Archive for ‘Arab World’

June 3, 2012

Syria’s Alawites (and other Minorities) beyond Wikipedia and the News

by Gedalyah Reback

Wikipedia is a great website. Ignore it at your own peril. Teachers and professors talk it to hell, but not using it is to ignore a tremendous tool that Google considers the automatic top result on virtually any academic topic. Most professors don’t understand that the reason you shouldn’t cite it as a source isn’t due to its lack of reliability. It’s because the information of its articles are constantly changing. You should be checking the footnotes and hitting the links listed at the bottom of the page. New information makes the date you accessed it originally constantly irrelevant, but letting it point you in the right direction is assuredly a good strategy for writing a paper or thinking of a research topic.

So when it comes to Middle East topics, it’s not so much the subjectivity I worry about – even on articles covering things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the outdated information. In terms of minorities, Wikipedia seems much more like an aggregate for recycled, archaic information than it does a reliable source of the modern state of different religious or ethnic groups.

The particular page of concern for me is this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Syria. What the page has to say about Alawites is peculiar: “Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.”

The information is correct. But it was a better summary about 100 years ago. Alawites, Ismailis and Druze have not been left out of the age of the internet, digital music, cars or the urban explosion. Every group has moved away from rural lifestyles into Latakia, Hama, Homs and Damascus. But most importantly of all, the community’s conservative roots have been decimated by the modern age. A combination of Arab nationalism, feigning devotion to religion and the marathon of Western cultural influences into the year 2012 have made religion a weak link among Alawites. In the spirit of the age, the experience is defined by a raw, dark, realpolitik approach to life. Alawites’ main concern right now is living under the thumb of political Islam defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. More relevant than referring to the group’s religious history is its political history. The Ottoman Empire made great efforts toward the end of its existence to push Syria’s Alawites to embrace the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in custom, law and sect. By the time the empire fell, the community’s leadership was either running to Shi’ite Islam for legal inspiration or enthusiastically defining the community’s independence.

After 90 years of secular Arab nationalism and a Western culture not at all defined by religious tradition, secularism is perhaps the more dominant trend in Alawite and other minorities’ religious identities in 2012 Syria. bear this in mind for your next term paper. But also bear in mind “secular” doesn’t imply atheist, agnostic or apathetic regarding religion. It can merely imply someone doesn’t live his or her life in accord with it, or doesn’t want religious affairs mixed up in government or politics. But in terms of tribal authority, or the authority of religious figures, it’s virtually non-existent. The effective leadership of the Alawite community is Bashar al-Assad and the disproportionately Alawite Syrian armed forces.

This doesn’t mean religion is finished for the Alawites. It would be just as naïve to say the same for the American Northeast and West Coast. Religion is hardly on its way out. How Alawites deal with religion in the future will likely change, but contemporary Western trends will hardly be the end of the story or the ushering in of a sudden wave of secular or atheist Humanism. Alawites have had the opportunity for years to eliminate other elements of religion in Syria’s political life and have balked at the opportunity. A number of minorities are converting to Twelver Shi’ite Islam.

So when you look at a map on the news describing where the Alawites are, or what percentage of people actually believe in a certain religious idea, take the statistics and the graphics with a grain of salt. A lot of the research is out of date and the conclusions conveniently organized. Surveys have never been rich enough to absolutely define the beliefs of many Middle Eastern minorities, much less nail down an arbitrarily line on the map defining where they live. The information is helpful, but trends like urbanization and the ability to commute long distances make looking at these sources as infallible or perfectly accurate extremely precarious.

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May 20, 2012

Israel Deploys Heavy on the Egyptian Border

by Gedalyah Reback

The prospects for the future between Israel and Egypt are still ambiguous. Egypt’s Sinai is more of a worry than it’s been at any other point in the past 30 years. Since last year’s Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s natural gas pipeline exporting fuel to Israel has been attacked 14 times. Amidst Israel’s lacking popularity with Egyptians, their government suspended its gas deal with Israel two weeks ago, claiming the deal undervalued the exported fuel and demanded renegotiation. But without the threats to the pipeline, there would have been little motivation to implement the move.

This is the first significant move by Israel’s military to prepare for engagement along the Egyptian border. Two major concerns hang over the heads of Israeli security personnel, on the one hand something a near-term concern and on the other a long-term one. Firstly, like with the pipeline, Bedouin in the Sinai desert might present a threat to Israeli tourists in Egypt. There have been terrorist attacks on resorts in the Sinai before, but the concern is more acute now. Egyptian police initially abandoned the Sinai during the revolution last year. They’ve slowly returned to respond to local instability, though after months of sabotage attacks. With some Bedouin motivated by Islamic militancy, the concern is more terrorists might try to infiltrate Israel.

