Religion

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

The neighborhood of Eminönü in Istanbul, with Süleymaniye Mosque in the background. Source: Author's own photo.

In 2010, Samuli Schielke, an anthropologist working at Zentrum Morderner Orient in Berlin, wrote a paper concerning the anthropological study of Muslim societies that contained the following provocative assertion:

“There is too much Islam in the anthropology of Islam.”

According to Schielke, our studies of Muslim societies—anthropological or not—have often privileged the role of Islam so much that other facets of life become obscured. Indeed, when we premise our studies with titles such as “Muslims in …” or “The role of Islam in …,” we may inadvertently prioritize piety and tradition in our analytical foci—everything becomes all about Islam. The corollary to this is that we become less attuned to the ambiguities and contradictions that almost certainly come with the everyday practice of a perfectionist ethical ideal, in this case the practice of Islam. In doing so, we risk losing sight of the varied and idiosyncratic ways in which Islam can inform and mediate the everyday lives of Muslims.

An important premise to understand Schielke’s critique is to envision everyday life as an amalgamation of different but not separate “worlds.” For a Muslim, the world of Islam, with all its attendant normative ideals, will definitely constitute a part of his or her everyday life. Yet, one should be hard-pressed to say that Islam has an absolute monopoly on his or her subjective experience of the everyday. As Schielke observes in an Egyptian village, “the same people who repent their sins and think about the Afterlife also debate the previous evening’s football match, tell jokes, feel tired and glance at the opposite sex, even with religious stickers decorating the walls and the voice of the Qur’ân in the background.”

Ultimately, Islam is a lived tradition. This means that while Islam does contain a set of normative prescriptions about the ideal way to live, these norms have to be acted out in the context of everyday life, with its mishmash of multifarious, and at times, competing, demands and impulses. The majority of Muslims—like most of humankind—therefore cannot fulfill all the perfectionist ideals of their religion all the time. The result is that Islam-as-envisioned and Islam-as-lived will almost always be different, with the extent of this difference varying across individuals and communities.

This situating of Islam within the framework of everyday life builds upon Talad Asad’s famous characterization of Islam as a “discursive tradition”—a conceptual framework that locates in Islam both the coherence implied in tradition as well as the contestability implied by discourse. By considering the practice of Islam within the vicissitudes of the quotidian, the discursive nature of Islam is expanded: Islamic norms become mediated not only by the debates regarding the correct form of practice, but also the complex interplay of the individual emotions, communal dynamics and societal structures that govern everyday life.

In doing so, the practice of Islam becomes defined not what it is, but by the various interactions surrounding it. This therefore avoids what Shielke thinks is another problem associated with the anthropology of Islam—a preoccupation of trying to define what Islam is. For him, the definition of Islam is not a critical concern. Instead, as he writes, “if we want to understand what it means to live a Muslim life, then we need a grounded and nuanced understanding of what it means to live a life—more urgently than we need a sophisticated theory about what Islam is.”

In any case, while Schielke’s critique is directed within academic circles, his argument does have relevance for all of us. After all, the political salience of Islam is today at an all-time high due to the political turbulence in certain Muslim-majority countries, as well as the specter of Islamic extremism. Hence, even the most ardent hermit today will probably still hear about events and phenomena involving some aspect of Islam, whether real or imagined. As we observe these events then, we become no different from an anthropologist; our gaze onto a society or culture different from our own will be beset by the same vulnerabilities and biases that even specialists fall prey to.

Unfortunately, the cacophony about Islam and Muslims in our contemporary media is evidence that most of us have fallen prey to the very impulse that Schielke is critiquing: the need to reify something—a concept, a religion, a culture, or a community—and imbue it with explanatory value. Islam becomes the singular cause of this event, the principal vehicle of that social movement, and the dominant force in a certain someone’s world-view. In such a case, Schielke’s assertion can perhaps be expanded: there is too much Islam in public discourse about Islam.

The debate over the link between the Islamic State and Islam is perhaps reflective of our collective obsession with Islam. Some of us cannot stop pathologizing Islam, while others are fixated on defending it. In the context of the rise of the Islamic State, everyone now seems to have something to say about Islam—what it is, and what it should be.

