Mekhennet, “I Was Told to Come Alone”

Souad Mekhennet is a German journalist of Turkish-Moroccan descent. She has covered the Islamic State and other jihadi groups extensively for papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post. This month, Henry Holt releases her memoir of some of her experiences tracking down and interviewing extremists, I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad. Here’s the publisher’s description:

9781627798976“I was told to come alone. I was not to carry any identification, and would have to leave my cell phone, audio recorder, watch, and purse at my hotel. . . .”

For her whole life, Souad Mekhennet, a reporter for The Washington Post who was born and educated in Germany, has had to balance the two sides of her upbringing – Muslim and Western. She has also sought to provide a mediating voice between these cultures, which too often misunderstand each other.

In this compelling and evocative memoir, we accompany Mekhennet as she journeys behind the lines of jihad, starting in the German neighborhoods where the 9/11 plotters were radicalized and the Iraqi neighborhoods where Sunnis and Shia turned against one another, and culminating on the Turkish/Syrian border region where ISIS is a daily presence. In her travels across the Middle East and North Africa, she documents her chilling run-ins with various intelligence services and shows why the Arab Spring never lived up to its promise. She then returns to Europe, first in London, where she uncovers the identity of the notorious ISIS executioner “Jihadi John,” and then in France, Belgium, and her native Germany, where terror has come to the heart of Western civilization.

Mekhennet’s background has given her unique access to some of the world’s most wanted men, who generally refuse to speak to Western journalists. She is not afraid to face personal danger to reach out to individuals in the inner circles of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, and their affiliates; when she is told to come alone to an interview, she never knows what awaits at her destination.

Souad Mekhennet is an ideal guide to introduce us to the human beings behind the ominous headlines, as she shares her transformative journey with us. Hers is a story you will not soon forget.

Around the Web

Here are some interesting news stories involving law and religion from the past week:

Conference: “U.S.-Egyptian Relations in the Age of ISIS”

On Monday, April 3, the Hudson Institute will host a conference entitled “U.S.-Egyptian Relations in the Age of ISIS.” Among the speakers will be Nina Shea (Center for Religious Freedom), Alberto Fernandez (Middle East Media Research Institute), and Samuel Tadros (Center for Religious Freedom). The conference will take place at the Institute’s Stern Policy Center in Washington, D.C. from 11:45 AM to 1:00 PM. The Institute’s description of the event follows; more information can be found here.

HudsonEgyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s visit to Washington in early April presents an opportunity to renew the American-Egyptian alliance. Over the past three and half years, a wide gulf in policy approaches has led to disagreements on a range of issues, from democracy and human rights, to Islamist extremism and the Libyan Civil War. Will the diplomatic visit mark a new chapter in U.S.-Egyptian relations?

President Sisi’s visit comes at a critical moment for his country. In the Sinai, the Islamic State’s local affiliate is inflicting daily casualties on security forces. Its genocidal campaign against Egyptian Copts has led to a mass flight of Copts from north Sinai. This followed the bombing of the St. Mark Cathedral compound in Cairo that left 29 people dead.

As the new Trump administration refines its strategy towards the Arabic world’s most populous country, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom will host a discussion on the security, political, and religious freedom challenges facing Egypt. On April 3, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute, will join Hudson Senior Fellows Nina Shea and Samuel Tadros to assess the situation in Egypt and discuss effective U.S. policy options toward the country.

Napoleoni, “ISIS: The Terror Nation”

Next month, Penguin Random House will release ISIS: The Terror Nation by Loretta Napoleoni (The Guardian). The publisher’s description follows:

Silinsky, “Jihad and the West”

New from Indiana University Press, Jihad and the West: Black Flag over Babylon, by Mark Silinsky (US Department of Defense). The publisher’s description follows:

9780253027016_medU.S. Department of Defense analyst Mark Silinsky reveals the origins of the Islamic State’s sinister obsession with the Western world. Once considered a minor irritant in the international system, the Caliphate is now a dynamic and significant actor on the world’s stage, boasting more than 30,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries. Recruits consist not only of Middle-Eastern-born citizens, but also a staggering number of “Blue-Eyed Jihadists,” Westerners who leave their country to join the radical sect. Silinsky provides a detailed and chilling explanation of the appeal of the Islamic State and how those abroad become radicalized, while also analyzing the historical origins, inner workings, and horrific toll of the Caliphate. By documenting the true stories of men, women, and children whose lives have been destroyed by the radical group, Jihad and the West presents the human face of the thousands who have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered by the Islamic State, including Kayla Mueller, who was kidnapped, given to the Caliphate’s leader as a sex slave, and ultimately killed.

Tomass, “The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict”

Last month, Palgrave Macmillan released “The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict: The Remaking of the Fertile Crescent,” by Mark Tomass (Harvard University). The publisher’s description follows:

512etymsrxl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Explores the historical origins of Syria’s religious sects and their dominance of the Syrian social scene. It identifies their distinct beliefs and relates how the actions of the religious authorities and political entrepreneurs acting on behalf of their sects expose them to sectarian violence, culminating in the dissolution of the nation-state.

Griffin, “Islamic State: Rewriting History”

In November, the University of Chicago Press released “Islamic State: Rewriting History” by Michael Griffin (journalist). The publisher’s description follows:

When the attacks of September 11 sent Westerners in search of reliable information about Al Qaida, Michael Griffin was there: his book Reaping the Whirlwind quickly became the go-to resource for the media, political figures, and ordinary citizens alike.

