Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East
November 12, 2014
JOANNE MYERS: Good Morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome you all to our Public Affairs breakfast program.
Our speaker today is a former British and UN Diplomat, Gerard Russell. In Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East, Gerard helps us to rediscover some of the world's ancient religions, religions that are the last vestiges of bygone civilizations of Persia, Babylon, and Egypt, and who, by their existence, connect the past with the present.
While many of these religions have peacefully coexisted for centuries alongside the Muslim majorities in the Middle East, today they are clinging for survival. A few months ago the world watched in horror as around 40,000 Yazidis fleeing the terrorist group ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] were trapped on Iraq's Mount Sinjar. When this was reported, most Americans had never heard of the Yazidis, who were then living in Northern Iraq. But as this human rights crisis took its toll, many soon came to acknowledge that maybe the Yazidis were not the only religious minority under attack. Maybe there were other religious communities at risk. Further examination revealed that indeed there were minority ethnic and religious groups being fingered by ISIS and others for extinction.
But why are so many Middle East minorities being singled out now? Why are Coptic Christians in Egypt, or the Mandaeans of Baghdad being targeted more frequently than they have been for over the past 150 years? And why are these faiths in retreat? Why has Islam, historically once a tolerant faith, been enabling the rise of militant extremist sects? These developments raise interesting questions. Most poignantly, what is the place of religion in politics? And how do we reconcile competing claims around core moral values of equality and social justice?
The timeliness of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms cannot be denied. But the reality is that the research for this fascinating book began quite a while ago. It was a journey that was launched shortly after Gerard's graduation from Balliol College, Oxford, when he entered the British Foreign Service. His Majesty's Government sent him to Cairo to learn Arabic. He became so proficient that he was asked to be the UK public spokesman on Arabic news channels. After the U.S. invasion, Gerard was posted to Iraq, later moving to Saudi Arabia, becoming consul-general in Jeddah and then political counselor in the embassy in Kabul; all this giving him a front row seat from which to explore these minority cultures.
Upon leaving the Foreign Service, he joined a group of Afghan specialists at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School. Now, today, Gerard is the one person I know who is giving a voice to those who seemingly have none: the vulnerable religions of the Middle East.
Please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Gerard Russell. Thank you for coming today.
GERARD RUSSELL: Wonderful. Thank you very much, it is a great pleasure to be here and it is such a pleasure to talk about this subject, which has been a wonderful thing to research.
From the moment, really, that I lived in Cairo and I used to go on Sundays to a Coptic church, I just found this most extraordinary bridge between cultures, about which I shall speak a bit later. And then in Jerusalem I encountered the Samaritans and found a people who had lived for over 2,500 years keeping their traditions absolutely intact. As somebody who'd always loved ancient history, I just found this a most wonderful subject to research and to write about.
But I also want to talk to you today about why it matters as more than just a subject of interest; why it is a moral challenge, because I believe that we have a particular duty to protect these faiths and I also think that by studying them we can learn about two very important things. One, about Islam, which is of course a major world religion, one at the center of so many foreign policy challenges for America; and also about the history of human thought and human belief.
So let me today, for a half an hour or so, speak about ancient religions in the Middle East and the forms in which they survive today. And as I go along, I'd like to demonstrate the ways in which they've shaped our own history in ways of thought, and at the end to give my thoughts on what they tell us about Muslims and Islam and give views on the way forward.
It seems we may have a slide up on the projection screen. Let me draw your attention to it. It's just to take you back 4,100 years to the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in ancient Iraq, the oldest surviving piece of world literature. And I draw your attention to it because it is a reminder of just how old Iraq is, but also just how much it sits at the pivot of world civilization. And also because if we look at Iraqi culture at that time, if we look at Iraqi culture even 7,000 years ago, when the first cities were built there, and we just reflect, reflect that if Achilles and Odysseus had been real people, they would have found this piece of writing to be as old for them as the 12th century is for us.
Now, at that time, obviously, religion was very, very different. And although the religions of the present day in the Middle East do preserve some elements of the culture of the past, it's not everything that they preserve. Gods of that time—Baal, Marduk, Ishtar—survived really only by the way today in the names Esther and Mordechai because, of course, of the Book of Esther, interestingly, having a Jewish hero and heroine who have the names of these ancient Babylonian gods. It is a reminder itself of how religions and cultures have intertwined and interrelated and have never been quite as inimical to each other, or as separate from each other as we sometimes choose to believe.
It is worth reflecting that in the very areas today where the Islamic State is conducting its barbaric operations, it was in Fallujah and Ramadi that the Babylonian Talmud was written, and it is peculiar to think that in the province of Anbar in Iraq, once upon a time, it was a place where Jewish scholars were writing one of the central, pivotal texts of the Jewish faith. Iraq, in fact, at one point may have had even half its population belonging to the Jewish faith back in the first and second centuries AD.
If we could go on to the next slide—Mithrais. This 2nd century AD carving reminds us of a cult which went to Rome from Southern Turkey, the cult of Mithrais. And I draw it to your attention because of several things, just to prove my point about the survival of religions in the Middle East—because of course we don't have Bael and Ishtar, but we do actually have Mithrais.
