Tag Archives: Religious Minorities

“Legal Cases, New Religious Movements, and Minority Faiths” (Richardson & Bellanger eds.)

This October, Ashgate Publishing will release “Legal Cases, New Religious Movements, and Minority Faiths,” edited by James T. Richardson (University of Nevada) and François Bellanger (University of Geneva, Switzerland).  The publisher’s description follows:

Legal Cases, New Religious Movements, and Minority FaithsNew religious movements (NRMs) and other minority faiths have regularly been the focus of legal cases around the world in recent decades. This is the first book to focus on important aspects of the relationship of smaller faiths to the societies in which they function by using specific legal cases to examine social control efforts. The legal cases involve group leaders, a groups’ practices or alleged abuses against members and children in the group, legal actions brought by former members or third parties, attacks against such groups by outsiders including even governments, and libel and slander actions brought by religious groups as they seek to defend themselves. These cases are sometimes milestones in the relation between state authorities and religious groups.

Exploring cases in different parts of the world, and assessing the events causing such cases and their consequences, this book offers a practical insight for understanding the relations of NRMs and other minority religions and the law from the perspective of legal cases. Chapters focus on legal, political, and social implications. Including contributions from scholars, legal practitioners, actual or former members, and authorities involved in such cases from various jurisdictions, this book presents an objective approach to understanding why so many legal actions have involved NRMs and other minority faiths in recent years in western societies, and the consequences of those actions for the society and the religious group as well.

Web Story on Movsesian Lecture at Lanier Theological Library

For those who are interested, here’s a story about my lecture this month at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, on the human-rights crisis facing Mideast Christians. Once the library posts the video, I’ll link that too. Thanks again to LTL for hosting me!

Tas, “Legal Pluralism in Action”

This July, Ashgate Publishing released “Legal Pluralism in Action: Dispute Resolution and the Kurdish Peace Committee” by Latif Tas (University of London). The publisher’s description follows:

Legal Pluralism in ActionThis groundbreaking book contributes to, and refocuses, public debates about the incorporation of plural approaches into the English legal system. The book specifically advances the recent, largely theoretical, discussions of Sharia legal practice by examining a secular method of dispute resolution as practised by the Kurdish Peace Committee in London. Following migration to the West, many Kurds still adhere to traditional values and norms. Building on these, they have adapted their customary legal practices to create unofficial legal courts and other forms of legal hybridisation. These practical solutions to the challenges of a pluralistic life are seen by Kurdish communities in the UK as applicable not only to British and transnational daily life, but also as a training ground for institutions in a possible future Kurdish state. The study provides a substantive evidence base using extensive ethnographic data about the workings of the Kurdish Peace Committee, examining detailed case studies in the context of the customs and practices of the Kurdish community.

Based on an ethnographic and interdisciplinary approach, this book will be of interest to policy makers, socio-legal professionals, students and scholars of legal anthropology, ethnic minority law, transnationalism, diaspora, Kurdish, Turkish and Middle Eastern studies.

The Cynical Mr. Cruz

This week in Washington, a major conference took place on the persecution of Mideast Christians. The conference brought together Christians from around the region, including many church hierarchs. Many of the attendees had experienced Islamist persecution firsthand. The overarching theme was unity, and the overall purpose was to raise awareness about what Christians in the region are going through.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) addressed the gathering. Rather than focus on the plight of Christians, the subject of the conference, he decided to take the opportunity to lecture the crowd on its failure sufficiently to support Israel. After saying his purpose was to highlight the suffering of Christians, he abruptly and unaccountably segued to the story of Israel’s founding in 1948. “And, today,” he continued, “Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.” At this point, some in the crowd – some, not all – began to boo and tell him to “move on.” Instead, Cruz dug in, accusing the crowd of being unchristian and consumed with hatred for Jews. “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” he told the crowd, “then I will not stand with you.” And he left the stage.

