Tag Archives: Armenian Genocide

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading

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Non-Muslim Significance? The Danger of Oversimplification

It is true that Muslims are today a demographic majority in every country of the Middle East except Israel.  (Even there, however, Muslims would be nearly a majority, if Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories had the same citizenship rights as the Israeli settlers.)  But such a blanket statement obscures more than it reveals.  There is a vast difference between Iran, which is almost 100% Muslim, and Lebanon, where Muslims are less than two thirds of the population and the government is divided roughly evenly between Muslims and Christians (with the requirement that the president be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, among various other requirements).  Granted, the population of Iran is many times that of Lebanon, but the point is that the other countries in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, all very populous) are between these two extremes.

Nor are all Muslims alike.  Differences between Sunni Muslims and Shiʿites are only the tip of the iceberg: at least four “legal schools” of Sunnis and several branches of Shiʿa Islam all have different requirements and regulations.  Fellow feeling between Sunnis and Shiʿites is a very recent development, and has not overcome sectarian violence in Syria and Iraq nor the regional rivalry between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shiʿite) Iran.  These differences are independent of the gradations between secularist and devout Muslims or between modernist and Salafi Islam.  Intra-Muslim diversity means that Muslims may feel more fellow feeling with certain non-Muslims than with other Muslims, and the demographic strength of Islam is more attenuated.  This also leads to greater differences between countries: Egypt has more Coptic Christians than Shiʿites, while Iraq is about two-thirds Shiʿites and one third Sunnis.

When the historical perspective is taken, the present overwhelming demographic dominance of Islam is seen as a relatively recent development in some parts of the Middle East.  The Middle East has been mostly ruled by Muslims since the seventh century, although the Byzantine Empire continued to rule most of what is today Turkey until the eleventh century, the Crusaders ruled parts of eastern Turkey, western Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel for a couple centuries, and most broadly but most briefly the non-Muslim Mongols under Hulegu and his successors conquered all of Iran, Iraq, most of Turkey, and (repeatedly but ephemerally) Syria. The religion of the rulers is frequently taken as characteristic of the religion of the land, and so the Middle East is often called the “land of Islam,” in Arabic dar al-Islam, or the “central Islamic lands.”  That this term doesn’t simply mean that Islam came from the Middle East is shown by the fact that the Middle East is never called, by parallel, the “land of Judaism” or the “land of Christianity,” though both also came from that region.  In French, the confusion between religion of the ruler and religion of the land is even starker: areas under Islamic ruler are simply labeled l’Islam.

But the religion of Muslim rulers should not be taken as determinative for the population as a whole.  Muslim rulers frequently employed non-Muslims to carry out bureaucratic work, at least into the fifteenth century in much of the Middle East, and later in Ottoman Constantinople.  With rising European interest in the Middle East, local Christians and Jews were often the translators and intermediaries between the newly arrived foreigners and the local Muslim rulers and populace.  Middle Eastern non-Muslims did not only attain prominence through European intervention, however: Faris al-Khoury was already in government before the French claimed Syria in 1920, and went on to become Prime Minister of Syria twice, though a (Greek Orthodox turned Presbyterian) Christian.  Tariq ʿAziz was the deputy Prime Minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and a Chaldean Catholic (a group of native Iraqi Christians who, beginning in the 16th C, started entering communion with the Roman papacy).  George Sabra, an active voice in the Syrian Civil War, has been president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition (the opposition group favored by the USA and Western Europe).  The history of the Middle East, even in the last century, cannot be told accurately without naming certain key non-Muslims.

Although these individuals are exceptional, they are not unique.  They are rare because they are at the highest echelons of government, where they were not selected because of but despite their non-Muslim religious affiliation.  Many more non-Muslims have been employed by Middle Eastern governments, both pre-modern and modern, at lower ranks.  And the broader population of non-Muslims, not employed by government, was a significant portion of many Middle Eastern countries into the twentieth century.  Before 1915 in eastern Anatolia and 1923 in western Anatolia, Christians were almost a fifth of the population (mostly Armenians and Syriac Christians in the east, Greeks in the west) in what would become the Republic of Turkey.  Such a proportion means that, depending on levels of integration, every Muslim would know not merely one but several Christians, and may need to do business with them.  Christianity in Iraq has dipped from 10% around the middle of the 20th C to less than 2% today.  We do not know when Muslims became even a bare majority of the population in Egypt or Syria, but it was certainly not before 1250.  That may seem like ancient history to many modern readers, but that means Islam spent at least six centuries as a ruling minority religion, almost half of the history of the “Islamic” Middle East to date, and both countries still have Christian minorities around 10% of the population, absent from parts of the countryside but certainly visible in all cities.

Today a higher proportion of Middle Easterners are Muslim than at any point in the past, but the proportion has changed significantly even within the last century.  Nevertheless, Christians have continued to play a prominent, if subordinate, role in government.  And the divisions between different Christian and Muslim groups reduce the sense, within the Middle East, that “basically everyone agrees with me.”  People from the Middle East know there is religious diversity.  For westerners to regard the Middle East as “Islam + Israel” is negligently over-simplistic.

