Archive - September 2014

1
ISIS and Religion, continued
2
“ISIS” Bans Art and Literature, We Should Promote These
3
A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum
4
Required Reading on Religious Freedom
5
Dare we hope? The fate of Egyptian rights defenders.
6
Update on CCHR Dissident Yara Sallam
7
Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word
8
In Solidarity With a Great Dissident
9
Soft Power Needed, Too
10
Islamic militants and violence against women and girls

ISIS and Religion, continued

On September 10 President Obama delivered a televised address on the “Islamic State,” a.k.a. ISIS, a.k.a. ISIL, and America’s determination to defeat and destroy it.  At the outset the President stated that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”

It may seem presumptuous for a U.S. President to pronounce on what is and is not true to a given religion – particularly since this President does not adhere to the religion in question.  Political leaders, however, use words not primarily to describe the world as it is, but to move and steer people.  A President must be a rhetorician or he is not much of a President.  So we must receive this as a savvy piece of rhetoric, designed both to persuade non-Muslims and Muslims alike that ISIS is violating the tenets of Islam.

But what is the truth?  Is ISIS Islamic?

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is grounded in sacred texts, some passages of which call on the righteous to kill the unrighteous, others of which depict them doing so.  Over the millennia, in various times and places adherents to all three of these religions have used these texts to justify their own violence.  Yet, most Muslims, Christians, and Jews never kill innocent people, and the leading theologians and clergy of all three today certainly do not condone their doing so.

Modern history has been plagued by a number of ideologies that do condone the killing of innocents – although these took pains to portray the innocent as guilty.  Nazism is the first to come to mind.  Communism as practiced by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot also is on the list.  These were grand narratives that told people that their discontents were caused by some malignancy in the world, personified in a group of people, and that they needed to kill those people to rid the world of the malignancy.

We might think of these murderous ideologies as branches of trees.  The branches sprout and flourish when some of the faithful come to believe that God’s plan requires, in the here and now, direct violent action by them to purify the world.  Genocidal communism was a secular ideology, growing out of less lethal (although still oppressive) forms of communism.  Nazism is best thought of as a pagan ideology, appealing to a mixture of pre-Christian myths and a de-Judaized “German Christianity.”  Radical Islamism or violent jihadism, as practiced by ISIS, is an ideological branch of Islamism, itself an ideology that declares that the faithful must live under state-enforced Sharia.  In turn, Islamism is a branch growing out of the religion of Islam.

Looked at in this way, Islam does not reduce to ISIS, nor does ISIS somehow express or reveal the essence of Islam.  At the same time, it does grow out of Islam.  President Obama’s attempt to separate the violent ideology from the religion could actually be harmful, because it implies that the West can defeat ISIS just as well as Muslims can.  If it is nothing but a nihilistic movement, a collective psychopathy unrelated to Islam, then Arabs may as well stand aside and let America handle it.

The truth, then, is that although Obama and other Western leaders must keep their countries safe from terrorism, and join with Muslim leaders in defeating ISIS, in the end it is up to Muslims to destroy this virulent branch that is now attacking the trunk from which it grows.

 

“ISIS” Bans Art and Literature, We Should Promote These

The new school curriculum for Mosul issued by the so-called Islamic State bans, among other topics, art, music, and literature.

In banning these I believe they are telling us in no uncertain terms what they fear. Nuance and complexity are precisely the threat their rigid, black-and-white mindset cannot handle.

We should heed this. While we may not be able to intervene immediately in Mosul itself at the level of local arts, in other areas of the world with populations vulnerable to recruitment into this movement we should support programs which foster capacity to handle nuance and complexity.

Foster the arts. Support local arts teachers. Help local communities host music festivals. Support local arts business such as publishers, book stores, and book distributors. Develop programs for aspiring creative writers. Make sure literature is available in public, school, prison, and refugee camp libraries.

Refugee camps are particularly important. Not only are there young people there vulnerable to recruitment into extremist movements, but also these are the populations which will need to play a vital role in rebuilding their societies post-conflict.

