Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘William Dalrymple

Arab secularism? In what forms and shapes? Its demise?

The end of Christianity in the Middle East could mean the demise of Arab secularism

In this current Middle East rebuilt on intolerant ideologies, there is likely to be little place for beleaguered minorities

The past decade has been catastrophic for the Arab world’s beleaguered 12 million strong Christian minority.

In Egypt revolution and counter-revolution have been accompanied by a series of anti-Copt riots, killings and church burnings.

In Gaza and the West Bank Palestinian Christians are emigrating en masse as they find themselves uncomfortably caught between Netanyahu’s pro-settler government and their increasingly radicalised Sunni neighbours.

In Syria most of the violence is along the Sunni-Alawite fault line, but stories of rape and murder directed at the Christian minority, who used to make up around 10% of the population, have emerged. Many have already fled to camps in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan; the ancient Armenian community of Aleppo is reported to be moving en masse to Yerevan.

arab christian retreat

An Iraqi security officer guards the Church of the Virgin Mary in the northern town of Bartala, near Mosul, in 2012. Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

The worst affected areas of Syria are of course those controlled by Isis. Last weekend it issued a decree offering the dwindling Christian population of eastern Syria and northern Iraq a choice: convert to Islam or pay a special religious levy – the jizya. (It is business as usual for hard cash to replenish the treasury)

If they did not comply, “there is nothing to give them but the sword”. The passing of the deadline led to possibly the largest exodus of Middle Eastern Christians since the Armenian massacres during the first world war, with the entire Christian community of Mosul heading off towards Kirkuk and the relative religious tolerance of the Kurdish zone.

Even before this latest exodus, at least two-thirds of Iraqi Christians had fled since the fall of Saddam.

Christians were concentrated in Mosul, Basra and, especially, Baghdad – which before the US invasion had the largest Christian population in the Middle East.

Although Iraq’s 750,000 Christians made up only 7% of the pre-war population, they were a prosperous minority under the Ba’athists, as symbolised by the high profile of Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister, who used to disarm visiting foreign dignitaries by breaking into Onward, Christian Soldiers in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

According to tradition it was St Thomas and his cousin Addai who brought Christianity to Iraq in the first century.

At the Council of Nicea, where the Christian creed was thrashed out in AD325, there were more bishops from Mesopotamia than western Europe.

The region (East of the Euphrates, under Persian Empire) became a refuge for those persecuted by the Orthodox Byzantines, such as the Mandeans – the last Gnostics, who follow what they believe to be the teachings of John the Baptist.

Then there was the Church of the East, which brought the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, as well as Greek science and medicine, to the Islamic world – and hence, via Cordoba, to the new universities of medieval Europe.

Now almost everywhere Arab Christians are leaving.

In the past decade maybe a quarter have made new lives in Europe, Australia and America.

According to Professor Kamal Salibi, they are simply exhausted: “There is a feeling of fin de race among Christians all over the Middle East. Now they just want to go somewhere else, make some money and relax.

Each time a Christian goes, no other Christian comes to fill his place and that is a very bad thing for the Arab world. It is Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world ‘Arab’ rather than ‘Muslim’.” (It is them who translated the Greek, Byzantium and Syriac scientific and philosophical books into Arabic)

Certainly since the 19th century Christian Arabs have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity.

It is no coincidence that most of the founders of secular Arab nationalism were men like Michel Aflaq – the Greek Orthodox Christian from Damascus who, with other Syrian students freshly returned from the Sorbonne, founded the Ba’ath party in the 1940s – or Faris al-Khoury, Syria’s only Christian prime minister.

Then there were intellectuals like the Palestinian George Habash, and George Antonius, who in 1938 wrote in The Arab Awakening of the crucial role Christians played in reviving Arab literature and the arts after their long slumber under Ottoman rule.

(And don’t forget, Lebanon Antoun Saadeh, who founded the secular Syria National Social Party and was executed without trial from claiming that oil must be used as strategic weapon in 1947, against Zionist expansionism in Palestine)

If the Islamic state proclaimed by Isis turns into a permanent, Christian-free zone, it could signal the demise not just of an important part of the Arab Christian realm but also of the secular Arab nationalism Christians helped create.

The 20th century after 1918, which saw the creation of the different Arab national states, may well prove to be a blip in Middle Eastern history, as the old primary identifiers of Arab identity, religion and qabila – tribe – resurface. (The Nationalist Turks started the genocide against the Christian sects and Armenians in 1915)

It is as if, after a century of flirting with imported ideas of the secular nation state, the region is reverting to the Ottoman Millet system (from the Arabic millah, literally “nation”), which represented a view of the world that made religion the ultimate marker of identity, and classified Ottoman subjects by their various sectarian religious “nations”.

