Tag Archives: Religion in the Middle East

Fordham Lecture Addresses Struggles of Religious Minorities in the Middle East

Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture will hold its Russo Family Lecture on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 at 6:00 p.m.    The speakers will address the topic “Endangered:  Religious Minorities in the Middle East and Their Struggle for Survival,” with a spotlight on these groups’ prospects in the midst of ongoing conflict in the region and the rise of ISIS.

Additional information, including speaker biographies, can be found here.

Pelham, “Holy Lands”

This month, Columbia Global Reports released “Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East,” by Nicholas Pelham. The publisher’s description follows:

How did the world’s most tolerant region become the least harmonious place on the planet?

The headlines from the Middle East these days are bad, characterized by violence, 51ykklyeumlterror, and autocracy. Whatever hopes people may have for the region are being dashed over and over, in country after country. Nicolas Pelham, the veteran Middle East correspondent for The Economist, has witnessed much of the tragedy, but in Holy Lands he presents a strikingly original and startlingly optimistic argument.

The Middle East was notably more tolerant than Western Europe during the nineteenth century because the Ottoman Empire permitted a high degree of religious pluralism and self-determination within its vast borders. European powers broke up the empire and tried to turn it into a collection of secular nation-states—a spectacular failure. Rulers turned religion into a force for nationalism, and the result has been ever increasing sectarian violence. The only solution, Pelham argues, is to accept the Middle East for the deeply religious region it is, and try to revive its venerable tradition of pluralism.

Holy Lands is a work of vivid reportage—from Turkey and Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, Dubai and Jordan—that is animated by a big idea. It makes a region that is all too familiar from news reports feel fresh.

To hear more about this book from the author himself, click here to listen to a podcast from The Economist Radio.

Chalcraft, “Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East”

In March, Cambridge University Press released “Popular Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East,” by John Chalcraft (London School of Economics). The publisher’s description follows:

The waves of protest ignited by the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi in Tunisia in late 2010 highlighted for an international audience the importance of contentious 9781107007505politics in the Middle East and North Africa. John Chalcraft’s ground-breaking account of popular protest emphasizes the revolutionary modern history of the entire region. Challenging top-down views of Middle Eastern politics, he looks at how commoners, subjects and citizens have long mobilised in defiance of authorities. Chalcraft takes examples from a wide variety of protest movements from Morocco to Iran. He forges a new narrative of change over time, creating a truly comparative framework rooted in the dynamics of hegemonic contestation. Beginning with movements under the Ottomans, which challenged corruption and oppression under the banners of religion, justice, rights and custom, this book goes on to discuss the impact of constitutional movements, armed struggles, nationalism and independence, revolution and Islamism. A work of unprecedented range and depth, this volume will be welcomed by undergraduates and graduates studying protest in the region and beyond.

  • Surveys protest movements from Morocco to Iran, from the eighteenth century to the present
  • Based on an original conceptual framework that challenges both socioeconomic determinism and power-lite theories of contentious politics
  • Challenges top-down views of politics in the modern Middle East, giving a narrative of overall transformation that includes popular politics

Dispatches from Kabul: An Interlude in the Holy Land

Church domes Old CIty
Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

Somewhere near Ramallah, we looked up from our newspapers and noticed the high walls topped with razor wire to our left and right, a telltale sign that we were driving through the West Bank section of Route 443, a 16-kilometer stretch of road linking Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Situated to the east of the security barrier and once ruled off-limits to Israeli government ministers because of a flare-up of violence – namely, Molotov cocktail attacks on vehicles – it appears as any stretch of highway does, grey and a little desolate. Perceiving our awareness, the driver looked at us anxiously through the rearview mirror. “We avoid traffic by taking this road today. To our left is Ramallah and to the right is Hebron,” he said in an official tone, hoping, I think, that we weren’t familiar with the villages of the Palestinian territories. “This one wants to go to Ramallah to see a brewery,” said my friend, Alec. The driver shot me an incredulous look. “Okay, yes, go,” he said. “That is, if you want to risk your life for a beer.” I laughed and Alec explained that my perspective is slightly different because I currently live and work in Kabul. “I just want to feel at home,” I said sarcastically. “This stretch of highway is really doing it for me right now.” He ignored me and started on a lengthy and rather partisan history of the First and Second Intifadas that lasted all the way to the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem where we were staying.

