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Current Events

Iran Releases a Third of Christian Prisoners Due to Coronavirus Concerns

Azadi Tower Iran

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on March 23, 2020.

Forced by the new coronavirus, Iran took the tiniest of steps to placate global advocacy for religious freedom.

A temporary release of about 85,000 prisoners to curb the spread of COVID-19 disease included Ramiel Bet Tamraz, an Assyrian Christian serving a four-month sentence for holding illegal church meetings.

He was one of seven Christians set free, some on bail.

The release—which also pardoned 10,000 prisoners in advance of this past weekend’s celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year—did not include four Christians recently granted a retrial.

Ramiel’s father Victor was the pastor of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Tehran until 2009, when it was shut down by the government for holding services in Farsi, the Iranian national language. Arrested in 2014 for conducting services at home, in 2017 he was given a 10-year jail sentence. Released earlier on bail with his wife Shamiram, they are awaiting the outcome of court appeals.

Ramiel’s sister Dabrina has advocated for her family all the way to the White House.

“Raising awareness always helps,” she told CT, prior to her brother’s release. “When the US and international bodies speak out and address persecuted Christians, they have an enormous amount of influence.”

According to the latest annual report of violations against Christians in Iran, 17 believers ended 2019 in prison on account of their faith. Culled from public statistics describing sentences from 4 months to 10 years, the report—released in January and jointly produced by Open Doors, Article 18, Middle East Concern, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide—warned the true number could be much higher.

Open Doors, which ranks Iran No. 9 among the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, reports at least 169 Christians were arrested from November 2018 to October 2019.

Compared to those who decline advocacy, Dabrina said…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Soleimani’s Death Doesn’t End Iran’s Influence on Middle East Christians

Soleimani Funeral
(via Fars News Agency)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on January 28, 2020.

Middle East Christians might shrug their shoulders. They might even fret and worry. But perhaps Qassem Soleimani got what he deserved.

“We regret what happened. We do not want anyone to die, because Christianity wants the good of all,” said Ashty Bahro, former head of the Kurdistan Evangelical Alliance.

“But a person leads himself to his own destiny.”

Soleimani, head of Iran’s special operations Quds Force, was killed by a US rocket strike on January 3. It was a rapid escalation following the Iran-linked death of an American contractor, a retaliatory attack on the responsible Iraqi militia, and the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad.

According to the US State Department, Soleimani, who reported directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was responsible for 17 percent of American deaths in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.

He also enraged Sunni Muslims by engineering the subsequent Iranian defense of Syria’s regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad. With Russia and the Iran-backed military wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the shelling of rebel-held cities resulted in the displacement of thousands during Syria’s civil war.

But Soleimani was also acclaimed for his role in fighting ISIS, personally directing Iraqi militias from the front lines.

Thus, Middle East Christians have mixed feelings about his death—and the immediate aftermath.

Some Syrian believers see no benefit to anyone.

“Iran was working with the US government in certain agreements. Why did you destroy them?” asked Maan Bitar, pastor of the Presbyterian churches in Mhardeh and Hama, noting both the fight against ISIS and the nuclear deal.

“This will prompt a severe reaction that will hurt…”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Forty Years Later, House Churches Threaten Iran’s Islamic Revolution

Iran Report Christians House Churches
Azadi Tower in Tehran (image courtesy of Article18)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on February 14.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians flooded streets nationwide on Monday, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

Not present were dozens of Christians with no freedom of movement.

“For 40 years, the Iranian government has harbored an intolerant view towards Christianity,” said Mansour Borji, advocacy director at Article18, a Christian human rights organization focused on Iran.

“Administrations have changed and the methods have varied, but the objective remains the same: to restrict Christians’ influence on all spheres of Iranian life.”

An in-depth report on violations against Iranian Christians in 2018 was jointly released last month by Open Doors, Middle East Concern, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Article18. It was a first-time collaboration for the groups—in order to amplify their voice, Borji said.

The report stated that according to public records, 29 Christians were held in detention in 2018 for terms of 6 months to 10 years (if formally sentenced at all). Eight were released.

The report emphasized that many more detentions of Christians remained undocumented.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees the freedom of religion, including the right to adopt a faith of one’s choice and to publicly practice and teach it.

Iran ratified the ICCPR in 1975, prior to the 1979 revolution which ended 2,500 years of monarchy.

But Christians are not the only victims…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

The Cost of Religious Freedom

This article was originally published on September 20, 2018, and in the October issue of Christianity Today.

Turkey Iran Sanctions Advocacy
Image: Jonathan Bartlett, via CT.

This article expands my previous coverage of Andrew Brunson and the US-Turkish crisis to include also issues related to advocacy for Christians in Iran.

Why did advocacy succeed for the drug dealers but not the pastor? And what should be made of Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian house church leader released in 2013 after much international advocacy—only to be arrested and beaten this past July?

“Christians engaged in this part of the world always walk a knife edge regarding how to respond to unjust imprisonment,” said Mark Bradley, an author of three books on Iran and Christianity.

“Some prefer to remain under the radar. Others prefer to get as much support from politicians and journalists as possible. It is impossible to know which is more effective.”

Todd Nettleton, chief of media relations for Voice of the Martyrs, said some persecuted Christians hope for sanctions that will either push politicians to reform or the people to revolt.

But with the experience of working in 68 countries, he described others who believe a society unfettered by sanctions leads to openness to the gospel and a demand for rights and freedoms.

“In our work, we encounter Christians living in hostile and restricted nations who fall on both sides of this debate,” he said. “We stand with them regardless of the action or inaction of earthly governments.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

 

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Uber, Iran

Flag Cross Quran

God,

If the world is being remade, make it well.

Peace is pending in North Korea, while Iran is thrown in doubt.

Taxis fall out of favor, as private conveyance newly legalizes.

And metro prices have risen again.

Give guidance to Egypt in wading the waters.

The region has already been shaken. Will it shake further? Tehran and Tel Aviv. Damascus and Golan. A new embassy.

Let there be peace, God. Let there be justice. Right the past wrongs, without making new ones.

But change will always displace. Care well for taxis, even as new earnings—and costs—come to be. Does it make the world better? It does make it different.

Is Egypt prepared to change? Is she prepared to preserve? Discernment, God, and quickly.

May she know her friends. May she know her principles.

Remake her, God, in your image. Lest she be remade by others.

Amen.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Princes, Churches

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Help Egypt navigate her way in the world. Help her navigate her way at home.

Ally Saudi Arabia has launched new efforts to curb Iranian influence in the region, while securing power and reform in the kingdom.

There is war in Yemen and Syria. There are palpitations in Lebanon. There is ongoing regional instability.

And then there is Egypt, trying to recover. The president wants peace to prevail. He also has a powerful friend to placate.

God, help Egypt do what is right. Help her protect her interests. May they be the same thing, whatever it is.

Bring peace to the region. End foreign interference. Promote the good of the people. Support freedom and transparency.

May virtue persevere. May vice transform. Give all introspection, and respect for the other.

And if this applies also in Egypt, God, tally the scorecard correctly.

Recently a few churches in the nation have been closed. Some say it is for security reasons. Others speak of license.

A new law heralds a new era. An old issue resurfaces an ongoing frustration.

