Tag Archives: Islam

Cyrus Rohani & Behrooz Sabet (eds.), Winds of Change: The Challenge of Modernity in the Middle East and North Africa. (London: Saqi Books, 2019)

From a Western point of view, one of the key challenges facing us is, how the Islamic MENA region can find peace, modernize and contribute positively to human life on Earth. The Arab spring brought hope for positive changes:

“The Arab spring has awakened the world to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims worldwide to democracy – inspired by western values yet infused by Islamic ideals,” writes Dr. Christopher Buck, an independent scholar and attorney from the USA, in one of his essays in Winds of Change (p. 87). Unfortunately, such legitimate aspirations have not yet been met, and the MENA region is as war-torn as ever.

Wind of Change contains 15 essays written by 11 intellectuals with the perspective that Islam’s spiritual ethic and sense of justice has something valuable to offer to the world, as it did during the “Islamic worlds flourishing sociocultural era” (750-1250) (p.8). This period is referred to as the Golden Age.

The editors, management consultant, MBA, Cyrus Rohani and Dr. Behrooz Sabet believe that changes are under way in the Middle East. Rohani writes that dictatorships relegate people “to the level of animals” which “defies the purpose of their creation” (p. 45). At the same time “our planet is suffering owing to our betrayal of the trust bestowed on us as a gift from our Creator” (p. 48). He envisions the “establishment of a planetary civilization based on organic unity of mankind” (p. 49).

Six narratives deal with timely issues such as environmental challenges, press freedom, gender inequality, interfaith dialogue, education and the Arab spring, while the others apply more historical / philosophical perspectives. The latter strive for a common ground on which the Middle East and the West can meet and work together in solving global problems. Generally, the essays are written with a deep appreciation for Islam, a critical view on traditional Middle Eastern leaders, and a taken-for-granted view on the West. The book suggests that there is a need for spirituality, materialism and science to be integrated to create a global society with human dignity, happiness and appreciation of differences.

An interesting example of the search for common ground is Dr. Ian Kluge’s discussion of reason in Islamic and Western philosophy. Kluge, who on websites are presented as Canadian Baha’i scholar, writes:

The re-appropriation of rationalism is the major goal of numerous Muslim thinkers wishing to revive the fortunes of the Islamic world in face of modern challenges. However, they want to find the basis for such changes in Islam itself without having to depend on ideas imported from, among other things, the European Enlightenment.” (p. 155)

Islam has the concept of ijtihad that, according to one Islamic tradition, implies “free debate on matters to everyone” (p. 145). Kluge quotes the Qur’an for saying: “Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason” (p. 146), and he compares the spirit of this text to Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question about enlightenment (p. 150).

Throughout history, Muslims have disagreed on who should be allowed to practice independent spiritual reasoning and search for truth. Some believe that “ijtihad may only be practiced by mujtahids,” while others do not agree with this limitation (p. 151). In Islam there is for example a long tradition for reasoning stemming from the Muʿtazali theology of the eight century, modernized by Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). Originally the philosophers drew on different sources of inspiration, including Greek philosophy such as Aristotle’s logic of deductive reasoning. However, in the 12th century, the limitations of philosophy were exposed in the book The incoherence of Philosophers (p. 161), and the value of ordinary people’s reasoning was questioned by people in power.

Kluge argues that acceptance of individual reasoning and discussions can revitalize Muslim societies. As for international cooperation, he suggests that the “considerable common ground between Kantian understanding of ‘enlightenment’ and what we find primarily in the Qur’an, and secondly, what is offered by Mu’tazalism” (p. 163) can create a shared understanding that will benefit both the MENA region and the West. However, when Muslims use reasoning, they do not necessarily consider Western scientific methods superior, because they do not share the materialistic worldview. When scientists study the material world, their results say obviously little about important spiritual issues.

Buck is the author of three analyses related to norms, ethics and law. One is about good governance, one about the possible development of a shared moral compass for Sunnis and Shi’is, and the third about testing the value of Sharia laws. In each case, the methodology is the same. Buck interprets key Islamic texts and discusses Islamic practices. For example, he interprets basic principles for good governance from a letter written by the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Caliph Ali, who is respected by both Sunnis and Shi’is. This respect is important because his idea is to create a set of shared Islamic guidelines for good governance. He interprets the spirit of each paragraph in the letter and relate it to present-day situations.

In the two other essays the key text is the Qur’an. In one of these essays, he asks: “does Islamic law mirror Islamic ethics”? (p. 169). A Pew Research Center survey cited in his article found that most Muslims in many countries approve of executing apostates. Buck writes: “There is a clear contradiction between the sharia law of apostacy and Islamic claims to ‘freedom of religion” and to a “well-known Qur’anic verse: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion” (p. 176). Buck then discusses this difference and Islamic scholars’ writings about it.

Many of the essays in this volume can best be considered sincere and informed opinion pieces. Not all of them follow a strict academic form. But they bring fresh ideas and perspectives to important debates.