Jaffentrance
Alec and I met on the first day of law school and spent the subsequent three years poring over legal texts and treatises together, a humbling experience that challenged us intellectually and emotionally. It was in the midst of this rational endeavor that we occasionally discussed politics and religion, our conversations about the former often ending with a fiery exchange of epithets and accusations; democratic progressives and classical liberals don’t often see eye-to-eye. But the one subject we could discuss without theatrics was religion, and perhaps more importantly, it was religious ritual that often brought us together with our friends in one place: a Shabbos table in Crown Heights. We spent innumerable evenings there sharing a meal, listening to the Hebrew prayers, and discussing ideas, the law, and our lives. And so it seemed quite natural that we should travel from opposite sides of the world – New York and Kabul – to meet again in the Holy Land, a place that is intensely foreign but intimately familiar to both of us as Americans raised in the Jewish and Roman Catholic traditions.

Holy Sepulchre
The streets of the Old City were nearly empty in the late afternoon on Easter Monday, and as we wandered inadvertently from the Christian Quarter, with its well-lit shops and gregarious shopkeepers, and into the less commercial Muslim Quarter, an eerie silence settled over us. Some idling inhabitants ventured a greeting – A-salaam alaikum – and beckoned us in for tea, but we declined politely and kept walking, feeling that perhaps we had wandered too far off the beaten path. I recalled a friend’s warning: “Don’t go near the Damascus Gate,” and thought about the “No knifing” stickers plastered on utility poles up and down Jaffa Road that we had seen earlier in the day. I wasn’t afraid – a kid with a kitchen knife is less intimidating than a Talib with a Kalashnikov – but the aura of the Old Continue reading

Soleimani, “Islam and Competing Nationalisms in the Middle East, 1876-1926”

In June, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Islam and Competing Nationalisms in the Middle East, 1876-1926” by Kamal Soleimani (historian of the Modern Middle East and Islamic world). The publisher’s description follows:

Opposing a binary perspective that consolidates ethnicity, religion, and Unknownnationalism into separate spheres, this book demonstrates that neither nationalism nor religion can be studied in isolation in the Middle East. Religious interpretation, like other systems of meaning-production, is affected by its historical and political contexts, and the processes of interpretation and religious translation bleed into the institutional discourses and processes of nation-building. This book calls into question the foundational epistemologies of the nation-state by centering on the pivotal and intimate role Islam played in the emergence of the nation-state, showing the entanglements and reciprocities of nationalism and religious thought as they played out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Middle East.

“Changing God’s Law: The Dynamics of Middle Eastern Family Law” (Yassari, ed.)

In June, Routledge will release “Changing God’s Law: The Dynamics of Middle Eastern Family Law” edited by Nadjma Yassari (Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law, Hamburg). The publisher’s description follows:

This volume identifies and elaborates on the significance and functions of routlogothe various actors involved in the development of family law in the Middle East. Besides the importance of family law regulations for each individual, family law has become the battleground of political and social contestation. Divided into four parts, the collection presents a general overview and analysis of the development of family law in the region and provides insights into the broader context of family law reform, before offering examples of legal development realised by codification drawn from a selection of Gulf states, Iran, and Egypt. It then goes on to present a thorough analysis of the role of the judiciary in the process of lawmaking, before discussing ways the parties themselves may have shaped and do shape the law. Including contributions from leading authors of Middle Eastern law, this timely volume brings together many isolated aspects of legal development and offers a comprehensive picture on this topical subject. It will be of interest to scholars and academics of family law and religion.

“The Arab World and Iran” (Saikal, ed.)

