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.
As séances go, says Timothy Larsen in the latest issue of Books & Culture, most tend to be awfully one sided: a question, a gust of wind, a tap on the desk, a flicker of the lights. Not much of a dialogue, he says, which sadly tends to be the way we deal with the dead even when we’re using the tools of history and not a Ouija board.
The pillaging of the past for clear and unambiguous stories that make sense of the present day is not a new problem, but it’s earned a special place in the conflagration in Iraq in the last month. Yesterday, the New York Times ran some easy reading on how “Longtime Rivals Look to Team Up to Confront ISIS,” a feel good round up about how pretty much everyone in the region is grudgingly putting aside old enmities to face ISIS/ISIL together. “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the seventh century,” quoted one former American ambassador. It’s a delicious piece of journalistic overstatement, but it also fingers the pitiless, and instrumentalist, way the history of the region is often picked over in the moment to score today’s talking points.
There has, in fact, been something like this since the seventh century. The now accepted truism that Shia and Sunni Muslim traditions are nearly eternal and intractable enemies neglects not only the basic political-theological history of a region, often defined by its mutual vulnerability to external threats (say, the Mongol demolition of central Asia), but also long histories of exchange and dialogue between groups that might alarm us. S. Frederick Starr in his important new book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane makes a long point that not only did scholars and theologians across ‘long time rival traditions’ engage in regular debate and dialogue, but that dialogue was itself the fruit of a great deal of scientific, philosophical, theological, and medicinal innovation. Further, he speaks at length of the central Asian legacy of these achievements, not only their Islamic origin, harkening both to Zoroastrian and Buddhist roots of what only retrospectively gets called the Islamic renaissance of culture and science. We hear stories about paper making in Khwarazm, of that jewel of trade and culture Samarkand, the astronomical sophistication of Balk, and the urban academies of Merv.
But to read (some) political commentary on war in the region today would convince you that rival political-theological traditions of Islam have been making total war on each other since the first Fitna (656-661). This is true in the same way as the wars of religion in Europe (1618-1648) were an uncomplicated contest between Protestants and Catholics, an easy history which all but the most committed dogmatics have long since abandoned. In fact, the history of central Asia is replete with historical facts on both sides of the argument – of fitnas and dynastic war, but also of interreligious, scientific, and cultural renaissance.
It serves present-day sensibilities, and sensationalism, to give a picture of a region/religion that is hopelessly and eternally divided, driven to aligning tactically on the back of the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL. Tactical alignment, as Nasr says, may be a present reality, but it is neither a first, nor last time, something like that has happened in a region, one time Center of the World, one time home of the world’s greatest, most enduring empires. Dan Philpott writes about the global resurgence of religion that the more interesting question is not ‘why religion is back’ but ‘why we [in the West] ever thought it went away.’ Larsen might say a version of that question is the more interesting for central Asia too. The more interesting question is not ‘why regional interests have aligned for the first time since the seventh century’ but ‘why we ever thought they hadn’t before.’
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.
No, I do not recommend teaching non-violence as a remedy for the plague of sexual assault on American college campuses, as one might first assume from the title of this. The only problem I have ever seen with any self-defense class for women was whether I could fit the class into my schedule or not.
But addressing the assault aspect of sexual assault in isolation from the sexual aspect is insufficient. This has implications not only for our college campuses but for our international engagement in advocacy of women’s rights and efforts to improve women’s condition.
The point on which I think Gandhi offers us wise counsel is on the sexual side of sexual assault. He observed:
If we begin to believe that indulgence in animal passion is necessary, harmless and sinless, we shall want to give reins to it and shall be powerless to resist it. Whereas if we educate ourselves to believe that such indulgence is harmful, sinful, unnecessary, and can be controlled, we shall discover that self-restraint is perfectly possible.
The discussions I see happening across the media today about campus sexual assault are void of consideration about what sex even is. This absence of sex itself from these discussions results not at all from any squeamishness about the topic – hardly – but rather from a failure to question the now commonly held assumption that the purpose of sex is entertainment (and in turn that the purpose of entertainment is individual pleasure).
Gandhi rejected disassociating sex from its procreative aspect. He asserted:
I know that there are modern women who advocate these methods [of contraception]. But I have little doubt that the vast majority of women will reject them as inconsistent with their dignity. If man means well by her, let him exercise control over himself.
“If a man means well by her…” — this requires that he consider more than just his own amusement, that he consider who/what she is in a full and comprehensive sense, including her capacity to procreate in partnership with a man.
I do not advocate a ban on contraception as a way to counter sexual assault. But I do advocate that we need to address the sexual side of sexual assault. We need to foster public discussions which address fundamental questions too often ignored today such What is sex? What is woman? What is man?