Steve Cochrane, Asia’s Forgotten Christian Story (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2019)

Asia’s Forgotten Christian Story by Steve Cochrane is a book dedicated to Christian-Muslim relations by studying Christian and Muslim sources on monastic activity in Mesopotamia and other regions in ninth-century Asia, at the time of the first 100 years of the Abbasid Caliphate rule when new restrictions were imposed on the practice of Christian faith. The exploration is done solely through the lenses of the Church of the East, a Church related to the Nestorian controversy over the unity of the divine and the human in Christ, also known as Nestorian heresy in the Christian theological doctrine. If the reader has no background on this theological landmark in the history of Christian doctrine, the book’s subtitle Church of the East Monastic Mission in Ninth century Asia might be of limited help to clarify its non-orthodox perspective. Nonetheless, the book’s thematic dedication to the monastic mission of the Assyrian Church of the East (i.e. Nestorian or East Syrian Church) is more specifically situated in the Introduction, relative both to its opposition to the Miaphysite or West Syrian Church, and to its new relations with the Catholic Church due to the common Christological document agreed upon by the Church of the East and the representatives of the Catholic Church during the Pontificate of John Paul II in 1994. The positioning relative to the Eastern Orthodox Christianity is not given. It is stated that western scholarship at times ignored or dismissed the Church’s history in Asia as the story of a heretical church. It is then claimed without much elaboration, that the Church of the East Christological position is “consistent with the stance of Antioch” (p.2) but is an attempt, in author’s terms, to articulate the mystery of the divinity and humanity of Christ in different “linguistic and theological terms” (ibid).

One could argue that this initial scarcity of detailed, accurate and in-depth historical and theological notation is irrelevant as the book concerns a particular period of Christian-Muslim relations and aims to contribute to the “larger history and future of these relations” (p.6). We will come to this seeming irrelevance later.

Pointing correctly that monastic activity in mission was taking place not only before and after Islam in Arabia and West Asia but also further east as well, the monastic mission is presented through various sources (letters, witnessing, poetry and reflections by Muslim authors, Islamic writings about Christian monasteries, d’rasa/debate, including a collection of graffiti verses, ascetic cannons), yet scantily and superficially: from a purely reader’s perspective it offers bits and pieces of information which present the various aspects of monastic mission in a somewhat bricolage form, as each short chapter can be approached in no necessary (reading) order.

On one hand, the impression of a bricolage compilation of sources might be simply due to the fact that Asia’s Forgotten Christian Story is abridged version of Many Monks across the Sea: Church of the East Monastic Mission in Ninth century Asia, by the same author. On another hand, this might be ‘welcome’ by some as it exhorts no exigent commitment on reader’s side, conveying nevertheless the message that these sources indicate a certain level of readership, interest and importance of the monasteries for the Arabs both before and after Islam made its appearance. The book argues for the commitment of the Church of the East to scholarship in monastic collections and teaching or translating activity. Hence, it emphasizes the strategic importance of the Beit Abhe Monastery located on a mountainside about 80 km north-east of the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, and the various historical figures that extend up to and after the ninth century, including patriarchs, rabbanim, caliphs and monks, such as Thomas of Marga, a former member of Beit Abhe himself. Muslims are presented through these sources sometimes as commending Christian faith (and even conferring benefits on churches and monasteries), sometimes more ambiguously which only reflects the otherwise known unpredictable relation between different faiths. Attention is given to monastic settlements from the sixth, seventh and eighth century, unearthed in the last sixty years at places like the island of Kharg and other locations in the Persian Gulf on the sea route to India and China, all of which are taken to indicate another level of the witnessing of faith.

It might be easy to agree with the author’s claim that in inter-faith relations today, it is imperative to find new/old paradigms for strengthening dialogue and relationship, and that perhaps through a re-birth and renewal of Christian monasticism in Islamic countries, new bridges could be built. But it is hard to understand how the hospitality, humility, obedience, daily liturgy and monastics’ non-intrusive witnessing of faith goes along with the claim that “[m]onasteries were places that Muslims visited, wrote about, and made the place of the forbidden ‘other’ where their imagined (and perhaps at times real) desires for wine and illicit sex could be fulfilled” (p.68)? The reader is given a displaced and everything but syllogistic conclusion, not only in terms of the presented material but in terms of the Christian ascetic anthropology. One is therefore left wondering whether this was the “Asia’s forgotten story” we should have been told, and if so, why and in what sense is it called Christian? Earlier, the author presents a Muslim literature source that the he himself classifies as “quaint and strange” (p.50), attributing it to a “young tenth-century man from Bagdad” (ibid), a source that evidently speaks more about its writer’s longings than about monasteries or the foundations, practice and aim of a monastic life. The reader might be bewildered as elsewhere the author emphasizes the life of sacrifice which involved “virginity and holiness, two qualities important to East Syrian monastic identity […], affirmed in the daily practice of the liturgy” (p.9), but does not openly bring side-by-side the contradiction of this argument when monastic life is presented in Muslim literature. Instead, we are given an elaboration on how these sources could have been read by Muslims, when we read again “[w]hether viewing the beautiful gardens, sampling the home-grown vineyard wine, or indulging in erotic adventures in imagination or reality, the monastery and monastic activities in Muslim literature became an example of Christian ‘otherness’” (p.53).

Readers expecting a work that articulates a vision through operating on the broad, macro-level of theological context and principles of praxis will be frustrated. The author makes an effort to present eleven canonical monastic rules which centered on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, laid down by “Abraham who founded the monastery of Mount Izla in the sixth century” (p.36), but even though they are recognized as “[…]the foundations for spiritual strength needed for mission assignments […]” (p.38), they are only briefly enumerated. Hence, in its focus (both legitimate and important focus) on showing that mission and monasticism are not mutually exclusive, what the book does not vividly convey is the core of the ascetic life for a Christian monk and nun: his and her prayer. This is where we come full circle to the initial point on the relevance of nuances and accurate in-depth theological information, even more so when discussing Christian-Muslim relations.

