Monthly Archives: October 2010

Tariq Aziz death sentence

Iraq’s Supreme Court yesterday passed the death sentence on Saddam’s loyal deputy Tariq Aziz. John Simpson of the BBC writes:

His crime, essentially, was that he was Saddam’s front-man, arguing publicly and cleverly for some of his worst policies.

The Iraqi opposition, like the Americans and their supporters, felt a particular hatred for him.

He was a strong supporter of violent action against Shia and other resistance groups – the crime for which he has been sentenced to death.

But again, it is hard to feel that final proof of his involvement in this kind of action was demonstrated.

Tariq Aziz was Saddam Hussein’s loyal courtier. If he had questioned his judgements, he would have died. This is not an argument for his innocence, but it does temper his direct responsibility for the policies he backed.

In a similar vein, the Guardian‘s Mark Seddon makes the point that Aziz is sitting on a deep archive of personal knowledge that many don’t want to see the light of day:

Could it be, then, that the death sentence is partly an insurance against any future Iraqi government showing clemency? Tariq Aziz is old and unwell, but he has the mother of stories to tell. Throughout the 1980s, when Saddam was seen as an invaluable bulwark against the Iranian ayatollahs, a succession of western politicians and businessmen paid homage at the court of Tariq Aziz.

Donald Rumsfeld was even pictured watching Iraqi rockets being fired on the Fawr Peninsula. Perhaps Aziz, who could tell the whole story of western involvement in Iraq, before, during and after the war, simply has to be got rid of.

Which is why the British government probably won’t appeal for clemency, even though it should.

Seddon has a point. The British, and indeed all western governments who claim to oppose the death penalty, should stick to their principles, even for allies and accomplices of Saddam Hussein. Of course he should answer for his crimes, but this needn’t be at the end of a rope. Aziz is an old man who will probably not last in prison more than a few years.

From a historian’s point of view, he seems the most likely Albert Speer of the Ba’ath regime, who might offer some genuine insights into the workings and the realities of Saddam’s regime. Surely it is as important to study and understand regimes such as the Iraqi Ba’ath’s in order to prevent such atrocities from occurring again as it is to seek retribution from those who committed them?

I fear this point is lost on the western governments who won’t be pressing for an appeal on Aziz.

Christians in new Exodus from the Middle East?

Interesting comments by Robert Fisk in The Independent about departure of Christians in the Middle East:

In the centre of the rebuilt Beirut, the massive old Maronite Cathedral of St George stands beside the even larger mass of the new Mohammad al-Amin mosque.

The mosque’s minarets tower over the cathedral, but the Maronites were built a spanking new archbishop’s house between the two buildings as compensation. Yet every day, the two calls to prayer – the clanging of church bells and the wailing of the muezzin – beat an infernal percussion across the city. Both bells and wails are tape recordings, but they have been turned up to the highest decibel pitch to outdo each other, louder than an aircraft’s roar, almost as crazed as the nightclub music from Gemmayzeh across the square. But the Christians are leaving.

Across the Middle East, it is the same story of despairing – sometimes frightened – Christian minorities, and of an exodus that reaches almost Biblical proportions. Almost half of Iraq’s Christians have fled their country since the first Gulf War in 1991, most of them after the 2004 invasion – a weird tribute to the self-proclaimed Christian faith of the two Bush presidents who went to war with Iraq – and stand now at 550,000, scarcely 3 per cent of the population.

More than half of Lebanon’s Christians now live outside their country. Once a majority, the nation’s one and a half million Christians, most of them Maronite Catholics, comprise perhaps 35 per cent of the Lebanese. Egypt’s Coptic Christians – there are at most around eight million – now represent less than 10 per cent of the population.

This is, however, not so much a flight of fear, more a chronicle of a death foretold. Christians are being outbred by the majority Muslim populations in their countries and they are almost hopelessly divided. In Jerusalem, there are 13 different Christian churches and three patriarchs. A Muslim holds the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to prevent Armenian and Orthodox priests fighting each other at Easter.

When more than 200 members of 14 different churches – some of them divided – gathered in Rome last week for a papal synod on the loss of Christian populations in the lands where Christianity began, it was greeted with boredom or ignored altogether by most of the West’s press.

