Esposito and Lalwani on the plight of Christian minorities

A recent article in the Huffington Post by John Esposito and Sheila Lalwani on the threat to the wellbeing of Christian minorities in the Middle East and Central/South Asia is so significant that I reproduce it here. [Click on the title above for a direct link to the original article.] RLC

Christians Under Siege: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism in the Muslim World
by John L. Esposito and Sheila B. Lalwani

Conflicts and killings from Africa to Southeast Asia have brought into sharp relief the significant threat to religious minorities in some Muslim societies. While constitutionally entitled in many countries to equality of citizenship and religious freedom, religious minorities in the Muslim world increasingly fear the erosion of their rights — and with good reason. Interreligious and inter-communal tensions have flared up not only in Egypt and Malaysia but also in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan. Conflicts have varied from acts of discrimination, to forms of violence escalating to murder, to the destruction of villages and mosques.

Majorities of Muslims and Christians embrace religious diversity. However, a significant minority of hard-line conservative, fundamentalist, and militant Muslims — like their counterparts in Christianity and Judaism — are not pluralistic, but rather strongly exclusivist in their attitudes toward other faiths and even fellow believers with whom they disagree. As recent events in Egypt and Pakistan illustrated, these myopic religious worldviews can turn ugly.

The Coptic Christian community in Egypt is an ancient faith group whose presence in Egypt predates the coming of Islam. Relations between Copts and Muslims in society had generally been good. However, in recent decades, extremists have targeted Copts and the government. While the government has addressed their status as a security issue, it has failed to respond to the desire of Egypt’s Christian Copts for full equality of citizenship: equal treatment with regard to building their churches; appointment into top positions, and non-discriminatory policies.

In the past year, extremists have again targeted Coptic Christians. In the town of Nag Hamadi in southern Egypt, seven people were killed when gunmen sprayed automatic fire into a crowd of churchgoers after a Coptic New Year’s eve midnight mass on Jan. 7, 2010. Officials believed the attack was in retaliation for the November rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man. But in December 2010, Egyptians were shocked when Muslim militants slaughtered 25 and injured another 100 Coptic Christian worshipers in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.

The magnitude of the atrocity triggered an unprecedented public outcry. Egyptian government officials, Muslim religious leaders, the media, and civil society moved quickly to condemn the attacks. Islamic leaders and groups from the Muslim Brotherhood to Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Sheik of al-Azhar (Egypt’s highest religious authority) and the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, along with the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, all came out with strong condemnatory statements and calls for Egyptian unity. Across the country Egyptians rallied to the defense of the Coptic community, its freedoms and its security. Thousands of Muslims turned out at Coptic Christmas eve mass services on Jan 6, 2011 around the country for candle light vigils and to serve as human shields and protect Coptic churches as they celebrated their Christmas. In Pakistan the assassination of a major politician who opposed its blasphemy law and its aftermath signaled any even more critical and worrisome threat.

A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of four was sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam, in a case stemming from a village dispute. This case is not an isolated incident; allegations of blasphemy against the Prophet or desecration of the Quran have often been used against Christians in local disputes.

Asia Bibi, believed to be the first woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, strongly denied the charges and requested a presidential pardon. In November 2010 the Lahore High Court in Pakistan barred President Asif Ali Zardari from issuing a pardon. The issue resurrected calls in Pakistan and internationally for the recall of the blasphemy law. The violent reactions of militant religious leaders and mosque preachers triggered the assassination of Salmaan Taseer — the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law — by one of his bodyguards who shot him 27 times on 4 January 2011. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, admitted that he was influenced by the fiery sermons of militant preachers who had denounced Taseer. According to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an internationally recognized expert on Sout Asian politics:

Taseer’s death has unleashed the mad dogs of hell, inspiring the minority of fanatics to go to any lengths to destroy the democratic, secular and moderate Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We Pakistanis are at the edge of a precipice and as a consequence the stability of the entire region is at risk. Not a single registered mullah in the city of Lahore with its 13 million people was willing to read Taseer’s funeral prayers, because they were too scared to do so. Five hundred lawyers have signed up to defend Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri, but Taseer’s wife cannot find a single criminal lawyer to prosecute him. It is hard to see which judge is even likely to pursue the case to its obvious conclusion.