Do you know oddly enough that the airport in Tehran, Mehrabad Airport, is named after Mithrais? I don't think that the Ayatollah knows that. [Laughter] But mehr is the Old Persian word for this god, who was the sun god of the ancient Persians.
His cult in Rome was associated with secrecy—with worship in underground chapels, with wearing of a girdle. The Mithrais called themselves, "Those united by the handshake." And it may sound odd, because you think, "Well most of us are united by handshakes. They're pretty conventional things to greet each other with," but actually, probably not at that time. It's thought that the handshake did indeed become popular because of the cult of Mithrais which used it as a ritual gesture of bonding.
And to move on to the next slide, here we have a Yazidi sheikh, whom I met in August, a magnificent fellow in a tremendous robe. And actually the refugees are in this camp, and in the distance, if you see, the little bit of blue in the distance there is the Mosul Dam, at that time in the hands of the Islamic State. The Yazidis there in that refugee camp, where I fear they still are, were very nervous at that time that the Islamic State was going to come to them and drive them out again. He is today a man who wears a girdle, the handshake remains a ritual gesture among the Yazidis, they pray in underground chapels, and they pray towards the sun, by the way, three times a day. And although they don't have any Mithrais, another name for Mithrais was Shamash, a name for the sun in Aramaic.
And every year the Yazidis sacrifice a bull at the tomb of a character they call Sheikh Shams. While it sounds like a Muslim name—Sheikh Shams, Shams al-Din is a reasonably common Muslim name—but Shams and Shamash are so close together that it begins to look as if, possibly, Sheikh Shams at some point or other was a way of making Shamash acceptable to Muslims among whom the Yazidis lived. And there becomes a question of whether the Yazidis see themselves today as the inheritors of that ancient sun cult, or whether in some interesting and curious way, Islam merged with that sun cult to produce a new religion.
Quickly, just to run through this, because I know we want to get on to politics—let me avoid the temptation to talk endlessly about ancient history.
Pythagoras—very important to just speak a bit about him, because it's easy to forget the influence that Greek philosophy had on the Middle East in the early centuries AD. It is in some ways true to say that Greek philosophy was the religion of the Middle East for many centuries before Christianity. It was the main competitor with Christianity.
We imagine, I suppose, that paganism—we think of boisterous festivals, we think of sacrifice of animals, we think of many, many gods. In fact, by the time Christianity became prevalent in the Middle East, competing both with Judaism and with paganism, paganism had become something quite different—very philosophical. The Pythagorean cult was one in which people were encouraged to think daily about their virtues and their sins. It was one also that taught there was one god, but so unknowable was that god that other rituals could survive and intermediaries between that unknowable god and man were worshiped and revered.
I say this because many religions in the Middle East today follow this model. It is true, for example, of the Druze—of whom this is a tomb, a sacred tomb. They regard their tombs, by the way, as empty, because they are believers in reincarnation and therefore they don't see any importance to the body after the body is dead. The soul moves on to a new body. This is a belief that Pythagoras himself held, as we know, and he is held in reverence by the Druze and the Alawites, among whom it is thought that Pythagoras and the other Greek philosophers, as well as the later prophets such as Muhammed and Jesus, were, not incarnations of god, but manifestations of god on earth to a greater or lesser degree.
And it's important to understand this because it is so bizarre to hear that the Druze believe as they do that the Caliph of Cairo in the 11th century—Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allaha—was a manifestation of god. But, it is not a million miles, of course, away from Christian belief in incarnation, though they distinguish between it.
And, now, last character from the past—Mani, an ascetic Persian who was brought up in the marshes of Southern Iraq and founded a religion which spread across the world. Its followers existed in China in the middle ages, where they were condemned by the Chinese empire as vegetarian demon worshipers. He had encouraged them to give up meat and sex. It was, of course, you might think, not a good way to propagate the religion, [Laughter ?> but he managed to actually introduce a very interesting division into his cult.
There was an elite group, 10 percent perhaps of the population of Manichaeans, who were absolutely ascetic, lived lives of poverty, even felt they had to atone for the eating of fruit because Mani said that the fig tree weeps when the fruit is taken from its branches. So, astonishingly ascetic. Very good in a sort of modern way, perhaps—conserving water. They believe that it was offensive to water to wash yourself in it and made prayers. They, I'm afraid, washed themselves in their own urine.
So it was the sort of ultimate ascetism, and in some ways prefigures certain modern tropes of thought and was astonishingly popular because 90 percent of the people who followed Mani didn't have to do any of those things, and essentially just had to support those who did. Now, this all sounds as though it's again about the remote past, but actually among the Druze today, they have around 15 percent of the population who are sheikhs, who are ascetic, who fast, who pray, who in some cases live on honey and pine nuts and only what they can themselves make. And 90 percent of the people don't have to fast, don't have to pray, don't have to do anything except maintain the sheikhs and marry within the religion. And so, in some ways, Manichaeism is dead, but its social structures live on.
