Tag Archives: Copts

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East

(It’s been a while since I’ve posted, because I’ve been working on other things.  One of those things was my participation in a workshop earlier this month at Princeton University, organized by Christian Sahner, Jack Tannous, and Michael Reynolds.  Here, as a guest post, is their post-workshop summary of the discussion, for anyone interested in Middle Eastern religious diversity, yesterday and today.)

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East
A Workshop at Princeton University
May 6-7, 2016
A Summary

On May 6-7, 2016, the Near East and the World Seminar welcomed fourteen distinguished scholars to Princeton University to discuss the place of Christians in Middle Eastern history and historiography. At the outset, speakers were invited to reflect on how the field of Middle Eastern history generally and their work specifically changes when they consider perspectives provided by Christian sources, institutions, and individuals. A working premise of the conference was that although Christians have formed a significant portion of the population of the Middle East since the Arab conquests, the stubborn but understandable tendency of historians to conceive of the Middle East as a Muslim region has had the effect of marginalizing Christian experiences. The result has been to consign Middle Eastern Christianity to a niche specialty alongside larger fields, such as Islamic studies, Byzantine studies, church history, Jewish studies, and Ottoman history. Continue reading

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

A Surfeit of Calendars in the Middle East

The story is related of Hulegu, the Mongol conqueror of Baghdad in 1258, that he once encountered a band of Qalandar sufis.  Those were the wild and woolly ones, who deliberately flouted social conventions and even the sharia in various ways to show how holy they really were.  Hulegu asked the Muslim leader Nasir al-Din Tusi, who was accompanying him, who these social misfits were, and Tusi replied that they were the excess waste of society.  So Hulegu ordered them all killed.  I am not a Mongol general, but after a frustrating series of miscalculations I can harbor similar feelings as Tusi to the plethora of calendars in the Middle East.

Most societies have found it useful to have a common calendar, and many indeed come to regard their shared ways of marking time as so natural that they forget the existence of alternatives.  Years, months, and days are simply natural phenomena with uncomplicated definitions.  Until one encounters a radically different calendar. Continue reading

Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim

Today I saw the “welcome home” party for the new Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim at his cathedral, which he left two weeks ago as a metropolitan archbishop going to participate in the late patriarch’s funeral and the selection of his successor.  (The archdiocese has posted a bunch of information about him here.)  Understandably, the cathedral was crowded, and I wouldn’t have gotten a seat had a friend not saved space for me, although in the event I was seated right next to the central aisle, so I had an excellent view of the patriarch-elect (technically, he isn’t patriarch until his enthronement, which I think will be later this month), but stupidly I forgot to bring my camera.

The altar area was flanked not only by the episcopal throne (to the left, as is customary in Middle Eastern churches), but also by seats placed for hierarchs from many other churches who came to congratulate and felicitate the new patriarch-elect.  Included were (among others; I didn’t have a program and am now writing from memory): Mor Titus Yeldho (Malankara Archbishop of the US), Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard (OCA Metropolitan of North America), Bp. Nicholas Samra (Greek Melkite Catholic Eparch of Newton), Bp. Gregory John Mansour (Maronite Bishop of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn), Bp. Yousif Habash (Syrian Catholic Eparch of Newark), Bishop David of New York and New England (Coptic), and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian (Armenian Orthodox Primate of North America), as well as representatives of Archbishop Demetrios (Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the USA), of Metropolitan Silouan (Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchal Vicar of All North America), and of the Knanaya Christian community.

Phew.  That’s a lot of names and titles.  It was certainly interesting to see all these hierarchs, and their various different vestments.  In a previous century, they would almost certainly not have been seen on the same platform, and certainly not speaking encouragingly to each other.  Even more interesting where the various surprising statements (surprising due to their transgressions of canonical norms, primarily).  Pope Francis wrote a letter congratulating Mor Ignatius Ephrem II on being elected “Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East” without any qualification upon that title to indicate it only applied to Syrian Orthodox.  (Of course the Syrian Orthodox do not insert “Syrian Orthodox” before “Patriarch,” any more than the Roman Catholic Church uses the adjective “Roman”; both adjectives are qualifiers applied by external interlocutors for the sake of clarify and sanity.)  Another of the Catholic bishops said that he was asked why he was here (being Catholic, not Orthodox), and he reported his response was that this church was his home, and that he was here as both an Orthodox bishop and a Catholic bishop.  That’s a challenging canonical tangle.  He also attempted to kneel to Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II, who prevented him and embraced him.

