Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

Wilson, “Islam and Economic Policy: An Introduction”

In May, Edinburgh University Press will release “Islam and Economic Policy: An Introduction” by Rodney Wilson (Durham University). The publisher’s description follows:

To what extent do Islamic values have implications for economic policy making?

Islamist political parties have enjoyed unprecedented election victories in recent times. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, the election of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the coming to power of Islamists, albeit briefly, after the Arab Spring, has changed the political landscape in the Middle East and has ramifications for the entire Muslim World. Yet the continuing success of these parties depends on their record on economic development and employment creation. Are their economic policies different from those of their autocratic predecessors? Have they been influenced by the writings of academic Islamist economists? This book looks at the impact of Islamic teaching on public economic policy and asks how Islamic economics differs from mainstream micro and macroeconomics.

Pope Francis on the Armenian Genocide

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Pope Francis Greets Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Karekin II on Sunday (NYT)

Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of a two-hour liturgy in the Armenian rite, and in the presence of the Armenian Catholic patriarch, patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the president of the Republic of Armenia, and many Armenian pilgrims from around the world, Pope Francis made what should have been an entirely uncontroversial statement. The Armenian Genocide, he said, quoting his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II, “‘is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.’”

The essential facts are well known. Armenian Christians made up a significant percentage of the population in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. For a few decades, there had been unrest. In religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, the Ottomans had formally granted equal status to Christians and Muslims. Equality for Christians caused a backlash among Turkish Muslims, though, and oppression of Armenians and other Christians continued, particularly in the countryside. Armenian paramilitary groups began to resist. When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that these groups would side with Christian Russians. So it decided to solve the “Armenian Question” once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian desert. Deportation through a desert, without adequate protection or supplies, is obviously a recipe for mass extermination. And that is what happened. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished, under horrible conditions, in the death marches and slaughters. The enormities are well documented.

Nonetheless, the Turkish side refuses to acknowledge what happened as genocide, denying that there was any plan to eliminate Armenians from Anatolia, while also arguing, inconsistently, that the Armenians were a potentially disloyal population and that the Ottomans had a right to do what they did. Besides, they say, many Turkish Muslims also suffered and died in World War I—surely true, but a non-sequitur. Because of Turkey’s sensitivities on the subject, and because of geopolitical realities, many Western governments, including our own, dance around the issue. When running for office, President Obama promised that he would officially recognize the Genocide, a promise he immediately broke as president. So Pope Francis’s forthright statement—even if he was, in fact, only quoting a predecessor, who was in turn referring to a general consensus—was remarkable, and praiseworthy. (The words on paper don’t capture the tone of the pope’s remarks. Watch this video of the event from Rome Reports. Francis is not simply reading from a text. He obviously means every word of it).

In response, Turkey has condemned the pope’s remarks as religious hatemongering and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The repercussions will no doubt continue. Yesterday, Turkey’s minister for European affairs suggested the pope had been brainwashed by the Armenian community in Argentina. Today, Turkish President Recip Erdogan reacted in rather personal terms. According to the English-language Turkish Daily News, Erdogan–who actually has gone farther than many Turkish leaders in acknowledging the suffering of the Armenians in 1915–said the pope’s remarks were characteristic of a “politician” rather than a religious leader. “I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him,” Erdogan said.

In his remarks, Francis correctly linked the Armenian Genocide to the persecution of Mideast Christians generally—100 years ago, and today. Religion was not the only factor in the Genocide, of course, but it had a major role. Armenians who converted to Islam were often spared; some of their descendants still live in Turkey today. Many Armenians died as Christian martyrs; indeed, the Armenian Apostolic Church will canonize these victims of the Genocide at a ceremony in Armenia this month. Moreover, as the pope told the crowd at St. Peter’s, the Genocide struck not only  the “Armenian people, the first Christian nation”—here the pope is referring to the fact that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, in 301 A.D.—but also “Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.”  In all these communions, “bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

In addition, as everyone knows, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East continues today. The pope referred to these new martyrs as well: “Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death – decapitated, crucified, burned alive – or forced to leave their homeland.” Many Christian communities in Syria and Lebanon took in the refugees of 1915, saving their lives, giving them a place to raise their children and preserve their faith. Now those communities themselves are the victims of ethnic and religious cleansing. To whom shall they go?