Furthermore, among the Mandaeans of Southern Iraq, a group who, like the Manichaeans, lived for centuries in the marshes of Southern Iraq, an impenetrable maze of rivulets and islands, the Mandaeans also have elements that are very similar to Manichaeism. They also believe like the Manichaeans, who of course, famously, if we think of the Manichaean world view we think of good fighting evil, they believed that the body was evil and that the soul was good and that you should liberate the soul from the body. The Mandaeans also have this belief, although they also have things perhaps inherited from Judaism, which has been very influential at some point in their history. They believe very strongly in propagation of human life. So in that respect, differ from the Manichaeans.
The Mandaeans revere John the Baptist—lost in the by-ways of history, but you can see that as a sense of perhaps that they were at one point Jewish refugees fleeing eastward from Palestine, as the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans under the reign of Vespasian. Or possibly, some people think that John is a distortion of the name of an ancient Babylonian god of the waters.
And they have in their spells—there was a wonderful British lady of the 20th century, Ethel Stefana Drower, who began life as a Mills & Boon novelist and ended it as a great authority on the Mandaeans, a wonderful woman, actually. She discovered spells in 20th century Iraq, still in contemporary use, which clearly dated back to Babylonian times because of the wording of them. I quote one, "Sundered is Baal from Babylon, sundered is Nabu from Borsippa," this used as the beginning of a spell, I'm afraid, a black magic spell, to separate lovers. And of course, you know, Babylon no longer exists. Borsippa hasn't existed since around the third century BC, but the wording of the spell in continuous use has remained the same up until modern day.
Many of these religions incidentally, are deeply, deeply secretive and it's a characteristic of Pythagoras, who used to teach from behind a curtain and insisted in fifth-century Greece that his pupils should practice silence for five years before he would allow them to see him, face-to-face. It's important to know that, because when you learn of the secretiveness of these religions, it is in part to protect themselves from persecution and misunderstanding that they keep their beliefs secret, often even from their own practitioners.
So, 90 percent of Druze, including the Druze leader in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, as I discovered when I tried to talk to him about his religion, don't know what the religion teaches, or, at least, they say they don't. And instead it is only the sheikhs who are allowed to learn the sacred truths. Now, this is partly a matter of self-protection, but it's also something that goes back into ancient times in the Middle East, which is the desire to preserve certain sacred truths from the common people, not entirely distant from Kabbalah. Actually Pythagoras claims to have learned from Jewish rabbis, as well as from Egyptian temple priests, who were immensely secretive. He was a kind of a "showman" of the fifth century BC and loved to make out that he'd learned lots of "mystic truths." We don't know whether he did or not, because we don't know what he taught. They did keep their secrets quite well.
The only thing we've got is the theory of triangles. The theory of triangles is about a bit more than triangles. They were very fascinated in ancient Greece, to know what is the nature of the world, the ultimate explanation, the ultimate physical unit, if you like. Pythagoras thought that it was actually a number. And it sounds rather bizarre, but he believed that numbers—patterns in the world of numbers—really mean something. They're put there by the creator, and you can read into them messages about moral law and about the physical universe. This too, you find, sometimes among these contemporary religions.
Now, why should we care? I don't argue that any one human being should matter more than another because of their faith. And of course it's important to remember, among all the terrible things happening to minorities in the Middle East, that Muslims are equally victims, and that indeed in Iraq, probably have died in equal proportion. If you think about the proportion of Muslims in Iraq, I would say that you would find as many of them have died as of the minorities. It is however the case that, the minorities are much more likely to leave. And this isn't just about danger, but about, as I found when I talked to them, it's about feeling unwanted.
I showed you a picture earlier of a Yazidi shiekh, and that was an encounter I had in August just on the borders of Sinjar in Iraq. And what they're saying, is "We want to leave," "Iraq is broken," "They don't want us here. There's no future for us here." It is a defeat of the soul. And I believe that this really matters. It matters because these religions are part of our own history.
By the way, the Manichaeans, I told you about how austere they were. Saint Augustine was a Manichae, of course, before he became a Christian and was a founder of Western monasticism. The austerity of Western monasticism is surely a reply, a Christian response to the austerity of the Manichaean elders.
And again in the 11th century, when the Cathars of France are destroyed by the French state, again what you find is ascetic movements crop up in the Christian church as a response to the challenge of the austerity of those quasi-Manichaean elders because the Cathars inherited many of the ideas of the Manichaeans. Now, this means that these ancient groups, they may seem just interesting to read about, but they actually play a part in our own past as well as that of the Middle East. And I would argue that their ideas can challenge our own and do deserve consideration.
I don't wish to enter into a discussion of reincarnation, but let me instead focus on the Zoroastrian belief. The Zoroastrians were the religion of ancient Persia, Zarathustra, living perhaps in 1,000 BC, 3,000 years ago, being the first man to really introduce the idea of heaven and hell as a reward for good and evil as practiced in this world. The world is not, he thought, the product of many gods, nor of one omnipotent god, but of two spirits, good and evil, which are locked in eternal combat. And this was a great challenge, actually, to Christianity in its early, early era, and remains interesting, I think, for some Christians today.
