Dunn, “A History of Orthodox, Islamic, and Western Christian Political Values”

In September, Palgrave Macmillan will release “A History of Orthodox, Islamic, and Western Christian Political Values,” by Dennis J. Dunn. The publisher’s description follows:

The book reveals the nexus between religion and politics today and shows that we live in an interdependent world where one global civilization is emerging and where the Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 12.29.47 AMworld’s peoples are continuing to coalesce around a series of values that contain potent Western overtones. Both Putin’s Orthodox Russia and regions under the control of such Islamist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda resent and attempt, in a largely languishing effort, to frustrate this series of values. The book explains the current tension between the West and Russia and parts of the Muslim world and sheds light on the causes of such crises as the Syrian Civil War, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and acts of terrorism such as 9/11 and the ISIS-inspired massacres in Paris.  It shows that religion continues to affect global order and that knowledge of its effect on political identity and global governance should guide both government policy and scholarly analysis of contemporary history.

Elbendary, “Crowds and Sultans”

In March, Oxford University Press released “Crowds and Sultans: Urban Protest in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria,” by Amina Elbendary (American University in Cairo).  The publisher’s description follows:

During the fifteenth century, the Mamluk sultanate that had ruled Egypt and Syria since 1249-50 faced a series of sustained economic and political challenges to its rule,9789774167171 from the effects of recurrent plagues to changes in international trade routes. Both these challenges and the policies and behaviors of rulers and subjects in response to them left profound impressions on Mamluk state and society, precipitating a degree of social mobility and resulting in new forms of cultural expression. These transformations were also reflected in the frequent reports of protests during this period, and led to a greater diffusion of power and the opening up of spaces for political participation by Mamluk subjects and negotiations of power between ruler and ruled.

Rather than tell the story of this tumultuous century solely from the point of view of the Mamluk dynasty, Crowds and Sultans places the protests within the framework of long-term transformations, arguing for a more nuanced and comprehensive narrative of Mamluk state and society in late medieval Egypt and Syria. Reports of urban protest and the ways in which alliances between different groups in Mamluk society were forged allow us glimpses into how some medieval Arab societies negotiated power, showing that rather than stoically endure autocratic governments, populations often resisted and renegotiated their positions in response to threats to their interests.

This rich and thought-provoking study will appeal to specialists in Mamluk history, Islamic studies, and Arab history, as well as to students and scholars of Middle East politics and government and modern history.

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.

Christians, the State Department, and Genocide

syrian christians

Photo from The Guardian

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.

Some persecuted minorities are funny

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.

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.

Zaman, “Islamic Traditions of Refuge in the Crises of Iraq and Syria”

In November, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Islamic Traditions of Refuge in the Crises of Iraq and Syria” by Tahir Zaman (Center for Research on Migration, Refugees & Belonging (CMRB) at the University of East London, UK, and SOAS, University of London, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

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.

“The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” (Kerr & Larkin, eds.)

In November, Oxford University Press will release “The ‘Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant” edited by Michael Kerr (King’s College London) and Craig Larkin (King’s College London). The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout the turbulent history of the Levant the ‘Alawis – a secretive, resilient and ancient Muslim sect – have aroused suspicion and animosity, including accusations of religious heresy. More recently they have been tarred with the brush of political separatism and complicity in the excesses of the Assad regime, claims that have gained greater traction since the onset of the Syrian uprising and subsequent devastating civil war.

The contributors to this book provide a complex and nuanced reading of Syria’s ‘Alawi communities -from loyalist gangs (Shabiha) to outspoken critics of the regime. Drawing upon wide-ranging research that examines the historic, political and social dynamics of the ‘Alawi and the Syrian state, the current tensions are scrutinised and fresh insights offered. Among the themes addressed are religious practice, social identities, and relations to the Ba’ath party, the Syrian state and the military apparatus. The analysis also extends to Lebanon with a focus on the embattled ‘Alawi community of Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli and state relations with Hizballah amid the current crisis.

Atwan, “Islamic State”

In September, the University of California Press will release “Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate,” by Abdel Bari Atwan (editor of the Rai al-Youm news website).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Islamic State stunned the world when it overran an area the size of Great Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border in a matter of weeks and proclaimed the birth of a new Caliphate. In this timely and important book, Abdel Bari Atwan draws on his unrivaled knowledge of the global jihadi movement and Middle Eastern geopolitics to reveal the origins and modus operandi of Islamic State.

Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State outlines the group’s leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan traces the Salafi-jihadi lineage of IS, its ideological differences with al Qaeda and the deadly rivalry that has emerged between their leaders. He also shows how the group’s rapid growth has been facilitated by its masterful command of social media platforms, the “dark web,” Hollywood blockbuster-style videos, and even jihadi computer games, producing a powerful paradox where the ambitions of the Middle Ages have reemerged in cyberspace.

As Islamic State continues to dominate the world’s media headlines with horrific acts of ruthless violence, Atwan considers the movement’s chances of survival and expansion and offers indispensable insights on potential government responses to contain the IS threat.

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.

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