Yet nowhere is the Christian fate sadder than in the territories around Jerusalem. As Monsignor Fouad Twal, the ninth Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the second to be an Arab, put it bleakly, “the Israelis regard us as 100 per cent Palestinian Arabs and we are oppressed in the same way as the Muslims. But Muslim fundamentalists identify us with the Christian West – which is not always true – and want us to pay the price.” With Christian Palestinians in Bethlehem cut off from Jerusalem by the same Israeli wall which imprisons their Muslim brothers, there is now, Twal says, “a young generation of Christians who do not know or visit the Holy Sepulchre”.

The Jordanian royal family have always protected their Christian population – at 350,000, it is around 6 per cent of the population – but this is perhaps the only flame of hope in the region. The divisions within Christianity proved even more dangerous to their community than the great Sunni-Shia divide did to the Muslims of the Middle East. Even the Crusaders were divided in their 100-year occupation of Palestine, or “Outremer”, as they called it. The Lebanese journalist Fady Noun, a Christian, wrote a profound article from Rome last week in which he spoke of the Christian loss as “a great wound haemorrhaging blood”, and bemoaned both Christian division and “egoism” for what he saw as a spiritual as well as a physical emigration. “There are those Christians who reach a kind of indifference… in Western countries who, swayed by the culture of these countries and the media, persuade eastern Christians to forget their identity,” he wrote.

Pope Benedict, whose mournful visit to the Holy Land last year prompted him to call the special synod which ended in the Vatican at the weekend, has adopted his usual perspective – that, despite their difficulties, Christians of the “Holy Land” must reinvigorate their feelings as “living stones” of the Middle Eastern Church. “To live in dignity in your own nation is before everything a fundamental human right,” he said. “That is why you must support conditions of peace and justice, which are indispensable for the harmonious development of all the inhabitants of the region.” But the Pope’s words sometimes suggested that real peace and justice lay in salvation rather than historical renewal.

Patriarch Twal believes that the Pope understood during his trip to Israel and the West Bank last year “the disastrous consequences of the conflict between Jews and Palestinian Arabs” and has stated openly that one of the principal causes of Christian emigration is “the Israeli occupation, the Christians’ lack of freedom of movement, and the economic circumstances in which they live”. But he does not see the total disappearance of the Christian faith in the Middle East. “We must have the courage to accept that we are Arabs and Christians and be faithful to this identity. Our wonderful mission is to be a bridge between East and West.”

One anonymous prelate at the Rome synod, quoted in one of the synod’s working papers, took a more pragmatic view. “Let’s stop saying there is no problem with Muslims; this isn’t true,” he said. “The problem doesn’t only come from fundamentalists, but from constitutions. In all the countries of the region except Lebanon, Christians are second-class citizens.” If religious freedom is guaranteed in these countries, “it is limited by specific laws and practices”. In Egypt, this has certainly been the case since President Sadat referred to himself as “the Muslim president of a Muslim country”.

The Lebanese Maronite Church – its priests, by the way, can marry – understands all too well how Christians can become aligned with political groups. The Lebanese writer Sami Khalife wrote last week in the French-language newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour – the francophone voice of Lebanon’s Christians – that a loss of moral authority had turned churches in his country into “political actors” which were beginning to sound like political parties. An open letter to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, warning him to try to turn Lebanon into a “front line” against Israel, was signed by 250 Lebanese. Most of them were from the minority Christian community.

Nor can the church ignore Saudi Arabia, where Christianity is banned as a religion just as much as the building of churches. Christians cannot visit the Islamic holy cities of Mecca or Medina – the doors of the Vatican and Canterbury Cathedral are at least open to Muslims – and 12 Filipinos and a priest were arrested in Saudi Arabia only this month for “proselytism” for holding a secret mass. There is, perhaps, a certain irony in the fact that the only balance to Christian emigration has been the arrival in the Middle East of perhaps a quarter of a million Christian Filipino guest workers – especially in the Gulf region – while Patriarch Twal reckons that around 40,000 of them now work and live in Israel and “Palestine”.

Needless to say, it is violence against Christians that occupies the West, a phenomenon nowhere better, or more bloodily, illustrated than by al-Qa’ida’s kidnapping of Archbishop Faraj Rahho in Mosul – an incident recorded in the US military archives revealed on Saturday – and his subsequent murder. When the Iraqi authorities later passed death sentences on two men for the killing, the church asked for them to be reprieved. In Egypt, there has been a gloomy increase in Christian-Muslim violence, especially in ancient villages in the far south of the country; in Cairo, Christian churches are now cordoned off by day-and-night police checkpoints.

And while Western Christians routinely deplore the falling Christian populations of the Middle East, their visits to the region tend to concentrate on pilgrimages to Biblical sites rather than meetings with their Christian opposite numbers.