Now, I don't know how many of you have read the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis . . . a few of you have. Well, I don't know whether you've thought about it, I certainly hadn't, but this war between the animals which take the side of good, and the animals which take the side of evil—if you think about it, there's no deus ex machina. You're having a battle between those forces. It is undoubtedly influenced by Zoroastrianism, which C.S. Lewis said was his favorite "pagan" religion. And the Zoroastrians, like that picture of Narnia, do believe that animals can take the side of good and of evil.
Although, I'm afraid, Aslan being a lion in the Zoroastrian belief is actually bad—the lion is evil. And, cats, I'm afraid, are evil. Sad to say. If it was a true Zoroastrian picture, Aslan would be a dog, because they see dogs as being the greatest fighters alongside man on the side of good. And when a dog dies, it is given funeral rites, if you were a very traditional Zoroastrian, that resemble those given to a human being. It is clad in the girdle and in the Muslim vest that Zoroastrians traditionally wear, and it is put out for the birds to eat.
By the way, incidentally, if you think of magicians being associated always with cats, it is because of the Zoroastrian belief that cats are creatures of evil, creatures of black magic. And of course magic, is itself a word taken from the magus, which is an ancient word for the Zoroastrian priests. And therefore, you have a division between black and white magic. It resembles exactly the Zoroastrian division between good and evil.
Now these are also significant groups politically. They haven't disappeared. They still number about 10 million, perhaps more, in the Middle East. Five percent of the population of Latin America descended from Middle Eastern Christians—an enormous diaspora, and a still-present force in the Middle East. Not a force, perhaps we should say, because they're scattered across so many countries that as a political force they're not really what they were. Indeed that is the great tragedy and the great reason—one reason—why we should care, because I think that traditionally you can see how they have been a bridge between East and West.
I mentioned before how I go into Coptic churches in Egypt and I found something, which in a culture which could seem so very, very different—the language is different, the culture, the history—at least something where you can find a common link between one civilization and another, for me personally, so that I could be a member of the community that was in every other way different from me. And to me, this does show something very interesting about diversity of religion, that it can actually act as a bridge between civilizations, so that we can no longer think of each other as being separate culturally in any absolute sense because there is always something that connects us to the other.
I wish to give you this jovial chap, who with his long beard and turban could almost be a Salafi preacher, but, who is in fact a Coptic priest here with his family in his village near Minya in Southern Egypt, a place, which shortly after I was there, was ravaged by riots, and many churches were burned. But he, I'm glad to say, is safe. A wonderful man, able, by the way, to really resolve community disputes in a way that protected his community from violence. But unfortunately, a rare case, because when I was in Egypt I was very sorry about something.
When I wandered around I used to really enjoy going to the most working-class suburbs of Cairo. I wanted to connect myself to something utterly different. And I would go and I would talk to people and sometimes they'd come up to you and they’d ask you a question straight-off, and of course being not totally fluent in Arabic—at that time, anyway—I used to sometimes be a bit thrown by this. But I learned what they would be asking, it was two things. One was, "Ahly or Zamalek?" and this would mean "What football team?" Because it's two, Ahly and Zamalek. The right answer is Ahly. I got that one—no one supports Zamelek.
And the other question they'd ask is, "Are you Christian or Muslim?" which I found a lot more troubling, I have to say, because I suppose it’s one thing to have rivalry of football teams. But just imagine being a minority of 5 percent, and feeling that you're being asked all the time, you're being identified by your religion, you can never escape it. And increasingly, I have to say, people in Egypt don't seek to escape it. They make it a badge, literally. Copts tend to have a little cross on their wrists, something that you can't see unless you're looking for it. So it's a sort of badge to each other.
Just an example of how, as one defines oneself by religion in such a public way, it becomes very, very hard to have true equality: If you've got a majority religion, which is passionate about its faith and people are identified in the public sphere by their religion, it is very, very hard to have true equality, I would argue. And it is possible that precisely because these religions provide a bridge between cultures, this is one of the reasons why they are targeted, and why, increasingly, it is harder and harder to find people in the Middle East who belong to religious minorities and who feel comfortable.
Not universally true—I mean the Druze of Lebanon, I would say, are probably those among whom I found most willingness to stay, who had most comfort with their position, partly because of Lebanon's particularly secular constitution. And again, I think it does show how only when you have—this is probably controversial—if you have a constitution which allows equality of creeds, which can take religion out of the public sphere, only then can you really have freedom of religion and equality of citizens.
I also want to return just briefly to history. These fish. Carp, I think. I was in Şanlıurfa, a city in Southern Turkey, right down on the border with Syria. It was many years ago, and I saw these fish and I wondered what the story was because there was so many of them. And a man told me, "We never eat these fish. It's taboo because they are sacred according to the Quran." Well, it's true. There is a Quranic story and the fish are, by local legend, associated with it. But they actually have been sacred since a long time ago.
There was a Christian nun called Egeria who visited Şanlıurfa in the third century AD, who says that the fish were sacred under the local pagan religion at the time. And nobody ate them at that time, except the Christians who made a great point of eating them. And Egeria says they're a very tasty fish. So we know that they were taboo back then, the Yazidis don't eat—well, they don't kill fish. So again, there's a continuity with something that goes back a very, very long time, who knows how long. It's thought that the fish were probably sacred at one point to Ishtar, or the local equivalent of Ishtar and that this has continued to the present day, under, of course, a different faith.
