The U.S. missile strikes against an airport military facility near Homs, Syria, has opened a new chapter in Syria’s bloody six-year civil war. A key question, even as the political and military fallout is still settling, is how dangerous this escalation will become.
The war already has claimed as many as 500,000 lives, and more than 12 million Syrians have lost their homes. The refugee crisis continues, along with the rise of terrorism and populism worldwide.
President Donald Trump ordered the airstrikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on April 3, an attack which claimed almost 100 lives, many of them children, and in which the Assad government and its Russian allies are implicated. Other reports, including from within the United Nations, claim it is likely opposition fighters in Idlib committed the atrocity, and so the blame game goes on as it has since the start of this conflict.
A number of concerns arise from these new developments. First, after six years of carnage, the Syrian people are increasingly the target of local and foreign governments in their own country. There seems to be no diplomatic or military solution that favors the Syrian people. Public discussion and analysis of the airstrikes and chemical attack are almost exclusively about assessing the merits or faults of Trump’s intervention, what Putin’s response will be, or to what extent the Assad government will be weakened.
At no point has there been substantive discussion or debate on how to throw all our weight behind diplomacy, twisting arms and non-lethal economic retaliation.
Second, how dangerous is this escalation? Will Putin tell Assad to take one for the team and bring down the conflict a couple of notches? Or will Russia come into direct conflict with the United States? The latter looms larger as the Russians have suspended the 2015 agreement “de-conflicting” Russian and Syrian airstrikes in Syria (whose originally stated enemy was ISIS).
Third, how much of this is a distraction from the altogether unstable Trump administration? With the sacking of Michael Flynn and the removal of chief advisor Steve Bannon from a coveted seat on the National Security Council and chief of staff Reince Priebus on apparently shaky ground, Trump can benefit from less attention on his unsteady first months in office. Or is this a distraction from the death toll in Mosul, where U.S. air strikes killed as many as 200 Iraqi civilians on March 24?
The GOP are, as expected, eager for war, as they were under George W. Bush and the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Also, much of the media is spending its time juxtaposing the “action” of Trump’s airstrikes, versus the “inaction” of Obama’s attempt to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons. History teaches that either path – direct military engagement of Assad, or turning a blind eye – has large human and material costs.
The airstrikes come a week after Trump said removing Assad was no longer a priority. Supporters of the Syrian government claim the chemical was an act of sabotage by the opposition to frame Assad. The opposition claims that Assad was emboldened to get away with murder after Trump’s statements.
That doesn’t necessarily hold. Assad has been massacring the civilian population for years, before world’s own eyes. He could have been assassinated numerous times, but he was not. As in the chemical attack of 2013, it seems unclear to me why a brutal dictator already getting away with murder would need to switch from conventional weapons to chemical weapons. However, the fog of war is thick, and the patience of men has worn thin.
A last-ditch effort at diplomacy after the Syrian government and the Russians re-conquered Aleppo from opposition fighters in 2016 (and Homs in 2015) was squandered. This new round of airstrikes pushes the dream of a diplomatic solution even further afield. The U.S. is getting dragged into perpetual war in the Middle East once again, with no military strategy or intent for diplomacy.
My fear is that we as citizens of the most powerful country in the world are becoming inculcated in or addicted to war. Despite most Americans losing any desire for war after Iraq renewed threats of global terrorism and the rise of populism are once again feeding the Narrative of War. In this respect, the Trump Administration is merely following the unofficial handbook of American foreign policy, namely airstrikes and – if the political will permits – ground invasion. The Trump Administration does not appear to possess sophistication or imaginative capability to bring about a diplomatic solution.
Does this mean the only way to effect change on the world stage is through brute force? If we buy into this outmoded narrative – again – then the spread of global warfare and terrorism will become stronger and more inevitable.
Let us not forget one final mantra, perpetual war is good for perpetual business. Raytheon, producer of the Tomahawk missiles used to attack Syria, has seen its stock soar on the market. This is good for Trump, who owns Raytheon stocks, and all the other and other wealthy movers and shakers in the business of making war. This is to say nothing of energy and development contracts–the ‘spoils of war.’
In recent years, instability in the Middle East and deteriorating relations between Putin and Obama have made conflicts around the world a zero sum game. In the end, the U.S. or Russia and their so called allies will need to give up influence, cede territory and stop destroying sovereign nations if Syria is to have a future and the world a chance to stabilize. The sooner we all learn this the better.
