In this week’s Newsweek, human rights activist and commentator Ayaan Hirsi Ali documents the persecution directed at Christians in many Muslim-majority countries, often with state support, or at least indifference. She argues that concern with appearing “Islamophobic” has caused Western governments and media to avoid covering the crisis, and that Western governments must “get their priorities straight” and tie foreign aid to recipients’ willingness to protect the rights of Christians and other religious minorities. (For reasons CLR Forum has discussed, it’s not clear that Western pressure would actually help Christians living in Muslim-majority countries, who are vulnerable to the charge of being Western agents). Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim and present atheist, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Earlier this week, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s preeminent Sunni center of learning, announced a new “Bill of Rights” for Egypt. Al-Azhar hopes that the non-binding document will guide the newly-elected parliament in preparing the new Egyptian constitution. Al-Azhar consulted Muslim and Christian intellectuals during the document’s drafting, and influential religious and political leaders have endorsed it, including Coptic Pope Shenouda and representatives of Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour. Observers say the announcement is one in a series of attempts by Al-Azhar to assert a “moderate” version of Islam and beat back challenges from stricter versions of the faith endorsed by the Islamists.
The Times reports that the document protects “freedom of expression and belief.” I haven’t been able to find an official translation online, but phrases like these can obscure serious underlying tensions. For example, a secular Western liberal might understand “freedom of belief” to cover, among other things, the choice to change one’s religion. In a Muslim context, though, the phrase could mean only that non-Muslims have the right to convert to Islam — Muslims still would be prohibited from converting to other faiths. Similarly, “freedom of expression” would not protect expression perceived as an insult to Islam, for example, attempts to convince Muslims that other faiths are superior. The fact that Islamist parties have signed on to the new document suggests that these narrow interpretations are at least plausible.
An interesting piece by Reuters’s religion editor Tom Heneghan explains why Western support for Egypt’s Coptic Christians may cause more harm than good. Although well-meaning, Western support tends to associate Copts with foreigners and make Egyptian Muslims suspicious. For example, when Pope Benedict expressed outrage at a suicide bombing that killed 23 Copts in a church in Alexandria earlier this year, the rector of the most important Islamic seminary in Egypt, Al-Alzhar, suspended interfaith dialogue with the Vatican in protest. The Copts are Egyptians, the rector complained, and not the Vatican’s concern. The idea that Christians are disloyal foreigners surfaces periodically in the history of the Muslim Middle East and has led to retaliation against them. To give just one instance, suspicion that Christian communities were collaborating with the Empire’s European rivals contributed to widespread massacres in Ottoman Turkey in the nineteenth century. Heneghan’s piece makes clear how bad things are for Copts today: even expressions of sympathy can place them in serious danger.
We are accustomed to think of international human rights campaigns as recent phenomena. In a new book, Against Massacre: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire, 1815-1914 (Princeton 2011), Davide Rodogno (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva) shows that the practice goes back at least two centuries and originated from a desire to protect religious minorities. Rodogno details European intervention on behalf of Christians in late Ottoman Turkey. Then as now, he argues, human rights campaigns had mixed motives: humanitarian, but also political. European powers were selective about which groups merited protection, and how much. The publisher’s description follows.
Against Massacre looks at the rise of humanitarian intervention in the nineteenth century, from the fall of Napoleon to the First World War. Examining the concept from a historical perspective, Davide Rodogno explores the understudied cases of European interventions and noninterventions in the Ottoman Empire and brings a new view to this international practice for the contemporary era.
While it is commonly believed that humanitarian interventions are a fairly recent development, Rodogno demonstrates that almost two centuries ago an international community, under the aegis of certain European powers, claimed a moral and political right to intervene in other states’ affairs to save strangers from massacre, atrocity, or extermination. On some occasions, these powers acted to protect fellow Christians when allegedly “uncivilized” states, like the Ottoman Empire, violated a “right to life.” Exploring the political, legal, and moral status, as well as European perceptions, of the Ottoman Empire, Rodogno investigates the reasons that were put forward to exclude the Ottomans from the so-called Family of Nations. He considers the claims and mixed motives of intervening states for aiding humanity, the relationship between public outcry and state action or inaction, and the bias and selectiveness of governments and campaigners.
An original account of humanitarian interventions some two centuries ago, Against Massacre investigates the varied consequences of European involvement in the Ottoman Empire and the lessons that can be learned for similar actions today.
The New York City Bar Association sponsored an interesting panel this week on “Religious and Ethnic Minorities in the Middle East.” The panel discussed the current plight of minority groups like Copts, Kurds, Baha’is, and Jews. Ashraf Ramelah, Founder and President of the Human Rights organization “Voice of the Copts,” began by discussing the Coptic community in Egypt. Ramelah highlighted recent attacks on the Copts and expressed concern for their future during this period of transition. He stressed the importance of fair and unbiased news regarding Copts, something he said has been lacking in Egypt for some time.
Anthony Vance, Director of U.S. Baha’i Office of External Affairs for the National Spiritual Assembly, highlighted the dangers faced by the Baha’i community in Iran. Vance insisted that much of the Iranian population has been desensitized by media propaganda and the lack of a free press. He discussed ways that the United States, and the international community as a whole, could help Baha’is and other oppressed minorities in the Middle East, the most important being use of the media and internet to stop the spread of misinformation.
Abe Greenwald, Senior Editor of Commentary, discussed the Kurdish population in Iraq. He explained that although the overwhelming majority of Kurds are Muslim, there are Christian and Jewish Kurds as well. He spoke of Iraq’s long history of exploiting Kurds. Although the Kurdish community is relatively safe now, they face serious threats once the American military leaves Iraq. Continue reading