Despite sizeable Christian populations holding on in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, there is likely to be little place for Christian Arabs in a Middle East rebuilt on intolerant ideologies like those of Isis.

Their future is more likely to resemble that of the most influential Christian Arab intellectual of our day, Edward Said. Born in Jerusalem at the height of Arab nationalism in 1935, Said died far from the turmoil of the Middle East in New York in 2003. His last collection of essays was appropriately entitled Reflections On Exile.

Note: The demise of the Christians would become final if they are Not quickly incorporated in the political system and institutions in the Arab World. Only a solid political quota for the Christians can encourage the Christians to remain and return home

• The headline of this article was amended on 24 July 2014.

“In the City of Gold and Silver (Lucknow, India)” by Keneze Mourad

Between 1756 and 1856, the British had annexed two-third of the States in India and three-forth of the population.

During the Mogul Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. the representatives of the various Moslem, Hindu, Buddhists and Christian sects debated at length in order to agree on common denominator principles for a universal syncretic religion combining the beliefs of all these religious teaching and called the Din-i-Ilahi, the religion of the Divine

In 1848, the British contemplated the annexation of the richest northern State of Awadh (currently the Uttra Pradesh province), half the size of France, with Capital Lucknow. This decision was 20 years late to put into execution because the British Empire was not at war anywhere to require massive infusion of stolen wealth from India. The British kept amassing a file of charges against the Awadh State that went against the treaty. Most of these charges were fabrications and the British government knew that the reports were falcification of the facts.

Charles Grant, one of the early Governor of the British Company in India wrote: “Converting the Indians (to Protestantism) will raise their morality, but more importantly, will expand our commerce, which is our initial project…”

The annexation of Awadh was officially pronounced by the British General Governor in Calcutta , Lord Dalhousie, on Feb. 7, 1856.

England was having great difficulty in the Crimea war against Russia and the capture of Sevastopol. And the British Empire wanted all the wealth it could put its hands on in India. The richest State in north India and the land of the bounty was targeted to be annexed and directly “administered”.

The lands of the rajahs, taluqdars, and nawabs were confiscated, high taxes imposed on the peasants and who were cornered to famine and flocked to Lucknow.

Wajid Ali Shah was the king of Awadh who once said: “All the miseries are mainly caused by ignorance. Only knowledge of the culture of the other communities can we learn to respect and appreciate the values of the different cultures…

Wajid Shah was to stay master on his royal palace and his harem and receive 150,000 rupees per year…

On June 1856, the British Resident of Awadh, Henry Lawrence, “confiscated the royal treasury confined in the Palace of Kaisarbagh, on the ground of robbing the insurgents from financial facilities. Captain Birch wrote: “The jewels are impressive. The pearls and emerald were as big as eggs…”

All the royal palaces were evicted and stolen…

Wajid Shah decided to pay a visit to the Governor in Calcutta to negotiate a fairer deal with the intention of traveling to London to meet Queen Victoria. Instead, Wajid was made prisoner in Calcutta and his mother was permitted to sail to England. The mother queen lingered two years in England and was unable to meet Victoria even once. Mother queen sailed to Paris where she died two months later.

Henry Lawrence decided to fight the rebels converging to the city of Nawabgani. He was encircled in the town of Chinhut and barely was able to retreat after loosing half his troops. Henry fortified the residence and managed to repel two massive attacks and waited 6 months before General Campbell came to the rescue.

Ironically, the residence was now overflowing with more soldiers and civilians to feet and shelter and in a worse state than before. Begum Hazrat Mahal, the fourth wife of Wajid, and original name Mohammadiyeh, was acclaimed the regent and her 11 year-old son Birjis Qadar the new king.

The Mahal is attached to the name of the royal wife who gives birth to a male son

Hazrat Mahal allowed the British to retreat safely from Lucknow. The .State of Awadh was liberated for a time from any British soldier

The British sent many troops who managed to re-enter cities, such as Delhi, Kanpour, Jhansi, Gwallor… only to retreat again.

This wide and mass insurrection lasted two years, until England amassed more than 30,000 soldiers and strong with their allies of Sikhs and Gurkas from Nepal.

After the fall of Lucknow, Hazrat Mahal was forced to retreat further north to cities of Bithauli, Baundi, Butwal and resumed the insurrection by supporting more revolts in central India.

Hazrat Mahal and her troops had to cross to the Terai land in Nepal, land of swamps and dense forests, and refused to surrender to the British.

General Jang Bahadour of Nepal had deposed and killed the king and was a staunch allies to the British. He refused political asylum to the troops of Hazrat Mahal and delivered them to the British who hanged their leaders. Bahadour did dare send his army to fight the troops of Hazat because she was already a symbol for freedom to the people.

