Egypt's Discrimination Problem

By Danny Stoker

This weekend's attacks against two Coptic Christian churches in Tanta and Alexandria that left 44 dead and dozens more injured was roundly condemned by Egyptians. These attacks and the extreme bigotry and hatred behind them are not representative of the Egypt I came to know and love while living there. However, it would be foolish to deny the lesser and more accepted discrimination against Coptic Christians that exists in the country. Like most things in this world, sectarianism exists on a spectrum. On one end is the extreme form harbored by the so-called Islamic State that carried out this weekends attacks and on the far end is the ideal where people of all faiths are treated equally.

Legal and social discrimination against Coptic Christians is far more common than most Egyptians feel comfortable with admitting. Too few Egyptians Muslims are bothered enough with this discrimination and bigotry to speak out on their behalf. Moderate and Discriminatory attitudes towards Egypt's Christians and other non-Muslims have created an incubator where more extreme views are born. Timothy Kaldas, of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Peace framed this much more eloquently than me when he said:

And many of the Muslim Egyptians who will look at the photos of Sunday’s victims with sadness and sympathy on another day will use the expression maseehy bas kwayis (Christian, but good), as though goodness is out of the ordinary among Christians. This deeply embedded discriminatory view is at the heart of a not-so-quiet bigotry that forms the bedrock upon which violent extremism can be built on by terrorist groups like ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the attack (though CNN has yet to confirm it). The official participation of the state in this bigotry helps reinforce it.
— Timothy Kaldas, "Egyptians Mourn, but Will they Understand" CNN

Despite the role that lesser forms of discriminatory attitudes in fostering those more extreme views of groups like the Islamic State and its affiliates, President Sisi and Egyptian officials will continue to support policies that restrict Christians and other non-Muslims rights to build houses of worship, that fail to protect non-Muslims from work discrimination, and that place Muslims ahead of non-Muslims in government, work, and school and the status-quo described below will continue.

Despite proclamations of equality by the state, a Copt has never been an equal Egyptian citizen in the eyes of the law. Egyptian laws are, in fact, designed to remind him of his second-class nature. For him, building a church remains a herculean task. He must follow Islamic inheritance laws, and cannot adopt children. Egypt’s blasphemy laws almost exclusively target him. Legally, he is not barred from being appointed to any position. But functionally, this is the reality. The exclusion of Copts from important government positions is pervasive: The current government has only one Coptic minister, and not a single Copt serves as a governor, university president, or university dean. An unofficial one percent quota for Copts is maintained in the military, police, judiciary, and foreign service, while no single Copt is allowed in the state security or intelligence services. Even his history is not immune to discrimination, with Coptic history and the contributions of Copts to Egypt through the centuries excluded from the country’s textbooks.
— Samuel Tadros, "The Actual War on Christians." The Atlantic

Five Books Every Middle East Nerd Should Read

By Danny Stoker

The Middle East is a complex and fascinating region and while there is a never ending supply of commentary on the present state of the Middle East in everything from the New York Times to Fox News not all content is created equal. The vast majority of content that can be found in the print and broadcast media is shallow; lacking the necessary depth to provide the depth and understanding to the issues. If you are serious about gaining a solid understanding of the region, then reading books about the key issues confronting the Middle East is necessary. The following list is comprised of books that are 1) written fora general audience and not just Middle East specialists, 2) focused on the region as a whole or specific issues or historical events that reverberate throughout the region, and 3) written with enough detail that even Middle East specialists will learn something.

Lockman, Zachary. Contending Visions of the Middle East: The history and politics of Orientalism. 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press: 2010

Zachary Lockman’s work is not so much a study of the Middle East, but rather a study of how the Middle East has been viewed, researched, and studied in the West. Contending Visions of the Middle provides insight into how ideas of what comprises the “Middle East”  have evolved over the centuries. Most importantly it provides a reasonably detailed explanation on how the legacy of colonialism has impacted the study of Arabs, Islam, and “the East.” More than anything this work focuses on the politics behind different academic approaches to studying the region. Finally, this work discusses how debates within the field of Middle East Studies translate into U.S. policy toward the region.