When I first read the story, I shook my head at Cruz’s naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, Israeli policy towards Palestine is a sore point for many Mideast Christians, not a few of whom are Palestinians. Some Christians have been forced by circumstance to reach accommodations with Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two foes of Israel. And, although Israel does not persecute Christians – it would be obtuse to suggest it does – many Christians in Israel feel that they are not particularly welcome, either. There are repeated reports of kids defacing churches and harassing Christian processions in the Old City of Jerusalem, for example. It would be convenient to blame these incidents on Islamists, but the perpetrators typically turn out to be students from ultraconservative yeshivas. And there are complaints that the government is quietly trying to push Christians out by denying building permits, professional licenses, etc. William Dalrymple’s classic book about Mideast Christians, From the Holy Mountain, details these complaints.

This week’s conference was not the place to discuss all this, and the organizers clearly wished to avoid criticizing Israel. In fact, the conference wasn’t about Israel at all. So, most attendees were stunned by Cruz’s comments and embarrassed at the reaction to them. Why interrupt a conference about Mideast Christians to talk about Israel’s struggles, a subject bound to divide people? It’s worth repeating, not everyone booed Cruz. Some in the crowd applauded him.

As I say, my first thought was that Cruz had been exceptionally inept. How could he fail to anticipate that he would derail the conference by taking this line? It seems, however, that he had the episode planned. Before giving the speech, Cruz met with the editorial board of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, which then ran an obligingly alarmist account of the upcoming event with the headline “Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.” Apparently, the whole thing was a setup, a farce to make Cruz look good with his base and shore up his credibility as a pro-Israel hawk. Mollie Hemingway has the evidence over at The Federalist.

People will move on from this sad episode, and the good work of the conference in raising the plight of Mideast Christians will no doubt bear fruit. But what are we to make of such a man, who hijacks an event focused on the suffering of a mostly forgotten group of people, sandbags his hosts, preens self-righteously, and deliberately provokes an ugly reaction to score political points? No doubt, Cruz and his staff will trumpet his brave conduct in standing up to bullies. In fact, what he did was humiliate the powerless, and there’s another word for that than brave.

The President’s Speech

In an address to the nation last night, President Barack Obama committed the US to doing something about ISIS — aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or just the Islamic State — the Salafist group that has taken over about a third of both those countries.  The goal, the president said, is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the group, through airstrikes and support for Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, as well as elements of the Syrian opposition. The US will also send an additional 475 military advisers to the region. But no combat troops — the president was clear about that.

There was good and bad in the president’s speech. First, the good. It’s good that the US has committed to address the threat ISIS poses to the Middle East and, ultimately, the US itself. ISIS does not see itself as merely a regional player. It has pretensions to reestablish the caliphate, the global Islamic polity, with itself at the head. It has money, numbers, and growing prestige. By ruling a large territory in the heart of the Middle East, ISIS serves as an inspiration for jidahists everywhere. Sooner or later, ISIS or others it inspires will attack targets in the West. Better to address the threat now than wait for something terrible to happen.

It’s also good that President Obama talked about humanitarian assistance to ISIS’s victims, including Christians, whom he mentioned by name. True, to my mind, at least, the president continues to downplay Christian suffering in an unfortunate way. Last night, for example, he alluded to the genocide of Yazidis, but said nothing about the genocide of Christians. Still, he did mention Christians, and he deserves credit for that.

Now, the bad. By publicly and categorically ruling out the use of American combat troops, President Obama undercut his stated goal. Many experts think it will be necessary for the US to send ground troops back to Iraq if ISIS is really to be defeated. Maybe it won’t be. But to rule out American troops from the start gives Iraqi forces an excuse for holding back (“If they won’t fight, why should we?”), and ISIS an incentive to buy time until it can wear down the Iraqi army — or infiltrate and corrupt it. It would have been wiser for the president to say publicly only that US combat troops are not an option at present. Keep ISIS guessing.

Second, the President stated flatly that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic.'” ISIS does not represent the whole of Islam, or even the majority stream within Islam today. As the president said, ISIS victimizes Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and many Muslims are appalled by the group’s conduct. But ISIS has definite roots in parts of the Islamic tradition. For example, its treatment of Christians has antecedents in Islamic history. ISIS did not invent the dhimma on its own.