Now, as Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is moving to take over broad swathes of territory throughout the Middle East, Griffin is back once again, ready to offer nuanced insight, analysis, history, and context for readers looking to understand this new and frightening threat.

An experienced journalist, Griffin tells the story of the development of the Islamic State in his usual fast-paced, narrative driven style, helping us to understand the long roots of the Islamic State in Iraq, their quiet involvement in the Arab Spring, and their rapid rise amid the chaos generated by the Syrian war. He clearly and carefully presents the interlocking web of influence, arms, and money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iraq that have fuelled the rise of Islamic State, and highlights the importance of the uprising against Assad in Syria and the West’s relative inability to influence or support it. Ultimately, Griffin offers a portrait of a complicated, multivalent movement, one with roots in numerous real or perceived grievances and historical mistakes and one with the potential to foment unrest and violence throughout the Middle East for some time to come.

 

Slighting Syria’s Christians

Take a look at the photo above, which appeared recently on Instagram. It’s the photo of a page from the New Testament — Acts 25, which recounts St. Paul’s trial before Festus. The page, seared into a bookshelf, is all that remains of the Bible that once contained it. ISIS recently burned the Bible, along with the Armenian Orthodox Church that held it, in Tal Abyad, Syria. The page is written in Armenian characters, but in the Turkish language, which suggests the Bible was once the possession of refugees from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Survivors of that Genocide founded the town of Tal Abyad 100 years ag0.

I thought of this photograph while reading Nina Shea’s searing assessment, in yesterday’s National Review Online, of the US’s treatment of Syrian Christian refugees. In the past five years of the Syrian civil war, she writes, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Christian refugees from Syria. Fifty-three! When one considers that at the start of the conflict Christians made up 10% of the country’s population of 23 million, and that ISIS and other Islamist groups have made Christians special targets, the minuscule number of Christian refugees the US has admitted is truly shocking.

Shea says there are two explanations. First, the US has generally been reluctant to admit any refugees from Syria. Second, the US relies on the UN to process and refer applications for asylum from its own refugee and resettlement camps. But Christians and other religious minorities are reluctant to use the UN camps, which are infiltrated by ISIS operatives:

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

There are other explanations as well. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is reluctant to appear too solicitous of Christian refugees. The concern is that singling out Christians would cause our allies in the region to view our humanitarian efforts as sectarian. We should get over this concern. Our allies view us as sectarian, anyway. And it’s not like our strategy of projecting even-handedness has won us much support till now.

This is a complicated situation. Many Christian leaders do not want their flocks to leave their homes in Syria, where Christians have lived for many centuries. And other religious minorities are also dying in Syria, as well as Muslims. But, for many Christians, escape to the West is the only viable option. And Christians have suffered disproportionately in Syria and deserve more help from the US than they are receiving. Shea’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.

The NYT on the End of Mideast Christianity

Egyptian Copts, one holding a Coptic Christian cross, demonstrate against the overnight sectarian violence, in downtown Cairo, Egypt Sunday, May 8, 2011. Christians and Muslims throwing rocks clashed in downtown Cairo on Sunday, hours after ultraconservative Muslim mobs set fire overnight to a church and a Christian-owned apartment building in a frenzy of violence that killed 12 people and injured more than 200. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

 Photo from Christianity Today

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.

Putin and the Pope

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How have you been?

From Crux’s John Allen, here is an interesting and provocative article on today’s scheduled meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. Surprisingly, Allen writes, on some issues, the two men have “forged an improbably strong partnership.”

One of those issues is the persecution of Mideast Christians. While Western nations have temporized, refusing even to acknowledge the sectarian dimension of the crisis–ISIS’s actions have nothing to do with religion, apparently–Putin has made himself the champion of the region’s Christians:

“As regards the Middle East and its Christians, their situation is dire,” Putin said in April. “The international community is not doing enough … this is the motherland of Christians. Christians have lived there from time immemorial, for thousands of years.”

In some corners of the Middle East, such as the Syrian region of Qualamun, Russia actually has floated the idea of granting citizenship to pockets of Orthodox Christians, effectively offering them a security blanket.

Now, talk is cheap. And Putin’s motivations are not wholly humanitarian. By offering itself as the protector of Mideast Christians, most of whom are Orthodox, Russia can exert influence in the region. (France has traditionally put itself forward in the same role, although France tends to focus on Catholics). Speaking out for Christian minorities also increases Putin’s credibility as the representative of traditional Christianity, which no doubt wins him admirers in the developing world, where Christianity is expanding, often in conflict with a rising Islam. And, of course, championing the cause of Orthodox Christians increases his political appeal in Russia itself.

Still, whatever his motives, Putin has focused on the suffering of Christians as Christians, and that is something many leaders in the West are apparently reluctant to do. It is also a stance, Allen writes, that appeals to Pope Francis:

Since Francis’ election in March 2013, meanwhile, no social or political issue has engaged the pontiff like the plight of persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East.

In March, he demanded that the world stop trying to “hide” the reality of anti-Christian violence, and he’s also argued that the shared suffering of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike is the basis for a contemporary “ecumenism of blood.”

Allen notes that the conflict in Ukraine will pose obstacles for any real partnership between Russia and the Vatican. Ukrainian Catholics believe that Pope Francis has taken too soft a line in that particular crisis. Francis has described the conflict as an unfortunate disagreement between Christians, while Ukrainian Catholics tend to see it as the result of Russian provocation, which they wish Francis would denounce. In particular, Ukrainian Catholics resent what they see as bullying and duplicity on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly the Moscow Patriarchate.

As I say, an interesting and provocative piece.

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