Donner, Fred. Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam. Harvard University Press: 2010

Any serious student of the Middle East should have a basic knowledge of Islam and its history. Muslims are the majority religion in every country in the Middle East and the faith influences the culture, politics, and economics of the region. Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers provides an excellent look into the history of early Islam, specifically the first century of the religion. While Donner provides the traditional narrative of the beginnings of Islam, he also addresses several issues involved in this narrrative. Using archeological evidence and rarely used sources Donner questions certain aspects of Islam’s traditional and generally accepted narrative. Donner’s chief point of contention is that during the Prophet Muhammad’s life, Islam never developed into a distinct religion but rather a monotheist movement that included Christians and Jews. It wasn’t until nearly a century after the movement’s that it distinguished itself as something separate from Christianity and Judaism. Donner’s hypothesis is a controversial one, but he is able to provide a variety of sources that support it. Donner is respectful of Islam throughout this book. This book should not be viewed as an attack on Islam but rather an attempt to better understand the history of its origins that are so often clouded by the works of apologists and critics of the faith.

Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How conflicts within Islam will shape the future. W. W. Norton and Company: 2006

Given the state of the Middle East today, sectarian tensions are shaping the region every where from Turkey to Yemen and Egypt to Iran. In order to understand the contemporary Middle East, one must have reasonable understanding of the underlying history of the Sunni-Shi’a split and how those tensions have evolved and re-emerged in the 20th century. Nasr’s book is not perfect, but I have not found a better book on this important topic. Nasr wrote his book after the U.S. had invaded Iraq and empowered on the Arab World’s largest Shi’a populations. While sectarianism is more nuanced than it is portrayed in Nasr’s book, he adequately details the differences between Sunni and Shi’a and their worldviews. Furthermore, he points to the growing regional rivalry between Iran (Shi’a) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and how it is impacting the region.

Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. Henry Holt and Company: 1989

So many of the Middle East’s current problems are blamed on colonial powers ‘drawing lines in the sand’ that created new nations in the aftermath of World War I. The Western powers’ folly is detailed in several books, but none quite match up to Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. Fromkin’s work is written primarily from the European perspective and relies heavily on European sources. Its biggest flaw is its neglect of Arab, Turkish, and Muslim voices. That said he discusses in great detail the role the Middle East played in World War I and how its modern boundaries came to be made. Every Middle East nerd should have a decent idea about Sykes-Picot, the Balfour Declaration, San Remo, and the Treaty of Sevres. I cringe every time some one inaccurately tells me how the present day borders of the Middle East were drawn by Sykes and Picot (Sykes-Picot merely created a general framework for how the British and the French were going to divvy up the region after WWI, no final lines were drawn).

Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate. Henry Holt and Company: 1999

For many Americans, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most recognizable issue in the Middle East. It is also likely the oldest, most controversial, and least understood issue for many Americans. Anything touching Israel and Palestine is likely to incite some criticism. It is difficult to find any decent history free from the polemics and apologetics related to the issue. Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete is one of the few books I have read that is able to do justice to the conflict. The biggest myth that Segev’s work dispels is the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ancient blood feud between competing factions the patriarch Abraham’s bloodline. The book demonstrates the limits of Jewish-Arab cooperation and the evolution of tension between them. The book also illustrates the role Britain played in creating what seems to be an intractable conflict.

What is the Hadith

By Danny Stoker

When I first began studying the Islamic world, I was quite ignorant of the world’s second largest religion. I tended to view both the Sunni and Shi’a as somewhat monolithic strains of the faith. I had little knowledge of the nuance and complexity in Islamic texts and interpretation of those texts. Most people are relatively familiar with the Qur’an, the series of revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad beginning 610 CE and continuing until his death 23 years later. However, most non-Muslims have little knowledge of Islam's second most authoritative text, the Hadith.

The hadith or huwadith (Arabic plural) are the saying and actions of the prophet Muhammad collected by his associates during this lifetime and later orally passed down through the ages helping Muslims to better follow Muhammad’s example. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World describes the hadith and how it was preserved as follows:

“These reports, or hadith, take the form of usually short, unconnected pieces, each of which is preceded by a list of its authoritative transmitters. Although the reports were originally transmitted orally, some transmitters began early to record them in writing. The compilers were careful not to tamper with the texts as they received them from recognized specialists in hadith transmission, and the collections reflect their spoken origins. The language is direct, conversational, active, often repetitive, with a characteristic use of formulaic expression.”

The hadith was not compiled until the ninth century, roughly 200 years after Muhammad’s death. The ninth century gave birth to six massive collections of hadith identified by the last name of their collector. Perhaps the most widely known and respected is the collection of al-Bukhari. The other famous collectors include Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Abu Da’ud al-Sijistani, Ibn Majah al-Qazwini, Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi, and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Nasa’i. In the Sunni world the hadith is considered Islam’s second most authoritative text and many important Islamic tenets, such as the duty to pray five times each day, are found in the hadith rather than the Qur’an.