Of course, I am not trying to imply that no one has the right to discuss what Islam is, or that Islam should be reduced to mere socio-political and economic processes. As a lived tradition, Islam definitely exerts an influence on how Muslims conduct their lives and is itself constitutive of what Muslims think of it. Nevertheless, just as how Shielke reminds us that Islam as a personal religion is part of the continuum of forces that surround the everyday life of a Muslim, Islam as a world religion should be seen as embedded within the constellation of processes and structures that condition and create our contemporary world.

Speaking of Islam as a lived tradition thus requires recognition of both its internal diversity and its contingency on entities external to itself. The next time you come across a piece of news related to the Middle East or any other Muslim-majority countries and societies then, hold back on “Islam” a little bit. There probably is more to them than just the reified behemoth we call “Islam.”

At the same time, even if Islam is involved in that piece of news, remember that Islam as it is lived—or any social phenomenon for that matter—never simply is; rather, it is always in the process of becoming.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Two Hui men performing their morning prayers at the Great Mosque of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China. Source: Nagarjun Kandukuru/Flickr.

Interestingly, it was only through reading an essay calling for the construction of a viable Muslim American culture that I got interested in the issue of Chinese Islam. Although this selection of cultural traditions might seem somewhat schizophrenic, I do believe that the essay—by Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, chairman of the Nawawi Foundation—made a worthwhile point regarding the intricate dance between cultural unity and cultural diversity from the perspective of Islam.

Asserting that “the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions were not at war with the world’s cultures and ethnicities but entertained an honest, accommodating, and generally positive view of the broad social endowments of other peoples and places,” Dr. Abd-Allah brought up the Chinese and East African Muslims as examples of how Islamic culture managed to balance “regional diversity within the overriding framework of the revealed law’s transcendental unity.” It is to this first example that I shall now turn to; if not to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity borne perhaps from my own affiliation with Chinese culture, then to take a potshot at our tendency to conceive of culture through neatly-defined boundaries and categories.

The presence of Islam in China dates all the way back to the Tang dynasty, when Arab and Persian merchants became the first Muslim settlers in China between the seventh and tenth centuries. The Mongol conquest of China in the thirteenth century that established the Yuan dynasty also brought many Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia into China. Over the course of the succeeding centuries (and dynasties) in Chinese history, many of these Muslims and their descendants would gradually integrate into Chinese culture. This process of assimilation was occasionally punctuated by conflict, with some Chinese Muslims going on to instigate rebellions, especially during the Qing dynasty between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

That said, by the time of the Qing period, the literature produced by Chinese Muslim intellectuals already reflected the deep extent of the cultural cross-pollination between Chinese and Islamic cultures in China. This corpus of literature is known as the Han Kitāb, a combination of the Mandarin word for the Chinese language, hàn, with the Arabic word for book, kitāb. According to James Frankel, a scholar on the history of Islam in China, the Han Kitāb was concerned with educating both the Chinese Muslim and non-Muslim literati about Islam and they did so through in the language of Confucianism—one of the most dominant schools of ethical and philosophical thought in Chinese history. Frankel also asserted that the Chinese Muslim intellectuals who were behind the Han Kitāb regarded themselves as “simultaneously Chinese and Muslim” and were thus able to integrate Islamic and Confucian religious and philosophic concepts seamlessly in their work.

In order to understand how this synthesis of Islamic and Confucian thought was achieved, I shall first briefly describe the key tenets of Confucianism. Central to Confucian thought is the notion of the Way (dào), which refers to the ultimate reality that permeates all aspects of the universe. Adherence to the Way is the highest ethical ideal and this can only be realized through the individual cultivation of virtue (). According to the Confucians, respect for tradition, embodied within the rituals () of the ancient Chinese sage-kings, is the principal means of cultivating virtue. Similarly, learning is also highly prized as well. Sages (shèngrén) are those who are able to cultivate their virtue to the highest possible degree and thus play the role of moral exemplars, whose actions ought to be emulated.

