Kobani, Then and Now

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Kobani, Syria, Last Weekend

For the past several weeks, the world has been watching Kobani (in Kurdish, Kobanê), a small city on the Syrian-Turkish border. In September, militants from ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that has declared a restored caliphate in the Middle East, laid siege to the city, which is mostly Kurdish and currently in the hands of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that opposes the Assad government. Kobani’s strategic significance is debatable, but the city has symbolic importance, and its fall would be a huge morale boost for ISIS. Consequently, the US has instituted a bombing campaign to push ISIS back. As of this weekend, the siege was at a standstill.

A bewildering set of parties is involved. In addition to the two main antagonists, ISIS and the YPG, there are the Iraqi Kurds – who, unlike the YPG, do not have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish militants who seek to establish a homeland in Turkey – the Free Syrian Army, part of the “moderate” secular opposition to Assad; the Assad regime itself; the Iraqi government; regional powers like Turkey and Iran; and the international anti-ISIS coalition, led by the US. Each of these parties has its own interests to protect, which makes cooperation very difficult. Most observers think the city will fall unless outsiders supply substantial ground troops. That seems unlikely. Although Turkey last week said it would open its border and allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters, as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, to reinforce Kobani, it’s not clear whether that will occur.

One group that does not have a significant representation in Kobani is Christians. This is ironic, because Kobani was in fact founded by Christians during the last great wave of persecution in the region, about 100 years ago. In the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Armenian refugees established a village near a recently-built train station on the Baghdad Railway, at a place called Ayn al-Arab in the Aleppo Province. The Kurds came later and called the village “Kobani,” apparently after the German company that had built the railway.

The Turks pushed many of Kobani’s Armenians further south. Those who avoided deportation built churches and schools in Kobani, but most eventually decided to move on, to other cities in Syria or to Soviet Armenia. Doubtless, many of them wished to leave a place with so many bad memories. According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, the area surrounding Kobani is known as “‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations. It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”

Hardly anyone today remembers the Christian presence in Kobani. I didn’t know the story, myself, until a friend said his grandfather, one of the refugees, once had a shop there. The churches are gone. New humanitarian disasters succeed the ones of 100 years ago; history moves on. Still, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the great suffering that led to Kobani’s foundation, and the great suffering that continues there now. It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Photo from CNN

Bergin, “The Politics of Religion in Early Modern France”

This November, Yale University Press will release “The Politics of Religion in Early Modern France” by Joseph Bergin (University of Manchester).  The publisher’s description follows:

The Politics of Religion in FranceRich in detail and broad in scope, this majestic book is the first to reveal the interaction of politics and religion in France during the crucial years of the long seventeenth century. Joseph Bergin begins with the Wars of Religion, which proved to be longer and more violent in France than elsewhere in Europe and left a legacy of unresolved tensions between church and state with serious repercussions for each. He then draws together a series of unresolved problems—both practical and ideological—that challenged French leaders thereafter, arriving at an original and comprehensive view of the close interrelations between the political and spiritual spheres of the time.

The author considers the powerful religious dimension of French royal power even in the seventeenth century, the shift from reluctant toleration of a Protestant minority to increasing aversion, conflicts over the independence of the Catholic church and the power of the pope over secular rulers, and a wealth of other interconnected topics.

Cimino & Smith, “Atheist Awakening”

This October, Oxford University Press will release “Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America” by Richard Cimino (University of Richmond) and Christopher Smith.  The publisher’s description follows:

Atheist AwakeningSurveys over the last twenty years have seen an ever-growing number of Americans disclaim religious affiliations and instead check the “none” box. In the first sociological exploration of organized secularism in America, Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith show how one segment of these “nones” have created a new, cohesive atheist identity through activism and the creation of communities.

According to Cimino and Smith, the new upsurge of atheists is a reaction to the revival of religious fervor in American politics since 1980. Feeling overlooked and underrepresented in the public sphere, atheists have employed a wide variety of strategies-some evangelical, some based on identity politics-to defend and assert themselves against their ideological opponents. These strategies include building and maintaining communities, despite the absence of the kinds of shared rituals, texts, and laws that help to sustain organized religions.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with self-identified atheist, secularist, and humanist leaders and activists, as well as extensive observations and analysis of secular gatherings and media, Cimino and Smith illustrate how atheists organize and align themselves toward common goals, and how media-particularly web-based media-have proven invaluable in connecting atheists to one another and in creating a powerful virtual community. Cimino and Smith suggest that secularists rely not only on the Internet for community-building, but on their own new forms of ritual.

This groundbreaking study will be essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the growing atheist movement in America.