Shockingly, the assassin has been greeted as a celebrity and hero. The extent of extremist influence, its power to turn out large street demonstrations and to intimidate liberal reformers could be seen in mass street rallies like that in Karachi where more than 40,000 people took to the streets in his support. At the same time, a notable number of more mainstream as well as militant religious leaders were quick to come out against repeal of the blasphemy law and the government has been quick to retreat, declaring it would never amend the law. The deafening silence of marginalized liberals and reformers, who fear to speak out, and political parties has been testimony of the extent to which extremists have been able to threaten and intimidate, target, issue death threats and kill. This is nothing new. Two of Pakistan’s prominent reformist Islamic scholars and popular television preachers, Dr. Tahir al-Qadri and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, have been forced in recent years to flee the country and live in exile in Canada and Malaysia.

Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri authored a 600 page fatwa, an exhaustive study of what the Quran and Islamic sources have to say about the use of violence, terrorism, suicide bombing. Qadri categorically and unequivocally rejects all acts of illegitimate violence, terrorism and every act of suicide bombing against all human beings, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. He also distances himself from all, whether fellow prominent religious leaders or Muslim youth, who have the potential to be radicalized, who would seek to justify and excuse suicide bombing and terrorism for any reason.

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, who fled to Malaysia last year after police foiled a plot to bomb his Lahore home has publicly opposed the blasphemy laws since the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. Like al-Qadri’s condemnation of terrorism and suicide bombings, Ghamidi attacks the blasphemy law on religious grounds, maintaining it has no foundation in either the Qur’an or the Hadith — the sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

Religious tolerance and equality of citizenship remain fragile both in secular Muslim countries and in self-styled Islamic states. Mainstream Muslim religious and political leaders and the media need to not only condemn religious extremism and terrorism, as many have done nationally and internationally, but also speak out against those mainstream religious leaders and others who continue to advocate religious exclusivist theologies or doctrines and their implementation in law and society.

Critical is the implementation of reforms in religious thought, in law, and in society to ensure equality of citizenship. Both Muslim and Christian religious leaders will need to work more closely on religious and curricula reforms for madrasas, seminaries, schools, and universities and utilize mass media, the internet, and other avenues of popular culture. Failure to do so will not only feeds the growth of religious extremism but also contributes to the mentality of sectors of mainstream society, the estimated 500 to 800 lawyers, who offered to represent the self-confessed killer, and the physicians, teachers, police and others who have also publicly supported him.

The plight of Christians and other minorities in some Muslim countries in the face of a significant and dangerous minority of religious extremists and the failures of political and religious leaders threatens both the safety and security of religious minorities and the very fabric of Muslim societies.

Prof. John L. Esposito, author of The Future of Islam, is University Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Center.

The Egyptian Movement: A Worrisome Analogue to the Iranian Revolution

There is a similarity between the uprising against Mubarak in Egypt and the uprising against the Shah of Iran in 1978. Riots led to looting and in the process people gained access to weapons, so that weapons of all kinds were brought out on the streets. Vigilantes began to search now officials of the Shah’s government and many were executed on the spot whether or not they had really been loyal to the regime. Prisons were opened and criminals of all kinds came out, to become involved in the mayhem. It was a true revolution in the sense of being a broadly supported rebellion that sought fundamental change in the system of rule.

The result was a movement that could have gone in various directions. Azar Nafisi says that when she was teaching at a university in Tehran various groups — communists, democrats, Islamists of various sorts — were promoting their ideas and their publications to the students. In was only gradually that it became known that Khomeini and his colleagues in the clergy were intolerant and in fact committed to removing any group that could constitute a rival threat. Eventually some of those who had supported Khomeini and had brought him to prominence — especially the young progressive Iranians in Paris who had circulated his sermons and introduced him to the press — were removed, even executed, because they became opposed to the brutal policies of the new regime of clerics established by Khomeini.

We are currently observing a similar movement in Egypt. The riots, the weapons, the criminals released from prison, frighted officials fleeing with their families — these indicate a volatile situation that could go anywhere.