Egypt welcomes religious freedom for Copts. Sometimes their places of worship find trouble.

God, first and foremost, may the facts be known. What is causing the closures?

Maybe there are neighbors resisting a church in their village. Give power of law to the state; give empathetic consensus to the community.

Maybe there are authorities aligned with old mentalities. Give unity of vision to the state; give real reconciliation to the community.

Maybe there are activists making mountains out of molehills. Give clarity of communication to the state; give patient conviction to the community.

And if there are differing interpretations of your will, give wisdom and insight to all.

God, these issues are tricky, with much on the line. Help Egypt navigate safely, at home in your world.

Amen.

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Current Events

The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during their meeting in Riyadh
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during their meeting in Riyadh, November 14, 2017. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

This article was first published at Christianity Today on November 16, 2017.

Before the crown prince of Saudi Arabia stunned the world with his sudden arrest of dozens of fellow princes and millionaires on corruption charges, he stunned many Christians with his stated desire to moderate its version of Islam, commonly dubbed Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 as an alliance between Bedouin warriors of the al-Saud tribe and strict Salafi Muslim scholars following Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Discovering oil six years later, it also became one of the Muslim world’s wealthiest nations. The combination has led many religious freedom advocates to blame Saudi petrodollars for funding a worldwide rise in Islamist extremism.

But last month, Mohammad bin Salman said his conservative Muslim country would return to “what we were before: a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world…”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Culture

The Importance of ‘Nizam’

US Constitution

This quote is taken from an Iranian, but I think the sentiment — and language — would be the same for many Arabs:

On July 4, Mahmoud Esmaeili, a 33-year-old software engineer, became an American citizen. Here’s why: “I like the system here. I like the rule of law. You know what to expect and what to not expect, so you can plan. That was the major part of why I wanted to be part of America.” — from the Washington Post.

In Arabic the word for ‘system’ is ‘nizam’. On one level it refers to the governing apparatus, as heard during the Arab revolts, “al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam,” or “the people want the downfall of the regime.” Mubarak had his nizam, so did Morsi, and now Sisi bears the weight of the term.

But the term implies more. It is the way society operates. On this level Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi are much the same. Regardless of their political orientation, most people I meet complain equally about the Egyptian nizam.

And they are equally jealous of the American nizam.

The Post article relates a fascinating survey that shows 93% of Americans believe that respecting American institutions and laws are very important to being American.

Read the article to discover other criteria that polled high or low, but take a minute to be thankful for the American nizam — regardless of who hold office.

And take a moment of reflection also about the foolishness of certain political trends that seek to undermine it.

We must jealously guard our constitution, laws, separation of powers, electoral system, and essential rights. The human tendency to power must be tamed by a social contract that agrees to play by the rules.

This contract, says the survey, suggests Americans are far more united than commonly thought. Both parties would do well to better esteem this consensus.

One Iranian, I trust, would heartily agree.

Can any Farsi speakers verify if ‘nizam’ would have been his word of choice?

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Qatar Continues

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Since last week there has been much written but little resolved. Qatar and the Gulf allies have traded accusations and attempted mediation. But now a line in the sand has been drawn.

A list of demands has been issued.

Egypt, joining Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others, have given Qatar ten days to close al-Jazeera, reduce Iran ties, shutter a Turkey base, and end support for terrorist groups.

God, with many details behind closed doors, only you can sort out fully the right and the wrong. But amid charges of meddling over several years of frustration, this crisis may be approaching a critical moment.

Keep the peace. Promote consensus. Honor sovereignty. Reveal the truth.

The region needs good journalism, God. Provide for transparency and accountability in an independent media.

The region needs a spirit of unity, God. Help Arab brothers recognize joint challenges and cultivate wise policies.

The region needs respect for diversity, God. Allow conflicting interests and disparate peoples to find welcome.

The region needs less violence, God. End outside support for terrorist groups and reform poisonous ideology.

A line is in the sand, and you count every grain. Let wise heads prevail, and you know every hair.

The stars are in the sky, and you call them by name. Call also the faithful lights of regional politics, and bid them to peace.

Amen.

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Culture

A Christian Captain for Iranian Soccer

Andranik Teymourian
Andranik Teymourian

Yesterday I posted about religious contradiction in Saudi Arabia. Today posts a Guardian article about Iran, in the other direction:

The 32-year-old midfielder, known as Ando – or Samurai, due to his hairstyle – is not shy of showing his Christianity, often crossing himself on the field. In April, Teymourian, who has played for Bolton Wanderers and Fulham, became the first Christian to lead Iran’s football team as its permanent captain. “I’m happy that as a Christian I play in a Muslim team,” he said in a recent interview. “I have Armenian roots but I hold the Iranian passport and I’m proud of that, I hold my flag high. I hope I can enhance the good reputation of Armenian people in Iran.” Ethnic Armenians make up the majority of Iran’s estimated 300,000 Christians.

This is their situation:

Although Islam is Iran’s official religion, it recognises Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as accepted religious minorities. They are permitted their house of worship and usual religious services, and have reserved seats in the Iranian parliament. In a country where alcohol and pigmeat are forbidden, Christians are allowed to distil booze and eat pork. There are at least 600 churches in Iran, including the sixth-century St Mary Church of Tabriz, mentioned by Marco Polo in his travel book. The adjacent province of West Azerbaijan boasts the ancient St Thaddeus Monastery, a Unesco world heritage site. When Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, he appointed Ali Younesi, a former intelligence minister, to serve as his special assistant in minorities’ affairs. It was the first time such a position had been created. Significant improvements have since been made but many big challenges remain.

Among them:

Iran also remains highly sensitive towards the issue of conversion. Muslims who convert to other religions risk being arrested. More than 90 are behind bars, including pastor Saeed Abedini, who holds an Iranian American citizenship. Muslims whose denominations are not accepted by Iran, such as Gonabadi dervishes, face persecution, with many of their members in jail.

Perhaps Iran is trying to polish up its image, especially vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. In their regional battle for supremacy, everything counts. But being the captain of the national soccer team is a big deal. I’m guessing they don’t play political games with that. Iran Soccer Kiss Quran But here is an interesting question for Christians in the West:

As Iran’s national football team prepared to head to the World Cup last year, Andranik Teymourian stood next to his teammates while they lined up to kiss the holy Islamic book, the Qur’an, as part of the farewell ceremony. Although he is not a Muslim, the Iranian Armenian didn’t want to rock the boat and so performed the ritual for travellers, which is a quintessential part of Iranian culture. The cleric holding up the Qur’an could hardly disguise his amusement at the scene.

The description here doesn’t seem quite right. If it is ‘a quintessential part of Iranian culture’ surely he has done it already, before becoming captain. And if so, why would the cleric be in amusement? Or, did they previously allow him to decline, but as captain he thought best to do so and represent his team? More information is necessary, but let us assume the article is correct in both this description and in the sincerity of Teymourian’s Christian faith. There is always a mix between religion and culture, but Western Christians don’t often have to think too deeply about this, as the mix is in their favor. Perhaps this is changing, some would say. But for Christians within a different mix, where should the lines be drawn? Teymourian has been honored for his play and leadership. Did he do well, or compromise? What would you have done?