Program Director and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
University of Houston
FEBRUARY 17, 2017
Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, Members of the Trump Administration and 115th Congress,
America’s native son, James Baldwin, warned us that to describe people as terrorists “is to dismiss their claim to human attention: we are not compelled to think of them at all anymore, except as the vermin that must be destroyed” (The Evidence of Things Not Seen). Your policies against Muslim immigrants and refugees under the pretext of terrorism reopen a dark page in our nation’s history.
America was founded as a nation of immigrants, and Muslims have been part of the American story since the very beginning. Millions of Muslims were among the African slaves who suffered grave injustice and built this nation on their backs. George Washington’s letter to his “great and magnanimous friend” Sultan Muhammad Ibn Abdullah of Morocco and Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an show that America’s founding fathers recognized Islam’s importance for international diplomacy and personal philosophy.
Some two centuries later, however, our current leaders have alienated, even dehumanized, their fellow Muslim citizens, with episodes of racism on the rise on your watch.
Scripture teaches us that long ago, different peoples settled in the land of Egypt as they searched for economic opportunity and an honorable life. Like America, Egypt was once a great nation of immigrants and natives, slaves and masters. Its ruler, Pharaoh, was considered a god: a narcissist and a dictator of the masses. When a young foreign slave named Joseph arrived in Egypt, the Qur’an teaches that his master commanded, “Make his stay honorable. He may well be of use to us, or we may adopt him as a son. And thus We settled Joseph in that land” (12:21).
America is fundamentally a nation of immigrants, a home blessed with honorable sons and daughters, like Joseph, who go on to do great things for their adopted nation. The future of America depends in large part on how your administration treats its Muslim citizens, residents and immigrants alike. Leaders come and go; but diversity and pluralism are here to stay. Like the ancients awaiting a sign from the heavens, we the people endure. We take heart in the words of the Qur’an: “Be witnesses of justice, and let not the hatred of a people prevent you from being just” (5:8).
Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
University of Houston
Christmas 2016 for the western churches is upon us. Nobody will dispute that 2016 was itself a trying year. A host of global problems have polarized human beings based on race, religion, ethnicity and other traits. The rise in right wing, fundamentalist, even racist rhetoric and identity politics have made this year especially divisive. To the Christians of America and Europe I say, you will find the culture and language of Christ in your Muslim brothers and sisters. So stop listening to the media and politicians and visit your local mosque. I assure you they will welcome you.To the Muslims globally I say, the Qur’an was originally written for a Christian and Jewish audience. So stop listening to clerics and try reading the text critically by yourself.
Christians and Muslims share a great deal–beyond their own humanity–not least because Aramaic and Arabic are sister languages that share a single cultural and religious sphere in the Middle East have been. To really understand the depth and complexity of this relationship requires one to learn difficult (but beautiful!) languages, read ancient manuscripts as well as tons of literature, history, social studies in other foreign languages. This is why, as we welcome the challenges of 2017, education matters; knowledge, research and digitization matters; humanities and social sciences matter; reading bokks matters; learning languages matters– facts matter. The “truth” (small “t”) is always complex. So don’t buy “us versus them” just because it’s simple!
To sample this complexity, consider the most commonly read Christian prayer (the Lord’s Prayer) and the most commonly read Muslim prayer (the Fatihah / Qur’an’s introduction) from my book The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions. Footnotes have been removes, and you have my apologies if some of the type or transliteration do not come through. Put on your thinking caps and enjoy!
* Excerpts Begins (footnotes removed) *
The impact that the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer had on the language, form and content of liturgical prayers in the Arabic Qur’ān was profound. The text of the Lord’s Prayer reads,
Our Father who is in Heaven (abūn d-ba-šmayā),
Sanctified is Your name (nētqdaš šmāk).
Your kingdom come (tītē malkūtāk)
Your will be done (nēhwē s.ēbyānāk)
As in Heaven so [too] on earth(aykanā d-ba-šmayā āp b-ar‘ā).
Give us the bread that we need this day (hab lan lah. mā d-sūnqānan yawmānā).
And forgive us our debts (wa šbūq lan hawbayn)
Just as we have forgiven our debters (aykānā d-āp h. nan šbaqn l-hayābayn).
And do not enter us into temptation (w lā ta‘aln l-nēsyūnā)
But deliver us from the evil one (ēlā fas.ān mēn bīšā);
Because to you belong the kingdom, the power and glory (met.ūl d-dīlāk hī malkūtā w haylā w tēšbūh. tā) forever and ever (l-‘ālam ‘ālmīn).
