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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.)