If we want to promote greater Christian-Muslim understanding, we need to acknowledge the very real, fundamental differences in Christian and Islamic theologies and accept these differences, not eradicate them, for they cannot be expunged (not even those within Christianity), unless one promotes the supposedly ‘peaceful’, yet eroding solvent of ecumenism, instead of a dialogue truly respectful of differences. It is therefore imperative not to downplay first of all the broad, but distinctive theological teachings of Christianity, and what follows are only few reflections in light of the author’s claim for the need to strengthen ‘dialogue’ between faiths. The incarnation of God, the concrete existence of the (fully) divine and (fully) human nature in Christ (being one person), is absolutely central to Christianity. Christians believe that Jesus is God made flesh (i.e. in time). Christians also believe that Jesus is God’s Son (consubstantial with God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and thus eternal, i.e. the doctrine of the Trinity). God’s Son incarnated (as Ἰησοῦς Χριστός) and moreover Resurrected is not only the core of Christians’ faith and hope of salvation, but evidently a complex theological creed, for it took the early Christians several centuries (through the seven ecumenical councils) to explicate and protect the very concept of orthodoxy (specific only to the Eastern Orthodox Church) on several important and well-known issues. When Islam came along, it explicitly dismissed this witnessing of faith as blasphemy and in this sense, metaphorically speaking, Christians and Muslims are not even ‘playing the same game’, as what is central creed in one theology is blasphemous in the other. It is another matter that precisely these differences are either incorrectly dismissed and stricken out, or misused for political or other purposes to attain everything but an engaged dialogue affirming of differences that exist and cannot be neglected or disregarded not even within Christianity, for orthodoxy is not called orthodoxy by chance.

As for the Nestorian Christology, about one hundred new fragments found in the Syrian-monophysitic literature collected in Friedrich Loof’s edition of the Nestoriana in 1905, or the discovery in 1889 of the Syriac translation of Nestorius’ Bazaar of Heracleides, edited by a Syrian Catholic scholar Paul Bedjan in 1910, show that the meaning that one gives to terms such as ousia, hypostasis, physis, prosopon, was a major point of contention. In fact, Nestorius rejected the term Theotokos (i.e. Birth-giver of God) used for the Holy Mother. This ‘simple’ fact is not however a matter of meaning and discourse, or a ‘controversy’, but a dogmatic heresy and on its own – with no additional syllogistic rigmarole – makes questionable and incoherent any claim (as one can hear in some modern theological interpretations) that Nestorius never denied the divinity and humanity of Christ. One either believes that God was born in human flesh (i.e. in time) of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, or one does not; there are no fifty dogmatic shades of grammatical coextensive grey in between. You therefore either call a Birth-giver of God for what She is, a Theotokos, or you don’t, as rejecting the only rightful term is certainly not ‘protecting’ presumably naïve people from ‘heretically’ worshiping Her, but dishonouring Truth (in the face of Χριστός) and Her core identity. A (Nestorian or other) heresy is unbefitting not only dogmatically, but also eschatologically: the both divine and human nature’s existence in one-person (Christ unity) would not have been so opaque should faith had its aim in logic.

What makes the birth of Исус Христос (gr. Ἰησοῦς Χριστός) as God’s Son born in actual time and not only before time so thick for contemplation, is less obsolete for a heartful theanthropic gaze (gr. έν Θεώ), by living the beauty of human life as a renewed possibility to participate fully in God’s life. The monastics of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, take this possibility seriously, by living through and with the Holy Apostolic Church the fullness of Christian life in each and every of the Christian virtues, incessantly, as if, resting prayerfully in Христос (in His very concrete name) and also being united with Him Eucharistically. The coenobitic ‘desert’ or the monastery is therefore a place of nepsis and hesychastic life, just as of ‘mission’, even if the neptic work is presupposed in any contribution to the world. The impetus of asceticism may appear to be world denying, but its essence, on the contrary, is restorative, therapeutic. Thus, they turn ever again by Grace and toil towards a Holy communion, a theanthropic community with, through and in the Resurrected Χριστός, which is impossible (and meaningless) without the pure and purified repentant ‘water’ of the monastics’ transformative change of heart (gr. μετάνοια) in the personal here-and-now. The discourse on mission from this lived, alive position or lived theanthropic vision grows naturally and does not preclude a straightforward conversation about indispensable differences relative to other faiths or other ‘choices’ (gr. αἵρεσῐς, hairesis as one’s take), which cannot be ‘brushed away’ even while leaving the fine line between orthodoxy and heresy to the Holy Church Fathers (and not to cathedra theologians). For today, not compromising it in our practice, on political or other grounds, is a rarity.

Þorsteinn Helgason, The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage: The Turkish Raid in Iceland 1627. (Leiden: Brill, 2018)

Þorsteinn Helgason elaborates some of the materials from his 2013 Ph.D. dissertation in this book published in 2018 by the prestigious publisher Brill, in its ‘History of Warfare’ series. The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage focuses on all aspects of the kidnapping of about 400 people from Icelandic coastal settlements in 1627, one of the most traumatic historical events in Icelandic history. The events of which the so-called Turkish Raid is comprised took place in two separate raids perpetrated by corsairs based in Northern Africa on the southern and eastern coasts of Iceland and the Westman Islands during the summer of 1627. The unusual methodology and the breadth of academic interests the author marshals together is impressive and poignantly discussed. This unusually eclectic book, in fact, grew out of the historical research for a television documentary on the Turkish Raid (Tyrkjaránið in Icelandic, henceforth ‘TR’) by Dr. Þorsteinn Helgason himself, which in turn was sparked by his interest in Third World issues and the ties between Africa and Iceland. If all of these threads sometimes lead the reader in very different directions, the advantage is that the book has the gripping quality of fiction, at times. The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage, in fact, embraces a holistic view of history, seen as a result of all human endeavors and broadly defined political and sociocultural forces, where even the production of art, memory, folktales and their interpretation are brought to bear on past events just as much as chronicles and more traditional historical sources.