But, Israel took the initiative last month when the high brass of the IDF requested the Knesset authorize a larger reserve call-up than usual to patrol not just the Syrian, but also the Egyptian border. According to the Reserve Duty Law, updated in 2008, veterans can be called up once every three years unless the IDF requests permission to call up more people more frequently. In this case, six battalions will be split between the two borders with permission to call up 16 more if necessary. The threat from armies is not the priority, but the one posed by smuggling and border raids by terrorists. In the words of Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Harel, “The army needs a better ‘answer’ than in the past to the threat.”

There is a fading worry Bashar al-Assad would start a war with Israel to distract Syrians from instability at home, focusing rage on an external tormentor. That would probably split the feeble Syrian army at this point. The real concern is Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Here’s why:

Guns to Gaza

The peninsula is home to two different concerns. In Northern Sinai, Bedouin manage smuggling routes into Gaza. In the beginning of May, the Egyptian government captured a massive cache of weapons heading there. That includes huge caches of captured weapons Libya’s rebels sold to Hamas last year. The north’s main city is slowly slipping out of reach of the rest of Egypt. El-Arish is littered by pictures of the fundamentalist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, showing where Egypt’s Sinai is headed. Construction supplies are stolen by corrupt workers and sold off to be smuggled to Gaza. But most unsettling of all, human trafficking is enforcing the industry of these same crime rings, including kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape and organ theft.

Bedouin leaders are unsettled by where their tribes are going. With unemployment as high as 90% in the Sinai, they receive a lot of lip service from the country’s leaders but little practical help. Consequently, smugglers continue to invest in their businesses, the more and more brutally. Despite whatever imperative local chiefs have, they don’t have the power and few have the will to make progress.

Human Trafficking, Organ Trafficking and Slavery

Egypt’s Bedouin are closely related to the tribes in the Israeli Negev. The international border between the two territories is only 100 years old, and for much of that time Israel had control of both areas and no fence separated the areas. Bedouin still wander the desert, crossing borders with ease and without hesitation. Consequently, crime syndicates on the Egyptian side would be well-connected on the Israeli side.

Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are caught in the middle. Escaping the conflict zones in their countries, they head for the closest First World state they can – Israel. Traveling north through Egypt, they hire Bedouin trackers to get them across the desert to an unguarded gap in the Israeli border. Presumably they can restart new lives or head to Europe. But many of them are turned on and kidnapped by their handlers. Taking $3,000 for the service of guiding them through the desert, their relatives are called with demands of $30,000 or even $40,000 for their release. Contacts report the captives are tortured with electric cables, even as they are put on the phone to plead for their families’ help. With Egyptian police failing miserably to enforce order, families are left to sell all their possessions with slim hopes anyway. The European Union has a resolution on the table demanding Egypt do more, acknowledging the situation.

On the Israeli side of the border, the situation is being overlooked. Ministers are actually more concerned with deporting refugees already in Israel than they are about the ones already lost on their way. Concerns, however exaggerated, range from thinking Islamic militants are sneaking into the country to parts of the country being over-run by refugees. No matter the motivation, it is a PR nightmare for the country that the focus is on gettign rid of the refugees rather than saving their brethren from an apparent common enemy.

South Sudan

Israel has built a relationship with South Sudan. The country only went independent last year and has seemed to be the natural ally, being the enemy of Arab northern Sudan. It’s that Sudan, the north, which has fueled much of the conflict that drove refugees to Israel in the first place. Jerusalem has been concerned with arranging deportation with the South Sudanese government, but has invested little into fighting a Bedouin threat that South Sudan also wants stamped out.

Israel will need to shift its focus if it wants to get ahead of the game in the Sinai Peninsula. Bringing attention to the human component of Bedouin crime rings in the Sinai will go a long way in pressuring Egypt to be more aggressive in policing what is supposedly its own territory.

Without more aggressive measures from Cairo, Israel’s different branches of military will have to do the work themselves. That should not mean a full scale invasion, but it would imply a lot more covert activity, making alliances with certain tribes and not others, as well as working with South Sudanese to penetrate and neutralize groups that are smuggling as much armor as they are human cargo.

May 16, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: 201 – the Power of the Scholars

by Gedalyah Reback

But what is it that gives Shi’ite leaders their power? It’s not the guns on the street that fuel Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq or Nasrallah in Lebanon. The influence is a mix of religious prestige and control of resources. Both men govern strong militias, but they owe their power to different influences. Amazingly, neither of them is considered authoritative scholars in Shi’ite Islam. They are militiamen or carry the name recognition of their relatives.

Those scholars are called “mujtahidun,” Arabic for “adjudicators.” They are the elite of the scholars in the Shi’ite world, the most capable and intelligent in being able to analyze centuries of scholarship and jurisprudence. Over the last 200 years, their political power has grown to the point they’re resented.