The Han Kitāb situates Islam within the Confucian tradition by portraying the Prophet Muhammad as a sage. For instance, the Chinese Muslim scholar, Liu Zhi—the most prolific of the Han Kitāb scholars—asserted in his biography of the Prophet Muhammad (Tiānfāng zhìshèng shílǜ) that the Prophet is the “most sagely” of all types of sages. In doing so, as the historian Zvi Ben-Dor Benite wrote in his book, The Dao of Muhammad, “the quintessential category of the Muslim world—the prophet—is in the Chinese Muslim instance converted into the quintessential category of China’s intellectual elite—the sage.”

This portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as a sage is important because it effectively legitimized the study of Islam within the Chinese intellectual landscape. If the Prophet Muhammad is indeed a sage, then his teachings—Islam—becomes a valid component of the Way that forms the primary subject of Confucian discourse, and more broadly, Chinese intellectual discourse. According to Benite, this is why the Chinese Muslim scholars have never invoked the hadith—the collection of the reported teachings, deeds and sayings of the Prophet—as the basis for one’s conduct. Instead, the Prophet Muhammad should be emulated simply because he is a sage.

Another point of convergence in the Han Kitāb between the Islamic and Confucian tradition is in the claim that Islamic rituals and practices are completely in line with those of the ancient Chinese sage-kings. Liu Zhi, in another book on Islamic ritual practice (Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ), stated that “observing and practicing the proprieties of Islam is like observing and practicing the teachings of the ancient sages and kings,” as Sachiko Murata, William Chittick, and Tu Weiming pointed out in their book, The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi. Not surprisingly, given that the various proprieties of Islam are codified under sharia law and that the teachings of the ancient sage-kings form the foundation of Confucian rituals, Liu Zhi also managed to link sharia law to Confucian ritual propriety. As Frankel highlighted, in the Tiānfāng diǎnlǐ, Liu Zhi called sharia the “Vehicle of Ritual […] for the one who is diligent in cultivating virtue.”

On the whole, the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad as the “most sagely” sage and Islam as part of the Way, as well as the framing of sharia as ritual to cultivate virtue, are some examples to showcase how the Han Kitāb could incorporate Islam with Confucianism. Obviously, since the Han Kitāb was the work of “a large group of Chinese Muslim literati” as Benite indicated, there are many more ways in which the synthesis between Islam and Confucianism was undertaken. Nonetheless, the ways that I have indicated above in this essay does provide a good sense of how the broad parameters of each tradition can be aligned with each other.

At a broader level, I would also posit that knowledge about the Han Kitāb and how Chinese Muslims have tried to indigenize Islam does have relevance beyond just trying to impress someone else with esoteric factoids. Learning about the intersections between the Islamic and Chinese cultural traditions and their synthesis provides us with yet another example of the malleability of our cultural traditions. In the same vein, it should also caution us against essentializing any culture—be it Islam, Confucianism, or something else altogether.

Indeed, the story of Islam and Confucianism, and how they came together, forms just a single trajectory in the very messy bundle of histories that make up the human condition. By considering—even just for a little bit—the myriad ways in which cultural traditions have been integrated, dissected, or even invented, we might perhaps better appreciate the remarkable messiness that underlies the human condition. After all, the fact that we each draw upon different bits of this gigantic mess to make sense of our lives does make this world a little more fun to learn about, doesn’t it?

By James P. Abate

Yazidis gather to light candles at the holy shrine of Lalish. (AP Photo/Seivan M. Salim)

Last Wednesday (April 15) marked the beginning of the Yazidi New Year. Thirty-six miles northeast of Mosul, Iraq is the small village of Lalish, the most sacred place on Earth to the Yazidi religion. Followers of the faith believe the village, surrounded on all sides by mountains lined with oak trees, to be the center of the universe: the only place on Earth to be saved during the biblical floods. Twelve cone-shaped domes are scattered across the valley as shrines to the Yazidi saints. Each year on this day thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious group located in northern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, gather on what they call Red Wednesday for a time of feasting, repentance, and performing ancient rituals set amid the temple grounds. Worshipers take off their shoes to walk the hallowed grounds and perform fire-based prayer rites. In accordance with tradition, worshipers leave colored eggs outside of their homes on the New Year hoping they will help God identify them.