The book consists of 9 chapters, as well as an introduction and an epilogue. In the introduction and first chapter, the author assesses existing sources for the TR, and acknowledges the difficulty of analyzing an inherently complex event such as the TR. The events can be seen as the farthest reach of the Islamic expansion into Europe, carried out not through normal warfare, but through a corsairs’ attack. This in turn complicates issues of legality, since corsairs were ‘licensed’ pirates by their countries of origin, in this case the loose weft of city states on the Barbary Coast of Africa, which at times acted on behalf of the Ottoman empire or North African sovereigns, and more often than not, on their own behalf. On the cultural side, it was a clash of worlds: the Protestant and very homogenous Icelandic population coming into violent contact with the diverse population of Muslim Northern Africa. Coastal Europeans at the time were aware that North African ‘pirates’ could abduct them and force them into slavery, but Christians were also known to capture Muslim sailors. There is a curious admiration for Murat Reis, the leader of one of these attacks against Iceland, aka privateer Jan Janzsoon, and his ability to survive and reinvent himself as Muslim after conversion to the point of being in charge of the whole fleet of the city-state of Salé. The unorthodox flourish of imagining Murat Reis in front of the International Court of Justice at the Hague highlights the often subconscious tendency to interpret the past in light of the present, and how misconceived this can be.

Chapters 2-4 focus on Iceland, specifically 2 and 3 on the raid in the East Fjords, and 4 on the Westman Islands and south-western coast, with many detailed maps and an assessment of the trustworthiness of extant sources. It also moves the focus from ‘the “grand narrative” of national history’ (p. 60), highlighting the anonymous and collective (sailors, pirates, corsairs, Icelanders, victims), to the stories of the individuals that were participants in the events or chroniclers thereof. Þorsteinn delves into local folklore and raises the possibility that the exaggerated instances of heroism found in some folktales were meant to counteract the chroniclers such as Björn of Skarðsá that portrayed the Icelanders merely as victims (p. 86-7).

Chapter 5 on ‘Piracy and Defences’ raises another ‘anachronistic’ comparison: that between a defenseless Iceland at the time of the TR and the importance of its lack of a standing army and consequential neutrality in the modern era. The rift between pro/against positions among Icelanders has lasted ‘over the past 500 years’ Þorsteinn recognizes (p. 144). Both terms of the comparison have become an important part of Icelandic identity. Iceland’s defenselessness in 1627 has often been attributed to the Danes, at best absentee landlords, and in any case distracted while engaged in the last stages of the Thirty Years’ War. On the other hand, Iceland’s neutrality played an important role in some momentous historical events of the 20th century, although the ‘rift’ has opened again since the NATO base at Keflavík closed in 2006.

Chapter 6 and 7 take the readers away from modern indignation at the corsairs’ deeds and brings them back to the 17th century in justifying the killing, pillaging and enslavement of Icelanders as warfare and/or commercial enterprise, and the position of the Christian kingdoms (whether Protestant or Catholic) as hypocrisy at best, considering that the almost 200 years of transatlantic slavery were about to begin. Chapter 7 focuses on the efforts to ransom some of the captive Icelanders, whose situation was more akin to that of prisoners of war, and ransoms were an important part of the economy of the Barbary states. Only about 30 people returned to Iceland from Northern Africa in a period of ca. 10 years. From the historical and legal details of ransom, the author delves into the personal stories of some captives, those who came back (Tyrkja-Gudda, for instance, Hallgrímur Pétursson’s wife), as well as those that stayed (Anna Jasparsdóttir, who converted to Islam), as well as the personal history of Murat Reis himself.

Chapter 8 on ‘Cultural Memory’ looks at what the different accounts of the TR, the number of surviving manuscripts, and when they were copied most often, as well as how the subject is dealt with in modern history textbooks. The material history of the sources and the slant they show can tell us about how the Icelanders of different periods interpreted the events and how they fit them into their national identity.

Finally, chapter 9 focuses on several works of art in Iceland and abroad, their symbolism and their interpretation, including an altarpiece from the church at Kross farm that was never previously connected to the TR. Works of art, Þorsteinn argues, conjoin events and emotions and do not claim to be objective as the written chronicles. Art and landscapes give the community that views them the emotional significance necessary to turn the past into an element of collective memory and identity.

Dr. Þorsteinn Helgason acknowledges his debt to the theoretical approaches of Macro- and Microhistory, as well as of Memory Studies, which provide a structural connection between the interpretation of traditional historical sources, and the human experience of events. The author concludes that the TR should be considered as an example of warfare justifiable in terms of its historical background. However, the book’s most important contribution is perhaps its weaving of carefully detailed historical sources, artwork, folklore, and the personal stories of those involved in the Tyrkjaránið: its collective memory and trauma, embedded in place names, folktales, and history books, have shaped an important component of Icelandic national identity to this day.

David Emmanuel Singh (ed.), Jesus and the Resurrection: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts (Oxford: Regnum Studies in Global Christianity, 2014)

 

 

The idea behind the book is to look for some common ground between Christianity and Islam to start to build a dialogue. The contributors identify both Jesus and the resurrection as possible bridges between Christians and Muslims. The idea of focusing on Jesus and the resurrection is that both religions see both Jesus and the resurrection as part of their doctrine. Jesus is a key figure for both Christians and Muslims. And some form of resurrection of all linked with the Final Judgment is also present in both religions.

 

The challenge is, though, that the meaning of both Jesus and of the resurrection is different for Christians and Muslims. Christians believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Muslims do not. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet, a special prophet if you wish, but not the Son of God who died and was raised from the dead. It is not conceivable that God would have a son and that Allah would allow a prophet to be shamed and killed. So God ascended Jesus to heaven alive. He saved him from the death on the cross, by switching Jesus with someone else to die in his place a shameful death by the hands of the Jews.