Unlike the Qur’an, not all hadiths are weighed equally and they are more open to interpretation. Islamic scholars have created three categories gauging a hadith’s authenticity. A hadith may be classified as sahih (sound or authentic), da’if (weak), and mawdu’ (fabricated). There is no general agreement by Islamic scholars on which hadiths fall into these categories and many of the divergent philosophies in Sunni Islam can be found in how the hadith is interpreted and classified.

While the hadith provides an important companion text qualifying and contextualizing passages of the Qur’an, it is more open to interpretation and its authenticity is disputed.  Muslim reformers have from time to time taken issue with how the Muslim community has viewed the hadith. Some of these reformers include prominent scholars like Muhammad Abdu, Rashid Rida, and Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Recently in Egypt, the Islamic scholar, Islam Behery was arrested after criticized the hadith. Throughout history some Sunni Muslims have also rejected the hadith entirely relying on the Qur’an alone for religious authority. In spite of such movements, the vast majority view the hadith as having some legal and religious authority in the community.

The varying levels of authority granted to the hadith in general and to individual hadiths in particular shape how Islam is practiced and conceptualized through the Islamic world. Thus the hadith can at once be both a tool of violent extremism and peaceful moderation. The vastness of the hadith ensures both redundancy and contradiction while also providing a rich source of material to Islamic theologians and historians in their effort to piece together the life of the Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam. It is also one of the primary sources of Islamic law. This also leads to an important point often glossed over in the Western media’s discussion of Shari’a or Islamic law. Islamic law is not monolithic, there is not single codified version of Islam that is universally agreed upon. Just as there are disputes concerning the authenticity of certain hadiths there are different schools of thought for studying, interpreting, and applying Islamic law.

The lack of a single authoritative interpretation on the hadith contributes to the fractures within the Islamic world. Muslims of varying degrees of learning and understanding are able to cherry pick hadiths that they feel best represents their interpretation of Islam and exclaim: “This is Islam!” The hadith can support both ends of debates ranging from ‘how Muslims should dress’ to ‘the true meaning of jihad.’

Additional Reading:

  • Speight, R. Marston. "Hadith," The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World

Defining the Middle East

By Danny Stoker

Today, there is no single uniform definition for what comprises the Middle East. Visit any major news website covering global affairs and there will likely be a section devoted to this often discussed region, yet each site may vary slightly in its definition from another. The British coined the term Middle East in the 20th century, when it gained traction as the descriptive label for areas of West Asia and Egypt. In the 19th century, Europeans referred to the region as the Near East, but shortly after the WWI this term began to decline in popularity. It is however still in use. Due to cultural, geographic, historical, and political similarities, journalists, academics, and policy makers have tacked on North Africa to the region often calling it the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

What exactly comprises the Middle East or MENA region is arbitrary and often debated by those who study and work on the region. In its broadest definition, the Middle East is comprised of various combinations of North African and West and Central Asian states. In its narrowest definitions, the Middle East is comprised of the states in the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and Iran and Turkey. 

In order to demonstrate the diversity with witch the Middle East is defined let's take a look at a few maps of region as defined by different organizations. Since Wikipedia is so ubiquitous and somewhat reliable that is where we will start.

 The Middle East as defined by Wikipedia consisting of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey

The Middle East as defined by Wikipedia consisting of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey

 The Middle East as defined by the CIA World Fact book, the definition removes Egypt from the Middle East and adds Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

The Middle East as defined by the CIA World Fact book, the definition removes Egypt from the Middle East and adds Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

 The Middle East according to the World Bank, they include North Africa, but exclude Turkey and the Caucasus region.

The Middle East according to the World Bank, they include North Africa, but exclude Turkey and the Caucasus region.

 Here is a an expanded definition of the region, this is probably the closest to the region I studied in Graduate school. It includes Mauritania, Mali, and Sudan in the North African countries

Here is a an expanded definition of the region, this is probably the closest to the region I studied in Graduate school. It includes Mauritania, Mali, and Sudan in the North African countries

These maps demonstrate how the open debate about what exactly comprises the Middle East. These are just a few of the many definitions of the Middle East today. In the broadest sense, these states all share historic, cultural, religious, and economic ties to varying degrees and for the sake of organization have been lumped together in various formulas. There is no perfect way to define the Middl East. It is a complex and diverse region with a varied history. It is unlikely that there will be a universally agreed upon definition for the Middle East anytime soon.

Israel's Druze Attracted to the Syrian Conflict

By Danny Stoker

Late last month, an Israeli airstrike in the Syrian Golan Heights killed four pro-Assad militants laying an explosive device near the Israeli border. Further investigation revealed that two of the four men were Druze from the village of Majdal Shams in the Israel occupied Golan Heights. This is just the latest involvement of Israeli-Druze in the neighboring conflict.

