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.
This book analyses contemporary Christian-Muslim relations in the traditional lands of Orthodoxy and Islam. In particular, it examines the development of Eastern Orthodox ecclesiological thinking on Muslim-Christian relations and religious minorities in the context of modern Greece and Turkey. Greece, where the prevailing religion is Eastern Orthodoxy, accommodates an official recognised Muslim minority based in Western Thrace as well as other Muslim populations located at major Greek urban centres and the islands of the Aegean Sea. On the other hand, Turkey, where the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is based, is a Muslim country which accommodates within its borders an official recognised Greek Orthodox Minority. The book then suggests ways in which to overcome the difficulties that Muslim and Christian communities are still facing with the Turkish and Greek States. Finally, it proposes that the positive aspects of the coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Western Thrace and Istanbul might constitute an original model that should be adopted in other EU and Middle East countries, where challenges and obstacles between Muslim and Christian communities still persist.
This book offers a distinct and useful contribution to the ever popular subject of Christian-Muslim relations, especially in South-East Europe and the Middle East. It will be a key resource for students and scholars of Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.
When Pakistan emerged as an independent state in 1947, it sought to provide a new homeland and safe harbor for South Asia’s Muslims, the largest religious minority in the subcontinent at the time. Yet this project was not exclusive. Taking its name from Pakstan, an acronym composed of the key letters of its constituent regions-Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan-Pakistan at first welcomed all of its new citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Non-Muslims comprised 23 percent of the total population, and non-Sunnis comprised a quarter of the Muslim population.
Today, non-Muslims comprise a mere 3 percent of the population, and in recent years all non-Sunnis have been subjected to increasing levels of persecution and violence. What happened?
In Purifying the Land of the Pure, Farahnaz Ispahani analyzes Pakistan’s policies towards its religious minority populations, beginning from the time of independence in 1947. She notes the period of transition from an inclusive policy to an exclusive one, citing the influence of a number of religious and political leaders who invoked a new vision for Pakistan. The word “pakistan” is Urdu for “Land of the Pure”; thus, in their view, it followed that the objective for Pakistan’s creation should be more specific and narrow: to create an Islamic State. In 1949, Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly ratified this objective, which set the country on the path it was to follow. But as Ispahani carefully notes, the event that accelerated the pace towards intolerance of non-Sunnis was General Zia-ul-Haq’s forceful ascent to power in 1977. His military regime promoted Sunni Islam at the expense of other denominations so that by the end of his reign, Pakistan was no longer a welcome place for minorities. Many fled, but those who remained faced escalating persecution, from both state and non-state actors. Tens of thousands died in the ensuing “purifying” attacks. Ispahani traces this history, stressing how the contradictions at the heart of the Pakistani state-building project have fueled the intolerance.
Concise yet sweeping in its coverage, Purifying the Land of the Pure is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding why Pakistan remains plagued by radicalism and violence.
This book considers the key issue of Turkey’s treatment of minorities in relation to its complex paths of both European integration and domestic and international reorientation. The expectations of Turkey’s EU and other international counterparts, as well as important domestic demands, have pushed Turkey to broaden the rights of religious and other minorities. More recently a turn towards autocratic government is rolling back some earlier achievements. This book shows how these broader processes affect the lives of three important religious groups in Turkey: the Alevi as a large Muslim community and the Christian communities of Armenians and Syriacs. Drawing on a wealth of original data and extensive fieldwork, the authors compare and explain improvements, set-backs, and lingering concerns for Turkey’s religious minorities and identify important challenges for Turkey’s future democratic development and European path. The book will appeal to students and scholars in the fields of minority politics, contemporary Turkish politics, and religion and politics.
The year 2009 brought the end of the protracted civil war in Sri Lanka, and observers hoped to see the re-establishment of harmonious religious and ethnic relations among the various communities in the country. Immediately following the war’s end, however, almost 300,000 Tamil people in the Northern Province were detained for up to a year’s time in hurriedly constructed camps where they were closely scrutinized by military investigators to determine whether they might pose a threat to the country. While almost all had been released and resettled by 2011, the current government has not introduced, nor even seriously entertained, any significant measures of power devolution that might create meaningful degrees of autonomy in the regions that remain dominated by Tamil peoples. The Sri Lankan government has grown increasingly autocratic, attempting to assert its control over the local media and non-governmental organizations while at the same time reorienting its foreign policy away from the US, UK, EU, and Japan, to an orbit that now includes China, Burma, Russia and Iran. At the same time, hardline right-wing groups of Sinhala Buddhists have propagated-arguably with the government’s tacit approval-the idea of an international conspiracy designed to destabilize Sri Lanka. The local targets of these extremist groups, the so-called fronts of this alleged conspiracy, have been identified as Christians and Muslims. Many Christian churches have suffered numerous attacks at the hands of Buddhist extremists, but the Muslim community has borne the brunt of the suffering.
Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities presents a collection of essays that investigate the history and current conditions of Buddhist-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka in an attempt to ascertain the causes of the present conflict. Readers unfamiliar with this story will be surprised to learn that it inverts common stereotypes of the two religious groups. In this context, certain groups of Buddhists, generally regarded as peace-oriented , are engaged in victimizing Muslims, who are increasingly regarded as militant , in unwarranted and irreligious ways. The essays reveal that the motivations for these attacks often stem from deep-seated economic disparity, but the contributors also argue that elements of religious culture have served as catalysts for the explosive violence. This is a much-needed, timely commentary that can potentially shift the standard narrative on Muslims and religious violence.
Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture will hold its Russo Family Lecture on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. The speakers will address the topic “Endangered: Religious Minorities in the Middle East and Their Struggle for Survival,” with a spotlight on these groups’ prospects in the midst of ongoing conflict in the region and the rise of ISIS.
Additional information, including speaker biographies, can be found here.
In a press statement yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry did what many human rights activists have been asking him to do for months: he called ISIS’s treatment of Christians and other religious minorities “genocide.” Kerry’s statement came as a surprise. For months, the State Department had been hinting that, although it believed that ISIS’s treatment of Yazidis qualified as genocide, it was not prepared to use that word to refer to the group’s treatment of Christians. In fact, as late as Wednesday, in response to a looming congressional reporting deadline, the State Department indicated it would need more time to decide what to do.
State had been reluctant to use the word “genocide” with respect to Christians for a few reasons—all of them bad. First, ISIS’s treatment of Christians was said to differ from its treatment of other religious minorities. In theory, ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym, “Daesh,” allows Christians to remain unmolested as long as they pay the jizya and comply with the other terms of the dhimma, the notional agreement that offers protection to “People of the Book.” By contrast, Yazidis, whom ISIS considers idolaters, receive no such protection. They must convert or die.
This distinction is specious. By contemporary human rights standards, the dhimma is quite oppressive. It’s silly to present it as a workable modus vivendi for religious minorities in the twenty-first century. Besides, as Nina Shea and others have documented, in practice ISIS routinely ignores the dhimma and engages in a systematic campaign of murder, rape, enslavement, and expulsion against Christians. Its activities, reminiscent of the last great wave of anti-Christian persecution in the region 100 years ago, clearly qualify as genocide as that term has come to be understood in contemporary law. ISIS manifestly aims “to destroy” Christians, “in whole or in part,” as a “religious group.”
Second, much of the evidence for genocide was said to remain hidden in ISIS-occupied territory, inaccessible to human rights observers. Without direct access, how could one be sure what was happening? It’s not necessary to be physically present, however, to know that ISIS is engaged in a campaign to drive out Christians (or murder them) and erase their culture. ISIS declares its intentions openly and makes videos to document its activities.
Finally, there was the longstanding worry that speaking out on behalf of Christians would appear sectarian and embarrass American goals in the region – and might actually work to Christians’ detriment. There is something to this. Mideast Christians often suffer from their association with Christians in the West. And Western intervention often occasions disaster for them (see: the Iraq War). But the situation is truly dire for Mideast Christians at the moment. Any marginal detriment would go unnoticed in the context of the overwhelming catastrophe they face.
Some may be inclined to dismiss the Secretary’s statement, but that would be wrong. True, in terms of legal consequences, the statement seems weak. “I am neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to the allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing by specific persons,” Kerry said. “Ultimately, the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation and through formal legal determination made by a competent court or tribunal.” Meanwhile, the United States will “collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities,” and “do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable.” In essence, he seems to be saying, the US will monitor the situation and refer for prosecution, either in the US or at an international tribunal, specific persons it determines to have engaged in genocide, and these people may eventually be convicted–assuming, of course, we can get our hands on them at all.
All this seems a bit remote. Candidly, ISIS’s leaders and operatives do not worry overmuch about legal process, in the US or elsewhere. Threatening to prosecute them is unlikely to deter them from their campaign to restore the caliphate. But law is not the most important criterion for judging Kerry’s statement. The statement has an important moral valence. “I hope,” Kerry said, “that my statement today will assure the victims of Daesh’s atrocities that the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes that have been committed against them.” Moreover, by highlighting the gravity of the situation, the statement may make it easier for human rights advocates to lobby the US and international organizations to offer needed humanitarian and financial assistance to Christians and other religious minorities. It may make it easier to convince the US and other Western countries to offer asylum to Christian and other religious refugees.
Yesterday’s statement was a welcome development. Thanks must go, not only to Secretary Kerry, but to Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who led a bipartisan effort in Congress to get the State to designate the treatment of Mideast Christians as genocide, as well as human rights activists like Shea, who worked tirelessly to keep this issue on the national agenda. For a long time, it has seemed that the suffering of Mideast Christians was not a priority for the US. Perhaps that has begun to change.