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Current Events

Egypt Exports Interfaith ‘Bridge’

Azadeh Ghotbi
Azadeh Ghotbi

IN IRAQ, ISIS zealots smash centuries-old artifacts and blow up churches. In Yemen, Shia militias plough through cities as Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia rains down missiles.

Egypt is not without its own religious tension, but a timely interfaith art exhibition in Cairo intersects with perhaps the only potentially good news coming out of the region.

Iran may be rejoining the international community, and Iranian-born Azadeh Ghotbi is coming to London.

Born a Muslim, educated in a Catholic school and married to an atheist beside a Jewish bridesmaid, Ghotbi has lived in five countries across three continents.

Her parents fled the Islamic Revolution when she was a child.

Today,Ghotbi is one of 47 premier and emerging artists featured at the CARAVAN visual arts exhibition. Founded in Cairo in 2009, its yearly offerings travel the world, dedicated to the message of interreligious peace and cultural understanding between East and West.

‘I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this noble mission,’ Ghotbi told Lapido Media. ‘I highlight in my art that strength and beauty come through openness to the “other” and the cross-fertilisation of differences.’

Soar

[Change your viewpoint. Photo: Sixpillars.org]

Her piece is entitled Crossroads, and her message fits perfectly with the theme of the exhibition, The Bridge.

‘I have suffered the consequences of religious obtuseness,’ she wrote in her artist’s statement, ‘but have benefitted immensely among open-minded souls from diverse religious backgrounds.’

Ghotbi’s art has been exhibited in top galleries in Europe, the United Statesand Iran. The last of these has informed several pieces.

In the Name of Freedom interlocks the E’s to symbolize encaged rights and restrained voices. The Trappings of Theocracy is constructed with unpainted, faceless miniature figurines.

They are not Iran-centric, Ghotbi said, as oppression is not limited to one country.

But in Give Peace a Chance to Soar, she directly critiques her country of origin.

Faced straight on, the black letters of peace are hard to read behind the iron bars of a cage. But the inset of the letters is radiant turquoise, a colour she associates with the beauty of Iran, and only visible if you changeyour viewpoint.

‘As for the small fragile turquoise bird that represents hope, peace and freedom for us all,’ she explains,‘I left the cage door ajar for it!’

Ghotbi crafted Peace in 2013, eager for change.

Savvy

Two years later, Ghotbi is enthusiastic about the framework agreement signed by Iran and Western nations. As Tehran reduces its nuclear capabilities and allows comprehensive inspections, international sanctions will be gradually eliminated.

Sanctions have disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class, she said, while strengthening the political hand of the hardliners. The US Congressional Research Service reported a five percent contraction of the Iranian economy in 2013 along with a 56 percent currency devaluation and a 45 percent rise in the rate of inflation.

‘What Iran needs eventually is political change from within,’ said Ghotbi. ‘It’s youthful and highly educated population is quite savvy, but desperate for more freedom and better economic opportunities.’

CARAVAN founder Paul-Gordon Chandler echoes Ghotbi’s optimism.

‘I am very pleased about the deal going ahead,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘We have to work toward peoples coming together.

‘Opening up Iran, which it will do, allows more people to experience the “other”, on both sides.’

Indirect

An American, Chandler grew up as a minority Christian in mostly Muslim Senegal. He was deeply influenced by the local arts scene, but also disturbed by the tensions between the two faiths.

It was not until his ten years as an Episcopal priest in Cairo’s historic St. John’s Church that a vision began to form. Initially, CARAVAN was held only in Egypt, but over the past two years more than 300,000 have viewed the traveling exhibition in London, New York, and Washington, DC.

This year, The Bridge opened at the oldest church in Paris, the Eglise Saint Germain-Des-Pres, during the United Nations week for interfaith harmony. Following its current station in Cairo it will move to St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square from June 1 – July 31.

But CARAVAN is not intended only for the Western elite, as important as it is for them to see this example of cooperation between Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The exhibition will travel also to rural areas in the United States, where misunderstanding of the Middle East is prevalent.

‘Art provides a context to address issues indirectly,’ Chandler told Lapido Media. ‘  It provides an atmosphere of contemplation and discussion that is neutral, when being direct causes tensions to rise.’

And in the Middle East, where spin-off projects are in development in Jordan, Tunisia, and Malta, the indirect approach of art can make all the difference.

Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.
Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.

According to Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, structured efforts at dialogue between religious professionals have not impacted reality.

‘We have to be creative so that dialogue reaches the people,’ he said at the exhibition opening in Cairo. ‘Paul-Gordon has done this through art, to help build harmony between cultures, and to bring people together.’

The Middle East needs CARAVAN, Ghotbi believes, but art is not enough.

Education, jobs, and women’s rights are necessary to ease religious clashes between groups that used to coexist peacefully.

Chandler agrees, noting that transformation through art is a long term process.

‘Art doesn’t stop conflict, but that is not its function,’ he said. ‘It can’t change events but it can change people.’

However much the Middle East needs this message, it can also export the example. 47 artists are living testimony.

 

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Remaking, Resistance, Reflection

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Forgive the horrors of this region. Protect Egypt within them.

Some of the troubles are her own. Another attack in the Sinai killed soldiers. Villagers protested violently against the church to be built in honor of the martyrs from Libya. And a pro-Morsi demonstrator was shot in the head in our own local neighborhood, according to reports.

These troubles are familiar and sadly, press less on the psyche. But horrors abound as Yemen explodes and Kenyans are massacred. Sometimes it seems all risks falling apart, utterly.

And even good news does not fully encourage. Iran is welcomed back into the fold, potentially. The US restores Egyptian military support, mostly. Sometimes it seems all is being remade, differently.

God, be with and comfort the people of the region. Many suffer. Many others wonder. What is happening here? What has gone wrong? It is not easy on the soul.

Answers are not forthcoming. It is easy to blame the powers-that-be. It is more difficult to identify one’s own sins. But neither are fully satisfactory, God, though both are surely true.

Is good coming? Is evil resisting? Is change afoot? In whose interest? Do the people matter? Why do so many sacrifice themselves? Why do so many do nothing?

What can be done anyway?

Shall the killers be killed to stop their killing? Who can give license, when so many are guilty?

Is more war coming? Can good resist? What is worse, the change or the status quo ante? This middle, if it is, is surely hellish.

And yet in Egypt, so many still live in peace. Other places also. Let not the horrors overshadow the calm.

And let it not be before the storm. Roll back the chaos and instability. Hold back the hands of meddlers. Restore back humanity and innate hospitality.

But with introspection, God. May the people know you love them, but that you also judge. May leaders fear especially.

Fight for the humble, the simple, the poor. Honor the pure in heart. May their solutions prevail. Give them the courage to speak, and the ability to implement.

And as all others tear themselves apart, spare as many as possible. Spare Egypt, despite her sins. Spare all. Forgive. Have mercy.

Amen.

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Current Events

The Great Game

Diplomacy the Great Game

Growing up, I loved the game Diplomacy. Die-hard aficionados compete in hours-long, even days-long competitions vying for mastery of early 20th Century Europe. For both lack of sufficient passion — and players — I enjoyed the computer version.

The basic premise is to be one of the seven great powers at the time — England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Each nation is more or less equally matched at the start of the game, the point of which is to conquer the continent.

