Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

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.

Walter Russell Mead on Mideast Christians

In the Wall Street Journal, the Hudson Institute’s Walter Russell Mead had a bracing piece on the current crisis facing Mideast Christians. The piece is a version of the remarks he gave at the Hudson Institute conference earlier this month. His advice: Christians must “‘fort up’ or flee.” Here’s his conclusion:

Traditional strategies of accommodation will no longer serve. Christians face stark choices. They can “fort up,” creating defensible and well-armed enclaves that their enemies cannot conquer. They can flee, as millions have already done. Or they can wait to be massacred.

In the modern Middle East, the minorities that have survived, and in some cases thrived, have acquired a military capacity. The Jews, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Maronites and the Druse have not all created states, but they have all built redoubts. The Maronites (Lebanese Christians in communion with the Roman Catholic Church) and the Druse (a monotheistic religion distinct from both Christianity and Islam) both entrenched themselves in the mountains of Lebanon and built militias that have allowed them to survive recurring bouts of civil war.

Other communities have chosen the path of flight. Almost all the Jews of the Arab world now live in Israel. More Armenians and Circassians live outside their ancestral homelands than in them. Many Assyrian and Chaldean Christians already live in the West, and Copts and other Christians have been escaping in a steady flow.

The conscience of the West has been slow to wake to the peril of the dwindling minorities of the Middle East (including non-Christians such as the Yazidis, as well as the persecuted Baha’i of Iran and the Ahmadis of Pakistan), but Islamic State is changing that. In the wake of its atrocities, Pope Francis and, in the U.S., church leaders like New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan are speaking up.

This is a very good thing, but advocates for the Christians and other endangered Middle East minorities must think hard about the available options. We must choose from among three courses of action.

We can help the region’s minorities “fort up,” as the Israelis, Kurds and Maronites have done. We can help them to escape and work with friends and allies around the world to help them find new homes and start new lives. Or we can do what history suggests, alas, as our most probable course: We can wring our hands and weep piously as the ancient Christian communities in Syria and Iraq are murdered, raped and starved into oblivion, one by one.

Read the whole thing here.

Movsesian Essay on Genocide at Liberty Law Site

For those who are interested, the Library of Law and Liberty has published my essay, We Remember the Genocide–And We Must Avert Another. In the essay, I draw parallels to the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the persecution of Mideast Christians today:

Religiously motivated violence against Christians is not a new phenomenon. The attitudes classical Islam fosters—that Christians are vaguely alien dhmmis who can be tolerated as long as they remain subservient, but who forfeit protection if they assert equality or cooperate with outsiders—played an important role in 1915 and do so today. Again, most Muslims today do not endorse these attitudes, and other factors are involved, too. But to dismiss religion as a major factor in the current violence is to close one’s eyes to reality.

To read the full essay, please click here.

Hudson Institute Posts Audio of Panel on Genocide

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L-R: Kiely, Boghjalian, La Civita, Movsesian

For those who are interested, the Hudson Institute has posted the audio from last week’s panel (above), “Genocide and Crimes against Humanity.” I was one of the presenters, along with Sarkis Boghjalian (Aid to the Church in Need) and Michael La Civita (Catholic Near East Welfare Association). Fr. Benedict Kiely moderated. The audio link is available here (first link).

UPDATE: Video is now available at the Hudson website.

Movsesian at Hudson Institute Event Today

I’m honored to be speaking in New York today at an event sponsored by the Hudson Institute, “The Islamic State’s Religious Cleansing and the Urgency of a Strategic Response.” I’ll be discussing the Armenian Genocide on a panel titled “Genocide and Crimes against Humanity: The Islamic State’s Impact on Vulnerable Religious Minority Communities.” Other speakers include Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Walter Russell Mead, and Kirsten Powers.

Details about the program are here. CLR Forum readers, please stop by and say hello!