In an insightful column, Walter Russell Mead argues that Pope Francis’s remarks show that he has decided to raise the rhetorical stakes in the crisis facing Christians in the Mideast. Up till now, the Vatican has taken a “‘softly, softly’” approach to the conflict, so as not to endanger the lives of vulnerable Christians still there. Outside intervention often makes things worse for Mideast Christians, after all. But how much worse can things get? Mideast Christians face extinction.

Today’s Turks are not responsible for what their ancestors did 100 years ago. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the truth about what happened to the Armenians is a start. Meanwhile, drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide may be a way to mobilize the world to save suffering Christians now—before it is too late.

Kubicek, “Political Islam and Democracy in the Muslim World”

This June, Lynne Rienner Publishers will release “Political Islam and Democracy in the Muslim World” by Paul Kubicek (Oakland University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Belying assertions of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, many Muslim-majority countries are now or have been democratic. Paul Kubicek draws on the experiences of those countries to explore the relationship between political manifestations of Islam and democratic politics.

Kubicek’s comparative analysis allows him to highlight the common features that create conditions amenable to democratic development in Muslim-majority countries—and to show how actors in Muslim democracies in fact draw on concepts within Islam to contribute to democratization.

Tessler, “Islam and Politics in the Middle East”

This June, Indiana University Press will release “Islam and Politics in the Middle East: Explaining the Views of Ordinary Citizens” by Mark Tessler (University of Michigan).  The publisher’s description follows:

Islam and Politics in the Middle EastSome of the most pressing questions in the Middle East and North Africa today revolve around the proper place of Islamic institutions and authorities in governance and political affairs. Drawing on data from 42 surveys carried out in fifteen countries between 1988 and 2011, representing the opinions of more than 60,000 men and women, this study investigates the reasons that some individuals support a central role for Islam in government while others favor a separation of religion and politics. Utilizing his newly constructed Carnegie Middle East Governance and Islam Dataset, which has been placed in the public domain for use by other researchers, Mark Tessler formulates and tests hypotheses about the views held by ordinary citizens, offering insights into the individual and country-level factors that shape attitudes toward political Islam.

Classic Revisited: Dalrymple, “From the Holy Mountain”

from-the-holy-mountain-001In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to the many, multidimensional conflicts in the Middle East, with a particular focus on the influence of radical Islam. Many are inclined to see a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations, a “clash” that divides East from West. Perhaps this is why some do not know and others have forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion, firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. This is important to remember, as the last remaining Christian communities are driven from the region by Islamist groups or misplaced by the ravages of civil war. William Dalrymple’s classic, From the Holy Mountain (1997) provides a detailed and insightful look into this dying culture. It is a timely read as Christians around the world celebrate the Easter Season.

Writing from an austere monastery cell on Mount Athos, Dalrymple tells us in the first chapters that the journey we are about to embark upon will follow in the footsteps of a wandering monk and his student, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist. The purpose of their journey across the entire Eastern Byzantine world in the spring of 578 A.D. was to collect the wisdom of the desert fathers, sages, and mystics of the Byzantine East “before their fragile world – already clearly in advanced decay – finally shattered and disappeared.” Fourteen hundred years later, Dalrymple replicates their journey, staying in monasteries, caves, and remote hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean, collecting anecdotes from the remaining inhabitants of long-forgotten communities. Dalrymple’s book is not a plodding travelogue, nor is it a dry commentary on asceticism or obscure monasticism. With witty and elegant prose, he brings to life the old Byzantine world and its modern incarnation. Dalrymple reminds us, “From the age of Constantine in the early fourth century to the rise of Islam in the early seventh century – the Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian.”

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In Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey), Dalrymple brings us to the pillars of the stylites, Christian ascetics who lived atop high, unsheltered pillars where they would preach, pray, and fast. Byzantines looked on the stylites as “intermediaries, go-betweens who could transmit their deepest fears and aspirations to the distant court of Heaven, ordinary men from ordinary backgrounds who had, by dint of their heroic asceticism, gained the ear of Christ.” Acknowledging the strangeness of the practice, Dalrymple says, “It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of skeptical Western rationality.”