In the 19th century, Shi’ite Islam was split between two movements: the Akhbaris & the Usulis. The first considered Islamic law as fully laid out, outlined and organized. There was nothing new to contribute to analyzing the original sources of Islamic law – the Quran and the Hadith. Trying to draw new conclusions would be violating the legal precedents previous scholars had set in place. Akhbaris looked at complex legal analysis – “ijtihad” – as categorically forbidden.

The Usulis are the intellectual antithesis. Their belief that the world is constantly changing or new legal scenarios present themselves made their idea that ijtihad was not only permissible but necessary much more practical. That practicality crushed the Akhbari movement, which was too rigid to respond the changing social and economic climate for Shi’ites in Iraq & Iran living under European influence and Ottoman modernization.

The Mujtahid practices Ijtihad. Achieving such an influential title is not necessarily a formal process, but a mujtahid is expected to have studied for years, probably decades, in order to earn it.

The Usuli emphasis on a mujtahid’s ability also translated into giving a mujtahid more communal authority. Suddenly, a mujtahid is considered a strongly qualified person to decide major economic and social issues in the Shi’ite community. Combine this new emphasis to that authority with the access to charitable donations and managing locally owned religious property, and the power of a mujtahid became much stronger.

Colonial influence by the British and resentment of the Ottoman Empire helped create political issues that made these legal scholars politically popular. When the British forced the Iranian Shah to outsource ownership of local tobacco crops to European monopolies in 1891, a renowned Iraqi scholar publicly banned smoking, destroying the tobacco industry. The ban was lifted only when the Shah cancelled the international contract. It strengthened the position of not just Iraqi scholars but also the power of Shi’ite scholars to extend their influence beyond their own borders.

In 1935, after years of Shi’ite scholars protesting the Sunni-heavy national curriculum of schools and Shi’ite marginalization from the government, they were instrumental in organizing an armed revolt against the Sunni-dominated government. It was the effort to force Shi’ites into a national draft that sparked the rebellion, and showed the political and even military power scholars were gaining as the main legal authorities in their religious communities.
Even though Iraq came down hard on these scholars in the years afterward, the idea they were the most qualified to lead the community fed the creation of religious political parties in the 1950s & 1960s in Iraq.

Big-name scholars Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim and the prodigy Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr lent their support to these political movements in the 1950s. Both were members of religious dynasties, much like there are Jewish leaders today who might hail from the Feinstein or Soloveitchik Rabbinical dynasties.

Ayatollah Khomeini also had a tall soapbox in Iraq while exiled from Iran, bringing that idea of political authority full circle into a highly developed constitutional system led by a “Supreme Leader,” officially a steward for the 12th Imam, running the Iranian government. His idea has been enshrined as law; only the most learned scholar can be appointed as the head of the Shi’ite world, whose de facto capital has become the capital of revolutionary Shi’ite Iran, for now.

May 15, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Shiite world has often been ignored in historical research and political value. We seemed to have only started caring again when the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq. Suddenly, a secular Sunni elite was toppled, giving rise to a majoritarian state ruled by a conglomerate of Shiite political parties closely connected to Iran. But the flood of new books on the community is limited to topics of international security, terrorism and war. The modern sense of Shi’ism has been defined more by the experiences with the Ottoman Empire and internal tension over the dogma of the religion.

Traditionally in Shiite Islam, the idea that any one figure could rule it was actually borderline heretical. Twelver Jafari Shiite Islam is named “12-er” because it reveres 12 successors – “Imams” – to the Prophet Muhammad and his nephew Ali. For the first 300 years of Islamic history, Shiite leaders were constantly on the run or in hiding. Sunni rulers or religious rivals (often the same enemy) pursued their Shiite rivals, causing a number of sub-splits in the Shiite community that created communities that revered each Imam individually. As one religious leader would die, competition would envelope Shiite rivals for the position. Zaidi Shiites (Fivers) and Ismaili Shiites (Seveners) each see the fifth or seventh Imams as the last legitimate princes of the Shiite dynasty, while Twelvers don’t believe the dynasty ended until the disappearance of a 12th successor. The religion eventually coalesced, seeing this 12th Imam as an exile spiritually empowered that will miraculously reemerge to reassume control of the Islamic community in the End Times. To say anyone else is entitled or qualified at all to lead the community in a formal capacity was consequently a theological controversy.