Next month, Palgrave Macmillan will release “The Arab World and Iran: A Turbulent Region in Transition,” edited by Amin Saikal (Australian National University).  The publisher’s description follows:

This volume focuses on interpreting the changing domestic and regional dynamics in the Arab world and Iran. Its chapters discuss an array of countries, events, actors, andUnknown issues – from an examination of the Arab Spring and the Tunisian democratic transition, to an exploration of the role of Saudi-Iranian geostrategic rivalry, to the impact of ethnic and sectarian politics in Syria, Iraq, and across the region. Chapters from expert contributors are organized into three parts. The first section of the volume covers the aspects and dynamics of change in the Arab world. The second examines the role of Islam, Islamism, Islamic governance, and sectarian and ethnic politics in the region. The third section focuses on Iranian domestic and regional politics. Yet the theme of transition is constant throughout as this multidisciplinary book draws connections across countries and events to not only inform about the prevailing regional situation, but also to invite readers to draw their own conclusions as to the future of the Middle East. Collectively the volume provides a fresh interpretation of the changing dynamics of the Arab world and Iran, unpacking the complexities of the disputes, conflicts, rivalries, failed goals, and processes of change and development that have made the Muslim Middle East so turbulent, directionless, and perpetually contested by both regional and international actors.

Repairs at the Holy Sepulcher

Here is a little good news about Mideast Christians, for a change. Last week, the three principal Christian communities that maintain the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem announced that they have reached agreement on repairs to the Edicule, a nineteenth-century structure that encompasses the Tomb of Christ. At a joint news conference, the leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic communities announced that work on the structure, built a little more than 200 years ago, will start right after Orthodox Easter in May and last several months. The three communities will share the costs–about three million euros–and each appoint architects to help with the project. Pilgrims will continue to have access to the site while renovations are underway.

Readers who don’t know the history might fail to appreciate what an accomplishment this is. The three communities share the church, along with some smaller Christian communions, according to the terms of the Status Quo, a compilation of customs that dates to Ottoman times. The Status Quo governs the relationship among the communities in minute detail: which can use which altars at which times, how many lamps each community is allowed, and so on. Relations are often fractious. Because, under the Status Quo, maintaining or paying for repairs of a structure asserts ownership, each community has an incentive to prevent others from undertaking renovation projects. Needed repairs are often delayed until the situation becomes truly dire—as is the case with the Edicule, which has been held together by scaffolding since the 1940s.As Israeli scholar Raymond Cohen explains in a masterful history, Saving the Holy Sepulchre, it took the communities decades to agree on a plan to fix the church’s dome, and  they reached agreement only when the dome was about to fall down. That project, the last major renovation of the church, was completed about 20 years ago.

Well, relations have improved. The new situation reflects in part what Pope Francis has called the “ecumenism of blood.” The persecution of Mideast Christians does not respect confessional boundaries. When ISIS is slaughtering your people, disputes about lamps do not seem so vital. The Facebook page of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which represents the Armenian Apostolic Church, has pictures of the three happy Christian leaders at the news conference (above). Peace, it’s wonderful. Let’s hope the good feelings last for the upcoming Holy Fire ceremony at Easter, which often occasions conflict. Fistfights are not unknown.

Calling It Genocide

In a press statement yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry did what many human rights activists have been asking him to do for months: he called ISIS’s treatment of Christians and other religious minorities “genocide.” Kerry’s statement came as a surprise. For months, the State Department had been hinting that, although it believed that ISIS’s treatment of Yazidis qualified as genocide, it was not prepared to use that word to refer to the group’s treatment of Christians. In fact, as late as Wednesday, in response to a looming congressional reporting deadline, the State Department indicated it would need more time to decide what to do.

State had been reluctant to use the word “genocide” with respect to Christians for a few reasons—all of them bad. First, ISIS’s treatment of Christians was said to differ from its treatment of other religious minorities. In theory, ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym, “Daesh,” allows Christians to remain unmolested as long as they pay the jizya  and comply with the other terms of the dhimma, the notional agreement that offers protection to “People of the Book.” By contrast, Yazidis, whom ISIS considers idolaters, receive no such protection. They must convert or die.

This distinction is specious. By contemporary human rights standards, the dhimma is quite oppressive. It’s silly to present it as a workable modus vivendi for religious minorities in the twenty-first century. Besides, as Nina Shea and others have documented, in practice ISIS routinely ignores the dhimma and engages in a systematic campaign of murder, rape, enslavement, and expulsion against Christians. Its activities, reminiscent of the last great wave of anti-Christian persecution in the region 100 years ago, clearly qualify as genocide as that term has come to be understood in contemporary law. ISIS manifestly aims “to destroy” Christians, “in whole or in part,” as a “religious group.”