There are only a few basic rules to learn, and no dice. Winning is determined by best marshaling of forces, but primarily, through negotiations. No country is strong enough to win on its own; the empire usually turns on which ally will stab the other in the back first, but not prematurely.

Living and reporting in Egypt sometimes feels the same.

Especially during the high days of the revolution, so much didn’t make sense. Why is the (NDP, MB, US, insert your favorite actor here) acting against its interests? Or are they? Expand the question regionally and the changes were so rapid that it was hard to keep enough. Add enough conspiracy theory to fill in the gap, debate control vs. competency, and it is no wonder so few have been able to predict the outcomes.

Part of the problem is living in the middle of it all. Diplomacy, after all, is an overhead look. The ‘Great Game of Nations’ is won and lost in boardrooms, over phone calls.

And in this spirit, this recent article by Brookings takes a look at the region:

There is no place in the world today where chaos is more prevalent and the reestablishment of order more critical than the Middle East. The “great game” between rival great powers may have originated in Central Asia but it found its most intense expression at the “crossroads of empire” in the Middle East. As long as American interests are still engaged the United States cannot desist from playing it.

The US used to rely on regional pillars, it argues, specifically Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These nations could be relied upon to maintain the status quo.

This worked well up until the aftermath of 9/11. The US abandoned the status quo in effort to remake Iraq. The Arab Spring also introduced a wild card.

In the process, the existing order collapsed and has been replaced by failing states, ungoverned areas, and the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. One should not be too nostalgic for the old order: its stability was regularly punctured by conflicts and coups and purchased at the price of repression.

The article criticizes President Obama for reacting to regional crises on a piecemeal basis. A grand strategy is needed, and the author sees two possibilities:

1. Joint Condominium with Iran: The essence of this approach is for the United States to concede Iran’s dominance in the Gulf in return for its agreement to curb its nuclear program, reduce its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and Basher al-Assad in Syria and contribute instead to the construction of a new regional American-Iranian order.

2. Back to the Future: This approach would require the United States to return to its dependence on its traditional allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. The objective of this renewed “pillars” strategy would be to restore the old order based on the containment of Iran, the roll-back of its advances in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the curbing of its nuclear program. This same coalition of traditional allies would then have the sense of security to work more effectively with the United States against ISIS and Al Qaeda.

The author recognizes the difficulties in each strategy, but in part two of his article argues for option #2.

Fair enough. It is not my point here to argue one way or another, but to remark the sanity that is restored by having a ‘great game’ lens through which to interpret events. In each crisis a push-and-pull dynamic can be seen, and at times the American administration appears to be at odds with itself.

Do we want an Iran deal, or not? Do we prefer Arab autocracies, or political Islam? The questions are endless, and beyond the direct interests of the US regional rivalries are at play as well.

One in particular is aptly described by Foreign Affairs, analyzing Egypt and Turkey. Like Brookings, it begins with chaos:

The chaos in the Middle East has tested many relationships, not least the one between Egypt and Turkey. Shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Turkey became one of Egypt’s chief regional supporters. When the new president, Mohammad Morsi, was himself pushed out of office in 2013, Turkey shifted course. With General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power in Egypt, Turkey quickly became one of the country’s main adversaries in the Levant.

In the earlier analysis, both represent US interests in the pillars strategy. As such their rivalry is serious:

In the immediate term, it seems likely that the regional rivalry between Egypt and Turkey will exacerbate the Libyan civil war. Further out, it could throw the whole region in to worse chaos.

Reading the Egypt-Turkey article, it was easy to see the development of events. But through the lens of Brookings, it is not easy to see why. Clearly Turkey favors the Muslim Brotherhood. But good relations between nations in business and coordination can continue under any government. It almost feels as if Turkey feels that Sisi threw a wrench into a well-developed plan.

Such plans are part and parcel of great game thinking, but they are also only one step removed from conspiracy thinking. Egypt is full of ideas that Sisi has defended the nation — indeed, the region — from the schemes of US-Israeli-Qatari-Turkish efforts to remake the region. And given how strongly Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported Egypt, there are definitely different agendas at play.

But what are they?

As much as great game thinking can give a sense of sanity, it also threatens to eliminate agency. As I spin my wheels to understand the region, I sometimes feel every article I read — or even write — is subjugated to someone else’s larger purpose. That is not to accuse respected journalists and analysts of bias, though sometimes I wonder. Rather, it is that any article about human rights in Egypt, or about the duplicity of the Brotherhood, or or or, winds up fitting in to some version of a great game agenda.

The news is not neutral, even if the reporters strive to be.

What then to do? Continue striving. Everyone else is, even those actively manipulating, whether engaged in conspiracies or only propagating the theories.

But the main ones striving are the ordinary people who actually make events happen. Maybe the (US, MB, Egyptian army, insert your favorite actor here) actually desired a revolution. But they did not go down to the streets.

Striving also are those who did not go down to the streets, but could have. Fulan al-Masry [the Arabic equivalent of John Doe] is as real a person as Barack Obama. Both deserve to have their stories told well.

Is this only a hopeful faith in agency, where all real decisions are made by those with power? Maybe. But to conclude with a different kind of faith:

He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.

Maybe this also is a misplaced faith. But it too is a lens for a better sanity. God will achieve his purposes in the world, through and in spite of the strivings of all.

So we might as well strive for what is right and good. Anyone doing otherwise risks being of the devil. And the devil, in diplomacy or otherwise, is in the details.

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Current Events

The Syrian State of Play

Here is a link to a well organized and concise description of the different actors present in the ongoing Syrian conflict, from War on the Rocks. If you would like a good primer, it is worth your time to read. Keeping up with the news reports and ever-changing developments is difficult.

Here is the general outline, with a brief excerpt from each section:

International Players:

Russia:

Russia happily incurs international opprobrium for backing Assad so that it can preserve access to its last remote naval base in Tartus, which remains a symbol of Russia’s global reach; discourage external interference in a country’s internal affairs; and, most importantly, remain a counterweight to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

United States:

With chemical weapons off the table, Assad’s external opposition in disarray, Islamists dominating the insurgency, and an American public unhappy with foreign wars, the Obama administration feels it has few options other than taking steps to prevent the civil war from destabilizing Syria’s neighbors and harming U.S. security.

Regional Players:

Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia:

Assad’s three greatest regional foes—Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—are divided according to their taste in proxies. Saudi Arabia favors more nationalist-minded groups, perhaps because members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s and the jihadis in the 2000s challenged the royal family’s rule.

Qatar and Turkey have worked together to bolster the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s sway over the external opposition, which has waned despite the two countries’ best efforts. On the battlefield, Turkey appears to have turned a blind eye to Sunni jihadis gaining access to northern Syria while Qatar is widely alleged to have supported conservative Salafi Islamist militias united under the Islamic Front.

Iran:

Iran has demonstrated the seriousness of its commitment to sustaining the Assad regime by helping provide cut-price fuel and weapons and deploying members of its armed forces, including the special Quds Force, to train Syrian paramilitaries and coordinate military operations against the rebels.