The Chalcedonians were generally more circumspect in their congratulations, as is to be expected.  But even a Chalcedonian metropolitan referred to the late Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (the predecessor of the newly elected Syrian Orthodox patriarch) as “thrice-blessed,” the language used by the Syrian Orthodox but certainly inappropriate for a “heretic.”  Another Chalcedonian metropolitan expressed confidence that the selection of this patriarch was God’s choice, and prayed that the new patriarch would be guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Armenian, Coptic, and Malankara bishops were all unstinting in their praise of the new patriarch, as may be expected from within the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, although good relations between the different branches cannot be taken for granted historically (in the twelfth century the Armenians and Syrians cast mutual anathemas at each other, for example).

All acknowledged the very difficult times facing Middle Eastern Christians both in their home countries and in the diaspora, and the names of the abducted bishops of Aleppo were mentioned frequently.  The new patriarch mentioned Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim as a mentor, and specifically asked for everyone’s prayers for the abducted bishops.  But perhaps the difficult times are also encouraging multiple Middle Eastern Christian groups to build bridges across ancient divides.  This is not a necessary result of difficult times (thinking of the original Islamic conquests, of the Turkic conquests of the eleventh-century Anatolia, and of the plague years and instability in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), so it is interesting to speculate whether the difference today lies in the nature or severity of the difficulties, in the surrounding culture (perhaps Western liberalism or secularism), or in the character of the participating hierarchs themselves.

Why does the Muslim Brotherhood Hate the Copts?

In retaliation for the government crackdown on the protest camps ten days ago in Cairo, supporters of ousted president Muhammad Mursi attacked government buildings and over a dozen churches (one source says as many as 80) belonging to Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.  This leads to the question, why were Coptic religious sites targeted by certain members of the Muslim Brotherhood?

This question is intermittently raised by the Anglophone news media I have read, but the answers provided seem to me unsatisfactory.  It is usually explained as irrational violence toward a vulnerable minority, end of story.  But I think this question is a very important one to answer for Egypt today.  In attempting to understand the reasons for these attacks, I am not in any way legitimizing violence.  I am merely rejecting the comforting fiction that mob violence is irrational and incomprehensible, which we repeat in order to reassure ourselves that “we” are superior to “them” and perhaps there’s nothing we can really do about “that” anyway.  Instead, as Natalie Zemon Davis demonstrated long ago with regard to religious violence in 16th century France, violent mobs have a logic of their own.

But let’s be clear on what the question is first.  Who is doing the arson?  Certainly not all Egyptians, nor all Egyptian Muslims, as some photos on Twitter showed lines of Muslims defending Coptic churches.  Not even all Mursi supporters or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who number at least tens of thousands, went about torching churches.  It’s more than a handful, but fewer than the majority.  Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood officially condemned the attacks in two news posts to its English-language website (here and here).

On the other hand, these condemnations were first issued very late at night on Thursday 15 August, while the attacks happened on Wednesday 14 August, so the Brotherhood took its own sweet time to condemn the arson.  In the meantime, a Facebook page which claims to belong to the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) in the Cairo suburb of Helwan posted on Wednesday evening an inflammatory justification for attacks on churches (translated from Arabic in the second screenshot on this Coptic webpage, but reported sufficiently elsewhere to confirm that this is not made up):

The Pope of the [Coptic] Church participates in deposing the first Islamic president elected.  The Pope of the Church accuses the Islamic shari’a law of backwardness, inflexibility, and reactionism.  The Pope of the Church uses Black Block groups to stir up chaos, to block roads, to besiege mosques and to take them by storm.  The Pope of the Church mobilizes the Copts in the 6/30 demonstrations to bring down the Islamic president.  The Pope of the Church objects to the articles of Islamic identity [in the Constitution] and withdraws from the Constituent Assembly for the Constitution.  The Pope of the Church is the first to respond to al-Sisi’s call to authorize him with the killing of Muslims, and the result of that mandate was the slaughter today of more than 500 killed.  The Pope of the Church sends a memo to the present Assembly to abolish the articles of shari’a.

