Tomorrow look for the announcement of a letter signed by 100 Muslim scholars and leaders denouncing the injustices of ISIS. Significantly, the letter is to be issued in Arabic as well as publicized in English. Though it will be important to see who the signers are and where they are from, the letter will likely create a strong Muslim voice for shared norms of justice. If religious beliefs matter in forming ISIS, then public theological arguments are needed to counter ISIS — and discourage would-be joiners across the Middle East and the West.
Christianity is finished in northern Iraq, argues Daniel Williams in an op-ed in the Washington Post today. Williams is not writing for a church or a Christian advocacy outfit; rather he is a correspondent for the Post and a former research at Human Rights Watch. The decimation of the Christian community that began when Saddam Hussein fell in 2003 has now accelerated. The iciest part of his analysis: They are not going back.
Indeed, the exodus of Christians is ongoing. Has anyone noticed that the Christian population of Iraq has shrunk from more than 1 million in 2003 to maybe 300,000 today? Now, there are virtually no Christians left in either Mosul or on the plain.
So when I ask refugees their plans, it is unanimously to leave Iraq altogether. Enough is enough. This runs counter to the desire, expressed mostly outside Iraq, that a Christian presence be preserved in a land that has known Christianity for 2,000 years. It’s sad but true: Christianity in Iraq is finished. As one refugee told me, “We wanted Iraq. Iraq doesn’t want us.”
Western countries ought to come together and offer refuge to the tens of thousands who want to leave Iraq. Yes, this would mean the end of Christianity in this part of the world, where its presence has often served as a bulwark against fanaticism. But it’s over anyway, whatever happens to the Islamic State. It’s time to face that fact and save the Christians themselves.
Resonant with the themes of Arc of the Universe is a conversation worth reading over at Open Global Rights on religion and human rights. Today’s human rights advocates — activists, academics — commonly believe that religion is an impediment to human rights. They believe that human rights were a modern, Enlightenment-era invention that replaced religion, which was hierarchical, feudal, and irrational.
The series, edited by James Ron, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, challenges this view — and does not. It begins with a post by Larry Cox, who makes the case that religion, though some times in tension with human rights, also bolsters human rights. Others come back and defend the conventional contemporary view — that religion is in tension with human rights, leading to exclusion and even persecution.
My own post argues that it is difficult to make a strong defense of human rights without God. Human rights activists may be perfectly committed to their cause even without believing in God. If you want to know why there are human rights, though, you can’t get far without God.
It is true, though, that secular and religious people often offer different accounts for why there are human rights, which human rights are valid or deserve priority, and who is entitled to human rights. Rather than religion vs. human rights, I think it would be better to speak of “clashing visions of human rights” or “competing orthodoxies.” A more accurate and honest debate would ensue.
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.
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-trialYara’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.
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.”
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.
Today is the final day of the International Meeting of People and Religions in Antwerp, Belgium, organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio. The meeting is an annual event that was first held in 1986 in Assisi, Italy, hosted by Pope John Paul II. Though interreligious dialogue can be long on wind and short on fruit, having been to one of the Sant’Egidio gatherings, I can attest that they are meaty and worth checking into. Explore the website linked above, with its webcasts and conference schedule. The level of analysis is always high; attendance by world religious leaders is typically impressive; and the relationships that form there often bring concrete results for peace.
Behind this substance is the Community’s track record of walking the walk for peace. Its major breakthrough was its negotiation of the end of Mozambique’s civil war in 1992, a war that took 1.6 million lives and lasted 16 years. Few entities other than governments and international diplomats have ever pulled off such a success and the Community did it through its extensive network of friendships in Mozambique dating back to the early 1970s. Since Mozambique, the Community has negotiated for peace in Algeria, Kosovo, Liberia, Burundi, Uganda, Guatemala and many other places. A recent book documents these efforts. (Two ArcU bloggers, Andrea Bartoli and myself, are members of the Community.)
Qatar — one of the world’s very richest nations per capita — aspires to be an entrepôt for international commerce, both in goods and in ideas like interreligious understanding. For over a decade, the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), a quasi-governmental entity, has hosted an annual conference on interreligious dialogue, a recent one of which brought in 300 participants from over 70 countries.
But what is going on outside the conference hall?
It’s not so tolerant. Qatar boasts that its law recognizes Christians and Jews – “people of the book” – and allows them to worship freely. This, though, takes place in a strongly Islamist atmosphere. Even people of the book must keep their worship private; religious ideas contrary to those of Islam (Sunni or Shia) have no place in public forums like the media. Proselytism is strictly outlawed, as is conversion away from Islam, which is a capital offense (through never enforced since the country’s independence in 1971). The government exercises heavy censorship of the media. It does not legally recognize – meaning that it does not authorize worship facilities for – religions other than Judaism and Christianity, despite the fact that Hindus are 30% of the population of noncitizens and Buddhists are 7%. The government strongly regulates Islam as well as other faiths.
An article in yesterday’s New York Times details Qatar’s support for militant groups around the region.
Sheikh Ajmi and at least a half-dozen others identified by the United States as private fund-raisers for Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise operate freely in Doha, often speaking at state-owned mosques and even occasionally appearing on Al Jazeera. The state itself has provided at least some form of assistance — whether sanctuary, media, money or weapons — to the Taliban of Afghanistan, Hamas of Gaza, rebels from Syria, militias in Libya and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.
Lately, Qatar has been coming under criticism for these ties from rival states in the region like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, many of whom, admittedly, are on the other side of many of the rivalries in which Qatar is involved. And to clear up the air on one issue, there is no evidence that Qatar is supporting the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
Still, foreign conference-goers would do well to look beyond Doha’s glass towers.
If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition. But, ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.
The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.