The arts, by flowing out of rather than opposing human complexity, can help foster a rich understanding of what the human person is. Complexity and ambiguity abound in human life. Developing capacities to comprehend and work with, rather than against, this inherent complexity and ambiguity in human life can contribute to cultures which are open to the complex, nuanced, and deeply human processes such as justice and reconciliation which are among the cornerstones of flourishing societies.

The so-called Islamic State is telling us what they fear. So we should bring it on. Wage art, wage music, wage literature – even if not directly in Mosul at this moment, then at the very least all around it until we can help bring art, music, and literature back to Mosul.

A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum

Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently wrote the following concerning the referendum on Scottish independence that will take place on Thursday:

So a new idea of citizenship is emerging. It is not cosmopolitanism if that means that national loyalties do not matter. It is a citizenship that upholds national identities while recognising the benefits of shared sovereignty – the kind of citizenship Scottish people can understand: being Scottish, British, European and a citizen with connections with a world wider even than that. It is not abstract: it represents how people now live their lives – connected constantly through mobiles and the internet, able to communicate with anyone, in any part of the world, at any time – involving an identity that is, for individuals, more a matter of choice than at any time in history.

Brown’s intervention is in the context of his support for keeping Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. What is interesting is he puts it in terms of global citizenship, something that one wouldn’t expect in a debate between two sides that seemed very fixed on their understandings of nation and nationalism. Brown’s point, here and in other places, is that the United Kingdom can and will change, but devolving into smaller sovereign nation states is not the way to go. Rather, a new kind of citizenship and a new constitution is necessary to bind the UK together and simultaneously give it the chance to become part of the world in a different way.

His arguments have a strong appeal for me. Brown’s understanding of cosmopolitanism is close to my own – a mix of local, national, regional, and global orientations that allows us to understand and act in the global political sphere in new and interesting ways.

I know that for many in this country, Brown is a polarizing figure. His role as Chancellor under Tony Blair was part of the New Labour process of shifting the United Kingdom toward more neoliberal economic policies. And his tenure as Prime Minister was filled with stories of bullying and poor governance. But since leaving 10 Downing Street, Brown has embodied the kind of cosmopolitanism he describes above – he advocates for his own small constituency in Fife yet continues to speak on issues of national and global importance. Unlike his predecessor, whose cosmopolitanism is the jet setting world of the corporate executive, Brown’s cosmopolitanism is Scottish, British, European and global.

Many friends and colleagues have strong views on the independence debate, and even in my own family we do not all agree on what is the best route for Scotland. Much of the argument for independence has focused on economics and culture, both of which are important. What I like about Brown’s point, though, is that it’s about politics, the kind of politics that I think is most important – citizenship, constitutionalism, cosmopolitanism. Moreover, these are concepts that are not distant and unimportant in the debate, but actually underlie the more prominent issues of currency, pensions, and the future of the NHS.

There are, of course, very good political arguments on the side of independence. They include the centrality of self-determination, disparities in power, and a vision of social justice in Scotland that is more progressive than the current UK government. But too many of these arguments for the Yes campaign remain insular and localised. I believe, like Gordon Brown – and like other important figures such as Pope Francis – that division and borders are not necessarily good things. Rather, I want a Scotland and United Kingdom that is part of the world in a new way.

In fact, the reason I can’t vote in this referendum is partly the result of the sovereign state system that creates artificial barriers. I’m an American citizen who has worked in the United Kingdom for 10 years. Two of my children were born here. Citizens of EU countries and some former Commonwealth countries residing here can vote, but for reasons that perhaps have more to do with the United States than with the United Kingdom, I don’t have that opportunity. Brown’s vision of a different kind of world, one in which a kind of global citizenship creates new opportunities for political engagement might allow me to vote on my own future (truth be told, I have indefinite leave to remain and am only not a citizen because I don’t want to pay the exorbitant fees – but why should I have to pay money to become a citizen?).

An independent Scotland might be able to engage in the world in this new way, and if the vote goes for independence, I hope it will. But I think the danger of nationalism, a negative nationalism that wants to find conspiracies and dangers in those ‘down South’ will only lead to further divisions. I agree with Yes campaigners that having a say in how you are governed is really important. And, there is certainly no guarantee that a united United Kingdom will create the kind of cosmopolitan representativeness that Brown advocates. But it gets closer to the global politics that I support, one that sees through and beyond the insularity of a single sovereign state to a wider global constitutional order.