It’s understandable why President Obama would wish to deny the Islamic roots of ISIS. Defeating the group will require the cooperation of other Muslims, including Salafists like the Saudis, and there is no point antagonizing them. And no one wants to see a backlash against the millions of our Muslim fellow citizens in the United States, who deserve to live in peace. But saying that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic'” is likely to suggest to people who know better — including the audience for the president’s speech in the Mideast – that the president doesn’t understand the situation. It would have been better to avoid comparative religion entirely, and say only that we invite Muslims and all people of goodwill to join the coalition against ISIS.

Finally, parts of the speech had an unfortunate, self-absorbed quality. Take this excerpt:

Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

Rather a lot of personal references here. “A core principle of my presidency?” Surely, defending America is a core principle of every president’s presidency. Brave men lived before Agamemnon.

Kefeli, “Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia”

This November, Cornell University Press will release “Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy” by Agnes Nilufer Kefeli (Arizona State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Becoming Muslim in Imperial RussiaIn the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire’s Middle Volga region (today’s Tatarstan) was the site of a prolonged struggle between Russian Orthodoxy and Islam, each of which sought to solidify its influence among the frontier’s mix of Turkic, Finno-Ugric, and Slavic peoples. The immediate catalyst of the events that Agnes Nilufer Kefeli chronicles in Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia was the collective turn to Islam by many of the region’s Krashens, the Muslim and animist Tatars who converted to Russian Orthodoxy between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The traditional view holds that the apostates had really been Muslim all along or that their conversions had been forced by the state or undertaken voluntarily as a matter of convenience. In Kefeli’s view, this argument vastly oversimplifies the complexity of a region where many participated in the religious cultures of both Islam and Orthodox Christianity and where a vibrant Krashen community has survived to the present. By analyzing Russian, Eurasian, and Central Asian ethnographic, administrative, literary, and missionary sources, Kefeli shows how traditional education, with Sufi mystical components, helped to Islamize Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples in the Kama-Volga countryside and set the stage for the development of modernist Islam in Russia.

Of particular interest is Kefeli’s emphasis on the role that Tatar women (both Krashen and Muslim) played as holders and transmitters of Sufi knowledge. Today, she notes, intellectuals and mullahs in Tatarstan seek to revive both Sufi and modernist traditions to counteract new expressions of Islam and promote a purely Tatar Islam aware of its specificity in a post-Christian and secular environment.

“Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West” (Tottoli ed.)

Last month, Routledge Press released “Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West” edited by Roberto Tottoli (Università di Napoli L’Orientale).  The publisher’s description follows:

Routledge HandbookIslam has long been a part of the West in terms of religion, culture, politics and society. Discussing this interaction from al-Andalus to the present, this Handbook explores the influence Islam has had, and continues to exert; particularly its impact on host societies, culture and politics.

Highlighting specific themes and topics in history and culture, chapters cover:

  • European paradigms
  • Muslims in the Americas
  • Cultural interactions
  • Islamic cultural contributions to the Western world
  • Western contributions to Islam

Providing a sound historical background, from which a nuanced overview of Islam and Western society can be built, the Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West brings to the fore specific themes and topics that have generated both reciprocal influence, and conflict.

Presenting readers with a range of perspectives from scholars based in Europe, the US, and the Middle East, this Handbook challenges perceptions on both western and Muslim sides and will be an invaluable resource for policymakers and academics with an interest in the History of Islam, Religion and the contemporary relationship between Islam and the West.

US Rescues Turkmen in Iraq; Christians Still Waiting

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Help for the Turkmen (LA Times)

This past weekend, the United States intervened to rescue some 15,000 Shia Turkmen trapped in the northern Iraqi city of Amerli. ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group, had besieged the city for three months, and residents were without electricity and running low on food, water, and necessary medical supplies. So, on Saturday, American planes dropped more than 100 bundles of emergency supplies to the Turkmen. British, French, and Australian military aircraft also dropped supplies.

While this was going on, American planes struck ISIS positions outside the city. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the airstrikes were necessary to support the humanitarian assistance operation underway in Amerli, and to prevent ISIS militants from attacking civilians. The airstrikes caused ISIS to withdraw, which allowed Iraqi military units, as well as a Shia militia group, the Badr Organization, to retake Amerli. The participation of the Badr Organization is problematic, since the group is thought to be responsible for massacring Sunnis in the past.

