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, terror, 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.
The intersection of migration and religion has received little systematic investigation in the social sciences with scant attention paid to the lived experiences of refugees. Weaving together narrative analysis within a Bourdieuian framework, this book addresses this shortcoming in the literature. The constraints and opportunities Iraqi refugees encounter in emplacing themselves indicate contesting notions of religion. The challenges of facing a protracted exile and a protection impasse in Syria mean Iraqi refugees are compelled to reflect upon their specific experiences of religion and to mobilize their understandings of religious traditions in innovative ways in order to construct inhabitable worlds – in the process refugees move beyond the management and care of institutional actors. The study has immediate relevance – contributing to our understanding of power relations in the humanitarian field. Continuities are drawn between the crises of Iraq and Syria to better illustrate the role of religion during displacement crises.
Eliza Griswold’s major piece on Mideast Christians in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend is getting lots of well-deserved attention. The Times, more than almost any other media publication, can place items on the national agenda, and both it and Griswold deserve credit for covering the crisis facing Christianity in Syria and Iraq. Griswold makes a couple of mistakes in the article–she incorrectly describes the beliefs of Oriental Orthodox Christians and ascribes the Armenian Genocide to “nationalism, not religion,” when in fact the genocide resulted from both–but, on the whole, it’s a very impressive piece, and well worth reading.
As an American, I was particularly struck by Griswold’s description of how the United States has abandoned Mideast Christians. Really, we are doing next to nothing to help these poor people. “Wait a minute,” someone might object. “How has the US abandoned them? And why do we have to do anything? We’re not responsible for righting every wrong that occurs in the world, and anyway we were in Iraq, trying to help, for years. It didn’t work. Let Iraqis and other local populations settle this for themselves. It’s not worth more American lives.”
I understand the appeal of this objection, but it depends on not a little willful amnesia. Of course, the parties who bear principal responsibility for the persecution of Christians are local Islamists like ISIS. But the US itself bears indirect responsibility. The US invasion in 2003 led to this situation, by creating anarchy and unleashing long-repressed sectarian resentments. And by abruptly leaving Iraq, we have allowed the crisis to intensify. A Catholic bishop Griswold quotes says it well. “Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity. What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’ Having helped to create this crisis, the US has a moral obligation to do something to help. We can’t simply abandon these people–and Griswold makes clear that both the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve blame in this–as though we had nothing to do with exposing them to danger in the first place.
As of now, Griswold reports, the US has done very little. (This morning’s announcement of a potential US-Turkish alliance to fight ISIS in northern Syria seems driven largely by Turkey’s desire to preempt Kurdish gains; I doubt most of the region’s Christians hope for much out of it). The US is doing nothing to speed up immigration applications from Mideast Christians, notwithstanding the obvious persecution they are suffering. Even humanitarian assistance has been lacking.
Griswold correctly diagnoses the problem. Mideast Christians have few allies in American politics. Conservatives don’t feel much affinity for Mideast Christians, who often favor Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and liberals have a hard time seeing any Christians as sympathetic victims. As someone once observed, Mideast Christians have the misfortune to be too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left.
I hope Griswold’s timely piece can do something to help change America’s response. You can read her whole essay here.
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.
I don’t follow British ecclesiastical politics too closely, but the media in the UK is treating this like a big deal. Over the weekend, the Church of England issued a strongly worded condemnation of the government’s policy of neglect toward Iraq’s Christians. The letter, written by Bishop Nicholas Baines and endorsed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Wellby, makes the same point that commentators in the US, including CLR Forum, have made with respect to American policy: the United States has rushed to help Yazidi refugees, but has done relatively little to alleviate the plight of the much larger number of Christian refugees. According to the Guardian,
Cameron is accused of turning his back on the suffering of Christians. The letter asks why the plight of religious minorities in Iraq, such as the Yazidis, seems to have taken precedence. It notes that, though the government responded promptly to reports of at least 30,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing jihadists from Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and elsewhere appears to have “fallen from consciousness”.
Baines asks: “Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?” He condemns the failure to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians driven from their homes: “The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK government.”
The Guardian describes the letter as “bitter” and “extraordinary.” If you want to read the letter in its entirety, the Guardian‘s article has a link.
At The Week, columnist Michael Brandon Dougherty has a hard-hitting piece on America’s responsibility to Iraq’s Christians. In light of the fact that America’s invasion, occupation, and withdrawal created a situation of great and continuing peril for Christians, America should be doing much more to help them. For example, he writes:
Although I’m generally inclined toward a more restrictive position on immigration, the U.S. should, as a matter of practice, be especially generous in granting refugee status to the collateral victims of the war we started in Iraq. It should even offer some refugees of ISIS persecution the material resources to emigrate to America if they so desire.