Required Reading on Religious Freedom

Two pieces are worth reading on the religious freedom theme.  One is Ross Douthat’s piece in the Sunday New York Times, “The Middle East’s Friendless Christians.” Reflecting on Senator Ted Cruz walking off the stage amidst boos in speaking to a recent summit of Middle East Christian leaders, Douthat explains why Christians in the Middle East are a battered, forgotten minority, both in their region and in the American political system.

The other is Thomas Farr’s recent testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, republished on the website of First Things.  A former foreign service officer whose last stint in the State Department was directing the Office of International Religious Freedom, Farr now directs the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.  In his testimony, he takes up U.S. policy towards the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and argues, as I have, that more than guns are needed to defeat them.  Whereas I stressed the crucial need for political reconciliation among fractured groups, Farr stresses religious freedom.  Why?  Because, like John Owen, he stresses that the religious ideas of the Islamic State matter; the group’s rise cannot be chalked up to poverty, a reaction to western imperialism, or some other external factor.  Ideas matter.  Theology matters.  And the antidote for extreme religious ideas is a regime of religious freedom, where such ideas cannot dictate and dominate through repression.

 

A glimmer of hope seemed to emerge from Egypt this morning. According to various news reports, Alaa Abdel Fattah was released on bail following his conviction in absentia in June over charges of violating a 2013 law that seeks to curtail protests (Law 107 of 2013). A prominent blogger and political activist, Abdel Fattah was originally sentenced to 15 years. Following today’s retrial, he will be released from prison and have his case transferred to a new court in an apparent attempt to avoid potential “embarrasment”.

 

Sadly, my former classmate and friend, Yara Sallam (NDLS LL.M. Class of 2010) has not been so fortunate. As noted in a recent post here, Yara was detained by the Egyptian authorities on 21 June 2014 following her alleged participation in a peaceful march against the same 2013 protest law. This draconian law has been widely criticized by human rights organizations for breaching fundamental human rights standards. It allows security forces to use force in dispersing peaceful protests, practically bans protests unless pre-authorized by the Ministry of Interior and criminalizes activities that essentially constitute peaceful expression and assembly. Yara’s fellow inmates include Sanaa Seif, the sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah. It is no coincidence that such prominent human rights defenders were targeted and remain in detention.

 

This past Saturday, friends of Yara from across the world connected with eachother via internet. They waited with bated breath on news from her long-awaited trial, only to have the court hearing her case adjourn the trial to 11 October 2014. And once again, without any apparent justification, the court renewed and extended her detention.

 

We can only hope that international concern regarding the evident denial of justice in this case – and the potential “embarrasment” that it will cause – will prompt the Egyptian authorities and judiciary to rethink their approach in advance of next month’s trial. It would be better still if individual legislators, law enforcement officials and judges would commit to serving justice and respecting human rights – regardless of pressure to do otherwise. Perhaps we need to work toward the first scenario while praying for the second.

For further updates on Yara’s case, see http://freeyara-freesanaa.net.

Update on CCHR Dissident Yara Sallam

Sean O’Brien, CCHR’s Assistant Director, updates us on Yara Sallam.  For the original story, see
​I write with a brief update on Yara’s trial over the weekend. After her defense team challenged the validity of the prosecutor’s video allegedly showing her participating in the “illegal” anti-protest law protest, the judge moved to adjourn the trial until October 11. This means that Yara and her 22 co-defendants will remain detained for nearly another month, beyond the 87 days they have already served. Some of Yara’s co-defendants are now on hunger strike, along with more than 156 other political detainees throughout the Egyptian prison system.
Oddly, the trial was not held in the usual courtroom in Heliopolis, but at a police academy instead. Yara and her co-defendant’s were, therefore, not confined to the typical defendant’s cages and appeared to have a little more freedom of movement. However, Yara’s parents were prevented from entering the courtroom and a female member of her defense team was verbally and physically assaulted by police guards as she entered. The photo below shows Yara’s response after she was informed of the thoughts and prayers for her by so many in the Notre Dame community and beyond. She remains, as is typical for Yara, in good spirits.
Coverage of the trial in English language Egyptian media can be found here: http://www.madamasr.com/content/ettehadiya-detainees-spend-another-month-prison-pending-trial
Yara’s LL.M. classmates and others throughout our LL.M. alumni network will continue to advocate for her release, though the context for political advocacy is increasingly difficult after Sec. Kerry’s visit to Cairo over the weekend to court Egypt’s participation in the the anti-ISIS coalition.
So many of you wrote with fond memories of Yara’s time at Notre Dame Law School, especially the library staff with whom she worked closely. Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers for Yara and her co-defendants.
yara2