(Matthew 6:9–13: cf. Luke 11:2–4; Diatessaron 9:31–36; Didache 8)
Beginning with the most important qur’ānic example that was inspired by or re- articulated certain dimensions of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer, let us consider “the Opening” (al-fātihah; seventh century CE). The liturgical prayer that begins the Qur’ān serves as the first Surah and is, furthermore, unparalleled in literary and religious importance within all Islamic literature. As Sperl demonstrates, it is a prayer that comes from a long tradition of ancient and late antique Near Eastern liturgical style prayers, going back through the Gloria of the Roman mass (fourth century CE), the Lord’s Prayer (first century), the Shemoneh ‘Esreh of Rabbinic liturgy (first century CE?), and related to the Babylonian prayer to the moon god, Sin (first millennium BCE). It should be added that the Zoroastrian liturgies— especially the Avestan Gahs—and the supplications of Gēnzā Rbā R1:1:1–27 are too a foundational contribution to this prayer tradition. At any rate, the text of the fātihah, including the basmalah, follows:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Benevolent (b-ism allāh al-rah. mān al-rah. īm)
Glory belongs to God, Lord of the worlds (al-hamd li al-allāh rabb al-‘ālamīn)
The Merciful, the Benevolent (al-rah. mān al-rah. īm)
King of the Day of Judgment (malik yawm al-dīn)122
You do we serve (iyyāk na‘bud)
And you do we ask for help (wa iyyāk nasta‘īn)
Guide us to the straight path (ihdinā al-sirāt. al-mustaqīm)
The path of those whom You have favored (sirāt. al-ladhīn an‘amt alayhim)
Not those who incur anger (ghayr al-maghd. ūb ‘alayhim)
Sperl convincingly relates the syntactic, rhetorical and symmetrical parallel- ism found in the Arabic fātihah to the Greek text of the Lord’s Prayer. He notes that the underlying structure of the Lord’s Prayer, like the fātihah—including the basmalah—is divided symmetrically into two halves “juxtaposing the human and divine sphere.” Thus, according to Sperl’s distribution of the lines (see earlier), the first five lines of both the Lord’s Prayer and the fātihah concern God (glory and exaltation) and the latter five concern humankind (asking God for help). Without sharing Sperl’s belief that the original language of the Lord’s Prayer, which is “lost,” is of secondary importance, and without repeating the details of his otherwise valuable literary analysis, new insights follow making use of the Aramaic text of the Lord’s Prayer, focusing on the Arabic fātihah’s dogmatic re- articulation thereof.
A report going back to ‘Alī b. Abī T. ālib alleges that Waraqah—whose knowledge of the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer may be assumed—gave Muhamamad the courage to receive the revelation of the first four lines of the fātihah. Concerning the text of the fātihah more specifically, the initial part of the basmalah, which states “in the name of God” (b-ism allāh; see also Q 27:30), begins the fātihah while invoking the phrase “sanctified is Your name” (nētqdaš šmāk) in the Lord’s Prayer, where Arabic i–s–m corresponds to Aramaic š–m. So too is the verse “King of the Day of Judgment” (malik yawm al-dīn) a re-articulation of “Your kingdom come” (tītē malkūtāk)—possibly mediated through Syriac homilies like that of Narsai—where the components of kingdom (see Chapter 5) and apocalypse (see Chapter 6) are juxtaposed. Thus, “King” (malik) invokes “kingdom” (malkūtā), and the phrase “the Day of Judgment” (yawm al-dīn) corresponds to the Aramaic feminine singular imperative verb “Come” (tītē). Other pairs that function as conceptual parallels include: the verbal clauses “guide us” (ihdinā) and “deliver us” (fas.ān); the construct “those who incur anger” (al-maghd. ūb ‘alayhim) and the noun with the first person plural suffix “our debters” (hayābayn); and finally, the nouns “the lost” (al-dāllīn) and “temptation” (nēsyūnā).
The rhyme at the end of the fātih. ah’s verses (not lines) is the one most commonly found in the Qur’ān, īn/īm. According to Sperl’s 10 line schema, the rhyme at the end of the fātihah’s lines is īn/īm (A), except for line 5 which ends in “we worship” (na‘bud; B) and lines 8 and 9 which end in the phrase “upon them” (‘alayhim; C), producing a rhyme scheme of A-A-A-A-B-A-A-C-C-A. Similarly, according to Sperl’s schema, the rhyme scheme of the Aramaic text is stronger than that of the Greek. The rhyme of the former consists of: the emphatic nominal singular article ā (A); the masculine singular possessive suffix ak (B); and the masculaine plural emphatic case plus first person plural possessive suffix ayn (C). This produces a rhyme scheme of A-B-B-B-A-A-A-C-C-A-A. Although the fātihah and Lord’s Prayer share neither rhyme morpheme nor rhyme scheme the occurrence of the stanzas C-C before a return to stanza A at the end may demonstrate the remnants of a shared liturgical substrate. Although Sperl never suggests it, rhyme is an integral phonetic component of the style employed in both the fātihah and Lord’s Prayer. Finally, like their Christian counterparts who chant the Aramaic Lord’s Prayer to this day, faithful Muslim worshippers chant the fātihah as an Arabic hymn and conclude it with the standard Judeo-Christian statement, āmīn (Aramaic āmēn).
