Actually, The Russian State and Church Did Persecute Pagans

The January 26 Geocurrents posting on the historical toleration of animism among the Volga Finns by the Russian church and state needs to be revised. Recent work, mostly by Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian scholars, indicates that repression was far more severe than had been previously supposed. It is possible, however that such works go too far in the opposite direction, motivated in part by anti-Russian sentiments. On such issues I must remain neutral, but I do feel a duty to give their arguments a hearing. If readers are interested, a key text is The Finno-Ugric World, edited by György Nanovfszky and published by the Teleki László Foundation of Budapest in 2004. Page numbers given below in parentheses refer to this book.

According to this perspective, Mordvin and Mari villagers suffered periodic bouts of extreme persecution from the time of the Russian conquest up to the present. After Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the powerful state of the Turkic-speaking Volga Tatars in 1552, their Finnic-speaking allies were both culturally assaulted and dispossessed of their best lands. Ivan dispensed “Mordvin lands to his boyars and the church. Meanwhile, the pagan population of the region was forced to convert to Russian orthodoxy.” As a result, the Mordvins began to disperse, seeking sanctuary and religious liberty in more remote lands. They also rebelled periodically. In a 1670 uprising, “a tenth of all Mordvins were killed…”(93). The story of the Mari is similar. “The Czars took drastic measures to force Christianity on the [Mari] pagans, who often fled, leaving whole villages depopulated….” (97). Concerted Christianization campaigns were ordered by Peter the Great, who issued “repugnant degrees persecuting the eastern Finno-Ugric religions…” (41). Religious repression of the Mari was especially fierce after the failed Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1775, which they had enthusiastically supported.

Yet despite such repression, paganism survived among the Mari. It may be that such persistence stemmed more from basic geographical factors rather than from the policies of the Russian state and church. Low population density over vast tracts of land allowed animists to flee persecution, and made it difficult for the state and church to establish effective administration in remote areas.

Actually, The Russian State and Church Did Persecute Pagans Read More »

Threats to Mari Animism

As we saw yesterday, the traditional animism of the Mari people of Russia’s Middle Volga region was historically tolerated by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Empire. In Mari El today, animism is officially regarded as one of the republic’s three traditional faiths, along with Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Such has not always been the case, however. Under the early Soviet regime, all forms of religion were repressed. One Mari practitioner recalled “creep[ing] into the forest with [my] grandmother to perform sacrificial rites by night. The police – fervent atheists, communists – would come. They kicked over our cauldrons and chased us away.” During World War II, Stalin relented in the assault on religion, and reportedly even tried to “co-opt the karts’ [pagan priests] spiritual powers when pushing back the Nazi invasion of 1941.” Relatively relaxed attitudes seem to have revived in the post-war era; after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government insisted that “ancient paganism” was worthy of respect. Even the local Orthodox bishop argued in 1993 that traditional beliefs should be respected, as Protestantism posed a greater threat to the republic than paganism.

But such accommodating attitudes have declined in recent years. The autonomy of the Russian republics was significantly reduced after Vladimir Putin took office; regional leaders came to be appointed by Moscow rather than selected locally. As the animist establishment in Mari El turned against the republic’s administration, the Russian government came to see the faith as a potentially dangerous vehicle for Mari nationalism. By the early 2000s, Mari traditionalists were complaining that their sacred groves, numbering some 520, were being vandalized and in some instances cut down. The plight of the Mari began to reach the attention of the wider world. In May 2005, the European Parliament criticized Russia for “violating the cultural and political rights of the Mari, … cit[ing] the difficulties the Mari people face in being educated in their first language, [and the] political interference by the local administration in Mari cultural institutions …”

2006 saw an intensification of religious and ethnic strife in the republic. In that year, Mari leader Vitaly Tanakov was found guilty of spreading “religious and ethnic hatred” for his pamphlet entitled “A Priest Speaks.” As Geraldine Fagan, the main English-language reporter on the Mari, explains:

Peoples influenced by the Bible and Koran “have lost harmony between the individual and the people,” argues Tanakov, in what is actually one of only a few references to other faiths in his leaflet. “Morality has gone to seed, there is no pity, charity, mutual aid; everyone and everything are infected by falsehood.” By contrast, he boasts, the Mari traditional faith will be “in demand by the whole world for many millennia.”

In 2009, the Mari El Supreme Court confirmed the condemnation, ruling that Tanakov’s pamphlet spread religious and other forms of “extremism.” The booklet is currently banned throughout Russia. Meanwhile, other minor assaults on the faith continue to occur. Mari traditionalists, for example, have been barred from advertising their festivals in state newspapers.

Mari animist leaders have responded to such attacks through a media outreach program and by stressing the environmentalist credentials of their religion. The main Mari website English-language website, MariUver, however, focuses not on Mari traditional beliefs but rather on the common concerns of all of the Finno-Ugric minority groups of Russia. Recently postings have emphasized linguistic threats much more than religious ones, as well be explored later in Geocurrents.

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The Survival of Animism in Russia – and Its Destruction in the West

The continued existence of animist (or “pagan”) religious practices among the Finnic-speaking peoples of the middle Volga region, especially the Mari, is usually considered a curiosity. The Mari, after all, are merely one of a plethora of ethnic groups scattered across the vast reaches of Russia, many of which are noted for their distinctive cultural practices. Students of Russia have long been schooled to focus on Russians and the Russian state; occasional nods are made to the Volga Tatars, the restive inhabitants of the Caucasus, the Jews, and a few other crucial or problematic peoples, but the Mari, the Komi, the Mordvins, and the other “eastern Finns” seldom get serious attention.

This is unfortunate. As we shall see in the next several Geocurrents postings, the Finnic-speaking peoples of eastern and northern European Russia have played important roles in Russian history. The current post will focus on animism in the region, drawing out lessons for world history from the survival of middle-Volga paganism.

The Mari may be a small group relative to the Russians, but at 600,000 they outnumber the entire populations of thirty-three sovereign states. And while not all Maris are animists, animism is also encountered among some of their neighbors. According to a 1997 Russian law, respect is to be officially accorded to the “ancient pagan cults, which have been preserved or are being revived in the republics of Komi, Mari-El, Udmurtia, Chuvashia, Chukhotka and several other subjects of the Russian Federation.” With the exception of Chukhotka, none of these republics is located in a peripheral part of Russia. Mari-El is actually situated near the center of Russia’s European heartland, close to the high-tech city of Nizhny Novgorod, the country’s fourth largest metropolis.

The persistence of paganism among such a sizable and centrally located people tells us something significant about the Russian Orthodox Church. Theologically, little separates Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism; the disagreement that provoked the final split in 1054 is a three-word clause in the basic creed describing relationships within the trinity. In terms of practice, however, the two traditions are worlds apart. Western Christianity has traditionally focused on orthodoxy, enforcing the officially sanctioned belief system of the church. As a result, heretics and pagans alike suffered extreme bouts of persecution before the eighteenth century, with organized animism crushed throughout the Western realm many hundreds of years ago. The Russian Orthodox Church was not exactly passive on this score, playing its part, for example, in the persecution of Russian Jews. But it cared relatively little about the beliefs held by villagers, or about what they did in sacred groves located deep in the forests. Ironically, the Orthodox Church has focused much less on orthodoxy than on orthopraxy, the correct ritual practices of its own adherents.