Syrian Players

Assad Government:

The Syrian government is militarily and politically stronger than its opponents. The U.S. reversal in September 2013 of its threat of punitive strikes in favor of the signing of an agreement to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles awarded President Assad diplomatic leverage to play for time and stymie a peace accord. Unless the balance of power changes, Assad will continue to be defended on the international stage by Russia and draw military and financial sustenance from Iran. With such an advantageous position, the regime’s delegation at Geneva played it slow to ensure the opposition got little of any benefit from attending.

Pro-government Militias:

An assessment of the Syrian military’s performance in 2012 revealed that the Syrian Arab Army lacked the numerical and command capacity to sustain effective operations in multiple domestic theaters. Beginning in mid-to-late 2012, the SAA—with apparent training and coordinating assistance from the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps—began merging existing “popular committee” local protection militias into an organized, trained, and salaried paramilitary force, the National Defense Force (NDF). Since then, the NDF has become a critical part of the Syrian military structure, usually used to hold seized ground and to bolster coordinated offensives.

External opposition:

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is the main body representing various factions of the Syrian opposition outside Syria. Internal infighting between rival groups has structurally weakened the organization. The infighting came to a head on 18 January 2014 when a third of its members boycotted a vote to attend the Geneva II talks. One of the SNC’s main components, the Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, withdrew from the coalition as a consequence. The infighting is a result of conflicts among the factions’ regional backers or irreconcilable differences over the future of Syria.

Free Syrian Army / Supreme Military Council

The FSA has not represented a distinct military organization for a long time now. Today, the FSA name represents more of a brand or umbrella with which primarily nationalist and often secular groups associate themselves. The SMC, meanwhile, presents itself as a coherent structure with organized local, provincial, and national components led externally by Selim Idriss. The command structure, however, has not proven itself nationally and Idriss has been more of a distributor of military aid than a commander.

Islamic Front:

The Islamic Front represents the singly most powerful opposition military organization in Syria, with an estimated 50,000-60,000 fighters operating in 13 of Syria’s 14 governorates. The IF’s political charter calls for an Islamic state in Syria governed by sharia law, but is vague regarding the specifics of what this would actually entail. While all seven constituent groups within the IF are certainly Islamist, they in fact represent a relatively broad spectrum.

Jabhat al-Nusra:

Despite its admitted links to Al-Qaeda, JN has since mid-to-late 2012 demonstrated a remarkable level of pragmatism in religious, political, and military matters. Its military forces consistently demonstrate levels of professionalism and effective command and control superior to that of comparatively moderate groups. While JN represents a numerically smaller organization than most members of the IF, its fighters often represent something more akin to special forces, taking a key frontline role in offensive operations. Because the group fights effectively and does not seek to dominate the opposition, it has healthy relations with all Syrian rebel groups from moderate to Salafist. JN’s widespread provision of social services to the civilian population through its Qism al-Aghatha (or Department of Relief) and avoidance of incurring civilian casualties in areas hostile to Assad has meant the group enjoys a surprising level of popular support.

Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS):

Since its emergence as an active armed entity in Syria in late April/early May 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham focused on acquiring and consolidating territorial control in eastern and northern Syria, particularly in regions bordering Iraq and Turkey. As this proceeded, ISIS began establishing outposts further into Syria’s interior in Hama, Homs, and areas of the Damascus countryside, most notably in the Qalamoun and in Eastern Ghouta. As its influence expanded and confidence rose, ISIS began imposing its harsh behavioral codes and kidnapped, imprisoned, and sometimes executed its opponents. Public beheadings became common, as most importantly, did incidents of ISIS violence against other rebel groups.

The only two major players the article does not describe are Israel, as a state, and Christians, as an element of the population. This is likely because the article focuses on those actively participating in the struggle. Israel, apparently, is taking a wait and see approach. Christians, meanwhile, are understood to be pro-Assad historically, are sometimes besieged by Islamist elements, but are generally keeping quiet, careful not to be seen taking sides.

Of course, those following the conflict closely will likely take offense at some of the descriptions above. For those generally bewildered, however, I trust this summary is helpful.

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Current Events Jayson

Friday Prayers for Egypt: IMF, Sinai, China, Iran

God,

Much of Egypt’s attention turned outside its borders this week, and though Sinai is not foreign, it is almost a separate land. Military operations against Islamic extremists have been underway for some time, but lately there have been religious delegations sent, even from the president. These have involved former jihadists who wish to turn those in Sinai from the error of their ways. Or, at least, to halt operations.

Meanwhile the president has been in personal deliberations with the IMF over a nearly five billion dollar loan to support the economy. Beyond the financial implications lie religious controversies, if Islam permits such interest based credit. Now in power, Islamist seem to be finding it more difficult to forbid, while others – supporters and opponents – accuse them of hypocrisy.

A useful escape and popularity boosting effort was provided by the president’s travels to China and Iran. In the former he reinforced and increased economic ties, while in the latter he stood on the world stage of the Non-Aligned Movement and condemned Syria without wholly offending Tehran. Egypt and Iran have been without ties since 1979. In both nations he demonstrated a desire to move beyond uni-polar dependence on the United States.

These are the matters of governance, God, and bless Egypt in them. Give peace to the Sinai, and convict criminals who use violence in the name of religion. If there is any duplicity involved, as some liken to the political use of the US War on Terror, then expose manipulations, God. And anticipating evolution of the region to touch the Camp David Accords with Israel, may these two nations speak to each other and find ways toward mutually agreeable and just peace. Amid it all, bless the people of Sinai; may they find full citizenship and freedom of opportunity in the new Egypt.

As for the IMF, God, give the president good and honest advisors. May those who know economics well sort through the competing propaganda on the liberating / enslaving nature of IMF monies. Whatever the outcome, may the economy stabilize with sovereignty secured for the Egyptian people. As for the relationship between Islam and interest, preserve the integrity of the religious scholar. May he not bend to political pressure, nor pander for political influence. May he fear you alone as he guides the people.

As for foreign policy, give wisdom among competing interests. May the president serve only that which serves his people. May Chinese investment create jobs and aid infrastructure. May Syrian criticism lead to the cessation of violence and bloodshed and a just solution to popular grievances. May Iranian contact promote dialogue between former enemies and possibly current adversaries.

May the region avoid more war.

God, rebuild Egypt and help her to turn to all the practical matters of governance. Yet while these international issues are of deep importance, provide solutions soon to the domestic problems which plague Egypt. Restore security; lift the economy; help the poor. Build an open, free, and democratic structure to include all. Resist any attempts to close ranks, settle scores, or marginalize.

Give respect among Egypt’s political forces, one to the other. Give respect between poor and rich, and narrow the gap between. Heal wounds; issue justice; promote reconciliation.

God, the solutions to these conundrums are in your hands. Enlighten Egyptians that they may find them as well.

Amen.

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Current Events Jayson Religion

Will Islamism Yield to Christianity?

I was invited to comment on an article posted on the Mission of God blog, concerning the inevitability of the Arab Spring turning Islamist, and then the rejection of Islamism for Christianity. Please click here for the video post; my response (slightly edited) follows below.

I think Dr. Cashin’s core point is correct: A system that does not allow questioning of itself cannot stand. But there were a few points which lacked sufficient nuance. A great number of the Arabs in their revolution (at least in Egypt) did not choose Islamists out of love for Islam, but because they were the only viable alternative. While many others did so because they believed (or were told) it was God’s will, what is happening is not a massive choice for Islam.