Obviously, this is a very significant action by the United States. For a country that says it does not with to appear sectarian – this was the excuse Condoleezza Rice once gave for not doing more for Iraq’s Christians – the United States has now publicly allied itself with one of the three major factions in Iraq’s sectarian struggle, the Shia militias. This fact will not escape Iraq’s Sunnis. Perhaps it was a necessary step, given the threat of a massacre in Amerli. But it certainly will not seem neutral in the Iraqi context.

But I would like to focus on a different matter. The US has now intervened to rescue 40,000 Yazidi refugees on Mt. Sinjar, and 15,000 Turkmen refugees in Amerli, from the threat of genocide. Good. But genocide also threatens more than 100,000 Christian refugees, whom ISIS has forced from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. These refugees now live in appalling conditions in camps around the city of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Christian NGOs, as well as the UN and the International Red Cross, are providing humanitarian assistance. So far, the US has not lifted a finger. As long it is sending help for the Yazidis and the Turkmen, it would be nice if the US did something for the Christians as well.

BBC Essay on the Armenian Church in Myanmar

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Photo from the BBC

From the BBC’s News Magazine, here’s a lovely essay, “The Last Armenians of Myanmar,” about a small Armenian parish church, St. John the Baptist, in the capital city of Yangon. The Armenian community built the church in 1862, when the country was still known as Burma, and the city as Rangoon.The Armenians had come to Rangoon in the 18th century from Iran, by way of British India, following the trade routes.They established close ties to the Burmese monarchy, which donated the land for the church in the center of the city.

As its title suggests, the essay has a wistful, elegiac tone. Hardly any Armenians remain in Myanmar today– most departed for Australia after World War II – and the parish gets only a handful of worshipers on Sundays. But the situation is not altogether grim. Faithful parishioners continue to maintain the church lovingly– photos of the interior make it look Victorian and vaguely Episcopalian – and the liturgy is said every Sunday by Fr. John Felix, a South Indian convert from Anglicanism. The choir continues to sing the hymns in classical Armenian.

There is hope that two things will work to preserve the building. First, as Myanmar opens to the world, international tourism is increasing. As one of the the city’s principal historic landmarks, the church should benefit. Second, the church has become the focal point for the small Orthodox community in Yangon, not just Armenians:

Already diplomats, business visitors and tourists from a range of Orthodox countries and churches – Russian, Greek, Serbian – occasionally swell the numbers at St John the Baptist, the only Orthodox church in Myanmar’s biggest city.

A new worshiper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organizer who has lived in Yangon for the last few months.

“My faith is very important to me. Wherever I am in the world, I seek out an Orthodox church. But I was about to give up on Yangon. I thought it was the only city I’d ever lived in which had no Orthodox place of worship,” she complains.

She chanced across the Armenian church when driving past, and believes that with a little promotion, this historic building – and the tradition to which it bears testimony – could have a more secure future.

There’s a lesson here. Many of these Orthodox Churches have been out of communion for thousands of years. Formally, they are not supposed to worship together. But at the ends of the earth, and surrounded by people for whom these sectarian differences mean nothing, Christians somehow manage to cooperate. A hopeful example of practical ecumenism that Christians everywhere should keep in mind.

Baumgarten, “Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance”

In October, the University of Pennsylvania Press will release “Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance” by Elisheva Baumgarten (Hebrew University of Jerusalem). The publisher’s description follows:

In the urban communities of medieval Germany and northern France, the beliefs, observances, and practices of Jews allowed them to create and define their communities on their own terms as well as in relation to the surrounding Christian society. Although medieval Jewish texts were written by a learned elite, the laity also observed many religious rituals as part of their everyday life. In Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz, Elisheva Baumgarten asks how Jews, especially those who were not learned, expressed their belonging to a minority community and how their convictions and deeds were made apparent to both their Jewish peers and the Christian majority.

Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz provides a social history of religious practice in context, particularly with regard to the ways Jews and Christians, separately and jointly, treated their male and female members. Medieval Jews often shared practices and beliefs with their Christian neighbors, and numerous notions and norms were appropriated by one community from the other. By depicting a dynamic interfaith landscape and a diverse representation of believers, Baumgarten offers a fresh assessment of Jewish practice and the shared elements that composed the piety of Jews in relation to their Christian neighbors.