During the 19th century, Shi’ism, more specifically Twelver Jafari Shi’ite Islam, underwent an intellectual civil war. The first side of the coin was the conservative Akhbari school of legal thought. Their approach to religious law was that it was static. Trying to elucidate new principles of law, even in relation to unprecedented questions facing the community, was considered categorically forbidden. Their philosophical opponents were called Usulis, who argued it was impractical not to open up the possibility of reinterpreting old jurisprudence to apply to the modern era. Eventually, the Usulis proved much more adaptable to the changing environment. Only in Bahrain did the Akhbari school manage to survive, but the philosophy of Bahraini Shi’ism has been heavily influenced by foreign communities over the last 150 years.

But Usuli thinkers have become more reflective of the static Akhbari approach. Because religious thinkers and legal scholars were able to make themselves more relevant as interpreters of Islamic law in relation to new problems, their own positions got to be more socially important. With that, their institutions and resources became central elements of the community and their personas representative of the community as a whole. With this, extremely loyal followings coalesced around them. Even beyond that, the suddenly important position of the most exceptional scholars took on more religious meaning. Thinkers began arguing they were the only ones qualified to lead Islamic communities, even beyond Shiite centers.

That opened up the door for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Developments in Usuli philosophy challenged the traditional attitude to leadership in the community. He developed a concept called “Rule of the Jurist,” theorizing that the most learned scholar was the only legitimate leader of Shi’ite Islam in absence of the 12th Imam. His ideas, published in the 1960s while in exile in Iraq, built on ideas from other leading Shi’ite thinkers throughout the 1900s. By the time he led the Islamic Revolution in 1979, no other authoritative scholar in Twelver Shi’ite Islam had the recognition Khomeini did. That also was true regarding wealth and resources. That same year, Saddam Hussein took the helm as Iraq’s president, and within a year he destroyed any armed or political opposition among Iraqi Shi’ites. In 1980, ordering the murder of the revered Iraqi scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, he pushed other religious leaders either into submission or into seclusion. Only Khomeini’s Iran had the ability to lead the Shi’ite world, sponsoring the community of Lebanon and pushing for more influence in Persian Gulf countries – even among the traditionally Akhbari community of Bahrain.

Only with the rise of democratic Iraq has Shi’ism begun to see a rapid shift away from the philosophy one man could be an infallible leader to the Shi’ite world. On the one hand, Iraqis are aware of the oppressive policies of the Iranian government toward its citizens, including rival Shi’ite scholars. On the other hand, Iraq’s most renowned cleric – Ayatollah Ali Sistani – is a student of Ayatollah Khomeini’s main rival Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al-Khoi. They personify the idea that no one scholar can be considered more authoritative than another recognized as his intellectual equal. With Iraq’s sudden Shi’ite awakening, there is a rival center of Shi’ite culture.

Modern Shi’ite Islam is a rich and changing world. This can only serve as a broad introduction as to the nature of power in the Shi’ite world, but it is an important gateway to understanding why one man might claim himself a legitimate pretender to a religion’s throne.

April 22, 2012

Golan Heights’ Druze: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Golan Heights is a disputed territory to the southwest corner of Syria and in the northeast corner of Israel. Once used as a high ground from which to launch shells into the Galilee Valley, the Israelis captured it in two days during the Six Day War. It was not an empty area. Maybe 100,000 Syrians lived there. But most of its poor inhabitants fled immediately. The only group that largely stayed were the Druze: “Around 7,000 remained in six Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Ghajar and Shayta. They are estimated to number 20,000 today.” There are populations of Druze in Israel and Syria. Nothing was particularly different about the Golan’s Druze until this moment. None could have guaranteed they’d be virtual Israelis into infinitude, but that has what happened.

In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights for several reasons. Unlike the West Bank, it was a direct front with a sworn enemy, unlike the West Bank regarding Jordan. Jordan was not as hostile an Arab state as Syria, nor did the issue of negotiating territory with the Palestinians come up with the Golan – it was never Palestinian. So only the Golan and East Jerusalem have been annexed from the conquests of the Six Day War, leaving both populations with unique residency rights in Israel. The Golan Druze face a different social situation than the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They were citizens of Syria, and their territory was recognizably Syrian. East Jerusalem was void of an internationally recognized owner. So here, nationality was neither in dispute nor coalescing. East Jerusalemites have experienced waves of Arab nationalism, Jordanian citizenship and Palestinian nationalism both under the Jordanians and under the Israelis. Golan’s Druze were cut off from their indisputable home government.

Druze are generally labeled fiercely loyal to their home regimes, no matter who’s in charge. Along the same lines, the leadership is generally pragmatic. In Israel, Druze living in the Carmel and the Galilee aligned themselves with the Jews in the Israeli War of Independence. Today, they are the only ethnic or religious group aside from Jews who are obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (a request made by the group’s leadership).