 

I am not sure the volume achieves what it hopes for. With the exception of Haroon Laldin’s essay about the Church in Pakistan, all the essays leave this reader with some doubts regarding the possibility of a dialogue, or at least they are not clear about what the authors mean by dialogue. Most of the essays present Muslim beliefs as ‘stories’ and ‘legends’, while describing Christians beliefs more like facts. The Muslim interpretations of Jesus’s second coming to rectify Christians’ ‘errors’ is presented with ‘errors’ in quotation marks (e.g. but not only, p. 55) as to indicate that the error is not in the Christians, but in the Muslims who see Christians in ‘error’. In addition, it may be the case that Islam uses legends and stories, but it would have been clearer what such ‘stories’ and ‘legend’ mean, if the authors who use these words offered some explanation of the difference between a legend and a sacred text, between a story and something believed as a truth. Only Katherine Ann Kraft, in her essay “Why do I have to explain the doctrine of the resurrection to my friends?” makes an effort to see stories both in Islam and in Christianity. She describes the content of a parable as a story. But is the gospel, which narrates Jesus telling the parable, also a story? The same kind of story as the parable itself?

 

The categorical and irreconcilable differences are emphasized much more than the potential similarities. So every time Jesus is mentioned the emphasis is on the fact that there would be no Christianity if Jesus did not die on the cross and did not resurrect three days after it, which is what is intensely denied by Muslims (in particular, but not only, in Brent Neely and Peer Riddell’s “Familiar Signs, Altered Concepts”). What kind of dialogue may one have if one of the “bridges”, Jesus, is so that “the Jesus of Christianity is in many way unrecognizable in Islam” (p. 64)? David Grafton”s “He Ascended into Heaven: Samuel Zwemer’S Critique of Ascension and Return of Jesus on the Day of Judgment in Islam” reports Zwemer’s words as: “It is the rock of Chirst’s Sonship which is the stone of stumbling and the rock of offence to the Moslem mind … in fact may we not expect that if there is a nation or race on earth more inaccessible than another, more averse to the gospel, more hardened against its teaching” (p. 97). Given these “barbaric” beliefs, is there anything more than “we share a God that has positive intentions for Humanity” (p. 98-99) as a point of commonality and a spring for dialogue? What kind of dialogue can emerge if one describes the other party in this way?

 

And what is the difference between a dialogue and an attempt to convert? Both Christians and Muslims believe in a form of Hell. But the Muslim hell is described in this book as much worse than the Christian hell. So Christians can (should?) use this point in common to bring Muslims over to Christianity, since Christian Hell is less frightening (Theodore Gabriel’s “Resurrection in Islam”).

 

The volume can be seen as a possibly clumsy attempt by some Christians to initiate a dialogue with Islam on the similarities and the differences in their doctrines. But it feels more like a book written by Christians for Christians on the differences and the similarities of their dogmas. I am not sure the approach is the most effective to establish a genuine dialogue.  Probably because when I think of attempts at dialogues between different religions, I think more of the Dalai Lama’s approach of minimizing the discourse about theological positions in favor of concentrating on the meanings of the messages that the different religions offer to someone’s life.

Kathryn Kraft, Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab World (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2012)

The research question at the heart of this book is: can Muslims in the Arab world leave Islam? And if they can, is leaving the Arab world the only viable way of leaving Islam? The answer provided is, yes, it is possible for Muslims to leave Islam and stay in the Arab world, but it is extremely difficult.

The major difficulty, even if not presented explicitly as such, seems to be that, with the exception of Lebanon, apostasy is illegal in the Arab world. So one cannot legally abandon Islam to convert to another religion. A formal conversion may mean a death sentence. Yet a few do convert. They convert because they reject Islam and because of an intellectual and emotional pull to Christianity.

The question I was left with after reading the book, though, is: is it worth it? The troubles converts go through seem so large that that “pull” becomes unclear; at least it was so in my mind. The problems converts encounter seem to be both internal and external.

Kraft explains that “Islam is a religion defined by unity. Unity in the oneness, or tawhid, of God” (p. 36). It is this tawhid that generates a strong sense of Muslim identity, which many are unwilling or unable to shed when they adopt a different faith. The oneness of God is demonstrated by rituals associated with everyday life activities, such as, say, housecleaning or bathing. “Even Muslims who are largely secular in their beliefs and lifestyle may have a relatively high level of participation in Muslim rituals, both because of the strongly ingrained nature of Muslim values in their upbringing (e.g. not eating pork), and for the sake of family cohesiveness and communal continuity (e.g. fasting during Ramadan as a family event)” (p. 40). The ritualization of daily activities is what converts seem to miss the most and seem unable to give up. They look to their new religion for the same level of rituals present in Islam, and cannot find it. They are therefore at a loss and disoriented. In addition, daily activities are so strongly characterized by their previous identity that it makes it hard for them to separate the activities from their previous faith.

So, we are told, people adopt a different faith, without abandoning their Muslim identity. Somehow, one can convert without actually converting. Legally adopting a different religion is not the same as abandoning Islam and adopting a Christian faith, or better, believing in Christ. So rather than converts, the converts prefer being called Muslim-background believers, or followers of Christ, or something similar (while Kraft has no problem in referring to them as converts). Officially they are not converts, but in practice they feel they are. Kraft argues that for some, Muslimism, just like Christianity, in the Arab world, becomes an ethnicity separable from a religion: “among Arabs of a Muslim background who choose to follow a Christian faith, I argue that Islam becomes their ethnicity, while Christianity becomes their religion” (p.101).