In early April, an Israeli court indicted a Druze soldier on charges of espionage for passing sensitive information on to Assad’s forces on the activities of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) troops in the Golan. According to the indictment, Hilal al-Halbi shared classified information with Siddqui al-Maqt who then passed the information along to Syrian intelligence. Pro-Syrian sympathies have remained strong in the occupied Golan Heights since war began in 2011. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, dozens of Israeli-Druze have left their homes to fight Syria.

Israel’s 130,000 Druze community has traditionally been close to the Jewish state, serving in the IDF including special forces units. However, the rise of Jewish nationalism in Israel and the conflict next door in Syria have complicated the relationship. Reports of discrimination and violence against the Druze are becoming more common as are reports of Druze refusing to serve in the IDF. The community has also long complained that the state has been slow to respond to the community’s needs. Many Druze living in Israel are also drawn to the conflict across the border by a sense of communal solidarity shared with the more than 700,000 Druze living in Syria.

The Israeli-Druze community will continue its loyalty to the state, but unless the rise of discrimination and violence is stopped instances like the ones mentioned above will become more and more common. 


Eglash, Ruth, “Tensions rise on Israel-Syrian Border after infiltration attempt, airstrikes,” Washington Post, April 27, 2015 

Khoury, Jack, “Druze Youth from the Golan flocking to join Assad Army,” Haaretz October 22, 2013 

Zitun, Yoav, “IDF Soldier Indicted for Aiding Enemy,” Ynetnews, April 2, 2015 

Israel's Coup That Never Was

by Danny Stoker

History is littered with revolutions, coups, and uprisings. While we remember those that succeed, those that don’t are often quickly forgotten and left in the recesses of the national consciousness. Americans celebrate the Boston Tea Party, but few remember the Whiskey or Shay’s Rebellion. Rebellion and Insurrection can tell us much about history, even when those rebellions never quite materialize. A few weeks back, Mike and I did a show on the events leading up to the 1967 War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Shortly after the show one of our listeners contacted me about one aspect of the 1967 War that we had missed. 

In the weeks leading up to the war, Israel’s generals pressed for a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, some even considered a military coup as means of securing a pre-emptive strike, before planning to hand power back over to a civilian government. In 2004, former general and then PM Ariel Sharon, admitted that he considered a military coup in order to ensure that the military carry out its strike. The thought came into Sharon’s mind during a May 28th meeting between Israel's General Staff and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s government. In his book on the 1967 war, Tom Segev details the tension in the meeting.

“The meeting was tough; rage was in the air. Eshkol found himself facing fierce, confrontational General Staff, worked up to the point of hysteria and particularly rude. Some of the officers were threatening, claiming that the state’s existence was in danger. Eshkol put them in their place, but was evidently deeply shaken.”

According to Segev’s telling, the General Staff viewed Eshkol’s reluctance to launch a strike against Egypt's military forces in the Sinai as a potential disaster. While Eshkol’s staff was being urged by the international community to exercise restraint in relation to the growing tension, the General Staff thought that the situation made Israel appear weak and this would encourage future Arab aggression. During the cabinet meeting, Sharon called out the Eshkol government saying, “Today we have ourselves chopped off the IDF’s deterrence capability. We have chopped up our main weapon - the fear of us” he added, “Inaction shows powerlessness. We’re making ourselves look like an empty vessel, a desperate state . . . Your (Eshkol) hesitation will cost us thousands of lives.”

The crux of the General Staff’s argument for war lay in casualties. If Israel struck first, they could minimize casualties while defeating their enemy, but if they waited for Egyptian or Syrian aggression it would cost them thousands of lives. Already at an extreme numerical deficit to their enemy, preserving their fighting force was among the most important imperatives. They also argued that continued delays would lead to the loss of trust of their soldiers and a potential insurrection among the enlisted soldiers if they were to suffer a set-back. These feelings pushed many of the generals to brink of revolt. Segev described the atmosphere of the meeting as having “A whiff of mutiny, almost a military coup.”

Israel’s General Staff at the time was made up of hawkish generals, who viewed the current circumstances as a chance to demonstrate to their hostile neighbors their military’s superiority and finish what they had started in 1956. Segev described them as follows:

The Generals were in their forties, family men, but they clung to the Israeli culture of youth; they were like adolescent boys or bulls in rut. They believed in force and they wanted war. War was destiny. Almost twenty years had passed since the army had won glory in the War of Independence, and ten years since the victory in the Sinai. They had limited range and vision and they believed that war was what Israel needed at that moment.”