The Lord’s Prayer not only affected the form and content of the fātihah but likely informed—along with Hebrew Scripture and Rabbinic commentary—a number of other liturgical prayers in the Qur’ān known for their profound literary and rhythmic qualities. As an invocation, “Our Father who is in Heaven (abūn d-ba-šmayā)” is used very much like the basmalah (Q 1:1; 27:30). As an exalta- tion of God’s name in the Spirit of Hebrew Scripture (1 Chronicles 16:35; 29:13; Psalms 44:8; Joel 2:26; and so on), “Sanctified is Your name (nētqdaš šmāk),” likely had some influence on the qur’ānic phrase, “so glorify in the name of your Lord, the Great One (fa sabbih. b-ism rabbik al-‘az.īm)” (Q 56:74, 96; 69:52).
The verbal clause in line 3 of the Lord’s Prayer stating, “Your kingdom come (tītē malkūtāk)” is adapted in the qur’ānic formula used in prayers, “Our Lord, bring us . . .!” (rabbanā [wa] ātinā . . .) demanding of God’s promise (Q 3:194) and mercy (Q 18:10; cf. Q 11:63; see further Q 9:75; 27:16). In this case the Aramaic verb tītēis the D stem of the third person feminine imperfect of the root ā–t–y, meaning “to come;” and the Arabic verb ātinā is the G stem of the masculine singular imperative of “to bring” (that is, causative, “to make come”) of the same root preserved in Arabic, ’–t–ā.
The use of the command in line 6 of the Lord’s Prayer, “give us” (hab lan) matches the following qur’ānic prayers, “Our Lord, do not shake our hearts after having guided us; and give us (hab lanā), from Your mercy! Indeed, you are the Giver (al-wahhāb);” (Q 3:8); as well as, “And those who say give us (hab lanā) from our spouses and offspring a soothness [for our] eyes, and make us for the virtuous a guide” (Q 25:74).
The Arabic formula hab lanāis philologically and syntactically identical to its Aramaic counterpart hab lan: masculine singular imperative of the root w–h–b/y– h–b meaning “to give,” and the preposition li/la meaning “to” attached to the first person plural possessive suffix n/nā respectively. It follows, therefore, that the qur’ānic use of w–h–b is most likely derived from Aramaic.
Lines 7–8 of the Lord’s Prayer state, “and forgive us our debts (wa šbūq lan
hawbayn), just as we have forgiven our debters (aykānā d-āp h. nan šbaqn l-
hayābayn).” That the Qur’ān inherited the idea of “sin as debt” (Aramaic h. ūbā, Arabic h. ūb) made famous by the Aramaic Gospel Traditions is clear (Q 4:2). More significantly, these lines—which encapsulate the spirit of Judeo-Christian
brotherhood and forgiveness taught in the Gospels—are fitted to the circumstances of Muhammad’s community as they pray, Lord, forgive us (rabb ighfir lanā) and our brethren who preceded us in faith (wa li ikhwāninā al-dhīnā sabaqūnā bi al-īmān); and do not create in our hearts animosity (ghill) towards those who believe. Our Lord, you are the Compassionate, the Benevolent. (Q 59:10)
The syntax of formulae asking forgiveness for oneself in Arabic and Aramaic is the same: imperative plus preposition li/la plus pronominal suffix [plus ours sins/debts].
So the syntax of “forgive [for] us our debts” (wa šbūq lan hawbayn) is pre- served in “forgive us our sins” (ighfir lanā dhunūbanā) found in the Qur’ān (Q 3:16; 3:147; 3:193; cf. Q 12:97), where the imperative “forgive” (ighfir) parallels “forgive” (šbūq) and “our sins” (dhunūbunā) parallels “our debts” (hawbayn). In relation to this, as line 8 of the Lord’s Prayer—“just as we have forgiven our debters (aykānā d-āp h. nan šbaqn l-hayābayn)”—attempts to bridge the gap between Jesus’s socially disparate community by asking for mutual forgiveness among a community of “debters,” so too does Q 59:10 ask—as a compliment to the Gospels—that there not be mutual “animosity” (ghill) among the community of “brethren” and “believers.” Moreover, Muhammad saw the spirit of brother- hood and forgiveness demonstrated in the Hebrew Scriptures and Gospel Traditions as an example for his community to follow (Q 48:29).