Now, the MB in Egypt may well become a dictatorial force. Some signs are there as is the lack of organized opposition. Yet this is more likely to be along the lines of a Mubarak-NDP system than an Iranian imitation.

But, there are other indications which suggest the Islamism of the MB is akin to Protestantism, causing a shaking of the traditional religious establishments, such as the Azhar. I don’t predict an open, liberal system for Egypt, nor a full freedom for religious contemplation, but it could happen.

The recent Pew Survey of the world’s Muslims suggests that the level of religiosity among younger Muslims is much less than of the older generation. And while I maintain suspicion over MB promises to lead Egypt into democracy, I do imagine the economic and educational systems will improve. These factors are more likely to free the societies from the constraints of religious dogma, much like happened in European Christendom.

So, yes, if the MB seeks to impose religious hegemony over Egypt, it will eventually fail. But will this result in a massive turning to Christianity? It is fair to imagine, simply speaking sociologically – not in terms of faith claims in either direction – and as Dr. Cashin states, Iran provides an interesting case study. But the more likely result is the general turning away from religion – a process already underway among many youths. The nominal holding of a faith is far easier than the deliberate acceptance of another. The MB will bring an Islamic religious revival to many, but it will only hold if they foster freedom.

Dr. Cashin’s point is that they cannot – Islam as a religion constrains them. It is a fair point and there are examples to back him up. But Europe’s Christian culture also constrained questioning of Christianity, and if OT examples are used there are good Biblical texts that forbid religion from being questioned. Yet society moved on. Will it in the Arab world? It will be messy, but I think the answer is ultimately yes. Perhaps in this Dr. Cashin and I are agreed, but I leave open the possibility for the MB to be a partner in the process.

A very useful discussion though, and there are few certainties at all.

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Current Events Jayson

Rethinking Iran

English: President of Iran @ Columbia University.

Three reports related to Iran came across my attention this past week. All three cast doubts upon the common American narrative of Iran as an evil Islamic nation bent on destroying Israel through a developing nuclear weapons capability. There may be ample reason for the United States to oppose Iran as a geopolitical opponent; care must be taken, however, that American public opinion not submit to manipulative propaganda or self-deceit over assumed righteousness.

An example of this last sentence may be viewed here on YouTube, in which a TV commentator argued the US has the ‘moral authority’ to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, which ‘deserves to be annihilated’ because they are ‘evil’.

This rhetoric is parallel to the statement of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to ‘wipe Israel off the face of the earth’. Lest the tit-for-tat be accepted and dismissed as the voice of two extremists, however, the first report suggests Ahmadinejad’s statement was never made at all.

Shortly after his election in 2005, the New York Times quoted Ahmadinejad in a conference entitled ‘A World without Zionism’, ‘As the imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map.’

In a full translation, the NYT issued a slightly different version: ‘Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map.’

Perhaps this translation, however, also took liberties.

In analyzing the speech and providing a word for word translation, Arash Norouzi states Ahmadinejad said: ‘The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.’ Click here for his further analysis, including a survey of how this quote transformed itself in the media into ‘from the face of the earth’, as well as the context in which the quote from the Ayatollah Khomeni – not Ahmadinejad – is utilized.

The brief story, interestingly, does not simply blame Western powers with outright invention. Rather, it was the Iranian IRNA news agency which (mis?)translated his statement as ‘wiped off the face of the map.’ From here the story has become well known, and Ahmadinejad has been compared to a new Hitler desiring a new Holocaust.

Only God knows what is in his heart. Yet from his words he is not arguing for a nuclear strike to demolish Israel as a nation. He is wishing the removal of the Israeli government which according to international law illegally occupies Palestinian land. As Arab revolutions have called for the fall of the regime – Mubarak, etc – he was not specifically calling for the destruction of the state, let alone the Jews as a people.

There is a more than fair possibility Ahmadinejad views Israel, like many Muslims, as an illegitimate creation of Western dominance, and would wish to see its disappearance as a political entity. Repetition of ‘wiped off the map’ or ‘from the face of the earth’, however, must not be utilized in a campaign to demonize him or the Iranian regime.

He did not say it.

Could he do it? Well, this is the focus of the continual focus on Iran’s purported efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. This second news item was widely reported, so it is likely to have already entered American consciousness. While the UN’s atomic energy watchdog has reported that Iran is taking credible steps to enrich uranium, the New York Times released a report doubting Iranian efforts to make a bomb.

The NYT report relies on what it terms ‘the consensus of American intelligence agencies’. That is, our people tasked with determining what is happening on the ground do not believe Iran is undertaking steps to develop a nuclear weapon. Read the whole article for what uranium enrichment might entail, as well as the Israeli intelligence opinions which doubt the American consensus.

As above, the truth of the matter may be difficult to obtain. The point is to take note of all evidence which runs counter to a rush at demonization, and worse, a call to war. The call has not been issued yet, but some are certainly arguing for a pre-emptive strike, at the least.

The third news item is not as geopolitically important as the first two, but serves similarly to call into question established conventional wisdom. There is palpable fear, much of it reasonable, that the Arab revolutions opened the door to the rule of a backwards and inflexible sharia law. Of the Muslim nations in the world, Iran is one of the few to actually seek its full implementation.

This is why it is noteworthy to recognize the Iranian parliament amended all laws to forbid the penalty of stoning, whether for adultery or other offenses.

That this is a debate at all will lend evidence to common Western opinions about the backwardness of Iran and the nature of Islamic sharia. The more nuanced point to take away is that Iran – far removed from any need to polish its reputation to the West – decided to reinterpret sharia. The linked article details the internal controversy this has sparked, but gives evidence that a legal reference to sharia, demanded by many Islamist parties, does not necessarily entail draconian provisions cemented during the Middle Ages.

None of the above argues in favor of sharia, only that in all cases, what is accepted as the law of God can only be implemented by the hands of men. Men can be just or unjust with any legal code, not all of which are equal.

A fourth news item, however, serves to reinforce the common narrative. Christian pastor and Muslim convert Youcef Nadarkhani still faces the sentence of hanging for his apostasy.

Does Iran hate Israel and desire its destruction? Is it seeking to produce a nuclear weapon? Does it enslave its people through medieval codes of justice?

The answer to each of these questions is maybe. It is the task of diplomats, intelligence agents, and human rights activists to answer this question more definitively, and it is the task of media to convey their answers to the public.

What I fear is that some media has also taken upon itself the task of simplification at the least, obscuration perhaps, and manipulation at the worst. Many paint Iran as the chief obstacle to world stability, yet this map – however disputable in detail – paints a different picture as to which nation is under threat:

American Military Bases Surrounding Iran

It is a given that every nation must pursue its interests, and these are often at odds with one another. Yet the United States suffers from the inconvenient reality that the majority of its population holds to a sense of morality vis-à-vis interests. In order to take decisive steps in the international arena, the government must assure the public it is an issue including right versus wrong.

In the case of Iran, the United States may well be ‘right’. America has strong and legally enshrined traditions of freedom, human rights, and respect for national sovereignty. Yet we must be aware not only of the above counter-interpretations concerning Iran, but moreover the reality of this American truism. We are not free to simply impose our will, we must remain a defender of freedom and justice for all.

