Romance and restrictions in Riyadh

Girls of RiyadhGirls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It kind of reminded me of Pride and Prejudice, but set in modern-day Saudi Arabia (which made for an interesting story) and not nearly as well-written. Fun overall, but not great literature. I assigned it for my Middle Eastern history course, and it made for a good discussion with the student taking it for independent study.

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Muslim veneration of Mary

At The Christian Century, Philip Jenkins recently noted the importance of Mary to many Muslims as well. After describing a few famous incidents in which Mary was believed to appear in Egypt, he writes

Such visions demonstrate the continuing power of traditional beliefs among the Christian minority, but they also display the interest of faithful Muslims. The Zeitoun apparitions were a national sensation and were witnessed by the nation’s leader at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The fervor can be understood in the context of the catastrophic national mood that followed the nation’s defeat by Israel in 1967, at a time when Egyptians were desperately seeking signs of hope. But Muslims have participated fully in celebrating Marian manifestations, many of which actually began with reports from Muslim believers and then were taken up by their Christian neighbors.

Mary is a major figure in Muslim tradition and piety. She actually receives much more attention in the Qur’an than she does in the Christian Bible. Throughout Islamic history, she has been a focus of popular devotion, and women invoke her as a mother figure in a way that is highly reminiscent of Mary’s role in Catholic Christianity. Muslim women are likely to plead with Mary to help them bear a child or to offer healing.

Whatever the stance of official Islamic authorities, the belief in intercession is widespread among Egypt’s Mus­lims. Not surprisingly, then, stories of Marian visitations exercise a very wide appeal and can lead Muslims to visit Christian shrines. Whether seen by Christians or Mus­lims, Lady Mary (Sitana Mariam) is one and the same, making her a common adornment for both faiths. The fact that she has so often left her mark on the Egyptian landscape makes her a patriotic treasure. In the words of the national newspaper al-Ahram, “all Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, have exceptional love and respect for the Virgin Mary.”

The entire short piece is worth a read, and, if I am understanding it properly, gives a glimpse of the kind of folk Islam that has often attacked by those with stricter interpretations of the practices that Islam demands and forbids.

Turkish demographics, ISIS, and the Kurds

Writing at The American Conservative, Philip Jenkins points to a surprising demographic trend in Turkey:

Overall, Turkey’s fertility rate is a little below replacement, but that simple fact obscures enormous regional variations. The country can be divided into four zones, stretching from west to east. The Western quarter is thoroughly European in demographic terms, with stunningly low sub-Danish fertility rates of around 1.5. The rates rise steadily as we turn east, until the upland east has very high rates resembling those of neighboring Iraq or Syria. “Europe” and the Third World thus jostle each other within one nation.

High-fertility eastern Turkey is of course much more religious than the secular west, and this is where we find the Qur’an Belt that so regularly supports Islamic and even fundamentalist causes. It simply makes electoral sense for the government to respond to the interests of that populous growing area, and to drift ever more steadily in Islamist directions.

But there is a complicating fact. Those fast-breeding eastern regions are also home to what the Turkish government euphemistically calls the “Mountain Turks,” but which everyone else on the planet calls “Kurds.” Turkey’s Kurdish minority, usually estimated at around 15-20 percent of the population, is expanding very rapidly—to the point that, within a generation or two, it will actually be a majority within the Turkish state. This nightmare prospect is front and center in the mind of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who a couple of years ago issued an apocalyptic warning of a national Kurdish majority no later than 2038. That date is a little implausibly soon, but the principle stands.

Thus we can understand why the Turkish government is far more eager to strike Kurdish fighters than ISIS: “ISIS is an irritant; the Kurds pose an existential demographic threat.”

Assyrian Christians and genocide

Philip Jenkins also wrote at Aleteia that the slaughter of Assyrian Christians (I posted about them earlier today here) by Iraqi soldiers and civilian raiders in 1933 (see here and here for more detail) played a secondary role in the thought of Raphael Lemkin about genocide (the Armenian genocide played the primary role). Lemkin invented this word and called for the crime to be punishable by international authorities:

That paradox continued to trouble him until, in 1933, new massacres of Assyrian Christians in Iraq forced him to define his ideas still further. Using the case of the Assyrians, and of the Armenians before them, he argued for a new legal category to be called crimes of barbarity, primarily “acts of extermination directed against the ethnic, religious or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious, etc).” Such crimes, he argued, should be an offense against international law that demanded to be punished by a special court or tribunal.

In 1943, Lemkin coined a new word for this atrocious behavior—namely, “genocide.” For many years, he was the most vigorous and visible campaigner to secure global recognition for the new concept, and finally, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However familiar the notion of genocide might be today, it originated at a specific (and quite recent) historical moment, and was largely formulated by one man, who must be remembered as one of the greatest humanitarian thinkers of the twentieth century.

Assyrian Christians and the Sayfo

Philip Jenkins wrote about the Assyrian Christians recently in The Christian Century:

The Assyrian Chris­tians of northern Iraq are among the people who have been massacred and kidnapped by ISIS militants in recent months. Such accounts are depressingly familiar to anyone who knows the region’s history. In fact, this year marks a grim centennial. Besides be­ing the centennial of the Ar­menian Genocide, it’s the centennial of the year that the Ottoman Turkish regime struck at other Christian minorities whom it suspected of being sympathetic to Russia. The Assyrians call 1915 Sayfo, the Year of the Sword.

Assyrian Christians had very deep roots in the region, and their churches use a Semitic language related to Jesus’ own Aramaic. In late antiquity, believers divided over the Person of Christ. The Monophysite branch evolved to become the modern-day Syrian Orthodox Church. Their Nestorian rivals formed the Church of the East, which remained a flourishing trans­continental institution through the Middle Ages.

See the rest of the article here.

UPDATE (5/26/15): Jenkins also wrote at Aleteia that the slaughter of Assyrian Christians by Iraqi soldiers and civilian raiders in 1933 (see here and here for more detail) played a secondary role in the thought of Raphael Lemkin about genocide (the Armenian genocide played the primary role). Lemkin invented this word and called for the crime to be punishable by international authorities:

That paradox continued to trouble him until, in 1933, new massacres of Assyrian Christians in Iraq forced him to define his ideas still further. Using the case of the Assyrians, and of the Armenians before them, he argued for a new legal category to be called crimes of barbarity, primarily “acts of extermination directed against the ethnic, religious or social collectivities whatever the motive (political, religious, etc).” Such crimes, he argued, should be an offense against international law that demanded to be punished by a special court or tribunal.

In 1943, Lemkin coined a new word for this atrocious behavior—namely, “genocide.” For many years, he was the most vigorous and visible campaigner to secure global recognition for the new concept, and finally, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. However familiar the notion of genocide might be today, it originated at a specific (and quite recent) historical moment, and was largely formulated by one man, who must be remembered as one of the greatest humanitarian thinkers of the twentieth century.

A detailed history of the modern Middle East

A History of the Middle East: Fourth EditionA History of the Middle East: Fourth Edition by Peter Mansfield

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was definitely the most comprehensive survey of modern Middle Eastern history that I have seen, making it a good reference. At the same time, there was so much detail that it made it hard for my students to read and obscured some big-picture themes that are important for understanding the region’s history.

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