This book presents an unconventional history of minority nationalism in interwar Eastern Europe. Focusing on an influential group of grassroots activists, Tatjana Lichtenstein uncovers Zionist projects intended to sustain the flourishing Jewish national life in Czechoslovakia. The book shows that Zionism was not an exit strategy for Jews, but as a ticket of admission to the societies they already called home. It explores how and why Zionists envisioned minority nationalism as a way to construct Jews’ belonging and civic equality in Czechoslovakia. By giving voice to the diversity of aspirations within interwar Zionism, the book offers a fresh view of minority nationalism and state building in Eastern Europe.
At USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers writes about the State Department’s apparent reluctance to refer to ISIS’s persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians as a genocide. The reluctance is puzzling. According to press reports, the Department is poised to declare a genocide ISIS’s persecution of another religious minority, the Yazidis. If Yazidis are the victims of genocide, she asks, why not Christians? The situation of these two persecuted minorities is quite similar.
Powers makes a very good point. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines “genocide” as, among other things, “deliberately inflicting on” a religious group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Obviously, what ISIS is doing to the Yazidis qualifies. So does what ISIS is doing to Christians. ISIS is driving Christians from their homes, seizing their property, and, quite often, killing them in the most horrible ways. How does that not qualify as a genocide?
Apparently, the State Department is hesitating because, unlike Yazidis, Christians have a way out. As “People of the Book” under classical Islamic law — which ISIS has purported to restore in its newly declared caliphate — Christians can choose to abide by the terms of the Dhimma, the notional contract that governs the treatment of Christians, Jews, and some other minorities. As dhimmis, Christians may remain in the new caliphate as long as they follow the rules – paying the jizya tax, for example, and accepting social subordination. (I detail the dhimmi restrictions ISIS has imposed on the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria here).
As Powers point out, however, on many occasions, ISIS has disregarded the dhimmi rules. Moreover, even at their best, the rules are punishing. The jizya is often set at a level where many Christians cannot pay it. These Christians have no choice but to leave. More fundamentally, how is it acceptable to tell religious minorities that things are comparatively good for them because they can “choose” to accept oppressive and demeaning treatment and manage to survive? Quite obviously, ISIS’s goal is to eliminate these ancient Christian communities. And it is largely succeeding: those Christians who can do so are fleeing. Some experts believe that Christianity will disappear from Iraq and Syria – places where Christians have lived the religion began – within one or two generations.
Last Friday, a group of Christian leaders, human rights advocates, and scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a meeting on this question, at which they hope to persuade him that Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis, should be included in any designation of a genocide. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories). Secretary Kerry has not yet responded.
Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In the clip, Colbert mocks Republican presidential candidates who argue for admitting Syrian Christians as religious refugees. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. Unfortunately, in attacking the GOP, Colbert, who often speaks publicly of his devotion to Catholicism, uses Syrian Christians as a cheap prop.
Republican candidates want to admit Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims, Colbert says, because they think Americans can “relate to average Syrian Christians.” After all, Syrian Christians are “basically Methodists.” For example, he continues, with the cutesy irony that has made him rich and famous, consider Syriac Orthodox Christians. They say something called the Ramsho Prayer every evening—“Ramsho Prayer,” incidentally, is how you say “Vespers” in Syriac—and read their Bibles in Aramaic. He continues with what he apparently thinks is a hilarious sendup of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. Flashing a picture of the patriarch in his liturgical robes, Colbert jokes that the vestments make Ignatius look like “Golden Snake Santa Pope,” a comic figure who would fit right in as King of Mardi Gras. Colbert’s piano-playing sidekick joins the audience in guffawing.
Now, I’m sure Colbert, who often makes jokes about his own church, thinks this is all good-natured fun. How clever! These GOP candidates know nothing about real Syrian Christians, and if they did, they’d be shocked, those ignoramuses. But it’s in very bad taste. The whole joke turns on showing how weird and unrelatable Syrian Christians are. That’s why the audience is laughing so hard. (You want us to admit these people?) The Syriac Orthodox have suffered for centuries and are enduring one of their worst trials right now, and Colbert is using them for a cheap gag. The joke is particularly unfortunate with respect to Ignatius himself. I’ve talked to people know him personally, and Ignatius is a saintly man. (But what about those silly clothes?). For many years, he was the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in New Jersey. He could have continued to live a pleasant life here in the United States, but returned to the hellhole that is Syria last year in order to lead his flock.
Syrian Christians, and Mideast Christians more generally, have a public relations problem. The fact is, they are culturally different from Americans, and it is genuinely difficult for many American Christians to relate to them. That’s one reason why the United States has done so little to help them in the current crisis. Mocking them as weirdos doesn’t help. Those golden snakes on Ignatius’s staff are an ancient symbol of wisdom. Colbert should display some of it himself.