This New Year, however, is eerily different. When fighters for the Islamic State invaded northern Iraq last summer, they destroyed the villages of the Yazidi people along with the homes of Christians and other Kurdish groups. In a storm of murder, torture, and sexual violence, Islamic State fighters executed and buried in mass graves young Yazidi men. They simultaneously displayed their unimaginable violent ways by capturing young girls and women who were to be used as both sex slaves and pieces of property by the militants. Hala Rasho Hamo, a worshiper at the Lalish temple this New Year said, “We did not paint eggs or hang red tulips on our doors this year: our heart is in pain. We came here to pray to God and the [Yazidi saint] Sheikh Adi to end our misery and bring back our women and children.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report earlier this week revealing some of the most heinous war crimes committed by Islamic State forces against the Yazidi women captured. The detailed report reveals that one girl as young as 12 was abducted from her village and handed over to seven Islamic State fighters who would trade and rape her. The victim recounts her story: “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my arms and legs.” Many of the women have suffered unimaginable trauma and abuse. Many have attempted suicide only to be further physically assaulted when the fighters caught them attempting to hang themselves or cut their wrists. Various reports claim that an estimated 5,000 Yazidis have been killed, abducted, or remain missing.

The United Nations is currently investigating reports from Yazidi men and women who have escaped in an effort to judge whether or not the Islamic State is committing genocide. Iraq currently is not a member of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and therefore any crimes cannot be investigated and tried under international law until the nation joins.

It is almost too overwhelming to comprehend the magnitude of horror that this population has endured. It is even more difficult to comprehend how the United Nations or other international peace keeping institutions have not intervened for these people. It is understandable that these organizations are often just as terrified about the threat that the Islamic State poses in the region. However, I cannot comprehend how the world is able to stand by and watch as this militant organization commits genocide in a similar fashion to that of every other mass killing movement in history. Reminiscent of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocide, the mass killing and capture of the Yazidi people has for almost a year gone unnoticed by most of the world’s population. As a more integrated world, we must not stand by and watch as a minority population is massacred for their beliefs and identity. They too should enjoy the ability to worship in peace on this New Year’s celebration without the grief of reflecting for the thousands that have been massacred or abducted from their friends and families.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Program booklet for Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage. Source: Author's own photo.

What is home? Is it just a structure, a shelter over our heads? Or can it be something more? For most of us, home is a treasure trove of trust and love. It is the site of our most cherished relationships, the place we ground our memories and our sense of self. Yet, it can also be the cradle we have always wanted to run away from; suffocating, and at times, utterly dysfunctional. Try as we might, however, home may not be a place we can easily escape from either. After all, home can be entirely divorced from geography; a state of mind that we carry even after crossing multiple borders. Perhaps, it is simply a latent sentiment we all share: similar in spirit, but different in form—wherever we come from.

I had the tremendous privilege of spending last Friday evening watching Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices On Stagean interactive, multi-media performance based on year-long engagements and interviews between Georgetown University students and youth from all around the world, but primarily from the Middle East. Held at the Davis Performing Arts Center in Georgetown University, Generation (Wh)Y is the third of four events that constitute Myriad Voices: A Cross-Cultural Performance Festival. Through compelling performances, the festival seeks to present the varied and textured experiences of Muslim individuals and communities, humanizing them and thus rendering them all the more familiar.

Generation (Wh)Y began with a chorus of words related to the idea of home, all in different languages. The dynamic movements of the ensemble and the cascade of voices echoing throughout the intimate space of the theater evoked a certain immersive quality: home as a feeling, as a sentiment, flowed all around us. Naturally, I did not know most of the non-English words that were said, but the mystique of these foreign words that permeated through the sonic landscape only reinforced my gut instinct: not all human sentiments could, or even should, be expressed literally. After all, as some of the featured interview excerpts expressed, there is always the risk that labels and names might obscure other facets of our identities: we are not just Muslims, nor are we just someone from X country.

