Tag Archives: Palestinians

Non-Muslim Significance? The Danger of Oversimplification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Found: Disunity

Many Americans have a simplistic view of “all Arabs” being the same.  (Or is it “all Muslims”?  The two phrases are usually synonymous, and sometimes includes Sikhs.)  I just read a news article that lays out the political differences between the member states of the Arab League clearly and concisely.  I thought I’d link to it here, mostly for myself, so I can find it again later.

A Middle Eastern Perspective on Evangelii Gaudium

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.

Is Egypt Catching the Common Coup?

A military coup deposed and jailed an elected president, also jailing the leaders of his party and suspending the constitution.  This is Egypt in 2013, but it could also be Turkey in 1960.  Indeed, many observers familiar with varieties of Middle Eastern democracy see familiar signs of Turkey’s brand of military-guarded democracy in Egypt’s current events.  CBC reports some similarities between the two countries, but the article refers only tersely to “covert coups and postmodern coups.”  This phrase refers to the alleged 1993 covert military coup and the 1997 resignation of Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in response to a military ultimatum.

Those observers who still wrestle with whether to label the Egyptian army’s intervention in politics last week a “coup” or not can replace every instance of the word “coup” with “ouster of the elected president under the alleged aegis of ‘popular sentiment’ represented by an uncounted number of protesters.”  But I think when the commander-in-chief of the armed forces reads a decree which suspends the constitution, deposes the government, and has immediate force of governing law, followed by arrests of said leaders by soldiers, all the evidence points toward a military coup.  Besides, “coup” is so much shorter than the alternative 19-word phrase.

But this Turkish model of Middle Eastern democracy, kept on a leash by the military to ensure its secularism, has probably been broken by current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had several hundred military personnel, including very senior generals, arrested and prosecuted for planning a coup.  It may have been the success of that maneuver, and the fear of a military coup, which led Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi to order the former commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, Husayn Tantawi, to retire.  Nevertheless, Mursi was deposed by a military headed by his own appointee as defense minister, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, perhaps attracted to the prior Turkish model for the power it gave the military.

But a military-policed democracy is not the only model for elections in the Middle East (even leaving aside the single-party “democracies” such as Syria and supreme monarchies such as Saudi Arabia):

  • Iran polices its democracy by means of a “supreme leader” appointed for life, who also commands the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards which exist to protect the “principles of the Islamic Revolution” of 1979, thus resulting in a military-clerical establishment which differs from the Turkish military-led democracy primarily in the beards of the men who call the shots.
  • Lebanon has a balkanized government which ensures that various religious groups have control of particular posts (the president is a Maronite Christian, the speaker for the parliament is Shi’ite, and the prime minister is Sunni, and parliamentary posts are allocated based on the population reported in the 1932 census).
  • In Israel voters choose parties rather than candidates, and the leaders of the parties parcel out the parliamentary seats between them based on their proportion of the popular vote; only then does the parliament elect the prime minister without consulting the populace.  Of course, Palestinians do not have a vote in choosing the government which approves plans for new Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and whose military operates checkpoints restricting their freedom of motion.
  • Jordan‘s king appoints members of the upper parliamentary “House of Senators,” while the lower “House of Deputies” is elected by the people, although opposition voices complain that the elections are rigged.

Each of these models is flawed in various ways, but it is not clear what other models of Middle Eastern democracy are available to Egypt.  The post-2011 Libyan government has not yet written a constitution, and Sudan has its own military president following a 1989 coup.  Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi was convicted in absentia to execution, a sentence widely believed to be a political move by Iraq’s Shi’ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.   Tunisia’s government has also not re-solidified following the 2011 revolution, and if Turkey has achieved a post-military democractic system, it remains to be seen how well it will fare.  Although one frequently hears calls for “democracy,” the single word covers a wide range of governmental practices, and implementing a practical democracy is more challenging than calling for elections.