The Druze of the Golan don’t have any sort of requirement. The reasons are simple. For one, their loyalty is ambiguous. There have been vocal pro-Assad demonstrations in the Golan for years. The community has either been motivated by a genuine patriotism for Syria or fear that a land-for-peace deal might bring vengeful Syrian police to arrest anyone who advocated against Damascus while the territory was Israeli. But secondly, while it’s practical for the Israeli government to hold back anyone whose loyalty to the Jewish State is just non-existent, it’s also a humanitarian gesture and obligation that they don’t serve in the IDF. It is illegal under international law to force residents of an occupied territory to serve in the conqueror’s army. Even if it weren’t, it would be cruel to compel service to anyone who is conflicted about their national identity.

Golani Druze carry Israeli residency cards and have virtually open access to the country’s services without some of the rigors of citizenship, but maybe about 10% of them have accepted Israeli citizenship. Many Druze have taken the opportunity to attend universities, a fictional example of which coming from the Israeli film “Syrian Bride.” On the Syrian side of things, there is an exchange between the two countries for Golani college students to go for free (with Syrian government funding) to universities in Damascus. Funerals also bring visitors, who more and more over the years have gotten more relaxed ruled on moving between the borders.

After almost 50 years on the Israeli side, the attachment to Syria is breaking. The lot of native Israeli Druze is noticeably good. Despite whatever social and economic issues might exist for the small Israeli Druze community, it doesn’t approach critical levels. Intermingling is also much easier than with Syrian Druze. The social scene is also available to the younger Golani Druze, being just another opportunity to immerse themselves on the Israeli scene.

With no clear way of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, much less to a Syria ruled by Bashar al-Assad, Golan’s Druze will probably continue to adopt Israeli citizenship at an increasing rate.

April 21, 2012

Israel’s Navy Expanding to Defend Offshore Gas

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has expanded its relationship with Greece for two reasons. The first is because Greece is the natural alternative to having an alliance with Turkey, which is falling apart. The second is Greece is the natural patron of Cyprus, the other country about to win big from natural gas fields discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is planning to develop several fields, so naturally they will want a strong relationship with the other country nearby, Cyprus. The fields are in the “territorial waters” of the two countries, that is the area of ocean or sea water that is within legal range of a country’s coastline.

But that also involves Lebanon. Lebanon is nowhere near as advanced as Israel in its ability to explore for mineral deposits offshore. But now that Israel has hit the jackpot, Lebanon is making claims that some of the fields are in Lebanese water. The maps would have to be manipulated to make that true, but that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese government from making an issue out of it. Hezbollah added fuel to the fire, threatening Israel if it crossed into the ambiguously defined Lebanese waters. In kind, Israel promised it would defend its gas deposits with force.

There is teeth to the Israeli words while little to Hezbollah’s. Despite what little naval options Hezbollah or Lebanon would have, Israel is stacking up. The navy is negotiating with South Korea and Hyundai to buy a bunch of new frigates. Israel recently had a spat with South Korea’s military industry because Jerusalem chose to buy a squadron of training planes from Italy instead of the Koreans. Filling the need to bulk up the navy and stay on good terms with South Korea is like killing two birds with one stone. Some even want Israel to stock up on bigger sorts of ships like destroyers and cruisers.

Israel is also replacing its joint naval war games with the Turks by conducting new ones with the Greeks. Greece is a patron to tiny Cyprus, so any business or military affairs happening on the island resonate in Athens. Greece is equally involved in the cultivation of the natural gas deposits as Cyprus or Israel, so the Greek navy will be the first natural ally for the Israelis in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus might end up mediating between the Israelis and the Lebanese on a maritime border. Cyprus already has working agreements with both countries on exploration, but both could be undermined if either country cannot begin working offshore. Lebanon refuses to ratify its agreement with Cyprus until it gets clarity on its southern border, forcing Cyprus to get pro-active about solving the dispute. Israel and Lebanon are also beginning to cooperate in other ways on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – blocking Palestinian activists from crossing into Israeli waters on Land Day and Nakba Day. There is room to settle the dispute, but it might have more to do with Hezbollah’s willingness to cook up an issue to fight about then actually taking a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Turkey is the big reason though to bulk up. Initially you’d think I’m talking about the Flotilla incident in 2010, when the Israeli navy boarded a ship and killed nine Turkish activists on their way to protest the blockade of Gaza. The reason to buy bigger boats has more to do with Turkey’s relations with Cyprus. Turkey has a tense relationship with Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invade Cyprus and carved out the northern third of the island as a separate country for Turkish residents – Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the country, and in September 2011 signed a joint exploration deal with the tiny country to search for gas off the Northern Cypriot shore.