Were this not so we could simply be an empire.

Therefore, when the truism is summoned, it can also be doubted. Is our Iranian policy determined by freedom and justice, or are these principles manipulated to support a more interests-based global agenda? I don’t know, and the problem is the vast majority of the public does not know either. But at the very least, we must ask the question, and not allow misrepresentation when it is discovered.

 

Note: One posited explanation can be found here, defining the issue in terms of global energy and currency. Common tropes, to be sure, which also deserve to be questioned.

 

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Current Events Jayson

Making Sense of Syria

Translation: We are all with you.

Much of the world has been aghast at news coming out of Syria, as the demonstrations now common in much of the Arab world have been brutally suppressed. Government sources, however, claim they are fighting an armed insurgency. Media, notably, has been blocked from the country, lending credibility to the idea that the government has something to hide.

We have been in Jordan for a short visit, and while here I was able to meet with a Syrian Christian resident in Amman. She is originally from Allepo, and was able to provide some of her perspective on the matter. It is only one opinion, of course, but provides a local perspective that goes beyond claims and counter-claims. For a good journalistic account of Syria, here is a link from The Economist. Here is another account from Christianity Today, focusing on the Syrian Christian perspective. It will resemble much of what follows.

The source, who preferred not to be named, will be called Samiya. She did not believe she was under any suspicion, but was planning a trip to Syria to take care of some administrative matters, and thought best to keep her name out of the news.

In short, Samiya believed both accounts to be true. The Syrian people have been steadfast in their peaceful protest for national reform. The government has been countering this group with violent repression, but as in protests elsewhere, they carry on.

At the same time, certain groups within Syria have undertaken violent militia action against the regime, and have mixed in with the protestors. These have been putting certain villages under pressure, and the Syrian army has had several bloody encounters with them. Samiya believed Jisr al-Sughur, on the Turkey border not far from Aleppo, fell into this category.

Within this struggle, she believed, lies were being told on both sides. Certainly the government is not being honest concerning its suppression of peaceful protest, using the militias as an excuse for further crackdown. Yet the tales of horror have also been exaggerated by the reform party. Several weeks ago a terrible tale spread on the internet about a boy who had died in the hands of security, revealing severe torture and mutilation of his body. Samiya, however, heard statements from relatives in the boy’s family, stating that while the boy did die at the hands of security, the torture marks were administered after he was handed over to his family. They (or those within the violent opposition) desecrated him in an effort to rally more of the population against the regime.

Samiya believed these militia groups, and the families associated with them, were hardline Sunni/Salafi parties funded and encouraged by Saudi Arabia. Knowing Syria to be a key ally of Iran, Saudi Arabia would greatly wish to see the fall of the regime. In the aftermath, the minority Shia Alawite autocratic rule would give way to some sort of Sunni governance. This would also likely lead to an end of funding of the Hizbollah party in Lebanon; interestingly, the head of Hizbollah is among the only personalities to rally to the defense of the regime.

Though they have not rallied to the defense, Samiya understands Israel, oddly enough, to quietly resist the fall of the regime. Though Syrian political rhetoric is strongly anti-Israeli, there has been almost no conflict on Israel’s northern border during the Bashar al-Assad presidency. While Syria does support Hizbollah, Samiya claimed this was to create a resistance force on the border against possible Israeli expansion. Lebanon is a weak government, and Hizbollah makes difficult any future advance into Beirut – which Israel has attacked before. From there, it is only a few dozen kilometers to Damascus. In any case, while Israel considers Hizbollah a thorn in its side, it fears more greatly the chaos which might prevail should the regime fall. As with worries in Egypt, better the enemy you know, than the one you don’t.

Samiya believed that one of the reasons for Western hesitation in Syria reflects the above difference in perspective. Many believe that politics in the Middle East is orchestrated around the US-Saudi Arabia-Israel alliance. Within this set-up, Egypt is largely a pawn (though possibly now seeking more independent foreign policy), Turkey is an emerging player, and Iran is the enemy. During the Egyptian revolution the US was quick to call for the fall of Mubarak, trusting that Egypt would remain within this overall structure.

Yet with Syria, the United States finds itself between two allies. Saudi Arabia would like the Iranian ally to fall, while Israel is reticent. American equivocation can be explained by its middle position between the two. It may well be the future of Syria lies mainly in the hands of the Assad family and the protestors against it. But it also may be the future will be shaped by the direction the United States eventually leans.

As for the actual interaction between the Assad family and the protestors, Samiya believed that Bashar was not naturally a butcher, and was not the prime mover behind the repression. Rather, she believed that however he may desire to reform (though he has had several years to do so previously), family military and business forces cannot contemplate losing the primary role the Alawites maintain in society. In this repression, then, Bashar is complicit, but also too weak to do anything otherwise.

Finally, Samiya spoke of the Christian participation in the demonstrations. They have been present, but many Christians have been reluctant to speak against the regime. The Alawite minority has ruled Syria by co-opting other minority groups, including Christians, and backing the dominant Sunni upper-to-middle class. Some fear there could be sectarian war against Alawites, Christians, and Druze, should chaos grip the state while a power vacuum sorts itself out.

Samiya played down this possibility, but did state her personal preference for the regime to stay while carrying out significant reforms that would change the system over time, though democratic participation. The regime is brutal, and Samiya could not understand why more Christians, on humanitarian grounds, did not enroll in greater numbers within the peaceful demonstrations. Reform is absolutely necessary, but many Christians are standing on the sidelines.

To repeat the earlier warning, it should be understood that Samiya is only a source – outside of the country at that – and does not fully understand what is happening within Syria. Her perspective, however, helps put together information that come through piecemeal in the headlines. In truth, a jigsaw puzzle has only one correct solution, but until all pieces are collected, multiple constructed realities are possible.

May God grant peace to the Syrian people and bring about a just resolution with as little bloodshed as possible. As it is already too late, may forgiveness and grace characterize all parties in the days to come.

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Current Events Jayson

Bahrain, Conspiracies, and US-Iranian Cooperation

The pace of popular protest and change in the Middle East has been bewildering. In such cases limited information, new realities, and subtle biases make the resort to conspiracy theory understandable. Tunisia caught everyone by surprise. When the demonstrations erupted in Egypt suddenly a connection was seen, and widely feared. Who was running the show? What forces were at work?

We had the privilege of being eyewitnesses to much of what took place in Egypt, and we can state that if there were greater forces at work, we did not see them. But, this is the nature of conspiracy theory; it is below the surface, unseen.

Conspiracy theories work off of truths, and therefore have merit. But they also tend to look for unified solutions, and I would argue this often betrays them. Life is complex; multiple forces are at work, a grand narrative is near impossible.

Yet while due to our experiences I believe we have a decent handle on the complexity of Egypt, the situation in Bahrain is beyond me. The Egyptian English website of the popular independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm carries two articles on the situation there. The first is an analysis of the return of ‘stability’ as the protests have largely come to a halt. It seems that security forces have succeeded in driving back the momentum of the demonstrators, and may be undertaking a quiet crackdown against key leaders.