Who are the Chaldeans?

A friend of mine recently met some Chaldeans in Michigan, and as I am his go-to guy for all matters Middle Eastern and Christian, he asked me who they were.  Here is my response, lightly edited for broader publication:

The subject of Chaldean ethnicity is rather complicated.  Basically “Chaldeans” are Catholic Assyrians,” as these two terms get used in modern Iraq.  The connection with the “Assyrians” of the Old Testament (much less the astrologers of Daniel 2) is debatable.

A more detailed answer must be aware of the fact that Christianity in Iraq has almost disappeared as a result of a very difficult past century.  Widespread massacres in 1915 (better known in the West as the Armenian Genocide, although Armenians were not the only targets) killed large numbers and drove them south into the central Iraqi plain.  At the end of World War I, while the victorious Western powers were meeting in Paris, British officers in Iraq encouraged an Assyrian leader named Agha Petros to try to capture a territory for an Assyrian “homeland” and present the victors with a fait accompli; the attempt was disastrous.  The British Mandate government which subsequently ruled Iraq frequently used the Assyrian Christians as a paramilitary force, which made them deeply unpopular with other groups in the area.  After the British pulled out in 1932, the Simele massacres of 1933 further reduced Assyrian numbers and solidified Iraqi national sentiment against the Assyrians.  Many Assyrians emigrated from Iraq in this period.  Those who remained stabilized as a small minority within Iraq, and pressures to abandon the Assyrian neo-Aramaic language in favor of either Arabic or Kurdish have been intermittently very high.  Saddam Hussein was seen by a few (notably Jean-Maurice Fiey before 1973) as more friendly to Christians (his foreign minister Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic), though his Arab Nationalist Ba’ath party also discouraged the use of Assyrian neo-Aramaic in favor of Arabization.  Assyrians today speak not only of the genocide of 1915, but also of a cultural genocide.  So one must be careful how one addresses the history of an endangered minority.  Nevertheless, history cannot be written to serve present pain.

Most Assyrians emphasize that their ethnic identity has not changed since before the rise of Islam.  So I’ll give you three perspectives: the “traditional” Assyrian view (as forcefully expressed by various Assyrians I have met), the widely held scholarly view, and my compromise.

The “traditional” Assyrian view

Don’t be misled by the label “traditional”; one Orthodox priest used to say that unchanging tradition is whatever your grandmother did.  It need not be older than a century.  But this view says that the ancient Assyrians who ruled much of the Near East from their capital at Nineveh never died out.  Instead they were conquered by the Babylonians (in 612 BCE), the Achaemenid Persians (in the late 500s BCE), Alexander the Great (shortly before 300 BCE), the Parthians (in the 220s BCE), the Romans (briefly in the 110s CE), the Sasanian Persians (in the 230s CE), the Muslim Arabs (in the 630s and 640s), the Mongols (in the mid-13th C), and the Ottomans (in the 1530s).  In the meantime, the apostle Thomas had sent his disciple Addai to Edessa (modern Urfa in SE Turkey), and Addai in turn sent his disciple Mari to Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the capitals of the Persian Empire.  They converted the Assyrians among various other peoples, and although they used Syriac in the churches, they continued to speak Assyrian neo-Aramaic.  Assyrians practiced Christianity in large numbers and flourished in the plain around Mosul (founded across the Tigris river from ancient Nineveh), until at the end of the 14th C Timur Lenk (“Tamerlane”) conquered the region and slaughtered them, and many of them retreated to the mountains to the north.  (In the 16th C, many of those left in the plains adopted Catholicism and became “Chaldeans.”)  The “Mountain Nestorians” were the target of American and British missionary ventures in the 19th C, and during the sufferings of the twentieth century, those who could fled to the West (especially Chicago, Stockholm, and Melbourne, but also London, Detroit area, and other places).  Thus they are the ancient Assyrians, who recently have suffered genocide and cultural extermination.