Now, something very, very important I want to speak about is about history and the interpretations of history, because I think what we see today, with the Islamic State claiming that it is going to essentially rebuild the empire of Islam, convert the world through violence, they really are relying on an interpretation of history that says that the early Muslims were just as violent as they are now. And if you look at what they've done, they did kill the Yazidis. And they did take their wives, and their daughters as slaves. And with the Christians, what they tended to do was to expel them. So, they didn't behave to the Christians in exactly the same ways as to the Yazidis.
I heard when I was next to Sinjar in August, from Christian refugees from Mosul, who said that some Christians had remained undercover and had been found by the Islamic State and had been blindfolded and taken at night and dumped on the other side of the border in Kurdistan. Now the reason that the Islamic State are not killing Christians is that they are very anxious to follow what they believe to have been the precedent set by the first Muslims, who drove out the Christians from the Arabian Peninsula, and killed what they saw as the idolaters. And therefore, and indeed in some interpretations, they took their wives and daughters as chattels. And therefore, what they're doing is they're reading—it's not just about theology, but it's a battle about history.
And I wish, therefore, just to produce a counter to that. Whatever violence there's been, and there has been terrible violence—the Middle East, and indeed the whole world, has been a terribly violent place. The fact that these minorities still exist in the Middle East shows that actually it was not the case that for 1,500 years Muslim rulers have always sought to convert others by force. It couldn't be true. In Europe, we don't have any of these pre-Christian religions. They disappeared actually quite swiftly. There are many reasons for this. I don't say it's just a story of Islamic tolerance and Christian intolerance. It is of course very complex. But it is a demonstration that these 10 million people still exist in the Middle East because it isn't true that the history of Islam is one of endless violence against other faiths.
This man, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, was a great scholar of around a thousand years ago. We learn from him much about the history of the Mandaeans and other groups which existed in his time that he wrote about them. He knew them. Many of his contemporaries knew—Ibn al-Nadim compiled a fihrist of books at the time. (A fihrist is a sort of bibliography of the books existing.) Biruni was a man who wrote with absolute objectivity about the religions of his own time, so much that we actually learn from him and from Ibn al-Nadim a great deal about the Manichaeans, the Mandaeans, and others which existed at the time.
Among whom were the Harranians, who—here, this chap, Thabit ibn Qurra [points to slide], a great follower of Pythagoras, a great mathematician, who was invited to Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph in the ninth century to go and to join the collection of scholars sometimes known as the "House of Wisdom." It was at that time the practice of Muslim leaders to invite scholars, even if they were like Thabin ibn Qurra, a man who wrote a great pion, a great hymn of praise to paganism.
Even so, they were happy to have him among the scholars of their court. Not because they were liberals, but because they knew that through diversity comes knowledge and comes strength and knowing that having these people from these different cultures, who brought down their knowledge and understanding—and Thabin ibn Qurra expanded the theory of Pythagoras about triangles, and showed that it was applicable to a whole—I mean, to some extent what we learn at school is influenced by this man. They knew that this scholarship was something they wanted and needed.
Now, it's clearly the case also, by the way—here, the marshes of Southern Iraq where the Mani lived, where the Mandaeans lived, just to give you a sense of the amazing topography which has protected these faiths. So I don't mean to say that it's simply a story of tolerance—it is of course about a lot of other things as well.
And it is of course the case that there have been some terrible extinctions. And here is an Assyrian church in Mardin in Southern Turkey; the people sitting here are no longer Assyrians, no longer followers of that church of the East which was once based in Iraq, sent missionaries as far afield as China, and gave Tibet and Mongolia their alphabet. This instead is an empty church, because the citizens, the Christians of Mardin were slaughtered or driven out in 1916-17, the Armenian Genocide.
Here, this textbook, which I found in Baghdad in 2003 in the abandoned Jewish community center, was used in the 1950s, printed in Baghdad, to teach Hebrew to school children. A reminder of a community which existed, which, according to Iraqi Jews that I talked to, constituted, they thought, a third of the population of Baghdad in the 1930s and which has entirely now disappeared.
So I don't mean to be complacent—what is tragic is to see these faiths disappearing. And we see in Cairo—I wanted to show you the face of coexistence. Here, crescent and cross, side by side, an emblem used in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square protests to show the unity between Christians and Muslims. It evokes an earlier era. It, actually, deliberately echoes a slogan used in 1919 demonstrations against the British, which came at a time, by the way when—Egypt had three Christian prime ministers between 1860 and 1920.
It is worth remembering that even in contemporary, recent history, not very long ago, minorities were represented, both Jews and Christians, in governments like those of Iraq and Egypt. And the ruler of Egypt in the 1860s was very, very keen to promote nationalism as a way, really, of course, of proving that he had the right to rule his kingdom independently of the Ottoman Empire—so, political reasons. And it is tremendously important to realize the politics that lie behind either coexistence or persecution because there is always, always a matter of state policy lying behind there somewhere or other, where you see a minority being persecuted. There is almost certainly a government which believes that this is a wise thing and a good thing for them to do, for whatever reason.