Turkey has had fierce rhetoric since and its own naval maneuvers, rattling its sabers in the direction of the Greek, southern Cyprus working with the Israelis. In December, Turkey drove ships toward the fields claimed by Israel and the southern Cypriots and fired in the direction of the fields. Israel and Cyprus have asked for help from the US to keep the Turks back, but the tensions are hot as Turkey seeks to stake a claim for itself and its tiny Northern Cypriot neighbor. The International Crisis Group in the beginning of April accused Turkey of a series of provocations against southern Cyprus, and told Turkey to discipline itself.

April 19, 2012

Egypt’s Christians: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

As of 2012, the Middle East’s Christian communities are in wide retreat. From a population of about 1 million in Iraq before the US-British invasion, half have fled the country at some point since the war started and a great many have not yet returned. In Lebanon, the formerly majority Christian community has mostly emigrated. There are about 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon, maybe a third of whom are Christians. 15 million Lebanese live abroad, and virtually all of them are Christians. Other communities are in flight, including Palestinian Christians, whose numbers around traditionally Christian Bethlehem have extremely thinned out. One reason is Islamic militancy, another ethnic relations breaking down, and then the breakdown of political and economic stability. In Egypt, some have fled since 2011’s revolution, but most have not and probably never will. Here’s why.

Egypt’s Christians constitute the biggest Church in the Middle East. In a country of 70 to 80 million people, they take up about 10 million. Only the richest have fled to communities abroad in more affluent places like Brooklyn or Queens, New York. In general. Egyptian Christians have a much stronger connection to Egypt than the other communities. Even if they didn’t, they would have fewer places to run. None of the countries around Egypt have both the space and tolerance necessary to host a massive amount of Christian refugees.

But the situation in Egypt is not one of civil war. The large Christian community makes an impression on the political environment. Think of how the staunchly Shi’ite Hezbollah advocates (publicly) for tolerance of the extreme diversity in Lebanon (big communities of Christians, Sunni Muslims & Druze). That is also true in Egypt, where the community’s numbers give it recognition from significant Muslim leaders – political and religious.

Additionally, the community is highly organized on the religious level. It has one of the oldest churches in Christendom. The name “Copt” comes from another version of the Greek name for the country & is directly related to the English word “Egypt.” The Church also has direct influence over national churches in Israel, Ethiopia & across Africa.

But the religious strength of the community dwarfs its political activism. It’s a problem that’s become acute since the Egyptian Revolution, as Islamist politicians have risen rapidly to the front of the electoral pack. Over 70% of Egypt’s new parliament comes from members of the Muslim Brotherhood and more fundamentalist or Salafi groups of Muslims. Calls for more influence by Islam in a new constitution are adding immeasurable pressure on the Coptic community.

Since 2011, attacks against members of the community have grown. Clan rivalries in the Egyptian countryside have become full religious clashes on the streets of Cairo. In October, a spate of Church arsons sparked riots in Cairo. Twenty four people were killed fighting Muslims and eventually Egyptian soldiers trying to keep order:

Arsons have mostly been outside the capital. Other spates between Christians and Muslims include marriage issues. While intermarriage is a massive problem for any minority, particular incidents in 2010 purportedly had a Coptic priests’ wives leave them to convert to Islam. Those set off back and forth barbs between communities, as to whether the Muslim view is right or the Christians’ view that she was coerced into converting. The truth is rather elusive. Incidents like this have become absurdly common and underscore the tensions happening in the cities between the two communities.

There have been a number of holiday attacks on Christians in the last few years. In 2009, Muslim shooters killed Christians 4 people the day before Easter. In 2010 and 2011, there were attacks in January that killed about 20 combined, one of the attacks being a bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s.

Many Copts are resistant to the idea of getting more involved in politics, but many have already started go that way. The numbers of active Christians are low, but pressures on the community have stirred debate about needing to be more aggressive or at least pro-active. Copts have the largest Church in the Middle East and might be able to play a leading role for other Mideast Christians at a time of massive flight from their home countries. Only the Church leadership has played a significant political role in years past, and the choice of a new Coptic Pope later in 2012 (writing before the selection process begins) might lead to more or less involvement by Copts in the country’s politics.

April 16, 2012

Hezbollah in Iraq

by Gedalyah Reback

Pulling from the very pages of Hezbollah’s own news website itself, Muqtada al-Sadr recently sent a delegation to visit a Lebanese prisoner in Baghdad named Ali Moussa Daqdouq. The US arrested him in 2007 and obtained a confession he was training fighters inside Iran to fight in Iraq. In February, it was reported the US wanted to try him and extradite him from Iraq.

There hasn’t been much other evidence that Hezbollah is active in Iraq, but what does exist is substantive. There’s even less about what that might mean in the long term. What is suspected of Daqdouq is he was recruiting and training for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), responsible for over 6,000 attacks on American soldiers. Hezbollah was apparently operating under the supervision of the Iranian Al-Quds force, and not the leader of training.