Americans, so obsessed by the myths of East-West “clashes of civilisation” since 11 September 2001, often seem to regard Christianity as a “Western” rather than an Eastern religion, neatly separating the Middle East roots of their own religion from the lands of Islam. That in itself is a loss of faith.

Women and the Rise of The Religious Conservatives

Fascinating and thought-provoking essay on Josh Landis’ Syria Comment:

Women and the Rise of The Religious Conservatives
By Anonymous
For Syria Comment
Sept 28, 2010

The following essay examines religious and cultural practices in Syria and the impact of religious conservatism on women. The essay is presented without authorship so as to not prejudice the reader by the author’s sex, religion, or nationality. The essay is intended to stand on it own ideas, to provoke thoughtful reflections.

Women and the Rise of The Religious Conservatives

In Damascus women are increasingly falling under the conservative trend that is sweeping the region. Today, the percentage of women wearing the hijab on the streets of Damascus is on the rise.

Many reasons have been proposed for the increasing number of women wearing the hijab: assertion of self-identify in the face of a perceived Western attack on Islam, a direct response to the Bush administration’s perceived “evangelical” invasion and occupation of Iraq (this is analogous to Americans wearing the yellow ribbon in the aftermath of the September 11 attack on New York City). Piety is another reason; some women in Syria make a vow to wear the hijab in response to their family’s misfortune, as a promise to God to heal a loved one or lift a misfortune. And failure of the secular governments to close the gap with the developed countries is yet another reason given by some analysts.

In Syria the particular influence of the Qubaysiyat cannot be overlooked as a substantial driving force behind the rise toward religious conservatism. The Qubaysiyat is a conservative religious order run by women. Similar to the evangelical Christian conservatives in the U.S., this group aims to gain as many converts as possible, demanding conformity, and wishing to impose their conservative values on society at large. The Qubaysiyat are active and relentless in attracting women, using peer pressure and often offering economic incentives as well.

This rise in conservatism in the Middle East has its parallel rise of the Christian right in the U.S. Many of these conservatives both in the US and the Middle East are targeting the gains achieved by women for equality and independence within society.

All religious conservative movements are patriarchal in nature. Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. is accused of being an anti-feminist, regressive movement. I was recently struck to hear from an American nun from the conservative Dominican order of St. Cecelia that women cannot lead a congregation in prayer since “it is God’s will that man shall do so”. She also contended that in a marriage the man is the head of the household but should love his wife and care for her. This view is contrary to the modern view of marriage as a partnership of equals. In Syria, a conservative woman by the name of Mayssa Hammamy recently published an op-ed on the popular Syria-News website shaming the men of Syria for, among other things, allowing a woman to conduct business negotiation in their presence. And for the first time in Syria’s history, conservatives are planning to segregate women in public by proposing to build women-only shopping centers. This is a painful attack on women’s freedom after the many strides made over the past century in their struggle to earn their place in society as equal to men.

Today, Women have broken many barriers and are leading in fields that not too long ago were men-centric. Women like Lisa Randall is a leading theoretical physicist searching for extra dimensions other than the three spatial and one time dimensions we already know; Danica Patrick raced her Indy car at an average speed of 246 km/h to win the Indy Japan car race against the best male drivers in the world; and Paula Radcliff ran a marathon at a blistering pace of 5 minute and 10 seconds per mile for a mind-numbing 26.2 miles.

This patriarchal revival is particularly odd for a country like Syria where women are known for their intelligence and accomplishment. In 1910 a pioneering women journalist by the name of Mary Ajamy started the first women’s organization in Syria, and in 1930, Lorice Maher was the first women to graduate from medical school paving the way for countless other female medical students who followed through to become some of the best physicians Syria has ever known. Syria today has three women government ministers and the only woman vice president in the Arab world,

Syria is home to traditionally strong and independent women. A Syrian woman who resisted the pressure of the Qubaysiyat recently told me that she would rather see her husband wearing the hijab before she does. Yet these accomplished Syrian women are increasingly finding themselves on the defensive against a growing conservative movement that claims to speak for God.

Not too far from Syria in Gaza, women have been banned from smoking the narghila in public by the conservative government of Hamas. This ban, which has nothing to do with public health, since it does not include men nor does it ban women from smoking in private. This ban is another strike at women’s independence and is anti-feminism in action.