At the decision of annexing Awadh on ground of defaulting on a few clauses of the treaty, Colonel Simpson had said:

“I lived in India for 25 years and collaborated with Major Bird and the Resident Colonel Richmond during the first two years of the reign of Wajid. The king tried vigorously to reform the army, the administration, the justice system as demanded by the British Governor. Richmond vetoed all these reforms. We may say that the Company did everything in its power to block and railroad every contemplated reform in Awadh.

The newly appointed General Governor Dalhousie would not adhere to the reforms, claiming that any reform should be applied immediately to all the State od Awadh…”

The Times of London wrote: “The begum of Awadh (Hazrat Mahal) proved to have more strategic sense and courage than all her generals combined…”

The Scottish General Grant confirmed that over 150,000 Indians were killed during these mass insurrections, and over 120,000 were mainly peasants who joined the fighting against the “infidel” occupiers.

Lieutenant Majendie wrote:

“The civilization of the 19th century is no way close to appreciate humanity: The British soldiers and the Sikhs watched Indians being roasted alive, in spectators. Indians were on purpose blown to pieces by canon balls. Why? They didn’t fear death on account of an after life, but being blown denied them that their soul will remain intact…”

William Russell wrote in The Times of London in March 1858:

“I looked at the city of Lucknow from a hill before the British army invaded the city. This city was far more splendid than Paris, Rome and Constantinople. Thousands of palaces, Mosques, Temples, green parks…

After the British occupied it, Lucknow was a ghost and a dead city. The soldiers cared for gold and silver. Everything else was smashed, burned, destroyed: Jades, mirrors of Venice, crystal candelabras, furniture encrusted with ivory, musical instruments,  ancient manuscripts, all the fine master works… The soil was littered with debris of glasses and precious work of arts…

The British considered this uprising not as an insurrection against occupiers, but one of the revolts of the lower races, the black people who should be spilling their blood to serve their white masters

All the magnificence of Lucknow…How could such a civilization be blamed as corrupt and inept to govern itself.

General Havelock delivered false report on the the manner the British prisoners in Bibighar prison were assassinated in the city of Kanpour.  The prisoners, mostly female and children, were not raped or disemboweled… The British spilled blood on the walls of the prison and wrote abject sentences in order to incite the British soldiers into utter rage and the ultimate barbarity in revenge against Indian civilians…”

Rajmat Hazrat Mahal died in April 7, 1879 at the age of 48 in Kathmandu (Nepal). The British tried on many occasions to lure Hazrat to return to India, but she knew better of the hatred and revenge of the British who killed, hanged and assassinated every leader of the mass insurrection. Only Prince Feyrouz managed to escape to Kandahar (Afghanistan) and died miserably in Mecca.

The military chief Jai Lal was hanged after a mock trial that lasted two years.

Tantia Tope (military chief of another State), maulvi Ahmadullah Shah (an extremist Shiaa cleric), Rana Beni Madho, rajah Mahmoudabad, begum Lakshmi Bai, rajah of Gonda… all assassinated.

King Wajid Ali Shah died poisoned in 1887 at the age of 65 in Calcutta.

Birjis Qadar, son of Hazrat Mahal, died poisoned in Lucknow, one year after his returned from his 32 years  spent in exile.

In 1957, at the occasion of the centennial of the mass insurrection, Nehru changed the name of “Queen Victoria Park” in Lucknow to “Begum Hazrat Mahal Park” and erected a memorial in honor of the “Soul of the Revolt

Note 1: In the 19th century, north India and many States in the center were mostly Moslem Shiaa who veneered the 5 pillars: Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, Ali the husband of Fatima and the cousin of Muhammad, Hassan and Hussein, the sons of Ali and Fatima.

Even now, India has over 250 million Moslem Shiaa, more than four time the combined Shiaa in Iran, Iraq, Morocco and anywhere else.

Note 2: William Dalrymple wrote: “The British discovered in the 1857 insurrection what the US are about  to learn (in the Arab and Moslem world): Nothing can radicalize a people or frustrate moderate Moslems than direct aggressive intrusion, occupying land and forcing people to adopt alternative ideas under arms duress…”

Note 3: The “purdah” or the separation of genders in houses and public spaces were applied by both Moslems and Hindus. This culture of gender separation in the Moslem world was inherited from northern India. Mind you that commerce and trade of goods, culture, organization, art, and learning… by the early Arab Moslem Empires and later the Ottoman Empire were mainly done with India.

Europe was backward and these empires were frequently expanding into Europe.

Note 4Keneze Mourad, born in Paris 1939 is the daughter of a Turkish princess and an Indian rajah.

She was at journalist at the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur till 1970, and a reporter of the Middle-East and of the sub-Indian continent. She covered the agitations in the Iranian Islamic republic, Ethiopia upheavals, and the civil war in Lebanon.

Mourad published in French “From the part of the dead princess, 1987″, the “Garden of Badalpour, 2003″, and “The perfume of our land


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