Rogan, “The Fall of the Ottomans”

Last month, Basic Books released The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in9780465023073 the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan (St. Antony’s College-Oxford). The publisher’s description follows:

In 1914 the Ottoman Empire was depleted of men and resources after years of war against Balkan nationalist and Italian forces. But in the aftermath of the assassination in Sarajevo, the powers of Europe were sliding inexorably toward war, and not even the Middle East could escape the vast and enduring consequences of one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. The Great War spelled the end of the Ottomans, unleashing powerful forces that would forever change the face of the Middle East.

In The Fall of the Ottomans, award-winning historian Eugene Rogan brings the First World War and its immediate aftermath in the Middle East to vivid life, uncovering the often ignored story of the region’s crucial role in the conflict. Bolstered by German money, arms, and military advisors, the Ottomans took on the Russian, British, and French forces, and tried to provoke Jihad against the Allies in their Muslim colonies. Unlike the static killing fields of the Western Front, the war in the Middle East was fast-moving and unpredictable, with the Turks inflicting decisive defeats on the Entente in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and Gaza before the tide of battle turned in the Allies’ favor. The great cities of Baghdad, Jerusalem, and, finally, Damascus fell to invading armies before the Ottomans agreed to an armistice in 1918.

The postwar settlement led to the partition of Ottoman lands between the victorious powers, and laid the groundwork for the ongoing conflicts that continue to plague the modern Arab world. A sweeping narrative of battles and political intrigue from Gallipoli to Arabia, The Fall of the Ottomans is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Great War and the making of the modern Middle East.

Suny, “‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide”

In March, Princeton University Press released They Can Live in the Desert but j10426Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny (University of Michigan). The publisher’s description follows:

Starting in early 1915, the Ottoman Turks began deporting and killing hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the first major genocide of the twentieth century. By the end of the First World War, the number of Armenians in what would become Turkey had been reduced by ninety percent—more than a million people. A century later, the Armenian Genocide remains controversial but relatively unknown, overshadowed by later slaughters and the chasm separating Turkish and Armenian versions of events. In this definitive narrative history, Ronald Suny cuts through nationalist myths, propaganda, and denial to provide an unmatched account of when, how, and why the atrocities of 1915–16 were committed.

As it lost territory during the war, the Ottoman Empire was becoming a more homogenous Turkic-Muslim state, but it still contained large non-Muslim communities, including the Christian Armenians. The Young Turk leaders of the empire believed that the Armenians were internal enemies secretly allied to Russia and plotting to win an independent state. Suny shows that the great majority of Armenians were in truth loyal subjects who wanted to remain in the empire. But the Young Turks, steeped in imperial anxiety and anti-Armenian bias, became convinced that the survival of the state depended on the elimination of the Armenians. Suny is the first to explore the psychological factors as well as the international and domestic events that helped lead to genocide.

Drawing on archival documents and eyewitness accounts, this is an unforgettable chronicle of a cataclysm that set a tragic pattern for a century of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Marlin, “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East”

This June, St. Augustine’s Press will release “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy” by George J. Marlin (Aid to the Church in Need-USA).  The publisher’s description follows:

Christian PersecutionsEven before ISIS launched its ultra-violent campaign targeting Iraqi Christians in the summer of 2014, Pope Francis proclaimed that the current wave of Christian persecution in the Middle East is worse than the suffering inflicted on believers in the centuries of the early Church. Since the Arab Spring and the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, which have thrown the region into utter chaos, Muslim extremists have killed thousands of Christians every year, while destroying and desecrating countless churches. Christian communities in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt have been hardest hit.

In his new book, author and political commentator George J. Marlin, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA – an agency under the guidance of the Pope that supports the persecuted and suffering Church around the world – describes the sharp rise in Christian persecution in the Middle East. After brief narratives on the rise of Christianity, Islam, and terrorism in the Middle East, Marlin documents country by country, acts of twenty-first century Christian persecution that is nearing a bloody climax that could produce the unthinkable: a Middle East without Christians and the destruction of an ancient patrimony that has been a vital link to the very birth of Christianity.