Some converts continue with their Muslim lifestyle, in part also to maintain peace at home and the respect of their umma, their community.  Umma, Kraft tells us, requires that the community takes priority over the individual, which is to say that one individual should sacrifice his/her individuality to the wellbeing and preservation of the community.  Social cohesion is essential and unity is preserved by setting limits on individual expression. Apostasy can be interpreted in this context of umma to promote unity and to suppress dissent, even with death. Kraft draws parallels with the “do not ask, do not tell” attitude. If the conversion is not out in the open, it is as if it was not there. Shame is avoided and honor preserved. Avoiding explicit mention of conversion, it is claimed, is a demonstration of love toward the deviant member of the family and of the deviant member of the family toward his/her family. 

After converting, having not found tawhid, Muslims are looking for umma in their new community, but find mistrust instead. The mutual suspicion between believers of Muslim background and born Christians extends into the Arab churches: “Arab Christians suspect people of a Muslim background of having political or material motivations for converting, or worse, of infiltrating their churches as spies.” (p. 57).

Christian missionaries tend to be funded by Western money.  So there is a strong association between Christianity, the West, and wealth. Kraft claims that the West, its freedom and its wealth, are not among the motivations for conversion, but often form part of the outcome and are often expected. Furthermore, religious deviants, we are told, must be careful about whom they associate with because they can cause serious problems for themselves and others. In addition, Christians are associated with Westerners and with the brutal violence of the Crusades and of the last two centuries of European colonialism. “The emotional distance that Christian born church members maintain from the Muslim-born co-religionists may never be completely surpassed, even by those converts who continue to actively interact with Christians.” (p. 84).

Loneliness becomes a major problem. They are alienated by their Muslim family (or prefer to be such); it is dangerous to associate with foreigners, and Arab Christians are reciprocally suspicious. “They have lost the sense of moral integration which Islam and tawhaid had provided them, and by which they had lived, or been expected to live, before converting. They also lost the structure and routine that members in the umma provided. They have a sense of being stuck between two worlds, wanting the best of both but finding themselves with best of neither” (P. 76). So the solution to the very high level of stress generated by these tensions may become two: returning to Islam or migrating to the West. This is  especially the case when accompanied by the inner torture on how to raise their children.

The account that Kraft offers us opens the door to several questions that I hope will be answered in future research. All the interviews in the book, and therefore the story she tells, come from converts and their perspective. Would the narrative have been different if the interviews included friends and family members, who saw their loved ones abandon what they think is the true religion and live a life they think is a sin? How unique are these stories? How do they differ, if at all, from attempts to convert out of Orthodox Judaism?  Or out of some very conservative Christian communities? How do Muslim converts in the non-Arab world compare to the ones in the Arab world? And how do they compare to converts into Islam both in the Arab world and in the non-Arab world?

A book that raises more questions than the ones it set out to answer is, in my opinion, a good book and is worth reading. This book may not be the best introduction to Islam in the Arab world, or to the tensions present in it, as it takes that context for granted. Yet the experiences that it describes raise interesting questions about religion and society in the Arab world and beyond.

R. Bohlin, De Osynliga. Det Europas fattiga arbetarklass; M. Linton, De hatade. Om radikalhögerns måltavlor; B. Elmbrant, Europas stålbad. Krisen som slukar välfärden och skakar euron (All titles by Atlas, Stockholm, 2012)

 

The feminist journalist Rebecca Bohlin has looked into the working and living conditions of the least paid workers within the service sector, although reminding to us that many other jobs in different sectors meet similar problems. She has met cleaners, kitchen attendants and cashiers in Stockholm, London, Hamburg and at the same time has interviewed scholars and as well politicians and union representatives about the rise in income inequality and the worsening of working conditions, across Europe and in Sweden.

And to Sweden indeed is devoted the first chapter (Hur mår RUT?). The question of rising inequalities has become hot after 2007, when tax deductions for domestic service (RUT) were introduced, with the argument that the black market was to be stopped. In fact, however, according to the unions and to some research, the outcome has been an increasing in the number of workers (often asylum seekers or anyway migrants, very often women) exploited and with no safeguard: their formal job contract is legal, but their actual working conditions are definitely different, and for the worse. Yet in Sweden, as Bohlin acknowledges, living conditions of the low-paid workers are better that in most other countries.

In the second chapter (Så pressas lönerna neråt) Bohlin analyzes, again through witnesses and interviews, migration policy at the EU level and in some of its member States. She insists on the paradox of a rhetoric stressing the need of labour force from outside Europe, in order to face demographic challenges and to make companies more “globalized”, while at the same time the actual policy is based on a military defence of the “fortress Europe”, at the cost of thousands of human lives every year. And those who succeed in reaching Europe are often exploited both economically and, when women, sexually. And that even in a country that is a world master in workers’ rights and gender equality such as Sweden.

How are trade unions tackling this backward trend to a degree of workers’ exploitation similar to that in the 19th century? Around this unavoidable question the third chapter (Facket famlar efter en ny solidaritet) is built. The answer is not at all self-evident; on the contrary, here one goes on attempt by attempt. However, what comes out from the talks that the author has had with union leaders and members, in Sweden and in the UK, as well as with scholars, is that a trade union like the Swedish one, service-oriented, is not well-equipped to face the challenges that labour movements all over the world have to meet. More interesting it seems the experience of the “Social Movement Unionism”, a strategy that has been tested in South America and is made up of a mix of mobilization, learning, dialogue with local society, negotiations – and protest actions. Exactly what many all over Europe – either workers or unemployed, migrant or local – call for.

