Tag Archives: women

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

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

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Non-Muslim Significance? The View from Below

Historians have a source problem.  In order to talk about the past, we need sources.  Anything else is just fiction.  But the available sources are not neutral, evenly distributed, or representative.  Sources that exist had enough going for them that they were created in the first place, and then available sources are the selection of all created sources which have survived the many possibilities for destruction over time.  The first clause favors the creation of sources from the viewpoints of those who have power, wealth, leisure, and sufficient education.  The second clause favors the preservation of sources which are continuously in use, well treasured, or buried in Egyptian sand.  Both of these limitations affect pre-modern history more forcefully than modern: literacy rates were lower, so fewer people were able to preserve their viewpoints, and the acid of time has eaten away more of what was written.  But even sources for modern history only represent the powerful enough and literate enough classes, and some modern sources still disappear before they can be copied.

The result is that dominant classes produce a disproportionate weight of source material.  This is why, despite the fact that men and women have made up nearly equal proportions of almost all human populations, the vast majority of pre-modern sources were written by men (and were usually primarily about men).  The majority of pre-modern sources were written by the ruling class (or by members of the educated class who wished to be ruling) or even more narrowly by government employees, and again, almost always about the ruling class or the state.  The upper crust has never evinced much curiosity about how the rest live, and for much of human history the rest have been too busy trying to live to be able to preserve very much of anything in writing.  The result is that, until the middle of the 20th century, almost all history being written was the history of the rulers.  Since the mid-20th century, the mystery of the rest of the population has intrigued historians who have attempted to answer questions about the lives of women, children, farmers and other workers, slaves, ethno-religious minorities (such as European Jews), social deviants, and various other groups which are under-represented in the source materials which survive.  History is the history of the society, not merely of those segments with the power to create and preserve source materials.

What does any of this have to do with non-Muslims in the Middle East?

Sources written by and for non-Muslims open up to historians viewpoints which are under-represented in Middle Eastern history.  Almost all the widely known sources in Middle Eastern history, before the 19th C, were written by the ʿulamaʾ, the Islamic religious class who were experts in questions of religion and also almost always in the employment of the state (or wishing to be).  They were useful to the state because they were literate (and state records require literacy, as do diplomatic correspondences) and because they could justify the state’s legitimacy to the ruled.  But just like the preponderance of Medieval European sources being written by clergy, this shared religious class shapes the nature of the source materials.  These ʿulamaʾ had very little interest in non-Muslims except when they got in the way (and thus the ʿulamaʾ wrote polemical treatises about how Muslim rulers should not employ non-Muslims, which only a few Muslim rulers in fact agreed with).  Thus the “mainstream” sources in Middle Eastern history present a falsely unified picture of a dominantly Muslim society.

This mirage of cultural unity has not been interrogated by Middle Eastern historians, but in the magisterial work of Marshall Hodgson has been canonized as the “reality” of the medieval Middle East.  (His Venture of Islam is truly a magnificent accomplishment, and half a century later is still a touchstone for so much scholarship, and he outdid most of his heirs in putting the Middle East in the context of world history.  It’s just the assertion that the medieval Islamic world was “culturally unified” from Morocco to Indonesia is not only false; it’s preposterous.)

In medieval Europe, historians can turn to the Jewish sources and increasing numbers of vernacular sources to act as a check on the clerical sources, in order to attempt to counter-balance any clerical balance.  Still, this is very difficult for the early and high Middle Ages.

In the Middle East, highly literate non-Muslim elites produced reams of sources ranging from the Cairo Geniza to the world chronicles of Bar ʿEbroyo, and they usually did so without large amounts of government patronage (often in a language which the government could not read, providing broader freedom of expression).  These sources allow us to verify and check the court histories produced to flatter the rulers or the confessional bias of too narrowly religious histories.  They are thus an invaluable resource for triangulating the past relative to the dominant religious discourse.  Yet they remain under-studied, often considered the domain only of sectarian scholars and odd ducks who don’t deal with “mainstream” Middle Eastern history.  But sources by non-Muslims, written in whatever language, are as much about the history of Middle Eastern society as any source from the ʿulamaʾ, and they provide perspectives which cannot be found among sources written by the ʿulamaʾ.

While the modern period provides a broader range of non-elite sources by Muslims, thus making non-Muslim sources less distinctive for the purpose of counter-balancing ʿulamaʾ sources, even in the modern period non-Muslim sources serve a distinctive function.  As non-Muslims became a demographic minority, they often (though not always) experienced greater isolation from the resources of the state and what services it offered.  Nevertheless, non-Muslims in the Middle East were frequently disproportionately literate, relative to Muslims with similar financial means and access to the government.  Due to this greater downward penetration of literacy, non-Muslim sources can reveal a broader range of what was going on among the lower ranks of Middle Eastern society, and non-Muslims can act as a “canary in a coal mine” to reveal all sorts of phenomena which would be otherwise invisible to historians.  Thus non-Muslim sources are especially valuable to Middle Eastern sources for providing a non-governmental perspective, and in modern times even a “view from below.”

Non-Muslim Significance? The Advantages of Marginalia

Religious minorities serve a valuable function in allowing scholars and careful thinkers to distinguish religious from social and environmental factors in their analysis.  If, to take a counter-factual, it were the case that all Muslims were Middle Eastern and all non-Muslims were not, then it would be unclear whether any given aspect of Middle Eastern society was related to Islam as a religion, or related to the type of government, or geographic factors, or anything else.  One could reason about the nature of the causes, of course, but in the absence of disjunctive populations (the non-overlapping lobes of a Venn diagram), it would not be possible to test these hypotheses.