Hezbollah is a small organization heavily dependent on outside aid to function. Some have said Hezbollah is sending arms to Syria to aid its crackdown, but that seems unnecessary considering the larger resources available to the Syrian army. Hezbollah’s involvement in Iraq might indicate it has some decent relationship with other parties there, but it is not as important as Iran’s influence in Baghdad. Hezbollah might have little impact on Iraq nowadays with slightly more stability and a heavily Shiite Iraqi military fighting Sunni insurgents and no US soldiers to attack.

April 15, 2012

The Syrian Civil War and Israel’s Strategy

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has to watch what is happening inside Syria extremely closely. Despite whatever announcements the government there or the rebels make, neither have proven trustworthy or able to verify any claims they make in the media. Who wins this power struggle, which will probably go on for at least a few more months, will have control over Syria’s foreign policy with both Iran & Israel. Neither side is likely to make a quick peace with the Jewish state. Frankly speaking, the two sides’ fighting will be what preserves Israeli security on the northern border.

Syria & Hezbollah’s Abilities Impaired

With Syria’s ability to make war completely incapacitated by the civil war inside the country, its resources are limited. It cannot expect to simultaneously support Hezbollah financially or logistically while it has priorities at home. And if Syria were to make war with Israel to try to deflect attention from the civil strife at home, perhaps in some naive attempt to unite the population against a common enemy, Israel’s military superiority and a probable strong support for the Jewish state’s retaliatory war effort would end the regime in Damascus. Even going through a proxy like Hezbollah is not so much of an option for this sort of distraction tactic, simply because of the reasons mentioned above that Hezbollah wouldn’t have the ability to sustain a war effort against Israel without dependable supplies coming from Syria.

Whom to Support?

The only certainty from Israel’s perspective is continued civil war. That also goes for what helps Israel’s security. The possibility is real that the two sides could fight for years, especially without intervention. If that happens, the two factions might try to solicit support from neighboring states. The rebels already have support from the West & Turkey. Even if the government offered Israel a favorable peace deal, Jerusalem probably wouldn’t risk its reputation to support such an unpopular and criminal regime – especially if it weren’t guaranteed they’d come out on top.

Then comes what options there are with the rebels. The rebels are mainly Sunni Muslims, the majority in the country and arguably the historically most hostile religious domination to Israel’s existence. This is a generalization, but it’s true Israel has always considered alliances with angry minorities and marginalized groups. That approach was active in Iraq with the Kurds and Lebanon with the Maronites (Catholics). In this case, the government is run by Syria’s minorities (Alawites, Druze, Ismailis & Christians). There is no automatic strategy for Israel to take.

Worldwide the argument has trended toward arming Syria’s rebels. Certain Arab countries already claim to be doing so, and the idea is popping up in Europe. Even the United States’ hawkish senators Joe Lieberman & John McCain are backing the idea, even though Syrian rebels have made statements accusing Israel of working with the Syrian regime and have even peddled anti-Semitic ideas like the matzah blood libel.

What Israel will do is likely, though not guaranteed, to be one of two options: 1. stay out of it or 2. arm both sides. This second tactic has been used before. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the United States simultaneously armed Saddam Hussein and the Iranians. It wasn’t just because America’s allies were divided on which country to support, rather there was value in keeping these two otherwise hostile countries from turning their attention to closer American allies like Israel or Saudi Arabia. Even the Israelis were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal that funneled weapons to the Iranians.

A Quick Scenario

Other countries certainly have a stake in the outcome in the Syrian Civil War. This article only focuses on Israel’s approach, and in a very general way. This post is lacking not mentioning how Turkey fits into the mix. Future posts will cover that. But these are fair and important points to make regarding Israeli policy toward the Syrian Civil War. This being said, I would think the Israeli military might actually be leaning toward supporting the regime in Damascus. This isn’t because Israel would want Assad to win.

The side map shows roughly where Syria’s minorities live, mostly along the coast and adjacent to the Golan Heights. Some people have suggested before that if a war like this were to have ever broken out, the regime might cut its losses and consolidate its supporters and the minority populations into a de facto separate state from the majority Sunnis. If that were to happen, there would almost certainly be continued war because that minority country would have full control of the coastline and crush the economy of the desert interior. That is just one scenario where the Syrian Civil War could actually create two separate countries who would have a much harder time threatening Israel’s security with such little resources divided between the two “new” countries.

If it were to come close to the end, forcing the two sides to continue fighting would keep them from quickly rebuilding a decimated Syrian military that would be hostile to Israel. This deserves much more though. I leave it at here for now.