Or you can have people like Isma'il who promote the equality of citizens, who brought Christians into his government, who praised Yaqub Sanu, a Jewish playwright, and said he is Egypt's Moliere. You can have that, or you can have what we see not only from the Islamic State, but I fear, increasingly across the region.
And therefore, I wish to say a few things very quickly about what I think should be done.
I think that first off, this is a war of ideas. It's so easy to say that as though it's an alternative to military and other forms of action. I think it is primarily about persuasion, and persuasion is really about ideas—to persuade people in the Middle East to treasure and value the minorities that are in their midst because it is to their advantage and in their interests. It is important to counter the narrative of history in particular, not just theology. Theology is something that's hard for a non-Muslim to get involved in. Because it is important that Muslims should remember that their period of their own glory, the period of their greatest technological and political power, was actually when they made best use of the minorities in their own midst, and not when they drove them out and when they put up barriers between themselves and other cultures.
I sometimes trouble myself, I suppose, with a thought: Is religion itself the problem? Is it only possible to have the kind of coexistence that we now have in the West—or I think we do—if, really, in a sense people have become less devout, care less than the Egyptians do, aren't willing as the Egyptians are to fast—the Egyptian Copts fast for 220 days of the year—is it possible to marry that devotion with equality? I hope so. I think perhaps the most important thing is not to have religious groups which can take over the state and then distribute state posts to their own followers based on religious affiliation.
In Iraq, I worked for the Iraqi government for six months as a secondee in a group of people, very charming people, who were entirely Shi'a Muslim—it was the government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari. I liked him a great deal, but I wouldn't deny that it was absolutely, whatever they thought—I don't think they thought of themselves as sectarians—but it was absolutely clear that unless you were a Shi'a Muslim Arab, you were not going to be part of that clique, and that the government jobs would be given to their followers and supporters, and that there was mistrust between them and those who didn't belong to that religion.
It is terribly dangerous, I think, when people feel that one religious group is going to control this ministry or that, and when the rule of law itself cannot be trusted to protect you from that minority or that group which controls the government and has a religious agenda.
Education. Christian schools in the Middle East: I think it probably the best thing the West did in the Middle East was to send out people who founded schools, schools which mostly cater to Muslims. Many of my friends when I was living in Jerusalem, who were Palestinian, had been to Christian schools in Ramallah and Jerusalem. It’s very, very true also in Egypt. It's true in Iraq. I think it's been a tremendous thing for coexistence precisely because it makes, actually, the Christians useful in a visible way. I think that was a very, very good initiative in contrast, I have to say, to many of the things that we did—in particularly that Britain did—in the Middle East
These religions are here because of this Yasidi girl in Sinjar, who holds up a sign saying, "I want to go to Europe, please." She is begging for asylum, as they all are, I fear. They all want to go, they all want to come to Europe or any place where they will feel safe. And here—Basim in Lincoln, Nebraska. Basim who has behind him the symbol of the Yazidi divine spirit, Melek Taus the peacock angel—important to make them feel welcome here, important to make them feel wanted, because that is what they lack in the Middle East and I wished to do that through my book because I wanted to explain to people what these groups believe.
They are increasingly to be found here. In order to write the epilogue to my book I went to metropolitan Detroit, where there are perhaps 200,000 Iraqi Christians. Great numbers of people I knew in Baghdad are now living in metropolitan Detroit. Their entire communities came here—priests, people—and reconstituted themselves as an American community. It is therefore increasingly important to understand these faiths; relatively easy for the Christians, much harder for the Druze, the Mandaeans, the Yazidis, and therefore, I hoped through my book to help to do that.
One last thought: Sometimes we talk about combating extremism, sometimes violent extremism. I wish to propose that what we should try and combat is religious hatred. You can't deal with it simply when it becomes violent because beneath the violence of the Islamic State comes years and years and years of non-violent preaching of hatred and contempt for people of other faiths, which is exactly what fuels the violence. When the violence happens it's too late. What you have is a radicalized generation, who already believe violence is the answer. It is very, very hard to tackle it. I do think that holding back that Islamic state, I think defeating it—defeating it is perhaps an exaggeration—but let's say, showing that it is not invincible is terribly important.
But we also need to tackle the root causes, which are to do with the culture of the last few decades, not intrinsic to the Middle East, not intrinsic to Islam, but the product of particular circumstances, particularly since the 1970s, which have enfranchised, which have given strength to those who wish to preach hatred and contempt for those who do not share one's religious beliefs.
And on that note, I will finish.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
That was incredibly fascinating. But, back to reality, it's not only the question of the minorities, but also of all the conflicts within Islam and the Sunnis and the Shiites and the many different groups within them. There's fighting constantly, so it's not surprising that they also attack the minorities. You've lived in the Middle East, you've seen what goes on. How would you deal with this so that the minorities will have a more comfortable space?
GERARD RUSSELL: Thank you very much.
