Reading along in a late medieval Persian history, I came across the Arabic quotation “ما لا عين رأت ولا اذن سمعت” (“What eye has not seen, nor ear heard”). Most such Arabic quotations in this work are taken from the Qur’an or the hadith, and the editor has identified all the Qur’anic citations, but not those from the hadith. But since I am skimming this history not for religious themes but for political events, I generally skip the quotations. This one was different: I had seen that phrase before, in another language. The apostle Paul had written in 1 Corinthians 2:9: ἃ ὀφθαλμὸς οὐκ εἶδεν καὶ οὗς οὐκ ἢκουσεν καὶ ἐπὶ καρδίαν ἀνθρώπου οὐκ ἀνέβη, ἃ ἡτοίμασεν ὁ θεὸς τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν (“The things that eye has not seen and ear has not heard and have not come up upon a person’s heart, are the things that God has prepared for those who love him”; NA27). Could it be that a late medieval Persian author was quoting the New Testament? That would be very surprising. Continue reading
(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
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
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
Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) was a popular preacher and Muslim legal scholar in Damascus under Mamluk rule. He is primarily remembered for writing polemics against almost everyone (Jews, Christians, Alawites, Twelver Shiites, wild Sufis, the Mongols who had recently converted to Islam, Persian speakers, Sunni Muslims who engage in popular practices such as shrine visitation and praying to saints), and the famous traveler Ibn Battuta described him as having “some kink in his brain” (Gibb trans.). He is a leading authority cited by Wahhabis and other Salafis today. So one does not expect him to be a main resource on the religion of his opponents. But in reading this week from one of his polemics (against those Muslims who participate in non-Muslim festivals), I came across his account of what happened on Palm Sunday, a version of the events which I had never heard:
A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia. A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation. Both are worth reading.
By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events. The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion. It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures. When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else. Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.
Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading
The head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, one of five claimants to the ancient title Patriarch of Antioch, passed away on March 21, and was soon buried in Saydnaya outside Damascus. (“Mor” is an honorific title meaning “my lord,” given to all Syriac bishops.) The council of bishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church selected on March 31 his successor (official announcement), the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of the Eastern United States, Mor Cyril Karim, who will take the regnal name Mor Ignatius Aphrem II Karim. The new patriarch was born in Qamishli, on the Syrian border with Turkey, according to an article published on the archdiocese website, and as patriarch he intends to move back to Damascus, which has been the seat of the patriarchate since the mid-20th C (before that is was briefly in Homs, and from 1293 to 1915 it was at Dayr al-Zafaran outside of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, although until 1445 there was a rival Syrian Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus).
Of course, there is still a civil war going on in Syria, though the statement by the Patriarch-elect that “I believe [that] me moving to Damascus will give Syriac-Orthodox and other Christians hope to remain in our beloved Syria, a country that is named after our nation” indicates he hopes to help the Christians in Syria rebuild after the violence. Nevertheless, since he has been the metropolitan of the eastern USA, it would not be surprising if the Syrian government were to view him with some suspicion. This disjuncture may be one of the factors which underlie the fact that out of 41 votes from the council of bishops he only received 23 (56%), a small majority. He will certainly need to build bridges with sectors of the episcopate which favored other candidates if he is to lead the Syrian Orthodox Church effectively through this crisis.
The council of bishops was also noticeably missing a key voice: Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, who along with the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji of Aleppo was abducted a year ago. Before his abduction, some were saying that Ibrahim might make a good patriarch some day, and I have even heard speculation that Ibrahim’s abduction was orchestrated by a group outside the church which wanted to prevent him from becoming patriarch! (Middle Eastern expats are great for generating conspiracy theories.) In any event, it is unclear whether the election of a new (and comparatively young) Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch will affect the attempts to locate and release the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo. But I expect it will be on the new patriarch’s list of goals.
I haven’t been blogging much recently, in large part due to other duties (including securing employment), but also due to not feeling I needed to contribute much to the discussion of the unsurprisingly fruitless “Geneva 2” dialogues, convened with the nearly impossible goal of halting the Syrian Civil War, or the ongoing Turkish political contest between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s government and his opponents, allegedly spearheaded by Fethullah Gülen‘s movement.