The historical differences between the two religious traditions are illustrated by events of the late 1100s and early 1200s, a period of expansion of Christendom along several fronts. In 1193, Pope Celestine III authorized the Baltic Crusades, a militant assault designed to cleanse the last redoubt of “European” animism along the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. The Teutonic Knights, the Knights of the Sword, and other crusading orders were given carte blanche to convert or destroy the pagan ancestors of the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and others, reducing their populations to serfdom in the process.* Some groups may have been exterminated. Only the Lithuanians successfully resisted, building a powerful state in the process that allowed them to later accept Christianity on their own political terms.

At the same time, the Russian state of Vladimir-Suzdal (successor to Rostov-Suzdal shown on the map) was advancing to the east into the territory of the pagan Volga Finns. Construction of the powerful citadel of Nizhny Novgorod commenced in 1221 near the site of what had been an important fortress of the Mordvins,** a Finnic-speaking people closely related to the Mari (labeled as “Cheremis” on the map). Although campaigns of forced Christianization were periodically launched, most Mordvin villagers remained largely pagan until the 1700s, and retained many aspects of animism, include tree worship, into the 1800s and beyond. Yet those who embraced the Orthodox faith could advance in the church. The famous (or infamous) seventh patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Nikon (1605-1681), was an ethnic Mordvin, as is the current leader of the faith, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, “Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus.”

But if the Russian state and the Russian Church often tolerated animism, they also periodically persecuted it. Yet again, the Mari traditionalists find themselves under pressure, as the next Geocurrents posting will explore.

* As William L. Urban demonstrates, not all people of the Baltic communities were reduced to servitude: “Native nobles who did accommodate to the newcomers faced less formidable barriers to assimilation than nineteenth-century historians assumed. At least one became a knight in the Teutonic Order…” I am not very impressed by the “at least one” figure.

** The Mordvins are actually divided into two separate ethnic groups, as will shall see in a later posting.

For a necessary revision to this post, please see GeoCurrents‘ January 29 post, Actually, The Russian State and Church Did Prosecute Pagans.

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The Complex Relations Between Kurds and Christians in Northern Iraq

The relationship between the Christians of northern Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government is complicated. Kurdish authorities portray their land as a safe haven for all minority groups – and for good reason. But local Sunni Arab politicians, and some Christians as well, have accused Kurdish militias of driving Assyrians out of their homes in the contested zone to the southwest of the Kurdish autonomous region. Christian groups are now asking for their own zone of autonomy, although their likelihood of gaining one seems slim indeed.

The Kurds and the Assyrians have a history of troubled relations. The Ottoman-sponsored massacres of Assyrians during World War I were largely carried out by Kurdish irregular forces. At the time, Kurds and Assyrians competed for lands and resources, and the empty British promises that the Assyrians would be politically rewarded if they fought the Ottoman Empire did not sit well with local Kurds. The rise to power of the Iraqi Baath party in the 1960s transformed the political situation of both Kurds and Christians. Under a hard-core Arab nationalist state, the Kurds, who had long cultivated their own national identity, found themselves under assault. But the Assyrians, whose own national aspirations had been crushed by the massacres of the early 20th century, generally acquiesced to the Baath regime and lived in relative peace.

The situation changed dramatically with decline and fall of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds were able establish “the other Iraq”: a generally secure area, marked by toleration of ethnic and religious differences. The Christian community within the Kurdish-controlled area has done relatively well, but Christians elsewhere in the country have come under attack. The situation has been especially perilous in the contested zone.

In March 2010, the elected head of Nineveh Governorate in northern Iraq, Atheel al-Nujaifi, charged Kurdish militias with forcing non-Muslims out of the contested zone so that it could be more easily annexed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. In a letter sent to the European Union and the United Nations, he demanded an international inquiry into attacks in and around the city of Mosul. Leader of a largely Sunni Arab voting block, Al-Nujaifi claimed that, “Those opposing the Kurdish agenda are persecuted, threatened, arrested and even liquidated.”

Kurdish leaders have denied the charges, claiming that al-Qaeda-aligned militias are to blame. They note al-Nujaifi’s hostility toward Kurdish interests; according to the Christian Science Monitor, even U.S. authorities described his electoral campaign as “blatantly anti-Kurdish.” Although al-Nujaifi denies accusations of anti-Kurdish bigotry, he steadfastly opposes expansion of the Kurdish autonomous region, and crows that the Kurds are bound to fail in their quest for additional territory.

In 2009, the Kurdish Regional Government’s representative in the United Kingdom released a report on the conditions of Christians in the autonomous territory, written in response to earlier allegations of anti-Christian actions by Kurdish armed forces. The report, quoting Nechirvan Barzani,* emphasized that the Kurdish cause would be undermined by the ethnic cleansing of minority groups:

The Kurds would have the most to lose politically from these incidents, since the Arab proportion of the population would rise. Those wishing to lay the blame for these incidents on our doorstep are enemies of democracy, enemies of a federal Iraq. They wish to make blatantly false claims in order to undermine the basic rights of freedom, democracy and fair representation.

The report makes interesting reading, especially for the manner in which it frames ethnic relations. Iraqi Kurdistan, the author emphasizes, is founded not on Kurdish national identity, but rather on multinational inclusion. Again quoting Barzani:

We talk of nationalities, not minorities, and we protect them all, and their rights. In our region, Turkomen, Assyrians, and Arabs have schooling and administration in their own languages. We are proud of our record of religious tolerance – toward all varieties of Muslim, Chaldean, and Assyrian Christians, and our few remaining Jews, and we will always defend our Yezidis from prejudice and discrimination, whether by Kurdish Muslims or others.

The report stresses the facts that more than 20,000 Iraqi Christian families have found refuge in the autonomous region, that several Christians have reached high positions in the Kurdish administration, and that the Kurdish government has been rebuilding churches and Christian villages. It also contends that the Kurdish government supports in principle the establishment of a Christian autonomous zone, provided that it is created through democratic means and includes areas within “the disputed territories in the Nineveh plains.” Kurdish authorities argue that any such area of Christian self-rule should fall within the territory of the Kurdish Regional Government, forming, in other words, an autonomous region within an autonomous region.

Christian organizations in Iraq have put forward their own plans for a sphere of self-government, perhaps in conjunction with other religious minorities. The focus of such efforts is the Nineveh Plains, to the northeast of Mosul. Some Christians have insisted that any such autonomous area must be independent of the Kurdish Regional Government, and have accused Kurdish authorities of “intimidating Assyrian political and religious leaders to sign a letter stating they wanted the Nineveh Plains to be annexed to the Kurdish Regional Government.”

Another proposed zone of Christian autonomy would encompass not just the Nineveh Plains, but also a large swath of mostly Kurdish-inhabited territory along the border with Turkey (see the second map posted above). The authors of this plan also appeal to the central Iraqi government, seeking it allay its concerns:

[M]any Arab political parties, MPs and government officials … harbour fears that the [Christian] people were seeking independence, an allegation that the council has categorically rejected and refuted stressing that this peaceful, defenseless and law-abiding people can never cause damage to the national unity of Iraq or seek to isolate itself from the other components of the Iraqi people, especially when everybody knows that it does not have the potential and capability to dismantle the unity of Iraq and divide it.

The internal geopolitics of Iraq is nothing if not complex, frustrating all attempts at cartographic portrayal. As long as we insist on viewing the country as a nation-state encompassing just three groups of people – the Sunni Arabs, the Shiite Arabs, and the Kurds – we will never begin to understand it. Local particularities must be examined, and in painstaking detail.