Following this moving exploration of the different meanings of home, the audience was split up and led to separate parts of the Performing Arts Center for three different “Encounters,” each centered on the themes of Discovery, Risk, and Laughter respectively. In “Discovery,” two live dancers were juxtaposed against the silhouettes of human figures projected onto the backdrop of the stage. As excerpts from the interviews were narrated, the shadows of the dancers swept gracefully around the talking silhouettes, simulating the ebb and flow of conversation. Indeed, dialogue is a wonderful avenue for us to discover ourselves and our place in the world. Regardless of where we are from, there will always be common ground that underlies our shared humanity.

In “Risk,” excerpts from the interviews were interspersed with poems by Palestinian and Sudanese poets. As the cast members paced around the room and recounted stories laden not only with anxieties and uncertainties, but also hopes and dreams, they truly succeeded in bringing these excerpts to life before the audience. At the center of this performance were the drapes that hung from the ceiling, symbolizing both the desire for security at our most vulnerable, as well as the upward trajectories of our aspirations. “Laughter” shifted the mood of the event to a more light-hearted one, as the audience got the chance to sample jokes from around the world. After we had an appetizing course of giggles, chuckles, and belly laughs, we ended the encounter with a heartening and lengthy burst of guffaws—a reminder that the sheer joy of a good laugh is indeed universal.

As an individual living in this diverse world, it is definitely heartening to be reminded that there are still many commonalities underpinning the human experience. We may all speak a different language, practise different customs and hold different views about the world and beyond. But that does not deny the fact that we all want a loving home to go back to everyday—to rest and recharge from a meaningful life filled with discoveries and risks, as well as a healthy dose of laughter. The journey that Generation (Wh)Y had taken us should not be confined to the theater. As we go about our daily lives, let us not forget to treat our brothers and sisters all around us with compassion, understanding, and an open mind—whether or not they share the same race or creed. We only have one world; and we are all in this together.

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

A 'haft seen' table displayed in Georgetown University's ICC Galleria, March 19, 2015. Source: Author’s own photo.

Today is Nowruz, at least according to the United Nations. In a 2010 resolution, the UN General Assembly designated the International Day of Nowruz to fall on March 21 every year. More precisely, however, Nowruz marks the day of the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, which can occur anytime between March 19-22, depending on the year as well as one’s location. Such technicalities aside, Nowruz is essentially a celebration to usher in the season of spring—a welcome respite from the preceding months of winter. Not surprisingly then, the term “Nowruz” means “New Day” in Farsi.

Nowruz is celebrated by many communities inhabiting the lands spanning from Turkey to India—all of which had some degree of Persian influence historically. In Iran, most consider Nowruz to be the most important national holiday in the country. After all, Nowruz indicates the arrival of the New Year in the Persian calendar. Festivities stretch for 13 days and I have been told that Iranian students get two weeks off from school. During this time, family and friends gather together, sharing food and exchanging conversation. This is apparently also the best time to visit Tehran, when its notable congestion and pollution is greatly ameliorated as the city’s residents seize this once-in-a-year opportunity to escape the city.

Central to the Iranian celebrations of Nowruz is the setting of the haft seen table. In line with the literal meaning of its name—“haft” refers to the number seven, while “seen” refers to the letter “S” in Farsi—thehaft seen table contains seven items, all with Farsi names starting with “S.” In addition, each of them have their own symbolism, as outlined by a teaching resource on Nowruz published by Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies:

  1. Sumac (crushed spice of berries): For the sunrise and the spice of life
  2. Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree): For love and affection
  3. Serkeh (vinegar): For patience and age
  4. Seeb (apples): For health and beauty
  5. Sir (garlic): For good health
  6. Samanu (wheat pudding): For fertility and the sweetness of life
  7. Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass): For rebirth and renewal of nature

Apart from these seven standard items, there are also many other items that Iranians include in their haft seen table, such as painted eggs representing fertility and a mirror to signify reflection on the past year. While the origins of the haft seen table are still not well-documented today, the tradition of placing various symbolic items on a sofra (a piece of cloth spread on the floor or table) during Nowruz has its roots in Zoroastrianism—a Persian monotheistic religion that predated the Abrahamic faiths. The other principal customs associated with Nowruz, i.e. Chaharshanbe Suri (fire-jumping festival) and Sizdah Bedar (the tradition of spending the day outdoors on the thirteenth day of Nowruz), probably had historical links to Zoroastrianism too.

