In April, the University of California Press will release “States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” by Laura Robson (Portland State University). The publisher’s description follows:
Across the Middle East in the post–World War I era, European strategic moves converged with late Ottoman political practice and a newly emboldened Zionist movement to create an unprecedented push to physically divide ethnic and religious minorities from Arab Muslim majorities. States of Separation tells how the interwar Middle East became a site for internationally sanctioned experiments in ethnic separation enacted through violent strategies of population transfer and ethnic partition.
During Britain’s and France’s interwar occupation of Iraq, Palestine, and Syria, the British and French mandate governments and the League of Nations undertook a series of varied but linked campaigns of ethnic removal and separation targeting the Armenian, Assyrian, and Jewish communities within these countries. Such schemes served simultaneously as a practical method of controlling colonial subjects and as a rationale for imposing a neo-imperial international governance, with long-standing consequences for the region.
Placing the histories of Iraq, Palestine, and Syria within a global context of emerging state systems intent on creating new forms of international authority, in States of Separation Laura Robson sheds new light on the emergence of ethnic separatism in the modern Middle East.
One of the stories we’ve been following closely at CLR Forum is the Arab Spring and its impact, often unfavorable, on Christian populations. Here is a new book from theologian Najib George Awad (Hartford Seminary) on the topic, And Freedom Became a Public-Square: Political, Sociological and Religious Overviews on the Arab Christians and the Arabic Spring, released last month by LIT Verlag (Berlin). The publisher’s description follows:
This book is an attempt at introducing the readers to some of the substantial components and pivotal ramifications of the latest revolutions in the Arab World, known as “the Arabic Spring.” It aims at offering a fresh, timely and intellectual reading of the promising “Spring” in Syria and in the rest of the “born-again” Arab world. This text is an interdisciplinary study in three parts. The first part is on the uprisings in general. The second is on the Christians in the Arab world and their view of the uprisings, with primary attention to the case of Syria, while the third part is an invitation for developing an Arabic contextual religious discourse out of the recent Arabic (deeply religious) world’s context and changes. What we have here is a book to be beneficial for both those who would like to have a general idea about what happened, and is still happening, in the Arab world, as well as those who would like to get some insightful and coherent understanding of why, how and on what presumptions the Arab Christians base their appraisal of, and stances on, the Arabic Spring.
Haider Ala Hamoudi (University of Pittsburgh Law) has posted Religious Minorities and Shari’a in Iraqi Courts. The abstract follows.
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
On November 29, the New York City Bar Association will host a panel, “Islam and Politics.” According to the organizers, the event will “focus on the role of religion in Muslim majority States, especially as it pertains to competition both among Sunnis, Shi’a, and Salafists as well as between Muslims and other religious minorities.” Details are here.
It’s astonishing this story has not received greater coverage in the media. The Jerusalem Post reports that Saudi Arabia has deported 35 Ethiopian Christians, after detaining them in allegedly brutal conditions for seven months, for conducting a private prayer meeting last Christmas. The Ethiopians, who had been working in Jeddah, were arrested in a raid on December 15 and, according to human rights organizations, subjected to beatings, sexual assaults, and attempts to force them to convert to Islam. The Saudi government never formally charged them with a crime, though it did suggest at one point it was holding the detainees on the charge of illicit mingling with the opposite sex. In February, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom had called on Saudi Arabia to release the Ethiopians.
From PRI’s “The World,” an interview with the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, on the precarious state of that city’s Christians, who are trying to negotiate a neutral status in Syria’s civil war. “They are talking about the change of the President,” Mar Gregorios explains, “but they don’t tell us who is coming to rule this country. Anything could happen . . . for example, the fanatics [may] come and control the country. We need to hear that nothing will happen to the Christians in Syria.”
As I wrote here last fall, Syria’s Christians have shown a lot of ambivalence about the civil war taking place in their country. Assad runs a police state, but his secular government protects Christians, who make up about 10% 0f the population, allowing them churches, schools, and community centers. When Syria’s Christians consider the persecution of Iraqi Christians that followed the fall of Saddam, and the persecution of Coptic Christians that followed the fall of Mubarak, they wonder what a “democratic” government in Syria would do for them. Not without reason, they worry that the Sunni opposition, if it ever gained power, would be less concerned with their human rights than the Ba’ath Party.
Two recent articles provide some background on the situation. The first is an essay in the New York Times by Clark University historian Taner Akcam, whose recent book I noted here. Akcam writes that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recip Erdogan has been speaking a lot lately about the need to protect human rights in Syria. Erdogan’s statements are unlikely to reassure Syrian Christians, Akcam Read more
Another blow for Christian minorities in the Middle East: last week, Turkey’s highest court ruled against the Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox monastery (left), the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world, in a long-running lawsuit brought by local villagers. The lawsuit accused the monastery of “anti-Turkish activities,” including the illegal occupation of land that allegedly belongs to the government. Most commentators have dismissed the merits of the lawsuit — among other things, the suit claims the monastery occupies the site of a pre-existing mosque, even though the monastery predates Islam by centuries — and the high court’s behavior during the litigation has not reassured people. At one point, for example, the court apparently “lost” the documents the monastery submitted in support of its claim. The monastery will now appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled against Turkey in a similar case involving the Greek Orthodox a while ago. The EU, meanwhile, has expressed “serious concern” about the decision.
Last week, UNESCO accepted Palestinians’ application to have Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (left), the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, declared a “World Heritage Site” under the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The list of roughly 1000 such sites worldwide, nominated by states that have signed the Convention, is essentially an honor roll, though named properties can qualify for UN restoration funds and for protection under the laws of war. Adding the Church of the Nativity was more controversial than usual. The US and Israel objected because of the implications for Palestinian statehood. Additionally, the three Christian communions that share the shrine under the 19th-Century Status Quo, which CLR Forum has discussed before, worry that designation as a World Heritage Site will lead to interference from civil authorities. In fact, the threat of outside interference typically gets the communions to settle differences among themselves, which may explain last fall’s agreement on repairs to the church’s roof. This is not the first time the church has been the subject of world diplomacy. In the 19th Century, rival claims to the church caused an international crisis that contributed to the Crimean War.
Bartholomew I is the Ecumenical Patriarch, “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Church and spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide. He lives in Istanbul, once Constantinople, along with his remaining flock, a few thousand Greek Orthodox Christians. By all accounts, his situation is quite precarious; he has, for example, been the target of numerous assassination plots by Muslim extremists.
Today, Bartholomew appeared before a Turkish parliamentary subcommittee that is preparing a new constitution for Turkey. He made a plea for religious freedom and equality. He requested that Halki Greek Orthodox Seminary, closed by the government since the 1980s, be reopened; that freedom of worship be protected; and that state funding be available for minority as well as Muslim communities. Although the present Turkish constitution guarantees religious freedom, members of minority religions often complain that their rights are not honored in practice. “Unfortunately there have been injustices toward minorities until now,” Bartholomew said. “These are slowly being corrected and changed. A new Turkey is being born.” We shall see.