The current series on northern Iraq and environs will conclude with next Monday’s post on the Yezidis, members of a truly fascinating religious sect.

* Nechirvan Barzani was prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional from March 2006 to August 2009.

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Iraqi Assyrians and Other Christians in Syria

As Assyrian Christians have been forced out of their homes, they have had to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Many have migrated overseas, primarily to the United States, Germany, Australia, and Sweden, but visas are difficult to obtain, costs are formidable, and subsequent expulsions are not uncommon; even asylum-friendly Sweden has been vigorously deporting Assyrians after somehow determining that there is no longer any “inner armed conflict” in Iraq. For most displaced Assyrians, the only obtainable havens are local. Syria has played a particularly important role.

Of the roughly 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, up to 550,000 are estimated to be Assyrians by Iraqi Christian organizations; other groups put the number at around 350,000. The conditions faced by these displaced persons are debated. Evangelical organizations in the United States often voice concern; according to Christian Solidarity International, the very existence of Syria’s Christian community is now “under threat” as violence against its members “goes unpunished.” Assyrian organizations themselves tend to view the situation much more positively. In 2009, the Assyrian Universal Alliance 26th World Congress voted to commend the government of Syria, as well as those of Jordan and Lebanon, for their “treatment of Assyrian refugees of Iraq.”

Syria is generally portrayed in the American press as an authoritarian regime, harshly antagonistic to Israel, that sponsors Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization. Less commonly noted is the secular nature of its ruling Baath Party, founded on an Arab nationalism that cuts across religious lines. The founding figure of Baath ideology, Michel Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. Syria may support Islamist militants as proxy forces in its struggle against Israel, but it does not tolerate them at home; when the Muslim Brotherhood initiated an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, the Syrian military responded with a devastating assault that killed an estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people. The Syrian government has a strong incentive to oppose Islamism, as its upper echelons are dominated by Alawites, members of an extremely heterodox sect of Shiite Islam noted for their belief in the transmigration of souls, their Christian-influenced religious practices, and the fact that they have no problems with wine. Most Sunni Muslims do not view Alawites as members of the Islamic community, and extremists among them would target them for physical attack.

Iraqi Christians relocating in Syria join an Assyrian population, several hundred thousand strong, that was established by refugees fleeing massacres in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq in the early twentieth century. This previously established group of Assyrians is concentrated in the northeast; recent arrivals tend to live in low-income urban areas further to the west. All told, Christians account for about ten percent of Syria’s population. The largest denomination is the Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims descent from the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. As can been seen on the section of Mehrdad Izady’s map posted above, Syria’s main Christian belt partially separates its Alawite-dominated coastal mountain strip from its Sunni Muslim heartland.

Christians in Syria may have broad religious liberties and safety from physical attack, but they hardly enjoy freedom of expression; Syria ranks 178th out of 196 countries in freedom of the press, comparable to Saudi Arabia and China. Syrian Christians, moreover, have agreed never to proselytize to Muslims, nor to accept Muslim converts. But despite such restrictions, their lot remains enviable in many ways. The government subsidizes churches and allows Christians to organize their own civil courts. On Easter, tens of thousands of Syrian Christians take to the streets of Damascus to publically demonstrate their faith. According to a recent GlobalPost story, many Syrian Muslims are keen to witness such celebrations:

On Thursday night, the courtyard of the Greek Catholic cathedral resembled a rock concert. At least 2,000 people gathered to watch a Passion play, in which Jesus’ crucifixion is re-enacted. Vendors sold cotton candy and popcorn outside the gates. Attendees included many Muslims, said Ghissa, the church’s choir director. “They’re curious to see how we celebrate,” he explained. “And why not? We all get along well in Syria.”

Curiosity may not be the only driving force behind such behavior. As the author of the GlobalPost story goes on the relate:

Inside a pub in the Christian Quarter recently, two friends, one Muslim and one Christian, joked about using each other’s faiths to double their number of holiday celebrations.

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Anna Eshoo and the Ignored Plight of the Assyrians

In looking over the sample ballot for the 2010 November election, my mind turned to the Assyrians as I came to the name of Anna Eshoo, their champion in the U.S. Congress. By “Assyrians” I mean not the ancient empire-builders, but rather the modern community, several million strong globally, that claims to be their descendents. The main Christian group of Iraq and neighboring countries, the Assyrians have suffered grievously of late. In 2005, Eshoo authored an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act requesting that, “special attention should be paid to the welfare of Chaldo-Assyrians and other indigenous Christians in Iraq.” Of Assyrian (and Armenian) background herself, Eshoo is better known in Congress for advocating Silicon Valley interests, as befits the representative of California’s 14th district, home to such firms as Google, Hewlett Packard, and Facebook.

Eshoo has had scant company in upholding Assyrian rights. The community is almost unknown in the United States; out of a class of 181 Stanford University students polled this morning, no one could identify the group. The general plight of the Christian population of Iraq may be more widely recognized, but hardly any of my students were aware of the issue, one that is considered pressing by few pundits or politicians. Yet the magnitude of anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is considerable. Since 2003, more than forty-six Assyrian churches and monasteries have been bombed, several priests have been beheaded, and entire communities have been displaced. In January 2010 alone, 12,000 Christians in the northern city of Mosul were forced out of their homes. As reported recently in Deutsche Welle:

The Christian minority in Iraq has been reduced to a shadow of its former self …. Up to two-thirds of the pre-war community has been displaced or forced to flee the country… There’s a real possibility that 2,000 years of settlement by Christian communities in Iraq is in danger of near-total extinction.

The Assyrians once received global attention. Their cause was fairly well known in the early 20th century, when an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 members of their community were slaughtered by Ottoman and Ottoman-allied forces during World War I, in a series of events known as the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide.* Renewed massacres of Assyrians in the early 1930s led Raphael Lemkin to begin thinking about the mass extermination of entire peoples; he later coined the term “genocide” to describe such processes. But over time the memory of the assaults receded from view, and the more extensive massacres of Armenians during the same period came to overshadow those of the Assyrians. But the repeated attacks devastated the community, as large numbers of people had to seek refuge in other lands. Deprived of their homeland, the Assyrians, unlike the Armenians, lost their place on the map. Even in their core territory, the so-called Assyrian Triangle in what is now northern Iraq, Christians were reduced to a clearly minority status. Before long they were largely forgotten by the outside world.

The Assyrians are a distinctive people not just in the religious sense. In their scattered communities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, many if not most continue to speak Aramaic dialects – Aramaic having been a lingua franca of the ancient Near East, perhaps best known as the mother-tongue of Jesus. The modern Neo-Aramaic of the Assyrians has evolved far from the old language, but the relationship remains obvious. Both language and religion, however, divide as well as unite the indigenous Christians of the region. Neo-Aramaic itself is split into three dialects that some linguists classify as separate languages. Five separate Christian sects, moreover, are found within the larger community, two of which fall under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism (the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church), and three of which are independent (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church). Not all of these groups are always classified as Assyrian, hence the use of such terms as “Chaldo-Assyrian.” But under intense persecution, Christians in northern Iraq today tend to stress their commonalities, not their differences.