Against a clash of civilizations: The Common Word

Some commenters reject the attempts to distinguish ISIL from Islam more broadly. Their underlying belief seems to be that Islam is at war with the Judeo-Christian West. And it is a fact that self-described Islamic political actors have been fighting the West. The “clash of civilizations” story is alive and well. Yet there is a danger in the story: if people act as if the story is true, they risk turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Westerners will target Muslims, Muslims will target Westerners, and the conflict will escalate into all domains where Islam and West potentially collide. Wider still is what would happen if the story of civilizations at war extended to all Muslims and Christians–together, they make up over half the world’s population.

Other stories exist, yet haven’t reached many Muslims and Westerners. A crucial one is the path-breaking initiative in Muslim Christian relations known as “A Common Word Between Us”. This authoritative statement has been signed by diverse Muslim authorities from around the globe. The initiative seeks to affirm the two greatest commandments- to love God above all, and to love for one’s neighbor what one love’s for oneself- as the basis for relations between Muslims and Christians. It invites Christians to work with Muslims on this basis, and says that to do otherwise would be to risk not only our worldly well-being, but our very souls. The Common Word initiative provides principles for a constitutional reset in Muslim-Christian relations. As I have recently argued, institutional design founded on these principles can promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians.

Unlike the Catholic context, where the teaching of Nostra Aetate could be spread among Catholics within a generation through the structure of bishops, the Muslim world is decentralized. Religious instruction is not dominated by an ordained clergy, but by a less hierarchical community. Traditionally, well-trained scholars and spiritual masters were pre-eminent Muslim religious instructors. Consensus was difficult to achieve. In our age, traditional authority has further eroded, making consensus even harder. It is all the more remarkable that the initiative has been endorsed by such a wide geographic and theological range of Muslim scholars, including figures with tremendous reputations in different communities. The teaching thus has the status of an authoritative claim about how Muslims are to relate to Christians.

Despite an initial wave of publicity, the document is still not commonly known. To make the Common Word a widespread reality, creative emulation and reciprocation through networks and institutions are needed. This is not impossible. It demands transnational entrepreneurship, awareness-raising, and civic artisanship. Particularly valuable would be the demonstration that the initiative has provided meaningful avenues for the redress of grievances. This would help stem the turn to violent alternatives. Tangible results of cooperation can further change the clash story. And that possibility depends on what Muslims and Christians do now.

In Solidarity With a Great Dissident

Here at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, we are proud to have graduated over 300 human rights lawyers from over 80 countries from our LL.M. program in human rights.  Perhaps it is not surprising that some go on to be dissidents.

One of our alumna, Yara Sallam, was arrested in Egypt and will go on trial in Egypt tomorrow.   Her story was documented in the New York Times and she is an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience.

Sean O’Brien, who direct’s the center’s academic programs, wrote in an e-mail today to friends of the Center:

I write asking for your prayers. As you may know, our esteemed Egyptian alumna and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Yara Sallam (LL.M. ’10), goes on trial tomorrow in Cairo. She was arrested in June for being near a public protest (of the anti-public protest law, no less). Once the Egyptian military government realized that they had in their grasp one of Egypt’s most well known and beloved young human rights defenders, they gleefully transferred her to one of the country’s most notorious prisons. She has been held in deplorable conditions all summer, advocating for the rights of other women prisoners also being detained.
She faces many years in prison at trial tomorrow before a corrupt and unjust legal system where evidence matters little. Her trial comes as Egypt’s military government is actively seeking to make examples of human rights lawyers and organizations. They have recently issued a decree forcing all human rights NGOs to register with the government, who will then control their budgets, programs of work, premises and contact with foreign visitors. Our other Egyptian alumni are facing the decision of whether to go into exile or remain in Egypt and face arrest after the November registration deadline passes. For them, registration is not an option.
Seven political parties as well as journalist’s syndicates have called for a nation wide hunger strike tomorrow in protest of Yara’s unjust detention and trial. Among those supporting Yara at her trial are ND LL.M. alum Ziad Abdel Tawab (LL.M. ’10) and many of the human rights defenders whose rights Yara has so passionately defended in the past.
Both during her time at Notre Dame and throughout the revolution in Egypt, Yara has been known for her warmth and her joie de vivre. She is quoted as saying “My life, if it can have any meaning at all or if it will ever be remembered, I want it to be about hope, laughter, joy, passion and love for life. My revolution is the same.”

Yara Sallam

Yara Sallam

Soft Power Needed, Too

Not just the hard power of military force but also the soft power of building coalitions with moderate Muslims is needed to defeat Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, Christian leaders argued at the In Defense of Christians summit that concluded today in Washington, D.C., according to Mark Stricherz over at Aleteia.

The summit was an effort to advocate for and show solidarity with Christian communities in the Middle East who have suffered dramatically in recent decades and are now remnants of what they once were.  Hosted by a group whose name is also In Defense of Christians, the summit assembled a remarkable cast of Christian leaders from across the region.

Hard power-ites might be skeptical — not of the summit or its cause but of the claim that anything but bombs will drive out the Islamic State.  It was no less a realist than General David Petraeus, though, who understood the importance of reconciliation with moderate Muslims in his leadership of the successful “surge” of 2007-2008 that allowed the U.S. to exit from Iraq without ignominy in 2011.  I’ve been reading about it in Surge, written by Peter Mansoor, Petraeus’ right-hand man during the operation.  Through the U.S. army’s reconciliation with Sunnis and through its encouraging the new national government to include Sunnis and Kurds in important positions, Sunnis were peeled away from their alliance with Al Qaeda, leaving Al Qaeda isolated and vulnerable.  None of this is to deny the thorough and brave counterterrorist operations that hunted down and rooted out Al Qaeda, but these alone could not have done the job, Mansoor argues.

Since the U.S. departure, it has been a lack of reconciliation among Iraqis that has allowed the Islamic State to rise as far as it has.  Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s failure to include Sunnis and Kurds in important parts of the national government allowed the Islamic State, despite its horrific tactics, to ally with Sunnis against the government – and has left the U.S. in the position of now having to send its (air) forces back in.

As I argued in an earlier post, reconciliation must go deeper than even Petraeus’ alliance-building.  In coming posts, I will offer concrete ideas of what this could involve.  One dimension, though, is alliances among religious leaders, whose spiritual and moral authority is a critical asset for building ties across factions.  We can be grateful for In Defense of Christians for bringing this to our attention.

 

Islamic militants and violence against women and girls

Today’s edition of the Washington Post tells the story of a 14 year-old Yazidi girl and her childhood friend, who were “given as gifts” to an ISIS commander and a cleric, respectively.  Their experience – including such vicious elements as attempted rape, abuse, beatings, and a terrifying but ultimately successful escape – recalls the practices of Islamic militants in Nigeria and elsewhere, where women and girls are kidnapped, enslaved, forced into marriages, and brutally assaulted.  It is important to note that men and boys are taken too, often killed or forced to fight for the militants.  Yet the pervasive pattern of violence against women and girls is especially disturbing, and it does not end in conflict zones.  As Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, notes, there are thousands of forced marriages and threats of forced marriage in the U.K. every year, and when the targeted women and girls resist, they can end up dead.  Defeating ISIS and combatting Islamic militancy is essential not just to protecting national security, but also to protecting the human dignity of women and girls everywhere.  So, too, must we work to stop the cultural practices that sanction and perpetuate such violence.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.