 

An even darker side of Europe is the subject of Magnus Linton’s work, that he describes in his Introduction as a book on “majorities and minorities, absolutism and relativism, boarders and lack of them, fantasy and reality”. The author, well-known in Sweden for his reports after the carnage in Utøya, has carried out an inquiry about right-wing radicalism in three European countries: Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway, moving from the awareness that the current economic crisis increases its appeal. Linton has met the main targets of xenophobic and neo-nazi groups, respectively Roma people in Hungary, muslims in the Netherlands and left-wing intellectuals in Norway. The first section (Parasiterna), after reminding shortly the persecution of Roma in history (culminating with their, neglected, massacre during World War II) and the recent deportation of Roma in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden, introduces the reader to the disturbing world of the Hungarian neo-fascist party Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary), whose programme is openly “roma-centered”, so to say, and that in 2010 established itself as one of the main political forces in the country with 17% of votes. Jobbik’s growing influence resulted in a situation that Linton, with reference to what happened in the municipality of Gyöngyöspata, tells in the following way: “in 2011 in the middle of Europe fascists in uniform marched and families belonging to one of the poorest and most persecuted minorities in the continent were forced to escape what otherwise would have turned into a pogrom”. And Gyöngyöspata was only the beginning. However, the political scientist Zsolt Enyedi, interviewed by Linton, points out that these developments in Hungary were at the same time astonishing and predictable. Their roots can be found in a historical process starting from the fall of the Berlin wall; since then, populism has been a constant presence in Hungarian life and in the end has exploded due to the economic crisis. The fact that in 2010 the nationalist and authoritarian party Fidesz won 2/3 of the votes has made the situation even worse and transformed Hungary into a stronghold of radical Right in Europe.

Another country, another scapegoat: in the Netherlands, as it is well-known, the thesis that “our” problems could be solved if only “we” got rid of Muslims has found one of its most prominent champions, i.e. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and major pointer for Dutch politics for years (see the section: Ockupanterna). Though making sure to distinguish himself from people like Anders Berg Breivik (who pointed at Wilders as his ideological source of inspiration) by stressing his own democratic attitude, Wilders has steadily run down Islam, equating it with Fascism. Together with Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002 by a left-wing extremist), he has personified the idea that multiculturalism is a luxury only the privileged few can afford and has transformed the Netherlands into the headquarters of islamophobia in Europe.

The Dutch historian Thomas von der Dunk, here quoted, urges to take into account that politics’ highest aim is economic security, as well as the capability for society to accept cultural uncertainty; but when the former decreases, then the need for a strong cultural identity rises.

Roma people and Muslims are easy scapegoats in a continent affected by geopolitical and economic turbulences; but how came that in the rich and enlightened Norway a right-wing extremist killed more than 70 young left-wing activists? What Berg Breivik aims at with his double attack (a bomb in Oslo and the carnage on the Utøya island) was, as Linton explains, to murder at the same time three generations of “betrayers” (hence the title of the section, Förrädarna), i.e. three generations of Social Democrats: the forthcoming (the young activists who met in Utøya), the present (the governmental headquarter in the capital), and the former (Gro Harlem Brudtland, former prime minister, who escaped assassination in the island due to a delay in Breivik Berg’s plan).

What has been betrayed are Norwegian culture and identity, quite obviously. Breivik Berg defines “cultural Marxism” what could otherwise be summarized as “politically correct”, in other words the idea that there are some topics that cannot be questioned, above all feminism and multiculturalism. Linton points out that coinciding with the perhaps unstoppable march of right-wing extremism in Europe is the discontent caused by what has been perceived as the hegemony of political correctedness, which has become more and more centered upon universities. After all, right-wing radicalism is not interested in discussing rationally a question (which is supposed to be the academic approach) but, on the contrary, in imposing its own understanding of reality. And it is succeeding in doing this. Linton recalls our attention to the fact that what is striking in Breivik Berg is not his insanity, but how much he reflects stereotypes and plot-syndromes related to Islam that unfortunately are represented in more or less all the European parliaments (as well as in the EU one).     

 

Not even the book by Elmbrant, one of the most prominent Swedish journalists, is intended to bring comfort to the reader. Here as well the impact of the economic downturn is looked into in a European perspective, yet with a particular attention to countries such as Greece (see chapter 1, Ett land faller sönder) and Ireland (chapter 3, Irland på liv och död). In chapter 2 (Hur hamnade vi här?) the author follows the making of the Euro and then compares the faith of two countries, Ireland and Iceland; both hit by the crisis, but the latter (outside the common currency) recovering better. Italy is not at all forgotten in this account: the doubts about its financial soundness have been recurrent amongst EU – and German in particular – leaders, for many years. However, Elmbrant warns (chapter 4, Skenbilden av krisen) against those, in Brussels as well as Berlin and Paris, who blame upon some countries ? the Southern European ones primarily ? the European financial difficulties, as the problem were simply that if one spends too much, then one has to pay back sooner or later. Elmbrant is well aware that Greece, with all the stereotypes surrounding it, has worked as a perfect scapegoat, but insists on the European dimension of the economic crisis. The trouble indeed is not the Greeks’ unreliability, but the EU powerlessness in the face of much bigger transnational financial powers. In this connection, it needs to be said that left-wing parties have definitely not been united and consistent in their (often late) condemnation of the abuse of power from private banks and finance at large.