You are entirely right, and the reason I talked a bit about the Iraqi government of 2005 is that I think it was a pivotal moment in the history of the modern Middle East—not the only one, there was several, many. But that at this point, there was undoubtedly a perception in the Sunni-Arab world that Iraq had become the property of Iran, both religiously and politically. And that has triggered, I think, a wave of sympathy for the kind of Sunni-Arabic extremism, which has since risen, particularly in the bloodbath of Syria, and which has spilled over into Iraq, and which has been building over time. And of course, it began in Iraq. It's just made its migration from Iraq to Syria and now back again because the Islamic State of today is connected to al-Qaeda, and the "country of the two rivers" of previous years. It is the poison fruit of the poison tree.
I think we have to be modest about what we can do to solve the problems of the Middle East. I think there is a danger in taking on too much and thinking that we can address things that are so deep-rooted. The Sunni/Shiite conflict, its bottom manifestation has become more acute because of what's happened in Iraq. And that is why I think that if we can can discourage polarization on religious lines, to the extent we can do that, to the extent that we can use foreign aid and influence and to whatever extent we can delicately use military methods, it is appropriate to use them in support of those who wish to promote equality of religions and not to privilege one above another, and not to confuse either true democracy with majoritarianism, which, I fear, we probably have seen in Iraq.
I don't wish to pick out the Shiite government of Iraq. It's not the only one. We've seen a whole funding from the bits of the Arab Gulf towards highly conservative and extremist versions of Islam for many, many decades. I think it's appropriate to try and curb that.
I balk at the thought that we might take it upon ourselves to reverse what I think has been decades, centuries, thousands of years, even, of conflict between Arabs and Iranians, between Shia and Sunni, because I think it's too ambitious and we end up taking on too much and failing to deliver. I would like us to use delicately our influence to try and address what I see as the underlying ideological issues.
But of course, if one can bring a peace settlement—I mean the "grand bargain" in the Middle East would, I suppose, be between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Well, if we could deliver such a settlement, if we could encourage it, it would, I think, take a great deal of the force out of the conflicts of the Middle East.
And I agree with you entirely, that the minorities—actually, the Islamic State, is not half as bothered about the Yazidis as it is about the Shia. And, really, what they want to do is destroy the Shia. It's an intra-Muslim dispute, which is taking in the minorities. But it's also the radicalization of society because once religion becomes the criterion on which you are chosen for your job, and in a poor country where you're desperate for jobs, it makes it a highly polarizing—and I think if we can combat that, that root cause, perhaps we will begin to take some of the force out of religious conflicts that have plagued the Middle East.
QUESTION: I'm Helena Finn from the American Council on Germany, but I'm a former U.S. diplomat.
I spent years in Turkey and Pakistan, among other places. And the phenomenon you described is also occurring there. I agree with you completely—equality through, what we might call, "secularism," although we might not want to use that word. That's the goal we want to achieve.
I agree with you completely about education, but how do we get there? The days of AUB [American University of Beirut], and AUC [American University in Cairo], and Robert College are long past. How are we going to get there? How can we actually take practical steps to introduce educational systems in these countries that will convey this whole enlightened spirit?
GERARD RUSSELL: Thank you very much.
I do think there have been some advances. I go into this in a lot more detail in the book, but in the Egyptian history curriculum in the 1970s, when the process of Islamization that you'll recognize happened under Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan, happened in Egypt under Anwar Sadat, the Coptic history was greatly compressed, essentially almost taken out, with the result that many Egyptians don't necessarily know very much about the Christians, the Copts who live in their midst. And nonetheless, some progress has been made in recent years under—pressure isn't the right word—encouragement, gentle encouragement, perhaps we could say, from America and elsewhere. The curriculum has been improved. It does now give more space to history that isn't just the history of Islam, and therefore, I see that as a positive step, and I think it's an example that can be built on, first of all.
Secondly, of course, schools in the Middle East—I think there is a role for a charitable organizations in promoting education to the extent that it is accepted. It shouldn't be too politicized, of course, because once you politicize it, it becomes much more difficult to do. But those Christian schools have managed quite carefully because of never converting people, essentially, to become accepted over the course of 100 years. And I think to try and build on that, and to help to keep them going, make them a center of excellence is a good idea, which works on what we already have.
I also think there is a good moment—things have become so bad with Islamic State ravaging Iraq and Syria, that I think at last you're seeing, in some parts of the Arab world, a realization that it's gone too far now. So you do see Saudi Arabia and Qatar taking part in confrontation to some degree with the Islamic State. And I think there has been action taken against those who fund extremist groups by the U.S. Treasury, which is, I think, sensible and not before time, because the flow of money is immensely important. One shouldn't think that it's a silver bullet, but it is immensely important to do as a minimum.
And I think if there is a trend in the Arab world towards moving back from extremism—to say, "Look, actually, we've reached a point where this is harming us all. It's creating a monster that is going to turn on us." Then let's work with them because this could be a good moment to say to these countries, "Actually, hold on a second. Why don't you reconfigure your whole foreign apparatus? The promotion of extremism in the end is not in your interest. Maybe you once thought it was; it isn't." And I think that that would be a set of things that could be helpful.