April 14, 2012

Israel toward Egypt’s Christians

by Gedalyah Reback

For Easter 2012, Egypt’s Coptic Christians had an opportunity they formally hadn’t had in decades – visit Jerusalem. Pope Shenouda III (who?), the leader of the Coptic Church (20 million+ members worldwide), passed away last month. In addition to his being a significant religious figure, the late Pope also banned Copts from making any pilgrimage to Jerusalem as so long as it was considered occupied. But his recent death has marked an unexpected shift for Egypt’s Christians and maybe Israel’s diplomatic opportunities around the Nile.
Copts have unprecedented pressures in Egypt: a revolution’s new wave of violence against Christians; Islamists’ election victory; and now, their spiritual and de facto political leader’s demise. At the helm since 1971, it is a tremendous power vacuum. Simultaneously, Israel’s link to Egypt is fraying and the country has no social traction with the Egyptian on the street. So, the Copts of Egypt should be a vital concern for Israeli diplomacy, and electing a newer Pope should certainly have some bearing on where either side goes in respect to each other.
The idea of leveraging minorities in neighboring countries is often a fantasy of Israeli commentators or enthusiastic politicos who can’t resist thinking of ways to make Israel’s security more solid. But it’s hardly unprecedented. Innumerable resources were poured into Iraqi Kurdistan pre-Yom Kippur War to pressure the Baath Party, and Israel was quick to align with the Catholics of Lebanon in 1982. Extending these policies to Egypt would be seeing an Egyptian Christian minority have controlling votes in a new parliament and blunting the political blades of Islamists in government. But it’s tough to tell if Egyptian Christians really would hold any measurable or favorable sway on their country’s foreign policy if they were to become more politically organized. But this latter event is a prerequisite to any significant amelioration of the relationship between Egypt and Israel.

Christians’ Politics

A new Pope already has more pressing concerns, like keeping open the opportunities the revolution has given and defending the community against ethnic and religious attacks. Israel has plenty to talk about with a new Church leader: priority among them would be the dispute over Coptic Church property in and around Jerusalem. Even if Israel does recognize, negotiate with and reach a deal over disputed spots in the holy city, that doesn’t translate into good will between Israelis and Copts on a general level. And even with a maximum outburst of positive emotions, Copts’ physical security (that is, their own preservation) is the overwhelming priority.

But taking the diplomatic path with a reinvigorated Church could bear unexpected fruit. At the onset of Hosni Mubarak’s power, the Coptic Church has been relatively independent. All it and the late Pope Shenouda III had to do was support Mubarak or stay out of his way. The side-effect was an uninvolved Coptic community, grossly unprepared for the better organized and experienced Muslim Brotherhood to win post-revolution seats in the parliament in December. Standard along with that, Shenouda III always toed the line on the social climate regarding Israel – before Mubarak, he vocally opposed Sadat’s normalization with the Jewish State. It doesn’t stop there.

Isolation is a tempting strategy in the Middle East, but what comes with it is letting enemies encroach on what minimal boundaries you have. An aggressive minority would have a better chance of defending its interests, and Copts should be initiating their own political parties, matching Islamist political enthusiasm and distinguishing their views from the Muslim Brotherhood. The community gains a sense of direction beyond politics with a well-defined platform. Fearing a similar result in the next elections, some vibrant counterbalance to Islamist politics isn’t against the interests of the Egyptian army.

Israel

Relations with Israel are a political issue, not unlike how Americans debated ties to Napoleonic France. Coptic authorities also dispute property in the Old City that Israeli police handed to a different Church in the early 1970s. These issues are probably interrelated. Resolving one would unbind the other. While Israelis consider gestures for the next Pope, he’ll in turn have a chance to solidify a political stance and philosophy being engaged with Israel.

Shenouda III was not John Paul II. But therein might lay a solution to the Church’s problems. In a broader scope, it works in defining the Coptic Papacy as a socio-political pillar in Egypt and the Arab World. tandem with promoting ethnic and religious harmony across the Middle East. Being an outspoken advocate for the fortune of Arab Christians will work well in tandem with promoting other causes for coexistence in the Middle East.

But ultimately, Copts will weigh the benefit versus the cost of being more open to Israel.  In today’s climate, they might be inviting more pressure from Muslim Egyptians.

Israel’s options for facilitating the reputation of such a man are limited, but probably more from a lack of imagination than ability. It would be in their interest to open a new chapter with the Church beyond traditional political issues and foment an alliance. Israel should facilitate a leader that can stabilize a shaky fault, and tremors in the Coptic community imply an opportunity to do just that. Anything Israel can do overtly and covertly to facilitate those mechanisms and developments ought to be a priority. It can change the calculus in Egypt and balance the equation across the Sinai.

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