Roughly a week after their meeting with the Prime Minister, Israel’s General Staff got the war they wanted, when Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egypt's armed forces capturing the Sinai before turning their attention the West Bank and the Golan Heights in a lightening offensive. After six days of fighting, Israel stood in possession of the Gaza Strip, Sinai, West Bank and Golan Heights changing the borders of the Middle East one more time. Israel’s coup that never happened gives us more insight into the internal political pressures within Israel as the international community called of restraint. 

Syria's Refugee Problem

By Danny Stoker

Over the past four years the situation has continued to disintegrate while the international community has failed to mediate peace or even mitigate the carnage. All the while, refugees continued to flee areas of Syria putting extreme pressure on Syria's neighbors and international aid agencies. Before the war, Syria served as a refuge to both Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, now many of these same refugees have become refugees one more time over. While the international community continues to debate what role it should take in the Syrian conflict, millions of refugees are living in a tenuous state. Here is a brief look at the situation in Syria.


As the crisis in Syria enters its fifth year, the situation in the country continues to disintegrate with no immediate signs of improvement. In 2014, at least 76,000 Syrians were killed making it the deadliest year of the conflict. The EU estimates that over 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011, with 3 million fleeing to neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey) and 6.5 million more internally displaced. The increasingly fragmented nature of the war has split Syria into a complex web of militias, alliances, and territorial wars with the regime holding onto Damascus, a collection of Islamist and secular opposition groups controlling Aleppo, and the Islamic State fighting with Kurdish forces in the East.

The war has decimated Syria’s infrastructure complicating the delivery of aid. An estimated 4.8 million Syrians live in difficult to reach areas and another 200,000 are stranded completely beyond the reach of aid organizations. According to recent reports 83% of the country’s lights have gone off as result of power shortages and damaged infrastructure. Scarcity of food and medical care are increasingly a problem. In early 2014 North Western Syria experienced an outbreak of polio with over 100 children developing symptoms. While the Polio outbreak appears to have been effectively counteracted, access to medical care is increasingly scarce. In Aleppo, home to the most intense fighting, roughly 100 doctors remain down from over 10,000 before the war with only 12 surgeons available to service both combatants and civilians. The regime has repeatedly targeted medical personnel in an attempt to discourage them from treating opposition fighters. During the four year conflict life expectancy in Syria has plummeted by 20 years.

With each passing year of the conflict, the next generation of Syrians is falling further behind their international peers. According to UNHCR there are more than 2.4 million Syrian children not in school. Many thousands more are being orphaned, being recruited to fight, or suffering psychologically due to exposure to violence. In the besieged areas, children also suffer from starvation, malnutrition, and inadequate medical care. The long-term implication of the war is problematic for the future of Syria and the region as a whole. The international community must do more to help lighten the burden being felt by Syria's neighbors as they try to meet the needs of thousands of refugees. 

Cause for Hope in a troubled World

By Danny Stoker

A few weeks back Nicholas Kristoff penned a column in the NY Times discussing Syria’s White Helmets. The White Helmets are the unpaid and unarmed volunteers who risk their own lives as Syria’s first responders to military offenses. They rush to the most recent bombing and sift through the rubble attempting to free anyone trapped underneath. The White Helmets mission is strictly humanitarian which allows them to work across rebel militia lines. Kristoff’s piece is a rarity in this day and age, one which portrays the human side of conflict and the tremendous capacity for bravery, humanitarianism, and non-violence that exists in the Middle East. Instead we are bombarded with news stories of suicide bombings and beheadings that warp our understanding of the region and its peoples.

Having lived, studied, and worked in the Middle East, my personal view of the region is one that shares much more in common with the White Helmets than it does with terrorism and inhumanity. I believe that it is important for us to take a step back from the terrible news that dominates the region and focus on the inspiring and powerful stories that are happening in the midst of tragedy. I believe that by doing this we can see that there is much more that unites us with them, than there is that divides us. Today, I would like to focus on those stories.

The White Helmets are not the only heroes in Syria today. Since the beginning of the conflict nearly four years ago, Syrian doctors have risked their lives to provide medical care to soldiers and civilians wounded in the conflict. As conditions in Syria have deteriorated over the years, tens of thousands of have fled including medical personnel, dozens of doctors have remained behind to provide medical care to those caught in the chaos. They continue to abide by the Hippocratic oath in the face of the Asad regime’s campaign of terror. These doctors are brave, they are heroes in a world that needs more of them.