At a time when Americans are a leading global advocate for improving women’s condition through both our government and private sector organizations, we would do well to view the problem of campus sexual assault as a plank we need first to remove from our own eye. We should consider the global implications of sexual assault on our college campuses not just in terms of our own credibility on women’s issues but also as an indication that there may be an impoverishment in our own notion of woman which we may be implicitly exporting in a variety of programs.
Viewing sex as nothing more than entertainment reduces those who engage in sex to tools for providing entertainment. Men and women become simply a means to an end for each other, with the end being a hook-up, namely a sexual encounter often even shorter than a one-night-stand. The result of the sexual liberation has become the hook-up culture. The result of the hook-up culture has become a culture of sexual assault.
To what extent are our foreign programs in the name of women’s rights rooted in a foundation informed by the assumptions of sexual liberation? To what extent might our sex-related foreign programs be laying the groundwork in other cultures for a transition into sexual liberation followed by hook-up culture followed by spread of sexual assault? These are hard questions we need to probe more actively and more deeply today.
Violence does not happen in a vacuum. Sexual assault does not come onto our university campuses out of nowhere. One of several sources which fuels the injustice of sexual assault is a culture that reduces sex to entertainment, and in so doing reduces women to objects of sexual lust. I think Gandhi understood this, and I think we could do more to serve men and women and to have greater peace between men and women both on our college campuses and in the world beyond if we understood this and took substantive and sustained action to reject the reduction of sex to entertainment and women to objects of sexual lust. Right now here in America is a good place to start.
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.
As the Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL) latest beheading became news today, the group’s brutal ambitions have become all the more apparent. The United States and its allies are expected to continue military operations for some time to come. Are such operations just?
Two major statements have arisen in recent weeks, each signed by numerous scholars, religious leaders, and activists. They take very different stands. One, put out by a group called Iraq Rescue, calls for military force against ISIS/ISIL and for arming its opponents. It advertises itself as being signed by conservatives, moderates, and liberals.
The other comes from a group of 53 religious voices who oppose the use of military force, cite Pope Francis in their favor, and call for alternative measures, including reconciliation initiatives and “just peace” practices.
Who is right?
Military force is both justified and necessary to stop ISIS/ISIL. Without it, thousands of preventable deaths of civilians, including communities of religious minorities, would have taken place and will take place. Force meets the criteria of the just war tradition and fulfills the “responsibility to protect” that the international community has articulated.
In the intermediate to long run, however, far more ought to be done to build a sustainable just peace on the ground in Iraq and in the region than has been done in recent years. Iraq has been riven by sectarian tensions for decades. Once the fall of Saddam took the lid off these tensions, they broke out into violence and have become bloody again since the departure of the U.S. military. If the United States wants to avoid another large scale intervention in Iraq, measures to address these tensions are critical. What is needed is reconciliation.
U.S. policymakers have spoken of reconciliation for Iraq for some time now. The 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group used the term 63 times. General David Petraeus promoted reconciliation to quell civil war. Most recently, the Obama Administration has appealed for a reconciliation by which Iraq’s Shiite government would include far more Sunnis and Kurds.
In most of these usages, reconciliation means something much like political compromise. Now, it must go deeper, addressing the wounds of the past. In the past generation, tens of countries around the world have sought to do this through truth commissions, reparations, and local reconciliation initiatives stressing healing, truth-telling, apology, forgiveness, and reparation, often under the guidance of religious leaders. (I have written about these here.)
Such measures will not be possible until the guns stop. Once they do, though, reconciliation can wait no longer. Reconciliation offers a deeper justice than does the use of force alone. In the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions, reconciliation is right relationship within and between communities. Reconciliation is also profoundly pragmatic. Apart from deeper repair, the kind of intervention that the U.S. wants to leave behind will not be avoidable.
ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a thing we have not seen before. Not only is it carrying out a reign of terror in Iraq and Syria: it also governs territory, has plenty of funding, and is displaying impressive military and logistical prowess. ISIS members have directly threatened Europe and North America. The threat is real, possibly dire, and Westerners are going to have to adjust, again, to many months of high alerts and possibly some attacks.
Expect, too, shifts in our discourse about jihadist terrorism and religion more generally. It is arguable that the catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001, made Westerners more receptive to arguments against religion. It may not be coincidental that 9/11 was followed by the marked rise of so-called New Atheism – led by aggressive religious skeptics such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – and of the percentage of Americans who identify as non-religious.
The decrease in incidence of terrorism in the West, and the American-led wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, drew our attention away from jihadism and its meaning and causes. Now we must pay attention again, and we can expect, once again, the predominance of three opposite views, all too simple.