The translation for the word nēsyūnāin line 9 of the Lord’s Prayer “And do not enter us into temptation (w lā ta‘aln l-nēsyūnā),” is rendered alternately by the NRSV as “trial.” The faithful pray in the Qur’ān for protection against both “temptation” (from n-s-ā) and “trial” (fitnah), which are further expounded upon in Chapter 4. Thus, it states,
Our Lord, do not hold us accountable if we are tempted or mistaken (lā tu’ākhidhnā in nasīnā aw akht.a’nā)
Our Lord, nor place upon us a burden as you placed on those before us
Our Lord, nor burden us with what we cannot withstand And pardon us, forgive us, and have mercy on us.
You are our Lord, so give us victory over the rebellious folk (al-qawm al-kāfirīn).
As well as, “Our Lord, do not make us a trial for those who rebelled (lā taj‘alnā fitnah li al-ladhīnā kafarū), and forgive us Lord. Indeed, you are the Mighty, the Wise” (Q 60:5; Cf. 10:85).
As suggested earlier, the conditional clause “if we are tempted” (in nasīnā; Q 2:286) and the noun for “trial” (fitnah; Q 60:5) are an Arabic verbal re-wording and calque—respectively—of the Aramaic word for “temptation, trial” (nēsyūnā). What firmly establishes the connection between these qur’ānic prayers and line 9 of the Lord’s Prayer are the identical syntax of the negative imperatives directed towards God, “do not hold us accountable” (lā tu’ākhidhnā) and “do not make us” (lā taj‘alnā), which mirror “do not enter us” (lā ta‘aln).
As for “the rebellious folk” (al-qawm al-kāfirūn) or “those who rebelled” (al- ladhīnā kafarū) from whom the faithful flock seek refuge in the Qur’ān, they represent one manifestation of “the evil one” (bīšā) found in line 10 of the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, line 10 which reads “but deliver us from the evil one (ēlā fas.ān mēn bīšā),” is dogmatically re-articulated in a number of qur’ānic prayers. For example, Moses’ people pray,
Upon God have we placed our trust. Our Lord, do not make us a trial for the evil folk (lā taj‘alnā fitnah li al-qawm al-z.ālimīn); and deliver us—by your mercy—from the rebellious folk (wa najjinā bi rah. matik min al-qawm al-kāfirīn).
(Q 10:85–86: cf. 66:11)
Similarly, after Moses has killed an Egyptian he flees the city “fearfully looking about” and praying, “Our Lord, deliver me from the evil folk” (najjinī min al- qawm al-z.ālimīn; Q 28:21; cf. Q 23:28; see also 7:89; 26:169). The liturgical prayer formula found in the Qur’ān, “deliver us/me from the rebellious/evil folk” (najjinā/īmin al-qawm al-kāfirīn/al-z.ālimīn) reflects the syntax and meaning of “deliver us from the evil one (ēlā fas.ān mēn bīšā)” found in line 10 of the Lord’s Prayer. The verb najjinā/ī is a calque for fas.ān. Furthermore, the evil or oppressive folk (al-qawm al-kāfirīn/al-z.ālimīn) play the role of the perennial adversary/ adversaries faced by the prophets and their righteous entourage throughout the Qur’ān—the same role played by “the evil one” (bīšā) in the Aramaic Gospels (Matthew 5:37; John 17:15; and so on).
“How did renewed autocracy in Egypt and civil war in Syria impact liberals differently? What lessons can be learned about the nature of liberalism in the greater Arab context from this comparative survey? This chapter seeks to answer these questions, first by following the reaction of liberals to the so-called Arab Spring, comparing a handful of intellectuals and academics in Egypt as well as Syria. The chapter goes on to focus on two of the most prominent liberals in each context, namely Gaber Asfour and Burhan Ghalioun. In each case, the role played by the armed forces vis-à-vis the public was critical to their rapid accession to power, and equally rapid fall….”
I had the pleasure of sitting and talking with Arab Voices radio talk show host Said Fattouh last month. We discussed, among other things, the U.S. election results, populism, immigration, globalization; Trump’s impact on minority groups in the US; Muslims, Arabs, South Asians in America (contributions and challenges) and Middle East policy. You can hear the full show at the link below.