Who will rise to dominance in such a situation? It will take not only an assertive personality but an organization to back him — the Iranian clergy was virtually the only organization ignored by the Shah’s government and thus the only organization capable of quickly congealing into a viable administrative institution for Iran. So what organization in Egypt could accomplish such a feat? Would the Muslim Brethren be able to do it? If so, the future for the people of Egypt cannot be as bright as the excited demonstrators imagine.

If Mubarak flees, which we hope for, there is still the question of how a new regime will take form. What we know from the Iranian story is that the resulting system of governance could be even more brutal than the one that was displaced by an authentic popular revolutionary movement.

American duplicity in the Middle East could be dangerous

American double-sided diplomacy in the Middle East can be dangerous

The American government policy in the Arab world has a double aspect that may be catching up with it. On one hand the official policy is to support democracy and representative government; this poses the Americans against the regimes in the Arab world where authentic representation scarcely exists. On the other hand, the Americans have a working relationship with the current dictators in the Arab world, so they are reluctant for these regimes to change. It is no secret that if there were honest elections in the Middle East none of those elected would be pro-American; in fact, one would have to be anti-American to get elected. So the American interest in the Middle East, despite the high-minded claims, is for the regimes in place to remain in power. By simply encouraging “all sides” to resolve their differences peacefully the American government is displaying its support for ruthless leaders in the Middle East — their responses to the demonstrations will display how ruthless they are.

This is a dangerous game. When Jimmy Carter was elected he was much admired by the young people of Iran because he initiated a policy of what he called “human rights.” The Shah regime had become broadly despised for its repressive policies and they hoped for Carter’s support against the Shah. But Carter went to Iran and claimed that the Shah was his friend, alienating the young people, indeed people from all elements of the society, from him. They turned against Carter, despised him. And when students took over the American Embassy they refused to release their hostages until Jimmy Carter was out of office. The Iranians believed they had driven Carter from office.

By claiming that all sides in the demonstrations in the Middle East should sit down and talk the American government may be losing whatever respect it still has in the Middle East.

The Islamists never generated such public movements as these.

I wonder what the demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Albania mean to the Islamist leaders — Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, especially. These demonstrations have an appearance of spontaneity that the Islamist demonstrations in various places never had. In those demonstrations the core among the activists were the students of religious figures — this was the element that could be counted on to help the movement. But here we have demonstrations that appear to arise from a broad sense of distress among the abused populations of these countries, and they are animated by ideals very different from the call to return to a strict practice of Islam. In fact, the Islamists never generated such broad based expressions of public outrage, even though admittedly they did represent the frustrations of many. These populations have suffered for so long under repressive regimes that any expression of public outrage was accepted and in many cases, supported by the public. But there is good reason to suppose that even then it was not religious concerns that motivated the popularity of Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamists. It was instead an authentic quest for relief, for recognition as human beings by rulerships that could not bear to be questioned.

Lawrence Wright says in the Looming Tower [p 49] that in the 1980s the the Egyptian Islamists believed that the assassination of Sadat and other key officials would unleash “a popular uprising against secular authority all over the country.” It never happened. And it was this disappointment that led the Islamist theorists to decide that the Egyptian people, and indeed Muslims everywhere, were so infused with the decadent values of the West that they were hopelessly delusioned. Only extreme measures could save the Muslim world from its decay into the moral depravity of the West.

What must they be thinking now? A popular uprising now taking place, and not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere. But the moral animus of these demonstrations is not Islam but the demand for democracy. The secular — that is, the non-religious — ideals that drive these movements are too evident to be ignored.

The Islamist movement is not dead, but other ideals are being promoted and it looks like they have more authenticity and power to represent the public frustration than many of us expected. I surmise that the Islamists are astonished.

The continuing question is, how will these movements be harnessed into structural changes of the sort that so many crave? The Iranian Revolution was as authentic a public movement as has ever happened — rich, poor, educated, illiterate, all were opposed to the Shah — but as the new regime took form it became evident that the movement had been co-opted by a ruthless element [not all] of the clergy. Let us hope and pray for something better in these cases.