It's so difficult when looking at the military options because it's so hard to get them precisely right. I would praise the United States for managing to build that military coalition against the Islamic State because I think it was a tremendously good thing to get Arab countries on board. And actually, the more that they can, morally speaking, take the lead, if you like—militarily it's hard, but morally speaking, I think that's a tremendous step forward.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
Listening to your talk, I hear a certain amount of, if you'll pardon the expression, authoritarian nostalgia because, in fact, Christians, I think, enjoyed greater freedom and security under Saddam Hussein. And I've read articles about Christians living in Syria who were terrified of Assad losing power, and Jews in Iran enjoyed a very good position under the Shah. So how do you reconcile tolerance with a whole idea of popular sovereignty? Historically, autocrats in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire protected minorities.
GERARD RUSSELL: Thank you very much.
This is actually a question I've asked myself several times, so I'm glad you've asked it. It is true, I think, that when you look at the region through the prism of the welfare of minorities, it can distort—well it's important to remember that one should be concerned about the welfare of everyone, and not just one group.
What I would say—I'm going try and get myself out of this because the sort of moral choice here is a very difficult one, if indeed it is true that it is only through, in practical terms, authoritarianism that minorities can be protected, then of course that is a terrible choice.
What I think though, is that if one looks at the Shah of Iran, one will see that actually the process of liberalization began before authoritarianism. It began during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-07 when at last, Zoroastrians were for the first time given a place in the parliament of Iran. And so, arguably, these authoritarian leaders, have not actually been the ones to enfranchise the minorities. They have actually been the ones to come at the very end of the process, which began with the rise of nationalism in the Middle East.
If you look at Saddam, he was building on his predecessors. In fact, the Yazidis don't really like the Ba'ath. Saddam didn't persecute people because of their faith except towards the end when he perceived the Shiites as a threat to him. But Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, he was very happy with. Indeed he looked to the Mandaean high priest for spells to protect him. But he was bad to the Yazidis because he saw them as potentially a threat if they were to become allied with the Kurds. Therefore he did, in fact, do them quite a lot of harm.
They are much more nostalgic about Abd al-Karim Qasim, who was a less authoritarian leader of the 1950s, who was a very leftist leader. It's not about necessarily the politics, but it's the fact that he was a much less sectarian leader than anyone who came after.
And I think actually, when we look at Saddam, and we look at Nasser in Egypt, when we look at Assad in Syria, we aren't seeing people who through their own virtues have made it much more of an egalitarian society, we're looking at people who have inherited a more egalitarian society. Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad, who are, of course, Alawites, are not conventional Muslims. And if Syria had been so prejudiced before Hafez al-Assad came along, then he could never have been ruler.
So what I think is that we've seen, relatively, a golden age for minorities in the Middle East, comparatively speaking, from, depending on the country, either 1860, 1920 up until the '60s, and it has since then gone backwards. Having said that, I don't think authoritarianism is what necessarily enfranchised the minorities, but that rather it was a manifestation that coincided with a social trend. I'd like to think that we could have democracies in the Middle East that are liberal because I think the process that we've seen can be reversed.
But what needs to be done—it was so easy to give education to Islamist movements because it didn't cut across any of the major revenue streams. And so if what you want to do is have power and money, you don't worry about education. And I think, what we now need to do, those with goodwill towards the Middle East need to think about education as the pivotal thing that we need to influence, because future generations must grow up to respect each other.
Having learned to respect each other, democracy will be easier, because what everyone is afraid of—the reason the minorities of Syria will side with Assad against those who wish democracy is that they fear majoritarianism. They fear that they will be a state founded on religion and what they need to be persuaded of is that there is a respect for them and for their faith, and when they have that, I think, people will be much more prepared to accept a democratic system than they are now. They are now afraid that it's a winner-take-all system.
So I'm going to dodge the terrible moral dilemma that you've given me because I actually do think it is possible to have the best of both worlds.
QUESTION: John Richardson.
I have a question about Egypt, which, as I understand it, thinks of itself as the intellectual center of Islam or has in the past. If you look at the history of the area you had a military dictatorship of sorts in Turkey, the modern Turkey—Mustafa Kemal, a great price was paid by some people. But then you've got a military government in Egypt, since Nasser at least—a long tradition of military rule. And you've got these semi-military things, Assad and Saddam Hussein, relatively secular. But the secularism seems to have gone, it's gone from Turkey, it's gone from Iraq, it's going in Syria. What's going to happen to Egypt?
GERARD RUSSELL: Well, thank you very much.
I fear that secularism in Egypt took two terrible knocks.
Nasser himself was a great promoter of secularism, but introduced a very statused system. And of course, what that did was—having centralized everything, and really destroyed the private sector, Sadat coming into power, and wishing to sort of undermine the Nasser-ists, those who are more left wing, and supported Nasser, and the communists—with, I think, probably Western blessing, Sadat introduced a much more conservative version of Islam and projected himself as the believing president. And, really, in a sense, from that time, I would say, secularism in Egypt has not existed.
The state was Islamist in the '70s. Mubarak reined it back a bit, but really, even under Mubarak—if you remember the professor of philosophy who was forcibly divorced from his wife on the grounds that he was an atheist—it's impossible to say that such a system is in any sense secular.
JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much for showing us that religion and politics is not that easily reconcilable. Thank you.