Considering the magnitude of the Assyrian crisis, its escape from general notice is remarkable. One reason is probably that of limited public attention. The media, it often seems, regard the three-fold division of Iraq among the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Kurds as complex enough, as if extended discussion of smaller groups would generate information overload. A weariness of world horrors – “humanitarian disaster fatigue ” – might also play a role. Short-lived natural disasters, even if inconsequential, garner mass attention, but more slowly unfolding and more intractable human-caused calamities seem too depressing and lack dramatic appeal. As a result, horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing, such as those faced by the Rohingyas, a Muslim people of western Burma, proceed with little outside notice (discussed in Geocurrents on January 2, 2010).

I suspect, however, that another dynamic applies in the case of the Assyrians, a group too large and historically significant to be so easily relegated into obscurity. It would also seem that the United States and its allies have a special responsibility both to acknowledge and to address the issue, as the current assaults on the Assyrians are an indirect result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But therein, I think, lies the rub. In the United States, conservatives may be reluctant to pay much attention to the issue because doing so highlights the unsuccessful nature of the Iraqi regime-change gambit, putting blame for a humanitarian disaster in part on their own shoulders. Liberals, I suspect, turn a blind eye to the Assyrian predicament because they do not want to draw additional attention to the actions of Muslim extremists, fearing that doing so would intensify an anti-Islamic backlash in the West, and thus enhance the power of the right-wing. Meanwhile, the carnage continues. On October 31, 2010, fifty-two people were killed after militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda attacked a Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad.

Geocurrents will continue examining the Assyrian community and its plight through this week, with the next post focusing on the complex relations among the Assyrians, the Syrians, and the Kurds.

*Controversy persists as to whether the early 20th century attacks on the Assyrians constituted an episode of genocide; I follow the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which in 2007 passed a resolution declaring that the term is indeed appropriate.

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Religion in Africa; Agriculture in California

Geocurrents is not usually concerned with touting books or other websites, although requests for such consideration to do come frequently. But some works are so geographically impressive that they do deserve special mention. As a result, today’s posting will consider one website, Eugene Adogla’s Religiously Remapped: Mapping Religious Trends in Africa, and one book, Paul Starrs and Peter Goin’s Field Guide to California Agriculture.

Religiously Remapped shows what can be cartographically achieved with state-level data on religious observation. Eugene Adogla has gathered a tremendous array of statistics on religion in Africa, which he has used to generate a series of innovative maps. Most maps of religion in Africa do little more than separate Muslim from Christian areas. Adogla, however, shows how complex the situation really is, depicting even the distribution of such minor creeds as Rastafarianism and Eckankar. Adogla’s discussions of religious trends are also well considered, and well worth reading. (Disclaimer: Eugene Adogla is one of my former students, and Religiously Remapped was initiated several years ago as project for one of my courses at Stanford University.)

In their Field Guide to California Agriculture, geographer Paul F. Starrs and photographer Peter Goin have devised a new genre of writing. The book’s title hardly does it justice, as the “field guide” that it encompasses is embedded in a comprehensive, erudite, and eloquent disquisition on the history, economics, sociology and – above all – geography of agricultural production in what is arguably the world’s top farming location. It is, in a word, a masterpiece – one that should appeal equally to a broad public audience and to academic experts. The authors have an uncanny ability to hone in on topics of interest and significance, conveying their importance with precision and wit. Their book is both immensely informative and unfailingly entertaining.

This is unusual in a field guide. For geographically inclined readers, the genre is often exasperating. If one turns to traditional field guides with spatial questions in mind—where the range of one tree species begins and another ends, say, or where to find a particular kind of bird—it quickly becomes clear that the work provides little discussion of distribution. The focus is trained on identification, teaching readers to distinguish one species from another. Although I treasure my library’s field guide to North American mammals for its maps, I am perennially disappointed by the fact that it has more information on teeth than on range. How many readers are likely to trap small rodents and pry their mouths open? While marketed to a general audience, the book appears to have been designed for a professional field zoologist.

One could easily imagine a field guide to California agriculture written in the same technical spirit, focusing on diagnostic criteria. Detailed drawings or photographs would accompany bare-bones text, helping readers distinguish one crop from another in the field. For orchard crops, the emphasis would be tree shape, leaf form, and bark pattern, with a sentence or two about the crop itself thrown in for ornamentation. Such a work would be useful for classes in field geography and for curious drivers making excursions across California’s great Central Valley, but would be of limited interest to the general public.

Thanks in good part to the University of California Press, field guides have been evolving into a much more expansive form in recent years. Starrs and Goin, however, have taken the genre to a new completely new level, in both a scholarly and literary sense. To be sure, the book fulfills all of the necessary functions of the traditional field guide, aiding readers in crop and animal identification. Distinguishing features are listed for each entry, and an eight-page “agricultural product identification” guide provides a useful overview. If one is wondering, for example, whether an orchard contains walnut trees, guidelines are provided. As the walnut entry on page 216 puts it: “The utterly distinctive graft line where the English walnut slip was grafted onto a native black walnut rootstock … shows 6 to 24 inches above the ground: an instantaneous sign that this is a walnut…” But as is typical for the book, the key to walnut identification does not conclude so prosaically. Instead, the paragraph ends with an evocative tag: “The cicatrice is signature.” One does not generally turn to field guides for stylistic grace, but Starrs’ writing is at once eloquent and playful. One gets the impression that he had a great deal of fun writing the book, and his enthusiasm can be infectious.

The Field Guide to California Agriculture covers a staggering array of crops and livestock, from bok choi to oysters to cannabis. Each entry covers economic significance, spatial distribution, historical background, and issues of labor demand and farm management. The photos are plentiful and the maps are sharp. California’s share of the national harvest is duly noted for each entry, as is the market value. Obtaining the relevant numbers required considerable sleuthing for some crops. The marijuana entry is one of the most detailed in the book, as befits a crop that may well be worth more than all other California agricultural products combined. It is to Starrs and Goin’s credit that they tackle the issue head-on, writing about it with knowledge and verve.

The Field Guide to California Agriculture is divided into four main sections. The largest is an encyclopedia of crops and livestock, forming the field guide proper. The volume begins with a 70-page historical overview, and concludes with a similarly comprehensive essay on agricultural regions. These book-ends could together form a book on their own. The second section is a luscious photographical gallery aptly titled, “The Paradox and Poetics of Agriculture.” With enlargements and additions, it too could stand alone. Packaged together with the individual crop entries, they add up to a tour de force.

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Mapping Religion in Indonesia

As mentioned in Monday’s post, maps of the global distribution of Islam often portray Indonesia and Malaysia as solidly Muslim countries. The close-up segment of the popular map “World Muslim Distribution (Sunni and Shia) 1995” posted above, for example, colors Malaysia and Indonesia* a uniform shade of light green, indicating the prevalence of Sunni Islam. But while Indonesia does have more Muslims than any other country, it is by no means religiously homogenous. Some twelve to fourteen percent of Indonesia’s people follow other religions, and they dominate sizable areas of the country. In Malaysia, only about 60 percent of the population follows Islam. Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state by area, has a Christian majority.

The Wikipedia map of religion in Indonesia does a much better job of showing the distribution of religious groups in that country. Note the accurate depiction of Hinduism in Bali and of Christianity in part of northern Sumatra, in northern Sulawesi, and through much of the southeast. A number of primarily non-Muslim areas are overlooked, such as the largely Christian island of Nias, but such objections amount to quibbles. More problematic is the mapping of mixed areas as fully in one religious camp or another. Through much of the Maluku Islands and central Sulawesi, Christianity and Islam are followed in roughly equal numbers, generating considerable tension. (Religious strife in these areas peaked roughly a decade ago, but by no means has disappeared altogether.) Equally misleading is the depiction of a solidly Hindu area in southern Borneo (Kalimantan) and of a Buddhist zone off the northeastern coast of Sumatra.