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In Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey), one of the first towns outside Palestine to accept Christianity, Dalrymple notes the absence of churches and the dwindling, almost nonexistent Christian communities that once flourished there. There has been no Christian community in the area since 1915, when the governor began deporting Armenians – that is, rounding them up and murdering them “in the discreet emptiness of the desert.” In Diyarbakir (also in Turkey), once one of the largest Armenian communities in Anatolia, only one church remains. Dalrymple emphasizes the degree to which the Armenians have been erased from the history and even physical landscape of the region.

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The Suriani, too, were driven out. Once surviving in the barren hills of Tur Abdin (in southeast Turkey), where hundreds of Syrian Orthodox monasteries maintained the ancient Antiochene liturgies in the original Aramaic, a community of only nine hundred still lived there when Dalrymple visited in the 1990’s. Speaking with Christians who have remained, Dalrymple highlights the striking lack of Western support for these communities: “The Christians of the West have never done anything for us. . . the Turks help other Muslims if they are in trouble in Azerbaijan or in Bosnia, but the Christians of Europe have never shown any feelings for their brothers in the Tur Abdin.” As we well know, support is still lacking.

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Upon entering Syria, Dalrymple attempted to interview a group of Nestorian Christians in a refugee camp. He was told that it was impossible for outsiders to get in, and that even trying would attract the attention of Assad’s secret police. The Syrian local who gave this information also suggested, dryly, that Dalrymple simply interview the Nestorians of England when he returned home, in Ealing. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late twentieth century,” wrote Dalrymple, “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.” This story reminded me of my own plan to travel to Assad’s war-torn Syria to hear a liturgy sung in Aramaic. A professor suggested, instead, that I simply drive 20 minutes to St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey to achieve the same goal–which I did.

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Before the civil war intensified, it was widely held that Christians were better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East (with the possible exception of Lebanon). Syria was considered a sanctuary for Christians, due in part to the way Assad built his regime: “Assad kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria’s many religious minorities – Shias, Druze, Yezidis, Christians, and Alawites – through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority.” Considering the current situation in Syria, one wonders if there are any safe havens left.

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Dalrymple takes the reader on a memorable historical journey through cities and regions now more readily associated with strife and militant Islamism than with Christianity. Through his stories and observations, Dalrymple also gently suggests that a way forward through present conflict may lie in acknowledging the similarities between the cultures and communities of the region. He writes, “In an age when Islam and Christianity are again said to be ‘clashing civilizations,’ supposedly ‘irreconcilable and necessarily hostile,’ it is important to remember Islam’s very considerable debt to the early Christian world, and the degree to which it has faithfully preserved elements of our own early Christian heritage long forgotten by ourselves.” One should read From the Holy Mountain to learn about or remember the history of Christianity – it is, as one reviewer put it, an evensong for a dying civilization. But one should also read this book to put into perspective contemporary cultural and religious conflicts in the Middle East and the role Christian communities have played, and could still.

Photos by Jessica Wright: 1. The Altar of the Crucifixion, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 2. Icons, Istanbul; 3. Chapel of St. Helena, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 4. Armenian Shrine, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 5. The Aedicule, Church of the Holy Sepulcher; 6. The Stone of the Anointing, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Bonacina, “The Wahhabis seen through European Eyes (1772-1830)”

This May, Brill Publishing will release “The Wahhabis seen through European Eyes (1772-1830): Deists and Puritans of Islam” by Giovanni Bonacina (University of Urbino).  The publisher’s description follows:

In The Wahhabis seen through European Eyes (1772-1830) Giovanni Bonacina offers an account of the early reactions in Europe to the rise of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia. Commonly pictured nowadays as a form of Muslim fundamentalism, the Wahhabis appeared to many European witnesses as the creators of a deistic revolution with serious political consequences for the Ottoman ancien regime. They were seen either in the light of contemporary events in France, or as Islamic theological reformers in the mould of Calvin, opposing an established church and devotional traditions. These audacious but fascinating attempts to interpret the unknown by way of the better known are illustrated in Bonacina’s book.