Fortunately, this is a counter-factual, despite the sloppy thinking of many who simply equate “Middle Eastern” with “Muslim.”  In the first instance, it is a counter-factual because not all Muslims are Middle Eastern.  Something that is true of Moroccans and Indonesians, for example, is more likely to be due to a common Islamic understanding than due to environmental factors distinctive to the eastern Mediterranean basin.  Something thought to be “Islamic” but unique to the Middle East is less likely to be related to the religion.  But the other half of the conditional is equally false: not all Middle Easterners are Muslim.  If something is true only of the Sunnis and Shiʿites in the Middle East, then religion seems a more likely factor than if the same is true also for Jews and Christians in the Middle East.

For example, much of “Islamic” art is stylistically very similar to decorations in Christian manuscripts, which is not surprising since at least into the medieval period many of the workers producing “Islamic” art for elite Muslim patrons were themselves Christian.  It was not unusual for Syriac manuscripts into the 20th C to open with a textual decoration resembling a monumental doorway, and the architecture of many mosques shared features in common with Middle Eastern churches from late antiquity onward.  The distinctive Arabic calligraphic style, on the other hand, depended on the Arabic language and script, which most non-Muslim literate elites did not adopt until after the calligraphy had begun to develop in the medieval period.  Now, however, it has been adopted by Christians as well as Muslims.

(Parenthetically, the existence of Christian groups outside of Europe also provides an opportunity for European historians to distinguish which aspects of their medieval culture were due to Christianity and which were due to the fact that the medieval European nobility were a barely civilized thug-ocracy.  The Jewish population of medieval Europe can also play a disambiguating role analogous to the various non-Muslim groups of the Middle East.  But that is for European historians to benefit from.)

Another example, this time from women’s history, shows that not even aspects of religion can be safely assumed to be explainable by religion alone.  Women in medieval mosques were assigned to pray in the back, behind the men.  There is a hadith in which Muhammad reportedly said that the best rows for women to pray in are the back ones, and the best rows for men are the front ones.  Since these traditional sayings were considered normative in medieval Islam (or at least some of them, in certain ways), the case seems to be closed: the religion of Islam was the cause for women being relegated behind the men in religious services.  But before we leave the subject, we might observe that in Christian churches in Iraq until the early modern period women were also placed in the back of the sanctuary, and two doors in the side of the church provided separate entrances for men and women.  (Interestingly, the Bible was read from a platform on the gender line, while communion was consecrated at the front altar.  I haven’t yet figured out whether women went forward to receive communion or whether communion was brought to the women’s side.)  Now, these Christians were not likely reading the hadith collection, nor regarding it as normative.  Is the gender divide of medieval Middle Eastern religious architecture, Christian as well as Muslim, due to religion, or due to trans-religious cultural assumptions regarding gender and space?

Failure to pay attention to the disjunctions in the Venn diagram leads to a disproportionate tendency among scholars to explain aspects of Middle Eastern society with reference to Islam.  The result relegates non-Muslims to insignificance, but it does so due to an unarticulated circular argument.  Only closer attention to Middle Eastern non-Muslims would allow scholars to discern the true significance and social effects of Islam.

The Human Dimension of Syria’s Conflict

This past week, US Secretary of State John Kerry toured the largest Syrian refugee camp, the Za’atari camp in Jordan, and encountered “the human side of this crisis,” as he put it.  Indeed, the situation in the camp is very difficult, so difficult that thousands of Syrians have left the camp to return to the civil war in Syria.  There has been intermittent reporting about the endemic sexual violence suffered by women in these camps.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War, as seen in the Za’atari refugee camp, is very bleak.

But it is also only one side of the suffering.  Three weeks ago the LA Times ran an interesting piece on two religious minority shrine enclaves, the town of Saydnaya with its ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of the Virgin and the Sayyida Zaynab suburb of Damascus with its grave of Zaynab, the daughter of ‘Ali and Muhammad‘s daughter Fatima.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War includes besieged minorities expecting to be annihilated if the regime falls.

One quotation in each of these articles stood out to me:

  • “A 43-year-old woman in a tan jacket and gray headscarf asked Kerry what the U.S. is waiting for. As a superpower, the U.S. could change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes, the woman said. Like other refugees, she asked not to be named for security reasons.”
  • “‘I have a question for you,’ Azar [the head of Saydnaya’s defense] asks a visiting U.S. reporter. ‘Why does America want all the Christians out of the Middle East?'”

The first quotation shows how the myth of American omnipotence is taken for granted among refugees, generating a lot of anger at US failure to take their side in the conflict.  The second quotation shows how the unintended consequences of previous US interventions in the Middle East, such as the targeting of the Iraqi Christian population in the sectarian violence following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

These pieces are best read together to get a sense of the multiple human sides to a conflict which has torn Syria apart.  What is clear is that there are no good options for anyone in this war.  What is often forgotten is that none of the fighting forces, rebel or loyalist, are “the good guys.”

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.

Two Interesting Reads on Syria

I came across two interesting articles today on the situation in Syria, one from CNN on the experience of Syrian refugee women, and one from the Arab Orthodoxy blog giving highlights from the United States House of Representatives Joint Subcommittee Hearing on Religious Minorities in Syria.  I of course do not endorse what is expressed in others’ testimony during the hearing, but I share these links for their interest and representation of less frequently heard viewpoints.