The second is an interview with Dr. Abdullatif al-Mahmood, the spokesman for the National Unity Gathering proposed by the government to lead dialogue between oppositional forces. The situation has certainly moved past dialogue as a solution, but some of his words may betray his status as a neutral, trusted interlocutor.

The problem with the Shias is that most of them have no loyalty to the homeland. Their loyalty to the sect and its plots comes first. How can we trust them when they put up pictures of Khomeini everywhere they go when he was the military leader of Iran, as well as the religious and secular political leader? How can the state trust them?

A quick primer on the issues at stake: Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni monarchy for the past two hundred years, supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It rules, however, over a majority Shia population. I am unable to say if its rule has been just, or if it has been successful in developing a sense of national unity. Nor am I able to say if the Shia population is loyal to Iran, or if there has been Iranian interference in Bahraini sovereignty. In his interview Dr. al-Mahmood raises interesting points, which are worthy for consideration.

Yet now we run into the problem of lack of familiarity and information. Can his words be trusted? Within the article he makes this startling accusation:

This is all within the framework of a US plan to create a vast Shia state loyal to Iran in the Gulf and in Iraq.

Al-Masry: How is the US aiming for the region to become governed by Shias loyal to Iran, despite the hostility between the two countries?

Al-Mahmood: This is not true. The truth is that there is no hostility between Iran and the US. There are mutual interests and roles between the two. International relations are governed by interests and not by good or bad relations.

And the conspiracy theory deepens. But it deepens in an unexpected way. Not only is this particular uprising (at least) directed by Iran, it is orchestrated in conjunction with the United States.

Before outright dismissal, where might the truth in such an assertion lie? The United States’ interest lies firmly, if uneasily, with Saudi Arabia as the dominant regional power, if only for the open pipeline of oil supplies. Moreover, media coverage of Bahraini protests, from both al-Jazeera and CNN, has been significantly less than what was given to Egypt. Furthermore, US administration comments took President Mubarak harshly to task, whereas pressure on Bahrain’s monarchy has not moved significantly beyond the call to respect human rights. When Gulf Cooperation Council forces landed in Bahrain to help pacify the situation, the US hardly blinked. This conveys the conventional wisdom in Bahrain. Saudi interests dominate, especially since it has a minority population of Shia, and the first domino must not fall. The US will back Saudi Arabia, especially in curbing an Iranian urge to increase its regional influence.

Where then is the deeper, conspiratorial narrative? If it exists, it could go like this. In this part of the world I have heard just enough US-Iran rumors as well as assumed Western anti-Islamic biases to see a logic:

If united, the Arab world, or, variously constructed, the Islamic world could be a powerful competition to Western hegemony. Following World War I and the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Western powers, namely Britain and France, divided the region into little nation-states. These were reared on the principles of nationalism, in order to give them separate identities and keep them squabbling among themselves. The British, it is said, also nurtured radical Islamic ideologies (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Wahabbism in Saudi Arabia) to further divide internal populations along religious lines. Extending the thought, the state of Israel was also planted to be a thorn in the side of the Arab world.

The biggest fault line in the Middle East, however, is the Sunni-Shia divide. (I have even heard one voice saying that modern Shiism itself is a British invention.) 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, and the remaining 10% is concentrated in Iran and Iraq, with pockets elsewhere such as Lebanon, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. Shia Islam believes that Islamic leadership should remain within the family of Muhammad, whereas Sunni Islam developed a political theology that was more egalitarian, or, interpreted differently, justified obedience to whoever usurped leadership in the Muslim community. At one point in history a minority Shia power emerged from Tunisia and ruled much of the Arab Sunni population from Egypt. Today, it is minority Sunni governments which rule over Shia populations in Bahrain, and formerly, in Saddam-era Iraq and previously.

Returning to the conspiracy theory, then, in terms of good relations with the Islamic world and unhampered flow of oil, the US would do well to favor Sunni nations such as Saudi Arabia. Yet, if the US inherits what was (if indeed it was) British policy of divide-and-conquer, under-the-table arrangements to strengthen the minority Shia and promote Iranian interests can make sense too. After all, Iran has abundant petrol resources also, as does Bahrain.

Crazy, you might say? Isn’t Iran ruled by a maniacal despot bent on the destruction of Israel and the Great Satan of America? It certainly seems so. Does anyone believe Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, despite their statements to the contrary? But, in the Middle East, there has often been a vast difference between public posturing and private sentiment. Could it not be so in the US as well?

Egypt is seen as a bulwark in defense of the Israeli state, being a signatory to the Camp David Accords. With the fall of Mubarak many worry that an anti-Israeli popular sentiment may undue this historic peace. Yet what is often not realized is that all the while Mubarak reaped the benefits of US support upon which preservation of peace hinged, his administration allowed if not promoted the popular sentiment against normalization of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. The same can possibly also be seen in Syria, where President Assad’s popularity is supported by a strong anti-Israel rhetoric. Yet some analysis sees Israel currently worried if the ongoing demonstrations there unseat this ‘enemy’.

Could the official and popular sentiment in the United States against Iran also be manufactured? If so, it would provide the administration cover to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia while it fans the flames of Shia-Sunni conflict, laying the groundwork in case a formal shift in ties to Iran ever becomes necessary. Such a scenario is easy to imagine: Saudi Arabians have links to al-Qaeda, and the nation has little semblance of democracy or respect for human rights. Iran, meanwhile, is also undergoing popular demonstrations. Should these topple Ahmedinijad, or at the least lead to a coup d’etat, might we find among the Persians a better civilizational friend? Would not the virtues of their people compare favorably to the (now labeled) backward Bedouin terrorists and debauched sheikhs of Saudi Arabia?

I am not arguing for the conspiracy theory by any means. But all conspiracy theories, at some level, make sense. What I am putting forward, especially as it concerns Bahrain, is that I don’t know much of anything. This ignorance, plus a little knowledge, is fertile ground for conspiracy. But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you, either.

Unfortunately, this is where our world is these days. In time the confusion will dissipate and we will get used to the new realities, becoming comfortable in our illusion of understanding. Yet paradoxically, it is understanding that is vitally necessary. What I have written above is a narrative current in the Middle East. I hope I have carried it forward in a manner respecting its plausibility. Why? Not so that we might lend it credence, but so that we understand and better respect those who hold to it. They are struggling to make sense of the rapid pace of change as much as we are.

Or, they may be manipulators. If so, better understanding will help us to navigate a tricky world of power and self-interest. Those committed to good must be able to see clearly through deceit and ill motivation. Yet they themselves must not yield to the power of an overarching conspiracy theory, neglecting the complexity of each situation. Where demonstrated manipulation exists, it must be rejected. Yet they themselves must know their own heart, that in their commitment to good they are often tempted similarly to smaller manipulations. At least, they are believed smaller. Are others any different?

Among the demonstrators in Bahrain are human rights activists who appear to be committed to democracy and liberal principles of government. Perhaps they are not, or perhaps these are being manipulated by others with more sinister motivations. It is hard to know the right from the wrong. May we have humility in all we profess, conviction to profess what is good, and hope that the profession of good may be mirrored even by those of whom we doubt. Above all, perhaps faith is necessary, that God will sort out our human mess, and redeem every impulse of good, so that all intertwine in a mosaic of his good, just, and eternal principles. May we aid, and not stand in the way.