While considering this association between Nowruz and Zoroastrianism, I was reminded of a German-Iranian man I met in Tehran last year. Pointing to the Faravahar (the iconic Zoroastrian symbol of a winged guardian) on the façade of the National Bank of Iran building as we walked in downtown Tehran, he told me that the “real Iran” lay in its Zoroastrian past, rather than the Islam imposed by the theocratic regime.

Despite my reservations about his casual dismissal of Islam, I believed that he was on to something. Although I only spent a week in Iran, I got the sense that the Iranians are extremely proud of their Persian heritage, to the extent that many regard their Persian identity more highly than their religious identity, if any. As Hooman Majd wrote in his book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, “Iranians, whether pious Muslims or not, take great pride in their Aryan ancestry and revile the ancient Arabs who invaded their land, bringing them Islam, an Islam that they then molded to their Zoroastrian character.”

Indeed, the most disgruntled of Iranians today against their current regime are probably the most nostalgic towards pre-Islamic Persia—the Persia that has been immortalized in the epic poem, Shahnameh, by the storied Persian poet, Ferdowsi. This was Persia’s age of heroes, when legendary emperors the likes of Cyrus the Great, Xerxes, and Darius presided over Persian civilization. It was also in this period—the Achaemenid Empire—that Zoroastrianism became the state religion and subsequently became deeply entrenched in Persian culture.

In fact, according to S. Frederick Starr, in his book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Zoroastrianism was treated with “unalloyed respect” in the Shahnameh, even though Ferdowsi himself was Muslim. Hence, even though Shia Islam became the dominant religion in Persia after the Arab invasion, Zoroastrian traditions continued to live on, embedded and evolving within broader Persian cultural ideals. The Nowruz customs, with their Zoroastrian legacies, are a case in point.

Today, Zoroastrianism is actually an officially-recognized and constitutionally-protected minority religion in Iran, alongside Christianity and Judaism. Furthermore, although there are estimated to be only around 25,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran at present—out of a population of more than 75 million—they are still viewed positively by other Iranians. More than just having a reputation for honesty, Zoroastrians are also associated with “Iran’s long forgotten glory,” as an answer posted on Quora has put it.

Nevertheless, life is still far from a bed of roses as a Zoroastrian in Iran. Although the Constitution of Iran states that non-Muslims are to be treated with fairness and justice, Iranian Zoroastrians still face discrimination in their daily lives. They are not allowed to take on high-level posts in the government or armed forces, as well as to talk about their faith on radio or television.  Many have also been pressured to convert to Islam—at least indirectly—by inheritance laws favoring Muslims over Zoroastrians.

The extent of Zoroastrian influence in the customs and rituals of modern-day Iranians has undoubtedly been in tension with the theocratic regime too, which envisions an Iran defined primarily by its Shia identity. As such, the Nowruz celebrations have not always sat well  with the religious establishment, especially with regard to the custom of jumping over fire on Chaharshanbe Suri. Many conservative Iranian clerics, including Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have issued fatwas against the celebration of Chaharshanbe Suri, citing it as contrary to Islam and harmful to the public.

Ironically, the more the regime tried to downplay Iran’s pre-Islamic identity, the more ordinary Iranians have turned to it as “a sign of protest and dissent.” In the process, pre-Islamic customs, such as the Nowruz celebrations, have acquired a strengthened role in the Iranian national identity. That said, the Zoroastrian elements of these customs are often glossed over under a Persian idiom. The importance of Nowruz in Iran today is not because of its Zoroastrian origins, which few Iranians know much about, but because it is regarded as quintessentially Persian.

