implications of these developments been needed more.

Based on the highly acclaimed 2009 publication, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic WorldThe Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics brings together over 400 new and updated entries to create a single, specialized reference source on this important topic.

Muasher, “The Second Arab Awakening”

This January, Yale University Press published The Second Arab Awakening: And The Battle For Pluralism by Marwan Muasher.  The publisher’s description The Second Arab Awakeningfollows.

This important book is not about immediate events or policies or responses to the Arab Spring. Instead, it takes a long, judicious view of political change in the Arab world, beginning with the first Awakening in the nineteenth century and extending into future decades when—if the dream is realized—a new Arab world defined by pluralism and tolerance will emerge.   Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan, asserts that all sides—the United States, Europe, Israel, and Arab governments alike—were deeply misguided in their thinking about Arab politics and society when the turmoil of the Arab Spring erupted. He explains the causes of the unrest, tracing them back to the first Arab Awakening, and warns of the forces today that threaten the success of the Second Arab Awakening, ignited in December 2010. Hope rests with the new generation and its commitment to tolerance, diversity, the peaceful rotation of power, and inclusive economic growth, Muasher maintains. He calls on the West to rethink political Islam and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he discusses steps all parties can take to encourage positive state-building in the freshly unsettled Arab world.

Terem, “Old Texts, New Practices: Islamic Reform in Modern Morocco”

Next month, Stanford University Press will publish Old Texts, New Practices: Islamic Reform in Modern Moroccby Etty Terem (Rhodes College).  The publisher’s Old Texts, New Practicesdescription follows.

In 1910, al-Mahdi al-Wazzani, a prominent Moroccan Islamic scholar completed his massive compilation of Maliki fatwas. An eleven-volume set, it is the most extensive collection of fatwas written and published in the Arab Middle East during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Al-Wazzani’s legal opinions addressed practical concerns and questions: What are the ethical and legal duties of Muslims residing under European rule? Is emigration from non-Muslim territory an absolute duty? Is it ethical for Muslim merchants to travel to Europe? Is it legal to consume European-manufactured goods? It was his expectation that these fatwas would help the Muslim community navigate the modern world.

In considering al-Wazzani’s work, this book explores the creative process of transforming Islamic law to guarantee the survival of a Muslim community in a changing world. It is the first study to treat Islamic revival and reform from discourses informed by the sociolegal concerns that shaped the daily lives of ordinary people. Etty Terem challenges conventional scholarship that presents Islamic tradition as inimical to modernity and, in so doing, provides a new framework for conceptualizing modern Islamic reform. Her innovative and insightful reorientation constructs the origins of modern Islam as firmly rooted in the messy complexity of everyday life.

Khalid, “Islam After Communism”

9780520282155This February, the University of California Press will publish Islam After Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia by Adeeb Khalid (Carleton College). The publisher’s description follows.

How do Muslims relate to Islam in societies that experienced seventy years of Soviet rule? How did the utopian Bolshevik project of remaking the world by extirpating religion from it affect Central Asia? Adeeb Khalid combines insights from the study of both Islam and Soviet history to answer these questions. Arguing that the sustained Soviet assault on Islam destroyed patterns of Islamic learning and thoroughly de-Islamized public life, Khalid demonstrates that Islam became synonymous with tradition and was subordinated to powerful ethnonational identities that crystallized during the Soviet period. He shows how this legacy endures today and how, for the vast majority of the population, a return to Islam means the recovery of traditions destroyed under Communism.

Islam after Communism reasons that the fear of a rampant radical Islam that dominates both Western thought and many of Central Asia’s governments should be tempered with an understanding of the politics of antiterrorism, which allows governments to justify their own authoritarian policies by casting all opposition as extremist. Placing the Central Asian experience in the broad comparative perspective of the history of modern Islam, Khalid argues against essentialist views of Islam and Muslims and provides a nuanced and well-informed discussion of the forces at work in this crucial region.