After all this, people, you ask, “Why are they burning the churches?”  A hint: burning places of worship is a crime, but that the Church should wage war against Islam and against Muslims is a greater crime.  For every action there is a reaction.

The second condemnation on the MB’s English site refers to this and alleges that these sentiments have nothing to do with the party itself:

Currently, there are false Twitter and Facebook accounts in the name of the Freedom and Justice Party publishing justifications for the burning of churches.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood is widely accused by its critics of talking out of both sides of its mouth, it is plausible to many that the English condemnations are intended for an international audience, while the Arabic list of grievances on Facebook were intended for an Egyptian rank and file.  While every mention of Copts on the English website is positive, referring to Mursi’s alleged attempts to include Copts in the Egyptian government and a Coptic presence in the pro-Mursi sit-ins recently broken up in Cairo, the Arabic page tells a different story.

It is striking to me that the English condemnations are very different in Arabic on the Brotherhood’s Arabic page (starting with a different MB representative condemning the attacks in the different languages).  The later article is closer to the English condemnations: “Based on our Hanafi law and by application of our principles which cannot be divided, we condemn with all our might any assault, even in speech, against the churches and properties of the Copts.”  The earlier Arabic article condemns “violence against mosques, churches, or state institutions.”  While the article then reiterates that “all citizens” condemn “violence against churches and state institutions,” it goes into greater length regarding the specific source of outrage: “Likewise [the MB spokesman] condemned emphatically and with all his might the burning of any of the houses of Allah, such as happened in the Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya mosque, adding, ‘Those who commit wrong will know what fate they will meet'” [Qur’an 26:227].

So what do these reveal?  The later Arabic condemnation of the attacks on churches asserts MB’s integrity (“our principles which cannot be divided”), but it is indisputable that Hanafis (a variety of Sunni Islam) have in fact participated at various times in history in riots against Coptic Christians, so it is not clear what appeal to Hanafi integrity accomplishes.  The earlier Arabic condemnation of the violence barely refers to the attacks on Coptic Christians, instead raising anger at the state’s crackdown on the main pro-Mursi sit-in.  The second English condemnation by the Brotherhood would have us believe that the Facebook message condoning burning churches has nothing to do with them, but “are attempts to ignite sectarian divisions to distract everyone from the real issue,” which is presumably the military coup which deposed Mursi.

Whether the incendiary Facebook message was part of a central Muslim Brotherhood plan to have their cake and eat it too, or whether it represents the views only of certain more violent or perhaps less savvy members of the MB, it was most likely posted by a disgruntled Mursi sympathizer.  It seems to present an argument that burning churches is okay because all churches belong to the Coptic Pope, who is somehow responsible for the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.  The final line seems to imply both an inevitability of the attacks on Coptic churches and the accusation that the Copts started it.  The take-away message seems to be that the Copts brought this violence upon themselves.

The particular complaints primarily revolve around the ouster of President Muhammad Mursi.  Copts were certainly not the majority of those who protested against Mursi on 30 June, nor was Pope Tawadros II the only religious leader depicted in al-Sisi’s televised announcement of Mursi’s ouster (Ahmad Muhammad Ahmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni religious leader, also supported the ouster).  Pope Tawadros II was also not the only member of the Constituent Assembly to boycott the deliberations over allegations that the Islamists were pushing through an Islamist constitution – liberals and secular Muslims also protested and withdrew from the Assembly.  Whether Pope Tawadros II was the first to respond positively to al-Sisi’s request for a popular mandate to respond forcefully to the Muslim Brotherhood seems irrelevant to me, since his support was hardly the most significant, and the allegation of the Coptic Pope employing the army (“black-block groups”) to besiege mosques also seems to presume a far greater level of Coptic influence in Egypt than seems remotely plausible to non-Islamists.

On the other hand, perhaps the very identifiability of Copts as a subgroup with public institutions in the form of churches makes them more vulnerable.  The Muslim Brotherhood cannot very well attack the Grand Imam of al-Azhar without losing its credibility as the voice of Sunni Islam.  While Muslim Brotherhood preachers can fulminate against liberals and secularists among Muslims, those groups do not have publicly-known headquarters or separate mosques which could be targeted.  Coptic Christians, however, are a small portion of the population and do have public buildings which can be destroyed.

Of course, the particular conflict over the ouster of Muhammad Mursi should not obscure the fact that many of these attacks may be simultaneously motivated by more local concerns.  A rivalry between two neighboring businesses means one thing if both are owned by members of the same group, but when one is owned by a Muslim and another by a Copt, then the rivalry is a potential site for religious strife as well.  Or a neighbor who does something which inconveniences other neighbors can take on a religious dimension if there is an identified religious difference.

One aspect of the recent violence against Coptic Christians cannot be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, however, and that is the lack of protection of minorities by state institutions such as the army and the police.  Attacks against Coptic Christians increased towards the end of Hosni Mubarak‘s presidency, and have progressively increased with each successive twist and turn of Egypt’s revolution, under the army generals who replaced Mubarak, under Mursi who replaced them, and now under the army-appointed civilian government which has replaced Mursi.  In each case, complaints arose that the police did not take steps to prevent or repel the attacks, often only arriving at the site hours after being called.  This official non-protection of the Coptic minority cannot be blamed on Mursi or the Muslim Brotherhood, since the police were one of the government sectors which resisted Mursi’s control.  Instead, as pointed out by an article on al-Jazeera, the lack of public protection for Copts is a “decades-old problem.”

In the slug-fight between the Egyptian army under al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no question that the army can win the physical battles.  This is already appearing in the muted response to calls for public protests in support of the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday.  On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood survived under decades of repression before being legalized in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.  Whether the army can ultimately defeat the Muslim Brotherhood will depend on who does a better job at the war of words and public opinion.  But if one side is actively targeting Coptic institutions and the other is unwilling to defend them, life will only grow more difficult for the minority.

Syriac Christians Between Syria and Turkey

Yesterday the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article on Abuna Yuqin (“Fr. Joachim”) Unval’s effort to restore the monastery of Mor Awgin above the city of Nusaybin on the Turkish border with Syria, and his response to Syriac Christian refugees escaping into Turkey from the Syrian Civil War.

As usual when popular news media speaks on something that I know something about, I liked it, but I kept saying, “But there’s also…” and “But what about…”  (No doubt the reason I do academic writing rather than journalistic writing is that I cannot get to the point fast enough for a wide readership.)  So I thought here I would give a little wider context to this story, from my perspective as an outside expert.

It is probably worth mentioning that Abuna Yuqin’s denomination is the same as Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, one of the two abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo.

We perhaps think of monasteries as communities of monks, but the reason Abuna Yuqin is the only monk mentioned in the article is that he is the only monk at this monastery.  Restoring a monastery is not easy work, and he needs to prove that it is viable to support a monastery in this environment by attracting both additional monks and sufficient donations.

The “distinctive black cap of his Syriac Orthodox habit” has two panels on the top of the head, with between them thirteen ornate crosses (which from some angles look almost like stars).  I have been told by several monks that these crosses represent Christ and the twelve apostles.  It turns out that it is hard to find a picture of it online or in my own photos (I usually photograph the front of monks rather than their backs), but it is similar to the “koulla” of Coptic monks (depicted here).

The village he refers to is not Nusaybin, the nearest large city, but probably Eskihisar.  Eskihisar formerly had a large Syriac Christian population before 1951, and the ancient village is known in Syriac texts as M’arre or M’arrin (“caves”).  It is frequently linked to the monastery of Mor Awgin in historical texts.  As of a few years ago, the village was entirely Kurdish, so if Syriac Christians are moving back into the village, that is a very significant development.