Underlying the celebrations of Nowruz in Iran is a much broader discourse about what it means to be Iranian, or Persian—for those who still prefer to use Iran’s former name. The historical age of pre-Islamic Iran, of which Zoroastrianism was a central aspect, became an alternative source of identity for Iranians dissatisfied with their government’s relatively rigid vision for the country. Difficult economic and social conditions in Iran today have also spurred many to turn to an imagined construction of the past.

Yet, as we celebrate Nowruz today, a tradition with deep historical roots, we should be cautious about reifying and purifying history. Being Persian should involve more than just Islam or a harking back to the supposedly glorious days of the various Persian empires. A Persian identity should not be singular; rather, it is a pluralistic set of identities—forged together by the myriad interactions of various peoples who had once lived on these lands across time and space.

Perhaps, the Iranian journalist Kourosh Zibari articulated the meaning of Nowruz best, especially in today’s modern context:

“The holiday is a remnant of the very first years when the human civilization took shape—it removes the religious, cultural, lingual and national boundaries and connects the hearts of millions of people who want to take part in a unique and unparalleled ceremony marking not only the beginning of the New Year, but the end of a harsh winter and the arrival of the delightful spring. It’s not simply a source of honor for Iranians who observe and celebrate it, but an opportunity for the congregation and solidarity of all the peace-loving nations around the world.”

To all my friends, in Iran or otherwise, nowruz mobarak! Have a happy Nowruz!

By Olivia Daniels

Following the attacks on Jews living in European countries, most recently the terror attacks in Copenhagen, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a mass emigration of Jews from Europe. Netanyahu said, “Jews have been murdered again on soil only because they were Jews,” reiterating, “Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home”.

This comment left European leaders extremely defensive, French President Francois Hollande telling French Jews, “I will not just let what was said in Israel pass, leading people to believe that Jews no longer have a place in Europe and in France in particular,” while French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, “A Jew who leaves France is a piece of France that is gone”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also commented, “We are glad and thankful that there is Jewish life in Germany again,” and, “we would like to continue living well together with the Jews who are in Germany today”. Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior told the Associated Press, “People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism, but not because of terrorism,” and insightfully, “if the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a desert island.”

The director of the European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachim Margolin, is using the tragedy in Copenhagen as means for a change in gun licensing laws to allow Jews to carry weapons in Europe. Margolin said, “When I pick up my son at the synagogue I want to make sure that he is there and he is alive…it is a very basic request”. Despite his loss of faith, Margolin also criticized Netanyahu’s call, explaining, “Netanyahu is basically saying ‘we have no way to protect you where you are’”.

europe des island2The problem is not that Netanyahu wants Jews to come to Israel: the state was built on immigration and its survival has always been contingent on Jews coming and staying. The issue is that the prime minister is insinuating that Jews are not safe anywhere but in Israel, which places a stigma on both European countries and European Jews: Jews are not welcome in Europe, and they will not be safe unless they leave. Even Shimon Peres, former Israeli president and prime minister, retorted, telling the Times of Israel, “Don’t come to Israel because of a political position, but because you want to come and live in Israel…Israel must remain a land of hope and not a land of fear”.

According to the Law of Return, any Jewish person can become an Israeli citizen, so long as they pose no threat to the state or the people. In 1970, the law was amended to include citizenship for non-Jewish immediate family members. Thus, it is relatively simple for any Jew with the will and the means to become an Israeli citizen. In the first quarter of 2014, Jewish immigration to Israel increased by 50 percent, 93 percent of which was from Western Europe and Ukraine. In all of 2014, more than 7,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from France, which was twice as many than in 2013. The January attacks in Paris left Israel expecting another increase. Around 8,000 Jews live in Denmark today and despite recent events, they have been asked to stay in their home country with the promise of protection. The Danish-born terrorist that killed two people in Copenhagen was shot and killed by police on Sunday, allowing the Danish people to feel a moment of relief.

Jews should feel safe in today’s world, and they should not have to relocate to Israel for that to become a reality. One cannot ask anyone to stay somewhere they feel threatened, so it is up to those European leaders to uphold their promises of inclusion and protection.

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