Residents of the small West Bank village of Bil’in have seen Israeli settlers and the separation barrier slowly encroach on the agricultural land that has provided a living for decades. For the last decade, these villagers have held weekly marches peacefully calling on the Israeli government to protect their property rights. These residents have fought for their rights in a dignified manner while rejecting armed resistance and the radical ideologies of groups like Hamas and the PFLP.

Throughout the developed world leprosy is in the past. Even in the developing world it is still rare but not yet eradicated. In a quiet village on the outskirts of Cairo, sits the leper colony of Abu Zaabal. For more than 80 years this small community has served as haven to those afflicted with the terrible disease. The doctors and nurses who service the colony receive little in financial compensation for their services. The colony also helps provide for those who have been cured but struggle to re-enter Egyptian society due to deformities as a result of the disease. For many, Abu Zaabal becomes the center of their lives.

In Syria, Amal Malek is using art in an effort to help rebuild Syria in the midst of its brutal civil war. In the city of An-Nabek, which was badly damaged during fighting in 2013, Malek is leading a campaign beautify the city and send a message of peace. Sulafa Abu Senn, one of the participants in Malek’s campaign, described the project as helping cultivate optimism and encourage peace in the city.

The common thread in all of these stories run counter to many people’s perceptions of the region; this humanity demonstrates that beyond the turmoil the peoples of the Middle East are in many ways like us. They believe in the sanctity of human life and strive to make the best of their situation. Stories such as the ones shared above are not an aberration. It is rarely mentioned that Arabs and Muslims protected Jews from the Nazis during World War II (see here and here). There is a tremendous amount of good in the Middle East today and too often we let horrendous over shadow that good. I believe that people in the Middle East and the West have more in common than have in difference. Yet too often we let the differences consume our perceptions of the other. My plea is that we always strive to remember their humanity in hopes that one day this will one day help us build bridges over that which divides us. 

On Apostasy, Freedom of Belief, and Islam

By Danny Stoker

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia hosted a forum of high profile Muslim scholars to discuss how they might counter Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS. At this forum Ahmed Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, one the most well-respected seats of learning in the Sunni-Muslim world, argued that they must reform and reign in the religious education of Muslims and combat the ‘tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers.” Days later, a Saudi Court sentenced a man to death after he renounced Islam in an online video. Earlier this year the Saudi authorities carried out the public flogging of activist Raif Badawi on charges that he insulted Islam. Among Badawi’s supposed crimes was apostasy for advocating for an individual’s right to “believe or not believe.” Sheikh Ahmed Tayyib is right, if the Islamic world is going to truly combat radicalism they must reform religious education, this includes reforming its views on apostasy and how they are to be dealt with.

In Islamic thought, there is a multitude of views and opinions regarding apostasy although most schools of Islamic thought tend to agree on strict punishment for those that choose to leave the faith. Islam’s most authoritative source, the Qur’an, condemns apostasy in numerous verses but it does not prescribe a punishment for the offense or even clarify if there is a punishment in this life. A small minority of scholars cite the oft quoted passage, “There is no compulsion in religion” to argue against capital punishment for apostasy, however the many scholars refute this interpretation saying that verses received later abrogate this passage.

The Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, provides the primary justification for capital punishment in cases of apostasy. While there are several Hadiths that explicitly sanction capital punishment in cases of apostasy, the Hadith does not hold the same weight as the Qur’an as they were collected well after the Mohamed had passed away and rely heavily on Isnad or a chain of narrators linking the material to the Prophet. Throughout Islamic history several prominent Islamic scholars and movements have criticized the Hadith arguing that it was gathered through guesswork and conjecture making it difficult authenticate. This view was held by the Mu’tazila, Syed Ahmad Khan, and Mohamed Iqbal among others. Due to the complexity of Hadith science disputes remain on the issue of capital punishment among scholars who view the Hadith as reliable and an authoritative source.

Gamal al-Banna, a liberal Islamic scholar and younger brother of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, rejected capital punishment in cases of apostasy arguing that in Islam every individual had the right to change his religion without fear of recourse. According al-Banna, early instances of capital punishment in cases of apostasy recorded in the Hadith were related to specific circumstances and were about more than just a personal crisis of faith but were political as well. In these early cases, al-Banna argues that apostasy was tantamount to treason and threatened the safety of the ummah. Perhaps the most surprising opponent of capital punishment in cases of apostasy is the 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, who in many ways is the Godfather of Islamic fundamentalism. While Taymiyyah supported waging Jihad against Shi’a Muslims, forcing political leaders to institute Sharia, destroying pilgrimage sites, he argued that there should be no legal punishment in cases of apostasy. He contended that no one should question another’s faith since only God can know his heart and intentions. Despite the objections of certain prominent Islamic scholars and thinkers, capital punishment is still a widely accepted punishment in cases of apostasy.