It is not actually too surprising for Syriac monks to be grateful to Yezidis.  It is true that Yezidis are widely labeled “devil-worshippers” by Muslims and Christians alike, due to their high veneration of Mal’ak Ta’us (“the peacock angel”); the stories they tell of Mal’ak Ta’us closely resemble tales told of Iblis/Shaytan (Satan) in Islam.  On the other hand, Yezidis do not accept converts, and are therefore not a religious threat to other groups, and since at least the nineteenth century Christians and Yezidis have sometimes helped each other in the face of antagonism from the larger populations of Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds.  When I visited Dayr al-Za’faran in April 2012, a Yezidi dressed all in white was sitting and chatting beside a Syriac monk dressed all in black, and the two made a wonderful image.  I wish I had a photo of it.

As to “Syriac Christianity dates back to the third century,” we don’t really know its origins.  In fact a Christian community is probably earliest attested in the city of Nusaybin (ancient Nisibis), on the plain below Mor Awgin monastery, in the Aberkios inscription (in Greek) in the mid-second century, although it is only implicit.  The oldest Syriac Christian texts may be the Odes of Solomon, which are variously dated to the first – third centuries (and are rather strange).  Syriac Christians themselves tell the story of how King Abgar of the city of Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey) corresponded with Jesus, who after his resurrection sent Addai/Thaddeus to miraculously heal the king and convert his city already in the first century.  This legend was already rejected in the west by Pope Gelasius in 495.

On the subject of Syriac Christian foundation legends, the story of Mor Awgin as narrated by Abuna Yuqin, that he was a pearl diver who brought the Egyptian monasticism to Syria, is probably a fifth-century fabrication.  It is true that Mor Awgin monastery is really old, but we do not know when it was founded, and it probably is not the oldest.  Syriac Christianity had earlier non-cenobitic forms of asceticism which congealed into cenobitic monasteries in the early fifth century.

Abuna Yuqin also mis-speaks when he says, “We want our brothers to come back from Syria. Most of them fled there during the First World War.”  It is true that large numbers of Christians fled Tur Abdin during World War I as a result of the massacres.  The same massacres which targeted Armenians in eastern Turkey and are therefore known in the West as the Armenian Genocide also targeted Syriac Christians and some Kurds.  Syrian Orthodox Christians refer to those massacres as Sayfo (“the sword”), while the Church of the East calls it the “Assyrian Genocide.”  The survivors of the Syrian Orthodox community of Edessa (modern Urfa) made their way to Aleppo in northern Syria, and are regarded as a distinct community within their own denomination there, with their own traditions of church music and their own carefully guarded manuscript collection.  On the other hand, most of the Syriac Christians within Syria have been there for generations before World War I.  It is very true that the border between Turkey and Syria is artificial, created by European powers to reflect colonial interests (France wanted Syria), and it is equally true that throughout their long history, Syriac Christians have often moved from one region to another if they suspected a different government would be more favorable to them.  They escaped to French Syria from the Sayfo, and now some are escaping back to Turkey from the Syrian Civil War, just as in the Middle Ages they escaped into or out of Byzantine territory depending on the attitude of the Emperor in Constantinople.

My biggest criticism of the BBC article is how it smooths out conflicts with the Turkish government.  On the one hand, when I was in Mardin for a Syriac conference in 2012, I myself heard the governor of Mardin province and the president of the new Mardin Artuklu University (named after a 14th C dynasty which ruled Mardin) publicly call for Syriac Christians to return to the Tur Abdin region.  And since the governor was part of the ruling AKP party, he probably could not have said those things without the permission of Prime Minister Erdoğan.  This call for Syriac Christian immigration surprised me at the time, as it surprises the author of this BBC article.

But this call has a context.  The theme of the conference was Syriac Christianity and cultural diversity, and among the groups acknowledged in the opening remarks to have lived in that region were Turks, Arabs, Kurds, and Syriac Christians.  There was conspicuously no mention of Armenians, who also lived in Mardin and nearby Diyarbakır until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The BBC article mentions heavy government investment in dams in the region, but does not mention the forced resettling of the Kurdish population whose villages will now be underwater.  I visited Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris, and Kurdish children came up to me and said in English, “Please tell the government not to destroy our homes.”  They were handing out pamphlets to tourists trying to prevent the government from destroying Hasankeyf in the project to build the Ilısu Dam.  The Syrian Orthodox have had their share of harassment: one of the two most important Syrian Orthodox monasteries in Tur Abdin is Mor Gabriel outside Midyat, which has lost property to government expropriation.

(A funny linguistic aside: the road signs to Mor Gabriel do not refer to it by that name, but by the name Deyr-Ül Umur Manastırı.  When I visited, I asked why this was called “Umar’s Monastery,” and I was informed that the “Umur” represents the Syriac ‘umro (“monastery, habitation”), which has been prefixed with the Arabic dayr al- (“monastery of the”), to which has been added the Turkish word manastırı (“monastery”) borrowed from a European language.  So the Turkish name for the place translates from three languages into “The monastery of the monastery of the monastery.”  I think that’s just awesome.)

So what is the government in Ankara doing supporting the opening of Mor Awgin monastery above Nusaybin and calling on Syriac Christians to come “back” to Tur Abdin?  As it was explained to me in Mardin by another foreigner visiting the city, the government knows that even if all the Syriac Christians come back to Tur Abdin, they will still be only a small minority, and therefore not a challenge.  In contrast, the larger Armenian diaspora is making political trouble for Turkey by calling Western governments to recognize the Armenian genocide.  The Kurdish majority of this region is also making international headlines complaining of Turkish nationalist discrimination, for example in the choice of dam locations, to say nothing of Ankara’s fears that the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq (and the de facto almost autonomous Kurdish region in Syria due to the civil war) might fuel demands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.  In other words, what the Turkish government wants is a “model minority” to which it can point to say that they treat minorities well, which would support the Turkish government’s bid to enter the EU.  In the meantime, politics in southeastern Turkey remains a strange game in which ethnic and religious diversity sometimes leads to surprising winners, such as Abuna Yuqin.

The Difference Between Pragmatism and Loyalty

The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor.  But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty.  This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.

The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses.  This is true of political parties.  Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians.  Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties.  The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales.  Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure).  Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.

This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War.  On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’idaFree Syrian Army commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend.  In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free Syrian Army with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime.  The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime.  This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War.  On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.

On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime.  This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups.  This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them.  They have reason to be alarmed.  Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup.  When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria.  That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces.  Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.

The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted.  The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights.  This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important.  If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable.  Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them.  It is an interesting proposal.

The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way.  Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force?  Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society?  If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime?  Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?

With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side.  But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime.  The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers.  When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle.  This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces.  If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime.  On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support.  The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.

Needed: Egyptian Definition of Freedom

Yesterday’s ouster of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi was greeted by jubilant crowds celebrating in Cairo’s Tahrir (or “Liberation”) Square.  It was also greeted by tears from Mursi’s supporters staging a sit-in around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية).  It was described as a military coup by members of the deposed government, while international heads of state such as US president Barack Obama were hesitant to call it a coup, due to the political ramifications.

So the question is: is the ouster of Muhammad Morsi a return to the dark days of undemocratic military rule under Hosni Mubarak, as Morsi’s supporters allege?  Or is it the renewal of the stalled 2011 revolution by the removal of Morsi the “mini-Mubarak”, as his opponents claim?  Is the intervention of the Egyptian army to depose the elected president in response to massive public protests a step forward for freedom, or a step back?