One of Indonesia’s major religious traditions is erased from the map altogether, that of animism, or the practice of worshipping ancestors and nature spirits. In actuality, animism prevails across much of central Borneo and throughout the Indonesian portion of the island of New Guinea, although in both areas Muslim and Christian populations are rapidly expanding through migration and conversion. Animism generally goes missing from discussion of religion in Indonesia because it is technically illegal, leading to the classification of its adherents into other faiths. Although the Indonesian constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of religion, such liberty only applies to the officially recognized faiths: Islam, Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.

The most intriguing and potentially confusing feature of the map is its differentiation of “traditional” from “modernist” Islam. When I show this map to my students and ask them to explain the distinction, they almost always assume that “Traditional Islam” refers to a fundamentalist form of the faith that demands a return to practices followed during the time of the prophet, and that “Modernist Islam” refers to a more liberal faith that makes allowances for changing social and economic conditions. In actuality, the distinction is entirely different, with “Traditional Islam” meaning the Javanese custom of melding Islam with earlier Hindu and animist ideas and practices, and “Modernist Islam” denoting orthodox expressions of the faith.

Following the work of the noted anthropologist Clifford Geertz, the older heterodox strain is often referred to as Abangan Islam, and the orthodox strain as Santri Islam. Abanagan is closely associated with the Javanese-speaking regions of central and eastern Java, where the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, retain cultural significance. Emblematic of Javanese culture are the all-night shadow-puppet (wayang kulit) performances of these two epics. The map’s depiction of non-Javanese-speaking western Java and southern Sumatra within this realm of “Traditional Islam” is unusual, as in these areas more mainstream forms of the religion have long prevailed.

In central and eastern Java, Indonesia’s demographic core, syncretic Abanagan Islam has been the dominant faith for the past half millennium. But orthodox Islam is spreading rapidly, especially in the cities and among the young. As is true in Pakistan, religious hardliners often attack those engaged in suspect religious practices, although in Indonesia such assaults are usually not deadly. On October 9, 2010, for example, one group of self-deputized religious enforcers shut down a shadow-puppet performance. As reported in Asia Sentinel:

Last Saturday night, a band of fundamentalist Islamic thugs showed up in the Indonesian town of Sukoharjo in Central Java and broke up a performance of wayang, the iconic Javanese shadow puppetry that is a symbol of Indonesian culture.Throwing rocks and waving machetes, the youths, calling themselves Laskar Jihad – holy warriors – forced the audience out of the performance. Two people were beaten, witnesses said.

* Note that far eastern Indonesia is not depicted on the map.

Mapping Religion in Indonesia Read More »

Mapping Islam: Bad and Good Efforts

Mapping the distribution of religious groups is often a frustrating exercise. Good data on the numbers of adherents of any particular faith or sect, let alone the intensity of their beliefs, are often lacking, while the spatial intermingling of different religions presents formidable cartographic challenges. As a result, even the best maps of religion at the global scale are deeply flawed. Britain, for example, is almost always mapped as solidly “Protestant Christian,” even though by 2005 it was estimated that more Britons were attending weekly services in Muslim mosques than in Anglican churches. As British Muslim populations are highly concentrated in urban areas, and as many non-church-goers still think of themselves as vaguely Christian, depicting Britain as a Christian land may be roughly acceptable. But more accurate cartography would portray Britain, like most of Europe, as largely secular and partly Muslim.

If mapping religion is always challenging, some cartographers meet the challenge far more adeptly than others. Some poor maps of religion may simply be a product of misinformation, but others clearly champion certain faiths or sects while disparaging others by exaggerating or minimizing their geographical extents. On the internet, such misleading maps can spread virally from one site to another, and are often viewed uncritically as straightforward depictions of religious realities. In contrast, some of the best maps of religious distribution languish on obscure web sites.

Exhibit A in my case against deceptive religious cartography is the first map reproduced above, entitled “World Muslim Distribution (Sunni and Shia) 1995,” archived in the Perry-Castañeda Library
Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. This map is commonly deployed as an objective depiction of the distribution of Islam; I have seen it used on dozens of websites without critical commentary. The map admittedly has a few positive features; it is aesthetically pleasing, it is constructed at a high level of resolution, and it is readily available at the Perry-Castañeda website, an indispensible source of public-access cartography. Its content, however, is intellectually hazardous.

The map has two main problems: it exaggerates the geographical expanse of Islam overall, and it minimizes the extent of Shiism in the Muslim world. As the cartographer does not specify the threshold that must be passed for an area to be mapped with the green shades of Islam, most viewers would probably assume that a majority Muslim population is required. In actuality, vast areas in India, Indonesia, and sub-Saharan Africa that are colored light green for Sunni Islam are overwhelmingly non-Muslim. In India, the cut-off point seems to be around five percent; only areas with Muslim populations below that figure are left unmarked. In Indonesia, Christian, Hindu, and animist areas are uniformly depicted as adhering to Islam. Such portrayals would not be a problem if the map specified its inclusion of Muslim-minority areas, but it does not.

The minimization of Shia Islam here is equally problematic. To be sure, the cartographer captures the main Shiite areas: Central Iran, southern Iraq, Azerbaijan, north Yemen, south Lebanon, western Syria, and the Hazara region of central Afghanistan. Many other Shia zones, however, are either left unmarked or unduly diminished. Such errors are readily apparent in the depiction of the Middle East, posted in expanded format in the second map above. Here oil-rich Khūzestān in southwestern Iran is incorrectly depicted as Sunni, the Shiite areas in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Gulf region has been reduced almost to the vanishing point, the majority Shiite population of Bahrain is invisible, the Zaidi Shi’ite zone of northern Yemen is incorrectly depicted as terminating at the Saudi border, and the Alevi (highly heterodox Shiite) area of eastern and central Turkey is reduced to a few splotches. Minimizing the Shiite presence in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Gulf area is especially problematic, as it is the focus of much international and internal tension. In mid-September of this year, for example, violence erupted in Bahrain after its Sunni government cracked down on Shiite dissidents. One cannot understand Saudi Arabia’s fears of Iran and of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, moreover, without grasping the extent of its own deeply marginalized Shiite population living in its main oil-producing area.

Vastly better mapping of religion in the Middle East is easily accessible. See, for example, the third map posted above, produced by Mehrdad Izady as part of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 project. Izady’s map is intricate. It simultaneously depicts religion and demography; virtually unpopulated areas are left white, while sparsely settled areas are shaded more lightly than densely settled areas. It also shows zones of religious mixture. Izady’s differentiation of Wahhabism from Sunni Islam on the map may be controversial, but note that he acknowledges such controversies on the map itself rather than trying to paper them over.

To my knowledge, Izady’s cartographic works for the Gulf 2000 project are not simply the best available portrayals of the geography of religion in the Middle East, but are actually the finest examples of cultural cartography, at this scale of analysis, ever produced. Yet this body of work is little known, even in academia. Even Izady’s Wikipedia article focuses on the controversial nature of his work on Kurdish history and religion, ignoring his outstanding cartographic contributions. I suspect that it is because we demand simplicity in maps, feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the world. But for those who have the patience, there is a tremendous amount to be learned from Izady’s gorgeous maps.