To understand this ban by Hamas it is helpful to review the history of women and smoking. In most of the western world, it was extremely rare to see women smoking in public before the 1940s and 1950s. But as women fought for their rights and gained more independence, smoking in public became a common sight and a signal from women to assert their newfound emancipation. Capitalizing on this sentiment the Tobacco company Philip Morris launched the highly successful slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby” to advertise its Virginia Slims brand of tobacco. A brand manager for Virginia Slims described the success of the campaign as a as liberationist, in the sense that slogan really meant, “You’ve got a lot of options now.” Later as the danger of tobacco became apparent, Western governments banned smoking in most public spaces, equally, for both men and women.

Smoking in public is no longer a form of expression for women, but on the streets of Paris, New York, London, and Milan women are strong, stylish, and assertive. These women are dressed in the latest casual, athletic and business attire, reflecting the status they have achieved in their societies.

While women should be free to express their religious piety in any form they chose, the rise of the hijab can be a slippery slope, it begins with what women can and cannot wear, to whether they can drive; go to school, or work.

Tradition versus religion

Religious fundamentalist Jews, Christians and Muslims alike have a tendency to view the religious text in its literal origin. Unfortunately, women are often the victims of such interpretations.

Contrary to the fundamentalists, the prophet Muhammad encouraged critical thinking and according to the hadith said “To question is half of learning.”  It is thought that through questions a believer can explore his or her faith and the meaning of religion.

One question is: Whether God intended for religion to be codified into a written law?

Examining the history of the Bible and the Quran, offer some clues: To start, neither Jesus nor the Prophet Muhammad ever wrote any religious texts. There are no records of that, nor are there accounts of either one ever having done so. In fact even Abu Baker, the man who succeeded Muhammad as the leader of the Muslim community, is said to have been ambivalent about collecting all of Muhammad’s revelations in writing, in one book. The most credible Islamic tradition states that it was the third Muslim Khalifa, Uthman (644-655), who commissioned Zayed bin Thabit to undertake the task of compiling a standard text. Likewise, Jesus did not write the New Testament of the Christian bible nor was it complied into a single text by his direct disciples. The New Testament was written over a span of many years. Three of its authors, Paul, Luke and Mark, were not of the original 12 disciple of Jesus; the other two authors, John and Mathew allegedly were, but even the portion attributed to John is now believed to have been written by some of John’s students around 95 AD. The Church’s fathers later collected all this work into a standard text that we know today as the Bible.

None of the above argues against the authenticity or truth of either religious text. In both the case of the Quran and the Bible, people made a faithful effort to record the words of Jesus and Muhammad and create a singular religious text, but in neither case were these people commanded by Jesus or Muhammad to do so.

Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad could not read or write, and Muslim scholars consider the revelation of the majestic words of the Quran though Muhammad as a miracle, and liken it to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. This again could be interpreted as an indication of God’s intention. God chose Muhammad as his prophet, a man who could not write and appeared to him though the angel Gabriel; he told him to recite not to write: “Recite: in the name of thy lord who created, created the human being of a blood clot”. Had God intended for the prophet Muhammad to write, it certainly was within God’s mean to bestow this ability on the prophet, but God chose not to.

Also God’s choice of language is another indication of this aversion to the literal religious text. Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language that was to become practically extinct. Today Aramaic is only spoken by the inhabitants of one village in Syria and in the liturgy of a couple of Christian churches in Syria and Lebanon.

Arabic on the other hand was primarily an oral language and did not develop into a written language until much later than its Aramaic predecessor. The earliest written form of Arabic appeared in 512 AD, a few years before the birth of the prophet Muhammad and at the time had only 22 letters, the use of the dots was latter added to the Arabic alphabet to make up today’s Arabic 28 letters. The earliest surviving document that definitely uses these dots dates back to 643 (11 years after the death of the prophet Muhammad) and did not become obligatory until much later. According to the traditionalist Muslim historical account, the original Quran was written using the earlier version of the Arabic alphabet, the text was later given vowel pointing and punctuation in the seventh and eighth centuries. So While God chose for Jesus a language destined to become extinct, in the case of Muhammad, God chose a fluid language that was not yet fixed in its final written form.

If a lawyer today were to write a legally binding document, a law, he or she would refer to the dictionary several times to examine the spelling and exact meaning of the word used, whether it is being used in the right way and the proper place. A legal document often includes defined term in it as an addendum to the text. One can only imagine how contentious a legal battle can be over any vagueness or double meaning of words.