Second, much of the evidence for genocide was said to remain hidden in ISIS-occupied territory, inaccessible to human rights observers. Without direct access, how could one be sure what was happening? It’s not necessary to be physically present, however, to know that ISIS is engaged in a campaign to drive out Christians (or murder them) and erase their culture. ISIS declares its intentions openly and makes videos to document its activities.

Finally, there was the longstanding worry that speaking out on behalf of Christians would appear sectarian and embarrass American goals in the region – and might actually work to Christians’ detriment. There is something to this. Mideast Christians often suffer from their association with Christians in the West. And Western intervention often occasions disaster for them (see: the Iraq War). But the situation is truly dire for Mideast Christians at the moment. Any marginal detriment would go unnoticed in the context of the overwhelming catastrophe they face.

Some may be inclined to dismiss the Secretary’s statement, but that would be wrong. True, in terms of legal consequences, the statement seems weak. “I am neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to the allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing by specific persons,” Kerry said. “Ultimately, the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation and through formal legal determination made by a competent court or tribunal.” Meanwhile, the United States will “collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities,” and “do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable.” In essence, he seems to be saying, the US will monitor the situation and refer for prosecution, either in the US or at an international tribunal, specific persons it determines to have engaged in genocide, and these people may eventually be convicted–assuming, of course, we can get our hands on them at all.

All this seems a bit remote. Candidly, ISIS’s leaders and operatives do not worry overmuch about legal process, in the US or elsewhere. Threatening to prosecute them is unlikely to deter them from their campaign to restore the caliphate. But law is not the most important criterion for judging Kerry’s statement. The statement has an important moral valence. “I hope,” Kerry said, “that my statement today will assure the victims of Daesh’s atrocities that the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes that have been committed against them.” Moreover, by highlighting the gravity of the situation, the statement may make it easier for human rights advocates to lobby the US and international organizations to offer needed humanitarian and financial assistance to Christians and other religious minorities. It may make it easier to convince the US and other Western countries to offer asylum to Christian and other religious refugees.

Yesterday’s statement was a welcome development. Thanks must go, not only to Secretary Kerry, but to Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who led a bipartisan effort in Congress to get the State to designate the treatment of Mideast Christians as genocide, as well as human rights activists like Shea, who worked tirelessly to keep this issue on the national agenda. For a long time, it has seemed that the suffering of Mideast Christians was not a priority for the US. Perhaps that has begun to change.

Jefferis, “Hamas”

In February, Praeger released “Hamas: Terrorism, Governance, and Its Future in Middle East Politics,” by Jennifer Jefferis (National Defense University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Structured around key elements at the regional, political, institutional, and personal levels of analysis, this is a complete and forward-leaning view of Hamas 51mklYFpluL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_that provides a deep and detailed examination of the history, ideology, political prospects, and regional opportunities of an often poorly understood organization that is redefining 21st-century terrorism.

The Palestinian resistance movement Hamas has long been an influential player in the tumultuous Middle East, but as the region’s instability grows, so does the importance and potential influence of this organization. The fact that the Hamas of today defies most of the traditional categorizations of both terrorist organizations and political parties makes the group an ideal study on how states in the Middle East are likely to continue to change. This book offers a clear picture of how Hamas fits into a dramatically evolving region, enabling readers to see how Hamas itself has evolved ideologically, militarily, and politically as well as how it will continue to shape and be shaped by the broader Middle East region.

Author Jennifer Jefferis, PhD, provides the first comprehensive consideration of Hamas in the context of the post-Arab Spring climate, the rise of ISIS, and the consequential emerging politics of the region, presenting information that is highly detailed yet written to be accessible to all audiences whether or not they have previous knowledge of the organization. The book provides coverage of Hamas’s current relationship with Israel and its impact on the Palestinian territories while focusing on the significance of the organization’s role in the broader region—particularly critical in light of the recent political uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria.