Tag Archives: Homs

Partying Like It’s 1299: al-Dimashqi on Easter

Ibn Taymiyya’s contemporary Shams al-Din al-Dimashqi (d. 727 AH / 1327) is best known for his geography describing his native Syria c. 1300, shortly after the final expulsion of the Crusaders from the mainland.  Like the more famous Ibn Taymiyya, he was aware of the festivals of the non-Muslims, in particular the Christians, but unlike that Hanbali jurist, he described them in the context of comparing the different calendars in use.  The calendrical context enabled al-Dimashqi to describe the celebrations without condemnation.  Here is his description of Easter in Hama, a major city in central Syria:  Continue reading

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Non-Muslim Significance? In the Company of Others…

Islam did not develop in a vacuum.  This is not pejorative, nor indeed contrary to the traditional Muslim account of its own origins.  The traditional Muslim view is that Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and others were all prophets preaching Islam, but that Jews and Christians corrupted their scriptures.  So one might expect certain continuities, and indeed, the Qur’an refers to Jews and Christians and presents Allah as instructing Muhammad to consult the “people of the book” if he is doubtful about the revelation he has received (Yunus 10:94).  It is well known to scholars of the origins of Islam that the Qur’an adapts various biblical accounts and refers to various figures found in the Bible, but this contact between Islam and other religions did not cease with the final form of the Qur’an, but rather intensified.

After Muhammad’s death, his followers conquered a large part of the world and came to rule over societies of non-Muslims.  One would then expect even more extensive contact between Muslims and non-Muslims.  One result of this contact is the importation into the body of Islamic tradition of the isra’iliyyat, accounts from Jewish or Christian tradition regarding biblical figures.  The anxiety of early Muslims imitating non-Muslims is shown in the hadith (traditional account) which ascribes to Muhammad the prohibition of imitating Jews or Christians.  In one of several formulations, this injunction reads, “He is not one of us who imitates other than us. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians.”  (Note: hadith accounts are often not genuine, and often reflect conditions and questions that arose after Muhammad’s death.)

But “imitation” is too restrictive a model to describe the relationship between Islam and other religions of the regions ruled by Muslims, whichever direction that “imitation” is posited.  It is also the case that our evidence rarely allows us to establish that “imitation” occurred.  Instead, we can speak reasonably confidently of certain aspects of shared culture.

Consider the importance of Jerusalem.  Of course it is the holy city of Judaism, the place where the Temple was built and G-d dwelt on earth.  It is the holy city of Christianity, the place where Jesus was crucified and rose again from the dead, where the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost and inaugurated the Church.  According to traditional Islamic accounts, it was also the first holy city of Muslims and the direction that the earliest Muslims were to pray (the first qibla), before Muhammad changed Muslim prayer to be in the direction of Mecca.  It is often presumed that the change of qibla relegated Jerusalem to the status of third holiest city of Islam, after Mecca (Muhammad’s home town) and Medina (Muhammad’s adopted city).  But in fact, three and a half centuries after Muhammad, an important Muslim author named al-Muqaddasi (i.e. “from Jerusalem”) wrote that Jerusalem was in fact more important than Mecca or Medina because Muhammad ascended to heaven from there and God would bring all creation there for judgment!  (Al-Muqaddasi acknowledged, however, that Muslims were a minority in the city.)  Thus the cultural importance of Jerusalem was shared, if differentiated, among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  Other examples of shared culture include the aesthetics and gendered architecture mentioned in a previous post.

As a historian, I take it for granted that Islam has a history.  Even at the highest intellectual stratum, certain thinkers thought (and, more importantly, wrote) at specific periods of time.  They did so in particular cultural contexts, and cultural contexts which included not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims.  Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) is one of the heroes of the Salafi movement (so-called “Islamic fundamentalism”), though he lived seven centuries after Muhammad, at exactly the half-way point between Muhammad and the present.  He is known for his voluminous writings and polemical rejection of everything Islamic that did not have the most spotless pedigree.  He wrote polemics against a wide variety of popular Muslim devotional practices, such as celebrating saints’ birthdays at funeral shrines, and opposed honoring mosques (even that at Jerusalem) too highly.  He opposed any similarity to non-Muslim religions, and often opposed practices by arguing that they were influenced by Muslim religions.  Here is a Muslim thinker for Muslims.

But like all thinkers, Ibn Taymiyya wrote in a cultural context.  He wrote a polemic against Christianity (كتاب جواب الصحيح لمن بدّل دين المسيح, “The right answer to whoever corrupts the Messiah’s religion”), in response to fears that Muslims would convert to Christianity in light of a Christian polemic against Islam in Arabic.  When he left his native Harran for cities further south, such as Damascus, he must have stopped for a rest in a town which was almost entirely Christian at that time: Qara, one caravan stop south of Hims.  He opposed Muslims doing things that he had seen Christians do, because he wanted Islam to be a distinct religion that could stand on its own two feet without supporting itself with non-Muslims.  His writings must be placed in a context which includes non-Muslims; to read them without that context, as many Salafis do today, makes Ibn Taymiyya into a monster who simply glorified in calling other religions nasty names.  But instead he used polemic, as did his various contemporaries, to protect what he valued against what worried him.  He was worried that the Islam of his day was not independent enough, and too similar to the religions of Christians and Jews.

And if so strong a Muslim exceptionalist as Ibn Taymiyya must be read in light of a mixed-religious context, then the normal Muslims against whom he is arguing, who are engaging in devotional practices which Ibn Taymiyya labels imitative of non-Muslims, must even more be seen in a religiously diverse Middle Eastern context.  This becomes apparent when one reads the travel accounts of Muslim travelers such as Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217) and Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/9), as they discuss different local variations of Islam, and how Muslims of different regions interact with the non-Muslims there.  Ibn Jubayr, during a very brief stay in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, was scandalized at how easily Muslims adjusted to being ruled by non-Muslims, and he devoted a couple passages to arguing from Islamic tradition that Muslims are obliged to leave a region conquered by non-Muslims.  Ibn Battuta describes the various ways in which the Muslim Turks ruled Anatolia in the fourteenth century, when much of the population was still Greek Christian, and he complains both that he cannot find Muslims who speak Arabic, and that people in one city suspect him of being a heretic, because they never saw anyone of his branch of Sunni Islam.  Anatolian Muslims knew how to live with Greek Christians, but not Maliki Sunni Muslims.

The reason why Muslim sources so rarely discuss non-Muslims is not that there were few non-Muslims, but that the Muslim authors took the non-Muslims for granted and considered them literally unremarkable.  Nevertheless, the fact that Islam developed over centuries in a religiously diverse society had a poorly understood but readily apparent impact on the shape even of religion, to say nothing of government, law, society, culture, and art.  The history of Islam, like the history of every human phenomenon, cannot be understood without a broad analysis of the society as a whole.

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.

Found: Journalistic Differences

Journalists write stories for particular audiences.  It is widely known that in order to succeed in the business of publishing news, or what is taken as news, they need to write about what interests their intended audience.  What is less often publicly acknowledged, but no less true, is that what they write needs to be plausible enough that it is not rejected as a test of credulity (“the Loch Ness monster attacked tourists!”) or propaganda (“the Loch Ness monster works for the communists!”).  But what one audience considers plausible another considers pure fantasy or mere agitprop.  On any of the numerous contentious issues swirling around the modern Middle East, events which are considered reliable “news” to one audience are “impossible” to another, and these boundary lines often (though not always) lie along national, linguistic, and religious lines.

A news source I do not usually read reported on June 13 that the Free Syrian Army massacred the entire Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs “late last month” as they withdrew from al-Qusayr in the wake of its capture by the Assad regime.  Apart from many pictures showing damage to a church, to church property, and to houses, the text of the report is worth quoting in full (fortunately it is not too long):

More details of a massacre in Homs late last month have emerged following the global outcry of a massacre in Deir el-Zour yesterday.

The massacre, carried out by Free Syrian Army militants reportedly targeted men, women and children in the Christian village of al-Duwayr/Douar close to the city of Homs and the border with Lebanon. The incident received little media attention, having occurred at the same time as thousands of Syrian troops converged on the insurgent-occupied town of al-Qusayr.

According to sources, around 350 heavily armed militants entered the village, broke into homes and assembled residents in the main square of the village where they were executed. The final death toll is not known but photos show severe damage to property in the village.

Syrian army sources said that they reached the village after the massacre, resulting in clashes with militants. Sources also reported that Turkish and Chechen extremists were among the perpetrators. Chechen militants are known to have kidnapped two Christian bishops in Aleppo earlier this year. The following images show al-Duwayr/Douar village after the massacre:

[photos omitted]

Conditions for ethnic and religious minorities have been made increasingly worse as Free Syrian Army affiliated organisations including Jabhat al-Nusra increase ethnic and sectarian cleansing across Syria. Kidnappings, executions and assassinations are common.

Late last month, around the time of the massacre in Homs, a fifteen year old girl was kidnapped by militants in Damascus, who demanded $100,000 for her release. Miryam Jbeil, a niece Damascus-based Catholic priest Nader Jbeil, was released after a number of days in captivity.

In the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on al-Qusayr, the church was discovered to have been desecrated by Free Syrian Army militants.

This outlet reproduces this article from Syria Report, whose article dated 12 June on the subject does not cite anything, so in order to find out where Syria Report got the information from, it took some additional searching.  The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which reports on issues relevant to Assyrian Christians in the Middle East or in the diaspora, published a clearly related story on 29 May, drawn from the Fars News Agency‘s identical article dated 27 May.  Fars News Agency seems to be the original source in English.  From there the story has branched out, and especially in the past five days it has been picked up by many blogs and anti-Obama discussion forums, but by no Western news outlets.  Google News is not as effective at searching Arabic news outlets but I did eventually find an article on the Syrian news agency breakingnews.sy (Arabic, English).

The Fars News Agency’s short article reads as follows:

Armed Rebels Massacre Entire Population of Christian Village in Syria

TEHRAN (FNA)- Armed rebels attacked a village in Syria’s Western province of Homs and slaughtered all its Christian residents on Monday.

The armed rebels affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) raided the Christian-populated al-Duvair village in Reef (outskirts of) Homs near the border with Lebanon today and massacred all its civilian residents, including women and children.

The Syrian army, however, intervened and killed tens of terrorists during heavy clashes which are still going on in al-Duvair village.

The armed rebels’ attack and crimes in al-Duvair village came after they sustained heavy defeats in al-Qusseir city which has almost been set free by the Syrian army except for a few districts.

Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011 with organized attacks by well-armed gangs against Syrian police forces and border guards being reported across the country.

Hundreds of people, including members of the security forces, have been killed, when some protest rallies turned into armed clashes.

The government blames outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorist groups for the deaths, stressing that the unrest is being orchestrated from abroad.

In October 2011, calm was almost restored in the Arab state after President Assad started a reform initiative in the country, but Israel, the US and its Arab allies sought hard to bring the country into chaos through any possible means. Tel Aviv, Washington and some Arab capitals have been staging various plots to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who is well known in the world for his anti-Israeli stances.

The relevant portion of the article on breakingnews.sy reads more briefly:

The “Free Army” militia has committed a massacre on Monday 27 May, in the right of civilians in Homs countryside, as the army continued operations in al-Qusair and thwarted the infiltration of gunmen from Lebanon and killed Saudi members from al-Qaeda.

The elements of armed militia’s has broken in the village of al-Dweir in Homs countryside, committed a massacre in the right of civilians, killing women and children.

Our correspondent in Homs pointed that the army has intervened and currently is engaged in severe battles against the insurgents in the mentioned village, claiming martyrs of the army and tens of deaths in the militia’s ranks.

Our correspondent noted that the gunmen have break through the town and carried out the massacre after their major defeats in al-Qusair, which is about to fall in the army’s grip.

It is obvious that the news of Syrian rebels massacring Christians, especially the Free Syrian Army which Sen. John McCain was already campaigning to supply with weapons, looks well for the Assad regime and poorly for President Obama who has just decided to provide greater arms to that group.  Even the most cursory review of the headlines on breakingnews.sy reveals its pro-Assad stance, and of course the semi-official Fars News Agency follows Iran’s public support for the Assad regime, so it is no surprise that these news outlets would run this story.

The more important question is how much of this is true.  For many Americans, merely saying the story was found on Syrian and Iranian news outlets is enough to condemn it to implausibility, which just shows the differences of intended audiences (although my inability to find translations of this story in Farsi, Arabic, or Turkish on the Fars News Agency website may indicate that it is primarily intended for an Anglophone audience).  The reason Western news outlets have failed to report on this story is no doubt that they do not trust the source, and they do not regard it as sufficiently plausible for their audience.  But we dare not break down the world into mutually exclusive news feeds for mutually exclusive audiences; we need news from sources that do not agree with our preconceptions, in order to reveal to us our own blind spots.

Our ability to evaluate parts of this story is aided by the identification of progressively increasing sources.  The original report that portions of the Free Syrian Army massacred Christian civilians in al-Duwayr is the most important detail.  Fars News Agency states that the Free Syrian Army massacred all the inhabitants of al-Duwayr, but they probably have no source apart from the breakingnews.sy, so the “all” component can be confidently rejected.  Indeed, from the logic of the case, the breakingnews.sy article indicates that the Syrian Army engaged the Free Syrian Army in the village of al-Duwayr, which most likely indicates that the massacre cannot have killed the whole village, unless the Syrian Army interrupted the murderers in the post-execution process of looting.

It is unclear what sources Syria Report has to peg the number of militants who perpetrated the massacre at 350, or their method of rounding up the villagers in the central square.  Syria Report also comes up with a way to include both Fars News Agency’s report that “all” the villagers were killed and also breakingnews.sy’s report of Syrian Army engagement with the rebels in the village: the Syrian Army reached the village “after the massacre.”  The rest of the Syria Report article is their gloss on the situation, linking Jabhat al-Nusra with the Free Syrian Army and highlighting rising sectarianism and violence against civilians.

Finally, it is not at all clear that breakingnews.sy has correctly identified the group responsible for the attack on al-Duwayr.  Indeed, news articles from 10 March 2013 celebrate the Free Syrian Army’s “liberation” of al-Duwayr from regime control, which suggests that they were in control of the village before the massacre took place.

Unfortunately it is only too plausible that a massacre took place in the Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs.  Sources favorable to the Assad regime blame the Free Syrian Army, the group to which US President Obama has just promised weapons.  The absence of counter-claims by the rebels suggests that at least some rebel group probably did carry out the massacre.  Their motive is less clear; the contemporaneous battle for al-Qusayr may indicate that looting was the desired goal, or perhaps a desire not to leave anything that would help the regime when it came into town, but it is unlikely that the Christian village of al-Duwayr had any equipment that would be useful to either side.  Some graffiti in the ruined church indicates an Islamist rejection of other religions (to a degree not required by shari’a), but it is not clear whether this graffiti was the tag on the church or the motive for the entire attack.  If the fighters had recently escaped from a siege in al-Qusayr, they may have been primarily after food.  But like so many other war crimes and works of opportunistic violence during the Syrian Civil War, the actual chain of events along with any possibility of justice in this situation may be lost beyond recovery.

Who are Syria’s “good guys”?

US President Barack Obama decided this week that American weapons will be supplied to the Free Syrian Army under Brigadier-General Salim Idris.  Of course, the announcement was made in advance of next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland to put the US in a better bargaining position relative to Russia with regard to the Syria issue.  This is especially necessary since Russia secured the “in principle” agreement of the Assad government to the “Geneva 2” peace talks originally scheduled for this month, which have now been pushed back indefinitely since the US failed to secure from the Syrian National Coalition.  Amid wide-ranging media speculation about the precise extent and nature of the US military aid, it is important to know a bit more about who will be receiving the materiel in Syria.

Salim Idris (سليم ادريس) is the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.  Born in 1957 to a poor farming family south of Homs, he enlisted at a young age in the Syrian army. He was trained in electrical engineering in Dresden in East Germany from 1977 until at least 1990, earning a master’s degree in 1984 and a doctorate in 1990.  He spent twenty years as a professor of electrical engineering at the Military Engineering Academy in Aleppo.  Previously a brigadier general in the Syrian Army, he defected from supporting the Assad regime to the Free Syrian Army, then under the command of Colonel Riad al-As’ad (رياض الأسعد), in July 2012.

In December 2012, a meeting of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army retained Colonel al-As’ad as symbolic Commander-in-Chief but reorganized the structure to create a Supreme Military Council with Salim Idris at its head and five deputy chiefs of staff under him.  It is not clear to me from the Wikipedia article how these deputy chiefs of staff line up with the nine regional commanders of the FSA reported in the English Wikipedia article, with regional military councils in eight of the fourteen governorates of Syria: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dar’a, and perhaps Latakia and Dayr al-Zawr (the commanders of these latter two provinces are listed as “unknown”).  The army is reportedly based in Idlib province.

In assessing how likely weapons supplied to the Supreme Military Council are to end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida, there are several factors in play.  One is how much of the weaponry will be expended in the war with the regime, but that is difficult to predict.  Another is how much central control the Supreme Military Council has over the use of weapons.  A third is what connections the central command has with al-Qa’ida aligned rebels.  An excellent Reuters article quoted Abu Nidal, a fighter in the Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, to say that while they are not formally part of the Free Syrian Army, they fight “in formation” with the FSA, which presumably involves sharing weaponry.  An earlier Reuters article from the time of the reorganization indicated that at least two of Idris’ deputy chiefs of staff are “Islamists”: ‘Abd al-Basit Tawil from Idlib and ‘Abd al-Qadr Salih from Aleppo.  I have not yet been able to find any additional information about these two and their “Islamist” connections.

Per a reader suggestion, I am constructing a list of military groups in Syria for easy reference, but that will take some time.  I may post unfinished draft versions of that page in the process of development.