The fact that apostasy is crime with severe consequences throughout much of the Middle East and the Islamic world is a problem not only because it infringes on the right to believe or not believe but also because accusations of apostasy are often used to silence well reasoned critiques of the religion by respected scholars. In fact, apostasy accusations have often been leveled against Islamic scholars, who see themselves as practicing Muslims, in an effort to marginalize their scholarship or delegitimize their views. Two prime examples of this are the stories of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha and Nasr Abu Zayd. Taha was a Sudanese engineer by training but after a period of prolonged religious seclusion developed an interpretation of the Qur’an that clashed with the religious and social trends in his country. His interpretation of Islam advocated religious freedom and gender equality and criticized many of the religious practices in Sudan. He was eventually convicted of apostasy and executed by the state in 1985.

While not as tragic, Nasr Abu Zayd’s case is equally frustrating. Abu Zayd, an accomplished professor of Islamic studies at Cairo University, was denied a promotion due to his liberal views on the Qur’an and was later declared an apostate by an Egyptian court. Abu Zayd argued that the Qur’an should be interpreted within the historical context of which it was revealed and it should be viewed as both a religious and literary text. He maintained that the Qur’an was a collection of discourses and was open for debate, criticism, and interpretation. Abu Zayd’s philosophy encouraged freedom of thought and was critical of those who tried to wield Islam for political influence. Abu Zayd immigrated to Germany after his conviction for apostasy nullified his marriage and radical Islamists called for his death.

The common theme in the teachings and thought of Badawi, Taha, and Abu Zayd is freedom of thought and belief. For these thoughts they all faced the same charge of being apostates and when the governments weren’t spearheading the persecution they were largely absent. If governments throughout the Islamic World want to defeat the virus of extremism that is spreading in their societies they must embrace Islam of Badawi, Taha and Abu Zayd, the Islam of freedom. This Islam empowers its adherents breeding creativity and hope but it pushes for social and political change. Unfortunately these are things that are of little interest to authoritarian governments of the Islamic World who are likely to continue to hide behind a coercive doctrine of apostasy while trying to sell the masses a stilted interpretation of Islam steeped in authoritarianism.

The Demise of the Houthis


Listening to all the great conspiracy theories that circulate around the Middle East brings immeasurable joy to my life.  One of my all time favorites is that the Republican Party orchestrated Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in order to push voters toward the more socially conservative George Bush in the election that was to be held seven months later.  

Currently, rumor has it that the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has allied himself with the Houthi militia Ansar Allah.  This alliance is seen by many as a major contributing factor in the Houthis’ successful takeover of Yemen’s capital Sanaa.  The conspiracy is fueled by a leaked phone conversation between Saleh and a high ranking Houthi official Adbul Wahid Abu Ras.  The recording—originally aired by Al-Jazeera—purports to be a conversation in which Ali Abdullah Saleh and the official discuss the necessary steps to solidify Houthi control of the capital.  Although neither of the men mention any military assistance from Saleh, many opponents of the Houthis assume that if the former president is talking with the Houthis he must also be helping them in other aspects of the takeover.  This assumption has gained traction as observers try and explain the ability of Ansar Allah to defeat the Yemeni military as well as one of the country’s major tribes.  Although there are numerous non-conspiratorial, logical explanations for the collapse of the Yemeni army and the Al-Ahmar tribe, if the accusations are true, the Houthis reign in Sanaa will be short lived.  

Ali Adbullah Saleh was president of Yemen for 33 years—a position one does not hold for that length of time unless that person is a master of political intrigue.  He is expert at playing tribes off against each other and in gaining allies to be pawns in his greater game.  He allied himself quickly with the Yemenis returning from Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal—a group who would later make up the bulk of Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Yemen— and used them to fight against the socialist southern Yemenis during the civil war in 1994.  He won over the Hashid tribal federation which is considered the strongest tribal federation in the country, by electing its leader, Abdullah Al-Ahmar, to the position of speaker of the parliament in all four parliaments Al-Ahmar served in.  This was done irrespective of how well Al-Ahmar’s party (Al-Islah) did at the polls. (This was accomplished through President Saleh’s political party, the PGC, which always held a large number of seats in the parliament.)  He was able to gain the support of America through cooperating with the war on terror:  He allowed the military and CIA to kill Al-Qaeda operatives while at the same time maintaining with the terrorist organization the links he established in 1994.