The new idiom of popular frustration: Democracy

Behind many of the movements in the Middle East is simple repression. Many have suffered for generations under regimes that were never elected and would not be elected if the ordinary people got a chance to collectively select their preferred leaders. This is why the various movements — demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen — are not unlike the Islamist movement. In a way, what we see today is evidence that the Islamist appeal no longer appears to be the most salient idiom of public frustration. Consider the following, from Al Jazeera.

The ‘bin Laden’ of marginalisation
The real terror eating away at the Arab world is socio-economic marginalisation. by Larbi Sadiki 14 Jan 2011

Conventional wisdom has it that ‘terror’ in the Arab world is monopolised by al-Qaeda in its various incarnations. There may be some truth in this.

However, this is a limited viewpoint. Regimes in countries like Tunisia and Algeria have been arming and training security apparatuses to fight Osama bin Laden. But they were caught unawares by the ‘bin Laden within’: the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region’s population.

The winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab west – the Maghreb – threaten to blow eastwards towards the Levant as the marginalised issue the fatalistic scream of despair to be given freedom and bread or death.

[for more click on the title above]

Steve LeVine’s doubts about the future prosperity of Afghanistan

Steve LeVine [The Oil and the Glory, January 25, 2011] has a valuable report on Afghanistan: to indicate how much has changed among the Taliban and to raise questions about the future potential of Afghanistan as a flourishing nexus of trade between Central Asia and India and the rest of the world. I still believe the potential exists but only in the distant future. His problem is with the policy proposals currently being made in order to encourage the development of the roads [and pipelines? cell phone masts?] that would link Inner Asia with South Asia. Whether he is right or wrong is less interesting to me than the discussion about the current issues, which seem to be always shifting, taking on new nuances. See The deadly risk of romance on the Silk Road

Radio Free Europe’s attempt to reach the Pashto speaking world

Journalism is one of the most dangerous professions on the planet, but one of the most important. Here is a link RFE’s project to report on affairs to the Pashto audience in “The world’s deadliest country for the press.”
[Click on the title for the link, or directly link to this site:.]

Popular movements in Tunisia, Albania, Jordan, Yemen — elsewhere?

WE can be hopeful that the new signs of restiveness will lead to the formation of authentic democracies but I wonder if they were in the end turn out that way. The Iranian Revolution was genuinely authentic, one of the few real revolutions in history, and yet was eventually appropriated by the more radical elements of the Shiite clergy [one of the few national organization capable of organizing an administration]. The result was a regime more repressive than the Shah’s. So I am dubious while being hopeful. Without a population educated enough and savvy enough to develop a workable system of popular suffrage that protects the rights of those who lose as well as those who win it won’t happen. Too easy for the bullies to take over. If it can happen anywhere in the Middle East Tunisia may be the place.

Some helpful recent statements:

On the rising signs of restive populations in Tunisia, Albania, Jordan, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere, see:
ARAB WORLD: Protests in Algeria and Yemen draw inspiration from Tunisia uprising
by Meris Lutz [LA Times blog “Babylon & Beyond”

On the significance of the uprising in Tunisia see Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, here on
Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ Could Quickly Wither
Sunday, 23 Jan 2011

A New Web Site on Central Asian Affairs

I am not alone, I think, in feeling overwhelmed at the flood of information on the web. At the same time I feel a need to track what is going on in the world.
How does anyone keep up to date who espouses the notion that modern anthropology should address real issues in our own time?
It seems fair to accept the notion — formulated by cultural evolutionists like Leslie White a long time ago — that the world is changing at an ever rising rate: Every new invention provides a basis for other inventions, sometimes a plethora of new ones, some of them inducing new social relations and new possibilities for imagination and creativity. So the pace of change may be geometric.
Whatever the principle, the reality seems to be demonstrating it: The pace of change is outstripping my own ability even to pretend knowledge of what is going on. As I tell my students, whenever I finally think I understand what is going on in the world I’m out of date.
So the problem is acute, keeping aware of what is going on.
Recently I have teamed up with Jaleh Fazelian of the Washington Univerity library to set up web sites to back up my courses. For the Central Asia course she has provided a kind of “home” site for many ways to track developments in Central Asia. There is so much there — links to recent articles, blogs, basice sources — that it is at least one place to start in trying to follow affairs as they develop in Central Asia, one of those places whose importance to the world generally is rising [again, I think, geometrically].
Click on the title above to see her site. []

Mullah Omar’s Heart Attack: True? And what of it?