Now, of course, all eyes are looking to the Crimea to see whether it will play the role that Serbia played in the outbreak of World War I, exactly a century ago this summer. (Those who scoff at the thought that a large war might break out should know that similar disbelief also preceded the first two world wars.) But while the world looks away, actors in the Syrian Civil War may try to take advantage of their freedom from scrutiny. The regime army is forcefully pressing the offensive to capture Yabrud and the Qalamun ridge, both to cut off rebel supply lines from Lebanon and to link the two loyalist strongholds of Damascus and the coast. Meanwhile, the extreme end of the rebellion, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has issued a proclamation from its headquarters in al-Raqqa on the Euphrates that Christians under their rule must choose between conversion to Islam, paying jizya (a special humiliating tax on non-Muslims), or death. And the jizya tax is no merely nominal fee; it’s a substantial toll.
But the world’s distraction with the Crimea may prove an opportunity not only for those within Syria, but for outside actors as well, since not all countries are equally distracted. Syria’s most important international ally, Russia, now has its military committed to a cause much closer to home than the Syrian Civil War, while the Western allies of the non-jihadi opposition (especially the USA and the UK) are also thinking more about the Ukraine than small Mediterranean countries these days, even if they have not (yet) committed to a military response. On the other hand, both regime and rebel allies within the Middle East (Hezbollah and Iran on the regime side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the rebel side) are perhaps less concerned with the developments far to their north than they are with the progress of the conflict close to hand. So right now the Crimean crisis may be reducing the scale of international involvement in the Syrian Civil War, limiting it to a regional level (although still with plenty of regional money flowing around and far too many casualties). On the other hand, it would be easier for the USA than for Russia to split its attention between the Crimea and Syria, due to its greater distance from Ukraine and its lesser military commitment, so the Americans may decide to try to make this an opportunity to force through their own desired outcome to the Syrian Civil War while the Russians are in less of a position to object.
(Indeed, some voices in the USA are actively urging increased and swift American action to take advantage of Russia’s diversion. This piece reminds readers that, as awful as the Crimean crisis is, more people continue to be killed in Syria than the Ukraine. But the most interesting portion of the analysis for me was the suggestion that the Russian invasion of the Crimea might make China more interested in compromise on Syria. On the other hand, this piece seeks Russian consistency regarding the Ukraine and Syria and finds it in “putting [Russia’s] own interest ahead of peaceful solutions regardless of what the US and international community wish to see as an outcome.” It is hardly a surprise, and hardly unique to Russia, to put one’s national interests ahead of the welfare of outsiders; indeed, President Obama has appealed to US national interests to justify military intervention in Syria.)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be aware of his vulnerability to increased American attention while Russia is distracted with the Ukraine, which may be why he recently commended the Russian invasion of the Crimea (perhaps as much to remind the Kremlin that he exists; his statement of support will certainly not change any other country’s mind in favor of Russian intervention) and why the government has started drumming up displays of “popular” support for the president. (This interpretation would suggest that the Syrian regime is not as self-confident as suggested by this article, although I found the piece very helpfully thought-provoking.) But Vladimir Putin certain cares far more about the Ukraine than about Syria. Since I’m a historian and not a prophet, I don’t predict the future, but the international crisis north of the Black Sea may rapidly change the landscape of possibilities east of the Mediterranean, depending on which countries prove most adept at dividing their attentions.
Today I read a commentary by Fr. Samir Khalil Samir on the sections regarding Islam in Pope Francis‘s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium from last November. Fr. Samir is a well-regarded scholar of Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic Studies, as well as a Jesuit from Egypt. As usual, I do not agree with everything he says about Islam, but he does have more experience than most people in actual inter-religious dialogue. It is necessary to warn that the summary at the top just under the title significantly skews the balance of Fr. Samir’s remarks as a whole, so do not judge the whole based solely on the abstract. I link to the article here as a thought-provoking perspective.
A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon. Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country. In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law. It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.
Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading. In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself. An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East? The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer. In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century. In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century. There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula). Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.
One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war. When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000). A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt. When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto. The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.
And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East. Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam. On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists. After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police. That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law. But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.
What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society. They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society. Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past. And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous. (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.) I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.
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.