Mapping Islam: Bad and Good Efforts Read More »

Deobandi Islam vs. Barelvi Islam in South Asia

Radical Islamist groups in South Asia such as the Taliban are often classified as Wahhabis, belonging to the austere, puritanical form of Islam institutionalized in Saudi Arabia. But while the ties between the Wahhabis and the Taliban are tight, the latter actually belong to a different branch of the faith. The clearest differences are found in the realm of religious law. Sunni Islam is divided into four orthodox schools of law (Madhhabs), each of which is followed in distinct parts of the Muslim world. A number of rites and prayer forms also vary among the schools. As the map above indicates, Wahhabism, based in Saudi Arabia, is associated with Hanbali law, the strictest form of Islamic jurisprudence. The Taliban, on the other hand, follow Hanafi law, in general the most liberal variant – albeit not as they interpret it. Early attempts by Wahabbi preachers to spread their doctrine in South Asia often stumbled on the differences of Madhhab. As Husain Haqqani explains, “Their adoption of Hanbali religious rites and their strict condemnation of many rituals widely practiced by South Asian Muslims did not sit well with the vast Hanafi Sunni population.”

But as Haqqani goes on to explain, the differences between Wahhabis and the more fundamentalist Hanafis in South Asia have recently diminished almost to the vanishing point. The two groups may differ on a number of minor practices, but they concur on the larger issues. “Sunni Muslims,” Haqqani writes, have cast aside their aversion to Wahhabi groups, creating a large number of traditional Sunnis who embrace Wahhabi political and jihadi ideas without necessarily giving up their rites and rituals.” As is often noted, Saudi Arabian religious financing has helped break down the barriers between the two sects. According to Haqqani, a few of the most radical South Asian Islamist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (discussed last Tuesday), have fully embraced the Wahhabi creed.

Mapping the four standard schools of Sunni Islamic law is relatively easy, although the authors of the Wikipdia map posted above deserve commendation for doing a particularly good job. But the differences that really matter are not those of Madhhab, but rather are found among less formal and much more recent “movements” within Islamic thought and practice. Among South Asian Sunni Muslims, the crucial distinction is that separating Deobandis from Barelvis, both following Hafani law. The Deobandi movement is aligned with Wahhabism and advances an equally harsh, puritanical interpretation of Islam. The Barelvi movement, in contrast, defends a more traditional South Asian version of the faith centered on the practices of Sufi mysticism. In India and especially Pakistan, tensions between the two groups can be intense, sometimes verging on open warfare. Extremist Deobandi groups, such as the Taliban, specifically target the shrines of Sufi mystics, venerated by Barelvis as places of sanctity and worship. As recently reported in the Express Tribune, “When the Taliban took over Buner in April 2009, they first besieged Pir Baba’s shrine. Taliban leader Fateh Khan said it was because the place was a hub of ‘adultery and idolatry.’” As a result, many Sufi shrines are now heavily guarded by Pakistani security forces.

Mapping the distribution of Deobandi and Barelvi adherents is all but impossible, as the two movements are spatially intertwined. One can, however, easily depict their place of origin, as both movements are named for towns in northern India: Deoband and Bareilli. Although radical Deobandi groups are most closely associated with Pakistan and Afghanistan, the movement’s intellectual and spiritual heart is still the Indian city of Deoband. Its Darul Uloom Deoband is reputed to be the second largest madrasah (religious school) in the Sunni Muslim world, following only Al-Ahzar in Cairo. Barelvi Islam is more diffuse, without a clear center of gravity. Although firm numbers are impossible to find, most experts maintain that Barelvis significantly out-number Deobandis not just among Indian Muslims but in Pakistan as well. In Pakistan, however, Deobandis have been advancing of late, and Barelvis retreating. According to one estimate, “some 15 per cent of Pakistan’s Sunni Muslims would consider themselves Deobandi, and some 60 per cent are in the Barelvi tradition…. But some 64 per cent of the total seminaries are run by Deobandis, 25 per cent by the Barelvis …”

The Deobandi movement began with the founding of the Darul Uloom Deoband in 1866. Early Deobandi leaders were distressed by the triumph of British colonialism and English-language education, which they sought to combat by purifying their religion, stripping away mystical practices and other innovations that they viewed as contrary to the faith. The most hardline Deobandis came to regard Barelvis, as well as Shiites, as non-Muslim opponents deserving of attack.

The relationship between the Deobandi movement and the state of Pakistan is ambiguous. Deobandi thinking is too traditional to be nationalistic, regarding the community of the faithful, not the modern nation-state, as the proper Quranic political vehicle. Most Deobandi scholars rejected the partition of British India in 1947, preferring to seek the spread of Islam in an undivided India. The idea of Pakistan, moreover, was originally embraced by Muslim groups despised by the hardline Deobandis. The father-figure of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was originally an Ismaili (a follower of the Aga Khan) who later converted to mainstream Shi’ism; the state he founded was at first strongly supported by Barelvis, Shi’ites, Ismailis, and Ahmadis. Over time, however, orthodox Sunni Islam came to dominate Pakistan. President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988) worked hard to turn Pakistan into a fundamentalist Sunni state, officially declaring the heterodox Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. As a result, the Pakistani government increasingly veered in the direction of the harsh Deobandi movement. The connection, however, is a two-edged sword for modern Pakistan, as the Deobandi faithful ultimately have contempt for national identities and borders.

The Deobandi movement has attracted a good deal of negative attention lately, both locally and on the global stage. Critics link it to terrorist organizations; the Taliban, after all, sprang out of Deobandi madrasahs in northeastern Pakistan, as did several other violence-prone organizations. Outrageous fatwas (religious rulings) do not help its reputation. In May 2010, a decree that women cannot work for wages shocked mainstream Muslim opinion worldwide. (The Times of India referred to it as a “Talibanesque fatwa that reeked of tribal patriarchy.”) Even more embarrassing was the 2006 “fatwas for cash” bribery scandal, which was revealed by an Indian television sting operation.

But despite such issues, the Darul Uloom Deoband remains a highly respected institution in several quarters. Defenders of the movement note that the radical madrasahs that produce the Taliban extremists are only loosely affiliated with the Deobandi movement, and that no graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband itself has ever been associated with a terrorist organization. In a first-hand account of the seminary published this week in Religioscope, Mahan Abedin gives voice to the leaders of the Deobandi school. Of particular interest is the relationship between Deobandi and Wahabbi Islam. As Abedin writes:

On the question of so-called Wahabism I put it to Madrassi that many critics of the Deoband seminary claim that Deobandi beliefs are just a small step away from full-scale Wahabism. In response the deputy Vice Chancellor makes a clear demarcation between the two schools of thought, before adding that if we consider the Wahabis and the Barelvis as two extremes, the Deobandis occupy the centre ground in that continuum.

The Vice Chancellor’s efforts to portray Deobandis as Islamic centrists would strike many as absurd. Consider, for example, his group’s position on the Barelvis, who still constitute the majority of South Asian Muslims. According to Abedin:

The deputy Vice Chancellor and the head of PR go to great lengths to underline the “purist” nature of the Deoband seminary, and it is in this context that they use exclusivist terms to describe other Islamic traditions, such as the Barelvis and Shi’ites, both of which are regarded as non-Muslim by the hardline Deobandis. They are particularly critical of the Barelvis, a traditional quasi-Sufi movement started in 1880 to counter the influence of the Deobandis and other reform movements, directing most of their criticism at the Barelvi practice of visiting the shrines of saints.