Hmm. If the Pakistanis deny anything that seems no longer to be reason to believe it. Too many times they have played a double game, so for some of us there is no credibility left. So Haqqani’s denial that Mullah Omar had a heart attack gives us no information. We cannot know it was not true. But as we know, without him the Taliban activity will still go on. RLC

Report: Pakistani spy agency rushed Mullah Omar to hospital
By Jeff Stein The Washington Post

Mullah Omar, the elusive, one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban, had a heart attack Jan. 7 and was treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with the help of Pakistan’s spy agency, according to a private intelligence network run by former CIA, State Department and military officers.

The intelligence network, operating under the auspices of a private company, “The Eclipse Group,” said its source was a physician in the Karachi hospital, which was not identified in the report, who said he saw Omar struggling to recover from an operation to put a stent in his heart.

“While I was not personally in the operating theater,” the physician reported, “my evaluation based on what I have heard and seeing the patient in the hospital is that Mullah Omar had a cardiac catheter complication resulting in either bleeding or a small cerebral vascular incident, or both.”

U.S. officials said they could not immediately verify the report.

“No one on this end has heard this,” said a U.S. official from Kabul. “It doesn’t mean it’s not true — we just have no information to confirm or dispute these facts.”

A spokesman at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said the report “had no basis whatsoever.”

“Sometimes intelligence tips received by professionals turn out to be wrong. The story about Mullah Omar falls under that category. You might recall a similar story from 2001 about Osama bin Laden receiving dialysis treatment that turned out to be incorrect, and the fabrication of those who wanted to give Pakistan a bad name.”

Haqqani added, “Pakistani intelligence, military and law enforcement personnel continue to hunt down wanted Al-Qaeda and Taliban figures and will apprehend anyone if and when we have hard intelligence, which is very different from speculation circulated by contractors.” The report said Omar was “rushed” to the hospital on Jan. 7 by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

“The ISI rushed him to a hospital in Karachi, where he was given heparin [an anticoagulant] and operated on,” the Eclipse report said. “After 3-4 days of post-operative care in the hospital, he was released to the ISI and ordered to take absolute bed rest when at home for at least several days.”

The physician who was the source for the report said that, “After the operation, there seemed to be some brain damage with Mullah Omar having slurred speech.”
“His post hospital course is consistent with this type of outcome,” the physician added. “Three-four days in hospital is consistent with cardiac catheterization and or cardiac stent placement. Bed rest and aphasia [difficulty speaking] post-catheterization could be from a bleeding complication.” Citing a separate source in the Quetta shura, the Taliban governing council on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the Eclipse report said “Mullah Omar is continuing to improve and his speech is clearing.”

It also said the ISI was keeping the Quetta shura “informed” about Omar’s recovery at “an ISI ‘guest house’ in Karachi under ISI guard.”

The Eclipse Group is run by Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, a former head of the CIA’s Latin American operations who was the first chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center; Kim Stevens, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Bolivia and Italy; and Brad A. Patty, a civilian advisor to the U.S. Army’s 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq from 2007 to 2009.

The Eclipse Group’s reports are available “by invitation only” on its Web site, Stevens said.

By all appearances, the Eclipse network is the just the latest iteration of a shadowy, Pentagon-backed operation that began contracting with former CIA and military operatives to supply intelligence in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. Amid adverse publicity last year, the Pentagon supposedly cut off its funding.

Stevens declined to discuss The Eclipse Group’s financing, except to say it has “no DoD clients.”

“Our customer list is proprietary information, but it is more than 20 and less than 50, including several European intelligence services,” he added.

Note: Based on information from The Eclipse Group, Brad A. Patty was incorrectly described at first as a U.S. Army Special Forces