Of all his feats, the fact that he is even talking with the Houthis is probably his greatest.  He waged six wars against the Houthis killing thousands and yet somehow he managed to at least once get a Houthi official to talk with him: a conversation in which one could not detect any hint of animosity between the two parties.  

My advice to the Houthis is to never join an alliance with this man.  If they have already entered into an agreement they need to get out immediately if they truly want to rule Yemen.  Saleh is using the Houthis just as he as used Al-Qaeda, the various tribes, and America.   Ali Abdullah Saleh wants power and the Houthis are just a means to an end.  His days as a politician are not over—at least not from his perspective.  There is no other reason for him to be so involved in the goings-on of Yemen if he was retired.  So to the Houthis I say, he is smarter than you.  He is a scorpion and you are a frog: Don’t let him on your back.  I promise it will not end well.  

The Legacy of Imperialism and the Brutal Logic of ISIS


The self-proclaimed Islamic State, better known as ISIS, released a video of the execution of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh earlier this week. The act portrayed within this video set off a new round of speeches condemning ISIS and vows to destroy the world’s most notorious terrorist organization. In Jordan, citizens took to the streets demanding justice on behalf of Kasasbeh and calling on the government to take its revenge. When viewing a list of ISIS’s crimes it is only natural to wish for the eradication of the organization, even by brutal means if necessary. While it may seem counterintuitive, this is most likely what ISIS wants.

Since ISIS shocked much of the world last June with its rapid advance into Iraq and successful operation to take Mosul, the organization has effectively deployed propaganda in an effort to reach out to prospective recruits and advance the organization’s narrative. The Vice News documentary ‘The Islamic State’ and the reporting of journalist Juergan Todenhoefer demonstrate ISIS’ ability to portray itself as an organized, just, and well-governed state despite several reports contradicting this narrative. With this in mind, it is no mistake that ISIS willingly displays its own brutality to the world and eagerly awaits the world’s response. In the minds of ISIS and their sympathizers within this propaganda there is a much subtler and poignant message, a message of justice.

For most people there is no justice in burning another human being alive, that act remains inexcusable, but when looking through the historical context of the region and the historical experience of many Arab-Muslims the message becomes clearer. The legacy of Western imperialism has left deep metaphorical scars on the psyche of the Arab World and until now permanent scars on the map of the region. While imperialism is built upon the military and economic superiority of the colonizing power, it only succeeds with the collaboration of some among the native populations. It is not lost on most Arabs that the current regime in Jordan does not exist without the help of the British and the backing of other Western powers in modern history. The legacy of Western imperialism is often blamed for the regions struggles and the suffering of the Arab people as some Arab rulers are accused of being lackeys of the West, making decisions that benefit the US and Europe at the expense of their own people.

This legacy of imperialism is intrinsically tied to the West’s recent military adventures in the region. Whether it be the Iraq War, NATO air support for Libya Rebels, or the recent coalition against ISIS, all of these military adventures require some level of local support but not all of them are perceived to benefit those willing local participants. Prior to Kasasbeh’s execution, many Jordanians remained ambivalent toward the U.S. sponsored coalition against and believed the campaign against the terrorist organization was not their fight. Some questioned Jordan’s decision to join the coalition believing it wasn’t their fight.

ISIS propagandists were fully aware of this sentiment when they released this most recent video. It is no coincidence that the video’s release occurred during Jordan’s King Abdullah visit to the White House (Jordan claims the pilot was likely killed on Jan. 3). The video shows King Abdullah pledging his support for the U.S. coalition against ISIS as well as displaying the destruction caused by the coalition’s air strikes in Syria and Iraq before moving on to the capture and execution of Kasasbeh. The intent of the video is so much more than an effort to shock and terrify its viewers. It is meant to call attention to death and suffering caused by the imperialism of the West and the punishment reserved for those willing to collaborate with it. In the mind ISIS’ leadership the brutal method of execution is no worse than what Jihadists have experienced at the hands Bashar al-Asad, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak or many of the other Arab autocrats who have been propped up by imperial powers. In the warped mind of ISIS, the execution of Kasasbeh is the fulfillment of justice on behalf of all those who died in coalition airstrikes.

In the aftermath or Kasasbeh’s execution, Jordanians’ ambivalence toward ISIS has quickly disappeared. Whether this will serve ISIS well remains to be seen but it is exactly what this group of fanatics wants. In their worldview, there is only black and white, good and bad, wicked and righteous. There is no room for ambivalence, gray, uncertainty or moral ambiguity. By coupling Western imperialism with the fight against them, ISIS believes the Arab world will in time join their side. Thankfully, I’m glad Jordan is proving them wrong.