Deobandi Islam vs. Barelvi Islam in South Asia Read More »

Geopolitical and Religious Conflict in the Spanish Exclave of Melilla

As mentioned in Monday’s post, tensions came to a boil this summer between Spain and Morocco over Spain’s possessions on the North African coast, Ceuta and Melilla. The squabble began in July 2010, when Spanish forces allegedly beat five Moroccan men in Melilla for carrying a Moroccan flag. The government of Morocco subsequently encouraged or at least allowed its citizens to stage two massive border protests, which blocked the delivery of fresh produce into the exclaves. The blockade, in turn, incited political sparring in Spain, as the center-right opposition party accused the government of “failing to defend adequately the Spanish presence in North Africa,” while the government in turn denounced the “disloyal” maneuvering of the opposition, which included an unannounced visit to Melilla by former prime minister José María Aznar.

By August 23, the crisis had apparently abated. Spain claimed a “diplomatic victory” in its negotiations with Morocco after the two countries agreed to “strengthen their security and police cooperation to handle issues ranging from immigration to drug trafficking.…” But whatever agreements were made between Morocco and Spain, it is unlikely they will permanently settle the conflict. Morocco’s demand for the two communities still stands.

It is unclear what prompted Morocco to proceed with the blockade in July; no public statements have been made. But speculations on both the origin of the struggle and its diplomatic consequences are rife. A recent Time Magazine article suggests that the Moroccan government views Spain as severely weakened by its economic crisis, and hence vulnerable to intimidation. Spain stakes a great deal on its role as mediator between Europe and North Africa—a position threatened by any struggle with Morocco. According to another recent article, “Morocco wants to ensure continued Spanish support for its efforts to hold onto the disputed Western Sahara; Morocco’s government has internal problems and raised this fuss as a diversionary tactic; or maybe it wants more European aid money and is badgering Spain as a way to get it.”

What is clear is that relations between the people of Melilla and their Moroccan neighbors are both intimate and troubled. An estimated 30,000 Moroccan citizens cross the border everyday. Many come to sell their labor, as Melilla is vastly more prosperous than Morocco. Others come to shop and smuggle, returning to Morocco with “everything from booze to toilet paper.” Such day-trippers are apparently much abused by Melillans, a people anxious about illegal immigration and concerned about the security of their vulnerable community.

Tensions in Melilla cannot be reduced to a simple struggle between the Spanish inhabitants of the enclave and their North African neighbors. Some thirty to forty-five percent of the city’s 73,000 residents are Muslims of Moroccan origin, mostly of Berber rather than Arabic stock. According to the Wikipedia, Melilla remains deeply divided: “The culture in this little city is thus virtually divided into two halves, one being European and the other Amazigh [i.e., Berber].” Other sources depict greater communal cohesion. According to one recent article, “the vast majority [of Melilla’s Muslims] say they have no interest in joining their poor neighbor. ‘We feel Spanish and we are Spanish,’ said merchant Yusef Kaddur, as he stood under a date palm tree outside the main mosque in Melilla’s bustling Muslim quarter.” The fact that Berbers have little power in Morocco, even though they constitute almost half of the country’s population, no doubt contributes to the lack of pro-Moroccan sentiments among Melilla’s Muslim inhabitants.

Melilla’s Jewish population has a storied history, but is now diminishing rapidly. As Spain’s former prohibition against Jews was not enforced in its North African exclaves, Jewish settlement was continuous. In the mid twentieth century, twenty percent of Melilla’s inhabitants were Jewish; today that figure has been reduced to around five percent due to emigration. According to a 2002 article in Religioscope, Ceuta and Melilla were formerly considered “paragons of interfaith harmony,” but that is no longer the case. Many Muslim youths, the author argues, have been radicalized in recent years, and have thus turned against their Jewish neighbors: “eggs, rocks and bottles have been thrown at Ceuta’s Sephardic synagogue while Jews were at prayer, Palestinian flags and graffiti glorifying Osama bin Laden have been painted on synagogues and churches, and graves in Melilla’s Jewish cemetery have been desecrated.”

Melilla is obviously a troubled and insecure place. Its most serious clashes in recent years, however, have focused not on sovereignty disputes or religious rivalry but on immigration, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Geopolitical and Religious Conflict in the Spanish Exclave of Melilla Read More »

Religion and Development in India

Discussions of economic and social development in India often raise the question of religious diversity. As the Wikipedia table reproduced above shows, India’s Muslim minority has a substantially lower literacy rate than its Hindu majority, as well as a higher birthrate. On average, Indian Muslims tend to be poorer than members of other religious communities. In fact, some are calling for Muslims to be included within India’s system of “reservations,” or quotas established for people of low-caste background in educational institutions and government employment. One official commission has recently advocated a 10 percent allotment for Muslims seeking government jobs, following a policy already established at the state level in southern India. As reported by the Times of India, “Tamil Nadu has 3.5 per cent reservation for Muslims within 27 per cent quota for backward castes, while Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh has given 4 per cent reservation to Muslims, which was also upheld by the Supreme Court.”

Yet as the maps posted above indicate, there is no clear linkage in India between the geography of religion and that of development. On the one hand, almost half the country’s Muslims live in the three relatively poor north-central states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal. Many educated Muslims from this area fled to Pakistan after the partition of British India in 1947, leaving behind the poorer segment of the community. But in many other parts of India, the social and economic standing of the Muslim community is substantially higher. Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, ranks relatively high on a number of socio-economic indicators. In Kerala, where a quarter of the population follows Islam, the Muslim literacy rate approaches 100 percent, tracking consistently with that of state’s Hindu and Christian communities.

As we have seen, Kerala’s development indicators are extremely high across the board. A generation ago, Kerala stood out even more starkly, having achieved elevated rates of literacy and public health—and low levels of fertility—well before other Indian states. Kerala’s achievements have often been credited to its history of socialist government, which has resulted in heavy investments in education and health. The “Kerala model of development,” however, has also been criticized for generating labor strife and staunching industrial growth, forcing many highly educated Keralites to seek employment elsewhere in India or abroad.

Although Kerala-style socialism resulted in considerable class tension, the state historically enjoyed calm relations among its religious groups (Kerala is roughly half Hindu, a quarter Muslim, and a fifth Christian). In recent years, however, religious conflict has intensified. On July 4, 2010, a Christian professor who had been accused of blasphemy by a prominent Muslim organization was attacked in broad daylight by an enraged mob, which cut off his right hand. One the same day, two men were arrested on suspicion of organizing the attack; both were connected with the Popular Front of India, a southern Indian Muslim organization with a reputation for extremism. Shortly afterward, local police launched several raids on offices connected with the group. In one, they “found bombs, swords, iron pipes and objectionable leaflets in a vacant building that was suspected to be used by Popular Front activists.”

On other recent occasions, Kerala’s Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious leaders have found common cause in objecting to initiatives from the state’s secular political and educational establishments. A recent dispute focused on a social studies textbook that was deemed anti-religious. The objectionable passage, a brief dialogue set in a public school, is worth quoting in full (note that the father’s name is Muslim, the mother’s Hindu):

“Son, what’s your name?”


“Good, nice name. Father’s name?”

“Anvar Rasheed.”

“Mother’s name?”

“Lakshmi Devi.”

The headmaster raised his head, looked at the parents and asked:

“Which religion should we write?”