The “standard” scholarly view

A few scholars accept the “traditional” Assyrian view, but most do not.  The skeptics point out that when the American missionaries traveled to the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s and 1840s, they claimed to be the ten lost tribes of Israel!  On the most common view, the term “Chaldean” was not used within this community before the 1700s, being translated from the Latin.  The first use of the term “Chaldean” to refer to a contemporary community since antiquity was in 1445, when a branch of the Church of the East in Cyprus submitted to the Papacy and was called “Chaldean”.  The merger didn’t last long, but in 1553 a monk from northern Iraq traveled to Rome to ask to be appointed “Patriarch of Babylon,” and he and those who followed him were termed Chaldeans in Latin.  In Renaissance Europe, the main dialect of Aramaic which was studied was the one in Daniel 2 (and other biblical texts), which was termed “Chaldean” due to the fact that in the text it is the Chaldeans who first speak it to Nebuchadnezzar.  So when Christians from northern Iraq showed up speaking a (rather different) dialect of Aramaic, they were labeled “Chaldeans”.  The term “Assyrian,” it is claimed, was not used for a contemporary community until the English adventurer/archaeologist (Indiana Jones type) Henry Layard discovered the ruins of ancient Nineveh across from the city of Mosul.  In light of 19th C European theories of racial fixedness and physiognomy, Layard and other Brits after him declared that the Christians of the area were clearly “Assyrians,” from their facial resemblance to the stone reliefs which colonial antiquities collectors were busy bringing back to the British Museum in London.  In the second half of the 19th C, the term “Assyrian” was adopted by the community itself as an importation of European nationalism in order to argue for their right to political autonomy against the Ottoman Empire (just as the Greeks had done earlier).  With the genocide in the early 20th C and the 1933 massacres, ethnic identity assumed primacy over religious identity within this community, especially as they continued (whether still in Iraq or now in the West) to lobby for political autonomy using European terms.  Thus there is no continuity between the ancient Assyrians and the modern Assyrians.

My views

There are various mediating positions which scholars adopt between the extreme view just summarized and the “traditional” view.  A few details: the term “Assyrian” was known and used before 1840, in various centuries.  For example, the 2nd C Christian author Tatian identified himself in Greek as “Assyrios.”  The Armenians used “Asoristan” (the “land of the Assyrians”) straight through the medieval period, and also (though less commonly, perhaps) used the group name “Asorik’.”  The Syriac terms “Athor” (a place) and “Athoraya” (a person from that place) were very rarely used from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.  Additional citations can be found on the Wikipedia page “Assyrian Continuity“.

The difficulty is that proponents of Assyrian continuity typically fail to ask the question what “Assyrian” means in different contexts, but assume its meaning is unchanging.  What Tatian meant, I am not sure, but probably appealed to a Mesopotamian birth (and not all Mesopotamians are or were “Assyrians” in the modern sense).  The eleventh-century Greek historian Michael Attaleiates termed one person an “Assyrios” on account of his having been born in Antioch in Syria, not in Mesopotamia at all.  The Armenian “Asuristan” is clearly a designation for Iraqi Mesopotamia as distinct from “Mijaget” (“Mesopotamia”), which was used for upper Mesopotamia in what is now Syria and Turkey, and “Sham” (Syria southwest of the Euphrates).  The Syriac “Athor” refers to the region around Mosul in northern Iraq, and “Athoraya” refers exclusively to someone from that small region, not to any of the people in other regions (such as the mountains of Kurdistan or Hakkari, or the plain west of the Lake Urmia in NW Iran) whose descendants now call themselves “Assyrians.”  So some memory of Mosul as the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire seems to have survived.

But pre-modern Middle Easterners did not use ethnic names for enduring descent groups, as became popular in modern Europe.  So “ethnic” labels such as “Assyrian” should be understood with reference to places, languages, or religious groups.  (Indeed, the “ethnic” term preferred by 17th C poets who would later be called “Assyrians” was not “Athoraye” but “Suraye” – i.e. Syriac speakers.)  Given the American missionaries’ reports that the “Mountain Nestorians” in the 1830s believed they were the ten lost tribes of Israel, it seems likely that leaders in the community were willing to adopt whatever “ethnic” label would be most advantageous, and one can hardly blame them in light of their subsequent sufferings.  Thus it is simply false to say that there has always been a well-defined ethnic group known as the “Assyrians” to themselves and to others, who preserved the cultural identity of Sargon and Sennacherib and the ancient Assyrian Empire.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that the ancient Assyrians were not exterminated, so the modern Assyrians are probably descendants of the ancient Assyrians.  But the ancient Assyrians are not known to have practiced strict endogamy, so they certainly intermarried with newcomers in the form of Israelite captives, Kurds, Persian conquerors, a small group of Greek invaders, Armenians, Arabs, and finally Turks.  Just as my own “northwestern European” cocktail of ancestry is not distinctively French, English, German, or Irish, much less any specific tribe in any of these areas, so modern Assyrians can count their ancestors from many different groups.  Modern Assyrian culture is probably also a continuous development from ancient Assyrian culture, but again not exclusively, as their Aramaic dialects absorbed words of Persian (in at least two waves), Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish.  So ancient Assyrian culture would be as unrecognizable to modern Assyrians as painting oneself blue is to modern Brits.  In the 15th C, the Church of the East still thought of itself as a universal church, and identified several ethnic labels within its ranks.

But as Christians in the Hakkari Mountains and Iraq encountered European ideas of ethnic persistence and self-determination, they cast about for which ethnicity they could claim, and “Assyrian” seemed a sensible choice which was close to hand.  The problem is that those European ideas of ethnic persistence and physiognomy are demonstrably wrong, and yet ethnic essentialism persists among Middle Eastern Christians still hoping in vain for Western world leadership to live up to Western political ideals of national autonomy and self-determination.

You can see why it’s a sensitive topic.  But the short answer is that “Chaldeans” are Catholic “Assyrians.”