It cannot miss, in this critical report about the EU state of health, a chapter on Angela Merkel, significantly entitled She who decides (5, Hon som bestämmer) and on Germany’s hegemonic role. The outcome of financial powers’ and Germany’s supremacy are described in chapter 6 (Europas stålbad), again focusing mostly on Southern Europe, but raising a more general question: the changing role of the Nation-State. Here Elmbrant mentions an article on The New Left Review by the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck as crucial: the dismantlement of Europe’s social policies has restricted the ability of the State as far as mediating between citizens’ rights and Capital’s diktats is concerned, and by this move increased further the latter’s authoritativeness as well. There have been massive demonstrations against budget-restriction policies, at least in Greece, Spain and Portugal (chapter 7, De unga på marsch), but Elmbrant does not forget that up to now it is the Radical Right the political actor who seems to have taken more advantage from the crisis, and not the Left. Are the European Central Bank and Merkel right when presenting austerity as the only way out of the crisis or can young people protesting in Athens, Madrid and Lisbon point out to an alternative? The last two chapters are built around this question. 

After summarizing the different proposals currently discussed in the EU (in the end all related to the dilemma: more or less unity among member States? See chapter 8, Stopp i Brysseltrafiken), Elmbrant closes his report by handling the question of the future of the common currency (chapter 9, Har euron en framtid?). After looking at expert analysis and people’s mood his answer (well reflecting Swedish attitude to the EU) is: the Euro is doomed to collapse ? after all it has been a mistake from the beginning ? with consequences that in some cases will prove to be devastating.  And thinking at what is going on in many European countries we can easily believe that this apocalyptic scenario is not simply a kind of snobbery from the rich Nordic countries.   

Johann P. Arnason & Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (Chichester: Wiley & Sons, 2011)

The Editor argues that while much has been written about Rome, relatively less has attempted to analyze Rome comparatively. As a sociologist and not a historian, this reviewer cannot comment on this claim, but I do appreciate the comparative methodology. In fact, Arnason, the primary editor and author of the “Introduction” is a historical sociologist, who discusses the implications of Greco-Roman analyses on sociological and social theory. While the comparative perspective may be useful for drawing out separate variables between civilizations, there is the inverse danger of redefining variables broadly enough to make those comparisons – but at some cost of precision of the terms. There need to be nuances on all sides which weaken the overarching comparisons. It is essentially the qualitative problem of a small “n,” familiar to the social sciences. This methodological problem is noted several times, but does not stifle the writings.

The first section analyzes Rome’s growth through three essays. Raaflaub looks at Rome’s growth from city state to Mediterranean empire, through a thorough discussion of the particular components of the axial age in Rome. Flaig argues that the ruling elite in Rome eventually become powerful and detached enough that traditional forms of accountability and control waned, and with it their legitimacy among the ruled. The sets up the revolutionary crisis Flaig discusses in relation to other Roman scholars. Cohen and Lendon discuss the relationship of communication and authority between the center and the periphery in Rome. Their comparator is medieval kingships and the authors are seeking to understand the strength or weakness of the political structure as evidenced through these communications.

The volume then traces through the transformation and “decline” of Rome. Ziolowski’s chapter discusses the final crisis faced by Rome – the “Total Crisis.” His argument is that the crisis was more a catalyst to longer building internal problems, individually which would be mere nuisances. These internal problems fell under the rubric of an institutional trap created by the specifically Roman interpretation of ruling legitimacy. Stroumsa argues that among the cultural transformations at the end of the Roman era, the very concept of religion changed. Not simply from pagan to Christian or from poly- to monotheism, but also the rise of religious intolerance which melded violence with state power which made imperial tolerance impossible. Fowden draws an illustration of the larger world of late Rome, showing how Islam as well fits into the picture. His argument contextualizes not just the world of late Rome, but also of contemporary academic understandings of the era, not the least of which is the discussion of “transformation” versus “decline.”

The following section focuses on three of Rome’s successor civilizations. Becher discusses the Franks, Haldon the Eastern Empire, and Robinson Islam. The chapter analyzing Islam makes the argument that at least some of Rome’s developments such as urbanization, epistemologies, and philosophical reflection, were adopted by the growing Islamic civilization. An interesting comparison also exists with the role of religion and politics in the growth of civilization.

The Fourth section includes explicit comparisons with Assyria, China, and Iran. Liverani discusses the Assyrian case to contrast the relationship of the urban center to the empire. Lowe looks to China for the role of its internal administration and penal policies, with some focus on the higher prevalence of bureaucracy in the Chinese case. McDonough studies the Sassanid Empire as a comparator despite being a contemporary rival to Rome. Similarities include rule over several centuries and over a disparate variety of geographies. Fibiger-Bang makes the final comparisons to the Ottoman Empire and the Mughals seeks to discuss vast empires underneath a single ruler – but in distinct contrast to the European examples which were all much smaller states. There may have been a ruler in the European cases, but these were all much more local monarchies.

The final section discusses theoretical implications of the volume, trying to sort out the elements of state, empire, and civilization in Rome. Arnason argues that these three elements form a unique constellation in the Roman case, but the singular uniqueness of Rome is exactly what methodologically requires a comparative perspective. Without a comparative perspective, these variables are not going to be adequately isolated. The Wagner essay that closes the volume addresses the question of whether there is sufficient connection between ancient Rome and modern Europe to draw a continuous line of civilization from the former to the latter.

The appeal of the volume for this reviewer lies in the breadth of the chapters included and with the attempt to include sociologically relevant comparative methodologies. These chapters start with Rome’s transition from city state to empire and its expansion, through its decline, and into its successor regimes, with comparative and theoretical discussions finishing the volume. As a work of comparative sociology, it is interesting to see rigorous sociological methodologies applied to a historical case so easily popularized. As a work of sociology, it is refreshing to go beyond the identity politics which comprise so much of the discipline as of late. It may be the case that this comparative methodology will be less interesting to traditional historians, and it is most definitely the case that this volume is too advanced for anything like an introduction to Roman history.