Before dictionaries codify a language, it is written and spoken but it is not really defined, not fixed. Language, by its very nature, evolves. Words evolve and their meanings change depending on the context in which they are used, and also with time. The first Arabic Language dictionaries were compiled between the 8th and 14th century, that is when the meaning of the Arabic word was beginning to get fixed and well defined. So it is humans many years after the death of the prophet Muhammad that fixed the meaning of the words God chose for Quran. Again this does not argue against the authenticity of the text, rather that it was not the intention of god to codify religion into text, otherwise God would have chosen in the case of Christianity an enduring language and in the case of Islam a well established one.

The Religious Law

God’s aversion to the written religious law seems to date to the days of Moses. According to the Jewish Torah, the Ten Commandments were spoken by God and written by Moses on two stone tablets during his 40 days atop mount Sinai. The Stone however later broke, as the aging Moses came down from the mountain and threw these tablets to the ground, angry at the site of the Israelite worshiping idols. All three monotheistic religions report a similar version of the event, and all three religions hold that God is supreme, creator of everything seen and unseen, God they hold is all-knowing. So one has to wonder: if God wanted a religious law written in his name and in stone, why would God not have made available to Moses a more durable stone?

Inspired by the Quran and the Hadith, Muslim jurists later developed the Shariaa, or Islamic law that conservatives use to enforce their values on Arab society. This law however was also deeply rooted in the traditions of Arabia and the ancient Near Eastern legal culture. These cultures are traditional and strongly patriarchal and link the image of women and the virginity of unmarried women to family honor.  Despite the prophet Muhammad’s groundbreaking efforts, at that time, to grant women new rights in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance, the law today continues to be patriarchal, influenced by the traditional culture in which it developed. By and large the Arab societies today are still deeply patriarchal.

One outrageous example of this patriarchal hold on these societies in Syria today is the so-called honor killings of women who have an affair or who have premarital relationships. This heinous killing is still reported regularly predominantly in rural Christian as well as Muslim communities. Although honor killings are prohibited by religion, it is primarily the religious conservatives who oppose to strengthening of the law and punishments against it.

In another telling example of how religious law is intertwined with the conservative values of traditional societies, the Syrian government recently allowed for each religious community to develop its own civil law in accordance to its rules. This gesture by the Syrian government is in the tradition of early Islam. When Abu Bakr deployed his army to conquer Syria, he commanded his generals to establish a covenant with the conquered people and “to let them live according to their own law.” Prior to this ruling by the Syrian government, the Shariaa law governed all civil matters of all Syrians. And since the Shariaa law is an Islamic religious law, one would have expected the Christians in Syria to take advantage of this new ruling. What happened instead was surprising and telling at the same time. The Melkite Catholics of Syria, who are predominantly city dwellers, quickly seized this opportunity and established their own civil law that gave women equal rights to men in among other things matters of inheritance. The Melkite Orthodox on the other hand resisted, preferring to remain under the Syrian civil law that adopted the Shariaa law in matters of inheritance. The Melkite Orthodox are the majority of the Christians in Syria and have large congregations living in rural and more traditional parts of Syria. These traditional communities are still deeply patriarchal and did not want their family wealth to pass with the married daughters to their new families.

It was very interesting to recently read in the archives of the NY Times that at the turn of the 20th century in what was little Syria in lower Manhattan, men and women were separated during service at the Maronite church according to traditional custom, with men occupying the front of the church and women the back. While Christians in Syria no longer segregate worshipers according to their sex, Muslims still do. All of this is a strong indication that today religion and tradition are intertwined and that religious conservatives are holding on to old cultural traditions that are outdated and that discriminate against women.

Knowing what we know today about law and language, one has to wonder why God did not clearly define a religious text and law. Why did none of his chosen disciples, Jesus or Muhammad oversee the creation of a singular religious text, in a well-defined, well-established language? Perhaps because there are two ways human typically deal with laws: one group fetishizes the law and the other tries to find loophole. Perhaps also because the religious text divides us, taken away, we are left with one God and the notion that we are all created equal. The only consistent message in all the religions is to do good and to help those less fortunate, the poor and the sick. Without the law we are free to grow, free to develop, and free to try to find the divine in our everyday and the beauty that surrounds us.

Today it has been reported that the Syrian government is asserting its secular principles in response to the rising religious orthodoxy. One good place for both the government and the civil society in Syria to start is strengthening women’s rights. As a starting point it should be emphasized without any qualification or exception that women are equal to men; That they are human beings, with all the rights, responsibilities and privileges of men