September 19 – Middle East Refugees

On Tuesday, September 19, the Butler Seminar on Religion and Global Affairs presented Moving from Majority to Minority: Middle East Refugees. The seminar focused on the experience of those who move from Middle Eastern contexts to new places where they are often viewed with suspicion.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Joshua Landis who is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, and professor in the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies. He is interviewed regularly on platforms like PBS News HourCharlie Rose Show, CNN, and Fox News for his insights into current events involving Syria.

Dr. Landis’s primary argument claimed that what is going on in Syria and Iran is a ‘great sorting out’ of people. Broadly, he asserts that most conflicts in the past and present are because of a ‘great sorting out’ of people and patterns of this can be seen throughout history. Dr. Landis asserts that the ‘great sorting out’ largely happens along ethnic lines, but sometimes religious lines as well. The conflict in the Middle East is an example of a sorting out along religious lines.

Dr. Landis reminds us that this isn’t a talk solely about religion, but about how national identities are created — and this is a relatively new thing phenomenon. One marker of identity is the creation of the nation states. Nation states are new and have come along with national armies, constitutions, and enlightened ideas. The idea that people should rule as opposed to the total rule of a king is a new idea. Today, our political rulers are our public servants and we are the sovereigns. This idea has not spread to all parts of the world, but is still evolving slowly but surely.

Most of the nation states today are brand new and in their early stages. These nation states are still fighting to figure out who belongs where and what the roles should be. He brings up the Ottoman Empire as a Sunni Arab empire. At the time, Sunnis were a minority to Shiites in Iraq. Despite being the majority, Shiites were discriminated against because leadership in Iraq was all Sunni. When America went into Iraq to create democracy, it took the powerful Sunnis and replaced them with the Shiites. After American intervention, all Sunni venues of power were converted to Shiite stations, including the armies and political parties. Dr. Landis calls this a ‘great sorting out’ because what followed was war and a bloody right for power.

Dr. Landis next looked at the Israel-Palestine conflict with the same model. Before Palestine was a country and when it was part of the Ottoman Empire in 1850, the population was 4% Jewish and by 1948 the country became a Jewish homeland with the population being now 33% Jewish.  In 1948 when the British occupants left, the Jews and Palestinians went to war resulting in Palestinian expulsion from the country. 800,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the country, making 2/3 of the Palestinian population refugees. Before this, the Jews endured the great sorting out in Europe, where six million were killed and twelve million scattered, driving them to Palestine. He professes that this was a ‘great sorting out.’

Syria was the last country that Dr. Landis examined through the lens of the ‘great sorting out.’ In Syria, the Alawites, Shiite heterodox Muslims, are the minority. Most Sunni Muslims, the majority in Syria, do not view the Alawites as Muslims, creating problems. The other minorities band together with the Alawites because they are afraid that Sunni leadership will push out all minorities from Syria. In 1970, the Shiites, and ally of the Alawites, take power of the country with the backing of the France and Russia.

Throughout history we can see many more examples of ‘great sorting outs’. The Pakistan/India Partition in 1947 also fits this model. The creating of nation states is destructive. There is tremendous loss of life and overwhelming numbers of refugees created by these sorting outs. The great sorting out is not limited to the Middle East. The main countries producing refugees today are African countries and that is also because of the formations of nation states resulting in civil wars.  Dr. Landis concludes by saying that the next big challenge for the international community in the next decade will be how to equitably handle large refugee flows that are pouring out of nation states. All of this bloodshed and conflict is due to modern transformation of a global map from lots of different political arrangements into nation states.

The respondent was Rima Khan-Shahid, Executive Director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana. In her role, she seeks to cultivate interfaith harmony, build a diverse, inclusive Hoosier Muslim community, and preserve civil liberties for all Hoosiers. Khan-Shahid told us a story of Richard McKinney, a war veteran who came back to his hometown of Muncie, Indiana with the intention of blowing up the town mosque. After having to go inside of the mosque to plan out his attack, he realized that Muslims are not the terrible people he had assumed. Richard McKinney today is the president of that same mosque in Muncie. There about 180,000 Muslims in Indianapolis yet most Hoosiers and most Americans have not met a Muslim. Most Americans do not know Muslims other than from what they are seeing on the news.

Khan-Shahid spoke from her personal experience as an ethnic Pakistani who was born and raised a Hoosier. Khan-Shahid reminded us that Muslims are not new to the United States and are not new to Indiana. President Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar, or evening meal when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. This year was the first year since the time of Thomas Jefferson that the White House did not hold an Iftar. The first mosque was built in Indiana in 1914. The first Burmese mosque built after 45 years was built in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Khan-Shahid reminded us that this is something to be proud of because they choose to build their first mosque in 45 years in our state of Indiana out of anywhere else in the world.

Dr. Landis and Khan-Shahid’s presentations on Moving from Majority to Minority: Middle East Refugees was an enlightening experience that provided a historical context to the refugee crisis that we are seeing today. The Butler University Seminar on Religion and Global Affairs- Religion, Refugees, and Migration is a program of the Center for Faith and Vocation in partnership with the Desmond Tutu Center with support from the following Butler University departments: the Efroymson Diversity Center; Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies; Global and Historical Studies; and Philosophy, Religion, and Classics.

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