Movsesian Review of “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

The Library of Law and Liberty has posted my review of Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, a new book on Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Russell describes the history and present circumstances of these groups, including their struggle to emigrate and find new homes in places like the United States:

Will these communities survive in their new environments? Russell hopes so. He describes some touching examples of endurance, like the time he heard a clerk speaking Aramaic in a supermarket in suburban Detroit. But he wonders how long it can last. For all its great achievements, America has a way of destroying traditional identities, and it’s difficult to maintain one’s distinctive customs for very long. He wonders whether escape to the West isn’t “a back-loaded contract for immigrant communities—get the benefit of prosperity now, pay the loss of identity later.” Still, it beats annihilation, which is what threatens these groups at home.

You can read the whole review here.

Becker, “Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism”

This month, The University of Chicago Press releases “Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism”  by Adam Becker (New York University). The publisher’s description follows:

Most Americans have little understanding of the relationship between religion and nationalism in the Middle East. They assume that the two are rooted fundamentally in regional history, not in the history of contact with the broader world. However, as Adam H. Becker shows in this book, Americans—through their missionaries—had a strong hand in the development of a national and modern religious identity among one of the Middle East’s most intriguing (and little-known) groups: the modern Assyrians. Detailing the history of the Assyrian Christian minority and the powerful influence American missionaries had on them, he unveils the underlying connection between modern global contact and the retrieval of an ancient identity.

American evangelicals arrived in Iran in the 1830s. Becker examines how these missionaries, working with the “Nestorian” Church of the East—an Aramaic-speaking Christian community in the borderlands between Qajar Iran and the Ottoman Empire—catalyzed, over the span of sixty years, a new national identity. Instructed at missionary schools in both Protestant piety and Western science, this indigenous group eventually used its newfound scriptural and archaeological knowledge to link itself to the history of the ancient Assyrians, which in time led to demands for national autonomy. Exploring the unintended results of this American attempt to reform the Orient, Becker paints a larger picture of religion, nationalism, and ethnic identity in the modern era.

King, “The Pro-Israel Lobby in Europe: The Politics of Religion and Christian Zionism in the European Union”

In May, I.B.Tauris will release “The Pro-Israel Lobby in Europe: The Politics of Religion and Christian Zionism in the European Union: Volume 22” by Elvira King (The University of Leeds). The publisher’s description follows:

The activities of pro-Israel pressure groups and lobbyists in the US are well-known. But the pro-Israel lobby in Europe is less prominent in both academic and media accounts. In a unique account, Elvira King identifies the pro-Israeli groups which attempt to influence policy-makers and implementers in the EU, specifically examining Christian Zionist groups. Through a detailed study of the European Coalition for Israel (ECI), the only Christian Zionist lobby in Brussels, Elvira King analyses whether and how a religious group can (and can fail to) influence decision-makers in the EU. By exploring the context of European relations with Israel as well as the mechanisms through which pressure groups are able to influence EU-wide policies, King offers an analysis which demonstrates how the EU can be a site where religion and politics meet, rather than just being a secular institution. It therefore contains vital primary research for both those interested in the pro-Israel lobby as well as those examining the role of religion in politics more generally.

 

Spiegel, “Young Islam”

This May, Princeton University Press will release “Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World” by Avi Max Spiegel (University of San Diego).  The publisher’s description follows:

Young IslamToday, two-thirds of all Arab Muslims are under the age of thirty. Young Islam takes readers inside the evolving competition for their support—a competition not simply between Islamism and the secular world, but between different and often conflicting visions of Islam itself.

Drawing on extensive ethnographic research among rank-and-file activists in Morocco, Avi Spiegel shows how Islamist movements are encountering opposition from an unexpected source—each other. In vivid and compelling detail, he describes the conflicts that arise as Islamist groups vie with one another for new recruits, and the unprecedented fragmentation that occurs as members wrangle over a shared urbanized base. Looking carefully at how political Islam is lived, expressed, and understood by young people, Spiegel moves beyond the top-down focus of current research. Instead, he makes the compelling case that Islamist actors are shaped more by their relationships to each other than by their relationships to the state or even to religious ideology. By focusing not only on the texts of aging elites but also on the voices of diverse and sophisticated Muslim youths, Spiegel exposes the shifting and contested nature of Islamist movements today—movements that are being reimagined from the bottom up by young Islam.

The first book to shed light on this new and uncharted era of Islamist pluralism in the Middle East and North Africa, Young Islam uncovers the rivalries that are redefining the next generation of political Islam.