“None. Write there is no religion.”


“The same.”

The headmaster leaned back in his chair and asked a little gravely:

“What if he feels the need for a religion when he grows up?”

“Let him choose his religion when he feels so.”

Religion and Development in India Read More »

Region, Religion, and Redshirts in Thailand

Maps of Thailand’s 2007 legislative election clearly show that the pro-Thaksin redshirt movement currently threatening the government has regional as well as economic foundations. In Electoral District 3, which covers much of the northeastern Isan region, the Thaksin-affiliated PPP party received over 66 percent of the vote, while the anti-Thaksim Democrat party received less than 14 percent; in Electoral District 8, which covers southern Thailand, the PPP received only 8 percent of the vote, while the Democrats received almost 80 percent. Although southern Thailand is wealthier than the Isan region, it is largely agricultural and not particularly prosperous. The per capita GDP of Surat Thani, the largest province of the south, is less than half that of Thailand as a whole – and Surat Thani it is the second richest of the south’s 14 provinces.

Religion may have something to do with the south’s antipathy to the redshirts. Southern Thailand has a substantial Muslim population, and the Thaksin regime was noted for its harsh military approach to the long-simmering Islamic insurgency of the far south. But most of southern Thailand is actually dominated by Thai-speaking Buddhists; the Malay-speaking Muslim population is concentrated in the four southernmost provinces. Intriguingly, it was the Buddhist majority provinces of Electoral District 8 that voted most strongly for the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party.

Thailand’s Buddhist-Muslim divide may be playing into the current struggle in a different manner. Although Islam in Thailand is commonly associated with the Malay-speaking areas of the extreme south, a recent report issued by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that more than 80 percent of the country’s Muslims live elsewhere. Many are Thai-speakers residing in the greater Bangkok area. Although official statistics maintain that fewer that five percent of Thailand’s people practice Islam, some observers think that the actual figure is much higher. Thai-speaking Muslims tend to be hostile to the redshirt movement, and correspondingly supportive of the ruling Democrat Party.

A recent report in the ethnic news site New America Media by Japanese investigative journalist Yoichi Shimatsu highlights a possible religio-economic dimension of the present conflict. Thailand’s Democrat Party, Shimatsu argues, “is increasingly reliant … on the ‘river Muslims’ of Bangkok,” a group that purportedly dominates informal commerce and smuggling along central Thailand’s numerous waterways. Shimatsu claims that these ethnic economic networks were targeted by former Prime Minister Thaksin as part of his “war on drugs” campaign. As a result, according to his report, the so-called River Muslims are now mobilizing against the Thaksin-inspired redshirt movement. Shimatsu warns that such a dynamic could provoke a massive Buddhist backlash: “Unless the elite yields its untenable privileges and accepts a secular democracy, populist Buddhist militancy will radically alter the political and demographic landscape. The Land of Smiles could soon become a vale of tears.”

Region, Religion, and Redshirts in Thailand Read More »

Pashtun Shiites

Today’s New York Times includes three important articles pertaining to Sunni/Shiite tensions. Two of these are all-too-typical reports of terrorist attacks on Shia pilgrims by Sunni extremists, one in Karachi, Pakistan, the other in Iraq. The third article, on new leadership emerging among the Pakistani Taliban, is much less conventional (“With Taliban Leader Reported Dead, New Pakistani Figure Emerges”). According to the article, the local Taliban center has been relocated to Orakzai, one of the agencies of Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (which are not “federally administered,” if administered at all). The article mentions the fact that Orakzai has a Shiite minority, and that Taliban militants treat Shiites with particular brutality. What the article does not mention is the fact that in neighboring Kurram Valley Agency, Shiism is much more prevalent, being the dominant faith of the Turi tribe. Not surprisingly, the Turi have been struggling against the Taliban. As the Wikipedia reports, “On August 31, 2008 tribesmen mostly Turis dislodged Taliban from nearly 200 villages … [the] Taliban headquarters at Bagzai fell to the tribesmen killing as many as 95 militants.” (

The Pashtun Shiites have received little notice in the global media, but they are an important element of a very complex war.

Pashtun Shiites Read More »

The Heterodox Zone

Yesterday’s post included a map of religious communities in northern Iraq, based on a larger map by Mehrdad Izady, generated as part of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 project ( As Izady’s maps show, northern Iraq is part of a larger region of striking religious diversity, highlighted on the map above. This area has no established name, and appears (to my knowledge) on no other maps, yet its delineation is essential for making sense of Middle Eastern politics, cultural dynamics, and history. In an attempt to bring this area to broader attention, I dub it “the Heterodox Zone,” a term that I picked up years ago in a casual conversation with the Turkish scholar Hakan Altinay.

The most distinctive faiths of the Heterodox Zone are three, grouped together by Mehrdad Izady under the rubric of Yazdanism or “the cults of angels.” These include the Yazidi religion, the faith of the Shabaks (who number some 60,000 in northern Iraq), and the religion of Yarsan (or Ahl-e Haqq), which counts up to one million adherents in Iranian Kurdistan. Izady considers all three to be survivals of the pre-Islamic Kurdish religion.

Less distinctive but far more prevalent is Alevism, a faith concentrated in eastern Turkey. Adherents of Alevism may number as many as 20 million. Although their religion is conventionally considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Alevis do not worship in mosques. They interpret the Quran on a strictly allegorical basis, and have no problem with alcohol. Alevism is also associated with the Kurds, but it is followed more extensively by the almost invisible Zaza people (speakers of the Zazaki language), who live to the north of the Kurdish language zone in eastern Turkey.

Distinctive religious communities extend through the highlands of the eastern Mediterranean. As many as three million people are ‘Alawis (or Alawites), a minority group that has the distinction of essentially running Syria. Another Shiite offshoot, the Alawite faith traditionally includes such non-Muslims beliefs as the transmigration of souls. (Some reports, however, claim that Alawite ideas and practices are gradually approaching those of orthodox Islam.) In the Druze religion, which has somewhere between 750,000 and two million followers, ideas and practices have diverged so far from the Islamic faith that the Druze are almost never considered Muslims. What exactly those beliefs are is difficult say, however, as the Druze keep their core beliefs secret not only from outsiders, but even from their own rank-and-file; only a select group is allowed access to the faith’s esoteric teachings.

Such groups by no means account for all of the religious diversity of the Heterodox Zone. Christianity is present as well, represented by many distinctive sects. Lebanon alone counts 10 politically recognized Christian groups. (Lebanese politics are organized on a confessional basis around the following religious communities: Sunni Muslim, Twelver Shiite Muslim, Isma’ili Shiite Muslim, Alawite, Druze, Maronite [Catholic], Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Christian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant Christian, and Jewish). The Heterodox zone also extends into northern Israel, where one finds not only Druze and Christian communities, but also the ancient Jewish offshoot sect of the Samaritans (who today number only 712).

The Heterodox Zone is associated with mountains and rugged terrain. That is to be expected; rough topography has often provided niches for minor languages as well as religions – social phenomena whose survival historically required a degree of shelter from the authority of states and their dominant societies. In the modern world, such zones of refuge are coming under pressure from larger and more intrusive politico-cultural formations. That is certainly true of the Heterodox Zone. In Iraq, Sunni extremists are now targeting the minority faiths, attacking their followers and forcing them to flee. Will autonomous Kurdistan offer adequate refuge? That remains to be seen.

The Heterodox Zone Read More »