The dream of transforming Iraq into an incubator of Arab liberalism has turned into a nightmare for religious minorities. America’s intervention in Iraq, and its support of Syrian and Libyan rebels, have created a disastrous disorder in which Islamist threats thrive.
Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.
In 2005, Iraq drafted its first constitution and held the country’s first democratic election in more than fifty years. Even under ideal conditions, drafting a constitution can be a prolonged process marked by contentious debate, and conditions in Iraq are far from ideal: Iraq has long been racked by ethnic and sectarian conflict, which intensified following the American invasion and continues today. This severe division, which often erupted into violence, would not seem to bode well for the fate of democracy. So how is it that Iraq was able to surmount its sectarianism to draft a constitution that speaks to the conflicting and largely incompatible ideological view of the Sunnis, Shi’ah, and Kurds?
Haider Ala Hamoudi served in 2009 as an adviser to Iraq’s Constitutional Review Committee, and he argues here that the terms of the Iraqi Constitution are sufficiently capacious to be interpreted in a variety of ways, allowing it to appeal to the country’s three main sects despite their deep disagreements. While some say that this ambiguity avoids the challenging compromises that ultimately must be made if the state is to survive, Hamoudi maintains that to force these compromises on issues of central importance to ethnic and sectarian identity would almost certainly result in the imposition of one group’s views on the others. Drawing on the original negotiating documents, he shows that this feature of the Constitution was not an act of evasion, as is sometimes thought, but a mark of its drafters’ awareness in recognizing the need to permit the groups the time necessary to develop their own methods of working with one another over time.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan government advisory body that monitors global religious freedom and makes non-binding policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress. For example, each year, USCIRF suggests countries for inclusion on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern”–those whose governments engage in or tolerate especially bad violations of religious freedom. This year, USCIRF names 15 such countries, including Burma, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Vietnam.
Iraq’s appearance on the list is especially noteworthy. Notwithstanding the Iraqi government’s “efforts to increase security for religious sites and worshippers, provide a stronger voice for Iraq’s smallest minorities in parliament, and revise secondary school textbooks to portray minorities in a more positive light,” the report states, the government “continues to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, including violent religiously-motivated attacks.” Please note: Ten years after a US-led war to topple a dictator and establish the rule of law, things are so bad that a US government commission has named Iraq as a particularly worrisome country with respect to religious freedom. Let’s hope the people running our Syria policy are paying attention.
With respect to American policy on religious freedom generally, the report shows some frustration. One gets the distinct sense that the commissioners think the Obama Administration should make global religious freedom more a priority. For example, the report decries the downgrading of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and the downsizing of her staff. And it criticizes the Administration for not taking more concrete action with respect to “countries of particular concern” that the State Department already has named.
The report contains a thematic section with helpful material on a variety of issues; this section will be especially useful for scholars. Among the issues addressed are constitutional changes in Muslim-majority countries and the increasing adoption and enforcement of anti-blasphemy laws around the world.
There is a rising interest in our academy in the study of constitutional states, particularly in the Islamic world, whose legal and constitutional structure is at least as a formal matter both founded on and subject to religious doctrine. For those of us interested in the Arab spring, and indeed in constitutionalism in much of the Islamic world, this work is not only valuable, but positively vital. Without it, we are unable to discuss most emerging Arab democracies in constitutional terms. In Iraq, and in Egypt after it, two of the premier Arab states which have recently seen constitutions approved through popular referendum, Islam is described as state religion, as source of legislation and as constraint upon law as well. Nobody reasonably aware of the region imagines that Libya and Syria (were the latter to develop into a democratic state) would reach a different conclusion respecting the role of Islam in the public order. While the details may well differ from one state to another, the principle of “constitutional theocracy” holds fast throughout much of the Arab world. The effect of this on religious minorities that are not Muslim is the subject of this essay, with particular reference to the one Arab state with which I am most familiar, that of Iraq.
In assessing how rising constitutional theocracies like Iraq happen to balance the priorities they afford Islam in foundational text with religious freedom, a value also invariably enshrined in the constitutions of emerging democracies in the Middle East, it is important to note that the going opinion is very much in favor of some form of protection for and tolerance of non-Muslim minorities. It is also important to note that in assessing any conflicts with shari’a, there is a great deal of nuance, indeed near Read more