First is the view that the fundamental problem is not religion at all, but material deprivation; poverty, many maintain, is the root cause of terrorism. Empirical social science has thoroughly debunked that claim, but many have not gotten the word. Second is the view that the fundamental problem is Islam. Yes, Islam has much violence in its history and the Quran has passages that can incite violence. But the same is true of other religions. Third is the view of the New Atheists and others that religion itself – which entails metaphysical beliefs not susceptible to empirical demonstration – is the problem. But of course religious people are often peacemakers and work for justice or freedom, sometimes in times and places when non-religious people fear to tread.
Better to see radical jihadism as produced by a conglomeration of forces, one of which is not Islam or religion per se but a religious ideology, Islamism. That ideology builds upon Islam but is particular to our historical moment. Islamism arises out of traditional Islam’s ongoing encounter with modernity as carried by Western imperialism and Muslim secularizers of the 20th century. As an ideology, Islamism is defined in opposition to various kinds of secularism. As an ideology, Islamism is, in some ways, much like ideologies that roiled the Western world in decades and centuries past. I will have more to say about this in the coming weeks and in my forthcoming book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past.
Tesco’s turning their workers into banded cattle, or at least that’s the way Brian Dijkema tells it in Canada’s National Post. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that workers at the grocer’s Dublin distribution center were “forced to wear armbands that measure their productivity so closely that the company even knows when they take bathroom breaks.” Writing for the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead described it as “vaguely menacing and dehumanizing.” There’s nothing vague about it.
This menace and dehumanization has its anchor set firmly in what Charles Taylor calls one of our ‘pathologies of the modern moral order,’ the instrumentalization and economization not only of material reality, but of human labor and life itself. We’ve gorged aplenty on radical critiques of ‘capitalism gone wild,’ but – argues Taylor – it is not the economic system itself that is properly the center of our concern, but rather the monopoly of the modern logics of efficiency and consequentialism. As Gideon Strauss, writing for Comment magazine, says “Market economy? Yes! Market society? No!”
This month I joined Catholics and Protestants in Rome to discuss the enduring insights of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Rerum Novarum, too, was written in a period of rapid and disquieting economic and social change. Where the Pope wrote on ‘the new things’ others, like Abraham Kuyper, were writing on ‘the social question,’ wondering how peace, how mutuality and solidarity, could exist between an increasingly polarized capital and labor.
We still wonder that, and you don’t have to be especially religious, or be reading papal encyclicals, to realize the urgency of it. Like Dijkema, you can witness the banding of Tesco workers and wonder if this isn’t menacing and dehumanizing, if efficiency is really the best or priority virtue, if it should monopolize public and even private spheres of life. Charles Taylor agues in A Secular Age that to think beyond the dichotomy of efficiency and consequentialism necessitates a background, often an inescapable one (he calls it a ‘horizon’), against which not only our ends but also our means gain shape and meaning. What, after all, is an economy for? The efficient distribution of goods is essential, sure, but the economy is not exhausted by it. Work for man, not man for work! – argues Rerum Novarum, yielding an essential moral vocabulary for understanding not only the dignity of work, but its basic human condition. Through good work we are made more human. Good work is a gift, a vital one, to being fully human, not just a means toward an end, but an end in itself. And when the monopoly of efficiency overtakes the dignity of human work an economy has failed.
That, at least, would be the judgment of Rerum Novarum. Efficiency is a central virtue to any economy, but it is not the only virtue. Efficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of economic success. To get deep into the guts of economic systems, we need a moral vocabulary beyond what mere secular economics provides. That moral vocabulary, it seems to me, is nowhere more prominent than in global religious discourse. Rerum Novarum is one example. There are more (Abraham Kuyper, among them). Maybe, to get deep into the guts of the economy is to end up, suddenly, surrounded by religion.
Religious freedom is something for everyone. Bahai’s in Iran. Yazidis in Iraq. Ahmadis in Pakistan and Indonesia. Muslims in Gujurat. And Christians. Christians? To much of the public and even among academics and journalists, it comes as a surprise that Christians suffer severe denials of their religious freedom. But the past summer’s headlines leave little doubt about it. Iraq’s remaining Christian community has been decimated by an Islamist army declaring the rule of a caliph. Sudan’s Miriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death by a Sudanese court for (supposedly) leaving Islam for Christianity. The Chinese government has continued to demolish churches.
80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are committed against Christians, estimated the International Society for Human Rights, a secular NGO based in Frankfurt, in 2009. The finding is corroborated by other human rights observatories. Christians were the only religious group that was persecuted in all sixteen of the countries highlighted as egregious offenders by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2012, John Allen reports in his recent book, The Global War on Christians. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 report found that between June 2006 and December 2012, Christians faced harassment and intimidation in 151 countries, the largest number of any religious group.
Here at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, we will be investigating how Christian communities respond to persecution and how sympathizers can help them in a three year grant of $1.1 million awarded to the center by the Templeton Religion Trust, “Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christian Communities Respond to Repression.” Here is the story. Stay tuned for findings.