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:
Last night President Barack Obama announced that US military would be conducting two missions in Iraq. The first, already started when he made the announcement, is dropping food and water supplies on the besieged civilians, mostly Yezidis, in the Sinjar mountains after their city of Sinjar was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after reports of deaths due to dehydration among the children. ISIS regards Yezidis as a devilish sect to be exterminated. The second US mission is to use airstrikes to prevent ISIS from posing a threat to American personnel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Baghdad.
Not all analysts support US military intervention in Iraq; one cogent statement of the case against airstrikes is here. I agree with almost the entirety of that argument, and have repeatedly written against US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Why should the US intervene in Iraq, but not Syria? Basically, there is no way for the US to do more good than harm in Syria, but the costs of letting ISIS continue to terrorize Iraq and Syria outweigh those of striking ISIS, not only for Iraqis, but for the world. Continue reading
I was in Aleppo during the last World Cup. It was the end of June 2010, before the “Arab Spring” and before the Syrian uprising. Flags were everywhere, mostly Brazilian flags. The Assad regime’s normal sensitivity to the public display of other country’s national symbols was waived for the World Cup, when Aleppines of every creed and none advertised which team they were cheering for by flying flags from their balconies or even hanging them from their upstairs neighbors’ balconies to completely shade their own. Newsstands were selling flags of all sorts of countries for the fans. To look around the neighborhoods I visited, it seemed that top-ranked Brazil had the largest number of fans in Syria’s commercial capital. One warm summer night, I was kept awake by shouting in the streets below and firecrackers; this was the victory celebration for the fans of one team or another. When the Netherlands eliminated Brazil in the quarter-finals, some Dutch friends of mine joked that they should not go outdoors.
After over three years of civil war, it’s hard to remember the rhythms of normal life in Syria before. Although the US government tried to isolate the Syrian regime as a Russian ally and a supporter of terrorism, because of its alliance with Hezbollah, many Americans thought of Syria, if at all, as a tourist destination with some amazing Roman ruins and medieval mosques. The violence has made Syria more notorious now, linked with chemical weapons, dictatorship, and terrorism. The colorful flags of the 2010 World Cup have been removed, replaced in most of the country by the more sober red, white, and black of the Assad dynasty and the all-black standard of the al-Qa’ida affiliates. The violence being committed now will leave long shadows on the Syrian population, even after the fighting stops. But once the fighting stops, however it stops, the Syrians will need to rebuild a civil society. And to do so, they will need to remember a day when sports loyalties generated good-natured rivalries which could be advertized in green, yellow, and blue from open balconies.
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
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.
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.
The Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star reported today that efforts to release the two bishops of Aleppo who were abducted in April 2013 are, according to the Lebanese intelligence chief seeking their release, “complicated” but “on the right track.” Due to the sensitivity of the situation, he said, he could not give any details. The same intelligence chief helped secure the release of the abducted nuns of Maaloula earlier this month, so he could be in the know. I have previously questioned the veracity of leaked reports about the whereabouts of Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji by people who clearly stood to gain from the publicity, and some news reports have simply “stirred the pot.” But I must confess I don’t know Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s profile and where he might fit in Lebanese (and Syrian) politics. So I can only hope that this news is real, and may lead to the end of these bishops’ captivity.