This question, like so many questions that matter, is difficult to answer not only because the future is unknown, but also because the question is poorly framed.  As it stands, this question presumes that freedom is a thing which can be possessed or lost, or perhaps a substance which one can have more of less of.  But freedom is neither, nor is it an agreed-upon concept, but rather notions of freedom vary widely.  Even leaving aside Janis Joplin‘s dictum, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” the situation in Egypt throws into sharp relief how one person’s freedom is another person’s tyranny.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood (such as ex-president Mursi) want to be free to enact laws in accordance with the system of government which they have constructed with the mandate, such as it is, of the 13 million voters who voted for Mursi over his opponent Ahmad Shafiq in the run-off election in June 2012.  Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood want to be free from the sorts of laws enacted by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.  At its most basic form, freedom is always freedom from something or freedom to do something (although it is often, more perniciously, freedom for someone to do what they want at the expense of someone else).

These desired freedoms in Egypt are not compatible, any more than the clash between the French government (founded upon the motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité“) banning the hijab in public schools in the name of freedom of religion, while some French Muslims desire freedom of religion to be able to wear the hijab.  Similarly, at the founding of the modern Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, Ataturk’s notion of freedom of religion in a secular state involved closing the madrasas which train Islamic religious scholars, while some Turkish (and Kurdish) imams still desire the freedom to attend a madrasa in their own country.  The Turkish military staged repeated coups to bring down governments considered too Islamic, although the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have sufficiently curtailed the power of the military through his earlier purges of senior generals on charges of plotting a coup.  This is not a problem facing only Islamic society, but a challenge facing all human society: my getting what I wish (my freedom) may prevent or hinder you from getting what you wish (your freedom).  In the crass terms of the old saying, “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose.”  Nobody’s freedom is complete freedom, and all freedom in actual societies restricts the freedom of other people.

Indeed, some people attack others in the name of exercising their personal sense of freedom.  One aspect of both the 2011 and 2013 popular demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo which is only now receiving increased news is the spike of sexual violence in the unstable situations of the protests.  Nina Burleigh wrote for CNN a thoughtful opinion piece which argues that the increasing numbers of rapes on Tahrir Square are a political message telling women that they have no place in Egyptian politics.  (A small quibble: I accept the feminist critique of the old view that rapes are about excess lust; feminists instead pointed out how rapes are about power.  But I doubt the rapists on Tahrir Square are self-consciously using rape as an articulated political tool to send a conscious message.  Instead, a culture which encourages sexual harassment of women in public mixes with the heady optimism of successfully ousting the president, leading some men to feel empowered to take whatever they want with impunity, even to the point of raping women.)  As Burleigh points out, rapes in the atmosphere of the demonstrations are not merely “an unfortunate byproduct of mob violence,” but a pervasive and culturally condoned crime for which the victim is falsely blamed while the perpetrators go free.  But if I analyze the causes subtly differently than Burleigh, the take-home message for many Egyptian women is certainly the same: the freedom of Tahrir Square may be an exclusively male freedom, which comes at great cost to certain women.

So if freedom is not a thing to be had or not had, nor simply a quantity to be increased or decreased, what is it?  It is a set of societally and culturally defined parameters by which the society regulates those aspects of individual life which are explicitly allowed to vary.  It is, as it were, the regulation on the regulations.  Egyptians need to work out what sort of freedom Egyptian freedom will be.

In that regard, it is telling that when Egyptian defense minister ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi read the army’s statement announcing that President Mursi was deposed on national television, among the people shown by the camera as seated beside him were former director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and the Coptic pope Tawadros II.  This image of al-Sisi with the seated leaders of Egyptian society sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will be welcoming of secularists and of Christians.  The placing of Mursi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders into “political isolation” (an odd euphemism for military arrest) sends a clear message that free Egyptian society will not be welcoming to Brotherhood-brand Islamist policies.  The lack of any women depicted in the video of al-Sisi reading the army’s statement (here in Arabic) was hardly a surprise, but itself reinforces the possibility that free Egyptian society may be a man’s world.  The individuals depicted in that video, broadcast alive across the country and onto big screens in Tahrir Square, is no accident: the army has taken a stand on what free Egyptian society should look like, who should be excluded and who included, and who should stand at the podium speaking for all Egypt (namely the defense minister al-Sisi himself).  It remains to be seen whether Egyptians accept the army’s definition of Egyptian freedom, or rather which Egyptians accept it and to what degree.

Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

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